Downshifting for beginners

A decade ago, Lynn Huggins-Cooper quit the rat race for a better life in the country. But, she says, you needn't move to the sticks to live a greener life - you can stay put and ring the changes
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The Independent Online

Twenty years ago, I proudly bundled up my newborn and set off up Barking Road in east London. Ten minutes later he was covered in specks of dirt and my quest to move to the country began.

Two years later (and with two small children now in tow), we moved to a village in County Durham. I worked nights in a bail hostel so I could be at home with the children during the day. Sometimes this meant I stayed awake for 60 hours at a stretch - but I was young and could cope. My husband and I parented in shifts. He came in and I went out.

The children went to school; I trained as a teacher. Goodbye night-cover duties - but hello paperwork, stress over Ofsted and nights spent in meetings. I felt as though I never saw my children, who were growing fast. Something had to give.

I answered an ad in the TES about writing for a publisher. I wrote a sample - and got my first contract. I was writing and teaching. I began to write for other publishers. Could I write full time? Life stepped in and made the decision for me. We had been talking about moving to a house with land with a view to growing our own food; keeping a few hens - our own taste of The Good Life. Then my dream home, a rambling sandstone farmhouse with 14 acres, came on the market - and it was just outside the village.

Well it could be turned into my dream home. There were derelict outbuildings and the field in front of the house was full of scrap and rubble. But downshifters need to be full of pioneering spirit and not afraid of physical labour! We made a deal and our lives changed completely. I gave up the day job.

The first morning I woke up in my new house, with sunlight flooding through the window at the end of the bed and sheep bleating on the hillside, I cannot describe the feeling of wellbeing that flooded through me. I felt as though I was on holiday for the first few weeks, as I wandered around my fields and sat in a happy heap with butterflies and flowers around me. Nearly 10 years later I feel the same way.

There is something amazing about wondering what to make for dinner, deciding you want cauliflower cheese, then going out into the garden to cut the fresh cauliflower and herbs to make it. Gathering eggs from your own hens? Sublime. We can even pick wild food in our fields and hedges, content in the knowledge that they are free from pesticides and other chemical nasties. These experiences are priceless - for us and for our children. It's not The Good Life - it's The Great Life!

Downshift to the Good Life: Scale It Down and Live It Up by Lynne Huggins Cooper is published by Infinite Ideas Limited, £12.99

Ten easy steps to the good life

1 Tame your finances

Having money under control gives you a breather and can release you from a job you hate. If you want to stop working yourself into the ground for money, don't spend it. To give you an insight, track your spending for a week. Be really anal and write down everything you spend, even including paying for a cup of coffee. It's tedious and seems small-minded, but it gives you an idea of where your money is going - and that could be a real wake-up call.

2 Learn to be cheap

Try to live frugally. That doesn't mean giving up all the things you love, but take a hard look at ways you can save money. Small things can make a difference. Use energy-saving light bulbs, hang washing outside to dry, try batch-cooking and freezing food to save power and time: the list is endless. Don't be afraid to buy secondhand. It's just a young antique.

3 De-junk your life

We all collect piles of crap that we drag along behind us, but the more we have, the more there is to keep clean and tidy. So buy less and keep less. Make sure what you do keep is useful or gives you pleasure. Join Freecycle ( www.freecycle.org/) and empty your home of all manner of "treasures" - handing them on to someone who will actually use them.

4 Start growing your own

A big part of downshifting is growing your own food. Create a fruit and vegetable garden. You can grow food plants together with flowers - just like in the old country cottage gardens. You can even grow an amazing amount of food in pots in a yard or on a patio. If you like doing it, apply for an allotment. If an allotment's not big enough, and you don't live in the middle of a city, consider getting a smallholding.

5 Rethink your working life

Can you work from home some days? That will avoid some of your commuting stress. Better still, can you supplement your income in any way to reduce the hours you need to work away from home? Putting away a little extra each month earned from selling handmade or home-grown produce - or selling things on eBay - could help you to build your rat-race escape fund.

6 Get a taste of country life

Take a holiday in winter on a working farm in an area you favour. The trip won't give you a definitive experience, but it will give you an important taste of winter in the country. The days will be short and probably bitterly cold. Spend the majority of your time outside to see how it feels. It can be brutal.

A daydream of living and working in the country is a great thing, but reality can be harsh. Be prepared for long hours, and dirty and physically demanding work. Remember that livestock needs feeding and tending even in deep snow and high winds, and the chores still need to be done. Look on this as an initiation.

7 Keep chickens

Despite bird-flu scaremongering, keeping hens is a delight. For very little effort, they repay you with eggs that taste better than any others you'll have eaten before, including free range. Because you are getting the eggs fresh from the hen - and you know what she's eaten and how she lives - the golden-yolked beauties she gives you are without compare. Even a suburban garden can support a trio of hens, but don't buy a cockerel unless you want to be bombarded with complaints. Hens do not need a cockerel to lay eggs - you only need a cockerel if you want eggs to be fertile, for hatching.

8 Take a reality check

If you're thinking of downshifting, make a list of pros and cons. This might sound like the old-fashioned advice your mum used to give you, but it works. Dare to daydream. Create the picture of how you want your life to be. Once you have this in your mind, craft your list of downshifting pros - more time with the children, less stress, no commuting, being more self-sufficient.

But consider the cons, too. If you go the whole hog and downshift to move somewhere remote, will you be able to cope with isolation, hard work, harsh weather and surviving on a reduced income? Read as many personal accounts of downshifting as possible so you get a realistic picture of the bliss - and agony - you may experience.

9 Ask the family

Many people who decide to downshift have kids. In fact, your kids may well be the reason you decide to downshift. What's the downshifting experience like for them - rural heaven or pastoral purgatory? Involve your children in the decision to downshift - and how far you take it. Air any qualms openly. Talk to other families who have downshifted to get views from other children of a comparable age to your own. You can contact other families via downshifting forums, smallholding groups, etc. http://groups.yahoo. com/group/DownshiftingtotheGoodLife/; www.acountrylife.com/forums.php

10 Make use of your skills

"Lets" is a system of local community-based mutual aid networks, ideal for downshifters who have limited financial resources. People in Lets (local exchange trading system or scheme) barter goods and services with each another. If you think you haven't got much to offer a Lets group, think again. Start by making a list of all the things you love doing. This may be massage, gardening, cooking, childcare, craft work, anything. Then make a list of the goods or services you'd like to have access to, but don't, because you can't afford them or can't justify spending money on them. Once you have your lists, you're ready to trade. See www.letslinkuk.net/

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