Between May 1981 and October 1992 I lived in a house with no electricity in the North Tyne valley. It had no electricity because there was no road and these two not negligible absences were all part of the appeal, the adventure for a young couple, expecting their first child, keen to escape the increasingly brash clamour of the metropolis.
Threpwood Hill Cottage was an old gamekeeper’s house on the Chipchase Castle estate, near Wark. Various members of my brother-in-law’s family had been tenants over the years but it had lain empty, mouse- and damp-ridden for some time. When it was offered to us, we accepted without a second thought and started making plans to move north. I was pleased Newcastle would be our nearest city, where by a clever coincidence we were both born.
We’d been living in a licensed squat above The Whizzer, a bicycle repair co-operative in Camden Town, where my new husband, Simon, worked. Amongst the clientele was Ivor Cutler; a visit from him always a highlight of the day. He wouldn’t leave without taking out his wallet and giving us a few of his small ‘poems’ printed on sticky labels. Simon would stick them on his guitar (‘funny smell’) and I still have one saying ‘you are beautiful’. The place was busy and colourful, vibrant with the punky-hippy counterculture that was such a feature of the early ’eighties. It was partly this upbeat, defiant pragmatism that propelled us so fearlessly into our new lives where all the colour would be nature’s or our own, all the lights unimaginably small and precious.
Even though my mother started collecting paraffin lamps and flat irons for us, in an excited wave of recollected wartime austerity, I wasn’t prepared for how much living in a house without electricity would involve taking a step back in time. Everything happened much more slowly and quietly than before and that first summer we acclimatized to a different pace that seemed to suit the baby growing inside me. We made a garden, started keeping hens and bees, painted walls, hung curtains and generally made a home for ourselves on the top of a hill with one of the loveliest views in Northumberland. Just thinking about it, I have to catch my breath.
It was only when the nights fell earlier and earlier and it started getting colder and colder that the full impact of our decision really sunk in. The baby was due mid-November and we’d always planned to have him at home. A rota was drawn up of local midwives, many of whom still remembered when home births were the normal way of doing things. However everyone was relieved when Rufus was born in the early afternoon. The doctor embroidered the few stitches I needed after the delivery by the light of a Tilley lamp.
A fortnight later the worst snows for many years hit Northumberland and, as we had no upstairs heating at the time, we had to de-camp to the kitchen, setting up a bed-sit type arrangement for ourselves in the only room with any warmth: a big old Rayburn, the heart of the house. It roared away night and day, fuelled by logs both gathered and delivered, keeping the new family of three cosy, cooking our food, baking our bread, boiling clean Rufus’s towelling nappies in an enormous ancient pan which stained them with little spots of rust after a month or two. We’d go to bed on our mattress on the floor around the time The Archers came on at 7 o’clock, knowing we’d be awake again around midnight or the small hours when he woke up for a feed and a nappy change, during which we might have a cup of tea and a biscuit, listening to the only programme that we could pick up at that hour – Radio 2’s Trucker’s Hour.
The old radio ran on a fat square battery tucked inside it, wires threaded round the contact points at the top. Apart from that, in terms of power, we had the Tilley lamp you had to pump up to ignite, which hissed and shed a cold pale light; a paraffin lamp with a white glass globe that looked like the moon and had a calming effect on Rufus, who was a colicky baby, restless and crying for the first 3 months of his life. There were also numerous candles in an assortment of holders. It’s only when you’re using a candle for illumination rather than decoration that you see the advantages of those candlesticks with a little a dish round the bottom and a ring to hold onto. Moving from room to room, walking up and down stairs, it’s impossible not to drip melted wax; over the years our walls, furniture and floors became streaked with greasy gothic trails.
That first winter the windows upstairs were frequently thick with frost on the inside and the toilet froze solid so we had to use the bedpan the midwives had left behind and empty it on the compost heap. I washed all our clothes by hand in the extremely chilly scullery, or sometimes the bath. Every now and then we resorted to taking a batch of bedding and towels to the launderette in Newcastle and used it as an excuse to visit friends and family. The world of electric lights, TV, fridges and stereos was both seductive and jarring. We were slowly becoming tuned out of the mainstream, turning into wild creatures, who preferred the softness of candlelight, the deep just-rightness of the dark, the map and calendar of the moon and stars, the resonant echoes of silence.
Over the next few years another boy was born (Nathaniel, who appeared no-fuss, unfazed soon after midnight by the light of the Tilley), and we gradually made some small ‘improvements’ to how we used power. We rigged up a gas lamp attached to the old cooker that sat in the scullery and ran off a Calor Gas bottle. This new light hissed a little too but its glowing mantle shed a warmer, more extensive and reliable light than the Tilley and the paraffin lamp. We installed a wood-burning stove in our bedroom, which made the whole upstairs a much more viable space in the winter.
We became friendly with a local alternative energy co-op, NEW (Northumberland Energy Workshop), who very kindly gave us one of their cast-offs – an old Rutland 5W, which powered more new lights and a radio cassette player. That doesn’t sound like much but it lifted us out of the gloom and made life, especially with two growing children, much easier and more civilised. A light at the bottom of the stairs! Later we also acquired some solar panels, which added to the energy available to us, stored in the big slightly Heath Robinson-style battery in the barn, all wires and buttons.
Looking back, despite the hardship, the chilblains, the constraints of that life, I can’t help but feel a nostalgic glow. There was a sanity about it, a spaciousness and freedom that I miss now I have electricity, central heating, broadband (and the bills that go with them). Maybe it was our youthful idealism and energy but now it seems wonderfully innocent, embodying a profound harmlessness that comes from the modest and conscious consumption people are currently embracing as if they’d invented it.
A whole decade of culture passed me by. I have a yawning gap in my personal catalogue of music and films spanning the ’eighties, a deep incomprehension when I come up against what was out there. It doesn’t seem to have left any lasting scars. If you’re going to lose a decade, the ’eighties is probably one of the best. The space was more than filled by the richness of family and friendship, the incomparable blessing of figuring some important things out on my own, following the thread of my reading, my deepening work as a poet. This was an apprenticeship that happened in the dark, like a seed germinating, organic, irrepressible. Then in 1992, six months after my first collection, Red, was published, life on the hill ended and my marriage with it. Even though it broke my heart, I was the one who had to move out and, entering a new switch-on-switch-off life, I knew full well how much I’d lost. But I am grateful that I had it at all.
As if those eleven and a half years set up a momentum inside me too strong to resist, my life today is a halfway house between off and on grid, then and now. I have electricity and all its benefits but live in a field on the edge of woodland, where there are no streetlights and several gates between me and the main road. The sense of keeping the mad extravagance of too much heat and light, the threat of its imminent combustion, at a distance suits me. Living like this, simply, frugally, I need to stay conscious, explicitly translating need into effort. It’s still a good place for me to write from. Braving the muddy gates, I can travel down the valley to the city for work or pleasure, always happy to follow the stars in the ever-deepening dark to find my way home.
This is the type of small windmill design that provided the poet and her family with electricity.
Linda France's website
Linda France's blog, 'in the poet's garden'