The Brinkley's small holding success story
PUBLISHED: 15:21 06 September 2016
Jeff and Margaret Brinkley long dreamed of having their own smallholding. And finally they did it. Jeff tells the story
In the autumn of 2014, my wife, Margaret, and I, together with our children, Isabel,17, and Thomas, 15, decided to leave our native Yorkshire and make the move to an old house somewhere in the Welsh borders with a bit of land. ‘Old’ and ‘bit’ are the operative words here: the house, c1750, needed, and still needs, lots of work and our half acre last saw any form of cultivation or care almost a quarter of a century ago. The weeds here were truly fantastic (comment from previous owner: ‘We normally cut but didn’t have chance this year.’) but so are the views. We have to cross a ford and go up the hill to get to the house and we are about 600ft above sea level. The snow makes everything look beautiful and just that much more interesting.
We were lucky to find the property, though, and everything fell in to place, enabling us to move in by late January 2015. The budget was always tight and remains a shoestring affair. I travel back to England (frequently a four hour round trip, sometimes more) every day to maintain my full-time job as area manager for mortgages for a bank, whilst Mags is a housewife and school-run taxi to the village six miles away. No mobile signal and poor broadband means working from home or using any modern communication is a challenge, whilst our nearest shop is five miles down the valley (across the ford for starters, not an option after heavy rain). We have had willing help from parents and a small band of family and friends on working holidays and, in the course of the first year, we transformed our piece of land from weed-infested sanctuary for rabbits to a plot with veggies, chicken runs and pigs. We made the most of the wild harvest in addition to the eggs and vegetables which we produced in huge quantities for such a small plot. This included blackberries, various mushrooms and a fair number of rabbits. Then we had the pigs slaughtered… and what a lot of meat you get from two porkers! Home cured bacon, sausages, pulled-pork, sausage rolls and, of course, all the kilted trimmings and stuffing at Christmas has been wonderful!
Learning new skills
Every day teaches us something new: what works in Yorkshire doesn’t quite work in the Welsh Borders and this hill has been much colder, and for far longer, than I would expect from somewhere in the West. But we have drawn on knowledge wherever we could find it. Country Smallholding is a monthly delivery that is much appreciated for its information and hints: I have used various ideas and suggestions, been in touch with Tim Tyne, visited the CS section at the Smallholder Show at Builth Wells and we even managed a passing visit to see Adam and Andy in Corris last June – how helpful they were and how lovely of them to give of their time to show us around and explain what they have learned.
The new skills you do learn are a surprise even if you expected a life less ordinary: how to dust a chicken’s vent, how to bastard-fence and (my wife’s favourite skill) how to rescue sparrows from inside the woodburner and Rayburn. All have been fun… at least after the event. Trying to re-inflate a bladder in the borehole with a bicycle pump was hard work, but not impossible, and at least the water started flowing again (or so I am told: I had stars in front of my eyes and needed a beer).
After a truly awful winter of rain and mud, we erected a polycarbonate greenhouse (I reckon the wind will be too strong on this hillside for glass) and now the vegetable plot is full and we have tomatoes and cucumbers and peppers growing inside. A fruit garden has been added, two more pigs slowly fattening and now with four ex-bats and three Welsummers, we have plenty of eggs which our only neighbour is happy to buy. And this spring we added a new dimension: raising six ducklings from day-old to currently eight weeks. Who knew how much one duck could eat, but I am sure they will taste superb.
For us, this is not about making a living: the land was never going to be enough for that and we could not afford more acreage. It is about a way of life that is hard work but carries its own reward in providing as much of our own food as possible in a manner that reflects our values and has as low an impact on Mother Earth as possible. And, of course, there are other benefits: from the stunning views to buzzards and kites wheeling above you as you dig: from the dormice nest with seven young in to the frogs in the water trough and the owlet in our little copse. There is always something to see, do and marvel at, which makes up for the hard work and travel.
We had wanted to do this for years and, when we did decide to move, we had to decide how much land we could afford, and deal with. So for those of you out there thinking ‘everyone has lots of acres and mine would be called a micro-holding’, well, just get on and enjoy it. For us, it is about what you do have, not what you are lacking, and we simply use our land in a low-impact but high-yield way that works.
Moving to the stunning Welsh borders in January 2015 was the culmination of long-held plans and dreams. At last, a piece of land to call our own: rose-tinted spectacles were firmly in our pockets as we took on a house and plot that were thoroughly neglected.
Eighteen months on and it is, and probably always will be, a work in progress, but we now have a warm and welcoming home. Stepping outside the door every day is a pleasure, rain or shine, as you always register pride (and a bit of disbelief) in your land. The chickens run to meet you (treats please), the pigs wake up (food please) and the fruit and veg gardens are really coming in to their own this year.
We have plans, constantly evolving, to make the utmost of the plot we have. It is providing us with meat, fruit, vegetables, wood and endless hard work.
We wouldn’t change a thing.