A little oasis
PUBLISHED: 16:38 04 May 2017 | UPDATED: 16:38 04 May 2017
Kim Stoddart speaks to a couple who have created a very special smallholding in the Black Mountains
Emma Decker-Thomas and her husband, Paul Driscoll, moved to their scenic Black Mountain smallholding from Camberwell in London in 2012.
“We loved living in London but this is something we always talked about,” said Emma. “My husband is a Welshman and he always wanted to come back ‘home’ at some point.
“Also, working as a child protection social worker, I saw a lot of the darker side of life and, when our first child came along, we both felt that we wanted her to grow up somewhere with more space and freedom, and with a connection to nature. We wanted to move before our eldest was in school as the choice of schools for her in London meant very large intakes, whereas her school now has a total of 54 pupils!”
The couple chose Monmouthshire because it’s well connected, this being an essential for Paul’s continued commute (he is an acoustic consultant for an international engineering firm and travels all over the country). Also, Emma didn’t want to be too far away from her parents in London, although the parents have since followed them out of the city.
Farming featured heavily in Emma’s childhood ambitions, so it’s no surprise really that they have ended up as smallholders. The move itself was relatively painless compared to many. There were a few years of planning, but once the house-hunting began in earnest, they went from searching to moving in just eight months. Initially they fell in love with a property on top of a mountain, but lost out to another buyer. Luckily, the day after such a disappointment, this particular smallholding was dropped down to within their price range. As luck would further have it, whilst viewing the property (and realising it was the one for them), they got news that their property in London now had a prospective buyer. It was obviously meant to be…
The couple have just under five acres on their plot and keep sheep (a mixture of pedigree Shetlands and Shropshire x Ryelands), geese, ducks and chickens. Originally Emma wanted to get goats, but having started with sheep she is now totally enamoured of them.
“The Shetlands kind of came to us through chance rather than a decision to keep them as a breed, but I love their personalities, fleeces and how fabulous they are at lambing!” she said. “The Shropshire x Ryelands were our first sheep purchases; their meat is delicious and the size of their lambs is great. We’ve experimented over the years, crossing with different meat sires, with varying success. This year we crossed with a Texel, which has given us some lovely sized lambs... I’ll let you know how they taste!”
The couple breed geese for Christmas, even though Emma counts plucking them as her least favourite thing (something most people who have ever done this will probably agree with). Their flock of chickens is ever expanding as their very free range bantams keep disappearing off to have chicks before returning proudly to the fold to show them off.
Emma has a hankering for a dairy cow and calf and there are still goats to get, but not just yet…
Finding where your priorities lie
When they lived in London, the family enjoyed a lot of success growing some of their own fruit and vegetables, so when they first moved to a smallholding they envisaged growing a lot more. Yet this hasn’t happened quite as they imagined. “I have to admit it has been harder here,” Emma said. “This is partly due to time restraints, and partly due to a never-ending battle with weeds. In fact, last year we grew a lot less (in an effort to balance our lives a little). I keep trying to remind myself that we can’t do everything, and that our children won’t be young for very long. Making the most of our time with them is most important to us!”
Potatoes and tomatoes are always a regular feature of the veg patch, however, and the girls, Megan(5) and Ella (8), love digging for potato ‘treasure’, alongside den building, tree climbing and showing glampsite guests how to look after the many animals.
There are also lots of opportunities for a spot of wild food foraging, with plenty of blackcurrants, raspberries, cobnuts, blackberries and wild strawberries growing about the land. A good range of plum, damson and greengage trees also make for a low maintenance and fun way for children to get into gardening.
Planning for the future
The couple have a long list of things they’d like to do in the future. “I’d really like to finish the inside of our house!” said Emma. “We spend a lot of time concentrating on the outside and the guest experience and haven’t yet finished renovating the house (our bathroom is grim!). I’d like to renovate the miniature watermill and maybe turn it into a reed bed system and I’d love to build a swim pond and finish the cob pizza oven...”
“It sounds vain, but I think the me of five years ago would be horrified at my short nails with ingrained mud and calloused and scarred hands. I definitely didn’t use to spend most of my life outside and mucky before our move. But I love our connection with nature, from lambing and goslings in spring, endless mowing in summer, tupping and blackberrying in autumn and eating our own geese at Christmas. I feel our children know where their food comes from, what it means to eat meat and to be part of a community. We’re so lucky to be able to live where we do.”