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Living off the land
Read Alan & Gill’s article
Financial Times
We were just kids when Gill and I met at art school in the early 1960s but we had a clear vision of what we wanted to do. Drawing inspiration from Hippie communes in Scotland, France and the United States and from such books as “Cottage Economy” by William Cobbett, “Walden” by Henry Thoreau, and “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe we decided to go “off-grid”. To cut a long story short, we put an advert in the press that ran “Isolated cottage wanted – must be set in own grounds”. One moment we were living in town, and the next, before you could say “turn on, tune in and drop out”, we were living in a redbrick ruin of a house in the middle of a field, with no water, electricity, sewage or money – in fact nothing much at all apart from a huge feeling of peace. It was wonderful. I remember one night in early summer lying on my back in the meadow, not a house or car light to be seen, and looking up at the stars – beautiful!

So here we are in the 21st-century… half a lifetime later, not quite so buzzing but still very much enjoying a self-sufficient lifestyle. Do we still need to earn money to pay taxes? Of course! How do we earn money? We work from home and sell some of our produce. Are we saving the planet? Probably not! What is the point? Good old-fashioned fun is the point! No doubt our carbon footprint is smaller than the rest of our gas guzzling generation and we feel that we have set a good example to our children and – just maybe – our grandchildren but the real reason we live and work in this way is because we simply enjoy the adventure and the very real physical and mental challenge of it all.

For Gill and I every day of our self-sufficiency lifestyle is an adventure. We grow fruit and veg in a no-dig raised bed vegetable garden, we store our produce or gift it to friends and neighbours, our geese give us eggs, our bees give us a huge amount of pleasure and of course honey that we eat and sell, we have log burning stove that has gradually involved us in the exciting and challenging craft of coppicing, we have fitted solar water heaters and solar voltaic electricity generators, we have refurbished an old Ferguson tractor, and so I could continue. For us the biggest joy of self-sufficiency is that we can, if nothing else, shape our lives to suit our own fears, strengths, pleasures and weaknesses. Not for us kowtowing to a life-squeezing Boss, or long hours spent commuting to work, or pulling together for some sort of “phony” Company cause. Thank you Holden Caulfield.

Our self-sufficient make-do-and-mend philosophy has its roots in post WWII when fabric and materials were in such short supply that the population was encouraged to mend and repair rather than buy new. My grandpa, an ex navy man, was so skilled at make-do-and-mend that he could make just about anything from anything. For example when I wanted a sheath knife he took a leaf spring from an old pram, built a little forge out of odds and ends of brick, wood and leather, made charcoal from a pile of apple wood and then simply made a knife. By the time he had finished hammering and honing the blade, binding the handle with a pattern of intricate knot work, and cutting and sewing an old thick leather school bag to make the sheath I had just about the fanciest knife in the village. And much the same for Gill, her grandpa, a skilled metalworker, could make anything… a car, a kettle, a house… anything. The strange topsy-turvy thing is, that while our grandparents had no choice other than make-do-and-mend, simply because they were poor and because before and after the wars manufactured materials were difficult to come by, Gill and I are now doing much the same thing because we live in a rich society that is awash with waste manufactured materials. The miraculous thing is that by the time the war was over people were so proud of their make do and mend efforts and abilities, that a repaired item ceased being symbol of poverty and became instead a badge of honour that stood primarily for pride in self.

Our slightly hippie brand of self-sufficiency draws inspiration from two sources – a “back to the land” philosophy that encourages the use of natural materials, and a sort of New Age eco-recycling philosophy that advocates using waste products that would otherwise be dumped into landfills. In much the same way as Robinson Crusoe stripped his wrecked ship of rope, iron, fabrics, copper cable and such, and then went on to build his new world using a mix of salvaged materials and whatever natural materials he could find on the island, so Gill and I have created our self-sufficient world using a mix of natural materials and recycled waste. In and around our home… we have used old bricks for floors, salvaged doors and timbers for some of the interiors, salvaged metal and plastic containers in the vegetable garden, bits of this and that for some of the fences and gates, salvaged timber and metal sheeting to make garden sheds and shelters, off-cuts and give-aways from timber yards for some of the decorative details, old wheels to make garden carts, bits salvaged from ships for lighting and windows, and so on and on.

And just in case you think that this way of life is all about rather negative and edgy rubbish dump scrounging, not a bit of it. Our self-sufficiency is about looking at life afresh. If some item in our home breaks or needs building – a coat hook, a shed, a table, a chair, a lamp or whatever – our first response is to look around and see if we can rework or make use of an existing item or material. And much the same goes for what we eat, how we heat the home, our transport and all the rest… we always try to solve problems through lateral thinking – meaning through an indirect and creative approach. It’s all win-win. Our hard earnt money stays in our pocket, we are recycling something that would otherwise go to waste, and – best of all – we get to experience the exciting, therapeutic, hands-on, skill-stretching challenge of building, constructing or crafting something that, but for our creative input, would simply not exist.

The trick with self-sufficiency, the thing that you need to do if its going to work, is to tune out of our present throw-away image obsessed society and gradually tune into good honest make-do-and-mend values that will in turn give you a sense of achievement when you create something from nothing. We draw inspiration from books like Robinson Crusoe and from our grandparents, but you could just as well take inspiration from the American pioneers or whoever.

Next time something in your house or garden needs mending or building afresh – say that gate, or the wheelbarrow or your trousers or the kids toys – don’t settle for driving to the nearest store and buying new, but rather sit back, work out how you can get the task done without spending out on new materials. If it helps… fantasize that you are on a desert island or in a log cabin out in the wilds. The rules of the game and the challenge of self-sufficiency are as follows… you cant leave your house and garden to go to the shops, you have to use and rework salvaged and scrap materials that are close at hand, you can trade items and skills with your neighbours and you can visit the local tip. The next big question to ask yourself is… are you up for it? If you are interested then take a look at our books and blogs. But then again if you think that self-sufficiency is one big lie and you don’t want to join in the fun… then fine – or as my grandpa would have said… “Good. All the more for them that do!”
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All content © Copyright 2009 Alan & Gill Bridgewater. All Rights Reserved.