Unburying the Self

What we’ve not been doing…

…is buying stuff. Reducing what we buy. Of course the odd thing has slipped through the net and as Christmas approaches this has increased. But we no longer by what we don’t need, what we won’t use, what we won’t love.

What we have been doing is clearing out, de-cluttering, moving things on. Creating space we desperately need and no longer willing to give it up to items that just clog up our time and home.

I started to feel saturated with stuff a couple of years ago when, in anticipation of our third baby’s imminent arrival, I wondered where I would cradle our new daughter. I was overwhelmed by the piles of miscellaneous objects that covered almost every surface and filled every single space. I was always tidying and never feeling the place was tidy.

We’d moved as a family with a toddler and baby from a 3-bedroom house to a 2-bedroom cottage, added another child into the mix and collected (see ‘hoarded’) a whole load of stuff along the way. We were at bursting point.

Enter KonMarie. Or Marie Kondo. Or rather her book, The The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up (you may have heard of it). Suddenly, there was my answer and I felt rather foolish for not having seen it before. Instead of trying to build an extension we couldn’t afford, we just needed to get rid of all our stuff. Instead of insisting our old, beautiful furniture wasn’t suitable storage for 21st C life I could fit everything we need in and just get rid of the rest. it was so simple. I felt elated when I announced this epiphany to my husband who was, understandably, less enthusiastic. But buoyed along by this new sense of freedom I began to slowly remove much of my unwanted belongings. Only mine. I didn’t do it strictly as Marie Kondo recommends, spare time is brief with 3 kids. But gradually….

Then finally, out of sheer frustration at not being able to find yet another important thing, my husband gave in. He took the kids away to his parents for a week and for that whole week I removed as much unwanted, unused, unloved stuff out of the cottage as I could find. Six car loads. CAR loads. Not the boot or a couple of boxes on the back seat. This was a seven-seater with the back seats folded down. Full. Five went to charity shops, one went to the recycling centre. I felt ashamed that there had been a car load of broken, un-usable junk in the house.

I declared myself a minimalist. A label I would have once laughed at, thinking the art of minimalism was cold, stark, bare and not for me.

But minimalism looks differently for everyone. There are those who aspire to live with barely any possessions, those who own a magic number of items, those who desire to live without. For me, it is less about living without and more about discovering what I need, what we need, to live. Each persons list will look differently.

Imagine, realising that my minimalism is all the rage. That I can buy as many books as I want about it (I limited myself to two), that dressing my minimalism with wool blankets, sheepskins, replacing plastic kitchen utensils with wood, replacing mass-produced crockery with handmade. Turning out the lights in favour of candlelight (the children love eating by candlelight at our new dining table, built by my husband). Favouring reading books over watching TV. I am Hygge minimalist. I am in danger of becoming a cliché.

But removing the things we don’t, need, use, love and giving space to things we do need, use and love makes our home what it is. The same with time. Removing the unnecessary journeys (buying less stuff means fewer trips to the shops needed), moving appointments, saying no means we can say yes. Yes to coffee with friends, yes to a yoga class, yes to a walk with the children as the promise of WInter kisses their cheeks to a blush red.

Yes to living.

I’m not going to tell you how you should be living, that you should be a minimalist, that eliminating and reducing will give you more.

But I will tell you how we do it, what it looks like and what we achieve. We still have a long way to go. Step by step as we finish the cottage room by room. For now,while we still live in a renovation chaos slowly being tamed,  our Hygge, our cottage this Winter looks like this…… 14611051_10211574452975782_6876877536433065054_n

…pull up a chair, read our story, join us if you wish.

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Keeping it local, keeping us warm.

photo (1)It’s been a busy time at the cottage. The Winter storms have passed and we have emerged unscathed, daffodils have burst through surviving the strong winds and renegade sheep.

Our new bathroom suite was delivered in the middle of Storm Henry. The delivery lorry slipping on the mud and the offloaded pallet swayed menacingly until we unloaded it, item by item, carrying each piece down from the gate to the house. Then the bath, filled with smaller items, sat in our kitchen for 2 months. Maybe it was more. I’m not sure, I got used to it being there. It was finally moved into the bathroom 2 nights ago. After the old, crumbling mortar had been removed and new mortar had been swept on to the stones by hand. After the walls were painted. After the new ceiling was put up. After the partition wall had been rebuilt. Work happens slowly here, fitted in between meals and laundry. Inbetween nappy changes and during naps. In between and during the endless questions, requests, squabbles. We plod along, and slowly but eventually things get ticked off the list. Suddenly the room looks different. Almost finished. Almost, but not quite. The bath may be in situ, but it isn’t yet plumbed in.

Aside from the bathroom, the 2 new fires have been installed. Thankfully, they were installed for us and we could stand around with steaming mugs of coffee (well, I did.) and watch when first, the new woodburner for the kitchen inglenook went in without problem and then the second, tiny woodburner for the snug took 2 days to install.

Our kitchen inglenook is a giant stone masterpiece of ancient engineering. It’s high enough that,  at 5’9″, I can stand up in it. It’s the wow factor to anyone coming in through the front door and I haven’t even finished painting in it yet. Our snug fireplace on the other hand is tiny at just over 3ft high and not quite 2ft wide. For years it lay hidden behind 4″ of concrete that had been applied to ‘smooth’ out the wall. We’re not even sure the previous inhabitants knew it was there.  When we were buying the cottage and had arranged to meet a conservation officer here, we had been assured that the chimney on the gable end was a false one, ‘purely aesthetical’. I didn’t believe him. This is an ancient vernacular home, visual aesthetics weren’t at the forefront of the mind of those who built it. Turned out he was wrong.

The snug is the smallest room in the cottage besides the bathroom. It’s about 7’X10′ and it contains our tv, sofa and our old oak coffer that hides our dvds and cds. So the tiny fireplace is in perfect proportion and it took us a long time to find a tiny fire to fit. Then we found the Chilli Penguin guys. This company make their fires in Nefyn, on the Llyn Peninsula, just half an hour away from us. Now, I’ll admit, they aren’t the cheapest, but you get what you pay for when it comes to fires. we found their Chilli Billie fire was the right size for the snug.

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Chiili Bille; it goes like a rocket!

I was a bit concerned it was only a 2.5/3kw fire. We’d previously had a cheap 4kw one and virtually had to sit on it to feel the heat. But I needn’t have worried, the snug easily reaches temperatures of 38c (100f) and we have to retreat into the kitchen.

 

It’s not much cooler in the kitchen. The 8kw ’88’ Penguin has replaced our cheaper 10kw Viki and kicks out about 4 times more heat! We love the big window that lets us watch the flames dance about and the little oven above will keep us fed in the event of a powercut.

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The ’88’. Powerful and understated.

The added bonus is that each fire comes with a Penguin motif. Who doesn’t love penguins? We certainly love ours and I doubt the cottage has ever been so warm!

Of course, it will be even warmer when we’ve finished putting insulation and ceilings up. All our ceilings (with the exception of the snug that sits below the crog loft) reach up the the apex of the roof. The kitchen and one bedroom feature A-frames and there are beams in every room. Some look older than others. We thought about what we wanted for a very long time. The obvious option is to go with plaster board and have it skimmed. Giving a perfectly smooth finish. Which is fine in houses where ‘perfectly smooth’ wouldn’t look out of place. Eventually we decided wood planks would look nice. Rustic, warm and we could do it ourselves.

We could have bought pre prepared packs from a nationwide DIY store but it would have cost over £5,000 to do all the ceilings. We looked at products at the local builders merchant and the price came down to £2,000. Then we went to the local sawmill. We told them what we wanted and they gave us a price of just over £800. We had to wait a few weeks longer as our ceiling planks were still trees at that point. But they cut the Spruce, milled it and delivered it for less than a 5th of the prepacked stuff. Sure, that probably comes from a sustainable forest somewhere in Europe, but ours has come from a sustainable forestry just 15 miles away.

Something that I did decide to spend on was new duvets for all of us. I couldn’t decide between staying with synthetic ones or going for goose down. During my online search I stumbled across the concept of wool duvets. This was a whole new thing to me (although it turned out my sister had discovered them a while ago). I investigated a bit further and baulked at the cost of them. I don’t mind paying for quality but I don’t want to have to remortgage. I was just about to give up on the idea when I found Baavet and their ‘Bargain Box’. Wool duvets don’t have tog rating instead it goes on the weight of fleece per metre. Some of the duvets were a bit underweight (eg, a winter duvet being slightly underweight but not as light as a summer one), some just had a mark on it that wouldn’t be seen under a duvet cover. When they arrived I had the smug warm feeling of having found a bargain quality product that was produced and made in my own county!

It pays to stay local, not just financially. It makes you feel warm as well 😉

 

 

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.

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.