What happens when you leave a city slicker family in the forest?

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I’m been trying to start this post for a while now and, for the first time since I started this blog, I’m truly stumped. Our week at Tinkers’ Bubble  - an experimental, eco-community living completely off grid in the forest outside Yeovil – was pretty wild. Extraordinary. Hard, beautiful, fascinating, infuriating and inspiring.

We worked all day. For a week I dug, forked, lifted and heaved with a baby on my back while J tagged along, helping, kicking fallen fruit, climbing trees and complaining in equal measure. No fossil fuels meant no lawnmower – so blisters on the palms of my hands after hours of scything a field of long grass and bramble – and no tractor, so Johnny falling in love with Jim the carthorse, who heaved loads of logs and gravel up the forested hillside, or ploughed the potato field with us running behind, shaking his treasure into buckets.

No shop bought food meant eating communally for every meal, vegetables that had been grown and, occasionally, meat that had been caught. It meant working hard to keep enough food on everyone’s plates, which meant – for the first time since I can remember – eating every meal because my body was hungry for it. It meant Johnny refusing nearly every meal (vegetable stew, again) and living almost entirely off bread and jam. But it also meant fruit trees and hedgerows at every turn, laden with ripe fruit to pick and milk on the table five minutes after the goats had been milked.

No telly and only basic, off-grid electricity meant being outside from the moment we woke, to the moment we went to sleep. It meant Johnny playing with old, scruffy wooden toys, trees and whatever recycled materials he could get his hands on. It meant the toddlers who lived there permanently could jump, run and climb like children five years older than them. It meant seeing deer flitting between the trees as they played. It meant Johnny didn’t ask for TV for 14 days after we’d left.

No conventional building materials meant a beautiful but basic wooden structure for us to sleep in. No conventional heating meant a wood burning stove, cosy in the early evening, infuriating when taking an hour to boil a kettle. It meant a boiling pot and a mangle instead of a washer-dryer. It meant going to sleep staring up through the window at swaying trees and the stars, listening to the sounds of cows and the snuffles and shuffles of the family we were sharing with. It meant sleep without the background noise of traffic. It meant early nights and early mornings and all night wakings shushing the baby so she didn’t wake the others.

One bath hut to share between fifteen people, lit by a stove that took three hours to heat up, meant real tears of happiness the first time I lowered myself into hot water. It meant being forced to look properly at the casualness with which we use resources in our home, how we fill our homes and our time. It meant I didn’t look in a mirror for a week.

Long drop loos meant a beautiful view across the hillside but an awkward balancing act with a baby on your back. Oh, and the loos could only be used for, arm, solids. ‘Fluids’ made the compost smell bad so were dealt with at any secluded spot of your choosing.

It meant the families who live there permanently (not the tourists passing through, like us) actually doing something about climate change and consumerism, not just talking about it over the weekly Ocado shop.

It was an adventure. An inspiration. It showed us what we were really capable of, and it showed us what we are simply too wimpy and city-slicker to handle.

And I’d love to go back every year. For a week.

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Kids’ suncream – is it a must?

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Okay, I know, the time for this has almost passed. I did mean to do this in early July but time kind of, well, not so much ran as concord-ed away from me. So here we are, in mid August and in the vain hope that the sun will reappear, or that you’ll be back to find this when the sun comes out from behind the clouds again in, say, twelve months time, I’ve finally done a bit of digging into the question of children’s suncream.

Just how different are the ones designed for kids? It is really important to buy separate bottles for the children? Or is it a marketing scam? I got back in touch with Dr Chris Flower, Director General of The Cosmetics, Toiletries and Perfumeries Association (and the man who gave us the low down on kids shampoo and toothpaste last year). I left aside the question of organic brands – if you choose organic it’s probably based on a personally held set of values that apply to your whole family – children and adults. I wanted to know what, if any, differences there were between the kids and adult versions of the major brands – Nivea, Soltan and the like. Here’s what he said:

“There are probably two main points to make.

First, they are made to exactly the same high safety and efficacy standard so they will work exactly as described and they will be safe to use on children (and on adults too).

Second, they are often formulated slightly differently to take account of the fact that children are usually more active than adults and, in spite of the advice, less likely to re-apply the product or have it re-applied. So, the formula will be a little heavier and stickier (probably not the right terms that a formulator would use!) since children will be less bothered by the aesthetics of the product whereas adults generally prefer products that feel lighter and appear to rub in rather than leave what feels like a layer of product on the skin. Of course, both do leave a layer on the skin surface because that is where the protective ingredients must be in order to be effective. So a children’s product will be less likely to run when they get hot, less likely to rub off as they play and less likely to wash away as they run in and out of the water.

Some children’s sun protection products are coloured or may remain slightly white on the skin so you can see whether you have missed any bits when applying them. The fragrance is also likely to be less ‘adult’ and may just be enough to mask the background smell of the ingredients and the packaging is likely to be more attractive for children and indicating it is for them to use.

Of course, adults can use children’s product and vice versa and still get the protection necessary but, to adults, the children’s products might not feel so pleasant and, for children, adult products need to be applied carefully and re-applied diligently to maintain protection. However, if you find you have run out of one or the other when out and about, it is better to use what you have rather than nothing at all.”

The one where I go too far… maybe?

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Oh god, I think I’ve tipped over the edge. Remember I mentioned that we’d gone on holiday to Devon in June? No, of course not. Well we DID. And it was amazing. We were stupidly, hallucinogenically lucky with the weather. It was like Saint Tropez but with cockles and rock pools and without the need to wax and starve yourself within an inch of extinction before arrival.

We went with a big group of families, which was great too since the kids played and punched without much need of intervention, leaving us time to doze and pretend to read impressive books. What was really amazing, though, was the family we stayed with. They moved there in the seventies, when the house was just a leaky barn. They were proper hippies (though they might loathe the word – so sorry if you’re reading) not the trustafarian, macrobiotic kind, the real deal. They built the house themselves and by hand, had their babies amid the rubble and the fields, and were, pretty much, entirely separate from the money economy for a while – growing, tending and baking their own food; building, fixing and sewing their own things; trading skills and goods with neighbours.

Which was, in itself, enough to make me self-consciously shuffle my own, ‘made in China’ shoes. But what I really noticed where the kids. Born and raised with all this (and completely without the usual piles of plastic toys or telly) they’re now in their twenties. You might expect them to be a little… eccentric. But they’re absurdly cool and kind. And  - this is what struck me – extraordinarily, almost unbelievably resourceful.

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One day, as we were driving to the beach, their son was digging up clay in the lane as we passed. By the time we came back in the afternoon, he’d built a pizza oven with it. The next day, we made our own pizzas, cooked them in the oven, and ate them while watching the sun set over the fields. He makes his own clothes, even his own spectacles. He travels the world, paying his way and surfing. And yeah, I’m sure it’s not perfect and has its own irritations but it all looked so… free. Not to need the stuff or services most of us (especially me) rely on routinely. It looked (under the sun and a liberal dose of gin) so liberating.

Even with the gin I was dimly aware that I’d be a bit rubbish at living like that full time. Nevertheless, I blame that holiday for what came next. I booked a very weird kind of break for August. And since August is now upon us, and the gin has long since worn off I’m beginning to feel a bit nervous.

Next week, me, Tom, Johnny and the baby are all going to life in the forest for a week, working as volunteers in an eco-community that described itself thus:

“We’re currently a group of 11 adults, spanning a wide age range, and 2 young children. We are … a small woodland community which uses environmentally sound methods of working the land without fossil fuels.

We have planning permission for self-built houses on the condition that we make a living from the land. We make our monetary incomes mainly through forestry, apple work and gardening. As a result we’re money poor but otherwise rich!

We manage about 28 acres of douglas fir, larch, and mixed broadleaf woodland using horses, two person saws, and a wood-fired steam-powered sawmill.

Our pastures, orchards, and gardens are organically certified, and no-dig methods are commonly used. We press apple juice for sale, grow most of our own vegetables, keep chickens and bees, and sell our produce at farmers markets. We make loads of jam, chutney, pickles, cider, and wine.

We have solar powered 12v electricity, spring water on tap, and use compost toilets. We burn wood for cooking, heating, and for hot water in the bathouse. We eat little meat (mostly game), and try to cater for all diets. Though some of us would consider ourselves to be spiritual, we have no shared spirituality. Most people wash their clothes by hand. Life is lived mostly outdoors, so it’s cold in the winter, but we live on the top of a steep hill, so there’s plenty of chances to get warm! There’s loads of wildlife on site, particularly badgers, deer and ticks!”

We get our own guest house (built by the community from purely natural materials) with a wood burner. Apparently, the only things we need to bring are: “a torch, warm clothes, practical footwear, and any fresh looking roadkill you find en-route.”

It’ll be an adventure… Right?!

Slow parenting?

There’s nothing I hate more than parenting vogues… Last year, the American news channel NBC ran a story on us under the headline ‘Minimalist Mom’. It was a lovely piece but I nearly died. I mean, honestly. Show me the parent who has the time to come up with a coherent, sterile ‘parenting philosophy’ rather than stumbling through the day compromising, contradicting, patching up mistakes and swearing under her breathe and I’ll show you a Highly Suspect Person. She is almost certainly not changing all the nappies herself. Or is one of those inhuman beings who need no sleep at all. Or is on some sort of powerfully potent medication (in which case, where can we get these drugs? Answers on a postcard please…)

And anyway, one of the very best things about becoming a parent is finally letting go and just not giving a damn anymore what the magazines say you should be listening to, wearing, eating, reading, shoving on your face or into your home. Because who has time? And what does it matter now that whatever you put on anywhere is going to be covered in sick/poo/playdough/paint/mud/poo again within thirty seconds of its application. There is something immensely liberating about this, so the very idea of parenting ‘trends’ – another silly standard to live up to, buy into, measure ourselves by and come up short against – makes me want to scream into the oven.

All of which serves as an amazingly convoluted, ranty disclaimer for what follows…

Watching Frida, I find myself wondering whether our no spend project is having any impact on her yet. Though she is, of course, a genius, she’s still only eight months old so doesn’t have a detailed grasp of its ins and outs yet. Still, aware of it or not, the first eight months of her life have been quite different to J’s.

His days were filled with baby groups, music classes, a bit of baby yoga, Ella’s Kitchen pouches eaten in haste between appointments in his busy social schedule. She’s yet to go to a class of any sort. Or eat anything more sophisticated than a vaguely mashed up version of what’s on our plates. She spends a lot of time in the garden, examining the same old blades of glass. Or in her highchair, slowly but absorbedly rubbing porridge into the table.

Occasionally, I feel bad about this. Is it mean that Johnny was so spoilt in comparison to her? Is she missing out? But last week, she figured out how to turn a tambourine over (I know, what did I tell you – genius.)

She’s been playing with this old tambourine of Tom’s for weeks. It’s a bit tatty and very old and not the most impressive of toys. But she loves it and it was pulled out from some corner somewhere and so that’s what she’s playing with. So there she was, thumping the same old tambourine with her little fat fist while I absent-mindedly watched her over a coffee and some emails when suddenly, she flipped it over and discovered and discovered the underside of it – A Whole New World Of Tambourine. Her already-unfeasibly-round eyes opened so wide I though she might pop. And then her dribbly little lips parted and she laughed for five minutes, flipped it over again, laughed, flipped it over again, laughed and I watched, totally captivated, till my coffee turned cold.

In the last couple of weeks, a few similar moments have passed. There was the time she discovered how to pull blades of long grass out and shake them about above her head. The time she accidentally waved a spoon into her mouth, sat stock still in shock, then did it over and over again, refusing to be fed by anyone else.

And I wonder, sort of, while still loathing parenting vogues with a passion and retching over the label, whether there isn’t something to be said for ‘slow parenting’. Because I don’t think I noticed so many of these tiny triumphs the first time round. I think, maybe, we were too busy.

Our lives were too filled with different activities and different toys for the small stuff to stand out. Which isn’t to say that it was any worse. Just different. Last time, I loved some of those classes. I loved the relief they gave me from the potential monotony of childcare at home, day in day out. I loved the feeling they gave me that we were ‘doing something’. ‘Busy’ seemed to equate with ‘meaningful’. The idea of sitting around the house doing nothing much at all filled me with horror. If we were busy, we were winning at this parenting business. We were doing it right.

This time, though, the best bits seem to have arisen from that very ‘doing nothing’ that I feared before. It was ‘doing nothing’ that brought about the tambourine moment. And I think it’s those moments I’ll cherish most when Frida is twenty and I look back at her babyhood. I love them. And looking at her grubby, dribbling grin, I know she does too.