A chat with the fab Jenni of The Thrifty Magpie’s Nest about quitting the city to live in a cabin in the woods. Warning: you will feel a compulsive desire to up sticks and own some chickens after reading this.
Can you tell me a little bit about where you live?
We live in a log cabin on our little plot of woodland of just under seven acres, in the county of East Yorkshire, not far from the Wolds. I live there with my partner, Dave, my stepdad, Ian, our three ferrets Bramble, Forest and Bracken, Paddy the lurcher and six hens.
How did you first find your log cabin?
Back in 2000 my stepfather was looking for a place where he could run his charcoal and firewood business, and build a home. He approached a farmer and asked whether he would sell the plot of deciduous trees near the farm and he agreed. When we arrived there was nothing but trees. No water, no electricity, no phone line and no toilet. Ian had a scribble of what he wanted the house to look like on the back of an envelope and the rest was in his head. Ian spent time building the cabin around a part time job, so it took three years to complete. We lived in a static caravan next to the build throughout that time, which was hard work, especially in winter. I was a young teenager at the time and living without a toilet for three years meant I didn’t dare invite my friends over. I’m unfazed by most things now so I look back and appreciate the experience. I moved out when I was 18 but last year, ten years after moving out, Dave and I took the opportunity to buy into the estate and we moved in.
How has life changed since you moved in?
Both Dave and I still have full-time jobs in the city, so we are still in the rat race in that respect. We spend more time at home on weekends now. We used to shoot off to visit friends and family, and go out most of the time, but now we have them visit us more, which is lovely. We’re hoping to reduce our working hours and concentrate on living a more self-sufficient life. I’ve recently opened an Etsy shop, selling items made from wood, such as wedding cake stands and log tea light holders, and we plan to build eco holiday homes to bring in extra income. We love hiking, holidays and going to festivals, so getting the right balance with time, money and work will take time.
Some people ask us what it is like to share a home with a family member. To some, it may seem a bit weird, but to us it makes sense and works really well. We share the cost of bills and share skills. We enjoy managing the woodland together and spend quite little time in the house on weekends and in the summer, so we don’t get under each other’s feet as much as you’d think. I would say this style of living is worth considering as it gives people more options and provides bigger opportunities.
What work regularly needs doing?
The woodland doesn’t require much maintenance but invasive brambles do take over if they aren’t kept under control. We have planned a weekend next autumn for friends to help clear an area of brambles during the day then camp and enjoy good food and good company around a campfire on the evenings. We’ve begun to thin out the woodland and plant a wider diversity of species to attract wildlife, as at the moment it’s predominantly birch with some oak, beech and rowan. The downside to making changes in woodland is that you have to wait years, sometimes decades, for the finished result. It’s all about the journey though.
Having a wood burner to run the central heating system can sometimes feels like hard work, too. Getting home on a freezing night in midwinter, lighting the fire, and then having to wait ages for the house to heat up sometimes makes us reminisce about living in a normal house with central heating on a timer!
Have you had any problems or pitfalls on the way?
Luckily, none so far. The biggest problem is the trees themselves. There always seems to be a tree in the way! The trees close to the house have been lopped but one fell pretty close to the house in the high winds last year and demolished my picnic table.
One problem is wildlife, believe it or not! We love wildlife but when the mice are getting into your cupboards and eating your chocolate, the moths are blocking out the hallway light and the treecreeper chicks nesting under the shingles wake you up with their scratting at 5am every morning, one can get slightly frustrated!
What are the best things about getting to live where you do?
Not having to worry about upsetting the neighbours is an advantage after living in the city of Leeds, where Dave and I lived before. We get away with throwing loud parties as no-one is close by. I often think it’s a strange to live in a built up area but never know the people who live a couple of doors down. There’s a real community vibe in our hamlet that we longed for when living in the city.
Having the space to do anything you want is great. Ian hordes machines, Dave likes the space to fix vehicles and I’m designing a large vegetable patch and planting an orchard in the next couple of months.
Waking up in springtime to the morning chorus happening all around us is an amazing feeling. It’s my favourite time of year in the wood because it’s buzzing with life wherever you look. I especially love birds, so to look out of the window and see owlets peeping out of their nest hole and watch fledgling blackbirds be fed my their parents is like having Springwatch on your doorstep.
What’s your favourite gear for keeping warm in the woods?
To be honest, I just wear my scruffs around the wood. I can easily change clothes three times a day; work clothes, couch clothes and then clothes for mucking out the chickens and stacking the logs. I wear specialist gear for keeping warm on hikes but they would just get grubby and ripped if I wore them at home.
Tell me about your hens, are they hard work?
Hens are so easy to keep. They eat all our scraps and I let them out to browse the land when I’m around. There’s a pair of foxes that regularly visit the wood, and in previous years have made their earth here, so I keep them in a large enclosure when no one is around. They provide us with delicious eggs and I sell the surplus to colleagues at work. Hens are super friendly, so much so I’m forever tripping over them as they love to be around my feet. I recommend keeping chickens to anyone who has a yard of garden. They require little maintenance and will bring smile to your face every day.
What would you say to anyone keen to escape to the woods?
We have been very fortunate to have got our dream without having to start from scratch, and I realise it isn’t a common opportunity for most people. Dave and I were searching for our own land before the opportunity came up to buy the wood, so we did tons of research. Planning permission is the biggest barrier, and getting permission to build structures such as yurts and cob houses to live in permanently is difficult, too. There are ways of doing it though, so my advice would be to do lots of research into what’s possible in the area you want to live before getting set on a dream.
Check out Jenni’s gorgeous blog, The Thrifty Magpie’s Nest, for more of her adventures.