IN SEARCH OF THE GOOD LIFE

As the crunch kicks in, so the idea of self-suf­fi­ciency be­comes more at­trac­tive. Caro­line McGhie talks to pi­o­neer­ing small­hold­ers who have made the break

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - FRONT PAGE -

In the new world of credit crunch, re­duced in­come and job losses, many of those who made money in the last boom will be think­ing of bail­ing out and start­ing afresh. The idea of the good life — the lure of re­con­nect­ing with the land, grow­ing your own veg, keep­ing your own pigs and chick­ens, get­ting mud on your wellies — has more ap­peal th­ese days than it did when it was made fa­mous by the slurry-in-sub­ur­bia television sit­com that coined the term.

It is in the muck sweat of fear that comes with sink­ing bank bal­ances and the threat of re­dun­dancy that seeds of dreams are sown and grown. Ex­pe­rian Busi­ness Strate­gies pre­dicts that as many as 20,000 work­ers may lose their jobs in the City — it is es­ti­mated that about 2,000 Lon­don-based fi­nan­cial jobs have gone al­ready this year. It is no longer a lonely path. The pi­o­neers have shown the way — for­mer Fleet Street ed­i­tor Rosie Boy­cott chose to re­cover from per­sonal tragedy with the aid of Glouces­ter Old Spots and duly pub­lished a mem­oir; Jimmy Do­herty in the television se­ries Jimmy’s Farm showed us how to raise rare breed pigs in Suf­folk; and, 20 years ago, ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tive Peter Mayle fa­mously ex­cited us with his Year In Provence.

“I am sure that the creative minds in the City, the Peter Mayles of this world, will be think­ing of start­ing again,” says Crispin Hol­borow, coun­try houses ex­pert at Sav­ills es­tate agency. “They are the peo­ple who are the risk tak­ers. They have the money. Or­ganic is what ev­ery­one wants, and cre­at­ing your own food could be­come very rel­e­vant be­cause of the soar­ing price of wheat.”

Prop­erty search agency Stacks re­ports that it is al­ready be­gin­ning to see a stream of buy­ers in search of a life on the land. “Ris­ing food prices are en­cour­ag­ing home own­ers to pro­duce their own meat and veg­eta­bles,” says Stacks’ man­ag­ing di­rec­tor James Green­wood.

“The Jamie and Hugh chicken trend is spread­ing, with pigs and sheep tak­ing up res­i­dence in fairly small patches of land. The de­mand for al­lot­ments is in­creas­ing, too. Al­pacas, sheep, bul­locks, ducks and don­keys are all in de­mand with the new breed of very small­hold­ers.”

Per­haps within us all there still beats the heart of prim­i­tive man. One City high-flyer, who prefers not to be named, for years has been com­mut­ing to the Square Mile from his

acres in Hamp­shire. His fam­ily, in­clud­ing four chil­dren, has grown up with cows, chick­ens, fer­rets and sheep. “We have worked our way through the meat of six cows and have five freez­ers filled with what we have grown,” says his wife.

But the life is ex­haust­ing, and new­com­ers more ac­cus­tomed to fol­low­ing the stock mar­kets than keep­ing an eye out for foxes have many skills to learn. This is why Steve and Yuki Bar­nett are of­fer­ing sheep­keep­ing lessons to the buyer of their small farm on a re­mote hill­side in Snow­do­nia Na­tional Park, which is for sale at £850,000 through Carter Jonas.

“Steve is of­fer­ing to teach any­one who wants to buy it how to care for the sheep,” says Yuki. “It is not just the farm and house for sale, it is a whole lifestyle.”

They know be­cause they did it. “It was a big leap,” says Yuki. The cou­ple moved from the Kingston area of Lon­don five years ago when Steve was a univer­sity lec­turer in phi­los­o­phy and she was study­ing for a Masters in his­tory. “We were on a short visit to Wales and we pic­nicked by th­ese derelict barns. We fell in love with the view,” she says. “My hus­band was keen to make a ca­reer change at the age of 47, and I was preg­nant. Since he was a boy, Steve had al­ways wanted to have land, so he read books, talked to neigh­bours and learnt what to do.”

Cae Gwyn Farm and Na­ture Re­serve con­sists of a four-bed­room house, a four-bed­room stone and slate barn for B&B guests, and a 10-bed­room bunkhouse with a shower block for walk­ers. There are 190 acres of or­ganic moun­tain-graz­ing on the slopes of Snow­do­nia, clas­si­fied as a Site of Spe­cial Sci­en­tific In­ter­est. Ot­ters, salmon and fresh­wa­ter pearl­mus­sels can be found in the streams. It borders Coed y Brenin for­est, known for its bike trails.

Their first year was a big strug­gle. Rural idyll: Sand Pond Cot­tage, in Pul­bor­ough, West Sus­sex, where gar­den de­signer Mar­i­anne Ali (right) is cur­rently liv­ing. The cot­tage is for sale (see de­tails be­low) “We did it up very slowly,” says Yuki. “We had to let the farm­house in or­der to run the B&B, and we lived in a car­a­van for a while. It was hard, but we be­lieved in the project.”

Bu­reau­cracy was an­other hor­ror. “But we ben­e­fited from the changes in gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies, which switched from headage to acreage. As we had more acres than an­i­mals, we did well from it.”

The farm came with just a few sheep which were thin and old. “The first spring we had ter­ri­ble lambs. So we bought around 200 pure Black Welsh Moun­tain sheep,” she says.

City-bound peo­ple yearn to live by the sea­sons. In win­ter, Steve and Yuki feed and nur­ture the sheep; in spring, they han­dle the new lambs and hunt out dis­tressed ewes; in the sum­mer, they shear and sell to the Wool Mar­ket­ing Board; and in the au­tumn, they sell the ram lambs. “We don’t make any money on the sheep, but we get sub­si­dies and the sheep do shape the land­scape.” The B&B, on the other hand, brings in £60,000 a year. “Peo­ple just come all the time,” says Yuki.

Since they took over Cae Gwyn they have had two chil­dren. Lewy is now four, and such is their pas­sion for the farm that they have named their youngest, just seven months old, Cae Gwyn. But they are leav­ing be­cause they want to move to Ja­pan to be close to Yuki’s rel­a­tives.

The Bar­netts hap­pened on their farm by luck. Find­ing a small­hold­ing can be hard — they lurk like lit­tle nuggets of gold in the es­tate agents’ win­dows, dis­guised as a house with pad­docks or derelict barn with land. So when Claire and Alan Tay­lor moved five years ago to a house with 20 acres near Honi­ton, they asked Stacks for help with the prop­erty search. Alan is a re­new­able en­ergy en­gi­neer and was too busy for ex­ten­sive prop­erty-hunt­ing. Claire now does most of the work on the small­hold­ing, but she was used to the rhythms of rural life as she had looked af­ter her mother’s sheep for years.

Her worry is that new ru­ral­ists will approach such a chal­lenge with­out re­al­is­ing what they are tak­ing on. “It con­cerns me that it is seen as fash­ion­able be­cause peo­ple think they can just have four sheep in a pad­dock,” she says. “But they still have to watch for fly strike, trim their feet if they are lame, worm them, worry about mas­ti­tis or whether a fox is tak­ing the lambs.”

She, too, keeps Black Welsh Moun­tain sheep and has a Dart­moor hill pony, which her eight-year-old son Samuel rides. There are chick­ens and ducks, which pro­duce eggs. “The yolk is a gor­geous colour. I don’t think I could buy a shop egg ever again,” says Claire.

The veg­etable gar­den bears a har­vest of beans, as­para­gus, peas, pota­toes, gar­lic, onions, carrots and parsnips, and the tiny ham­let of Tale, where they live, has set up a web­site where res­i­dents can barter their goods. “I can swap half a lamb for a quar­ter of a pig, rid­ing lessons or gar­den­ing,” says Claire. “Even my clean­ing lady is keen to be paid in lamb. It is or­ganic meat and peo­ple know where it comes from, the field it has eaten in, and that it has been treated re­ally well, which is what peo­ple re­ally care about.”

Cae Gwyn Farm and Na­ture Re­serve, Snow­do­nia Na­tional Park, in­cludes a four-bed­room house, a four-bed­room barn for B&B guests, and a 10-bed­room bunkhouse with a shower block for walk­ers. Guide price £850,000 through Carter Jonas (01248 362536).

Self-suf­fi­cient: Yuki and Steve Bar­nett with Lewy and Cae at Cae Gwyn Farm, where sheep, a fresh­wa­ter stream, and acres of pas­ture (above) are all part of the pack­age

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