Tag Archives: Self Sufficiency

Seminal Moments

Autumn 2011 has had important moments for us at Penybanc and in our quest for self-sufficiency. The first was a lot of work for Jules as he built a hearth in the corner of the living room, disconnected the old oil boiler completely and plumbed in both a stove in the living room (a Stovax Stockton 8HB to be exact) and an Esse (model W35) in the kitchen as well as putting up two new flues. This means that our central heating and hot water are now completely carbon neutral, with all the fuel coming off our own land. The timing couldn’t have been better as no sooner could he utter “let there be heat” than the first chill could be felt in the air. Admittedly we still hve a lot of radiators to install, so the fairly stressful plumbing journey has not quite ended.












The next big moment for me was having to fulfil a promise, that I made over a year ago, that I would bake bread with flour from a local producer once the Esse was installed. Jules managed to source some flour from a water mill from mid Wales and I did my first baking! There is definitely room for improvement, but the bread was tasty and edible (if a little dense) – so I count it as success.












Then we had our first anniversary, on 5th November, of buying Penybanc so we had a bonfire party with some friends who had, very very kindly, helped us clean the place on our first day here (back when the place had been empty for a year, smelt very damp and was generally filthy and cold). Our mates brought some incredible fireworks and sparklers, we carved a pumpkin, made a Van Fawkes, had three dogs running round and served mulled cider and home reared pork out of the back of our Defender.  It was a good way to mark this special ocassion.

unlit bonfirepumpkin jackolanternguy fawkes









It isn’t quite a turning point, but our border collie, Dusk, has recently been showing real development in her agility and intelligence. Also, her fear of the other animals seems to be a little less exteme. She is our little shadow around the smallholding, so I thought she deserved a mention.

7 month old Border Collieborder collieborder collie catching tennis ball

The last big moment I was to tell you about happened today. Our chickens are very cute but so far they have not been productive at all. Having been hatched here on 9 May, we expected them to start laying 21 weeks later as suggested by the books. But this date came and went and then another 5 and a half weeks went by. As our hens free range, we have been searching the place but we assumed that we must just be failing to find the eggs. We had this morning decided that from tonight we would pen them into an area for a week just in case they were laying them somewhere hidden away. Then a couple of hours later one of the hens started making a massive racket, clucking like she’d just had the shock of her life and the cockerel was standing guard, joining in the cacophony. And there it was. A very small, warm, quite pointy, extremely white, EGG.


Ahhh! Not courgette again… dealing with the summer glut

Well, we’re at that all-too-brief time of year where we are overrun with fruit and veg. The summer flush is in full swing with courgettes, cabbages and carrots (to name just the C’s) coming out of our ears. And, especially this year with the warm spring, the apples and blackberries are already appearing.

But, we must not complain about the mayhem but try to take advantage of it… and that’s not just through eating as many tomatoes as possible, despite what V would have you believe.

Smallholders and self-sufficientish types make a big deal of food storage, and there’s good reason too. Check back in April and you’ll find out why, as our cupboards are bare and we’re staring forlornly at the tiny seedlings in the garden.

Today at Penybanc we’ve been busy freezing a variety of beans, kale and spinach using a simple technique of blanching and then cooling quickly. Check out this useful site for guidance and blanching timings.

There’s also plenty of bottling, pickling, salting, drying, chutney and jam making to be done so we better get on with it!

In the words of others…

We’ve been flat out with gardening, feeding/cleaning/training animals, working and, the latest, doing structural work knocking down a wall and opening the fireplace, where the wood burning range cooker/boiler will go. There is not much time and not much else to say at the mo, but here are some quotes we have read in the last few weeks:

A few from John Seymour’s book The Fat of the Land:

“If a man does not undertake some really hard and even violent manual work fairly often he becomes soft, his arteries harden, his heart weakens, he puts on fat, he develops blood pressure, his liver gets hob-nailed – I hate to think what he looks like inside. And outside he doesn’t look much better.”

“[T]he simple life, alas, once you really try to lead it, leads you into all this complication! You cannot live, and rear a family, on your own little share of your country, growing your own food, preserving and processing it, without this vast assemblage of tools and implements.”

“I know the modern […] worker is supposed to lead an “easier” life than, say, a French peasant. But I wonder if this supposition is correct. And I wonder if, whether “easier” or not, it is a better life? Simpler? Healthier? More spiritually satisfying? or not? I don’t wonder very long.”

“In Wales life changed for us completely. […] Our neighbours had not yet all given up brewing their own beer, killing their own pigs, and living largely from their own holdings. This fact made life immediately pleasanter for us: we no longer felt like freaks.”

We also recently read John Seymour’s book “I’m a Stranger Here Myself, the Story of a Welsh Farm”, where we read this poem:

“It’s no good asking me the way guvnor
I’m a stranger here myself
If you don’t know the way I don’t
And anyway the way to where?
Where is it that you want to get mate?
Someone said: ‘I am the Way’
But he didn’t make it clear where to
There’s plenty of ways of course
This way and that way and the other way over there
They all lead somewhere – but is it anywhere you want to go?
Oh I’m a fool am I?
I see
Well I may be a fool master but I do know where I be
I live in a bubble of air I do
With a rock in it
Hurtling through Eternity
No it’s no good asking me the way guvnor
I’m a stranger here myself
That’s me.”

And here are a few other quotes:

“Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad – or an economist.” JFK’s environmental adviser, Kenneth Boulding

“One never notices what has been done; one can only see what needs to be done.” Marie Curie

“Do not squander time. That is the stuff that life is made of.” Engraving from an old sundial.

“Never invest in an idea you can’t illustrate with crayon.” Wall Street investor Peter Lynch.

The House and Achievements so far…

When we decided we wanted to live at Penybanc, the decision was made before  entering the house, as the primary factors in selecting a suitable location for trying to achieve self-sufficiency related almost entirely to the land. These were our crucial requirements in searching for a smallholding (the reasons are at the very end of the blog* for those who are interested):

  • The location.
  • The size – a minimum of 7 or 8 acres.
  • The aspect – south-facing, flat or gently sloping land.
  • Layout – land surrounding the house, divided into small (acre or so) enclosures.
  • Fertile and well-drained soil.
  • Outbuildings.
  • Broadleaf woodland.
  • If possible, a mature orchard, although we thought this was a pipe dream!

Our requirements, in terms of the house, were a south facing roof and (in a Goldilocks sort of way) a building that didn’t need too much work but enough that we wouldn’t be paying for things we were going to rip out and change as, amongst other things, we would be:

  1. changing the central heating  system to run off a combination of wood and solar;
  2. insulating it as much as possible, not just the roof but also the windows and walls; and
  3. putting up photovoltaic panels (PVs) for our electricity needs.

So when we read the estate agent’s description, we knew that Penybanc would be a strong contender and it was also in the least remote location we had been too. We arrived at the viewing half an hour early, so we walked up to the top of the field behind the house and I, promptly, burst into tears and decided this was where I wanted to put down some roots. This is of course Jules (ahem), writing this blog. Soppy git.

But now I want to pay tribute to the house. It is not what I think anyone would call a beautiful building. Somewhere in its bowels, there lurks the origins of an early 19th century (possibly even mid 18th century, who knows?!) stone cottage; so some walls are three foot thick stone. Then, sometime in the 70s (we think, as there are no planning records…) a rather large extension was plonked around it. This is the first photo we took:

So the house turned out to be almost perfect, with large windows to enjoy the views ands let in lots of light, it’s structurally sound with spacious rooms that mean we can afford to lose some space by insulating from the inside. Ideally, for us, it also has ropey plumbing that would have needed replacing even if we had wanted (and could afford!) to stay on oil central heating. The first thing we did was to have the aluminium windows replaced with the most energy efficient windows we could find. The next was to take the trees and bushes down around the house, which would allow some airflow and prevent damp and allow light to reach the roof, with the added benefit of providing us with a load of wood. This is all you could see of the house before the tree felling:

We have a lot of people to thank for helping to take down and log the various trees (but this isn’t an Oscar speech so sorry, you don’t get a mention!). Although what I am about to say will no doubt offend any hardcore tree huggers who believe in doing things by manpower alone, it is also worth mentioning that we couldn’t have managed all these trees without a chainsaw.

But we are the X Generation of tree huggers, believing that technology is not evil (even if the resulting large industry is mostly destructive in its effects) and we are trying to figure out the balance between using fossil fuels and technology where it is efficient and logical to do so. We could not chop down all those trees without the chainsaw because we might lack the manpower or skills, although I’m sure Jules could manage tree felling with an axe if given the time, which is what we really lack as we still have day jobs to afford this whole venture! Sorry, I have totally digressed – back to the house. Once we had cleared all the trees, the roof was clear of shade and ready for donning its hat of solar panels:

Since the installation went in three and a half days ago (of which one and a half  have been gloomy and overcast) we have made 41 KW hours of energy – hurray! I’ll let Jules, in another blog, explain the intricacies of the new system.

Another bit of progress (where machine power – and our neighbours – saved the day) is the yard. We had not even seen this part of our land as the brambles had completely overtaken. Our very first day at Penybanc, we attacked the brambles with a slasher and branch cutters (that’s how fat the brambles were!). Then our neighbour pointed out that he could clear that area in no time with his digger. This is before clearing the area:








We also had some help to level the yard from a nearby farmer. A job which we (and the farmer) thought would take 2 days took 5 days in the end, so we owe our neighbour (who pitched in to help the farmer) some labour to repay the favour, which we are more than happy to do (although he only seems to want Jules’ labour, I can’t imagine why?)! We are very grateful for the wonderful results of all their hard work. This was one of our first experiences of neighbourly cooperation, which felt great after the unpleasantness in Hackney!







That’s all I’ve got time for now as my help is required to plant peas and broad beans (including putting up their hazel supports that I stripped when Jules laid the hedge) and other planting bits and pieces. We hope you all had a good weekend!

We leave you with a few more before and after pictures…


In this photo, look at the hedge to the right of and behind us. That is what it looked like before it was laid.

This is what it looks like now:










The orchard has also been through quite a transformation.

I planted bulbs in winter and Jules slashed brambles uncovering about 6 fruit trees on top of the 60 or so already there:






Then they all got a heavy pruning in February.

Jules mowed and I raked in March and now spring has arrived it is full of daffodils…
















Since starting this blog, the seedlings went from the safety of the living room, out into the big wide world.













That’s all folks, goodnight


Continue reading The House and Achievements so far…