Tag Archives: home

The last time

Often, the last occasion of doing a thing passes by unnoticed and is only recognised with hindsight. For some time now, I’ve been in a process of honouring and checking off ‘last time’ events.

Partly this is because my son is in his A level year. We’ve ticked off a number of final rounds of school activities. This is the last winter of him cycling to school in the dark. Perhaps the last winter of my life when I’ll be obliged to get up in the dark of a morning. Definitely the last winter of me trying to get school clothes washed, dried and ironed every week. As we let go, week by week, we’re getting ready for massive changes this summer and the prospect of him heading out to university. It’s a good process.

Alongside this, I’m planning some major upheavals for myself next summer too. Preparing for this, Tom and I have started looking at what we need to do for the last time, or what we haven’t done and should do at least once. It hasn’t been a big list, and that’s a reflection of how well we’ve lived while we’ve been here.

This flat has always been too small. We don’t have any kind of separate studio or working space – just the one communal room. There is no garden. We’ve not had space for anyone to stay with us. We can’t stay in Stroud and have any of those things. Through the winter, we’ve talked to the people we’re close to about what happens next and how to do this well. I want to plant an orchard. I want a garden I can sit in – wrapped in blankets if needs be so that I can have time outside even when I’m ill. There is no way I can do this without moving somewhere more affordable. There is no work I could do that would bridge the gap between the value of the flat we own, and what it would cost to buy a small house.

It’s the last winter in this flat. It’s good to be doing this deliberately and with time to think it through, make plans and prepare. Previous rounds of moving home (including on and off a narrowboat) were done under time pressure and with limited resources. This will be different. No doubt there will be much to miss, but honouring the journey will certainly help.

Nest building

One of the most loaded words I know, is ‘home’. It has a weight and significance to it that surpasses almost all others, for me. The role of the home in day to day functioning is critical. Our addresses are a key part of our legal identity, something I’m acutely aware of having spent a couple of years with mail c/o the Post Office. Home contributes to our social identity, roots us in a geography, connects us to ancestors of land. The space is expression of self, and the people we share it with are normally the people we are closest to.

To be absolutely certain about where home is, and what it constitutes, is to know where you fit and to feel centred. That’s not necessarily about owning a place, it can be more to do with relationship with a landscape, or connection to family. Home might be where your ancestors are buried, where your language is spoken, or where you cat is. We each have our own definitions, some more consciously held than others.

Shelter is one of the most basic things, and the certainty of knowing you will sleep securely tonight is an important one. Many people don’t have that. Benefit cuts and soaring rents are pushing ever more people in the UK into states of uncertainty. Living a transient life is fine if you’re a wild spirit called to wandering, but many people aren’t. The loss of geographical identity, or social and legal identity around loss of place, is really intimidating. If you are not secure in your home, you may not feel very secure in anything.

In the quest for social status and profit, we build ever larger dwelling places that most people cannot afford to buy or run. I’ve become enchanted with the relative simplicity of living in smaller spaces, working out what is most needed and paring down to that. Compared with many people in the world, I have phenomenal wealth and property. Compared to many westerners, I have very little.

Our security is not what it could be. Any one of us could face compulsory purchase for some big infrastructure project. It could become legal for companies to frack under our homes. Laws and by-laws influence what we can do. In this property I am forbidden from keeping chickens. In a previous location, goats were not allowed for some reason. An Englishman’s home is his castle mostly in the sense that we all get to wonder who or what is poised to stick explosives under our walls.

Perhaps because we crave security, we get the biggest home we can and we fill it with stuff, as though that stuff forms a real barrier between us and the world. Pile it high enough and they won’t be able to take it all away (whoever ‘they’ are). Be that piles of old newspapers, or more cars than we can drive, or a kitchen full of unused gadgets, their weight and solidity promise to help keep the scary things at bay. Except that it doesn’t, and more things must be acquired to protect the things already acquired and then you need more space, and it never ends. Sometimes it feels safer when you know you could pack it all up and move on within a week, if you needed to.

What does home mean to you?

Living on the land

The school run takes me through the same village every day. Over the few years I’ve been doing this, I’ve got to know a lot of people on sight. The many dog walkers who have their routes and times. Others with routines that put them in certain places at certain moments in the day. I’m on hailing and greeting terms with many, some of them I know by name. There are people who have lived in the village all their lives. People whose families have been there back as far as knowledge goes. Perhaps there are some whose people have always lived on this land. Their bones and flesh are part of the landscape, they belong here, the rhythms of this land are the rhythms of their daily lives.

I’m not good at routines, or at staying still for long. Most of the routine in my life comes from the boy being at school, but as he grows more independent, I shall be less bound by that. I have short periods of habit over where I go, when and where I work… as soon as the patterns settle, I get uncomfortable and something changes. The boat has been great for this, answering my need for change and movement, a bunch of different school runs, different neighbours, a different view… it suits me. I expect I’m going to miss that, when the time comes.

I have ancestral ties to this area. My people come from all over, though. My Nan was from the Forest of Dean. My Grandfather on that side moved to work. I have blood ties to Cornwall, family who came up through Bristol, again seeking employment. I’ve seen family trees, and while there were periods in one place and we’ve been near the Severn a lot, I get the feeling my people move around a fair bit. There’s something restless in me, that chafes against too much routine. A part of my soul that wants to pack no more than I can carry and step onto the path and wander. I feel that even more keenly, living near the Severn with the knowledge of ancient ancestors of place who were nomadic.

Alongside that, I have a keen desire for a place to call home. In the last few years, I’ve come to realise that ‘home’ is the Severn vale, the Cotswolds, and the Forest of Dean. Home is everywhere I could easily walk to if I stepped outside this afternoon and let my feet guide me. Home is a community to belong to and people to be with. For a long time I laboured under the illusion that home meant a roof, and possessing a bit of land. Apparently for me, it doesn’t. Those things never gave me the security I thought they would bring. A boat, a cat, a man who loves me, a child who is glad to be with me – is home enough. The next place, and the one after it… will be home enough too. All of them will connect me to this landscape where I belong.

I can’t imagine settling into a place in the way I see others doing – the same walk with the dog every morning, the same habits of travel and work, all familiar and predictable. I can see that for some, being imbedded in a place and the rhythms of a clearly established life, is a happy way of being. I would always hear the song of the road, calling me out. No matter how much I love these hills and trees, this river, the need to see other places, to go away and come back again, is strong. Shades of Bilbo Baggins, I suppose.

For a while, I’ve been part of a place, and part of the daily rhythm for others, cycling through the village, waving, saying hi. I’ve become a feature of this landscape, and people are already telling me I will be missed when I go. No doubt I will miss things too, and no doubt I will come back sometimes, but there are other paths waiting to be explored, other waterways to follow, and I have not been planted here to root like an oak, as some villagers have.

Making a home

We’re in the process of transitioning off the boat. It’s an opportunity to reflect on what is needed, what it is that we want from a home, what’s viable, and how best to walk our talk. We’ve lived without a lot of the ‘normal’ things for several years now. Do we need to go back to conventional living arrangements? It doesn’t feel like good Druidry.

The boat has a solar panel and wind turbine, so most of our electricity is fairly green. I can’t see any way of replicating that in the foreseeable future. However, there are all kinds of dinky bits of technology out there… more efficient, smaller, lower impact. Realising that with this move we have the luxury of time, has opened a few doors.
Other things are going to be odd though. I’ve lived with fires almost all my life, and it looks like there will be no hearth in the next home. For me, a home without a hearth is going to be weird. I can’t say I enjoyed that last time I did it, but that’s part of the trade-off.

In preparation for moving, we’re once again getting rid of stuff, taking the opportunity to offload things that aren’t needed, aren’t used, things we grew out of, or were hanging on to just for nostalgia. That’s a good process. It’s one of the things I find I like about moving home – the chance to reassess every owned object and make some decisions. Last time we did that we gave up furniture and kept books and musical instruments. This time, the absolute priority was finding somewhere we could all live together. ‘All’ in our case includes Mr Cat. Finding a place where he would be happy and welcome informed a lot of our choices.
We’ve enjoyed some aspects of being really rural with the boat, but work would be a lot easier with more ready access to infrastructure. We will no doubt be out and about more, and I suspect I’ll be doing more in-person teaching, as well.

The right space can be really enabling. It underpins a lifestyle, permits certain choices, removes others…. The process of looking at what we need and want in that regard, too, has been really good. Soon we jump, and the next big adventure awaits us.

So, short post today because I’ve been running round in the rain a lot, finding needful things, and sorting stuff out, and ring to work out how best to mix the alternative and the normal to make something good. Much to figure out yet though.

Hearth and home

The first frost came last night, but we’d anticipated it and put coal on the fire, keeping the stove going until morning, so although it wasn’t toasty first thing, the difference in temperature between inside and out was significant. I think for people who have grown up with electricity as a given, heaters as a source of reliable and instant heat, kettles, cookers and central heating, the importance of the fire for most of our ancestors, is hard to grasp.
Waking up in the morning, in winter, with the fire gone out would have meant not only being desperately cold, but having no means to cook, or to heat water and a job to do getting the fire re-lit. Pre-matches and lighters, the starting of a fire was a much more complex business, time consuming and requiring patience. It’s a vast distance away from the instant heat and light that so many of us in the western world can now take for granted. If my fire goes out, I do have gas, can still make hot drinks and lift the temperature. I benefit from modern insulation, a duvet, and other luxuries that most of my ancestors could never have dreamed of. I do not need the fire to bake my bread, or cook my food. I do use it for cooking, I love the kind of one pan slow cook options the stove gives. If the fire goes out, I still have a gas cooker to turn to. That gives me a layer of insulation from the realities my ancestors had to deal with.

I’ve long been interested in living history. Books are all well and good, but it’s hard to really grasp the implications of a thing until you’ve done it. I’ve foraged for wood, and I know how much wood you need to get through a night. Not the handful of sticks you’ll see in films. I’ve hand-washed clothes, an activity that dominated the lives of my female ancestors, and I understand the bliss and luxury of a washing machine as a consequence. I’ve no real firsthand experience of farming though. I’ve milked a goat, once, years ago. I’ve never ploughed a field or carried a sickle for harvesting. From our first settling to agriculture through to the industrial revolution, farming didn’t change that much. Humans tilled the land, aided by animals. The grain was cut with a blade wielded by a bloke. There’s a startling amount of continuity in the history of bread, from prehistory to the early twentieth century. The industrialisation of farming is actually rather recent. Photos at the Folk Museum in Gloucester of harvesting in the 1940s could have depicted a scene from the 1840s.

Our lives are easier, for the greater part. I think most of us aren’t that conscious of just how much ease we have, how much insulation from the vagaries of weather and harvests. Most people this morning will only have noticed the frost if they looked out of their double glazed window, and even then it will not have affected them.
The closer you are to living hand to mouth, the more amplified both the smallest of setbacks and the smallest of triumphs becomes. And over it all presides the small god in the hearth, the fire that gives warmth and comfort, cooks food, dries clothes, consumes all that you can bring to it. When life depends so much on getting small details right, when setbacks can kill and the fire going out is a disaster, then I think there’s a lot more room for thinking about gods. The vulnerability and immediacy of life in that context makes the fire in the grate a force to be reckoned with.

The luxuries we have are not as reliable as it may be tempting to imagine. A banking error a few months back pushed many into hunger, unable to access their own resources, some faced homelessness. A loss of a job can strip away the insulation in days. A change to the benefits system, or a loss of health can do the same. We travel from protected lives to ones where the magical switch on the wall represents money we don’t have, and the fridge is useless because there’s no money to put food in it. Many of us are closer to the ancestors than we think. The end of civilization is, I understand, generally considered to be about two square meals away.