The lure of the good life

Smallholdings are `in', reports Daniel Butler
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Indy Lifestyle Online
John Seymour is a walking advertisement for the philosophy of "small means good": a fit, healthy man of 82 who could easily pass for 60.

"We are genuinely self-sufficient: we produce all our own food and live and eat extremely well," says this father of the British self-sufficient movement.

He is in London on a flying visit, and it is clear from the way that he keeps glancing at his watch that two days in town have been more than enough. Now he is chafing to get back to his smallholding in County Wexford: "London is nothing more than an ugly muddle of buildings joined on to each other," he says. "Most people who live in cities are purely parasitical. One day the infrastructure will break down. They will find nothing happens when they turn on the tap or switch on the light. What will we do then if we've lost all our old skills?"

He says this desire to master dying crafts lies behind his decision in 1956 to buy a smallholding in Suffolk and take up farming: "I thought I was the only person in the world trying to rediscover lost skills and get closer to the land," he says. "Then I found a group of people in America doing the same thing, but there was no one else in Britain moving in that direction." The picture was the same eight years later when he moved to Pembrokeshire with his wife and three daughters, but over the last 30 years much has changed: "Now `drop-ins' [as he calls his fellow New Age peasants] almost outnumber the locals."

The new converts were a mixed blessing, and as they moved in, so Seymour moved west, upping sticks for Ireland 16 years ago, where he now has a five acre holding based around a crossbred Jersey-Angus cow: "She is the middle of the arch," he explains proudly. "Her milk feeds us, the pigs and the poultry. She provides all our milk, cheese and butter - not to mention all that manure, which keeps the place fertile." Tea, coffee and cereals need to be bought, but otherwise this small plot feeds three adults full-time and about 80 students a year, who come to learn his skills on week-long courses.

There are no figures to back up Seymour's anecdotal evidence about a shift to "the good life", but estate agents along the Welsh border (where smallholdings are still common), say that demand for such properties is booming.

Seymour has certainly played a part as a sort of spiritual leader for this move. In 1973 he and his wife Sally published a manual, Self-Sufficiency, which was an instant best-seller. This was followed up in 1976 by an illustrated guide, The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, which has since sold more than 650,000 copies across 13 countries. As a result, he has inevitably been called the movement's mentor, a term that he resents intensely: "I'm certainly not a guru," he protests. "I don't have a turban or a flowing robe. If I can inspire a few people to make their own beer, that's good enough for me."

At first glance, the demand for his courses and suitable smallholdings, at a time when the general agricultural trend is towards larger and larger farms, would seem to suggest that Seymour's vision is catching on. Appearances are deceptive, however, says the estate agent Ryan Williams, at McCartneys in Hay-on-Wye in Herefordshire. He sees few buyers who are committed to total self-sufficiency: "The smallholding kick which was all the rage a few years back has stumbled with the harsh reality of Welsh winters," he says. Ironically, Williams believes that much of the impetus towards self-sufficiency comes from those same electrical consumer goods that Seymour's "hardline" greens despise.

Thanks to faxes, improved telecommunications and - above all - computers, it is increasingly possible for people to "telecommute". "There is no typical buyer, but many are people who work from home," says Williams. Other small farms sell to people who have taken early redundancy and want an active retirement, while some go to young professionals who want a safe environment for their children and are prepared to commute relatively long distances to the Midlands or M4 corridor.

Thus it seems that a desire for an improved quality of life, rather than a romantic desire to produce their own food, is the main motive behind today's New Age peasantry. Recent research by the Henley Centre for Forecasting suggests a widespread desire across the population to shift to a more leisured lifestyle: 42 per cent of those surveyed said they would like to go part time if they could afford it. A quarter said they would take a lower-paid job if it meant less stress, and 28 per cent said they would choose more leisure rather than more money. Of those questioned, 16 per cent said they would even take a pay cut if it meant they could spend more time at home.

Of course, once they are burdened with a mortgage, personal pensions and credit cards, it can be difficult or impossible for many people to make the financial adjustments that come with a slower pace of life. This explains why so many of Williams's customers are either young parents keen to swap small, but valuable, urban flats for cheaper, big rural properties, or older people with adequate savings to take early retirement. Even for these people, however, there can be hidden surprises in the form of things previously taken for granted - such as the absence of local supermarkets and restaurants.

But Seymour has words of grudging encouragement for those reluctant to leave urban life: "Cities are desirable, provided they're not too big," he says. "Civilisation gives the true countryman the benefits of culture, universities and so on. After all, the Greece of Homer's time - where there were no cities to speak of - was a poorer place than that of Plato."