Rebecca Laughton: Land girl
PUBLISHED: 11:00 19 November 2008 | UPDATED: 15:36 20 February 2013
When it comes to leading a thoroughly 'green' lifestyle, most of us prefer to leave it to others. Stephen Swann meets someone for whom this is simply not an option
How 'green' is your life? If you are anything like me you probably think you're pretty green. Like me, I'll bet you recycle the garbage. You don't run a gas guzzler. You live in a well-insulated house. You switch off the lights. You try not to buy veg that has been lugged halfway across the planet. Who are we kidding? We can't really claim to be leading a green lifestyle. At best our lives are only 'greenish'. If you want to know what being 'green' really means let me introduce you to Rebecca Laughton.
I recently met Rebecca, the author of the recently published book Surviving and Thriving on the Land, at her tiny home high above Chesil Beach. It turned out to be a meeting both enjoyable and thought-provoking.
Rebecca was born in 1974 near Guildford. Her father, who is now retired, was an oceanographer; her mother was, when raising a family allowed, a school teacher. Rebecca went to school in Godalming and Haslemere.
"They were private schools, I regret to say," Rebecca tells me, nailing her egalitarian colours to the mast right from the outset of our chat. "I really wanted to be a farmer. My grandfather was a farmer and we had a big garden at home. I had read John Seymour's classic The Complete Guide to Self Sufficiency and had come to believe that modern farming methods were unsustainable. After school and before university I went to India. I went there feeling I could introduce Seymour's way of doing things, but when I got there I realised that there were very capable local people already doing something very similar. I was, I suppose, rather naïve."
Rebecca went to Newcastle University where she read Geography. Whilst at university her studies led to a deeper understanding of the problems posed by modern farming methods and also hardened her resolve to do something practical on leaving. She gained some experience by working on both organic and non-organic farms and then did an MSc at Wye College in Sustainable Farming. From there she got a job with Somerset Food Links looking at ways to use locally grown food in school meals - this, incidentally, long before Jamie Oliver's much-publicised campaign got under way.
Her contract ended after two-and-a-half years and, looking for ways to continue living and working in the South West, she joined a community at Tinkers Bubble in Somerset. Here, over a period of 12 years or so, a number of like-minded people had been living and managing the land without fossil fuels. They have 40 acres of plantation forestry, old orchards, gardens and grassland, and instead of coal, oil and natural gas, they use hand tools, a horse, wind and solar power, and firewood for cooking, heating their homes and fuelling the steam engine that powers their sawmill.
It was whilst living at Tinkers Bubble that a friend told Rebecca that her way of life was, to put it bluntly, making her look physically very tired indeed. Here's Rebecca: "My friend tempted me with the easier option of giving up my green lifestyle and getting a proper job with a salary. Having experienced the satisfaction of living at Tinkers Bubble I was loath to detach myself from them. Not only that, my awareness of the ecological implications of the fossil-fuel-powered consumer lifestyle meant that I would feel I was betraying my beliefs if I returned to a more conventional way of living."
In an attempt to learn about how other communities worked and to find out how the people in them solved the problem of keeping up physical energy levels, Rebecca decided to visit communities in both the UK and France. She set off in April 2005 - on her bike.
The journey south through France took Rebecca to 19 different land-based projects and she eventually finished up staying with a community high in the Pyrenees. Sometimes she would pitch her tent anywhere quiet rather than stay on a farm or with a community. She cooked on a tiny stove. "You have to have your wits about you living like that," she tells me. "There is no routine but life becomes very immediate and somehow liberating. I got chased by dogs. One dog ate my saddle! The country people were friendly though, and the drivers were much more considerate of cyclists than they are here."
This journey, and subsequent journeys in the UK, led to Rebecca writing her book. She eventually returned to Tinkers Bubble but stayed for only six months. "I had to earn a living and when the opportunity came my way to move here to Dorset and work on a farm growing organic vegetables I took it," she says. 'I arrived here in 2006. I work on the land in the morning and write in the afternoon. It's free accommodation. There's lots of great fresh veg thrown in and the combination of a day made up of some manual and some mental work makes for a perfect balance."
I ask her about where she would like to be in five years or so. "I would like to have my own bit of land and build my own energy-efficient eco-house. I would cultivate the land using horse-drawn tools - I hope to have a cob of about 15 hands. I want to produce organic veg and top fruit and sell it locally, possibly operating a box scheme."