Yesterday I thought it might all be over. The planning department were not keen to answer the question of how much bigger the new house can be. This is a big question as the current house is two up two down with a little lean to kitchen. If they weren’t prepared to answer that question it seemed like a big risk to go forward given that for a family of five it would be tight to fit and perhaps not worth our efforts.

It seems that planners don’t like to put things in writing. I guess it isn’t their job to give advice but we weren’t looking for advice, we just needed a number. By phone, we got one. We can have 35% additional volume under permitted development rights. We were hoping it would be measured by footprint as then we could have done clever things with volume. What it means is our house is going to be small. But it will be big enough. And we can have out buildings.

It’s good to know how much we want to go on this adventure. I’ve wondered a few times about whether it would be better just to buy a house, or even to rent one. We rented for ages after we were married and it was great.

Phew! For now at least, the game is still on. And I’m tired! Ben was away with work last week, the first time since I was pregnant I think. Usually it’s a week + travel time (typically two days) but this trip was a total of seven days, and we are at my parent’s so we were even more fine than I had hoped. I had to do the nights with Birch though, and I think he thought snuggle time with me was worth waking up for. Three or four times. Every night. Alas a habit that could do with breaking, especially before we are all in a tent together next week. Now Ben’s back, jet lagged but still doing the nights (he says he’s awake anyway..). I’m glad it was just a week.

Boy jobs, girl jobs?

Before we completed the sale on our old house we had to have identity checks to make sure we were not laundering money. They asked me questions about the mortgage. I got them wrong. I don’t know about the mortgage, Ben handles that. So I had to get my passport certified to confirm I have not yet developed a way of illegally making lots of money.

This got me wondering and a bit worrying. It seems old fashioned to be some kind of “kept” woman, but not in a good way. I certainly don’t like to think of myself that way. Images of that “boy jobs and girl jobs” interview that Theresa May gave flashed through my mind. I definitely don’t see us that way.

I’ve been reading a bit lately about mental load. This is the thing that makes doing the shopping easy but writing the shopping list really difficult. I think this is the thing that results in the over whelmed that I mentioned the other day. It’s the brain power required to have an overview of family life so that the swimming things are ready on Thursday, the meals are planned through the week and are suitable for the people who are going to be eating them. It’s remembering when the bins go out and knowing that Myrtle has a school trip on Tuesday, whilst Red’s trip was last week but he has a concert on Tuesday as well. It’s shopping around for the best utility services and managing the mortgage. And that’s why we don’t divide the work of family life along gender lines, or any other lines. We do what we can and between us everything gets done. Everything essential anyway.

I’m very aware that at least at the moment the work is not divided equally. Ben has a full time job, and does the mortgage stuff, the bills, takes the kids up to school, gets up in the night with Birch (not so much lately, yay!) and often helps with the laundry (not the money kind). I do as much as I can and flop into bed at the end of the day. But that’s what it is to be part of a family. You do the best you can, you don’t compare, everything that’s important gets done, not important stuff gets relegated until tomorrow.

My ignorance about the mortgage is not something to be ashamed about although I’ll admit to feeling both embarassed and amused. I don’t need to spend my mental energy on something Ben has got covered. I know enough that if something awful happened I could navigate it at that point. For now there’s plenty to be getting on with. And that’s life.

Bats and Newts

Tonight we are having a bat survey done on the land and derelict house. If there are lots of bats we might have to hold off on demolishing the house until they finish doing their bat things, which I think is September time. Not a huge delay but another bit of waiting. A good opportunity for Ben to spend time in the field, watch the sunset. This is more important than it might sound. A really interesting thing about building a house is working on the design. Houses that are built by large scale developers are typically generic; they choose from a selection of designs that are essentially the same or at least based on a common theme. The results are the new (and not that new) estates that are everywhere. If you don’t have to make lots of decisions about design the whole thing is a lot quicker and cheaper. But it starts to get really interesting when you think about how you could design it.

Ben has been reading a really interesting book about house design and it’s got us thinking about how we use space and how we would like to use it. It’s hard to predict how our family will be in five or ten years time but we’ve got some clear ideas that we think might be important in the design of the house.

One idea that has been interesting is the concept that it’s good to have shared spaces, spaces shared by some, and private spaces. A children’s realm, a kingdom of adults and an expanse for everyone. Obviously at some point we have to put our ideas into a real physical space which is not “materially larger” than the really pretty small house that’s currently on the site. We can think of details later. For today we’ve been talking about the children’s realm. Maybe a 1.5 height part of the house with a shared playroom/sitting/social space. It might work well to have a mezzanine for the bigger children to sit and hang out with friends and the lower level for things like train tracks and lego cities..

Off the shared space the children could each have an alcove bedroom with a high bed tucked in the rafters and underneath space for themselves. I’m pretty sure Red would like a door to his, I think Myrtle might prefer it open, until she’s big enough to prefer privacy to closeness. Up to her I think we’d have one bedroom for all of us. That’s not how Red feels about it.

Once you look outside of the conventional box, there are so many different ways to do things. Which doesn’t necessarily make it easy to decide what to do.

We had an exciting trip to Bristol this week. We’ve found the right person to take us on: Tom at Roundwood design. We had a look around his yard and some of the designs he has completed and saw lots of big, round larch trees ready to become houses. Maybe our house. They have taken 70 years to grow. Our house has been longer in the making than I was aware of. And it’ll be made of good, beautiful stuff.

The outcome of the survey was that there was one bat. Just one. Enough to probably need some kind of licence, but possibly a smaller, cheaper kind than if there were loads of bat’s. We should name him.

Turns out it’s newts you have to worry about. If there are newts we might have to wait for a year to get a licence to live alongside them. Really hoping there aren’t newts. There don’t seem to be newts. Just a lonesome bat.

Hero

Sometimes people wonder if, were they to be caught up in something awful, they would be the one to leap forward and take the bullet, restrain the aggressor, save the masses. Alas not I. Not by instinct anyway.

Quite often when I’m walking home from school with Myrtle and she is zooming along on her scooter I come to a stop and have to consciously urge my legs to move. Heavy legs they are. The reason is that in my mind I have imagined that Myrtle is going to crash and my instinct is to stop dead. My halting progress must be mysterious should anyone look long enough to notice. She never does crash, or at least not in the way I’m expecting but it has led me to the conclusion that if I were caught up in a disaster my instinct would be to freeze.

There’s something similar when a job is multi faceted and seems enormous. My brain freezes and I don’t know what to do. The word for that is overwhelmed. I am overwhelmed by the enormity of a task and my instinct is to freeze.

Things have felt a bit like that this last week, getting all the things out of the old house and into two different places; things we need now to my parents’ house, things we will need later into a friend’s garage. It has been useful to understand how I respond to a big job like that. The most useful thing for me is to ask for a smaller task. Someone tell me where to begin and the ice melts and I can be useful.

I have yet to see Ben overwhelmed. We work well together. He dissects the problem, I’m pleased to do the bits I can do once I can see how to begin. Good teamwork. I think we will need to do some good teamwork on this journey. I’m glad not to be faced with a bullet.

Fly away

We moved out today. So many feelings. More than I expected. There have been so many good things in that house. The best thing was the next door neighbours. The worst thing was maybe the other neighbours. The ones who didn’t like the wood pile. Actually, the ones across the street were also really kind, and kindness really makes a difference.

When we moved, Red was 4, Myrtle was 15 months. Very small. They’ve done so much growing. We’ve done so much growing. Now we are 5. That shock made the floor in the kitchen shake. Or I think it did.

If anyone ever had any doubt about the quality of A.A.Milne’s writing they should read the last chapter of Winnie the Pooh. We can’t read that chapter. We listen to it and wail. There is no stopping those tears. Oh my. Just thinking about it, especially on the day we moved out, starts that off all over again. I know, time moves on. Children grow, spread their wings. It’s what we work for, what we are aiming for and we know it’s what we are watching as the days trickle by in monotony. But stopping to notice sears. Every time. Actually every time. Not literally every time. I hate what the word literally has become. That’s probably the subject of another blog post sometime. For now, time is passing. They are growing up. That’s a wonderful, lovely thing. It is extraordinarily tragic when it’s not the case. Still it hurts.

This is an exciting opportunity, a fantastic family adventure. It will mark our lives and we will mark time in relation to it. “Oh that was just before we started building the house”; “I remember that, it was when we were living at Nan and Dap’s”; “haha yeh, that was just before that big disaster”. Oh hang on, I don’t know about that yet. At least in my future imagination we are laughing at misfortune. Seems positive.

It feels really odd this evening. Home is someone else’s house. I will not say we are homeless. That is a very much more serious thing.

My parents sold the home I grew up in about 18 months ago. That felt odd. Then I realised home is where the people are, so their new house feels like home. Like their home. I expect soon it will feel like our home but we have been spending a lot of time thinking about what our home would be like and those thoughts have made me realise I have changed too. I spread my wings and flew away, but I didn’t really notice what was behind me, focusing only on what was ahead. That’s probably how it should be. Ben and I met when we were 16. Just coming up to 20 years ago. We met and I flew away. In his wedding speech my Dad sounded really pleased. Someone else to bear this burden. I didn’t really notice what now I understand lay behind the smile. It would have been a terrible, sad thing if I didn’t have wings in which to fly in whatever direction I chose. But A.A.Milne captured it again in the poem my Dad wrote out for me:

“Is this the little girl I carried,

Is this the little boy at play?

I don’t remember growing older.

When did they?”

I hope my children grow beautiful wings that will take them to wonderful places. I hope they come back sometimes. I hope it is not too soon. I know it will be too soon.

Monsters seem more real when you’re alone.

We exchanged on our old house. Next we move. No turning back. We are yet to complete on the purchase of the land; some of the legal issues involve a committee of trustees which is not something that is likely to be super speedy and efficient. Just a bit more waiting. That’s ok, waiting is good practice.

We also need to do a bit more thinking. It felt like we were gaining momentum. There’s a guy in the self build world who we were talking to, thinking we would work together, getting excited. It’s really sad. He and his family experienced a tradegy earlier this year. It takes a certain amount of time to heal and grieve and there just hasn’t been enough of that yet. My heart is hurting for them. I’m sad for us too.

What we want to do is to build a home that reflects us, and also one that will help us tread gently on the earth which we have been given to take care of. I think when it describes in Genesis the way God gave the man the garden to tend and keep it is literally true that he should care for the ground that he was given. I also think that is a metaphor for the way in which the man was to care for and look after his wife. Ben has followed this pattern with love, grace and beauty. Never more so than since we discovered my pregnancy last year. His burden has been heavy but he has cared for us and loved us gently and completely. A house he builds will embody that spirit. It is where I want to be. It will also care for the earth better than our current home. I think it is true to say that as humans we have not done a good job of caring for the earth. It can seem like there’s nothing we can do. We want to do what we can and to utilise the wealth of alternative techniques and knowledge around the construction of our home. It was exciting to find someone who wanted to work with us who felt the same way, saw our vision through the same lenses we look through. It feels sad that we won’t be able to take that journey as closely as we thought. I also understand and respect his decision. Family first. Always. Just like Ben.

Red was just explaining to me how he doesn’t like to go downstairs by himself. Somehow when you’re alone monsters seem a bit more real. I see monsters quite often, but Ben is great at seeing them a different way. Just another puzzle, use your brain and you’ll find a way. We will find the way.

My vision

Things are beginning to move. A friend suggested as a next step that we each write our visions of the project. I was pleased to find they were really similar, though written in different styles. Here’s mine..

The front door stands open. Welcome to our home. We walk into the middle of a rectangular room with windows at each end. On the right is space for coats and shoes. Not too many. It is not cluttered. At the other end is a sink, washing machine and tumble drier. There are two wooden doors, one leads to a shower room with compost toilet beyond. These rooms are simple and small. The second door leads to the main room and central part of the house. The walls curve, inviting you in. There are no sharp edges or harsh lines here. The walls are white, the key features made of round timber which gives the space its character. Round timber supports a gently curving breakfast bar to the left behind which is the kitchen. The wood glows honey and amber. The floor glows too, warm and cosy.

Moving round into the living space there’s the dining table. The curve of the walls lead you towards the sitting area. Comfy sofas face the wood burner which sits in front of large windows looking out on the field. Shafts of light fall across the floor. This space feels airy and light, but also comfortable and relaxing. The outside seems close by. A place to stand and gaze.

Turning towards the right an understated spiral staircase winds upwards. The steps are made of wood, and banisters and supports are round timber. It is encased; no children can fall off the higher steps!

Around the other side of the staircase there is a small set of three or four stairs going downwards to a snug room below. This room has no windows. It is lamplight and squishy sofas, rugs and cushions. A place to snug up and watch a film or read a book.

Going up the stairs there is a balcony looking down on the living space. Enough room here for a small sofa and more round timber supports. The floor up here is made of wood which glows in the light coming in from sky lights above. Along the balcony are four doors, the second, third and fourth lead to cosy children’s bedrooms each with a sky light a space of their own. Window seats make the perfect place to sit and read. The first door leads to a larger bedroom. The double bed is set slightly to the right of the room. Along the left hand wall is a long window at the same level as the floor which is slightly raised to provide a separate space. On this platform is a free standing bath looks out over fields, and an arm chair sits along side it. This is a space for quiet and reflection, escape and retreat.

This is a home that invites you in. Visitors are welcome here, filling the living and dining area, chatting in the kitchen as we prepare food and share it together. Here is also a home where the outside and the inside overlap. We see and feel the seasons and watch as the landscape changes.

It is a place that can also embrace quiet and solitude. There are places to retreat to, to hide away for a while, from which to listen to the life of the house a step aside from it, or in which a door can close and peace can reign for a time. Places our children can find me when they want a quiet chat away from listening ears, and where they can laugh and play and sing when they want to. A place to run barefoot with the wind in their hair and then to come in to, faces stinging from the cold into warm and cosy and home. A place to grow together.

Identity

It’s a difficult thing, knowing who you are. It seems like there are different sorts of knowing. I could tell you who I was at age 3 with confidence and clarity. Growing up my answer to that question would have been to describe who I’d like to be, which was someone else entirely. Bit by bit I’m learning and discovering who I am and molding that person to be a better version of me, whilst still being me.

We visited the Lammas Project in Pembrokeshire about five years ago and were amazed and inspired. This is a community of self builders who are living off the land. In order to build their houses on non – residential land they have to derive 75% of their income from land based enterprise. They are a group of innovative, creative, resilient people. They are passionate about both what they are doing and why. To me, the arguments make a whole lot of sense.

I think that’s why I found it difficult when we visited. I couldn’t see how I could fit in that kind of environment or live in that kind of way whilst still being honestly myself. I didn’t feel I had anything to offer, nor did I see how I could be like that and still be me. I’m not a very outdoorsy kind of person. I hate getting cold and wet. Sometimes I cry if I’m too tired or have been chilly for too long. As I have mentioned, I keel over at the sight of blood and go wobbly if I don’t eat regularly. I’m just not all that tough.

I was struck by the women at the Lammas Project. I wonder if they would be surprised to hear this. They all seemed so robust and capable, spending days in damp polytunnels to produce masses of gorgeous vegetables, flowing hair ready to blow behind them as they run down a hillside bare foot. I’d fall over. They seemed so on top of everything despite all these crazy quotas and whilst living in temporary accommodation with a brood of healthy looking, energetic children. The reason this was difficult is that I think they are right. Right in their reasons to live in that way and in the way they embrace the challenges and opportunities they experience. I would like to be more like them. But I am not like them.

I’ve decided that’s ok. I’m also aware that I’m almost certainly wrong about at least how easy these women find things. They made it look really easy but maybe it isn’t as easy for them as it looks, and perhaps it won’t be as difficult for me as I expect. It’s a terrible idea to judge by appearances.

So I’ve had my hair cut short. I love having my hair short. I also like letting it grow long. I like change and I like to do what I want, at least as far as my hair is concerned. This was a little bit me saying that I don’t have to look a certain way, be a particular type of strong woman to embark on this adventure. I don’t have to be strong at all. Part of our reason for wanting to build our house is to build something that reflects who we are with a sense that in that kind of environment we will grow and flourish. We will shape the house as we grow and it will reflect that. It seems vital then that we are honest about who we are and feel free to acknowledge ourselves as we are at the outset. Only then do we have the opportunity to do what we are setting out to do, and to improve ourselves in the process. Comparing myself to others should never be part of that process. This is where it stops.

In retrospect, I hate my hair. The cut is terrible. At least I can put it up…