The Cottage Smallholder

stumbling self sufficiency in a small space

Guest Spot: The first step – by Jane Greppi

solar panel for waterIt was nearly ten years ago that we decided we’d had enough of London. It was dirty and noisy and not, we decided, the place to bring up our children. But my husband Zaz had always lived in town and had three conditions for leaving it. One: we had to be within walking distance of the sea. Two: he had to be able to get a boat as a first priority. Three: we had to live within the free delivery area of a decent Indian takeaway.

I was brought up on the Hampshire-Dorset border and we decided we might as well start looking there. Zaz’s provisos, however, meant that a lot of otherwise charming areas were excluded from our search. He also found the country less idyllic than he had supposed: “Where are we now?” “We’re on the road to Blandford.” A pause. “And where are we now?” “Still on the road to Blandford.” A longer pause. “There’s a lot of between in the country, isn’t there?”

Finally, we decided on an area near Bournemouth. “There’s a road there I’ve always wanted to live in,” I said, “but nothing ever comes up for sale there.” We visited estate agents. “Nothing ever comes up for sale in that road,” they scorned. We decided we would move to the area anyway. Our estate agent rang us up. “You’ll never guess what,” he said. “We’ve got three properties for sale in that road you wanted.”

We settled on the one nearest the sea. It was owned by a lovely hippy lady and smelt of patchouli and joss sticks. The back garden was huge by London standards – forty feet square and overshadowed by an enormous tree which we thought was a Cedar of Lebanon – it turned out to be a cypress with the top lopped off – fully sixty feet high. The house was two hundred yards from the sea and on the main tourist route. That summer, very white people passed our house from left to right every morning and very red people went back from right to left every evening. We, now seasoned locals, laughed at these poor grockles and never started our daily visit to the beach before 5pm.

We had no plans back then for any particularly green lifestyle, though I had always grown a few tomatoes in our tiny courtyard in London, and had great plans for this new, huge garden once I had sorted out the house (and got rid of the smell of patchouli and joss sticks). But we had grown up under Mrs Thatcher, and it was probably as much to do with capitalist greed as a desire to do something ecologically sound which set us on the road to micro-self-sufficiency.

“Do you know,” said Zaz one day, “if you go out of our front door, you’re facing due south, and there are only fifteen houses between us and France. We could put solar panels on the roof: there’d be nothing to block them, and we’d have hot water for free.” It sounded promising. We enquired. It was expensive. Far more expensive than it is now. It would take years to pay for itself. “Oh well,” said Zaz, “think of it as giving something back.”

A German plumber fitted it. He was frighteningly efficient and did not stop for or require tea. Zaz spent the next week gazing lovingly at the control panel. I kept burning myself whenever I turned the tap on. The temperature in the tank reached 85 degrees Celsius. We bored family and friends rigid with stories of our “free” hot water. If you actually costed it out, it was probably outrageously expensive hot water. But October came and it was still going strong. When the clocks went back and we finally suffered the indignity of our first cold shower that year, we felt as if we’d lost a friend. “Well, that’s it for this year,” sighed Zaz. “It was so nice to be self-sufficient. What else could we do, do you think?”

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1 Comment

  1. Danny Carey

    Jane, Your solar panel experience reminds me of when we had the same thought about five years ago. The salesman came and we sat patiently through his presentation for an hour. Eventually, the ‘P’ word was mentioned (all queries about the price were brushed aside until “the close”). His opening gambit at this juncture was “Have you ever considered re-mortgaging?”. Hmmmmm. As we had recently done just that, we explained that it might not be the most appropriate funding mechanism.

    Well, this smooth and charming Mr. Hyde of a salesman changed in a trice to a huffy, almost angry Dr. Jekyll. While we were genuinely keen to take out a loan if needs be, he wasn’t going to listen to any more of our nonsense. He rapidly gathered all his bits and pieces, packed them away and more or less stormed out of the house, never to be seen or heard from again.

    We never did find out what the price tag was!

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