May 29, 2012

This Life of Luxury

Early every morning we are woken by a chorus of birdsong, accompanied by bright morning sun from our large, east facing windows. With enough sleep behind us, it is an absolute joy. With too little, it reminds us how precious sleep is, and is deeply frustrating.

So today I make curtains. Using a throw that is way too large to be useful for anything else, I cut it into four, hem the sides and trim a strip off the top to make loops for the poles. Flo selects a straight Sycamore pole, strips it smooth and screws it onto two round stumps drilled into the wall. It makes the curtain permanent, but is the simplest solution, and it is after all how we need it to be!

The hall is slowly emerging once again out of the pile of stuff carted over from the flat in town. With the sound system plugged in, the mood is all at once light and expectant, anticipating the buzz of activity to come, as summer majestically rolls in.

The feverish planting-out of seedlings is gradually abating.

In the tunnel we now have Okra, Peppers, Tomatoes, Aubergines, Cucumbers and Chillies. Outside are Lettuces, French Beans, Sweetcorn, Leeks, Onions, Garlic, Elephant Garlic, Potatoes, Carrots, Parsnips, Cabbages, Cauliflowers and Russian Kale.

Down by the house (in front of the north entrance) are Rhubarb plants, Jerusalem Artichokes and Sunflowers, and next to the greenhouse, Pumpkins, Gourds and Courgettes.

A new phase of planting will occur after some harvesting, but for now it is time to stop sewing seeds: there is no ground left that is prepared and no time left to create more.

It is also time to take stock and create some order by strimming the overgrown pathways and access areas, tidying borders and clearing mulch from slug prone young plants. Some plants remain in pots until sturdy enough to fend for themselves. Ash strewn in a circle around the plants does seem to help a little, but the evening ritual of picking the rampant buggers off the succulent leaves of our future meals, is never ending.

Strawberries are ripening everywhere. There are hundreds of wild strawberry plants in surprising corners and the kids take great delight in discovering their bright red bellies in the undergrowth.

The Elderflower are also suddenly in bloom and catching the right moment is something that has so often eluded me. As soon as the fragrant flowers begin to drop pollen, hordes of aphids cluster on their stems and rapidly march onto the most exuberant, sun-kissed heads.

We manage to gather a generous basketful and lay most of it in the attic to dry for tea. The rest we trim into a pan with freshly boiled water and lemon juice, on track for Elderflower Champagne!

And just beside our camp fire we discover tiny fruits on a tree we had previously overlooked, that now reveals itself to be a Peach tree!

The luxury of the moment is our newly reinstated fire-powered bathtub! A traditional system still used in rural parts across Germany, it is very simple: a cylinder with water inlet and tap outlet into the bath and a small fire cage beneath that can only take stumpy logs yet when in full swing, has your bath ready within an hour. It is the only room downstairs that is renovated, tiled and clean, yet the experience makes you feel like you are in a state-of-the art hotel!

This is my last day of being thirty two. I remember when I turned twenty two, in my final year at art college, wondering what it meant to be an artist, whether indeed it was possible to simply be an artist, whether there was indeed any point, whether I would ever find the existence that truly satisfies my values, dreams and ideals.

I think that now I may well have found it...   

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @

May 22, 2012

Neverending Floorboards

This whole week has been dominated by floorboards. What appeared to be a day's work ended up being many days, residues of dark paint only disappearing with the help of patient and meticulous attention from the angle grinder, followed by the band-sander and then some really uneven parts by hand.

Now that every board has been rubbed with linseed oil, the effect is stunning. The honey coloured boards bring a golden sheen to the yellow walls bathing the whole room in a peaceful glow. Only the skirting boards still need to be fitted and then at last we have one room ready to fully inhabit.

Saskia (our big girl)’s room now has a smooth layer of lime plaster. We have been using lime from three sacks found on site. Rather old and clumpy it looked only fit for the dump. However, once sieved, it has proven to be perfectly suitable for the job. Using two parts lime with seven parts sand from the heap left by the track (mixed with just enough water to make it into a cake-like mixture) it is a pleasure to work with. It takes a lot longer to set than normal plaster, making timing less crucial and the job altogether less pressured.

The most challenging thing right now is the lack of water upstairs. We keep a demijohn filled by the fruit basket, but it hardly lasts half a day. Every time we want to boil a kettle or cook some grain on the electric hob, we have to trudge downstairs to fill the vessels and then of course there’s the washing up! This we do outside by the well (a crude pit where the spring overflow is captured at present) and our motley crew of crockery decorates the rusty iron cover of the pit on a daily basis.

The summer house has had a makeover, with new roofing felt and salvaged windows (found in a dusty corner of the hall) fitted on the south side. The west wall and part of the south wall had been taken out by the previous owner to create a semi open shelter, but the bottom rim was beginning to rot and the whole thing felt frustratingly devoid of a clear function.

The western side now has a third of the slats back in (with a space for the entrance left open) and two more windows acquired from a friend fit the remaining gaps almost precisely. The side facing the yard once had a door. Taking about a metre of slats off the top now makes for a neat little hatch. It is far too tempting to use this space as a burger shack or ice cream bar! At this stage it is ear marked to be a sorting shed for produce from the fields, but there’s no reason not to use it for both, if the occasion should arise!

Potato planting continues in the top field, still hardly denting the two donated sacks of seed potatoes surplus to requirements at the Demeter farm. (We’ve been eating lots of them too! Once the old skin is peeled off they’re still very tasty and really hold their shape for salads and roasts).

It is an endless task preparing the ground as couch grass is rife and we fill three or four buckets with roots clearing just one row. On a trip back to the house to make a round of tea I notice a figure beneath the three linden trees.

She is bent over a pile of rocks at the foot of the trees, her bleach blond hair hiding her face. She looks up and greets me as if I’ve strayed into her garden! I can see she’s hardly more than 15 and guess immediately that she must be the daughter of the previous owner. She explains that her cat lies buried there, along with another, a chicken or two and who knows what else, she says. She has a small wooden cross in her hand and a bunch of wild flowers. I assure her we won’t dig up her spot, and leave her to it.

We have been agonising over a name for this place. Those three linden trees have always felt important, with their single crown and thick canopy, well aged and very healthy. But there is already a Lindenhof here. Then there’s the hill behind the farm – the Rotstein – Saxony’s oldest nature reserve.

Or do we think of the people, those that began this place? It used to be known as the Hallische Hof, after the Halle family who lived here in the twenties and most likely built the small house and perhaps even the extension of the main house. (We found a box of rotting books belonging to Mr Halle in one of the buildings. Amongst them were a couple of small passbooks filled with solidarity stamps from Chile, Russia and the German Democratic Republic, along with volumes on communist Russia and the history of the GDR.)

Should we choose a name to honour the idealism of that time? Or create one to capture a sense of the future we believe in? Or find words to exemplify the values embedded in what we are doing here, right now?

Maybe you have an idea?

May 14, 2012

The Final Transit

The week ahead is set to be the last split between worlds – the old world of the town with its nearby shops and bakery at the end of the street; the school bus five minutes walk from the door; the loud clanging of the old Nikolaiturm, our time keeper and alarm clock; the horizon of quirky rooftops and steeple towers of the majestic Görlitzer Peterskirche; the cobbled streets that hinder cycling and high heels yet carry a charm that ensures you take your time to observe the life of the street and the old buildings painted like dolls house relics, interspersed with derelict others, dusty and crumbling...

...and the brave new world of our farm in the middle of a village on the edge of a hill in the borderlands where three countries meet. The middle of nowhere, the middle of everywhere, the middle of Europe.

The flat in the main farmhouse is brushing up well. The end room is now a beaming yellow with white borders typical of the east (looks like Berlin I'm told!) and only awaits sanded and oiled floorboards and skirting. Plastering the kids rooms is on course, following the tedious job of wire brushing the old paintwork to allow the plaster to grip.

The middle room is our all-in-one camp site with a dining table, a few mismatched chairs and our bed, tubs of paint and a box of tools and heaps of blankets and clothes in the corners.

It is not easy living in a building site, but by the end of this week we aim to have the sleeping quarters finished. Cooking and eating outside whenever possible makes the whole experience into more of a holiday reminiscent of our time last summer, on the road with our caravan, parking up in beautiful places, following our noses and intuition until the final destination revealed itself.

Whilst I and our dear friend Patrick (who has now decided to stay for good, finding this life of work that he enjoys with a roof over his head and food cooked for him far more attractive than the prospects of a job in the crowded west with a boss he dislikes and no particular aim to save for) focus our attention on the house, my husband disappears outdoors to commune with the plants, returning when hunger calls and to evaluate the next stages of work.

Beside the greenhouse is now mown and spread with compost ready for pumpkins, courgettes and squashes. When they have established themselves the grass and weeds can freely grow back around them as gourds love growing wild, sheltered from winds by other plants whilst basking in the full sun.

In a shack at the corner of the barn is the remnants of a dry compost toilet. After cleaning up the space and finding a suitable bucket it works brilliantly, with an inbuilt urine separator to ensure an odourless experience! We will allow the solids to decompose in a heap away from the house before using the resulting compost to assist our hedge plants later in the year. The pure urine fertiliser can be used as it is.

Encouraged by the progress of the main farm house, we have now decided to focus all of our attention on it (in tandem with the gardens), leaving the small house for when time and money permits. The downstairs structure with its arches and raw, thick walls can be renovated from scratch with natural materials and will house our commercial kitchen. It only makes sense that our family gets to benefit from the ultimate cooking and dining space, allowing for a clear distinction between our daily life and the lives of others, who would then be enabled to find solace in the small house as a holiday refuge on the land.

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @

May 7, 2012


Beltane (May Day) is a celebration of growth and fertility and the abundance of the height of Spring. At this time, plants are in full growth and our pasture is growing quicker than the sheep can eat it!

Traditionally, animals are driven out to pasture at Beltane, only returning at the time of the great fires of Samhain (Halloween), when light is gradually diminishing, cold is increasing and all but a few prepare for hibernation.

The fires of Beltane however offer us the opportunity to rid ourselves of winter gripes and welcome in new ideas and fresh energy for the busy months ahead. Here in Saxony, "Walpurgisnacht" - the German equivalent of Beltane - is celebrated with a 'Hexenfeuer' (literally 'witch-fire') in every village. Some even have life-sized straw witches balanced precariously on huge mounds of sticks!

We are invited to a neighbouring family for a small 'hexenfeuer' and are very glad of the invitation, as we end up getting the best of both worlds without the hectic clamour of fires too hot to come close to and crowds too loud and inebriated to keep track of the kids...

After our feast of grilled meat, salads and a shot of schnapps to settle things down, we stroll up the hill to be met with the spectacular sight of a dozen or so fires dotting the valley ridge and horizon beyond. The neighbour's boys and our big girl excitedly take turns with binoculars in between bursts of chasing each other and hiding in the long grass.

At one point we all simply stand there, soaking up the peace, breathing in the scent of fresh apple blossom and revelling in the drama of bright orange light bursting out of the lush green landscape. The kids sit in the grass nibbling sorrel and daisies, teaching each other the names in their own languages, happy to eat salad of their own choosing!

These are the last big fires allowed in this area before the end of October. If you want to have anything bigger than a discreet camp fire, the village authorities have to be consulted and a small fee must usually be paid.

Now it feels like we have really arrived here. Every day the workload multiplies as everything grows faster than we can possibly keep track, yet the abundance brings with it a sense of purpose and satisfaction, adding meaning to the farm in the middle of Europe that we bought because we could afford it.

Inside, the end room of the flat is looking much more presentable with two of the three window frames sanded and painted with outdoor gloss paint and the interior walls plastered smooth and ready for some colour. The windows are old-style double glazed (typical of the former German Democratic Republic) whose wooden frames have remained untreated for a very long time. The wood is soft and porous, rapidly soaking up the paint. They now look set to withstand a good few more years.

The friendly neighbour whose sheep happily graze our overgrown pasture also happens to be a trained electrician who, as a friend of the original owners, installed the entire electrics back in the 1980's! They turn out not to be as dodgy as we thought, only appearing to be so after the recent internal rearranging of walls and extracting of sockets by the previous owners. After a brief look round, shaking his head in disbelief at the haphazard changes, he quickly volunteers to sort out the dangerous elements and advise us as and when we're ready on how best to proceed with refurbishments. 

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @