I cannot remember when the conversation started to change. We had always talked about ultimately leaving London, in ten or twelve years maybe. We had listed some locations worth exploring, much like a list of possible holiday destinations. It was not a topic I pressed. Having always been a metropolitan girl all my life, I was in no rush to swap concert halls and theatres for hills and a weekly market day. But then, unexpectedly, something shifted…
Populating the smallholding
It started with chickens! Some time last year I looked into keeping hens. As an avid baker and consumer of organic eggs, it seemed like a no-brainer. I researched bylaws, breeds, coops and runs, feed… I pulled together information and put the idea to Mr M. He was not convinced. Our postage stamp garden may be highly productive but squeezing a chicken coop for Mathilde, Gertrude and Eleanor into our backyard without sacrificing half of our vegetables would involve rewriting the laws of physics. And then there were the urban foxes!
So I put my three girls on hold and carried on tending the garden, squeezing vegetables and herbs into every usable corner. I added fruit bushes and canes, strawberry plants and a couple of dwarf fruit trees. Hardly an orchard but with time we would be able to pick a little home-grown fruit.
The more ingredients I harvested myself, the more I longed to stock the pantry with our own produce. I maintained that eggs would be the perfect addition. By harvest time Mr M had agreed that they should be the first addition once we leave London. But why stop there? Why not plan in the option of a couple of goats to keep us in milk, yoghurt, cheese and curds? Oddly enough, Mr M seemed more keen on this idea than the hens.
A little later a small orchard was mooted. Mr M could see himself pruning apple and plum trees. Maybe a greengage too. I added a quince and morello cherry to the imaginary mix, as well as a front garden full of flowers and herbs, for homegrown posies and edible bouquets. Mr M maintained his objection to a bee hive so I settled for the prospect of swapping goat cheese, yoghurt or home-made preserves for neighbours’ honey.
Living in the here & now
The move is still a way off but there has definitely been a shift in my mindset. Semi-rural life is no longer a short paragraph about where I may end up one day; Mr M and I are actively discussing what we want that life to look like. The more I read about market gardens, cider making and Toggenburg goats, the more excited I am about living a slower life in a small cottage with an acre or so. But I am not letting myself get carried away.
There are still things I want to do and see in London. I need to finish my studies first and both Mr M and I must rethink our working lives to suit a home away from the capital. And then there are many practical skills to develop to make us as resilient as possible, like building our own cold frames, draft-proofing the house, curing meat and fish and, of course, solving the “wheels” dilemma. (An Ape Panel Van is still the most appealing, if not the most practical, proposition!)
So, rather than muse too intensely on the prospect of the future smallholding, I am concentrating on our micro-holding of today. Our collection of containers and raised beds have been filled with carefully selected seeds and are turning into a “splatter of polyculture” (to quote Alys Fowler of The Edible Garden) amongst a patchwork of concrete and decked urban gardens.
My foraging knowledge grows with every season as I explore the deserted corners of Greenwich and Blackheath. I am honing my bread and yoghurt making skills, Mr M is researching building a smokery and I have even started reading about fly-fishing. And our strict avoid-reuse-recycle policy is turning into a creative sport as we find ways to turn our limited waste into valuable resources around the house and garden!
In addition to skilling up, I am enjoying the company of the animals that currently entertain us. Zoë and Dante, our little tigers, may not provide eggs or milk but their contribution is more significant in preparing me for a life away from the Big Smoke. They dissolve frustration, lower blood pressure and are the most superb teachers of the ‘Art of Going Slow’.