Many people imagine a new future away from the rat race and Kate Humble has been helping some achieve just that. Her latest television series, A Country Life for Half the Price, features families escaping the daily grind and heading for simpler, slower, more sustainable lives in greener surroundings.
Kate is helping six families navigate the all-important first few months of their new ventures, helping them settle and find new ways of living and earning money locally, while introducing them to people with expertise on everything from keeping hens to bushcraft.
Filming started last May and ended in February, when Kate returned to find out “if the gloss had worn off”, as she puts it.
There is no better person than Kate Humble to present these programmes because, had any of the countryside-hopefuls in question been due at the dentist on filming day, she could have easily stood in for them.
In terms of A Country Life for Half the Price, she has already done it. Her own life changed dramatically when she moved from London to a small-holding in Wales. It was a big change in direction for someone who had become a household name seemingly chained to London and all its media opportunities.
“I spent 20 years in London,” she says. “The first ten years were quite fun. I was young. Then came the creeping realisation that I was not born to be in a city. I wasn’t doing cities well. I was quite simply in the wrong habitat, like a Polar bear in the Sahara.”
Kate had grown up in the Berkshire countryside but been sucked into the city by a burgeoning career in television that started as a researcher before switching to front-of-camera work with presenting jobs on a wide range of science and wildlife programmes.
Her roles on Countryfile, Springwatch and Autumnwatch no doubt helped push her desire to live the good life to the point where something had to give.
The inevitable happened in 2007 when she and her husband Ludo Graham finally escaped to the country.
“We had looked at places around London but they were all too expensive and felt like part of a suburb of the city. I wanted to feel properly in the countryside and to wake up to the sound of birds not traffic.”
Her dreams pointed west, specifically to Wales. “My husband thought I was completely mad because we had no connection to Wales at all,” she confesses. “It would have been much more sensible to go to Yorkshire – we both had families from there.”
But then destiny stepped in and Ludo was offered a job in Cardiff by BBC Wales. Despite “lots of nervousness and doubts”, they bought an old stone farmhouse with four acres in Monmouthshire. Chickens came first, then Badger the dog. Then, allegedly, they got a little tipsy at a neighbour’s dinner party and woke up to find they had agreed to take on two Kunekune pigs.
Two donkeys and several ducks and geese followed. Then a hive of bees, a vegetable patch, Bella (another rescue dog) and a small flock of Badger Face Welsh Mountain ewes. They had, almost by accident, become small-holders. There was more to come.
In 2011, they set up Humble by Nature when they took over the 117-acre Upper Meend Farm, near Penallt, in the Wye Valley, rescuing it from being broken up and sold. Since then they have worked hard to turn it into an open farm, a rural skills school and a beacon for sustainability.
Courses, run in conjunction with local experts, cover bee-keeping, goats for beginners, designing edible gardens, bread-making, foraging, willow-weaving, wool-spinning and a lot more besides.
Many of those appearing in Kate’s current TV series no doubt wish their own journeys could end up matching hers. In the meantime, Kate says the families have already reaped many benefits. “They have achieved space, with more time with the family, financial benefits and more freedom to work how they please,” she says. “Some are no longer a slave to debt, having moved to cheaper parts of the country.” That said, the families have faced challenges, from living out the stress that house-sales bring to seeing woodland work held up by winter storms.
Nothing comes easy when you forge a new future and it probably never does become easy either. Kate’s farm has been forced to close due to coronavirus. People have not been able to visit, holidays have been cancelled and courses have not gone ahead, at least not in the conventional way.
“But we are trying to keep our community – our tutors and the people who come here – together,” says Kate. Courses are being transferred to online tutorials, including one on how to shear sheep.
In other ways, though, farm life is carrying on as usual. It has to. “Our farm is a working farm and, like farms all across the UK, it will keep going. It may be quieter than normal now but the everyday jobs, looking after the animals and the land, are continuing.”
Like all people, Kate and those around her are doing their best to keep going, keep positive and keep focused on what is important at a time when everything we have ever known seems to be up in the air. “We have to ride this thing out,” she says. “We have to support each other and also help small businesses by buying local. I hope that communities will become tighter-knit and local businesses become appreciated more.”
Despite the difficulties and hardships that coronavirus has brought, Kate is philosophical about its long-term impact. “I hope it helps people to look at the things that really add value in our lives, such as friends and family. Does a new lipstick or handbag really make us feel better? No but a hug does. So does a walk in the countryside.
“Perhaps coronavirus will tempt more people into simpler, more sustainable lifestyles where they can learn to enjoy the almost bottomless benefits of less consumer-led lives. Previous generations lived like this and I believe they were happier and more fulfilled.
“We need to make the current situation a positive lesson for humanity as a whole, that we can all live kinder lives. We’re already seeing pollution dropping and people connecting with nature, and appreciating nature, more than before.”
A Country Life for Half the Price is on Channel 5 until May 12, and A Year of Living Simply by Kate Humble is due out in the autumn. To find out more about Kate’s farm and rural skills courses, visit www.humblebynature.com
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