Almost exactly two years ago I went to stay with my friend Alex, his wife Siobhan and their three children. They were building their own home from recycled materials and I spent three days throwing balls of cob (a mixture of sand, straw, peat, clay and water) up a ladder so Alex could top out the walls.
Two years on I returned to find that five have become six and a house that has become a home.
It’s still a project. The outside walls need a lime render. The inside walls need plastering. The partition walls upstairs haven’t been finished yet. The loo, such as it is, is just a bucket. We started work on a lean-to out the back that will provide space for a compost loo and a tool shed.
But there’s so much to love about this house.
The thing that struck me as most overwhelmingly right was that by building the walls from cob the house had a sense of having been there forever. There are no straight lines with the walls; they’re organic, and as such they echo the buildings our ancestors built where straight lines were very much secondary to throwing up a building that would provide shelter and stand both weather and the test of time.
But unlike historic cob-built houses this place takes the best of the modern world by incorporating large (reclaimed) doubled glazed windows that let in great splashes of light. It makes for a wonderfully human and uplifting living space.
It should give us all pause for thought – when so many of us are slaves to mortgages and terrified by ever rising property prices, the idea of breaking our chains and putting a roof over our heads to live free is compelling.
And that sense of freedom is pervasive. There are very few places where I feel able to relax so comprehensively. I could feel the tension start to drain out of me almost the moment I arrived. It’s incredibly quiet. The air is clear. The food was great – both tasty and energising (thanks Siobhan).
The other really striking thing was how well their children are doing. Having been home schooled and then sent to a local primary, both the older kids (ten and eight and a half) are back learning at home. However they seem to need very little guidance. Half the time they were buried in books, discovering the world for themselves. They simply find learning exciting. They were also busy turning out Harry Potter comics. It really made me question whether the glorified holding pens for children we call schools are more of a hindrance to learning than a help. Even with the distractions of videos and computer games (both regulated by their parents) the children seemed really self-motivated when it came to learning.
I think the key thing is that both parents have to be committed to this sort of choice. It’s not the easiest but, given the choice and the benefit of hindsight, it’s one I might have considered for Luca.