Big House

Hello hello, and welcome to this latest incarnation of my blog. I created it to chart our progress creating a micro-smallholding on our little patch of land in North Yorkshire, and named it Big House in the Little Woods as a nod to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book, Little House in the Big Woods.

I’ve always been fascinated by her accounts of her family’s adventures and struggles to eke out a living, first in a little log cabin in the woods, and later on a homestead on the prairie in America. I love all the detail she gives about her family’s daily routine, the food they eat, the way the house is decorated, the books they read and songs they sing.

Of course, we don’t intend to become full-time homesteaders. Luckily for us, Beardy has a proper job, which makes up for the fact that I’m a dilettante. But this also means we’ll have very much less time (between us) to devote to our land.

We are bound to depart from Laura’s lifestyle in many other ways: we are highly unlikely ever to own a cow (although I have romantic dreams of cheese-making), we won’t devote Sundays to church and Bible-reading, the Yorkshire climate won’t allow us to grow everything that Pa did, we won’t be butchering a pig and blowing up the bladder to use as a balloon, being mostly vegetarian (although Beardy has been known to eat squirrel and is eyeing up the bunnies and deer we have already spotted, with a view to some free food), and much as I love sewing, it’s a hobby rather than a necessity and I won’t be making scratchy full-length red flannel underwear.

There are some vague similarities, perhaps (erm… the children will be attending a small school with mixed-aged classes? I bake my own bread?) and we certainly have hopes of growing and preserving as much food as possible. Every so often, I am so intrigued by an aspect of the Ingalls’ life that I attempt to emulate it. For example, I once tried making maple candy poured into pans of snow, and I periodically scour ebay for a vintage wooden butter churn with a paddle, even though I know I can nip to Tesco’s and buy a packet of butter.

So much for replicating Laura’s life… In reality, I chose the name mainly because it’s accurate: we now live in a large house with our own little woodland (a couple of acres of it). We had been talking about buying a bit of land for a very long time; in fact, when I was pregnant with Serious in spring 2008, we went as far as viewing 4 or 5 ramshackle old farmhouses in the Vosges (in France), where property is much cheaper than in the UK. But I’m pleased we managed to find what we were looking for in this country, so that Beardy can keep bringing home the bacon (or Quorn), and we are not too far from friends and family. I digress for a moment to say that if the Brexit referendum had taken place before we were engaged in a complicated process to buy this very house, we might have vacillated.

So here we are, in our new house high on a hillside, with the children enrolled in the local village school, and with Beardy facing a bicycle commute of around 1 ½ hours each way.

We have spent our first month getting to know our property and trying to settle into a new routine. It’s given us a chance to see what works and what doesn’t (am I really going to walk the children to school and back every day? I’ll get pretty fit, but it will take up 2 hours of my time).

One thing is crystal clear: the previous owners, whom I shall call Mr. and Mrs. Practical, have left us a property in impeccable condition. I don’t fully share their sense of aesthetics, particularly where carpets are concerned, and apparently some people who viewed the house felt that it needed a lot of updating; but in fact, it is completely livable. The bathrooms and kitchen are up to date, the appliances and showers work fine, the paintwork is in good condition. A number of split logs await winter in the wood store, there are potatoes in the ground, the grass was left mown. Mr. Practical even left a post-it note in the outside electricity meter box, with a meter reading. He also left us a lot of useful paperwork, a sheet entitled ‘some last thoughts’, much good advice about ride-on mowers, a collection of children’s books which suggest his three boys read much the same thing as I did as a child, and various tools and garage paraphernalia. Judging by the state of the garage, Mr. Practical was not only organised and competent (maintaining his own garden machinery, for example), but also very tidy.

You can tell a lot about people by how they live. Apart from all the qualities I’ve just listed, we can tell Mr and Mrs. Practical were bookworms, because every single bedroom has strategically positioned (and very practical) lights that allow you to read in bed. But settling into a new home also brings to light some interesting mysteries. For example, we never understood why our previous house had a radiator that wasn’t connected to the central heating system, as well as several unfinished walls, lacking skirting boards and even plaster, hidden behind built-in furniture. The many botch jobs seemed bizarre, considering the previous owner was a builder.

In our new home, we have discovered a large patch of willow growing in the garden. We’re not sure if Mr. and Mrs. Practical intended to use it to build living willow arches or sculptures, or for basket weaving. Anyway, there’s a project for us right there (when time allows….). We have discovered that they liked to grow vegetables and fruit on a very small scale, in well-built raised beds with removable mesh sides and a net for the top, but we can’t tell if they once tried to grow more and failed (because of the weather, the rabbits, the deer or all three) or if it wasn’t their scene. We have pored over the aerial maps to understand the topography of our land, and know that it is a rather strange shape with the woodland sticking out sharply; there isn’t much of what you would call ‘garden’ in a decorative sense (flowers, water features, or any kind of flat lawn!), but we don’t know if they just weren’t interested, didn’t have time to maintain a garden, or weren’t able to buy a little bit of extra land to create one. We can see the woodland is a mixture of deciduous and evergreen forest and was intended for the wood-burning stove, but we don’t know whether the gradually-ripening fruit on one of the trees are some kind of wild cherry, or something called a cherry plum, and whether I will give myself a severe stomach ache by eating it.

These are some of the interesting questions that have occurred to us. What is very clear, though, is that Mr. and Mrs. Practical are highly competent, neat, organised, and above all extremely forward-thinking people, whose views were probably ahead of their time. They bought their piece of land in 1973, moved into the farmhouse, renovated the adjoining barn (in which we now live), moved into the barn in 1987, all the while planting and growing a woodland; and installed a 6 KW wind turbine in 2007. We now have our Big House with stunning views, surrounded by fields in which sheep graze; we have a small woodland for the children to build dens and have treasure hunts, and for me to pick nettles and try to identify mushrooms and make Christmas decorations with holly. We have a very sturdy greenhouse, a small pond, some shrubs that provide cover for the birds that come and peck at the peanuts every morning. We have terraces and stone walls and a large area possibly suitable for chickens. We have Alpine strawberries dotted about, and lavender, and a very solid house with plenty of space, a beautiful spiral staircase, high ceilings, and views from every single room.

All of this is thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Practical. Given current property prices, we would never in a million years have been able to buy 2.5 acres of land with a farmhouse and old barn, and then do all the renovation and landscaping work to create the property in its current form. We are ever mindful that we are reaping the fruits of their labour over several decades. Under their stewarship, the little piece of Yorkshire they owned thrived. I wake up every morning and say thank you, to the universe, but most of all to them.

It must have been a terrible wrench for them to leave this place they poured years of their lives into. I hope we will be able to live here for decades. I hope we will be able to maintain the land as they have, with sustainability and nature in mind. Perhaps we will even be able to make some small improvements. I hope I will learn enough about water filters, septic tanks, wind turbines, oil-fired boilers, wood chippers, and ride-on mowers to contribute to all the work around the place. I hope Beardy (and I) will be able to maintain our own equipment and keep the forest and garden beautiful and productive. In short, I hope we will be just like Mr. and Mrs. Practical, for they are our new heroes.



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