Charis and Matthew abandoned their stressful city lives to be totally self-reliant in the wilds of Wales. Giulia Crouch discovers what’s really involved in going ‘off-grid.’
It’s lunch time at Beeview Farm in West Wales, and Charis and Matthew Watkinson are slicing freshly picked stinging nettles for a stir-fry while zealously listing the merits of eating the plant most people try to avoid. As we chat over a bubbling pan, it’s easy to get captivated by the view from the kitchen window. The brilliant sunshine is making the wild meadows outside sparkle as they tumble down towards the glorious coast in the distance. There are no neighbours to be seen; in fact there is no one around for miles.
‘I think it’s really exciting that there’s so much you can do with something that most people dismiss as a weed,’ says 42-year-old Matthew, beaming.
‘A glass of nettle cordial to wash it down?’ suggests his wife Charis, 34.
Stinging nettle stir-fry may be no ordinary lunch, but this is no ordinary family. Two years ago, Charis and Matthew decided to go off-grid (living independently of public utilities). They found a plot of land in rural Pembrokeshire and resolved that the only people they were going to depend upon were themselves. They began by building a home, but – just like their choice of lunch – it’s not exactly conventional. The structure is a hodgepodge of repurposed vehicles: the living room is an old horsebox, the kitchen and children’s bedrooms are constructed from a trailer, the master bedroom was once a camper van, and outside a 4 x 4 with a double mattress in it acts as ‘the spare room’.
Next to it, a disused car has been transformed into a (rather effective) greenhouse with bright orange flowers sprouting out of the bonnet. ‘Try one,’ insists Charis, picking one off and handing it to me. It’s a spicy nasturtium. There’s a fire pit for outside cooking and a washing machine consisting of a barrel and some rope. ‘I used to spend a lot of time building dens in the forest when I was a child,’ explains Matthew. ‘This is basically our big den in the country.’
But this isn’t a romantic attempt to recapture the magic of childhood. Charis and Matthew are serious about self-sufficiency: they generate their own electricity, gas and water and the only bill that remains is council tax.
The couple, who met ten years ago and married in 2014, suspect that their decision to live this way had been snowballing in both of them for a long time. They moved to Wales seven years ago. Before that they lived in a semidetached house outside Romford, East London, and had successful jobs as vets. Life was run-of-the-mill – and starting to get on top of them. Being a vet is a profession that attracts high-achievers and perfectionists, explains Charis, who admits that these words apply to them. ‘But when you’re dealing with animals, who can’t tell you what the problem is, things can go wrong,’ she says. ‘People can hope for miracles; they want you to fix things because it’s their beloved pet, but sometimes this is not within your control, and it’s difficult to let that go.’
‘Yes, there are all sorts of unexpected psychological pressures that come with being a vet,’ adds Matthew.
This pressure, combined with 12-hour days and always being on call, left Charis, the main breadwinner, ravaged by eczema and with fortnightly migraines. ‘I realised that it needed to stop,’ she says. ‘I had to reduce my stress.’
‘When we moved to Wales, our initial plan was just to quit our jobs and get out of the city,’ says Matthew. ‘We felt trapped, surrounded by people and concrete. At this point we weren’t planning to build our own house – we just wanted to grow food on the land.’
But while living in Wales they discovered an interesting initiative. One Planet Development, a policy that doesn’t exist in the rest of the UK, allows people to build on open countryside as long as they can meet certain criteria, such as having a land-based business, producing their own energy and water and getting 30 per cent of their food from the land. ‘Looking back, you think, “Why would anyone take that on?”’ says Matthew. ‘But we just… did.’
Of course, everyone thought they were crazy. ‘It was hard for people to understand,’ he continues. ‘No one thought we could do it. It was outside their experience, so their imaginations were limited by that.’
‘My parents said, “You want to live in a horsebox on the side of a Welsh mountain?”’ recalls Charis. ‘It sounded crazy to them, and it probably is a bit, if you think about it.’
But, despite having zero building expertise and no knowledge of how to live sustainably, the couple went head first into their eco-adventure. ‘I didn’t have any doubts,’ says Matthew. ‘I’ve always been attracted to the idea of self-reliance. This is how people would have lived in the past. There’s something really nice about being able to do stuff for yourself. Or making stuff out of whatever you can find.’
Despite the rather ramshackle appearance of the family’s abode, there is an undeniable charm to their life on the hillside. Throughout the four acres are pockets of joyfulness. They collect honey from their bees (which inspired the name of their home) and eggs from their 50 chickens (to sell and eat). They pick berries, forage for wild garlic, and after a hot day they can jump into their outdoor shower (with sea views) or their wood-fired hot tub, which they made out of an old industrial tank. The couple like this best on a starlit night.
While Charis and Matthew might have said goodbye to mod cons such as central heating and a washing machine, they still have some gadgets. Big solar panels charge batteries – the kind you’d find in a caravan – which in turn charge their phones, laptops and TV. They don’t have wifi but they do have unlimited 4G mobile data, which means that they can still watch Netflix. Their love of film is evident when you look inside their home. Hundreds of DVDs line the shelves of their modest space. ‘We don’t want to cut ourselves off from culture or go back to the Stone Age,’ says Matthew. ‘We just want to have less environmental impact doing the stuff we love to do.’
Back outside, Matthew explains that their water comes from a stream that runs down the mountain. There’s a curious 3D triangular object nearby. ‘That’s a solar oven,’ offers Matthew. ‘We once cooked a chicken in it. The skin wasn’t crispy but it was still good.’
Perhaps the cleverest part of their setup is a homemade biodigester that they’ve nicknamed Biff, a tank filled with cow manure which, when fed food waste or grass, will produce methane that can be burned for cooking. It may not sound like the most sophisticated gadget, but, says Charis, ‘Of all the things we’ve done, this is one of the most rewarding.’
‘As far as we’re aware there isn’t another DIY biodigester in the UK,’ adds Matthew. ‘It’s our flagship development. It’s a simple, low-tech, clever solution and it excites me more than going out and buying the latest equipment.’
But for all the fun to be had from back-to-the-land living, there are downsides. Is it tough being so isolated out here? ‘Yes, we didn’t quite realise,’ admits Charis. ‘Especially having children. You envy people whose mum or in-laws are just around the corner and can go and pick up the kids from school.’
‘It does feel a bit like it’s just us,’ adds Matthew, but that said, he lets on that personally he would have chosen somewhere even more remote. ‘I probably would have gone to the Outer Hebrides. Or Iceland, somewhere like that.’
‘He wanted to live on an island with five people on it,’ says Charis. ‘I think we really would feel isolated then. I need a bit more human contact, and I think that, actually, Matthew does as well.’
In fact Matthew, who at first comes across as a perpetual optimist, admits that there were occasions when he considered giving up. ‘There were a couple of times when we felt out of our depth. When you’re doing a big project and you’re tired, and something’s going wrong, you think, “This is utterly bonkers.”’
When bathed in sunshine the landscape may look like the perfect rural idyll, but it does present challenges. ‘It’s more stressful than you’d think,’ Charis says. ‘The winters are difficult because you don’t have that much time to get out and do stuff, and it’s muddy, windy and dark. Getting enough electricity is difficult with the solar. And I worry that stuff will be blown away. If there’s a weather warning and there are 60mph winds racing up the hill, that’s tough.’
But Charis is no wimp. She had her daughter, Elsa, when she lived in a ‘normal’ house before Beeview Farm, but she was living here when she was pregnant with her son Billy. ‘It was fine. I was still climbing over gates and stuff on the last day. People tell me that I’m laidback, and I guess I am. On our wedding day we still had to tend to the chickens.’
‘I’ve got a picture of Charis at eight months pregnant, chopping firewood and wearing a clay face mask,’ grins Matthew.
But what about when the kids are older? Now, aged five and 18 months, they’re too young to know any different, but soon they’ll be bombarded by all kinds of outside influences. Elsa has just started at a local school,’ says Charis. ‘I don’t know what she and Billy are going to think of all of this when they’re older. Teenagers tend to push back a bit. Maybe they’ll want Nike and Reebok stuff and to look more normal. It’s inevitable at some point. I’m sure they’ll rebel and that’s fine.’
As well as dealing with what their children might think of their alternative lifestyle, the couple also have to face the unwanted opinions of others. ‘I wouldn’t consider myself a hippie,’ says Charis. ‘But that’s what people assume about our lifestyle. We don’t really slot in with that – or the mainstream. We’re in the middle somewhere.’
‘I don’t think we’re ideological,’ Matthew agrees. ‘The environmental situation is deteriorating and no one can deny that. But we’re more pragmatic than ideological. We’ve got to do this. That’s how it feels. But I’ll go for a McDonald’s every now and again too.’
‘We do get a takeaway sometimes but we have to go and pick it up,’ laughs Charis. ‘There’s definitely no Deliveroo round here. It’s hard enough getting our post.’
While some may raise their eyebrows at the Watkinsons’ lifestyle, it has been life-changing. ‘I have no regrets,’ says Charis. ‘People say, “Why would you want to give that up?” about my previous life and career. But I don’t feel I’ve given anything up. Sure, sometimes a real washing machine would be nice but I’d never go back. I feel much more chilled now. There are still stresses, such as how many eggs we sell, but it’s different. And in terms of our relationship, living like this has definitely made us stronger. Before, I was so stressed out at work I’d get home and just want to zone out in front of the television. We’re definitely closer now.’
After spending a day with the couple, it’s clear to me that their life is about a lot more than just escaping to the countryside. It’s about authenticity and doing things their own way. Are you a rebel, I ask Charis. ‘Maybe more now that I’m older. When I was younger I was very good. But I guess I like being different.’
Matthew echoes the sentiment. ‘It’s nice to be interesting. It’s tough to redefine yourself in society. We were vets. That was the role we had. We’d invested an awful lot of time and energy in it. But I don’t like working for someone else’s philosophy. If I can’t be myself I begin to get claustrophobic. So this is us, as we really are. I feel as though we’ve beaten the system. We’ve taken a detour. We’re mortgage free, have our own home – we just got there via a different route to most people.’