Philip and his wife Julie live in a farmhouse on Halvergate marsh. He describes the processes of renovating the house and life off grid.
I was brought up in Canterbury and after a career working for British Telecom we moved a little bit further north looking for somewhere to move to after I’d retired. We spent some time renting at Cantley Manor and it was then that we got to rather like the area.
The process of buying the house was a bit fraught, we bought it in October 2005 and paid too much for it, but it is unique and we fell in love with it.
We don’t know how old the house is but if you look at Faden’s map [i] there is evidence of a farmhouse being here or hereabouts from at least around 1790.
When we arrived it was pretty dire, the house itself was very dark, all the windows and doors had steel shutters on them. I know it’s isolated but that did seem a little extreme. There was also a steel railing fence round the back and there were locks on everything. There had been a very poor cheap refurbishment done on it.
One of the interesting things concerns the land around us. There is a mile long farm track to get to us which we believe we have right of way over. The deeds said that we had right of way over the area marked in green on the attached map. The only problem was the attached map was in black and white. We had to pay an indemnity of £600 for an insurance policy to ensure that if at any time there was ever a dispute of the right of way the insurance company would pay for it.
Interestingly though, part of the conditions of that policy was that we didn’t seek out the owner of the land. I guess that is something to do with defrauding the company, you could find the owners and tell them to challenge so that the insurers had to pay out or something like that. I just thought that it was a little strange.
Getting power to the property
The property does have mains water but it doesn’t have mains electricity. The previous owner had fitted a new generator, a sixteen and a half kilowatt KVA diesel generator, this is a big generator. She also had a small twenty-four volts solar battery and a Xantrex inverter. The idea for the inverter was as a standby, mostly everything ran off the generator.
The generator being so big runs on, probably, three litres of red diesel an hour. Red diesel was 9p a litre, so that was not too much of a problem but the most I’ve paid recently for a litre is 70p which is a different story.
So the first thing we went about was looking at how we could improve the power situation. The previous owner had a letter from the electricity board saying that they wanted £115,000 to connect the property to the grid. The reason for this cost is because although there is an overhead line about two kilometres to the north of us the cable would have to be buried and the route would be covered in dykes which would cost a lot to do.
I seem to remember that we asked again and they said that they wouldn’t give another quote unless we paid something like ten grand up front, so we looked around to see what we could do.
Installing a wind turbine
It took us a while but we decided on a wind turbine. The problem was that back in 2006, 2007 there were not many domestic turbines, not many people were off grid, and so finding an installer was not easy. At the time the cost of installing a turbine was around £40,000, we did get a grant of about £5,000 because it was a green option.
We had some issues with the council over planning permission. We wanted to put in a fifteen metre, as twice as much wind produces four times as much power, the higher you go the more wind. Unfortunately they said that we couldn’t go higher than eleven metres. The turbine company only made nine or fifteen metre masts so we put a nine metre one in, which in hindsight was a mistake.
The mast is galvanised and the head of the nacelle and blades are black, but part of the planning permission was that we had to paint them grey so that it didn’t stand out on the marsh. It’s a wild A/C generator, it generates whatever frequency it’s spinning at, goes through a rectifier and over a voltage protector which will rectify that to a maximum of six hundred volts. It goes into an inverter which turns that into mains. The big inverter is called a Sunny Island and the wind inverter is called a Windy Boy, you really couldn’t make it up.
We did have a few problems and had to have two engineers out from Germany to help fix it, but the problem turned out that it had been set up incorrectly during installation.
When we first put the turbine in we got paid ROCs [Renewable Obligation Certificates] for everything we generated which we could sell to the electricity company who could offset against their dirty generation That all ended when they changed it to feed in tariff, which is a misnomer as it is a generation tariff, which they pay us. So we have always been paid something for generating by the wind. People do ask if the turbine is noisy, well when it is really windy it does get noisy but I like to think that it is the sound of money being generated and me not having to pay the electricity board for electricity.
In 2012 solar power was becoming much cheaper, before that time they were paying 45p a unit under feed in tariff, a huge amount and a trade off as then installing solar panels was expensive. By the time we installed it in 2012 I think they were paying 15p or 20p a unit.
The maximum we have ever generated was about 60 kilowatt hours in a day. Over the years what we have been paid in tariffs has not covered our capital costs but it has basically covered our running costs.
It’s interesting that when I tell people that we often generate more power than we can use they say ‘well why don’t you just put it back into the grid?’ completely omitting that the reason why we’ve got it in the first place is because we are not on the grid. You’d be surprised just how many people ask that.
Renovating the house
Although the previous owner had done an attempt at refurbishing it was pretty bad. The kitchen was damp and horrible, it had two gas rings and an electric ring which of course we didn’t use. For about two years until the extension was built that was what we used.
Apparently it used to be a double dwelling with two families living here. It’s difficult to see evidence of this, probably because of previous shoddy refurbishment. It did have two back doors, a downstairs and an upstairs bathroom. I don’t think that the two families could have live completely separately, by the layout of the house there must have been some shared areas.
The first thing that we did was to refurbish the upstairs bathroom, making it a little more habitable. We knocked down a cow shed and built a new large kitchen diner and sitting room, we put in under floor heating which by the way is magic, the only thing to do. This took a good year to eighteen months to get through planning and build. It is really good, it changes the nature of the house entirely and we spend most of our time there.
Over the years we have refurbished the rest of the house, stripped it right back, whilst all the time living here. It was fraught at times. One of the strange things we noticed when we got here was that the doors were short, so we fixed that and it looks a little more normal. We rewired everywhere, redid the central heating and put in an injected damp proof course.
There was a brick wall against the main bedroom, when we stripped it back we realised that it wasn’t attached to anything, by the time we had taken the ceiling down there was nothing to hold the top of it so we had this 30 foot long 8 foot high brick wall which was shaking. We took it down carefully and replaced it with a stud wall. You can imagine, you went up the stairs and all to the left was open, all to the roof and down to the floor. I was quite concerned at the time but we got there. Because of movement obviously there were some small cracks in some of the walls. We started work on the rear upstairs spare bedroom and went about it in the following way: we stripped all of the internal plaster out back to the bare brick, and where necessary HeliBarred across any small cracks. We then meshed, nailed and screwed mesh onto the walls and then rendered, put two to four inches of high density insulation and then battens and then plasterboard.
So in places in the walls it was nine inch brick meaning that the walls are quite thick in places. But it does make an immense amount of difference to the insulation. And we’ve taken that approach as we’ve gone through refurbishing the rest of the house.
The veranda, the views across the marsh and the wildlife
One of the reasons why we fell in love with this house was the beautiful veranda and the views across the marsh. We can see Great Yarmouth which is about eight miles away and on a clear day we can see Gulliver [the Ness Point wind turbine] at Lowestoft which must be sixteen miles away.
The great thing about being out here is the wildlife. We have Chinese water deer, English partridges, a very well fed pheasant who has two females and four pheasant chicks in the garden. We also had a bull in the garden once, not a wild one. We have foxes, not quite so many recently but I have watched them in the field across from us, a fox going one way and a hare going another way both ignoring each other .
We have put an owl box on the east side of the house and have raised, well not personally obviously, eleven barn owl chicks.
The marshes are grazing marshes and have been for centuries and they are one of the most important in the country for migratory birds. It is important that the water levels are kept right for both the migratory birds and the grazing cows and sheep. In other parts of the country I have seen Halvergate grass-fed lamb although I haven’t seen any locally.
The marsh is a site of scientific interest and a lot of work has been on it to bring more freshwater in. the water just soaks into the land so there is always freshwater for the cattle and so on.
The house sits in twelve thousand acres of marshes and across the track is a woodland which was full of bullace trees. It was so dark in there, but we cleared a lot of the straggly trees, making it lighter and improving the environment for wildlife. Interestingly there are two black poplars in the wood, they used to be very common but I’m told now that there are only sixty in the whole of Norfolk and we have two beautiful examples. I have set up a hide in the woods now and we photograph the birds, Julie having more patience at it than me.
Meeting interesting people over the years.
We do get some interesting people stop and talk to us when we’re in the garden and if we’re not they knock on the door. We had one guy who was cycling around the country, he stayed with us for a couple of days. We did say that he could stay in the house but he was happy to camp in the woods, he was a very interesting guy.
There was Aubrey Hewitt the one eyed marsh man, a lovely guy, retired now I think but he’d always stop and talk to us about the marsh, as does Alan the digger. He spends his year keeping the dykes clear so unlike that other famous marsh, Salisbury levels, we don’t flood. The problem with digging is that – and Alan is not too bad as he knows where all the cables are – people start clearing out the dykes and there is a tendency to go through the water supply. This has happened a couple of times. It happens to the phone line too.
We had a knock on the door some time ago, a chap whose name I can’t remember but who we call ‘the horseman’ because he was chair of an appaloosa association and used to keep appaloosas on the marsh. He had the original deeds of the property which he showed us. It was interesting because he told us that he built the barn which is now falling down. He told us that before he bought the property hippies used to live here and grow their vegetables across in Robin’s Wood. We know that a Dr King lived here too and unfortunately passed away here, because somebody was passing by one day and said that he used to do her garden and talked to us about her. I think that he was the person who found her.
The views and veranda are some of the reasons we fell in love with this place but the main thing of course is the two hundred year old Mutton’s Mill which is actually a pump rather than a mill. It is named after Fred Mutton who lived here and looked after it. It appears that everybody was called Fred, if you go to the churchyard you can see the graves of all these Fred Muttons. Fred had two daughters. One who we would talk to occasionally told us that during the great surge of 1953 with all the flooding her mother took them upstairs here and even though the Acle Straight and a lot of Great Yarmouth flooded, this house did not.
When we were building the extension the floor was measured at half a metre above sea level. We are told that a one in two hundred year event is two and a half metres above sea level which is why we were made to put our sockets half way up the wall. This never really made any sense to me because if you really wanted to avoid the water they would have to be basically at the ceiling.
With the marsh being so big and a lot of water being involved we are a bit concerned but if the house survived the 1953 floods we have nothing to worry about at the moment.
After all these years and amount of work done, the obvious question has to be is living off the grid worth it?
This is such a difficult question to answer, it’s yes and no. Lots of times it is really great and then sometimes you think it was an awful lot of money, perhaps if we had bought something sensible we could have done more travelling. We had been renting at Cantley Manor and we had to get out so perhaps had we been able to stay there for a bit longer would we have let this place go? I don’t know it is hard to tell. It has been fun, I’m an engineer and it has been fun, I am getting on now and you will probably have to carry me out in a coffin. There are a couple of minor drawbacks for the advantage of not being tied to the grid but on balance though we love it here: it is just so peaceful.
[i] This was the first large scale map of the whole county of Norfolk. The survey took place between 1790 and 1794 and was published in London in 1797 by William Faden.
Philip Williams (b. 1950) talking to WISEArchive on 22nd August 2019 at Halvergate.
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