Further down the rabbit hole

Our two night stay in a straw bale built off-grid yoga retreat not only confirmed to us the way we want to live but inspired us to think even more unconventionally about the size and layout of our home.

Things we LOVED

  • straw bale plus wrap around ‘conservatory’ on a chilly day and night feels cool rather than draughty
  • open plan living upstairs as well as downstairs – just a huge bedroom for the kids with moveable mattresses – space to run around
  • rainwater harvested toilet – only flush for number twos!
  • boiling the kettle on the hob, and the noise that replaces an electric kettle
  • no TV!
  • using barely any electricity – instead a few lamps and battery operated fairy light strings
  • the rhythm of our day adapting to the house – slow mornings getting warm, hot drinks and food to help, moving out into the conservatory, moving upstairs for the sunset
  • running a scalding hot bath from the back boiler of the woodburner
  • less furniture, lower furniture
  • no wall units in the kitchen, no dishwasher, no microwave, no fridge or freezer! (no problem when you’re vegan=replaced by massive fruit bowl, massive veg basket)

Things we’d do BETTER

  • better woodburner, better logs, for better heat, plus a wood-fired range for cooking
  • go smalller, no wasted space behind the burner, oversized hallway
  • use the space – design the woodburner to be sat around all sides? grow veg in conservatory
  • no more rooms – make the downstairs room the kitchen on all walls, dining and living room in the middle of the ‘kitchen’
  • no more internal walls and doors – a corkscrew entrance for the bathroom, tipis for the kids bedrooms


  • move between two ‘pods’ for Spring/Summer Autumn/Winter living- could even be in different places in the UK or UK/France!
  • hobbit house – build into a hill – think cave, hibernation, nest for winter, go small
  • back to the writer roulotte ideas for Summer living – outside kitchen, wood-fired hot tub, composting loo, spend time outdoors, go small
  • a way to combine these two seasonal pods?

What this MEANS

  • all this blue skies/green light brainstorming is made all the more possible going forward having to only think about ourselves and the kids, as Moms will be happily nestled in her own much more normal warm, cosy home, so…
  • well, we’re looking for land because as it’s not possible to buy this set up, we have to build it!
  • we’re looking for land along the coast of North Pembrokeshire because we’ve found this community to offer exactly -just like the Ariege- what we’re looking for to support our kookie ways
  • we’re looking to downsize significantly and so downsize all belongings to those we absolutely adore or can’t live without
  • we’re looking to move towards eco cleaning products and natural toiletries, cool!
  • we’re looking forward to only needing a very modest income to cover bills, and staying debt-free, by altering the design, build, and the land purchase to suit the budget, rather than the other way around
  • this means we can look forward to spending our time, skills, and energy giving back to the local community and living in a gift economy to support all the other inter-planetary travellers the new dreamland seems to already be attracting


The Struggle

My heart is racing. I am panicked. We’ve been here twice before. Concentrated research into a new area that promises us a future and the life we want. This time it’s North Pembrokeshire, Wales. The end of the line. Facing out to Ireland and the Atlantic. I’m vulnerable to disappointment. Half expecting the grey wet reality to underwhelm, and the tourist guide listings of attractions to disappoint. It’s not helped by the fact that the new promise land is so close by the first, the Wye Valley. How quickly our confidence dissolved upon exploring on foot and in car what we had been excited about in front of the laptop.

I’m snatching half an hour between the kids’ bath and making dinner to record my angst because yet again things are moving at incredible speeds – in my head at least! It started with the New Year and the oath to cleave, commit, be decisive, to simplify. Documentaries on minimalism and veganism. Going vegan overnight. Talking again about sustainable living. Growing veg in a greenhouse. Solar power and wind power. City, town, or village. The mountains or the coast. Homeschooling or not. Portland USA, Glasgow, The Midlands, the North, the Isle of Wight (again). Tiny living. Boat living.

A Rightmove search can be the death of a new plan. We’re looking for land for our own new build, or a bungalow or cottage to extend/rebuild. Somewhere rural. Not even in a village. With neighbours we can see from an acre or two away. Is our budget going to cut it? Are there even plots available? Would north Devon be a better option? The Lake District? The driving time from the Midlands is going to cause upset for family, especially after several years with us on their doorstep.

Is the landscape too flat? Are the cliffs too dangerous for the kids? The hills too desolate? The slopes too steep to climb? The towns too far apart?

Why hadn’t we thought about building in cob before, when it offers a cheap, easy building solution? A material we could master ourselves. An organic curved rough natural home. Perfect for us. But cladding it with polystyrene to meet building regs? What other compromises would be needed? Are we too late to the party?

Eco villages, whole food stores, indications of where the new movement is at. But we’ll need a primary school nearby too.

I’m dying inside not being able to move forward. Doubting, floating. Life halts yearned for progress. Priority DIY on Jam Jar bodge house, Ben’s new video games journalism, and bringing our new business to life. And every day the pressure of multi-generational living, grieving for the dreamlife that was lost and coming to terms with the deeper loss that means, and a new baby who has been yelling for me for the last ten minutes. The desperate impatience for the fresh start. The desire to make sweeping changes to the way we live, in tension with the need for stasis, forebearance, a bit more hard graft, and then nothing left to do but wait, hanging on the whim of potential buyers. Willing Jam Jar house to sell.


Living the dream

B| Things have never been better for us, despite what’s gone before, and regardless of the fact we’ve even committed to and then, after exploring thoroughly, discarded what feels like several further dream plans. Because things have never been this free before. But with my grateful-and-sorry alarms tripping every now and then into overdrive (accompanied by the self-deprecating “I’ve not had a job for …”) what I feel most right now is an urgency, a need to grapple with our future and get started properly on hammering our next chapter into shape. Not being able to leap forward with both feet is frustrating, never mind how busy we are just ‘being’ at the moment.

~J Our days are spent largely as they would have been spent in Cascade de Reves our French chambres d’hotes. I come downstairs to catch up with Ben’s latest brainwave. We bounce ideas off each other, deconstruct, analysise and reflect, counsel each other, develop plans sparodically throughout the day, like two tides crashing together, merging white horses before rushing away again. We have the time together and headspace now for more fully formed, better ideas and plans, for business, for educating the kids, for parenting, for writing projects, for our next move, for useful schedules. We take lots of baths. Driving is just for fun.

B| Yesterday I saw a job ad for a Press Officer with the National Trust. A year ago this would have been my dream – and in fact I was almost in a similar job at English Heritage just last October, having put my all into two interview days. I stood looking out the back door at the sun filled expanse of our garden and thought, ‘Should we stay? If we can make anything work (which we can) why don’t we try and make this work?’. I’m sure the job would be great, for at least 6 months. I could believe in it, and push forward with a lot more passion than I’d done in a long time. But what about the cost? No taking kids to nursery, and no post-nursery countryside saunters, with third chidler pinned to my chest and sleeping. No space to explore those ideas, those poems, those opportunities. The gig I’ve just won doing video games reviews (and the cargo-load of tech I’ve got people to send me in order to make it possible) would be out of the question. Even more pressure on the two of us when all three little people are sprouting like power grains into interesting and challenging shapes. No room for me and Jen to bond, to grow. We had a dream in mind just a year ago but honestly until now I certainly didn’t know what a dream life was really like, and what it really provides.

~J We are used to committing to our vision, our projects, our goals, but now we have to commit to the life we’re actually now living. To commit to doing and sacrificing whatever it takes, to preserve this new found dream life. To commit to Ben never again going out to work. Because that’s the only thing that has changed, has brought about the life we expected to start once we had moved to France. But the house we’re in hasn’t changed. The weather outside is just the same. But Ben is home. Now there’s no going back. The happiness of our marriage and children depends on us continuing to be this complete unit. Life is not suddenly easier, but it is finally in balance, and so it feels right. Ben has never been more comfortable in his own skin. I’ve never seen him more relaxed. The children have never been happier.

B| I wanted to start this blog, nearly 18 months ago, because I knew we would learn things along the way or experience things that we could learn from time and time again, and I didn’t want them to slip through our fingers. I also thought, and this then became our book idea, that what we learnt and experienced might give other people the nudge they needed or the platform that they were missing to do something similar. Now I feel it’s been a record of a long process in our lives, a stripping back and peeling again and again away the layers of ‘norm’ that I certainly had built up and that had been laid on me through every relationship and institution. Eventually I started to feel that whatever this blog was the most important thing was writing it for our kids, and writing the book to speak to them, telling them how anyone can have the life they want so long as they want it enough to embrace the consequences. But now, even though we’ve hardly had time to write it over the past months, I feel that while we look ahead to unschooling and decoupling our kids from a system I’m convinced will begin to buckle and fold in the coming decade, this blog has in fact been a process of reinforcing an unschooling of my own, a way to stop any backsliding into fear or conventional thought. It’s been a form of therapy, and the best kind – not the sort of ‘get you back to how you were’ repair job I was offered after the accident last summer. Progressive change. Seizing the future. Living the dream.

Tiny hygge jam jar

I used to find minimalism boring and pretentious-white walls, empty rooms, perfect lines, abstract art. But that is the concept taken to its extreme. I’ve been gradually decluttering our lives over the past couple of years. This new year my mission has been to perma-declutter the kitchen food and cookware cupboards, to reduce the time I spend meal planning, ordering food, and cooking, to reduce food waste, to more easily stick to an exact budget, and to eat more healthily through the ultimate weekly meal plan.

Decluttering every space in the house is a continuous process of shedding, of wittling down to those things I’m not prepared to live without. The kids’ toys are hardest. The idea is that when you live with less, you want less, and so spend less money. Cleaning and tidying is easier, so you can spend more time on the things you love. Minimalism also has the benefit of making moving and relocating easier. We’d be able to choose a smaller house despite intending on a fourth kid. And if we ever reduced as far as a camper van’s worth of stuff, we could travel as a family without even leaving a storage unit behind.

So I’m going to look into building a tiny house. It’s a thing. But I don’t know where people put their homes. On land they own? Or not?

Yea it doesn’t sound very appealing with two adults and four kids. But there might be something in it. A self-build might be easier on us than another renovation. It will certainly be cheaper initially and to run. It would force us to sustain a minimalist low impact lifestyle. Better for the planet. Not spending money on things for the house. We’d have options. We’d be free, free even to roam, but we’d have a base, we could still be rooted.

Everything in pursuit of the dream. And if the dream is freedom…

I’ll never paint my walls white, or stop making a soft cosy candlelit nest, but I’m willing to let go of almost all of my possessions, to get closer to nature, the people around me, and maybe we’d find an inner peace in the tiny. Less is more.


From France to an MA

What’s an MA in Philosophy and the Arts got to do with the dream?

B | I wanted so badly to escape to France. But it’s clear now that my real ambition, the force that’s really driving me is not to insulate myself from the world but to engage in it. For what I want to do, this demands a platform – and while successful writers are often given platforms from which to make an impact I can’t afford to simply hope that success finds me. Doing an MA is the first step in taking control of reaching the platform I want.

Irish President Higgins on World Philosophy Day 2016 said ‘Teach philosophy to heal our ‘post-truth’ society, because philosophers are more important now than they have ever been’. I’m taking that to heart by becoming a philosopher myself and aiming to inspire more critically thinking philosophers from my own children to outreach in schools to the students I hope to tutor.

J~ We had to move to France for a lifestyle that allowed Ben to write to explore and express his fascinations, his obsessions, his theories, his emotions. And not have to write for money. Because what Ben has to say is too important to be encumbered by that concern. Words are powerful. Stories inspire and move and motivate. Poetry is art. Writing is political. The more personally raw the more universally human. Ben has a truth only he can share, and so we are committing again to lives that allow for the fulfilment of what will amount to the only life worth living. The best life we can make for ourselves. The absolute dream life.

The exciting thing about this MA, the PhD and being at Warwick is becoming part of an intellectual community where the issues I think are important are discussed as a matter of course, not now and then or as a response to news, but actively explored.

B | Fulling my purpose. Following my calling. These were the goals we had all that time ago and in the end France was simply the machinery that made reaching them possible. Now that machinery looks very different, but the ambition remains the same and although the trajectory we’re going to take is far more conventional (conventional for us, at least) there’s no room for compromise on what we’re working to achieve, the lives we’re striving to make for each of us.

My goal is that the MA will give me the grounding in philosophy I need to hone my thesis at PhD level, and then move into an interdisciplinary academic philosophy role which I can use to pursue and raise the profile of my thesis and as a platform to raise interest in philosophy.

J~ This is an easier path for me than France. As much work, but more of the mind than body. Less work apart from each other, more together. That’s part of the dream too, being a team, and the only way we come up with every idea and plan that gets us closer to it. 48 hour intense planning, brainstorming, writing, editing sessions. The neverending TALKING. It’s always exciting, always nerve wracking, always tiring, always totally the right thing to do.

At the moment philosophy has an image of being literally academic, not relevant, and not part of the real world. I want to revitalise the understanding that philosopher means lover of knowledge, not holder of knowledge. I want to inspire the love of knowledge in people because that way we solve or pre-empt so many problems which are right there right now.

B | I think it’s a harder path for me. It demands more of me. It’s the truer option. But that’s why I’ll live without the sun, without the Pyrenees, even though the idea of the idyllic French life was so wonderful. In the end it’s a path we are choosing to take us closer to our own identity and integrity. It’s the path that will make the most of what we can do together.









The Art of Tidying

Days at home without Ben used to feel so long. I’ve spent the morning cuddling and kissing Libby and now I’m watching Cali play with her baby dolls and listening to her sing. There is so much we want to accomplish as a family that we have to focus, be decisive and commit to the things we know make us happy, to spend our time wisely. That’s how we get our dream life and why it’s in our hands. This new year we are taking every opportunity to declutter our options, our heads, and our schedule. And it feels just as liberating and uplifting as organising the house, room by room, drawer by drawer.

It’s only a tiny bit scary to ruthlessly cleave away anything that can’t fight for its survival. Because by focusing down we are removing what could be opportunities, things that once gone may never return. But what if they’re not real options but just chaff weighing us down, limiting our potential, productivity and progress.

Case in point – Ben redefining himself as a ‘poet’ no longer as a ‘writer’

What a relief to us both to keep only the most exciting aspect of the notebooks full of scribbled ideas – the ideas themselves – that can all find life in poetry…and jettison the slog of novel writing

Case in point – Ben trusting an instinct that Philosophy is the academic discipline he belongs in

The hours of researching departmental research interests and vetting potential supervisors saved, the shortlist of universities instantly so much shorter

We’ve never had three children before, we’ve never both been self-employed working from home before, and we’ve never had a housework rota or a routine for the kids before. But now, to maintain order and to appreciate and support the efforts in cleaving, we will all really benefit from a structure to our days. Everything, even this blogging session has a place in the schedule, so that we both feel what we want to acheive in our days and weeks is possible, and in turn so that we do acheive what we want to acheive this year. It’s the first Monday on the schedule, and we’re loving it. Everyone’s cup can be filled. No one has to feel chained to the baby, or the kitchen sink, or beholden to the needs of others. We can be a 2017 dream team, now with added baby. And we’re already making so much progress and feeling so productive, for a couple of messy, chaotic, idle, last-minute, non-finishers.




About 12 months ago I walked out to a sky like this…

Clear, bright, so much to see. Orion laid out as if it’s meant to be that way and not just some coincidental arrangement of stars. That night the universe was opened up right in front of me and I searched it for a suggestion that things would work out, that our plans for 2016 were going to come through. When I did hear something back it was my voice, me saying we were going to do it, we were going to make it happen. That was my mantra all through the early part of the year. On this night there was no echo of that epiphany, but only because I have no doubts. That version didn’t happen but there are so many things we have now because we committed to trying – leaving behind a job that I was terrible at, that was hurting me, freeing myself for a path that offers so many opportunities to find out what I want to commit to. We haven’t ended up where we wanted to but we are closer, we are closer to making something special happen and when you have a night sky as bright and as clear as this and you’re surrounded by so many stars and so much possibility it’s not hard to believe that anything is possible; and that we can do anything we commit to so long as we have that direction, keep going after that dream. Even if that dream takes longer, looks different than it did under that night sky 12 months ago. Because the reason that I turned to the stars, the reason I went searching for something to believe in, some sign or foundation to put my faith in, was that doing this is a daily, hourly challenge. Pushing for something special, something different, something that you can’t simply wait to be served up for you, it takes a level of arrogance and confidence and self-belief that I didn’t really have back then. I went looking for a galactic billboard telling me I was doing the right thing. And of course it was there, in the constellations, in the moon, in the deep and unreachable blackness of space – all real things, all realities that make the regular and the commonplace utterly irrelevant. Insignificant. And of course it was there in my own voice as the only reply from the cosmic vastness – my resolve. Tonight I looked up and was reminded as ever of the miracle of our hurtling through the solar system tethered to the back of a lump of rock, twinned neatly with another lump whose smaller size only emphasises our own minuscule existence. We shouldn’t be here, but we are. Perhaps things shouldn’t be as good for us as they are right now, but they are. I wish things had turned out the way we’d hoped, but they didn’t. But I don’t need evidence from the universe that I’m doing the right thing, that we are doing the right thing to be keeping on trying to make something happen, to not sigh and accept that things didn’t work out so let’s just go back to how things were. We couldn’t go back and we wouldn’t. I don’t need the night sky. No matter how beautiful. The only thing I need in order to believe that committing to what we’re trying to do is right is the fact of what we’ve managed so far.

| B