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
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