I never would have believed that my dream was here…

…just 15 minutes from where I was born. I’ve always been looking for something – a fresh start, a new opportunity, a change, a difference – something that would give me what I didn’t have wherever it was that I felt I didn’t have what I wanted. Moving forwards has felt natural, necessary. Though, when I consider it now, it was moving ‘back’ that first brought me into the path of this dream, when I went back to Oxford to escape a rut and after a period of wilderness found what I’d always been looking for – my goddess, my wife, the woman who has strengthened my own dreams and inspired me to pursue a dream together. Now the two of us have travelled full circle (give or take a few dozen miles) to bring our new family back to the Midlands where our own families brought us up. This past few weeks has been all about cycles, from us celebrating Seb’s fifth with the kids’ first garden party in the week exactly five years on from getting the keys to Jam Jar House to the milestone of a full 12 months since I last went into an office job and the accident, to the two-year anniversary of the conversation (“How’s about this for a radical idea”) between me and Jen that kickstarted this whole dream-chasing in the first place. It’s nearly two years from our first blog post. Our first France plan. Our first argument about what this thing would be, what we wanted and how we would achieve it. Even at that point if you’d told me that I would find my dream, or rather that I’d find the fertile soil in which to plan the seed of that dream, here in a small but perfectly formed miner’s endterrace a short hop from my parents and slap bang in a district many of the people I was at school with came from, I would have laughed. But five, six years ago the very idea of returning, of ‘coming home’ as it unavoidably is, was ludicrous. Back then the dream we were shaping had a definite path and that did not lead here. But as we developed our dream, as we adapted to the shifting of the world beneath us and the opening of doors ahead, in really wrestling with what a dream life would actually be, especially with three kids, we were moving inexorably towards this picture. There are other things we want – a barge life, an eco life, a rural life. But all the other scenarios are based on things we want for ourselves, on desires that I have for my lifestyle or surroundings. This situation, this dream life isn’t just perfect for me as I start both founding a business and answering a calling, or for Jen who can develop her established position into something closer to her heart, it’s what our children need. It’s a dream life for them. Perhaps not the rambling off into the woods, exploring wildernesses and rocking home for supper when they’re hungry sort of dream life, but that again is more to do with what I want. This next stage, of five years or however long,  can be a dream for them because it can be a dream for us and because we can finally, honestly, deservedly give them what we’ve been promising to commit to giving them over the gruelling months and years as we continued to ask more and more of them: Us. 

|B

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Stepping into an unfamiliar room

There are piles of boxes in the attic. Some are taped shut, some are open with contents spilling out, most have ‘France’ written on their sides. I need to repack, and try to trim down the total number of boxes we’ll have to lug down through the house onto the van, and off into the new house.

We’re giving away furniture we thought we’d keep forever. The desk we picked up from an old Headmaster’s house, that we squashed into our car boot, Ben’s writing studio in the garden of our first cottage, put into storage, and moved into the house, into the outbuilding, and back in again. There’s no time for auctions.

I’m buying us new tea towels and imagining organising new kitchen cupboards. I’m picking out stylish garden paving and kid-friendly water features. I’m debating cleaning the huge pink rug before or after the move. A letter from Specsavers on the desk reminds me to spend a day changing our address.

It’s a mix of excitement, readiness, disbelief and trepidation. The diary looks scarily tight, but each day feels long. It’s no time at all, but somehow I think it’ll be exactly the amount of time we need. There’s a definite sense that despite the daily wrangling with the unruly pile of ancient Conveyances, searches, surveys, invoices, and refurb gubbins, it’s going to work out in time for move day.

We’ve been saying goodbye for 18 months and we’re still enjoying and appreciating every day we have the privilege of being here. We will probably miss aspects of the house and garden. I know we will miss the bath, perhaps the snug’s open fire in winter, and maybe the stars from the bottom of the garden. But right now, what seems most obvious are the ways the house and garden get in the way of the life we want. It’s too big to keep clean, tidy and well-maintained. It’s too finished to keep us engaged in a creative conjuring from the ashes. We’re ready. It’s time.

~J

Midlands search

So it went a little something like this:

15th May: We’re live! (Jam Jar House goes live on Rightmove)

16th May: First viewing on Jam Jar House went well, and another booked in for tomorrow

19th May: The 60s house in Tamworth is sold, but the third viewing on our house went really really well! So we had a row where we both couldn’t help laughing in the middle of it and then immediately almost burst out crying. Now all 5 of us are snuggling under a blanket watching Night at the Museum. I love my marriage

20th May: My new favourite (Victorian terrace in Tamworth town centre, modern decor)

24th May: Offer received and accepted on Jam Jar House

Prosecco with Moms

27th May: Slogging my way through 301 houses on Rightmove, only on page 5 of 13 argh!

27th May: Have booked two viewings for Monday, really good feeling about them! Yay

30th May: We bought a house today! Voila! This is our new house! Feeling delighted

Prosecco at Dad’s, Libby decided to join in the bubbly

31st May: I think I can get excited now. Feeling tingly

3rd June: Something special about playing with my children at a park I remember well from my childhood

We spend time warming to the countryside between Tamworth and Albert Village

4th June: Seb &Cali enjoying the park and diner next to our new house

7th June: Exploring new stomping grounds (Calke Abbey)

9th June: Ending our homecation on a high at Thomas Land. Feeling nostalgic

9th June: After two long jam-packed weeks away, it’s good to be back in Jam Jar House even though it feels like we’ve just driven two hours from home. Feeling tired

15th June: In school admissions purgatory

26th June: Lovely to be back in north Pembrokeshire

30th June: So excited to have my first wedding booked in for September in my new Midlands patch

6th July: We’ll be waving goodbye to Lechlade two weeks today! Feeling weird

~J

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking the dream back home

In true Jen fashion and to be expected, I have fallen in love with a property on Rightmove days after the For Sale board went up on Jam Jar 1. And I’m calling a Tamworth estate agent for more info on my latest crush, before even out first viewing. We believe in always looking early to be ready to strike at opportunity at a moment’s notice. But like fleshing out the idea of Pemb and living off grid, planning and imagining early, keeps me a happy, positive, driven Mummy and Wife for Ben and the yahoos.

Moving the dream life (Ben committed to finding a way to work from home forever) back to the Midlands to live in a more conventional home, on a more conventional street, to give our kids a more conventional childhood, for ideally up to 5 years, feels so right. It’s a decision of both heart and mind. It makes financial and practical sense. But it’s super exciting. There are so many elements I’m looking forward to.

This house I’ve found, a bit of a doer upper, but nothing major; spacious; garden front and back; a stone’s throw from the Primary school. From the 60s design of the house itself, to the leafy cul de sac, the walk through the estate to the huge park, and town not far beyond, it’s a massive comfort blanket. It’s going to be the best kind of pit stop for us. We don’t see ourselves buying a forever home in the Midlands, or our kids spending their teenage years in Tamworth. But I can see us all being really happy, content and stress-free while we are there, before surging, reenergised into the next phase of Jam Jar Dream Building.

We initially favoured Lichfield or a village in between the two, but searching Rightmove, the one house that made my heart flutter was one mere steps away from my Dad’s flat. It had nothing to do with the house, and everything to do with the location. That told Ben and I all we needed to know. We could move anywhere more affordable than the Cotswolds, but we’re moving back ‘home’ to the Midlands because that’s where family is. Tamworth works for everyone, but especially my Dad, who doesn’t drive, who I have missed so much and now want to be able to drop in on and have drop in on me for random cups of tea and a natter.

You know when you see a house and there’s something you love about it, but then the more you look, the better it gets? It might not be on the market long enough for us, or they might not accept the offer we’d make, but it just as easily might all work out. That’s how chance works. Nothing from last year’s foiled plot to move carries over.

It’s a sensible buy. It’s big enough. It’s safe. It’s quiet. It’s a popular family area. We can add value. HS2? You can walk to town. Close to schools.

It’ll give us a lovely life. I’m picturing the walk to town, the walk to Hopwas and the woods, the easy drive into Elford and other villages, easy connection to Lichfield and Ashby. Nipping round the corner to the newsagents. The kids on bikes playing with the other kids in the close. The house warming BBQ in the back garden.

I know, don’t get too attached. Nah, let’s get attached. Let’s get excited again. Let’s never stop getting excited.

~J

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

New IDEAS

  • 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

~J

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.

~J

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.