Philippa Pickworth of Banceithin Farm and Holiday Cottages in Ceredigion, West Wales writes about her journey from the city into the country.

“You’re so brave.”

“I would never be brave enough to do what you’re doing”.

Firemen are brave. I’m not a fireman. The word brave was cover for another less flattering word, a word they really wanted to use but weren’t honest enough to say. Mad.

According to the dictionary, madness of behaviour or idea is doing something “extremely foolish” or “not very sensible”. Three years studying for an engineering degree. Two years at law school. Seven years working with City law firms. Seven years clawing my way up to and bumping my head on the glass ceiling of a corporate legal department. Then selling up, packing my belongings, husband and cat into a lorry and moving to West Wales having bought a shell of a house with two tumbledown farm buildings and 10 acres of unloved land in a county no one has heard of or is able to say without giving up halfway.

Identifying the point in this narrative at which the act of madness occurs depends on who’s doing the pointing. From the cat’s perspective, it was somewhere on the M4, two hours after being manhandled into the dreaded carry-case and another two hours before arriving in an unfamiliar nowhere.

From my parents’ perspective, it was the point at which one of them felt compelled to say “I can’t see the end game”. From the perspective of those ex-colleagues who called me brave, it’s everything from “selling up” onwards. From my perspective, 10 years later, sitting here in the middle of my own now 15 acres of much loved land, the entire narrative makes perfect sense.

Smallholder:

But how did I get from there to here?

Rewind to a mid-week winter evening in a pub somewhere in Berkshire. Two people sit knee to knee at a small round table, each sipping a pint. To the guy sat at the bar nursing his only pint of the night, this might seem like a very ordinary evening in the life of those two people, but it is more unusual than it appears. For a start, on a mid-week evening one of them is more usually found stuck in motorway traffic, while the other is rarely home early enough to make it to the pub before last orders. What a glance at this couple doesn’t reveal is that between sips, they are talking each other into, out of, into, out of making a life changing decision.

It isn’t until you realise that nothing is going to change, that you realise you want something to change. You earn good money, but work long hours. You live in a desirable house, but are rarely there to appreciate it. You have a large garden, but everything in it is neglected. You jet off on amazing holidays, but fall ill within a day of arriving. You’re in your mid-thirties, and the prospect of your mid-forties fills you with fear. What if everything is the same? More money, more hours. Bigger house, bigger garden. Run out of places to visit, run out of energy to visit them.

Smallholder:

Change requires a catalyst to make it happen, a spark to ignite the dimming desire to do something different with your life. If, like me, you’re naturally of a risk averse disposition, pessimistic in nature, that spark has to burn brightly enough to withstand some serious dowsing with a deluge of “but what ifs”. If, like me, you marred an occasionally impulsive do-er, that spark stands a chance of bursting into life, new life, a different life. For us, that spark was a simple yes or no question. Do you want to commit to another three years of life on the M4 corridor? The answer was a scary but definite no.

What did we do next?

I did what I do best, read stuff and write notes: a guide to down sizing, a book on organic growing, the polytunnel companion, a pamphlet on livestock for smallholders, back copies of Smallholder Magazine and, of course, the smallholder-to-be’s bible, John Seymour’s Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency. I wrote lists: pros and cons, nice to have versus must have, equipment to buy and places to buy it. Meanwhile, David created spreadsheets of pound signs and scary numbers. Did we have a strategy? No. Did we have an idea of how we wanted to live? Yes. Did we know exactly how we were going to fund that life? Sort of. Many years ago, when our smallholding was a kernel of an idea, I sat on a hay bale next to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and what he said to me then is, I believe, even truer now that it was then; a smallholding cannot be completely self-sustaining and survive, you must have an income. Specialise and create a market for the product of your chosen specialism. Or get a job.

Smallholder:

I wanted to live a simpler less damaging (to me and the environment) life, but I had to be honest with myself and recognise that I’m not someone who would thrive on a rice and beans diet. I had no desire to struggle financially. And yet the whole point was not to have a job. And how could I specialise when my only experience of growing was shoving a tomato plant into a grow bag and the closest I’d been to rearing livestock was strolling through tents at agricultural shows.

We did have experience of holidays, so we chose that as our income, but now we would be providing them, not going on them. We hoped that in time, at the very least, our animals would earn their keep, but having an alternative main source of income would take the pressure off, especially while we learned the basics and made mistakes. Truth be told, animals eat money, plants suck it up through their roots, and there will always be mistakes. You need to specialise AND get a job to survive.

I don’t know about other parts of the country, but in West Wales the number of smallholders has definitely increased over the past 10 years. If that reflects an increasing awareness of where food comes from and an increasing interest in sustainable living, then it can only be a good thing, for the wider world with whom we engage, for the people we meet and hope to educate, and for the rural communities in which we live that might otherwise dwindle to nothing. We can’t disappear up our own tracks never to return. We have a role to play. But the reality is that we all need to earn a living. Long gone are the days when you could convert an outbuilding, put a bed in it and wait for holiday makers to turn up. Nor is it enough to rear a pig, have it slaughtered and butchered, and expect the meat orders to come rolling in.

Smallholder:

I look back on those 10 years and realise the people we were then could never have worked up a strategy for getting from there to here. I could never have envisaged the “here”. The note taking and list making helped me, the non-risk taker, take the leap of faith from one life to another very different one by giving it structure and form, but it could never have brought us to this point. The smallholding evolved slowly, never too many animals, never too grand a plan, never more than we could afford, never more than two people could manage, and always to be enjoyed, never a chore. There will be no additions that require a big investment for housing or fencing (the cost of which never ceases to amaze me) and cannot be productive, whether by providing food for us or a product we can sell. The holiday cottages evolved through the need to diversify in order to stand out in a crowded market, never standing still, always giving guests a reason to return. I have learned never to under-estimate the value of the little touches; diversification does not have to be big and bold, small and simple can be just as effective.

And yes, I do have a job. Two jobs. Both one day a week and both with small local businesses.

And no, I don’t regret that decision we made, not even for a second.

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This article was written by Philippa exclusively for Smallholder magazine. If you would like to be a Smallholder of the month please email editorial@smallholder.co.uk.