What is life really like for those seeking an alternative lifestyle? Luke Gartside meets a Cornish couple who have elected for an off grid life.
I first met Frank in a beach car park in Hayle, West Cornwall at 5.00am. I hadn’t been at all surprised when he’d suggested, somewhat apologetically, that we meet before dawn. A keenness to get up early and utilise the waking hours of the day are cornerstone characteristics for both surfers and those who live off the grid, giving Frank a double dose of dedication.
Later that day I went to visit Frank, his wife Jenny and their three dogs on the small plot of land they inhabit. After a few phone calls plagued by patchy signal, I found myself bumping down an unpaved dirt track, past fields of crops and wallowing pigs. At the end of the track sat Frank’s plot.
The site, which is completely disconnected from the water, electricity and phone line grids, hosts several buildings, with two adjoined caravans at its centre serving as the main living space. There is a large shed, from which Frank works, a horse box which contains a gas heated shower and a tall wooden cubicle which houses the compost toilet. The plot also features a large bedded area for growing fruit and veg complete with a poly-tunnel. All of the electricity required is generated by three large solar panels and a wind turbine in the winter. Currently all the water used on site is caught from the roofs and filtered, however as we perused the plot, Frank showed me the bore hole he had just had dug, which will provide a limitless supply of free clean water.
After a tour, I sat down with Frank and Jenny at the kitchen table, with a pot bubbling on the stove and warm evening air drifting in through the open door, to find out what had led them to live off grid.
WL: When did you first start surfing Frank?
F: When I was about 14, my mum’s family was from Cornwall, they lived in St Ives, so we used to come down from the Midlands a few times a year to see my gran, then we all moved down here in 1987 and that’s when I really got into surfing.
WL: Do you surf as well Jenny?
J: No I don’t, I’m a bit of a land lubber. I’m the green fingered one. That’s a good thing in a relationship really, we’ve got our own things that we do, Frank loves to go out and surf and I love to hang out in the garden so that works well for both of us.
WL: And when did you first begin to live what I guess you’d term an ‘alternative’ lifestyle?
F: After I left school I met a few travelling folk and started moving around with them in a horse and cart. It was through being quite disconnected from society that I found out about solar panels and I started using them as I was moving about.
WL: How long were you doing that for?
F: About four years around the late 90s. After that I met Jenny and the horse died so we got a tractor which we travelled round in for a while. We’d stay mostly in the South West but go into the Midlands a bit as well, doing festivals and seasonal work like fruit picking, as well as a bit of building stuff which is what I do now.
WL: Quite a lot of the people I’ve met who have settled off grid now were part of that new age traveller culture around that time, I think maybe its a natural progression. When you decided you wanted to stop travelling did you ever consider just getting a house?
F: No, it never crossed our mind actually.
WL: And how did you end up settled on this plot?
F: My parents gave us this bit of land four years ago, its just under an acre and we decided it would be a good place to settle down.
WL: And so what is is it about this way of living that you find attractive?
F: It’s nice to have a base, it also gives us a chance to grow stuff.
J: I mean I always grew things, but we carried it around with us in buckets and pots for years. A lot of the things that are here are things we picked up along the way and just carried around with us.
WL: I think there are a lot of parallels between this lifestyle and surfing, in both there a sense of taking things into your own hands and being less mediated by external structures.
F: Totally, when you’re out there in the water, you reap what you sow, and you are totally responsible for yourself and what becomes you and its the same with living like this. Right from the very beginning it was surfing that helped me appreciate the environmental issues more, it was a really good thing to get the ball rolling because it allows you to be more aware of whats around you. It gives you a new perspective when your sat in the ocean and how much closer to nature you feel.
WL: I know for a lot of people wanting to settle and build on a plot like this there can be issues with planning permission, did you experience that?
F: For us it was miraculously smooth. We managed to get afforded a special traveller status because we’ve both been moving around for years.
J: There were a few objections to our application, because it was under the heading of a gypsy/ traveller site, understandably people were a little bit worried about what they were getting, because you know gypsies and travellers get a lot of bad press and I think a lot of people just believed everything they read, rather than making an effort to come and find out about who we are and what our plans were.
WL: Do you think it’s important that the council has a special planning band for people who want to live like you do?
J: Definitely, I think it’s important that people have the opportunity to live their lives the way they want, too many people are not given the opportunity. It’s really important because you live when you live your life like this, you don’t just breeze along and wander home and switch on all your appliances, you have to think about what your going to do and when your going to do it. I wish more people had the opportunity to embrace it. We’ve spoken to a few people who have got land or are thinking of getting land and they would be so happy if they could just live on it and grow some stuff, but they can’t get planning, so instead they’re stuck and struggling and unhappy. Obviously some people might abuse more relaxed planning laws, but it always seems to be those kind of people who get into the media, not the people living quietly, getting on with it.
WL: And so as well as being totally self sufficient with your water and energy, do you also grow a lot of food?
J: We’ve got a lot of veg that comes on the table, but in the winter slightly less, but now we’ve got the poly-tunnel we can pretty much grow all year round. In the future we plan to increase the amount of food we get from growing by creating a heritage seed bank.
WL: Sounds interesting, what’s a heritage seed?
F: A lot of seeds you buy nowadays, you’ll grow them, get whatever you get from it, but then the seeds from them are sterile, so your always having to go back and buy more. A heritage seed allows you to grow produce which you can then harvest the seeds from, so you can re-grow them.
J: The idea is to build up a large seed bank with a cooperative of friends and people we know around here who are living the same way as us, to save us ever having to buy seeds. We might find that some things won’t grow in our soil but we’ve got friends who have soil that allows the plants to blossom, so you’ve got so much more chance of growing a really big larder of food for the future, which is brilliant and then your also not beholden on the seed companies.
WL: Do you feel like this lifestyle allows you to feel more in touch with nature as well?
F: Absolutely. You feel the wind rocking the caravans and you hear the rain on the roofs. Also how much electricity we can generate is intimately connected to the weather. Last week it was dull and grey, so we had just enough power in the evening to do a bit of surfing on the internet. In the summer we drop the wind turbine, so you just say ok, its going to be a grey week so we just don’t use as much, but on a sunny day I can get an extension lead and plug in my circular saw. Last weekend I made a couple of new cabinets for my speakers, I just diced up a load of ply we had laying around.
WL: Something I’ve noticed is people who live like this are constantly developing their sites, do you feel like it’s a constant work in progress?
F: Totally man yea, I mean we won’t have these caravans forever, eventually it would be good to have a wooden house, on stilts perhaps, probably made of wooden cladding. If it’s without a concrete pad, there’s no footprint as such, it’s just sinking some poles in the ground. In a hundred years time or whenever you can take those poles out of the ground and fill the holes back in and then next season there will be a lovely bit of turf there
WL: As well as the things you love about this way of living, are there things you find unattractive about mainstream life?
F: Yea the whole business of being shoved down the line; you get your job you get your mortgage and work your days. Especially now, you know back in my dad’s day that generation they did alright out of it, you could buy your first house and then pay that mortgage off, get a bigger house and it would roll and roll into something bigger, so by the end of your days you would have a bit of a nest egg, but I think for our generations and younger generations I don’t think that’s going to be there now because of the way that the whole financial thing just imploded. To be completely free of all of that is just brilliant. We’re really blessed not to have to deal with it. It’s also great not having running water and flushing toilets – I love using the compost toilet knowing that I’m not contributing to those sewage outpourings, you know when the red river turns brown. We burn our sanitary products, so they’re not going down the toilet and we don’t have any grey water run off into drains that go out to sea.
WL: How does your compost toilet work?
F: Basically we have a long drop and then we put wood shavings down there and occasionally a layer of soil. All the stuff in there breaks down with the help of bacteria in the soil to become no more than soil itself in a couple of years time.
WL: It also must be nice having no rent, electricity or water bill.
F: We do have to pay council tax which is a hundred pounds a month, which when you look at it is kind of like a really cheap rent.
WL: And so does that allow you travel?
F: Well I went to Indo earlier this year but I’d never been somewhere warm before that, all my surfing was Cornwall, Devon, Scotland and I always prided myself on the fact that I’d never flown anywhere, but I’ve got the warm water bug now.
J: For me it’s a bit of an issue, to fly off somewhere long haul every year, from an environmental perspective, I would find a little bit off.
F: But I suppose thats the hypocrisy of it all, all that travel, the boards, the suits, none of its really eco friendly.
WL: That’s the tough thing with surfing isn’t it, two of the biggest ideological elements that drive the culture are an environmental conscience and wanting to protect nature but also wanting to travel and explore. So far it’s hard to find a way to make them not conflict with each other. Still at least you’re offsetting those air miles better than most.