Downsizing - living closer to nature

Malcolm Burgess
Thursday, 1st October 1998

Malcolm Burgess describes a simple life in the woods, one with few material possessions or creature comforts. But it is a life which is relatively stress-free and with a close connection to Nature. Tempted? Please read on...

Imagine living in the middle of a 400 acre ancient oak wood. As I write this in May, I'm listening to singing wood warblers, redstarts and recently fledged tawny owls. The wood is teeming with life and bursting with spring growth. Following the path through the wood you come to an open barn, the working area of the wood. The path continues past. You notice nothing else. If you had looked harder or visited on bath night you may have noticed a rust and green painted 6.7 metre (22ft) showroom caravan. This caravan has been my home for one and a half years and is tucked away for a reason.

The wood is managed as a nature reserve, and I have unofficial permission from the landowner to live there. The agreement is that if anybody complains of my presence I will have to move. There should be no visible evidence of the caravan being lived in, and therefore it is very low impact. I'm situated less than 20 metres from a public footpath, but one and a half years on I'm still waiting for a complaint. I would like to show people my home as a working example of what can be simply and cheaply achieved with relatively little effort. This article is my way of doing this.

Whilst it often appears that living sustainably is a 'good life' dream, my philosophy is one of peace of mind. If there is a sustainable option I feel guilty if I don't take it. And although I enjoy living in solitude, I accept it is not everybody's cup of tea. Perceived problems of living in such a location were easily overcome. One concern was the 10 minute walk, uphill, to the caravan. This has not been a problem. It is a pleasure to listen to and observe the deer and birds every morning before work, putting me in a good frame of mind. On my way home it forces me to relax and forget any negativities I may have encountered during the day. The walk is my meditation. I only use a vehicle for items too heavy to carry. I have a small motorbike for local journeys, and a van for long and laden journeys. It is important not to drive them to my home, and was initially difficult persuading my friends to do likewise.

Recycling Materials

An iron bath was purchased from a local recycling yard. Making use of piles of bricks, I made a simple foundation for the bath with enough room for a small fire in the middle. With a little practice, a bathful of water takes two hours to heat up, not much longer than an immersion.

A surprisingly small amount of wood is needed. I'm fortunate enough to have water of drinking quality flowing past, and this is my supply for drinking as well as for the bath. With a little practice the embers can be regularly quelled with cups of water, creating a very invigorating sauna effect. Wooden planks stop the bottom of the bath getting too hot. To avoid drawing attention an evening bath is advisable.

The stream is also my summer fridge. A simple wire cage holds everything in plastic containers while the flowing water removes the heat. An oil drum dug into the ground is my long drop compost loo. When friends comment on how smelly my loo must be, I tell them with pleasure that they are sitting almost next to it. A sprinkling of wood ash prevents any smell.

To maintain my sanity during the long, dark, winter nights, a music system was essential. This was solved with the purchase of a reclaimed solar panel costing £60, a 12-volt leisure battery and a stereo that will run on 12 volts. This set up provides me with CD, tape and radio all year, and electric lights in the summer. In the winter I use gas lights, and use gas for cooking. An extra solar panel will provide more lighting for next winter.

Heating in the winter is no problem. I have no shortage of wood to fuel a converted milk churn which has become a very effective wood burner. The smaller the space the easier it is to heat. It was an extravagance to have the windows open while it was snowing. The top of the burner is a hot plate, and when in use always has a kettle on for the next cuppa.

Finding sustainable employment is a difficult task, especially one that pays a wage. Due to my very small living costs I don't require anything like the national 'average' wage. My main skill is working as a field biologist within wildlife conservation. I work for one day a week in the wood, which is my rent. To earn a wage I work at a large commercial organic farm for four days a week. Both of these jobs are outdoors and provide me with a wide variety of tasks which keep me motivated. A big bonus from the farm is that I can take home vegetables which saves me worrying about growing food at home. All I grow is sorrel and mint, in car tyres due to having very thin, acidic soil around the caravan. I can forage bilberries, chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, ceps and chicken fungus from the wood when in season. A group of us from the local LETScheme formed a co-operative buyers group which enables me to buy other organic foodstuffs at a cheap price. A shelf full of big jars of dried fruit, grains and pulses is an essential part of a homely dwelling. Our local LETS is becoming more popular, and enables me to get my laundry done for 2 'pots' a time.

Despite an apparent lack of home comforts I believe that new technology should play an integral part in sustainable living. Renewable energy technology and new methods of communication can be very useful. A phone is essential for my lifestyle, and therefore I have a mobile. This saves me a half-hour round trip to the nearest public telephone, and can be recharged by the solar panel via a 6-volt cigarette lighter. I would certainly make use of a laptop computer if I had one. For the time being the LETScheme enables me computer access. I could power a 12-volt TV, but having now gone two years without one, I wouldn't be able to find the time now - honest! It really is amazing how much more you can achieve without a TV.

My time living here has been remarkably trouble free. There are of course always improvements that can be made, particularly for the winter when the lack of daylight affects the amount of time available for outside chores. For example, an extra solar panel would provide power for 20 watt spotlight lighting. Collecting water from the barn roof could be simply accomplished and would save me time and energy. And although I'm happy with the toilet, it could be made more pleasant for guests and could be redesigned to allow more air in to make it rot quicker. A chimney could be incorporated into the bath design to guarantee a good flow of air to make lighting it easier.

There is no doubt that this is a very low impact development and I've proved that by not being obtrusive to anybody. By living this low cost lifestyle I've also managed to save a few thousand pounds with the intention of buying a small plot of land because there is no way that I would get planning permission to live in this particular spot.

I have the skills required to live off the land, woodland or agricultural, in a way recognised by our economic system. But after looking into purchasing land I have come to the conclusion that, for myself, it is not viable at present. I don't want to spend years fighting for planning permission, nor do I have the finance to fund it. The money saved is now ethically invested should the situation change and I'm now concentrating on what I do best; working as an ornithological field worker. When my time is up in the wood I shall continue a similar lifestyle somewhere else. It is easier than trying to go through the proper channels and means that I have more time, energy and resources to do what I do best.