Julie and her husband Philip live on Halvergate Marshes in a farmhouse which over the years they have renovated. Julie describes living off grid, the wonderful wildlife and the seasonal changes which occur on the marsh.
We started our house hunt in Halvergate and saw a modern very nice house but dismissed it because I said that we couldn’t move there as it was at the back of beyond. We sold our house in Mellis but the house that we were buying fell through so we ended up renting Cantley Manor House. It was during this time that I saw a house advertised for sale on the internet. We tried to find the property, which was actually Manor Farmhouse but couldn’t. A couple of weeks later we were out for a walk across the marsh with friends and saw the house. It was easy to recognise because of the veranda out the front. I then saw it in the window of the estate agent in Brundall so we finally got to see the property. It was very strange as there were padlocks everywhere, every gate every door. The fact that the property had no neighbours was a big draw.
We finally moved in October 2005 and I woke up the next morning and cried and said ‘what have we done’. It was cold and damp and there was a howling wind whipping through the house. We had moved from a modern centrally heated house in Mellis and I thought that we had made a major mistake. But Philip comforted me and said, ‘Don’t worry I’ll make it right’. And he has. Over the years he has done a fantastic job of managing the build and making sure that this is a fantastic house to live in.
The kitchen was very damp, there were units fitted to the walls with battens holding the cupboards away from the wall but even that didn’t stop the damp from penetrating. If you put recipe books in the cupboards they would be damp and smelly within days.
We only had two gas rings to cook on and it’s amazing how versatile you become, I even managed to cook a joint of lamb in a casserole dish on the hob. The first Christmas here we borrowed a friend’s kitchen to cook the Christmas dinner in before transporting it back here.
We coped with those conditions for two years whilst we started to get the house straight. We were lucky as we found a young plumber who sorted out the heating which had been put in quite badly. We knew that we were going to build an extension to the property so we asked for his recommendation for a builder. He recommended Tommy McAllister and we got on straight away and he has done a fantastic job.
One of the advantages of not building the extension until we had been living here for over a year was we could get to see the position of the sun at various times of the year. This meant that we could make sure that the extension was bright, sunny and airy. It also meant that because I knew where the sun set we had a window put in the kitchen specifically so I could see the sun setting in the winter from that window. It was important for us to capture as much light as possible. The planners weren’t very keen on us having a sky light as they felt that we already had enough windows, but we insisted on that. When it snows and covers the sky light it is noticeable how much less light comes through.
We had wanted three sets of patio doors but had to compromise and had just one set. We wanted to work with the planners rather than make it difficult for ourselves and I think that they were appreciative of that.
Adjusting to living off grid – using a hairdryer and a washing machine
The lack of power took some adjusting to. When we first moved in the generator was over engineered and the batteries weren’t particularly powerful. This meant that, for example, every time you turned the hairdryer on the generator would run which meant using an hour’s worth of oil that didn’t need to be used, so wanting to dry your hair didn’t make you very popular at all.
It was very good when Philip installed the new batteries and then the wind turbine. To get it to work at a premium we had sockets wired up that would only come on when the generator was running. So that was great but it meant that things like the washing machine would only run if the generator was running. If you had a wind that would blow for two weeks you couldn’t wash your clothes for two weeks, so that wasn’t particularly practical and Philip changed it.
However even now I still only use major appliances when there has been a lot of wind and sun and the batteries are fully charged. Over the years you can judge that, okay in the morning the battery is only at sixty percent but you know that the sun is shining and the wind is blowing so the batteries by the end of the day will be fully charged so you can do the washing and live quite normally. Apart from that you would not know at all that we are living off grid.
Of course we have the problem of what to do if you lose power: you can’t just call the electricity board. Fortunately this has only happened twice and so on the whole we just live as any normal family, with big fridge freezer, televisions, computers. It is noticeable when Philip is away and the computers are not being used how much less energy we use.
Maintaining the track to the house
There is half a mile of track that we have to access to get to the house, nobody else maintains the track, the farmers are used to it and are normally in tractors and are happy to go over pot holes, we wanted to be able to access it without doing too much damage to the car. So we pay for and maintain the track ourselves which requires quite a lot of physical effort. We have stone delivered and physically loading it onto the wheelbarrow pushing it up the track and off loading it is quite demanding. The last couple of times we have had help from a friend with a dumper truck which is less tiring, even so after eight hours of doing that you know that you’ve done a day’s work.
We have had some interesting fly tipping at the end of the track including several large plastic sacks. When we investigated we found that they contained the remains of a cannabis farm. This was a couple of years ago we called the police and they came out. It happened again last year too.
We get asked if we have problems with the weather living here. In actual fact we’ve only been cut off once in fourteen years. The snow tends to miss us in some respects, I think because of our closeness to the coast. In 2018 the ‘Beast from the East’ hit this area quite severely, due in a big part to the wind blowing the snow that had fallen across the track. I went out one day and not realising how deep the snow was I got to the end of the road and got completely stuck and Philip had to very gingerly reverse me out. We tried again the next day but this time Philip got stuck and we had to dig him out. A local farmer very kindly came down with his tractor and cleared the snow for us so that we were able to get out.
I did go for a walk across the marsh with my grandson and just as we were coming back from Mutton’s Mill a blizzard came across, a total white out. It looked absolutely amazing, there was nothing but white with little fence posts sticking up. As it was only half a mile we managed to get home safely and he thought that it was great fun.
We have had a couple of incidents with damage to the house because of the wind, both times whilst Philip was away. The first time was in a November and we had severe gales and some roof slates had come off and the wind had lifted the end of the barge board off. I climbed out onto the flat roof and with the help of my son in law we nailed it back in place. When the builder did come he was actually quite horrified and said ‘Julie you really should have called me I would have come round’. The second time there was a roaring gale and I could see the shed roof being ripped off. I went out in this gale and climbed a ladder nailed it back on all the while it was hitting me in the face, very unpleasant.
These have been the main two causes for concern but it just shows how well the house is built as it doesn’t really suffer in the wind at all now.
Seasonal changes on the marsh
Living here you notice how seasonal it is in terms of what happens on the marsh, something that we weren’t really aware of before moving here.
The cows come off at the end of the year and we have three or four months with no livestock on the marsh and no farmers coming up here, so we are here most of the time not seeing other people. The cows come back onto the marsh at about the end of March depending on the weather. It’s always nice to have the cattle back grazing on the marsh.
The pink footed geese arrive in late September early October, hundreds of them. It is fascinating just sitting listening to them calling. People say that there were even more here in the 1970s. The geese leave around the end of February time, again depending on the weather.
The wildfowlers start to come to the marsh at the end of September and stay until the end of January. They come past with their dogs and rifles and are so well camouflaged that it is so difficult to see them. I have passed one on the track and thought ‘I really didn’t know you were there and I’m so glad that I didn’t run you over’. Sometimes you can just see the lights of their dogs’ eyes as the headlights hit them.
They are very friendly and often chat to us. One of the wildfowlers used to be my son’s rugby coach. Just after we moved in he came round to show us how to pluck and dress pheasants, which was useful as they quite often drop geese off for us. I am now quite accomplished at it.
Passers-by, walkers and people getting lost on the marsh
We have people walk across the marsh although not as many since the Berney Arms pub closed about four years ago. People would walk to the Berney Arms and either walk back or carry on to Great Yarmouth. We have had people lost on the marsh. I remember one evening about six o’clock, there were police cars outside the gate and a helicopter with searchlights. A family had set off and obviously it got dark and by the time they were found apparently they were hopelessly lost but the police managed to track them down.
Since that happened white markers have been put on each of the gates that go across the marsh so people can see them and follow them back. The route doesn’t follow the path it actually often goes straight across the field so unless you see the white posts you wouldn’t necessarily know the way and in the dark would most certainly get lost.
One evening we had a person call on us wanting to get to a train station, he had walked across the marsh from Great Yarmouth we were just about to go out but Philip took him to Acle train station. Five minutes later the police arrived and I said ‘Oh no, I haven’t just sent my husband off with a murderer have I?’ But it was fine they had had a report of someone walking the marsh and people were concerned about him.
One day we were working in Robin Wood and I saw a chap on a bike pulling behind him what looked like an eel trap, but it was a wicker woven basket containing his belongings. He asked if he could camp in the wood for a couple of nights in return for some work and food. He had been travelling all over England, and didn’t want to stay inside but he came in to eat and have a shower which amused him. The shower was filthy afterwards as he didn’t realise quite how much muck he had on him. I washed his sleeping bag for him and when he left we gave him some food to take with him. He said getting carbohydrates was difficult because he only had a small stove and to boil the water and cook the pasta would use too much gas, not something I’d thought of before.
We have seasonal birds arriving and nesting. At one time we had house martins nesting in the eaves of the house and they would come back each spring. But about ten years ago we had this almighty downpour of rain and all the house martins gathered out the front of the house getting soaked. We went on holiday two days later and when we got back they had all gone, nests abandoned and they have never nested here since. Swallows nest down the road in the barns, we are thinking of putting boxes up for them.
Over the years we have had eleven barn owl chicks raised in the box which we put up. A friend put me in touch with a guy who could ring owls and one year when we had four chicks he said that that was a really good brood. The following year we only had two and it was a very severe spring. When he came to ring them the guy said that we were one of only two owl boxes he was called out to that year because no others had survived. This year we have just two, but two very healthy owls who he thinks might be a different, inexperienced, pair to the original pair, they are still around at the moment. We are not allowed to photograph the nest, but there is a window that overlooks the tree so we can sit and watch them.
We have Chinese water deer, this year we had one who gave birth in the field opposite, tiny little thing. We also have hare in the garden, one year we had three or four leverets and they came out into the garden each evening and we watched them wait for the mother to come back and feed them. We try to encourage as much wildlife as possible and we feed the birds all year round and have gold finches, pheasants and partridge, along with weasels and water vole.
There used to foxes around but not so many now, the RSPB [Royal Society for the Protection of Birds] will come round and shoot them, they don’t want them after the birds that are here.
One of the reasons why we liked the house so much was because of the south facing aspect and that it looks straight over these twelve thousand acres of marsh. Nowhere else have we seen before or since actually gets that view.
Julie Williams (b. 1953) talking to WISEArchive on 22nd August 2019 at Halvergate.
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