Six years ago, the Strawbridge family decided to leave their suburban home in Malvern and set up a smallholding. They set a tough brief: a 21st-century lifestyle, with public transport links, broadband and mobile reception, and they didn’t want to scrimp on home comforts.
After an extensive search, they settled on Newhouse Farm: a 400-year-old listed building with 3.5 acres in Cornwall. The BBC Two show It’s Not Easy Being Green followed their progress and now, after completing a third series, Dick Strawbridge and his son James are inviting people onto the farm to learn the joys of sustainable living on a range of courses. Through a mixture of theory, farm tours and demonstrations, An Introduction to Sustainable Living covers renewable energy, permaculture, DIY biodiesel and rearing animals on a small plot.
The theory part took place in a converted barn with a projector at one end, piles of pumpkins in the corner, bunting over the ceiling and a choice of straw bales or wicker chairs to sit on. As Dick jumped forward to welcome each arrival, I got chatting to my fellow students: city escapees such as Lisa, who’d bought four acres of land and now wanted to learn how to generate her own electricity, and city-folk such as myself, who loved the idea but lacked the land.
First up was a refresher’s guide to generating electricity. Scribbling on a flip chart, Dick hurtled through the basics of creating power, and then showed us how to add up our energy usage before revealing the hidden factors that boost electricity bills. Did you know that if you replace 30 50W downlighters in your kitchen with 4W low-energy bulbs, for instance, you could save £50 a month?
After our heads were filled with facts, the chance to fill our stomachs provided a welcome break. As well as sampling a Celebrity Masterchef finalist’s cooking, this hearty lunch, Dick told us, ensures participants don’t flake out during the intensive course. “We work on Duracell batteries here. If I get excited, I can up my bit-rate and speak even faster,” he laughed. We piled our plates high with home-smoked cheese, bread and a warming stew in readiness for our afternoon tour of the farm.
Water, wind and sun
The weather wasn’t looking good, but every cloud has a self-sufficient lining and it was a perfect day for demonstrating wind power. Before we got on to the fun stuff, Dick introduced us to one of the most important gadgets in a sustainable life: a wireless energy monitor. You can sit in a dark room and read by candlelight, but if your computer’s on standby, you’ll still be munching through the kilowatts. “It’s important to reduce your energy consumption before you even think about generating your own electricity,” he told us.
Renewable energy is more reliable than you think and in Scotland, Wales and the West Country you can easily generate 3,000 kilowatt-hours per year with a £300 wind turbine, earning you £400 per year. Hilltops are best, but you risk NIMBYism as the turbines (in Dick’s words) “stick out like a greyhound’s dangly bits”.
The most surprising thing about creating your own electricity is that when you sell it back to the
National Grid, you get paid for the amount you make regardless of how much you use. A row of solar panels might cost £12,000, but a guaranteed income of £1,200 per year takes some of the sting out.
Next James gave us a quick introduction to permaculture, which, in simple terms, means designing your garden to work with nature. As James put it, “it’s the lazy way of gardening that gets results.” James then walked us through Newhouse Farm’s various plots, explaining how creative thinking and common-sense can work wonders in even the smallest garden. Companion planting, which involves growing certain flowers next to your veggies to encourage the bees to pollinate; choosing plants that attract aphid-eating insects or building a pond to encourage frogs that will tuck into pesky slugs, is just one handy permaculture concept that you can use.
Aside from the eye-opening benefits of making your own power, it was the Strawbridge attitude I found most inspiring. Living in the city, I found it comforting to know you don’t need a 20-acre plot to live sustainably, and that there’s nothing to stop you working with what space you have today “Patience is overrated,” Dick told us, as we filed out of the barn. “You don’t have to wait for the planets to align before you change your life. If you want to do something, jump in with both feet.”
HOW TO GET THERE
Newhouse Farm is a short walk from Par train station, which has direct hourly services to Bristol and London.
FIND OUT MORE
An Introduction to Sustainable Living, taught by Dick and James Strawbridge, covers: solar, water and wind power, bio-diesel, permaculture and livestock, and costs £165 including a homecooked lunch.
ECO Gypsy Caravan
Newhouse Farm, near Fowey
Tucked away in a quiet corner on Newhouse Farm, the beautifully renovated gypsy caravan is powered by its own solar panel and has an outdoor fire pit.
Sun-Thur £95/night, Fri-Sat £105/night, min two-nights.
Sam’s on the Beach
This old lifeboat station on the water’s edge boasts fresh seafood, from pints of prawns
to lobster thermidor, and is great for pizza, too.