Morus y Gwynt….

Morus y Gwynt ac Ifan y glaw,

Daflodd fy nghap i ganol y baw!”

Morus the wind and Ifan the rain blew my cap into the middle of the dirt….This couplet has been recited to young children in Wales for generations. Naming the notorious winter weather isn’t new here. But now the trend for naming storms has reached the UK and storm Desmond was the latest.

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A moment of clarity….Wales. Home. The calm before the storm.

Wreaking havoc in places like Cumbria, where the towns of Keswick and Carlisle are now dealing with the aftermath of flooding, farms are struggling to manage livestock and businesses as their land and stock lies submerged. And it’s happening time, after time, after time…

People are losing posessions, irreplacable belongings but more importantly, they are losing the sense of security that a home brings. Knowing that shutting the door on the weather isn’t always going to guarantee safety anymore. Farmers are losing animals that they have raised, cared for, invested in, they are losing feed stock leaving them unable to provide for the animals that were able to reach safety, they are losing money when they have no produce to sell on. And it happens so quickly, a few hours of a passing storm and when the storms blows itself out, it takes a lot of security and certainty with it.

Communities rally round. Doors are opened and beds are offered to those who can’t go home. Spare clothes, toys for the kids, hot mugs of tea, shoulders to cry on. Neighbouring farms open their barns to animals who can’t make it home, share their stock to feed a neighbours flock, lend machinery, spend time helping the farmer who needs to rebuild fences, clear out barns, replant his crop.

It’s the same the world over. Humans come together and help each other out when it’s them versus Nature. Risking lives to save lives. Because in the grip of Nature’s force, all we can do is cling to each other and hope it will pass quickly, hope that there will be something left to rebuild.

As a nation, the British are obssessed with weather. We are known for it. We complain when it’s too hot, too cold, too wet, too windy. We use it as a topic to break the ice in social situations. Because we never really know what’s coming in from the Atlantic. Or Siberia. Or the Sahara. Now we’re naming it as if it won’t make it seem quite so alien. ‘Oh, that? That’s just Desmond hammering at the door and ripping the roof off.’

We escaped unscathed. I think, in no small part, due to the small trench I dug a few hours after Desmond arrived. When we were still on course to build an extension there were groundworks done at the back of the cottage. On the one hand, it held rainwater and surface water draining from the higher field behind us and created a rather impressive lake. On the other hand it held that water away from our indoor floor level long enough for me to realise that a problem might be looming, long enough for me to dig a trench deep enough to drain the excess water away from the cottage. So we didn’t flood, because I had learned from experience when, back in 2012, we did.

Just two weeks after moving in, with a 2 year old and 4 month old we experienced more rain in 12 hours than we would have in a month. And while I was stood in the kitchen that afternoon, I saw the movement out of the corner of my eye. That trickle, that became a stream, that covered half the kitchen floor before it reached the front door and found a way out. But by then it had already covered the bathroom and the boys bedroom. The water levels outside had ‘breached’ our floor level. Once it had drained enough surplus though half the cottage, it stopped. I ran outside and could see, just by the volume of rain, by the waterfall that had appeared from the field behind and by the lake that was filling quickly, that it was going to happen again. And this time it was going to come in through the back door as well, which meant the lounge was going to flood. I lifted the baby, sleeping in his rocking chair, and placed him on the kitchen table, I ran into the lounge and threw every item on the floor onto the chairs and sofa. I scooped up the toddler and waited. What else could I do? And the water came in. Silently. Contaminating the home, not with sewage, but with anger and despair. At 1,000ft up a mountain with the nearest water source in the field below us, we never imagined we would be at risk of flood.

The second time round wasn’t as much fun for the toddler who had splashed through the first lot. He was frightened and as more water came in I began to wonder just jow long it would last, how deep would this actually get? I’ve never been a fan of Robbie Williams but when his song ‘Candy’ came on the radio we began to dance. I danced around the sleeping baby on the kitchen table, with the toddler on my hip and water around my ankles. I wondered, what the hell had we done?

Later, C , who had been stuck at work with their own crisis to deal with, was told that many women would have packed up and taken the kids elsewhere. We were lucky, we lost nothing. The damage was more psychological than anything. So when the rain falls heavily and for a long time, I will go around the back of the cottage and just check.  And if it starts to look like a small lake, I make sure the kids are safe and see where I need to dig. A storm drain is high on our list of priorities.

Morus can howl as hard as he likes, and Ifan can pour an ocean, but we will do what we have to protect our cottage and it’s precious residents. And I hope the people of Cumbria feel that in amongst the things they lost, they didn’t lose their sense of home.

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Tears for the coffee table….

It snowed at the cottage. Winter was ushered in with a damp whimper. No glorious blanket for Nature, just the depressing wet snow that dissolves on contact with the ground. Our eldest, energized with every last fibre of being 5, raced around. Chasing the flurry, trying in vain to catch a snowflake only to watch in dismay as his efforts turned to water in his palm. I know how he feels.

C took the boys out for a few hours. Our baby daughter slept soundly in the middle of our bed. Stripped of its bedding she dozed on a blanket, under blankets, surrounded by boxes of books. She was safe and unaware of the calamity of our lives at present. Four years ago, our eldest did much the same, napping in a travel cot surrounded by rubble as we stripped the damp rotten fabric of the cottage back to its bones. How has it come to be that we are back here again?

Back then, our priority was to get the cottage habitable. It had been empty for a few years at that point and, although loved by its previous inhabitant, neglected for many decades. It seemed it was the layers of wallpaper that held up the crumbling plaster and had also acted as a form of ineffective insulation. The fireplace, a grate complete with bread oven and likely to have been the original one installed back in the mid 19th century was so damaged from the rainwater which trickled down the chimney that even the conservation officer declared it beyond saving. It disintergrated despite attempts to remove it with care. It had been the sole fire at the cottage. I lit it once. Smoke billowed out from all corners of the chimney and, alarmingly, from distant areas of the roof.

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The first fire for many years and smoke finds its way out of everywhere! (2011)

We replaced plumbing and put in a temporary bathroom. We installed a new multi-fuel range and in blind romanticism declared it to also be our cooker. And cook on it I did. For 3 years. Sometimes it cooked a roast in half an hour, sometimes it took an hour to make a bacon sandwich. The novelty wore off pretty quickly but having, foolishly, not asked the elctrician to install a cooker point I had no choice but to persevere. And I got pretty good at it too.

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This has been my cooker for 3 years. This kid only knows most cookers have buttons and switches because of his Grandmothers. (2012)

We have tried to be comfortable for the last 3 years. It’s been a challenge. At times it has been bitterly cold (the doors don’t fit well). At times it has been magnificent. As grown ups we were always aware that we needed at some point to finish it.

That time has come.

So we have temporarily relocated. And every day we sort the kids out and pack them into the car and make the 20 miles journey to the cottage. We light the fire as we have always done. We move stuff around, take stuff apart, measure. Measure again.

Only that day, when it snowed without really snowing. When our boys were out and our daughter was sleeping, I dismantled the coffee table. We don’t have space to store it and we were never planning to keep it. It was a second hand, temporary piece that the boys used as their dining table, their painting table, their base for a railway, road, building blocks, a launch pad to the sofa. At that moment it was just a piece of excess, cheap furniture and using the only screwdriver I could find, I took it apart and left it by the fire to be burned. It was a minor, 10 minute job.

My eldest cried when he walked in. More than cried, it became a full blown meltdown. He didn’t want to change the coffee table for a big table. He didn’t want to have more space. He didn’t want anything to change. He didn’t want his home to change and, by the way, incase I missed the message, he wanted to come back home. NOW.

I tried to assure him that we didn’t want our home to change either. It was why we had drastically scaled down the amount of work we were planning to do. But something things needed to be fixed, finished and replaced to make it a proper home. ‘But this is our home!’

And I guess I saw it then. He knows where our old house is but I doubt he remembers anything of our life there. Not now. This cottage, to him, has always been home. No matter how unfinished, how draughty, cluttered, cramped and patched up it is. It’s his home. It’s where he lives, with his family. Where he has his toys and books, where he plays and sleeps. Where he knows he is safe. It’s his territory and he knows it well. My destruction of the coffee table was a change too far for him at that particular moment. He feared that the work we were doing would create a place unfamiliar to him. So our mission now, is to get the work done, get it finished and still preserve the home that he has come to know and we have all come to love.

I’m not sure what the conservation officer will have to say about that.

So what’s this all about…?

Well, it’s about life in our cottage. I guess you could say we have committed to small house living. Downsizing and living in tiny houses is a growing movement over in America, but it hasn’t quite caught on with the same gusto over here in the UK…yet.

But while these tiny houses are designed for compact living, with multifunctional furniture, designated spaces and clever technology, ours isn’t. Our cottage is at least 200 years old. People didn’t have much stuff back then and the simple, vernacular houses were more shelters than fine homes. Our cottage is about 900sq ft. We have five rooms. Six, if you count the crog loft, accessed by a ladder. Two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom too small to accommodate a standard bath tub and a room that will become our tv snug but is currently a utility/dumping ground. We also have three kids. And just to make it that bit more interesting, we have two sons and one daughter. We have spent the last two years having plans for an extension drawn up, gaining planning permission and listed building consent (oh, yes, the cottage is Grade II listed, just to add to the fun!) and trying to find a builder to do the work. Two years. And we’re throwing it all away to keep the cottage as it stands and instead tweak our lifestyle to fit. All that work was not in vain. People got paid for their work and a lot of useful information was gained. But we also learned something we didn’t expect to learn. That we don’t need all this stuff and we certainly don’t need to spend tens of thousands of pounds building space to accommodate it all. That life isn’t about having the biggest house you can afford. That all that time trying to change the cottage and it was actually changing us.

We looked around at the piles of clutter. Frustrated at the endless search to find an item or important letter that seems to always lie beneath accumulated unrelated stuff we asked ourselves, where did all this stuff come from and do we really need it? Some people would suggest better storage, but we don’t have the space for designated storage areas and plus, we are not fans of flat pack furniture. All of our furniture, with the exception of electrical items, mattresses and the kids beds, comes from auctions, second-hand shops, antique stores…you get the picture. Nothing matches. It’s eclectic and we like it that way. So we began to de-clutter. I discovered the amazing technique of Marie Kondo and although I couldn’t bring myself to personally thank every item I was removing from our home, it certainly started the ball rolling. I also discovered that you need to be focused on the task and having three young children around wasn’t helpful. But I’ve made a start and am almost excited to carry on and see just how little we can live with. Even C, once a self-confessed hoarder, wants to join in.

We tired of mass consumerism a long time ago. The ‘must have’s, the seasons ‘most needed’ item, the latest gadget, gizmo and wonder all designed to make my life easier and more beautiful but doesn’t. Slowly we have started replacing items that we need with local or handcrafted quality items that have a beauty of their own. This is a slow process, quality craftmanship costs but it’s worth it for an item that will last much longer and will be much more pleasing to use than its plastic, imported counterpart.

De-cluttering began in an unusual way for us because it really began with food. When our 3 yr old was diagnosed with an egg allergy we eliminated the egg from his diet. Trips to the supermarket became very enlightening. At first it took a long time to walk around, checking the ingredients of each item, which were safe, which would make his eczema worse and leave him ill. After a while, even the egg free stuff was being put back on the shelf. The chemicals and colourings, additives, E-numbers, did I really want to be feeding my kids this stuff that was disguised as food? Then, I began to cut out sugar. This was a huge thing for me, seeing as the 10 or so mugs of tea I would drink every day contained 4 spoonfuls of sugar. Four. You read that right. Looking back, it’s simple math I can’t bear to do. Whilst I’ve still not managed to cut it out completely (it’s a work in progress) I now drink coffee, no sugar. And I feel better. Helped in no small part by having to go gluten-free as well because of health issues. So there we were, in the supermarket, looking for food that was egg free, gluten free and preferably sugar-free. And it dawned on us, that away from the fruit and vegetables, there was nothing in there that we could eat together as a family, or that we wanted to eat.

The one thing we won’t de-clutter are our books. Maybe some could go but we’re ‘book people’. We love books. We don’t own a kindle, we do own library cards. I doubt a month goes by without at least one book sneaking into the house. Trips to Hay-on-Wye are limited to once a year. Having a passion for books seems to go hand in hand with home educating. We are in the early days of this adventure, our oldest is only 5 and play is still the most important thing to him. Nursery and pre-school have never registered on our radar. Our three acres of fields are their playground. The Charlotte Mason method speaks volumes to us as her encouragement of using good literature and the idea of having some structure whilst still maintaining the freedom to play, explore and investigate appeals greatly.

Maybe you’re only interested in the small house living, the living with less stuff, or the home educating kids in a small house in a rural area. Maybe you just want to see what someone else grows in their poly-tunnel (construction begins in Spring!), how a small holding gets started, how to build up a self-employed business (or how not, we don’t know yet). Maybe it’s the whole lifestyle or just parts of it.

If we lived in America, we’d be called homesteaders, just starting out. Here in Britain, we’re eccentric, borderline mad.