AS THE OWL in the barn hoots and stirs himself for a night of hunting I sit here in the Bedford a few yards from him, warm and dry with nostrilsfull of harissa-spiced chickpeas almost ready to eat and connected via a little plastic thingamyjig to the whole world outside this orchard. The people in that whole world are amid such different experiences and live in an alphabet'sworth of different dwellings, and yet they all share the same need and yearning for warmth and home.
In these last few weeks I have learnt to think quite differently about those warm home comforts which we never really give a second thought. Living in a wooden vehicle parked in a field means that nothing comes in or out of our home unless we physically bring it about. Water must be collected from somewhere (at present a tap for watering flowers by gravestones in the churchyard down the lane), and waste water emptied. And warmth too must be collected ... we have spent much of our time since being here walking with rucksack and saw to nearby forests to find fallen branches and bring them home in great quantities so as to keep ourselves warm. This, I know, sounds romantic and perhaps a little obvious... but actually finding enough dry, uninhabited wood and carrying it back again is a constant occupation of ours in this cold weather. We have been lucky down here in this southern foot of England to escape rainclouds, but instead the sky has brought us thin blankets of snow and frosts that freeze last night's bathwater to crackling.
So we bought some bags of coal to augment the logs and it burned hot and fierce for two days. Then the stove began to smoke.. and not just out of the chimney. It smoked from the door, from the all the seals and bolt holes and from the collars at each flue joint. We coughed and coughed and opened windows. Freezing cold with streaming eyes we realised the stove couldn't be used any more. So for the next two days we had a fire outdoors, where the smoke could escape. We watched the stars and made hot water bottles to warm the twoquilted bed which we ran to as the embers died. The next evening the gas ran out! So that night we cooked dinner and boiled hotwaterbottle water on the outdoor fire and in the morning (after heating a precarious cupful of water for tea on an upturned camping-gas heater) I trekked out to find a new calor gas bottle while Tui stayed at home and dismantled the fire and re-fire-cemented all the joints before putting it back together again. I won't go into long boring detail about my day of gas hunting except to say that it wasn't unlike Frodo's journey to Mount Doom, but with more disappointments and train cancellations and refusals of busdrivers to take me due to "hazardous chemicals". A final arm-achingly arduous trek brought me back to a delightfully warm and smokefree Bedford! Our home is wonderful, but with no fire it is very much less so.. and in these modern days of central heating, it is no longer appreciated how very important warmth in the winter is. The next day we cleaned the chimney and found that the coal had left such a thick black sooty residue that there had been only a couple of centimetres of air left for the smoke to escape. Now we burn just wood and little nuggets of smokeless fuel.
In all these days of tending to our daily basic needs, neither of us has had time to create anything. I have begun but not finished a drawing by daylight, which begins to fade around half past three. We have bought a little generator to power laptops, a phone charger and a desk lamp, and now at long last have the internet too. Soon we'll be more established and I'll be able to reopen my shop and begin making clocks again. Town is not far away and my family is much nearer by than before, so we have had lovely days walking between the sunlit appletree stakes, and drinking cups of tea.
We have felt very much more outdoors than you do inside the walls of a house. Nature is right there. You don't have to go out into it, you are already there. It affects you more directly for good or ill. I have weathered cheeks, twig-scratched arms and dirt beneath my fingernails. The skies are beautiful and the blackbirds tiptoe their little threetoed birdfeet across our roof in the mornings. It is freezing in the night when we climb down from the luton bed and run outside to wee; and the low sun and the cracking of forest underfoot and the smell of woodsmoke from the chimney make our hearts soar.