Rob and Alithea’s story starts in 1996 when they were renting a small terraced house in Bristol with their 2 kids.
For several years we had been nurturing the idea of living in a woodland where we would establish a cottage industry making charcoal and rustic furniture from coppiced hazel rods, living a blissful pastoral life with our children as simple woodfolk. Oh yes, and somehow persuade the planners of the need for us to build our own house on site. It was a long shot I know, but we were fuelled by youthful ambition and passion. We didn’t allow the fact that we had no money get in the way of our dreaming. So, we made it happen, but not the way we envisaged, and we lived to tell the tale. How?
We set about finding a suitable plot of woodland – we estimated we needed about 30 acres to sustain us, and devoured the particulars on woodlands that were on the market the length and breadth of the country. On our first trip to the Welsh Marches to look at a ridiculously steep and craggy bit of overpriced oak woodland, we stumbled by chance on a 35 acre patch of clear fell woodland for sale. There were no trees, just stumps and needles! But it was pretty flat, had great views, and in the centre, a magical oval shaped iron age earthwork – Castle Ring. Alithea thought it looked like a lunar bomb site. I thought it was our future home. She cried.
2 days later I had persuaded my parents to lend us £10,000 of their hard earned money and the land was ours. We moved to Wales from Bristol, cleared the land with an old tractor with metal wheels, cultivated our own tree nursery and planted more than 35,000 hazel and broadleaved trees (mainly for the benefit of the local deer and squirrel population!)
After several years of productive toil the planning authority informed us that they would struggle to support any future application to live on the site, which was a crushing blow I can tell you. We seemed further away from our dream than ever. Helpfully they directed us to Planning Policy Guidance 7 (PPG7) which sets out the criteria against which you can build in the open countryside, and suggested that it may be possible, if we were able to establish an agricultural business. After we’d picked ourselves up and dusted ourselves down, we did some research and decided we might be able to establish either a woodland poultry business, or a woodland pig enterprise. We pretty much tossed a coin and so began our next incarnation as organic woodland pig farmers!
We raised and fattened Saddleback x cross pigs, selling our sausages, home cured bacon and pork at farmers markets in south Wales. The planners granted us permission to live in a temporary mobile home on site while we demonstrated the financial and functional viability of the business. And then, just like that, it was all over, we were granted planning permission to build a home with an agricultural tie.
We knew we were going to build it ourselves – there was never any question. But could we build an oak frame? Maybe if we learned? So we did. I went on a timber framing course with Dan Franklin (www.woodenways.com) in Somerset for a week and left with some key skills and enough confidence to have a go. Alithea and I designed the house (to be honest, we’d had 7 yrs in a caravan to think about it….so it wasn’t that hard) and just employed a local architect to put our drawings through the planning application. A cutting list for the oak was drawn up and an artic load of oak duly arrived 3 wks later from France. The key decision on my part was to find Ben Gates, an experienced timber framer to hold my hand through the first weeks of the framing process.
3 months later the frame was ready to raise. 8 of our friends with the help of a crane erected the massive structure, finishing the final roof purlins in the darkness. The sense of pride and satisfaction at the culmination of our journey is hard to describe. It was an intensely emotional moment to savour.
The nuts and bolts of the rest of the build were less fun and not so glamorous – we needed to finish the job within our budget of £100,000 which required a great deal of creativity. I spent weeks machining all the oak for the window and doors, we bought larch logs and had them milled on site for all the external cladding to save costs, we drove really hard bargains for the roof slates and flooring materials and pretty much everything. Our kitchen cost less than £3000 from MFI and we tarted it up by making the work surfaces ourselves from ash. We have walls that are 200mm thick and filled with Warmcel but perhaps we should have stretched to 250mm. Likewise, the warm roof construction has Trioso Super 10 quilt insulation – perhaps we should have combined that with some rigid insulation for better performance. We have some regrets about not installing an open fire and chimney downstairs, but are proud of how we were able to stick to our budget. Actually we had no choice.
That said our house is both beautiful and efficient – we have a ground source heat pump to provide heat and hot water, and a 4kw solar PV system which nets us annually more than our electricity usage combined for the house and the business.
We love our home. Building it and designing it has allowed us to express our personalities and creativity in so many different ways. We’ve learned skills we could never have imagined. Most of all it’s a reflection of who we are.
We hope our story shows that anything is possible.
If you're considering an oak framed building (or larch, or douglas fir), let's talk. We'll gladly put together an outline quote (completely free, with no strings attached). And we need very little information from you to do so.
Equally, we're always here, at the end of the phone, to talk through your ideas.