Sunday 31 July 2011

Where are we coming from

I need to write a piece sometime soon about our philosophy, but before I do that I feel like the first step is where we're coming from. Of course in Kasia's case the simple answer is about 3km north of Orchardy Haven, although we met a long way away from there and we've been on interlocking journeys...

Henry at 8 months in front of cabbages
Me first then. I actually grew up in a house in the country surrounded by land that my great aunt bred Guernsey cattle on. When my mother found that she was pregnant her aunt offered her the house, so we moved from London and she went off at the age of 66 to travel around the UK and Ireland in a horse drawn caravan! She rented most of the fields to a local farmer friend, but I did grow up with the descendants of her chicken flock, and my mother kept ducks for the table and each year a couple of larger animals: tamworth pigs were our favourite, but also lambs, calves and goats. Eventually she expanded to try a commercial rabbitry, and I was too young to know the details but it went wrong and that was about the end of our home-reared meat - that and the night a fox got into the chicken coop and slaughtered the rest of the flock...

This isn't the space for my life story, but skipping forward to 1996 I got involved in local community work where I lived in Leeds, established Hyde Park Source in 1998, Rasa Advocacy Project in 2003, Advocacy Action in 2005 and Hungry Snail Food Co-op in 2009. I think that the key link between these enterprises is passion for social action. I gained this from my mother, and I also knew from a very young age about the problems of modern chemical based farming. By 2007 when I met Kasia (she was living next door to my mother at the time!) I had pretty much accepted that mine was to be a city-based life, reacting to the needs of the people around me, although I have always dreamed of being more isolated and self-sufficient.

There's also a lot of philosophy and (self-)education that came in and around these years which I'll doubtless refer to later, but now it's Kasia's turn. Her family have been farmers for generations in rural north east Poland. She grew up in a house her grandfather built, and where he still works at the age of 83 along with Kasia's brother. The family are quite self-sufficient in many things still, keep pigs and chickens and cows, grow vegetables, and grow grains and root crops for the animals. Four generations are still living there together. Kasia was adventurous and studied Occupational Therapy in Łodz, and has always practised traditional crafts including ceramics, basketry, crochet and a variety of home and country crafts learned from her mother and grandmother. Working with people with learning disabilities and mental health problems, as well as young offenders, Kasia got degrees in Special Education and then came to England to learn the language.

It was clear to me before I made my long term commitment which led to our marriage, that living with Kasia would ultimately mean moving to Poland. She has rekindled my interest in the land and what I call hand-work. Our garden and home have been transformed into an oasis of calm and beauty. We have a developing allotment. Kasia has been enjoying working as an art teacher in one of the more challenging local high schools. We've both been volunteering in the Craft Centre at Pennine Camphill Community, and we've been occasionally helping out at other good places like Old Sleningford Farm, Cobden and Edible Cities in Leeds, Middlewood Trust, etc.

We have a lot of skills and ideas to bring towards our future life at Orchardy Haven, and a deep commitment to the planet and people. More about how our philosophy will shape that dream soon...

Saturday 30 July 2011

First work on our land

We've booked tickets to go to Poland in mid September, and although we're thinking about the house and what needs to be done to it, my main thinking is about what we're going to do with the land. We need to build a home that can keep us warm and comfortable in the winter, and hopefully cool and comfortable in the summer, but it is the surrounding land that will play a big part in sustaining us - and take a lot of our time.

Of course we do want to find efficient ways of working the land with minimal effort, and we'll be planning with permaculture principles in mind. The question is now, with three weeks to do some initial work before the winter, what are the priorities? I've made this little plan to help explain our current thinking:

I hope you can see! The house is red, with the brown barns in a square; the existing meadow (blue) and birch plantation (green) and orchard (yellow); I've marked our planned areas for Holzer raised beds in orange, and hedge planting in pink.

We think at the moment that the main priorities are:
  1. Improving the soil by planting green manures, especially around the orchards and the areas we're likely to begin to cultivate first.
  2. Beginning to establish a hedge/barrier particularly on the NW boundary (pink) made with native trees and shrubs, with an emphasis on thick and thorny and fruiting to begin to discourage the numerous deer and other wild animals from the nearby forest while also offering some forage for them and the local birdlife. The prevailing wind is also from the W (60%) so the hedge will calm that.
  3. One of the priorities if we're going to be working on the land for extended periods will be a toilet. No mains sewage, and nobody to complain about the idea of a composting toilet, but which design? I like the one recently built at the Sustainability Centre and described in Living Woods Magazine and Permaculture Magazine. It is raised above a bed of straw bales and surrounded by willow, so no need to separate the urine, you get good willow for weaving, and relatively easy to process compost (if I remember rightly). More on this later I expect...
  4. Finally, I need to do some more surveying. In particular I want to take a better look at the soil in different areas on site, try to record more information about the trees and flowers and herbs on site, and find out more about what's growing locally.
As we continue to think about all this, there are questions about whether to continue to mow the meadow regularly, what to do with the birch plantation (needs thinning out, but when) and what to do with the rest of the land on the bottom of this plan - maybe a mixture of forest garden and pig paddocks, with plenty of fruit trees planted in between the existing generally young conifers...

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Thinking about the house...

Originally we wanted to build a straw-bale house, but since we have a house and no money it seems like the most effective way to insulate it and make it beautiful would be to clad the outside with straw bales. The idea is to construct a sort of 'shelf' attached to the foundation and as wide as the bales, and then build the bale wall on this. We would still need to reconstruct the windows and the door (but they need to be repaired at the very least anyway), and we'd need to extend the roof so that it overhangs the walls to protect them from the elements.

This leads me to thinking about the existing walls... Here are a few photos: the East aspect; detail of NE corner; detail of NW corner; and South aspect. By the way, the external dimensions are about 13m x 8m.
 You can see the slight slope and the relatively new (uninsulated) metal roof. Pointing is fairly random. The two larger windows on the left are a bedroom, the little window a kind of scullery behind the kitchen, the tiny 'window' is opposite the front door, and the last window is into a kind of workshop.
 This photo (above) is a close-up of the wall and the eaves, and below is another close-up showing a patch of cement filling in the foundation, and on the North wall you can just make out an old door that's been blocked up, and some not very straight lines of block work...
 The South aspect is much tidier (below) but really if we're designing an eco-friendly house we'd want as much south-facing space as possible

Any thoughts? Do I need to carry out any particular investigations? Do I need any other photos? Or will I be fairly safe developing my building plan as it is? Please leave comments below... Thanks!

Sunday 17 July 2011

First steps

We've never lived somewhere we're free to build and dig and adapt so much, so this is a really exciting moment for us and we'd really like to move over there and start work as soon as possible. There are a few things that need to be sorted out first though:
  1. We're about to put just a little bit more than all the rest of our savings to secure the property... We've found a run-down property in a beautiful setting, in the right location for us, that we can just afford with the help of our families. We're really happy that we may be mortgage and rent free, but we don't know about the finances of this sort of thing, paid employment in this part of Poland is scarce and not well remunerated and we're going to be reliant on putting our own labour into developing it. We do need to stay in the UK for a while to generate some more working capital (and that's not counting moving costs even).

  2. We need insulation, a new roof, a toilet, maybe indoor running water... The roof space looks dry inside, but I could see that because of the light coming through the gaps... We always dreamed of building a straw bale house, and we were a bit confused when we found this place about how to realise our dream. Considering the state of the interior and the roof we thought about demolishing it down to the foundations and re-building with straw bales, but our friends at Old Sleningford Farm pointed out that the walls are sound, and we should more simply build straw-bale insulation around the outside. That makes it easier and more affordable, but there's still lots of work to do inside and out...

  3. We need to start growing food... The previous owners didn't even have a vegetable patch - rare in this area. The existing small orchard is tired and old. Much of the land is covered with densely planted young birch trees. Much of the rest is covered with grass, nettles, and other scattered small trees. We want to build the soil quality, do creative things with whatever we find on the land (trees, stones, earth, water), and use permaculture and forest gardening based approaches to be at least self-sufficient, and hopefully make some income from the land.
These are going to be the three themes of this website: getting some money together, planning the building, and getting growing on the land. Most of the posts from now on will hopefully focus on one of these aspects.

Thursday 14 July 2011

Where in the world...?

For some reason I always thought Poland was in the cold North of Europe. This prejudice was strengthened when I found out about the weeks or months of -20C in winter. In fact, I was surprised to discover our new smallholding is just over 7km South of where we live now in Wakefield, W Yorks - and 1645km East!

As you can see from this picture, all of Scotland is more Northerly than the most Northern bit of Poland, and the South of Poland is more on a level with Brittany...

Luckily even in the cold winter the sun often shines, and in the summer the continental climate should mean we'll be baking nicely - in fact traditionally most families had outdoor 'summer kitchens' to avoid the heat of cooking warming their houses too much.

Here is a clip from the Google satellite image of the plot itself:

Our house and buildings are in the centre.

Our Eastern and Southern boundaries are easy to spot - the treelines.

Our Western boundary is closer to the buildings - it goes to just before the narrow strip of cultivated land.

The Northern boundary is less distinct and less straight, but it's roughly marked by the big tree or clump of trees just about due north of the buildings. There's a 'wet patch' in amongst these trees to the North, which was a small stream when we were there in April, although probably dry in the summer.

500m West is the start of a big forest (not visible in this image), 1.5km wide at this point and stretching down 24km South (and then linking in to other bigger forests...). On my first walk into the forest I met some Elk, which was an amazing experience!

Monday 11 July 2011

What's in a name? Orchardy Haven...?

We were looking for a name for our future home that would be somehow poetic and evocative of the kind of place we wanted it to become, and also to have a sense of where it is now...

So, it's in a small village called Sadowo. This in itself doesn't mean much, but the root 'sad' means 'orchard' in Polish. If you add the suffix '-owa', this turns is into an adjective, 'orchardy'. So far I must admit the 'orchard' there is a bit old and in need of some tlc - there are about 20 apple trees, and quite a lot of raspberry and blackcurrant growing around. Here's a picture showing part of it: looking towards the house, facing north. It will get more orchardy soon...

Then there is the 'haven'. Of course since the place is in Poland, the Polish name came first, which is Sadowa Przystań. Apparently this meets all my poetic and romantic criteria, and a haven or przystań is a shelter, a safe place, resting place, a place to pause and re-energise.

We hope it will be a pause from the more complicated city life we've been living. We think the pace of life will be slower there in some ways, even though there's lots of work to do. We believe that it will be a place where people will come and eat apples and sit in our garden (after a few hours voluntary labour) and feel inspired and re-energised and relaxed...

Sunday 10 July 2011

Welcome to our new blog

Hello and welcome. This is really exciting - we're going to move to Poland! I've been promising my wife Kasia since before we got engaged, three years ago. Now we've found a piece of land, and we're beginning to think about it all in more definite terms... So, here is the house that needs renovating, and here I am on our future doorstep (pointing South for some reason...)

Although we don't have enough money to move there yet, or to renovate the house and barns, or to transform the land into a working smallholding...

Anyway, this is the website where we'll be sharing our thinking and planning - and our doing and learning. There are all sorts of things we want to share, and we're hoping this site will become a rich resource over the next few years - like our new land - so please do follow us, and even come and visit once we have the guest accommodation sorted (tent anyone?). To whet your appetite, here's another view, from the North East: