The Townie Farmer

Building the good life without knowing a sodding thing

Page 2 of 3

Biomass Spoiler

It was meant to be the epitome of our new way of life at Rowan Farm.

The Eco pivot on which we balanced our attempts to reduce our carbon footprint and live more sustainably.

Our plans for a state of the art biomass boiler would efficiently heat our home and water.

What’s more, all the fuel it needed was already on site in the twigs and logs provided by the maintenance our trees require.


Rowan Farm at sunrise

It was about as green as it’s possible to get.

But last week our biomass ambitions went up in smoke.

We got the final estimate.

And it’s more than three times what we had budgeted.

We simply cannot afford it.


The bad news comes at a tricky time.

The last couple of months of a project are always a bit manic.

Budgets start to get squeezed; time marches on; husbands/project managers fall really ill with Lyme Disease from a tick…


Plastering and second fix electrics underway despite our heating system hitting a roadblock

We’ve been marching on regardless with interiors and external finishing touches.

But with the boiler we hit a bit of a dead end.


Internorm windows and doors have been fitted…


…and the cladding is very nearly complete, bar weathering to it’s eventual grey colour to match the roof shingles and original barn posts

In many ways we are victims of our own success.

We have insulated the house so well that the heat a biomass boiler churns out now massively exceeds our demands.

And all the relevant green government grants that might help us are based on use rather than initial outlay for a boiler.


Here’s the maths:

A regular boiler would set you back about £1k.

We had decided to cough up for around £12k in order to have biomass.

But the bill turns out to be more like £36k.

If we’re lucky, we might get a few hundred quid from the government to help.

It just ain’t enough.


Even with the incredible generosity of our financial support system (aka my dad), we can’t make it work.

So in true first world problem style: we’ve panicked. I’ve (nearly) cried. And we’ve called on our usual Eco big wig consultant (aka Oli’s dad).

As luck would have it, Peter is the Professor for Engineering for Sustainable Development at Cambridge University.

Which is handy.

With a bit of head scratching we’ve come up with a compromise.

We can do some clever things to make a normal boiler super efficient including reducing the demands on it and generating our own electricity to power it.

But I’m still sad about the loss of the biomass boiler.

It was so out there, so innovative, so earthy.

So Rowan.

But maybe in the dead of winter when I’m not having to hand feed logs into a boiler that cost more than anything else on the build just to have a hot shower…

I might feel slightly differently.

Shingle Minded

It’s hung, clay-free and shingle.

Here’s our newly completed roof finished off with hand-crafted oak tiles.


They’re actually rejects from France’s wine barrel industry.

Once destined to contain and add flavour to a vintage Bordeaux, at some stage in barrel production they were deemed not worthy.


But for us they are the very height of worthy beauty.

And they have been reborn as a gorgeous and unusual adornment to Rowan Farm’s roof.


Like all gorgeous and unusual things, they’ve been a tad high maintenance.

Putting them up has been something of a labour of love.

Each shingle had to be handpicked, tweaked and then hammered into place.

We probably could have moulded, baked and slung up our own homemade clay tiles in the time it’s taken to lovingly place each one.

And having been let down at the last minute – on the day he was meant to start – by our original roofer, Oli was forced to do one of his least favourite things on site. Working at great height every day for an extended period of time.

But he rose to the challenge.

And with invaluable help from the impossibly youthful Danny (who is twice as nimble as us, despite being twice our age), Oli has spent the last three months, alongside all his other jobs, carefully nailing each shingle to the building.


The unique finish was worth it.

It glows golden in the sunshine; it blends beautifully with the rural setting; oak was definitely the right choice of material and it will see us through our and our children’s lifetimes.

Even one of our most vociferous objectors stopped Oli to tell him how much he loved the roof.

Just as well Oli wasn’t on it at the time or he might have fallen off with the shock.

So who knows? If a wooden roof can have such an impact, once we really get restoring Rowan Farm’s biodiversity maybe attitudes towards us might soften.

In the meantime, we’re dead chuffed with how our beautiful new home is starting to emerge.


Dread Wood

It’s the noise you don’t want to hear when you are underneath several unkempt and ancient oak trees.

A loud, menacing creak that blends dangerously into a large and definitive crack.

You know you only have a split second to get out the way.

Only a split second before a heavy thump as a massive chunk of tree hits the spot where you’re currently standing.


The spot on the road at Rowan Farm where we had been moments before

This is what happened during my visit to site yesterday.

Oli, Rory and I were busy talking underfloor heating and cladding (both currently under way) when the ominous oak let out it’s final warning.

We scarpered away just in time as one enormous limb came crashing down where we had been moments before.

Dead wood trying to take us down with it.


As luck would have it, our mate Oz – a tree surgeon – also happened to be on site at that moment.

He has now set about making the tree, and those surrounding it, as safe as possible.


Ozzie under the broken limb of the oak


It had been making threatening noises for a few days.

And with heavy rain came it’s eventual downfall.

We know for next time to pay more attention to the wooden shouts and creaking complaints emitted by our trees.


Collateral damage: A neighbouring tree hurt by the falling branch

Another oak next to it wasn’t as fortunate as we were.

It too lost a limb after being smacked by the other tree’s falling branch.

There’s a lot of work ahead to care for all the trees at Rowan Farm.

Decades of neglect and lack of management means many are not as healthy as they should be and some, like the oak that had it in for us, are downright dangerous.

It’s this sort of thing that I sometimes find a bit overwhelming about Rowan Farm.

There’s so much to know. So much to do. So much to keep on top of.

Thank crikey for helpful friends like Ozzie who can hold our hand along the way.

And do the dangerous work of giving an ancient oak a proper haircut.


Frame At Last

It’s the stuff that makes a middle class housewife wet her pants with excitement.

This giant beast of a room is to be our kitchen and bootroom.


The kitchen lean-to is the only part of the barn we have had to rebuild from scratch.

Toby had a riot swiftly demolishing the thing earlier this year.


And the lovely thing about oak framing is that the replacement timber went up nearly as quickly.

image image

Oli and the boys got the whole thing up in less than a day.

You can now really start to see our new home taking shape.

Note the opening to accommodate our massive Internorm sliding doors on the left.

I’m actually tensing my jaw with excitement just thinking about them.


Meanwhile, Oli’s also putting the oak shingles on the roof.


The wood fibre insulation in the walls is all very nearly on.


The oak cladding is poised for nailing into place on top of that.

The windows are being manufactured as we speak.

So it’s all go in Oli’s camp and he’s eating the build for breakfast.

Major progress. Major success.


I, on the other hand, am an abject failure.

For someone planning eventually to ditch food shopping and live off the land, my progress is somewhat stilted.

If it weren’t for Ocado my family would currently starve.

My vegetable boxes in our current home – on which I’m practising ahead of planting at Rowan Farm – currently look like this:


Not exactly abundant.

The Townie in me has come back to bite through my edible efforts.

A week ago these boxes were teaming with life, but not of the kind I fancy tucking into.

I’ve discovered growing your own food is actually a bit disgusting sometimes.

Last week I was sharing my veg with most of the invertebrate population of Hampshire. The stuff that made it to my plate was already pre-masticated by slugs, snails and caterpillars. And I dread to think what the rats and crows have been up to with it. The rest was too rotten to make it into the colander. It was all a bit gross truthfully.

I never washed my food before now. You can’t see nasty pesticides on lettuce from the supermarket.

But you can see a whopping great slug in amongst your chard.

It isn’t just the insects out to get me, but the plants themselves as well.

Vegetables misbehave in all manner of ways.

They get unruly and leggy; they throw up flowers and seed when you don’t want them to; they require constant watering and tending. They are bloody high maintenance.

This self sufficiency lark is going to be pretty constant.

Recently, I’d taken my eye off the ball and let my veg misbehave to the point of no return.

So I’ve razed the lot.

And they’re thinking about what they’ve done in the compost heap.

Horticultural guru Sarah Raven calls it ‘kerchunging’. Cutting right back or ripping out to start the process again from small sprout or seed. It’s apparently essential to do every once and a while.

A fresh start – having learned from my many mistakes – should hopefully see more successes in the next batch.

In the meantime, thank heavens for supermarket deliveries.


The pigs currently inhabit where my food will be grown at Rowan Farm.

I hope they will root up all brambles and fertilise the soil up there for me.

Basically I’m outsourcing all the hard soil preparation to them.

I’ll then thank them for their efforts by killing and eating ’em.

That’s the lazy townie in me – getting pigs to do the rotivating.

If only they did planting, watering, weeding, deslugging, harvesting, washing and cooking too…


Natural Remedy

There’s something about greenery.

Well actually, it’s not really green at all. The countryside is a bonkers, absurd, technicolor trip. Right now even the leaves on the trees at Rowan Farm vary from acid green to burnt orange to blood red. There’s an amaranthine array of bluebells strewn about the place.


I don’t know why but there is something about this crazy kaleidoscope that’s just good for you. And the more you engage with it, the better it makes you feel.

I know naff all about colour therapy. I know next to naff all about horticulture. And I imagine by now I’ve demonstrated that I know precisely naff all about the countryside (although I’m doing my bleeding best).

But the flora and fauna and the effort that they command to help them flourish is nourishing in a way that I’m only beginning to realise, let alone understand.

The thing is though you have to consent to nature for it to get at you. Otherwise you can easily be emotionally immune to it. I admit I was for most of my life up until now.

That’s the thing about having been a proper, committed townie. Trees were to decorate pavements. Insects needed exterminating on sight. Salad leaves came in plastic bags.

So when that gaudy greenery gets me now, it still takes my breath away. It’s such a powerful draw and seems somehow magnified by the magic that’s in the soil at Rowan Farm.

The wellbeing of this exceptional environment is my and Oli’s lucky responsibility. We’re muddling along. We have so much still to learn.


Sometimes I catch myself relapsing to my old townie habits.

Without boring you with the details, I arrived on site today with my knickers in a bit of a twist. I strode up to inspect our newly installed rooflights without once pausing to take in the most spectacular spring day yet this year.

Oli working on the scaffold in front of the newly installed rooflights

Oli working on the scaffold in front of the newly installed rooflights


It was not until I stood at the window, looking out, that it happened.

Framed in the glass, Rowan Farm came in and embraced me and my funk disappeared.


If you think this sounds like a load of hippy nonsense, I don’t blame you. Before my love affair with Rowan Farm, I’d have thought so too.

But I urge you to give the countryside a whirl.

Get outside; pause to take in the noisy, brash assault a rural field has on every single sense; and then get to work.

There’s no drug, therapy, spa day that I’ve experienced that comes close to giving you the same calm high.

Our door is open at Rowan Farm if you fancy dipping your toe in… We love a bit of free labour.


Snuff in his wonky doorway communing with the sunshine

Pig Headed Bureaucracy

I don’t know how farmers cope.

I’m astounded there isn’t an Agricultural Administration Anger Management Crisis Centre on every rural street corner.

It wouldn’t be the farmy bit of being a farmer driving them there. That’s easy.

It would be the phone calls.


From left to right: Huff, Puff and Snuff, blissfully unaware of what an administrative arse ache they are


It started relatively well, with just a minor governmental delay.

Ahead of the piglets’ arrival, I dutifully applied for my County Parish Holding (CPH) number from the Rural Payments Agency at the beginning of March.

After a few weeks of no word, I called them to discover they were a bit waylaid, but I was issued a CPH number over the phone.

So far, so farmer.

We were go for launch.


Huff, Puff and Snuff legally and legitimately moved from Lyndhurst – their birthplace – to Rowan Farm on Saturday.

Paperwork and Pig Movement References were perfectly proper.


Feeling very smug that I was so thoroughly organised, I called Hart District Council this week to get myself a Herd Mark now the pigs had safely arrived.

And here is where the pig pong hit the proverbial.


My red tape first started to unravel when I spoke to Spamela at Hart.

There’s a competition there to see who can be the least helpful person in the Council offices.

Spamela’s winning. Hands down.

I knew things weren’t going well when she said, Herd Mark, Schmerd Mark. If I didn’t register as a food business I would likely be prosecuted.

When I argued that I had no business to register and was merely hoping to feed myself, my family and some mates a few sausages, Spamela did a lot of sucking through her teeth.

Unperturbed, I asked her to define the legal parameters so I could stay above board and avoid criminal proceedings. Spamela started using helpful, specific and definitive phrases like ‘sort of’.

Then she told me I’d taken the threat to prosecute ‘out of context’.

I think that’s the bureaucratic way of saying she was just messing with me.

After 20 minutes of this enlightening experience, Spamela told me I shouldn’t be speaking to her anyway but should instead call Winchester Trading Standards to get a Herd Mark.

Like all good comedy sketches, when I got through to Swinona at Winchester she told me I needed to speak to Spamela at Hart.

Determined to drive on despite a crying toddler now clinging to one of my legs, I called Hart again and this time got Hamish. Who sent me to Abraham at Customer Registration at the Animal and Plant Health Agency. Who sent me to Boaris at the Rural Payments Agency. Who sent me to Loina from the Customer Advice Team. Who sent me round the bend. And then put me on hold.

I still don’t have a Herd Mark.

Although I’m registered with a CPH number, it won’t download onto the right computers at the right office to match it up with APHA’s database.

I hope you’re following because I’ve lost the swill to live.

I’ve been told to sit tight while Orwell’s Officials sort it out.

I’m starting to wish I’d never bought the sodding swine in the first place.


(*All names have been changed to protect the litigious)



Building The Ark


Huff, Puff and Snuff will need a house.

One that neither wolf nor westerly wind will be able to blow away.





So the Guthries did what we normally do:

Look up pig arks online.

Shudder at the price.

Decide to do it ourselves.

Spend nearly the same amount of cash on materials.

And then two full weekend days of labour building the thing.

Turns out pig arks are actually exceptionally excellent value.




But oh what a morally-enriching experience it was.


We roped in a spot of child labour – as is our wont.



And our own small selection of slaves tested out the accommodation.




I also managed to get the telehandler stuck in the mud shifting the thing to the pig pen.


But now the ark is ready.

The three little piggies’ arrival is scheduled for next weekend.


Hard Rafters

It’s the roof of concept.

The moment the barn proves it’s a viable dwelling.

The incredible realisation that this conversion is 100% going to work.


The new roof rafters are on.

And they’re sound.

It shows that the barn is definitely structurally solid and the conversion will be a success.

In the next week or so we will have a building ‘in the dry’.



So we finally have a roof over our heads.

And it’s got me thinking.

We are so incredibly lucky to own somewhere like Rowan Farm. It’s going to be a knock out pad. It will be where we earn our keep. It will feed and water us. It’ll host some cracking parties.

And I can see how it would be very easy to pull up the drawbridge.

Recently one of our objectors complained to us that a delivery driver to Rowan Farm “came from a very rough area”. She had seen his address on the side of his truck and was convinced he was heading back to his insalubrious lair to plot some sort of criminal attack. “It only takes one conversation in the pub,” she said, “And the next thing we know we’ve been burgled.”

Now, put aside the fact that this is an outrageous slander on a seriously decent bloke, with whom we do a lot of business and know pretty well. Put aside the fact it is snobbery of the very worst kind.

This is a fear that keeps her awake at night.

And I’m genuinely sorry for her for that.

Because one of my greatest fears is succumbing to this sort of middle class terror myself. I can see the danger of isolating myself within my very great privilege and losing any sort of perspective.

Bourgeois guilt is what keeps me up at night. And it’s just as cliched.

There will be no drawbridge at Rowan Farm.

Having been inspired by Jamie Oliver’s charity, Fifteen, Oli and I plan to set up a young offender apprenticeship scheme for our company. But I confess we have failed to get very far with it yet.

So when I received a message this week from an old friend telling me about her family’s organisation Farm Buddies, it seemed like a god incident.

I know only too well the restorative abilities of being outdoors, physical labour and hanging out with four-legged friends.

Farm Buddies offers those benefits to people in challenging circumstances. The social enterprise finds placements on farms for people in the care sector. Whether it’s a ten year old kid in danger of exclusion, somebody struggling with addiction or a vulnerable elderly person, they place them with farmers to learn the agricultural ropes.

I think it’s a genius idea. They have had major successes in improving mental health. We’re meeting Farm Buddies’ founders next month.


In other news, the pigs’ palace is very nearly complete ahead of their arrival. Man Mountain Vince and the crew from Kiwi Fencing have been putting up Huff, Puff and Snuff’s pen today.

Oli is taking time out of building our house to build the three little piggies one instead.

They will be Rowan residents before we will be.

Lucky little blighters.



Kind of a Pig Deal

This is me having a sow wow with my newest gal pal, Brooke.


Brooke is a Middle White pig, who lives in Billingshurst.

I think she bears an uncanny resemblance to the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Which only made me respect her more.


Brooke’s been helping me swine tune my pig husbandry skills ahead of getting my own porkers next month.

As you can see, I’ve got ear scratching sussed.

But I’m not all that good at steering.

My friend Rebecca and I headed to West Sussex today to meet Brooke and her mates.


Our piggy course covered all feeding, caring and paperwork required when getting trotters.

And one or two added extras for breeding enthusiasts.

As a good ‘pig husband’ I’ve also learned how to get my sow in the mood for artificial insemination.

Sex is apparently all about the smell for swines. But when you don’t have a boar, you have to fake that aphrodisiac aroma.

Forget Tinder. All pigs need is a boyfriend in a can.


My own Gloucester Old Spot/Berkshire-cross piglets arrive at Rowan Farm just after Easter.

They’ll be about the same size as these little crackers.


I will give them a taste of the good life for the next six months.

I will fence off a large part of the farm for them to roam in. I will feed them pig nuts twice a day. I will spoil them with tasty fruit treats. I will offer them toys to play with. I will scratch their tummies.


And once they’ve fattened up, I will send them off to slaughter, butcher them and eat them.

This may sound brutal.

And in many ways it is.

Pigs are fantastic characters. I will likely form a close bond with the blighters and it won’t be easy packing them off to the abattoir.

But I will know just how plush those pigs have had it. And I will feel much better about my salami than I do about the stuff you get in the supermarket, which invariably will have come from a much poorer welfare standard.

My pigs will be very happy pigs. Like Molly here.


So get ready for the arrival of Huff, Puff and Snuff.

Rowan Farm’s first livestock in decades.


School Ties

We do say every day’s a school day at Rowan Farm.

But today Oli was the teacher. For a change.

Design and Technology students from the local school spent the morning with us at Rowan Farm.


Our relationship with Lord Wandsworth College is very important to us.

We bought Rowan Farm from the school five years ago and Oli is a former student.

LWC is a Foundation School. That means that around 1 in every 10 students has their fees paid for by the school’s charity. They will have lost the support of one or both parents. Their mum or dad may have died, have trouble with addiction or they may be in prison. The school gives these kids the opportunity to have an exceptional education despite difficult circumstances.

The staff at Lord Wandsworth are some of the most driven and passionate folk we have had the pleasure of working with.

This morning’s class was part of a wider involvement that we are fortunate enough to have with such an amazing school.


It was Oli’s dream lesson – how to chop up a tree into planks.

The Sixth Formers were treated to a live demonstration of our Logosol chainsaw saw mill.

It’s how we are turning the local trees we are felling into useable timber for the build and for fuel once we live here.


The students also learned about the properties of timber – something that completely rocks Oli’s world.



We hope that LWC pupils will also be involved with our vegetable growing and livestock rearing, as well as the eco building techniques we’re employing and our attempts to improve the biodiversity of the site.

Next up though… they’re coming back on site to build our bin house.

I’m not quite sure how this isn’t just fantastically convenient for us.

But the school assure me it doesn’t constitute as child labour. Honest.


« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2019 The Townie Farmer

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑