500 Year Vision

Take pleasure from walking lightly on this Earth

Giving thanks to Workawayers


Visiting my great aunt on the way back from the UK last week really brought home to me how important our visitors are.  My aunt – always the most lively person at any gathering, has decided to return home after eleven years as a foreigner.  The main reason seems to be that she spends a lot of time alone – at first there were lots of other British couples about, but for one reason or another – exchange rates reducing pensions or homesickness, they have gradually dwindled.  We arrived back from our trip to a house full of eight, six of whom I’d not met before.  Though many don’t envy us our choice of lifestyle – house-sharing is always a careful balancing act, this constantly evolving group has saved us.

I was nervous at first – as most people would be, but I’m getting to know our new guests. I’ve cried with laughter on at least two occasions in the last twenty-four hours, and we have had some AMAZING food.  Rosie made a tagine in a Squash accompanied by a delicious beetroot and fennel salad – all from vegetables growing in the spiral garden. I’m cooking lunch. There are ten of us here right now and the standard has been set very high.

As we don’t have children, and the countryside in this area is depopulated of young(ish) professionals, without our volunteer visitors we would be rattling around this big old house alone.  It can sometimes be stressful coordinating the activities of so many people, however, in general, our visitors are creative, intelligent and willing, and committed to living a sustainable lifestyle. I am incredibly grateful to spend so much time amongst people with whom I can share ideals, and meals.

Learning to love composting toilets


One strong motivation for moving to South Bohemia was the spirit of enviro-entrepreneurship*.  Back home I had been working on a design for an accessible bathroom – to meet the needs of carers and those with profound disabilities, and organisations which want to be able to cater for them.  The design was to be based on a shipping container and fully independent – so not needing mains water and sewage – by harvesting rainwater and composting waste.  It could go anywhere on a temporary or permanent basis.  I had done a lot of research, and wanted to experiment with the various component parts of the system. Luckily…

When we first arrived at Nový Mlýn, we were surprised to discover that our 130 year old house did not have a water treatment system or water supply… unlike our fully serviced neighbour who had built his new home downhill of the house.

Life was hard for the eighteen months it took us to get permission to pump water from a new well to the house, but it gave us ample opportunity to radically reduce the amount of water we use, and many of these good habits have stuck.

Mike immediately constructed a toilet – an inglorious outhouse that at first didn’t even have a door.  We were clear that we wanted to actually use the compost which was generated, so we would dig a new poo hole and move the structure onto it every few months.  This was not a one person job, and gave us the inspiration for the Teepoo (more later).

The use of drinking water for toilet flushing is extremely inefficient because then contaminants then need to be removed from the water.  Urine is a sterile, ph neutral  fluid which contains nitrogen, phosphates and potassium – the main macronutrients required by plants. It therefore makes sense to operate waste separation at source – something people soon get used to.

There is a university in Austria working on a urine only toilet – and it would be nice to have a bespoke design (a wiidet) , however, instead we installed ‘rock bogs’ inside the house, by filling the water in the bottom of the toilets with pebbles. This greatly reduced the amount of water needed for flushing (a single litre for a completely clean flush), and provided people with a very visual reminder not to use the toilet for anything other than liquid.  We then installed our WWUK reed bed – a plant based system of cleaning waste water, and connected the bathroom plumbing to that.

Any household with more than one toilet could instigate a rock bog (urine only toilet) and therefore massively reduce the amount of water needed for flushing. It’s really, really simple. It would be nice to have a toilet insert designed to take the place of the stones, but stones are simple,  freely available and aesthetically pleasing.

As well as rock bogs inside the house, we now have a more sophisticated composting toilet system attached to the house.  Composting toilets will smell bad if they get wet for any reason (urine or rain water) or if waste is not adequately covered.  We purchased an insert to catch urine – as well as the box and a supply of cornstarch biodegradable bags. We think this beats even Moule’s Earth Closet – though an earth ‘flush’ would be great.

We have hosted 75 volunteers over the last two years. They have all but one been able to operate the composting toilet without leaving any unpleasant surprises.  We would recommend leaving a vinegar spray in the cubicle to clean the plastic as you would need to with any other toilet.

While the job of emptying the soil box is not pleasant, waste is always dry and covered with a cup of ash or earth, you tie the bag shut and put the lid on the box before moving the box to a ready prepared hole. You tip in the bag, then cover it with earth by digging the next hole.  We don’t bury compost directly in the vegetable garden, but instead under the paths through it. This trench system means that we are efficiently closing the loop and returning nutrients to the earth.

*My very first unsuccessful business was the Vermenathon Forest project which I worked on obsessively during the last few years of the millennium. This was, in short, a tree sponsorship scheme which people could visit physically and virtually – I’m happy that more successful business people had the same idea.

Sustainable Foodie Culture


A few different people have commented recently about how central food seems to be to our existence at Nový Mlýn. The kitchen is the heart of the house (even though the kitchen is currently in the lounge, with no drainage or running water). As the dishes are put away after one meal, it’s about time to start preparing for the next.
We eat, on average, 3 or more times a day – the usual times plus elevensies or afternoon tea if someone decides to bake a cake, make cookies or flapjack. After some hard physical labour, food tastes particularly nice, and we deserve the extra calories! If people weren’t working hard, then they would risk gaining weight staying here.
This summer we’ve started making our own pasta, basic cheese and bread (with the help of a fantastically useful bread maker). We also incorporate wild food into every meal – nettle & lambs quarters have replaced spinach, ground elder is a tasty bulky herb and chickweed appears in all our salads. We also have Burdock root (a Japanese vegetable), wild sorrel and watercress around and about. Of course, we’ve been picking the raspberries and bilberries from the forest… and adding these to honey to make a syrup. The terrible weather in recent days has also meant that we have fantastic mushrooms right now.
This is also our first year of growing vegetables at Nový Mlýn – a crop of potatoes (complete with a colony of Colorado Potato Beetles), a forest of courgette plants – though only two actual courgettes so far, many tomato plants, peas, carrots, parsnips, rocket, essential coriander (the green seeds are lovely in salads) – however it is the edible wild greens that we’ve had the most success with – I plant peas, and lambs quarters appear…
We also now have 8 hens, who each lay on average six days out of seven. When we have more than 4 guests with us (frequently over the summer) we have to top these up with bought eggs, unfortunately, so we should maybe plan on having more hens here next year.
Finally, 2010 has been the year that we’ve started to experiment with cider making! The valley is full of apple trees, after all. Our first batch from windfalls is busily bubbling away. The neighbour didn’t seem very optimistic about our prospects, but Czechs don’t have a Cider culture – they drink either apple juice or distil it into hard alcohol. You can only buy (very expensive) cider in specialist pubs here. We eagerly anticipate the results of our experimentation.



A kitten was put (unnoticed) into the car of a friend when he was at a petrol station today. He discovered it when he got to our house, and offered to take it out and leave it in the forest ‘to let nature take care of it’ – he doesn’t like cats very much.

The kitty is ginger (like Jiri and George the second), weighs 300 grams, has all his front teeth and wobbles as he walks – which means he’s over 3 weeks old and should be fed every 5 hours. I’m feeding him soya milk formula. He needs 80ml of formula every day. I have a 1ml syringe with the top cut off which seems to be working as a way of feeding him – so 16 lots at 5 hour intervals. He arrived at about 2pm and so far he’s not pooed… but at least he’s eaten (he’s had quite a lot of soya milk).

There is no cat’s protection league here, so we can’t just hand him in. Luckily there are websites like kitten-rescue.com to help.

He’s way too young to be away from his mother, but we’ll try our best. This will make for an interesting day tomorrow… we’re going to Cesky Krumlov with our Aussie visitor, then collecting a couple of Taiwanese couchsurfers before going to camp overnight at the cottage of a Czech friend who is having her 50th birthday party… all with a 3 week old kitten in tow.

A butterfly flaps it’s wings in South Bohemia


I saw a fascinating video recently about how to fix the wings of a butterfly – I think  made by someone who works in a sanctuary – rather than someone who lives with a cat who likes to hunt them. Today Pavouk turned up with another flightless specimen and I knew what to do… rather than rescue it to allow it to spend the rest of it’s hours earthbound.  As there was less than 40% of the wing missing – I held the two wings together and snipped them so that they were even – and he flew off. I wonder what distant storm will be caused.

Panning for gold


Rosie and I went gathering mushrooms the other day. It had been raining heavily so excellent weather for it – we found a great patch of Chanterelle, a couple of Porchini – including the Luridus variety, as well as Chamomile and some wild raspberries.  While we were out I got us (a little bit) lost and we had to hop across a stream to get back on course. It was there we made our discovery…

Gold! Well… Clay! Which you must admit, is just as exciting (and far more malleable at ambient temperatures).  When we got home I referred to the self sufficiency book Dad bought me and it provided detailed instructions on how to test the clay for PH balance, treat and process it… that book is so good. If we ever loose the Internet & civilisation, we’ll be okay.  So, we ignored the instructions and got straight on with making stuff. Rosie did a ceramics course recently – so she’s the expert!

The next day I got out my enamel kiln. The kiln is not large – in fact you could just about fit an apple in it. It was given to me by a friend of my mum’s – when I was a teenager – because she knew that I liked all sorts of crafts – and I’ve kept it ever since.  Apart from a little smoke it seemed to be working fine and the (dinky) pots were successfully fired. The clay turned from grey to fleshy pink – with lovely sparkly bits (which John says are puwer gowld!).

So far I’m a little stuck on what we can actually make from the clay – smaller than an apple, yet not tat. We’re fine for tat – we can make loads of it.  I could make ends for my home made knitting needles… bottle caps to keep wasps out of beer in the garden… John says that literally anything can sell in his gift shop in Bechyne – so the challenge has been set.

Water woes, shocks and explosions – high drama at the mill.


So at last, last month, we finally caught up with (what passes for) civilisation.  We had our new (second hand) Whirlpool washing machine and a shower attached to the boiler in the bathroom. It felt really great. For a glorious moment… then I got electrocuted by the tap on the shower – (luckily before I’d started running the water). The washing machine had blown up and taken out the boiler with it – leaving the taps and shower live.  At least it was me, rather than a visitor who got the shock.

The problem was that a plug in the bathroom (which was part of the old wiring) had been wired the wrong way – reminiscent of the copper wire that had been used to bypass the fuse system (which we discovered in the early days). Luckily nobody died either time – but it does leave the lingering impression that the house had been booby trapped.

So, yet again we are without hot water and a washing machine. When the weather is good we’re fine as we have the solar showers and bath outside. The repair cost for the boiler was greater than the cost of the boiler itself – so we’ve ordered a new boiler with three inputs – meaning that we can heat the tank from a back boiler on a stove, from a solar system input as well as a backup in the form of electricity.  That’ll be arriving next week, and the Whirlpool washing machine has been repaired – they phoned us to ask us what the maximum we were prepared to pay for the repair would be – then they charged us this amount. Our cheap second hand washing machine has stopped being.

Still… we hope to rejoin the 20th century again this week.

Theft during the construction of our Larch roof


While our roof was being replaced, a large amount of stuff went missing from our attic and back work room.

The individual value of each item would not have been high – an antique mangle for squeezing out washing, various mechanical parts from vehicles and from the old mill – these items were part of the history of the house. I imagine that they have been taken for their scrap metal value, without a consideration that we would have put things back together, or wanted to use tools that were so old.

We have not reported this to the police because we are not 100% certain what was taken by whom. However I am not going to be recommending this firm to others.  This is a massive shame because the work was excellent, and we now have an unsurpassably sustainable and ecological roof covering. I thoroughly recommend a Larch roof (like Cedar, but produced in Europe), but I cannot thoroughly recommend a firm to do it.

This experience leaves a bitter taste in my mouth and has rather dampened my spirit concerning the project.

The scythe experiment – the eco alternative to a decent mower


One acre… the amount that somebody could plough in a day (with horses, not a tractor!), and about 4000 square metres (One hectare is 10,000 square metres). So… what is the area of nettles which can be scythed by one woman in a day?

We seemed to have some kind of mental block with clearing the orchard/garden between the house & barns. Mostly because I expected M to do it, and also perhaps because I was waiting for us to have more sophisticated tools to hand. As it is, our domestic lawn mower and strimmer clearly weren’t up to the job… we’d discussed getting a more specialist bit of kit (after seeing Jerry’s ride on mower & inch long lawn), but it’s kind of low on the priority list. In the end, I was driven to cutting the meadow (that sprung up in the mean time) using the scythe. Driven by apples… which have been falling for the last month. Read the rest of this entry »

Small bugs to help with insulation


In a pleasingly synergistic development… I am about to elicit the help of very small bugs to insulate my windows.

We have beautiful old windows, which are just in need of a little tlc. Unfortunately, they are somewhat leaky (airwise), and it would seem that everybody else (from here) who visits the house, not only hates them, but also thinks they will be ineffective and should be ripped out and replaced by, at the very least, a smart set of PVC frames. I am reluctant. They may be a little draughty, but they belong to Novy Mlyn. Sparkling, perfectly flat new windows are not for me, so I have been undergoing as much restoration as possible over the summer. It is part of the ethos of Novy Mlyn to reuse as much as possible, ripping out and replacing perfectly good double windows goes against the grain, and the evidence that new double glazed windows would be more effective is inconclusive. Read the rest of this entry »

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