Staying put

Four years ago this week, we walked out of a notary’s office in Luarca as the proud new owners of Casa Victorio, a rundown hovel and several outbuildings set in eight acres of Asturian mountain pasture and woodland. For us, it was the start of a new adventure and – in all honesty – a huge leap into the unknown. Unlike France, where we had lived previously, we weren’t very familiar with Spain or Spanish culture before moving here and the only Spanish we spoke had been snatched from a few weeks of basic evening classes. (My brain was so fried linguistically that I wrote Espagna on our change of address notifications, a word I’d completely made up by mixing Spanish and French. Of course, it should have been España. I’m glad to say my Spanish has improved hugely since then!) Our move could quite easily have been an unmitigated disaster. However, as with any major decision in our life, we had asked ourselves one question: what was the worse thing that could happen? This has always been our acid test and it’s far more encouraging and empowering than all those ‘what if . . ?’ worries. It’s so easy to let a multitude of unwarranted fears stop us from shrugging off the cosy stagnation of an existence in our comfort zone instead of grabbing the opportunity to do something different, to really live life to the full. I’m so glad we took the plunge. Our life here is wonderful; it is, as the locals would say, una vida muy rica, muy preciosa.

Smoke from the chimney, veggies in the garden, washing on the line . . . this is our home!
Casa Victorio

Why, then, have we recently been contemplating the idea of leaving and returning to the UK? What on earth were we thinking? Well, for starters, there’s Brexit. We are not naive; before coming here we carried out masses of research and did the sums many times over but sadly lacked a crystal ball to tell us what would happen in the UK referendum held just one month after we moved here in May 2016. I have never wanted to use my blog as a political platform and I have no intention of starting now but suffice to say, Brexit has brought us no joy and done us no favours; stripped of the privilege of EU citizenship, our future here is very uncertain and may be a reason to leave in a ‘jump before we’re possibly pushed’ sort of way. On reflection, though, it has actually become a reason to stay, to enjoy and honour that very privilege that allowed us to be here in the first place. There are about 1000 UK nationals living in Asturias, scattered through the principality with no obvious expat epicentre; certainly, we are the only Brits in the village but as such, we have been welcomed unreservedly by our Asturian neighbours. True, they probably find us a little ‘exotic’ and eccentric but as immigrants living in their community and country, we could not have been made more welcome. They are the friendliest and most open, honest, tolerant and generous people I have ever met. A walk or run in the locality is more an exercise in smiles, waves, greetings and conversation than anything else; one elderly chap who walks miles every morning always greets me with a hearty ‘¡Viva la inglesa!’ and gives me a high five. You cannot put a price on such moments. It’s all about cultural exchange, about friendship and acceptance and kindness and being downright human towards one another regardless of nationality, colour or creed. Why turn our backs on something so precious?

Our friendly village

Far more important than the forces of shady political ideology is the climate crisis and here we have a conundrum: if we are truly committed to doing everything we can to leave a viable planet for our children and grandchildren (which we are), then isn’t it hypocritical to be living somewhere that necessitates foreign travel if we are to spend time with them? Surely a return to the UK where we could in theory draw a line under all future trips abroad is one of the greatest gestures we could make? Well maybe, but on reflection it’s not that straightforward because it’s not just about the travelling and any balanced judgement needs to be far more holistic. I’ve written about the WWF Carbon Footprint Calculator before https://footprint.wwf.org.uk/#/; it’s a somewhat imperfect and basic tool but it is useful in giving an idea of how our carbon footprint measures up and revisiting it every few months can be helpful in tracking improvements. Currently, we are weighing in with 7.5 tonnes of carbon in the last twelve months: that’s 72% of (or 28% less than) the UK government’s 2020 target of 10.5 tonnes per household. I’m pretty pleased with that; obviously we’re not going to be complacent – there’s always room for improvement, after all – but the fact is, this measure includes a return flight to the UK. True, take that away and we’re down to 7.1 tonnes (68%) but my point is, it’s the rest of our lifestyle that makes the biggest impact on green living . . . and ironically, much of that is down to climate.

Winters here are mild; some mornings can be a bit chilly but on the whole we don’t need much heating in the house. Like all old buildings here, the thick stone walls are designed to retain warmth in colder weather and keep the house cool in summer (although it’s never so hot as to need air conditioning). When we renovated the house, insulation was a top priority and the upshot of that is that we can heat the whole house with a single wood-burning stove. We fitted a couple of electric radiators and a heated towel rail as back-up but apart from testing them when they were installed, we have never switched them on. There is no heating at all in our bedroom; we simply don’t need it. In the run of mild weather we’ve had since Christmas, on many days we have only lit the stove in the evening and that is ample time to warm the house through as well as cook dinner, heat water and dry or air washing if necessary. The logs come from our own wood and as such are what John Seymour described as the best form of solar heating. We burn no gas or oil; we do use electricity but our consumption is a fraction of the UK and Spanish household average (in our last bill, less than a third of the cost was consumption, the rest was standing charges, tax and the like). We could not easily live like this through a British winter.

Logs seasoning against the horreo wall; once dried, they will be stacked inside the stone shed.

Climate also plays a key role in our food provenance. We grow most of our own fruit and vegetables and every meal is based round what’s good in the garden. Other food we source as locally as possible and much of what we eat is produced in Asturias – which has a similar area to Wales but a third of the population – or other parts of Spain. The benign climate means we can grow sufficient vegetables all year round and there is no such thing as a ‘hungry gap’; how can there be when the autumn-planted peas are dripping with pods in February?!

The vegetable garden is never empty: we are currently harvesting kale, broccoli, cabbage, Florence fennel, chard, carrots, beetroot, celeriac, leeks, parsnips, mizuna, mustards, Chinese cabbage, pak choi, rocket, landcress, lamb’s lettuce and spring onions.

The carbon footprint calculator also flags us up as lousy consumers. Our normal monthly expenditure is zero for new clothes and shoes (don’t need any), restaurant and takeaway meals (don’t want any) and pets (don’t have any). We spend a minimal amount on grooming products (mainly toothpaste) as I make most of our toiletries and the ingredients are pennies, and we never buy new gadgets, furniture or other household stuff unless something is totally broken and beyond repair . . . and we actually need to replace it. We live on a very low income but still save money each month because we simply don’t spend it. I’m not condoning travel but we usually drive to the UK rather than fly and even if we make two road trips like that a year, our annual mileage hovers around the average mark because when we’re here, we barely use the car at all. If we can reduce that to a single trip, our footprint will shrink even more. All in all, we can live the simplest of lives here, doing our best for the planet in as many ways as possible. Why leave in a hurry?

So, with the decision made to stay put we have turned our thoughts to a wave of exciting new projects which should help to improve our patch further and reduce our carbon footprint even more. Our starting point was the orchard which in many ways is an underused resource. I’m still reading and enjoying Patrick Whitefield’s Earth Care Manual and I particularly like his emphasis on a balance between ‘earth care’ and ‘people care’ and the need for places to work well for everyone and everything that inhabits them. Where the orchard is concerned, there is certainly more space for planting trees and possibilities for improving habitats for wildlife but also the chance to make it a more enjoyable and attractive space for ourselves. We started at the farmers’ co-op, choosing two locally grown bare-rooted trees, a greengage ‘Reina Claudia’ and cherry ‘Picota.’ (We plan to plant more citrus trees, too, but as they are all pot-grown there is no great rush). Planting two trees shouldn’t have taken more than a few minutes but when Roger started to dig the second hole, an ominous clang of spade against metal suggested this wouldn’t be so easy. Buried in the bank was yet another metal bedstead. Good grief, is there no end to them?

Cue a whole afternoon of stripping the bank back to remove the offending article, then shoring it up with a stone wall to create a small planting terrace – far more work than anticipated but hopefully we will be blessed with a good crop of cherries after giving the tree all that love!

How lovely that the excavation work had to be paused briefly to relocate a fire salamander; what a vibrant reminder of the rich diversity of life with which we share this space and the responsibility we have towards caring for it.

The orchard is a peaceful spot with lovely views of the village and valley and delicious green shade under the walnut trees in summer but we seldom spend time there because the land is so steep and access is difficult. Roger dug several turf paths when we first moved here but they are constantly undermined by voles and the slopes are very slippery, especially if the grass is wet. Time, then, to really sort the access issue out once and for all by making more permanent paths and digging in flat stones to create steps.

The beginnings of a stone staircase.

One corner is a real mess to tackle, a pile of rocks on a steep slope smothered in brambles with no way through. I know brambles are brilliant for wildlife but as we leave huge tracts to scramble through the wood, we don’t feel too bad at knocking them back a bit in this area. Underneath, there is a honeysuckle binding the bank together and a smattering of wildflowers; our plan is to add more native flowers as well as a few cottage garden ones for colour, scent and insect food. The huge tree stumps and rotting logs can stay.

Where do we start?

Last year, we decided to leave a large area of the orchard grass uncut and we were really thrilled with the resulting meadow. This year, we are going to extend that by leaving another bank uncut; it means less work and a better wildlife habitat – definitely a win-win. There’s a garden seat there that desperately needs a makeover . . . and that’s an important job as I suspect it will be much used this summer! 🙂

The orchard meadow last June, full of colour. . .
. . . and life.

We have a tremendous crop of wild strawberries here every year but we’d never got round to planting larger varieties, mostly because it’s hard to find a spot where they would get plenty of sunshine without spreading like stink and being hammered by slugs and snails. The solution, we decided, was to lift them above ground so Roger has created a funky planter from bits of scrap timber and odds and ends of green and black paint; those tall legs remind me a bit of the tripods in War of the Worlds but I’m hoping the chances of fruit will be better than a million to one! It’s a great way to make use of vertical space and hopefully will keep the slimy ones away from the strawbs. We’ve filled it with bare-rooted plants and potted up the spares for hanging baskets. Mmm, get growing, you lovelies.

The ‘courtyard’ is a tricky area and how to turn it into a more attractive space has us scratching our heads for inspiration. There is a lot of concrete. It’s uneven, ugly and, in this humid climate, attracts a covering of moss which can be lethally slippery so we have to sweep it on a regular basis. It’s useful to be able to pull a vehicle into the space for loading and unloading but we never park the car there and really don’t need so much hard standing. We have a few ideas in the pipeline but whatever we do, it will be quite a task.

The wall area between the house and horreo is part of the courtyard problem; originally well-built from local stone, it has been ‘adapted’ by a previous owner (I’m being polite here, the actual word I would use to describe what they did is far ruder) by the addition of several horrendous concrete features, including a set of completely wonky steps and a totally unnecessary vent that always makes us think of a World War II pillbox. We’ve fiddled at the edges with paint and plants to try and soften the impact, but if we’re going to make it look truly lovely, we definitely need to do some more work.

The horreo itself needs a bit of TLC and at last we are planning to do something we’ve been talking about ever since we came here. The middle ‘layer’ between the stone shed and wooden granary is an area that is open to the fresh air but protected from wind and rain by high stone walls and shady in the summer. It would be the perfect place to sit and eat, either when it’s too wet to be outside or on those few very hot days in the summer when we’re seeking evening shade. There was an old kitchen table and chairs left here which we could install, we just need to do something about the floor which is decidedly dodgy and in places, more hole than wood.

Our list of things to do has over 30 items on it; we’ve prioritised them and made a start but I know from past experience we will add to it as quickly as we tick things off. Our plans range from fairly simple ideas such as extending the varieties of perennial vegetables and herbs we grow to demolishing and rebuilding the Garage From Hell, from siting a homemade nestbox for red squirrels to investigating solar power now that the so-called ‘sun tax’ has been abolished and our electricity provider is offering valuable help with installation and management of systems. There’s much to be done but we love to be busy and, most importantly, we love living here . . . so we’ll linger. A while longer living in paradise? That will be tough, then. 🙂

The first of the peach blossom is in bloom. Beautiful.

Perfect Planning

The photos in this post are some I have taken over the last couple of weeks. I hope you enjoy their simple seasonal beauty.

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It’s funny the things I miss sometimes. We have hardly any post here: being totally paperless is great for the environment but I do miss a pile of old envelopes for making lists on! I like lists, I like lists of lists and above all, I love a good plan.

If you are considering making some changes to your life in order to simplify your lifestyle or give you more time to do the things you want to then starting with a Grand Plan is vitally important. We didn’t suddenly wake up one morning, pack a van and disappear; our decision to downsize and drop out was made years ago and involved some very careful planning and decision-making in order to make it happen. Even if the change you are looking for is relatively small – say, making time to sit down in peace and quiet once a day, getting rid of unwanted clutter or learning to cook simple but delicious meals -then a plan is still a helpful and powerful tool. The British armed forces have a saying known as the Seven Ps: proper prior planning  prevents piss-poor performance. Love it or loathe it, it contains a lot of truth; the better you can make your life plan, the greater chance you will have of realising your goals. So, here are my tips in how to get started.

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You will need pens or pencils and paper – almost certainly something bigger than the back of an envelope! Actually, I always find the bigger the better as it helps me to really focus; we use a flipchart sheet and marker pens in different colours which can be useful for grouping or separating ideas.

Start with your ultimate goal as the title. Remember, this is your dream and only you can make it happen. Making your plan is so exciting because it’s the first step in moving from an abstract idea to something more concrete. Seeing it written down starts to make it feel possible and real. Go on, smile – this really could happen!

You know that awful job interview question, ‘So where do you see yourself in five years’ time?’ Well, it’s so much more fun when you are asking yourself. Timescale is very important: how long do you realistically believe it will take to achieve your goal? Write it down, underline it, circle it . . . that’s what you will be working towards.

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Now split your page in half. On one side, make two simple but comprehensive lists of the pros and cons of making your life change. Be honest here; it’s less painful to ignore the cons but they are important factors in the equation. In the same way, don’t ignore what might seem abstract or even daft ideas in the pros list: being happier or less tired or healthier are important – in fact, possibly just the very reasons behind wanting to make the changes in your life.

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Next, assign everything in your two lists a weighting to show their relative importance to you. This can be a bit tricky so take your time and again, be honest and realistic. It might be more attractive to focus on the good bits but things like financial concerns can’t be ignored; it’s crucially important not to risk financial disaster or the loss of your home. Being brutally honest at this stage could save a lot of heartache later on. What you should see developing is a clear set of reasons why you should pursue your dream and a list of the possible negative factors that could affect your decision.

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On the other half of your page, write down everything you would need to do in order to achieve your goal. What goes here will depend entirely on you, your situation and your dream. If finding a few minutes in the morning to read or exercise before going to work is your aim, then organising clothes and lunchbox the evening before and setting the alarm for an earlier time may be pretty much all you need to do; if you plan to sell everything and travel the world in a camper van, then your list is likely to be a fair bit longer! That’s fine – it’s your list and it doesn’t matter how short or long it turns out to be. Don’t forget to add any research that you might need to carry out (we spent a lot of time looking into the cost of living, tax implications and health care insurance abroad) or any new skills you want to acquire (in our case, basic Spanish so we factored in some evening classes before we moved).  What you should find is that pretty much everything in the end will come down to three things: time, money and effort. Once your list is complete, draw lines or arrows to indicate dependencies and make connections as this will help when it comes to sorting out order and timescale. So for instance, we knew that we couldn’t sell our home or move abroad before our youngest child had left home, but it would be possible for one of us to shift from full-time to part-time work several years before then.

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At this point, stop! You’ve worked hard and your head is probably whirling like a squirrel in a cage with the excitement and trepidation of it all. Walk away from your plan and go and do something else: have a walk or run in the fresh air, put the kettle on, watch a film . . .  whatever helps you to relax. Leave your plan in a place where you can clearly see it for several days (that’s the beauty of working on big paper, it’s very visible); visit it often, look over what you’ve written, think and reflect. Is there anything missing or new that you’ve thought of? Add it. Do some things now seem irrelevant or unnecessary? Cross them out. On reflection, could you do things differently or change your timescale? Adjust your ideas.

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Now comes the really exciting bit: creating your Grand Plan! Actually, it’s quite simple, as all you need to do is write a chronological list of everything that needs to happen within your chosen timescale. I like to make a written numbered list whilst Roger prefers to create nifty spreadsheets on the computer. It’s your plan, so do exactly what works for you. The important point to remember in the coming weeks, months or years is that your Grand Plan is a work in progress and as such it is designed to be flexible, not set in stone. If your ideas change as you go along or things take longer than expected to happen or lead in unexpected directions, that’s fine – it’s all part of the process. Even if your plan doesn’t come to fruition or you have to end up altering it or abandoning it in favour of other things, treat it as an interesting exercise and experience. After all, the very fact that you wanted to make it in the first place was a brave and adventurous step in trying to change your life for the better . . . and that’s an amazing and ultimately rewarding thing to do.

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Dress without stress

I have to confess when it comes to being a modern woman I am missing a common gene, the ‘I Love Clothes Shopping’ one. I don’t. (Actually, I don’t really like any kind of shopping; even a trip to a plant nursery or yarn shop holds limited appeal.) I think it comes down to two factors. First, I’m not keen on the hustle and bustle of towns and cities and I find most shops too noisy, too hot, too busy and too full of things I don’t want and certainly don’t need; add to that the fact that I’m not interested in fashion and you can understand why I very rarely venture out to buy new clothes. When I was working and needed to look smart and tidy then of course I had to make some effort but what a happy day it was last year when I folded all those work clothes up and handed them to other people, charity shops and clothing banks. I don’t so much as own a single skirt, jacket or pair of black trousers anymore; I kept only the things I like and will wear and it feels wonderfully liberating.

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I love this insect motif scarf given to me by a child I taught – definitely a keeper.

These days, spending most of my time either gardening or decorating I pretty much live in very old clothes – jeans, shorts, t-shirts, jumpers – which I wear until they literally fall to pieces. Where other clothes are concerned I have what I think is called a ‘capsule wardrobe’: a small amount of clothes all of which I like and wear, and in most cases, everything goes with everything else. This means I tend to wear the same outfits over and over but I believe that’s what clothes are for and it really doesn’t bother me if anyone thinks it’s strange that I always wear the same things (not that I think people really notice anyway, surely they have better things to do). So, when we venture out in the car every couple of weeks to go to a supermarket, buy the DIY supplies we need, take the rubbish and recycling to the appropriate place and conduct any other business that needs doing, I usually wear one of two outfits which Roger wryly refers to as my ‘shopping trews.’ If the weather is warm, a pair of linen pedal pushers, cotton t-shirt and canvas pumps. These were all bought from a French supermarket: I don’t know what it says about me but it’s the one place I’ve always found clothes that fit me well. Looking through recent photos, it seems this doubles as my autumn hiking and beachcombing outfit, too (just replace the pumps with an old pair of trail running shoes).

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On colder days, a pair of jeans (also French supermarket bargains), a jumper I bought for work 15 years ago which refuses to wear out, a scarf I was given and my all-purpose ‘wear everywhere’ green boots.

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Hardly setting the fashion world on fire, am I? That’s the point, though – I don’t want to. I’m clean, tidy and comfortable and I believe that’s all that matters. If I don’t look like I’m ‘supposed’ to, well I’ll live with that.

The only difficulty with a small capsule wardrobe and lack of fashionable items on hand is when there is a special social event for which a degree of dressing up is required. Next July, we have the lovely occasion of Sam and Adrienne’s wedding to look forward to and of course, thoughts need to turn to wedding outfits. I know for a lot of mothers of the groom this would be such a treat, with months of planning and browsing and trying on outfits and agonising over colours and accessories before any purchases were made. Try googling images of ‘mother of the groom outfits’ and you can see exactly what society expects of me: fitted silk dress, satin two-piece suit, killer heels, enormous hat, designer handbag . . .  aaaargh! When I was a novice mother of the bride, someone recommended a shop where they would sort out the perfect outfit for a mere £600. Of course, they could also provide matching shoes, hat and bag for closer to £1000 . . . and then there was the underwear. Excuse me? Mother of the bride needs special underwear? Oh my, I really have led a sheltered life. . . and sorry, but £1000 buys us several weeks of (early) retirement. Note I haven’t even strayed into the realms of hair, makeup, nails and other horrors. Thankfully, I was saved from this living nightmare by the fact that both our daughters turned their back on the gross spendfest that modern weddings have become; they opted for small, intimate affairs with a good deal of homemade gorgeousness which made for truly special and personal celebrations, such lovely days which focused on life and love and not what anyone was wearing.  ‘Old’ outfits straight from the wardrobe were just fine.

Sam and Adrienne’s wedding promises to be just the same. The message is to wear what’s comfortable and that’s good advice, since the reception includes outdoor games (what a lovely idea to bring guests together); also, our five young grandchildren will be there and I can’t chase toddlers or tote babies in high heels. Looking through my much-diminished wardrobe, I found just the clothes I plan to wear: trousers and top, both linen, which I bought many years ago in the days when we had smartish summer events to attend. They were quality buys (albeit on sale) and although they’ve had several outings, they still look sharp and not jaded or worn.

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In the shade of the kiwi, the colours are misleading. The trousers are sand, the top is ivory.

(The same can’t be said for the jewelled sandals I bought to go with them. How I love them, they are the most comfortable footwear I’ve ever had and I have worn them so much but I think it’s only a matter of time before they disintegrate into a pile of cork and beads. These will definitely not be going to the wedding.)

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Sandals aside, this was a good start, but I really felt I needed another element, something to add a touch more formality for the wedding ceremony at least and bring a splash of colour, too. A jacket is out of the question, I always feel uncomfortable and look totally swamped in them, so I opted for a beautiful shawl or wrap, one I would make myself. I bought some exquisitely beautiful yarn, a blend of baby alpaca, cashmere and silk which just oozes comfort and luxury. Thank goodness for online shops! A tad pricey, but the money supports the artisan ladies in rural Uruguay who create such beautiful hand-dyed skeins, so I’m happy with that . . . and let’s face it, I’m not even within sniffing distance of that £1000 . . . or £100 . . . or even £50, for that matter.

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Armed with yarn, needle and pattern, I set out to knit the first ever shawl of my life. Now, if I’d been totally honest with myself I should have known that this project was doomed from the outset for one very simple reason: lace knitting and I do not get on. Give me the most complicated knitting patterns on earth and I can have a good crack at them but there is something about creating patterns by wrapping yarn round fresh air that my brain just can’t assimilate. I tried, I really, really did. I made it from three stitches to 133 and a pretty piece of lace fabric was beginning to emerge when disaster struck: I tried to undo a small mistake and a couple of the tiny stitches slipped off my very shiny needles and unravelled themselves down numerous rows, taking several others with them.

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Try as I might, I just couldn’t see how to fetch them back and so I decided it was time for an honest assessment. This was a tricky project: I could only work in the bright light of outdoors; I needed full concentration to the point where even cow bells and birdsong  were irritating intrusions; I had to write the instructions down for every row and talk myself through every stitch; I felt such tension in my neck and shoulders and a fizzing in my eyeballs that I could only do small amounts at a time. In short, I was an anti-social lace knitting tyrant and I certainly wasn’t enjoying it one little bit. In my heart of hearts I knew I was never going to reach the 405 stitches to complete the shawl so I undid the lot and started on Plan B. This time, a rectangular wrap with no stitch increases and pattern repeats simple enough to memorise; on reflection, a wrap is more ‘me’ than a triangular shawl, anyway, and this surely would be simpler and less stressful. Ha ha, how the knitting gods laughed. Ten rows on 223 stitches and suddenly a couple of them slipped off the needle and unravelled right down to the bottom. Sound familiar? Now of course, it wouldn’t be such a big deal to undo and restart, but what if the same thing happened again? What if it happened in the 90th row? Could I cope with the heartbreak of undoing so much painstaking work? I undid the ten rows, put yarn and needles away knowing that I needed to sleep on it in the hope inspiration for Plan C would appear (hopefully before July).

Isn’t it strange where inspiration comes from sometimes? There I was, just a couple of hours later still feeling slightly downhearted as I washed the dishes after dinner, when I looked at the little crocheted cotton dishcloth I’d made some months ago.

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Bang! Lightbulb moment. Forget knitting, why not crochet instead? After all, what is a crocheted wrap, if not a dishcloth writ large? True, it won’t have the ephemeral filigree quality of knitted lace but at least it won’t unravel, either, and there is a chance I might even finish it. Five minutes on the internet, pattern found and I was smiling once again. I’m still smiling, because I am getting so much pleasure from this project now. I can work under artificial light, so evening crochet is possible. I can enjoy the cow bells and birdsong once again. I can chat to Roger and look up from my work. I can pause mid-row for a cup of tea or glass of wine.

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Happy lace crochet in the evening sunshine this week . . . note the sandals.

I can focus on the beauty of the yarn and the way the colours change and blend with such subtle effects. I can ponder the happy future that lies ahead for two precious young people and the excitement of their special day in July as I work each stitch in relaxed happiness.

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Reflecting on the wedding, I think it’s safe to say that Sam wouldn’t want an uncomfortable stranger to support him and celebrate with him, wrapped in a satin suit, spiky heels and ridiculous hat (not to mention the special underwear). He’d rather have his Mum – his real Mum. Even if she is wearing a giant dishcloth. 🙂

Home, Sweet Home!

What makes a home? For me, it’s always been a place where I live with people I love. I have shared ten homes with Roger – in Cyprus, England, Wales, France and Spain – every home has been different but each time there has been an awareness that we are simply custodians passing through. Even if you live in the same house for your whole life, you are still just a small part of its history, so for me ‘home’ isn’t about the bricks and mortar (or wood, stone, thatch, canvas, whatever) and it certainly isn’t about the ‘stuff’ within. Over the years as our family grew, so did the size of our homes and the amount of possessions needed to fill them; now I am blissfully happy living in a smaller space with the minimum amount of stuff and maximum amount of living! How wonderful to have the time and energy to enjoy simple pleasures and moments every day.

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Moving home might be a pretty stressful and exhausting activity but it’s also a great opportunity to reflect on what we have in our lives and how much of it we actually need. Moving to Spain last year was a huge opportunity for us to reduce our ‘stuff’ and bring only the things we needed and a few bits and pieces that make our house feel like home; it all came down to a transit van, car and two trailers.

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Having reached a point in the renovation and decorating this week where we are finally beginning to see a clean and comfy living space emerge from the chaos, I have spent a happy time rearranging things and unpacking a few bits from the boxes they have been patiently inhabiting for many months. It has given me a chance to look around and reflect on what we chose to keep and why, those special things that make this ‘home.’

First, pictures. We had collected so many pictures, it was ridiculous, especially as I have no idea where most of them came from and if I’m honest I didn’t even like many of them. I suppose it’s just habit – there’s a wall, better hang something on it. Why? I actually prefer lots of empty space on walls – there’s no need to clutter them – with just one or two special pictures which will make far more impact. So, just two have gone up on our kitchen/living room walls this week and I think that will do for now. At the kitchen end is a cross-stitch calendar I made many, many years ago when I obviously had far more patience and better eyesight. It was my ‘holiday’ activity, something to work on in quiet moments when the children were happily occupied or settled into bed; it took me years to complete and I have to say more of those stitches were made in a wet tent than I care to remember . . . but still, there are a lot of happy memories in there and I also love the simplicity of the pictures, all seasonal wild flowers, weeds and leaves.

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At the opposite end of the room is a picture of one of the homes we passed through, painted for us by my father-in-law and framed by him, too, in a solid wooden frame. I love the bright colours and slightly abstract style which seem to suit our mountain house down to the ground.

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Just look at that pile of fruit beneath the picture! Healthy eating has always been central to our lives and fruit is something we have never stinted on (although we only ever buy what’s fresh, local wherever possible, seasonal and usually on special offer. December strawberries? Never). We are so blessed here in being able to pick fresh fruit every month of the year; we are currently enjoying the last of the figs and pears in anticipation of the kiwi glut. We have enough pears in storage to last all winter and a freezer full of peaches, but we still supplement our homegrown produce with bought fruits in order to enjoy a wide variety. I was so thrilled to see the citrus season well and truly under way this week and of course we are lucky to live in a country that does them rather well! The persimmon (kaki in Spanish) are also fantastic and so big that we can happily share one. Anyway, back to special things: the turned wooden fruit bowl on the left was made by Roger at school and the bowl on the right was a gift from my brother after a trip to Morocco. I love them both and it’s a pleasure to fill them . . . and then munch my way through their delicious contents.

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Staying with Morocco, one of our most loved and most used pieces of kitchen equipment is a tagine (well, in fact we have two, both gifts from special people). We love this style of one-pot cooking, it is so efficient and a fantastic way of making small amounts of meat or fish go a long way and using whatever vegetables are to hand. A road trip to Morocco is definitely on our wish list (one day . . . ), I would love to see and sample all those wonderful sacks of spices first hand. In the meantime, we spent a lovely time making some preserved lemons this week. These are the easiest things on earth to make and bring a wonderful flavour to so many dishes. Note the smart new chopping board, made from the piece of  beechblock cut out of a worktop to fit the sink. Waste not, want not! Roger has treated it with tung oil which is a great non-toxic ‘feed’ for wood and now it is set for many years of serious food preparation.

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Sticking with the woodwork, Roger has also recycled some scrap wood into a nifty wine rack to fill a useless pace between a cupboard and the stove; each slot holds two bottles and in such a warm spot, it should keep the Rioja at just the right temperature.

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What a very happy time I had hauling a couple of boxes in from the barn and filling our empty bookshelf once again. This is our entire collection of non-fiction reading material, including almost a shelf and a half of recipe books (yes, we love cooking!). So many of these books were gifts, so many of them are well-thumbed and dog-eared from years of use.

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They are like old friends; what should have taken no more than twenty minutes from start to finish ended up being an hour of browsing happiness – gardening, self-sufficiency, spinning and dyeing, herbal medicine, quilting, Spanish study, travel, birds and beasts, flowers and fungi . . . I was completely lost in other worlds. Funny what little bits fell out of them, too: recipes scribbled on old envelopes, quilting templates traced onto greaseproof paper, a pile of ivy leaves I must have pressed for making seasonal cards and decorations. I was truly thrilled to be reunited with my favourite non-fiction book ever, The Therapeutic Garden by Donald Norfolk. I first borrowed this book from the library years and years ago; after the sixth time, I thought maybe I should buy my own copy! I have read it at least once a year ever since and  – even though I can probably quote paragraphs verbatim – I never tire of it. This is not a gardening book but rather a gentle argument for the benefits of humans spending their time in a garden, exercising, breathing deeply, relaxing, connecting with nature, nuturing, eating, socialising, loving and laughing. It typifies so much that I believe in and many of the quotations are from or about people I admire, such as Henry David Thoreau. Happy, happy days . . . I’m reading it once again.

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Now that mug of coffee brings to mind another little thing that makes me feel at home; it’s a silly thing, really, but that’s the point – home should be about those little special bits and pieces. I am a great tea drinker; I like a cup of good coffee as you can see from the picture above (and I have been known to enjoy the occasional glass of red wine!) but tea is my favourite tipple. Roger doesn’t like tea so it’s a pleasure I enjoy all on my own,  but I do have to admit to being a bit of a tea snob. I really can’t get with the whole dunking a teabag in a cup thing; sorry, but I like my tea (a rich malty Assam being my first choice) to be made in a warmed pot and brewed properly for several minutes. So, here is my little one person pot and the tea cosy I made years ago to keep it snug during those all important brewing moments.

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I love this tea cosy because it was made completely from scraps of fabric and wadding left over from a quilting project and a few odd buttons I’d collected over the years. I used a pair of compasses to construct a hexagon template on the back of an old cereal packet and stitched the whole thing by hand – I do have a sewing machine but there was something so lovely about working tiny stitches with a needle and thread and creating something out of nothing.  As I said, a silly thing really, but I love it.

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On a similar theme, left to my own devices for three weeks in May I had a lot of fun messing about with yarn. One of my projects was to design and make some bunting from scrap yarn to hang above the bedroom window. Our windows here are very small and all have built-in blinds or shutters so there is no need for curtains but I wanted something simple and pretty just to liven the space up a bit. Decorating done and hooks found, it was time to hang the bunting at last.

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With the ‘heavy’ building work done and space opening up in the house, I decided it was time to blow the cobwebs off another old friend and bring it in out of storage. Oh, I am so happy to have this back in my life!

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A good polish for the wood and dubbin for the leather and the rickety old thing was back in action once more, although it’s so long since I’ve spun anything that I felt a bit like a learner all over again. Never mind, I have a couple of skeins of Jacobs wool to work on over winter which will hopefully be transformed into a Very Important Bear for our grandson William.

Finally, the washing line. Now I know this might seem a bit of an odd choice but I love to see a line of washing blowing in the wind; to me it is such an important part of our home and I love to peg the laundry out then bring it in dry and sweet-smelling once the wind and sun have done their business, all for free.  We do have a bit of a problem here with a complete lack of flat land so instead of one long line and a prop, we have two shorter ones; as you can see, it’s a constant battle trying to find enough drying space between the fig tree and kiwi.

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No problem. For me, the promise of snuggling down in those sheets so soft and scented with fresh air is one of life’s great pleasures. Simple, yes. Homely, definitely. . . but then, that’s the very point, isn’t it? 🙂

 

 

 

 

It’s not about ‘where?’

With the nights drawing in, we are spending at least some time indoors before bed each evening and that has been a good excuse to dig out my patchwork blanket and work some more squares. Who needs television? 🙂 It is such a simple and gentle activity giving my mind ample opportunity to wander; it was during one such ramble that I realised in many ways this blanket project exemplifies everything that is good and central to our way of life.

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I love making things from yarn: I have knitted since I was a child and in more recent years I’ve also developed a passion for spinning and dyeing my own wool. I had dabbled in crochet here and there but had never really cracked it for all the usual reasons – too busy, too tired, life too full of more important things to be done. This year it has been such a treat to finally find the time to have another go and I have had so much fun making colourful bits and pieces for the new babies in my life. I can’t describe how much pleasure these simple, creative activities have given me.

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The idea for my patchwork blanket was born from my natural inclination not to waste. Several biggish projects have left me with a good quantity of leftover yarn, a resource that has been manufactured, transported and paid for; to my mind, it would be a crime to do nothing with it. So, using the most basic of equipment which I’ve had for years (crochet hook, wool needle, scissors) I’m spending happy times with scraps of yarn, making a practical and colourful all-purpose blanket which I hope will have a busy future. When I started it, I deliberately excluded the hot colours and screaming pinks but I wasn’t too many squares in before I invited them back  – the blanket was looking a bit too harmonious and sophisticated for my liking. I want a rowdy carnival of colour and clashes to make me smile!

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Another thought that has occurred to me as I have been happily hooking away is a point I need to make very clearly before I go too much further: this blog is not designed to be a guide to country living. Yes, we live in a very rural spot so obviously many of the experiences I write about and the photos I include will reflect that, but we haven’t moved out from a town or city to the countryside in order to live our simple way of life; we’re country born and bred and we’ve always lived out in the sticks. We’ve had several lucrative urban job offers over the years but we’ve consciously avoided the big bucks and bright lights because we preferred to stay in familiar territory and raise our family in the country. My point is, though, that everything I believe constitutes simple and happy living can just as easily be practised and enjoyed in an urban setting – in fact, some aspects are probably easier (rural life doesn’t come without its downside). Take my crochet blanket: it could be made absolutely anywhere! You don’t need to live in the country to create beautiful and practical things for your home, revamp old furniture, declutter, cook delicious meals, find time to exercise your body and brain, enjoy company and conversation, dance, laugh, love . . .

You don’t need a rustic farmhouse kitchen to bake bread, turn fresh, seasonal ingredients into dishes of gorgeousness or fill old jars with homemade preserves.

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You don’t need a huge patch of land to grow a garden; in fact, you don’t even need a garden at all. It’s amazing what can be achieved in a few pots on a windowsill or balcony.

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My blog is about taking control of life and living it to the full, having so much more through having less, focusing on what is truly important, appreciating and enjoying the simple things that make each day special, putting experience over ‘stuff’, being kind to the environment and living a simple, gentle but utterly fulfilling life. It doesn’t matter where you call home. It’s nothing to do with location and everything to do with attitude. You can take it with you wherever you go. Now that’s a lovely thought.

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Sofa . . . so good

I’m so very excited about writing this blog that I just want to dive in and write and write and write – there is so much to share! However, there is no need to rush.  I must be patient and take my time; after all, time is one of the biggest and very best things we have ‘bought’ for ourselves by dropping out. We have time to do all that we need to do, all that we want to do and time just to be. Quite honestly, that is priceless.

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Morning dew on geraniums . . . it’s wonderful to have the time to notice and enjoy such a simple but beautiful thing.

So . . . I’ll let this blog develop slowly –  maturing as it goes like a good cheese or wine – and weave the hows, whys and wherefores of our simple life into tales of our daily living. There are so many incredible and inspirational blogs out there on a similar theme and I’ve been trying to work out where exactly we fit into the scheme of things. Are we frugal? In the dictionary definition ‘economical in use or expenditure; prudently saving or sparing; not wasteful’ then yes, we are . . . but not in a mean or tight way. We don’t spend much money but we don’t feel like we go without – quite  the opposite, in fact. Are we minimalists? According to Joshua Becker Becoming Minimalistminimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it – so yes, that’s us too, to a large extent. How about self-sufficient? Ironically, in terms of food production we are less self-sufficient than we have been in the past, mainly because we have decided against the tie of livestock, for the time being at least. That said, the bulk of our fruit and vegetables comes from the garden, we love to forage for wild foods and although we buy other foods, every meal and all our bread is made from scratch.  It’s not just about food, either. We are self-sufficient in other essentials such as fuel for the stove and if I’m allowed to count it, labour – we’re practical people and can turn our hands to most things so we don’t pay other people to do things we can do ourselves.

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Growing, harvesting, cooking and eating vegetables and fruit from the garden is an important and wonderful part of our life.

In May 2016, we moved ourselves from the UK to northern Spain with only the possessions we could fit into a hired transit van, car and two trailers. Our new home is in a stunning mountain location but that is pretty much all that could be said for it at the time. On good days, it was an ‘ interesting project’ but a more realistic evaluation would be ‘complete hovel’! However, we could see there was plenty of potential to transform it into a comfortable, cosy, happy home: all it required was a modest amount of expenditure and several years of work. We knew that the house needed a new roof so we had budgeted for that and put the money aside to pay local builders – we certainly weren’t going to tackle that job ourselves! The rest, though, has been down to us and we are paying for the materials as we go along out of our normal monthly fund which proves just what is possible on a meagre income.

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Home, sweet home: a project in waiting.

Anyway, after months of work this week we finally reached an exciting milestone: Return of the Sofa.  Our house is small and we have decided to create a cabin-style feel to the interior by having one open kitchen / living space with a bedroom and bathroom off. With the flooring down and decorating done (just a few fiddly finishing bits and pieces left to do) we rescued our sofa from the barn where it has spent many months wrapped in tarpaulin and introduced it to its new home. We bought the sofa roughly twelve years ago to sit at one end of our kitchen. As a family, we have always enjoyed what I would call ‘sociable’ cooking: no individual slaving away in the kitchen on their own to cook dinner, but all hands on deck whether to help, hinder or simply keep the cook company. Our resident teenagers and their friends loved that sofa and many happy evenings have been spent on it, chatting, laughing and playing music. What a state the poor thing was in when we unwrapped it; it has certainly had a life!

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Battered, faded and slightly mouse-nibbled . . . it’s good to have our sofa back again!

Now I realise there are many people out there who would have got rid of something so tatty many years ago and certainly wouldn’t have dragged it all the way to Spain . . . but this is where our frugal approach is so valuable, because in my eyes all it needed was a bit of TLC. A good vacuuming went a long way to cleaning it up but there’s not a lot to do about the obvious wear and tear except cover it.

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This is definitely beyond repair with needle and thread . . . 

First, a heavy cotton throw (which we have had for so long I can’t even remember where it came from), freshly washed and dried in the sunshine, then the ‘Coast’ ripple blanket I had spent many happy weeks making over the summer just for this purpose. Ta dah!

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Okay, I have no idea what’s hot and happening in the world of sofa fashion right now and I suspect it’s not this . . . but who cares? It’s clean, bright, slightly quirky, warm and incredibly comfy, so why replace it? Put it this way, the cost of a new one would pay our shopping bill for several months: that’s why we live how we do!

Back to the sociable cooking and seventeen years ago we bought a couple of breakfast bar chairs (not sure if that’s the right term) to accommodate extra kitchen dwellers at worktop height. After much use the original bottle green paint had all but rubbed away so I have had a happy time in the sunshine this week giving them a facelift with some spare eau-de-nil eggshell paint I’ve been using on the doors. Here’s the first one installed, looking good as new.

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Looking around the furniture in our living area, I suddenly realised that the sofa is actually the newest thing there; we’ve had everything else for longer. Pine desk – 15 years; cane comfy chairs – 17 years; bookcase –  20 years; coffee table- 20 years; butcher’s block – 23 years; kitchen table and chairs – 25 years. We haven’t bothered to spend money updating because we’re bored or our ‘stuff’ is unfashionable – it’s functional, we’re happy with it so why change? I actually love the history in our kitchen table, not just all the happy meals we’ve shared around it with family and friends but all the little doodlings you can see in the right light, left in the soft pine by our children busy with their artwork, homework or whatever. I studied for my degree at that table and sewed my daughter’s wedding dress on it, too. So many stories, so much love.

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Our kitchen table, my trusty workbench: I have spent more hours doing crafty things on it than eating, I am sure!

Believe it or not, we have other pieces of furniture that have done even longer service than the table, the most noteworthy being this chest of drawers currently squeezed into a temporary space in the kitchen.

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We bought this almost 30 years ago from a secondhand shop (junk, not antiques!) when we were setting up home and desperately needed something for storage. Junk it was, too; a rather nasty thing, covered in badly chipped  brown varnish and sporting ugly handles. The beauty of it to my eye was those lovely deep drawers, just right for bedding and towels. Looking at the worn parts now, I can see I must have painted it yellow at some point; I certainly don’t remember that but then it was a long time ago! At a slightly later date, I set to and gave it a new look with spare bits of cream and blue paint, then had a very happy time with stencils. Along with a few other temporarily placed bits and pieces, this chest will move out of the kitchen to a new spot once the renovation is complete. With that paint so chipped, flaking and grubby beyond cleaning, it really is time for another facelift and there’s a job I shall relish! The true irony – and the reason I’m sharing this tale – is that of all the pieces of furniture we’ve ever had, this one has drawn more compliments and happy comments than anything else. In fact, only recently a Spanish friend visited and made a beeline straight to it – she loves restoring furniture and this sort of thing is right up her street. It just goes to show that you don’t need to spend a fortune or be constantly changing and replacing the things around you in order to be comfortable or happy. Cherish the old and worn: they hold the story of your life and that’s a thing far more precious than fashion.

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The only thing regularly changed in our home are fresh flowers from the garden. The vase was a wedding gift, so we’ve had that for 32 years – blimey!

 

Daydreams

Why write this blog? Well, I’ve been inspired by the people – so many people – who, sighing wistfully, have said they wish they could do what we have done. My response is always the same: so why can’t you? What is stopping you from following your dream? *

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If you don’t follow a dream then it remains just that, an abstract idea of what life could have been. We seem to be programmed to cast doubt on some of our finest hopes, ideas and aspirations. How powerful are can’t, shouldn’t, musn’t, don’t and couldn’t on the tongues of others and in the chatter of our own minds? How many wonderful experiences have been lost to the crushing negativity of doubt and disbelief? How much better is it to fail trying than never to try at all? How sad to look back over a life full of if onlys . . .

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That said, of course, pursuing any dream does require a decent dose of common sense. Modern life comes with a whole rack of commitments, responsibilities and expectations which we can’t just abandon overnight. The most common reply to the question * above is lack of money. No surprise there; lovely though it would be (I think, anyway) to live in a world of sharing and barter, the bottom line is we need enough funds to live on. How much ‘enough’ amounts to is down to individual wants and needs but to us it means enough monthly income to cover our bills plus a slush fund for emergencies; we haven’t bowed out of modern life completely and things happen – who knows when the car might break down, for instance? However, our ‘enough’ is just that; in fact, our whole life change was based on the understanding that enough is enough. When our children left home, we could both have carried on working full-time; we wouldn’t have seen much of each other and we would have rattled around a house full of empty rooms, but we would have had more money than we could ever spend . . . so what was the point? We now live on an income well below the current British median disposable income figure and we still have more money than we can spend . . . as well as a much smaller, cosier home and all the time in the world to be together and live life to the full. (As a quick aside – we could have done this in the UK but decided we’d like a bit of an adventure, so we are currently living in the beautiful principality of Asturias, in northern Spain.)

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I am not a financial expert and I have no intention of handing out advice about money (apart from occasionally sharing some of the ways in which we manage to save it). I am not going to preach, either; how people live their lives is up to them and what we are doing wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. If you don’t agree with what I say, then that’s fine – we’ll agree to differ! What I hope to do is present a gentle plea for simple living and to share the many benefits it can bring. You don’t have to be radical and pack in work, sell your property, move abroad, give up all the things you love to have and do to enjoy a simpler lifestyle . . . but it’s amazing what huge differences just small changes can make to lives that are too frantic, too busy or too stressful. If you dream of a simpler life, then please believe you can make it happen. Your dream might seem small and insignificant, but the point is, it’s your dream. Don’t let it get away!

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