I used to watch people building their dream eco homes on programmes like Grand Designs with total envy. It was everything I’d ever wanted, but in my heart and mind I knew it could never be achieved for me. The problem, I thought, was that in order to achieve a low cost, self-sustained lifestyle, you had to have money to begin with. We had none and even on two salaries with 3 children, in this capitalist society, we’d no prospect of ever having any either. So I resigned myself to the fact that I could only dream of such a life . . . and maybe one far off day, when the children had flown the nest, make it a reality.
Then a couple of things happened that gave us a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, we might be able to make our dreams come true sooner than we thought. Firstly, we met some new friends with similar dreams and they shared with us their ideas on how they were going to make it happen. As time went on, we agreed to pursue the idea together and form a kind of miniature eco community if you like. They introduced us to people like the Lammas community in Wales and showed us other examples of people doing just what we wanted to. I began to research more and more, and the more I researched the more I realised that there were possible ways around the obstacles that lay before us. I found articles about people who’d built eco homes for as little as £3000 . . . or even in one case £150! Of course we’d need to purchase the land, but once I started to look at prices and with the added bonus of us sharing the cost with our friends, I began to realise that with as little as £20,000 we might actually be able to achieve our dreams. Our friends moved into a caravan to considerably reduce their outgoings and start saving, but with 3 children that was something I just didn’t feel was an option for us. And to be honest, as small as an amount as that may seem to most, any kind of saving at all was totally unachievable to us in the situation we were in.
But then a second tiny miracle came our way. My dad’s house had been on the market for ages. In the current climate he was struggling to sell it, but his plan was to downsize and leave himself with a sizeable amount to enjoy. He popped in one day and happened to mention that once his house sold he might be happy to lend us the deposit for a house. My brain kicked into gear and I thought if he would be prepared to lend us that sort of amount, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to convince him to let us change what we used it for! I spoke with him about it and he was incredibly easy to convince. After a short time, he agreed he’d definitely lend us the money to buy the land we so desperately craved. All that remained was for us to wait for the house to sell . . . it felt like forever, but eventually it did.
It was so surreal finally being able to look at plots of land with a view to actually buying them! I loved every minute. I won’t take you through the boring details of our purchase, but suffice to say after months of trawling through adverts and visiting sites we found our perfect plot and bought it! I’d done extensive research into planning laws, as this is the main obstacle that anyone wanting to build an eco-home faces. When you first look, it might appear that in order to achieve this kind of lifestyle it would be easier for you to move to Wales. They’ve recently revised their planning laws to support ecologically friendly development. However, when I looked into in more I found that the criteria you have to meet in order to obtain planning under their One Planet Development Policy is so detailed and extensive, that many eco projects are still being turned down. At the end of the day, you’re still at the mercy of one planning officer who can agree or disagree as to whether you have met the criteria. And not all of the local councils have embraced the government’s initiative.
We decided it would be more straightforward to stay in England and submit an ‘agricultural prior notice consent form’ to the local council. It’s legal to build an agricultural building on agricultural land under permitted development. You’re not subject to any planning laws and should receive permission to build within 28 days. Once you receive permission, you are legally allowed to put a mobile home on site to live in whilst you build. This can take up to 5 years, which gives you time to develop your land based businesses. At the end of your 5 years, you can then apply to build a residence based on the fact that you need to live on the land in order to run your business. As long as you’re keeping animals that require daily care they can’t really say no. All they can do it draw the process out and put restrictions onto your plans and designs for the building, but they can’t argue with the fact that you need to live there so as long as you persevere, you’ll get there.
Ultimately we wanted to develop a small holding anyway . . . that was all a part of the dream. So we’d need a barn regardless and I felt we could manage our brood in a 3 bedroom static caravan. It meant we could have the lifestyle almost immediately, just without the house. But too be honest there is so much work involved in developing the small holding I’m not sure we could handle building a house as well. It will be nice to do it in a few years when our businesses and lifestyle are properly established. It will be much less stressful that way. And the barn gives us good experience in building!
So now . . . here we are! Living the good life! We have a natural water supply and we popped some solar panels on top of our caravan, so immediately we have next to no outgoings. We began growing fruit and vegetable straight away on ½ an acre to start with and we rescued 10 chickens and 4 goats and 2 sheep. So far we’re able to keep ourselves in fruit, veg, eggs, milk and cheese and we do a farmers market once a week. Obviously that’s not enough to sustain us financially so we run several other businesses from the land in order to bring in an income. We run a low key camp site, my friend practices Aruveyda massage, we charge admission to the small holding where people are able to come for experience days and help out with the animals and growing and we run courses in cob building and permaculture. I found a great web designers in Essex who were enthusiastic about our cause and did us a good deal on our website, which has bought us lots of organic visitors! We were only here 6 months before we were doing well enough for my husband to give up work and focus solely on the land, which is fantastic as it gives us so much more time together as a family doing what we love.
So, there you have it. Our story. I thought I’d share it just to let you know that it is entirely possible. We’re here. We’re doing it. And it’s every bit as amazing as we ever dreamed it would be.