Κυριακή, 31 Μαρτίου 2013

Homes: land and freedom

They grow their own food, make their own electricity, milk their own cow… we go off-grid with the Wimbush family

Paul and Hoppi Wimbush and family in their straw bale house – there’s no indoor toilet, but they do have the internet. 
When Hoppi Wimbush met her husband Paul more than a decade ago, she was leading a relatively conventional existence. Living in a pretty stone cottage in Stroud with her twoyearold son, Jarrow, she worked in education, drove a car, paid bills and generally existed within the framework of normal society. Paul, on the other hand, did not – he lived under canvas, grew all his own food, and went without electricity, plumbing and central heating.

"Paul had just given away all his possessions, so he had nothing," Hoppi says. "He earned only £200 a year, because all his needs were met from the land. Whereas I lived in this gorgeous house, had a washing machine, a cooker and a car, Paul lived on the edge of society – as far as you can get without falling off."

Nevertheless, it was love at first sight, she says, and just a few months later they were married and expecting their daughter, Emba, now nine. Along with Paul's 12-yearold son, Jarvis, they moved to a tiny derelict chalet on the Gower peninsula in South Wales in search of a more traditional, land-based lifestyle. "It was a major shift," Hoppi says. "I've never worked off the land before, so it took me a while to settle into that. I had never grown anything – I didn't know how to or even if I wanted to. I came down quite a lot in terms of living standards – but Paul came up."

Hoppi, 44, worked part-time while looking after the family, and Paul, 40, took on building and carpentry work. But the trained architect had always dreamed of more: creating a sustainable, environmentally-friendly eco-village. A few years later, in 2005, he set up a development group called Lammas, and in 2009 he bought a 76-acre plot of overgrazed agricultural land in Pembrokeshire. Armed with nothing but a caravan and a few possessions, the family left everything they knew and began to build a new life.

At first, they lived in the caravan while they built a permanent home – a three-bedroom straw bale house. "They're a piece of cake to build," Paul says. "It's like big Lego – just nails and bits of wood. It uses a combination of modern technologies like a good plumbing system and a good photovoltaic system, along with traditional ones like lath and plaster. It was designed to get us out of the caravan and into something that could give a good standard of living."

"My idea of sustainability was scruffy, smoky, with no mod cons," Hoppi says. "But it's not like that at all. I didn't have a washing machine and a juicer for a while, but now I have them and I use them consciously. Every drop of water that goes down the hydro generator creates our power, so I'm really grateful when it rains."

Planning permission requires that Paul and Hoppi – and the eight other families who form the rest of the Tir y Gafel community – must earn 75% of their living from the land and cannot connect to the national grid for power, water or sewage. As a result, their six-acre corner boasts a barn for their cow, Sophie – she provides milk, which they sell to neighbours, along with yoghurt and butter. There is a polytunnel bursting with vegetables and the flowers Hoppi sells, and a willow orchard where 3,000 young trees will eventually provide all their fuel. Water comes from a nearby stream, electricity via the generator, and an outdoor composting toilet takes care of sewage.

The entire package – land, buildings, tracks and stocking the businesses – has cost the family around £65,000, and although they still have to pay council tax, their utility bills are essentially nonexistent. "We have the technology and knowhow to build houses that are completely healthy and require no fossil fuel heating," Paul says, "and yet we're still building houses that are dependent on suppliers of gas and electricity to keep them going. They are unsustainable, and we're charging the Earth for them and chaining people to these huge mortgages.

"Tir y Gafel is a model – it has something to offer mainstream society. For a modest amount of money, you can buy a piece of land and create a whole new sustainable lifestyle for yourself."

Although the couple don't have conventional jobs, their life is a combination of the recognisably everyday – getting the kids to school in the nearby village of Glandwr, or housework – and the alternative. "Once the kids are at school, we feed the animals and let the poultry out," Paul says. "After that, it depends on how I'm feeling and the weather, so anything from hedging or fencing to weeding or working on the next piece of infrastructure. If the weather is miserable, I help other families with planning applications, work on internal issues for Lammas or do a bit of craft work.

"It's nice to break out of the nine-to-five, five-days-a-week framework. In the evening it moves back into routine: dinner, putting the animals to bed, socialising, paperwork, reading, watching a DVD." And yes, they have the internet.

While Paul is living his dream, Hoppi has taken longer to adjust. "It's been a radical change for me," she says. "Before coming here, I had a flower garden, but never really understood low-impact living. Now I realise it's possible to live where my mortgage is only £22,000, I have free electricity, I can pick fresh food, and grow flowers for a living."

Today, fewer than four years after they first arrived in the windswept field that would become a thriving eco-village, she is grateful to her husband for having brought her to Tir y Gafel. "I was dragged here kicking and screaming, but now I wouldn't change it for the world," she says.

"It's like living a truly free life. Rather than living to work, I live to live. Before, I wouldn't have known it was possible."

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