Debbie Kingsley talks to a couple who moved from a city to build their own home and establish a business deep in Devon woodland. Their dream of living lightly on the land has now borne fruit…

Anna and Pete Grugeon have more determination than many; with no building experience they have built their own house and created a combined home and charcoal business in a Devon woodland. What was the inspiration behind this ambitious scheme? “When we lived in Bristol we had an allotment and tried to live in an environmentally friendly way but had restrictions that come with renting. We couldn’t put solar panels on the roof or even ensure that our home was insulated properly. Our allotment was inconveniently far from our house, making daily visits impractical. We wanted to create a comfortable and enjoyable lifestyle that had less impact on the planet and involved buying less stuff.”

It took five years to find suitable land, but they eventually came across Hensons Wood near Rackenford in Mid Devon. “Before we moved onto the land we camped in the woods and ate a meal of pheasant cooked with foraged greengages. It was the first time that the land had provided us with free food and it was delicious. At that point we really felt that we were at the beginning of an exciting adventure. We now feel that we’re in the middle of one.”

The couple moved on site in April 2009. “Moving into the woods opened up a plethora of opportunities when it came to producing our own food, foraging and making our lives more environmentally friendly. We applied for temporary planning permission to live here and had not really thought about building a house. We just wanted to be allowed to live on our land and run our business. The first winter that we spent in caravans it was supposed to be the coldest winter for 35 years. We had to put a lot of work into keeping the caravan warm and maintaining the water supply so that it didn’t freeze. When the temperature rose to 0ºC and it started to thaw, we felt the relief of knowing that we could take a harsh winter. After that it was obvious that the spring and summer were going to be fine. Then the planning officer made it clear that if we were to get permanent permission, they expected us to build a house rather than continue in a caravan, and we finally achieved this in 2012.

“Before we bought the woods, neither of us had any building experience. By the time we started work on the house we had built a shed, a barn and compost toilets. Because we couldn’t afford to pay professionals to design and build the house for us, we had to work out how to do it ourselves. The initial frame just flew up in no time. We were full of energy and enthusiasm, our charcoal was selling well and we were doing 18 hour days to run the business and build the house. The house went from drawings on paper to a real three dimensional object before our eyes. The immensity of the task got to us. Luckily a lot of our friends visited during the build and helped out; that kept us motivated.”

The couple‘s business has three strands to it: making and selling charcoal, running a forest education centre and the Barbecue Cafe. “When we first started selling charcoal we drove around looking for suitable outlets such as farm shops and campsites. It was a product that we had made from trees we had felled and it was in packaging that we had designed. We didn’t really know anything about barbecuing at the time and unexpectedly found that it was just the sort of charcoal that barbecue enthusiasts love. Our involvement in forest school started when the local primary school asked the parish council if it would be OK to have campfires on the common as part of their forest school activities. There were issues around insurance, so we offered to let the school use our woodland for their forest school activities. We don’t charge them for this, but they cover the costs that we incur such as building a compost toilet for them. We also run educational activities for children including guided walks identifying plants and fungi, and charcoal making demonstrations. The Barbecue Café is an off-shoot of our courses. We have been catering for our courses for a couple of years and had a lot of great feedback on the quality of the food. We didn’t know anything about barbecuing until we started making charcoal, but now we’ve really got into smoking and barbecuing. Combine this with the abundance of great ingredients that are produced locally and you have truly delicious food. The Barbecue Café events are an opportunity for people to enjoy great food in a beautiful woodland setting. As well as running open events we also offer private bookings.

“It’s important to celebrate your achievements and take time to enjoy the life you’re living. Setting up a project like this and building a house is an incredible amount of work and does involve compromises. It is also amazingly rewarding. Just make sure that you enjoy the rewards.”


Low impact living

“We have tried to organise our business so that it does not rely on large machinery, and try to combine our journeys as much as possible, our charcoal deliveries with our weekly shopping trip for example,” said Anna and Pete. “It’s not only economic on fuel but also our time. Where we can’t source food from our own land, we try to buy locally produced food and the electricity we consume comes from solar and wind. We still feel that it is important to use electricity sparingly, as we want to see how consumption can be reduced without affecting quality of life; it is important to us that we do not live frugally. We eat better than ever and have a great social life whilst having a lower impact on the planet.”

Future plans

“At the moment the Barbecue Cafe relies on food bought in, mostly from local producers,” said Anna and Pete. “We intend to increase food production in our woods so that more of the food can come from here; we plan to start keeping sheep and increase the number of pigs. We’d like to expand private bookings at the Barbecue Cafe, do more bespoke events for groups and special occasions for couples, and grow the educational side of Bulworthy Project, offering more school and college visits to make use of our forest school set up.”

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