Why we're living in a tent – in winterWhy on earth would Matt and Lily Gibson give up their house and take their baby daughter to live in a tent in the countryside? Patrick Barkham finds outPatrick Barkham
The Guardian, Sat 11 Feb 2012 00.05 GMTA white frost clings to the fields and the mud on the farm is frozen hard. In a secluded paddock behind the stone farmhouse stands a small bell tent, a curl of smoke rising from the metal flue poking out of the canvas. The temperature dropped to -7C the previous evening but inside the tent it is surprisingly warm, which is just as well because since the middle of January this octagonal dwelling, 5m wide and mounted on old pallets above the mud, has been the home of Lily and Matt Gibson and their nine-month-old daughter, Louise.As unpaid bills mounted, and the couple struggled to pay £625-a-month rent for a dilapidated house, they made a drastic decision: they believed they would be better off, and happier, trying to survive in a tent. When their tenancy agreement expired on 15 January, they pitched a tent they had bought for £370, borrowed from Lily's mother, on a farm in the west country."The mud and rain may be depressing, but the cold is scary," admits Lily. "But we're glad we've done this, even though it is frightening sometimes thinking about our responsibility for Louise and how we must keep her warm."The woodburning stove inside the tent is their life. Everything is focused on keeping the fire burning. Every two hours at night, Matt must get up to feed it more logs. So far, it is working. It may be freezing outside but under a single layer of canvas, the couple have created a snug and idyllic-looking – if minuscule – home. The tent smells of woodsmoke and a delicious beef and vegetable broth is bubbling on the stove.Matt was working in retail, spending wages on an expensive commute to a nearby city, and Lily, a freelance graphic designer, had stopped work when Louise was born. "Matt wasn't getting home until 7pm and we still couldn't afford to live properly," says Lily. "We paid all our rent but we weren't ever going out. We weren't buying new clothes. We didn't even get our hair cut. We'd occasionally get a coffee with friends in the town, but we were living very frugally. There was no way we could save at all and we wanted to do something for Louise's future. We tried to be positive and we wanted her to have a happy home, but it was really quite depressing."Then they chanced on a press cutting about Simon Dale, who built his own eco-home for £3,000. This inspired them to take the first steps in their dream of buying a plot of land and building a low-impact home on it. "For me it was also inspired by the Occupy movements across the world," adds Lily. "I don't know what they might achieve but they have shifted consciousness in some way." Previously, she assumed that "if we could not afford our rent it was because we were not budgeting properly. The Occupy movement made me see it wasn't my fault – that it was the system that was not working."Matt and Lily began by finding a farmer, a friend of a friend, who generously allowed them to pitch the tent on his land. Matt has quit his job but the couple are not claiming unemployment or housing benefit – Matt does farm work between cutting wood for their stove. It may sound romantic but the challenges of living simply under canvas are daunting."A lot of people would go mad in a tent at this time of year. People could find a million and one things to burst into tears about," says Lily. This morning, she hung her one warm jumper on the stove flue to warm up for a minute, got distracted by Louise and singed the jumper. "You definitely need a sense of humour and you can't be vain – you're just going to get upset by the mud or lack of running water."Inside the tent are nice rugs, plants and homely trinkets the couple have picked up on their travels. "It's got that nomad feel to it, which I love," says Matt. It has been a steep learning curve, however. Because the sides slope inwards there is far less space than they anticipated – no furniture can be allowed to touch the canvas or the rain will come in. They have been flooded already, and after they failed to secure the stove flue, it blew down in a gale. It is now firmly screwed in place.To begin with, they lived off tinned food heated on the stove top. "We were sat there for three hours wondering why things wouldn't come to the boil," says Lily. Since then, she has mastered slow cooking – Turkish meatballs with rice, pot-roasted chicken with roast potatoes and even omelettes in tin foil – while Matt has learned how the type and size of log can radically alter the stove's heating power. Although he is doing less paid labour now, he says his days seems fuller. "There are not enough hours in the day now."Washing is done with a Wonderwash, a hand-cranked machine Lily imported from the US for £80. Clothes are cleaned with six jugs of hot water and two minutes of vigorous cranking, followed by 30 seconds of cranking in cold water to rinse. As the tent is a temporary measure, they borrow the downstairs loo at the farm and pay to have an occasional shower and charge their phone. "There is more drudgery, like hand-sweeping the floor, but it is more liberating and empowering as well," says Lily. "The simpler things are, the less alienated you feel from your own life – the more in control you are."They have had to learn to prioritise certain jobs in the precious daylight hours. After dark, they light the tent with candles. There is no television, although Lily gets the internet on her phone. "We like talking, we sit around the fire and I sing to Louise a lot," she says. "We haven't felt bored, not for a moment. We don't miss having loads of TV channels showing things we don't want to watch anyway."As they explain how they are coping with living in a tent, Lily and Matt are clear that their priority is Louise. They are meticulous about sterilising her bottles and ensuring that she is never cold. She and Matt may exchange nervous glances when the wind howls outside, but Louise loves it. For her, it seems that the tent is a secure home, where she can be physically and emotionally close to her parents. "So far she seems to be flourishing health-wise," smiles Lily. "She is very happy, alert and engaged with what's going on." Their concerns about Louise are assuaged by the knowledge that, in the worst-case scenario, they can seek a warm refuge in the farmhouse, as they were forced to on the night a storm destroyed their stove flue.Their parents have been very supportive – "They get concerned when it's cold and ring to check we are OK," says Lily. What would they say to people who would see them as reckless for living with a small child in a tent in midwinter? "What we're doing might seem irresponsible," says Lily, "but if we stayed where we were with unaffordable rent we would have ended up in so much debt that we wouldn't have been able to feed Louise properly or get her warm clothes. It was terrifying. We would have been very depressed and therefore not able to produce a positive home environment for her and we would have ended up more dependent on benefits as well. We're trying to stand on our own two feet."Living in a tent places them at the mercy of the elements, but Matt and Lily feel they have taken control of their own lives. By staying temporarily in the tent, they hope to save up to buy a piece of land on which they can build their own eco-home, a roundhouse with straw bale insulation. They are not just surviving: they are learning off-grid living skills they hope to teach to other families who want to live in a simpler, more sustainable way. Ideally they want to build their eco-home this summer but so far have been too busy keeping warm to find land. They admit their hope of buying a secluded half-acre on a south-facing slope, with a stream, for a few thousand pounds is probably unrealistic.They may have chosen to live like this but, like other hard-pressed families, Matt and Lily have found that economic pressures made their old way of life intolerable. They believe more working families will be forced to live like they do, as rents and bills rise and first-time buyers are permanently priced out of the housing market. The government, however, seems unwilling to help people like Matt and Lily to help themselves. To get planning permission for a low-impact house on rural land requires navigating an impenetrable planning maze.Lily would like to see reforms to encourage more self-built, low-impact housing. "There should be assistance to help people do this, not obstacles," she says.The reality of life in a tent in the middle of a British winter is far from bucolic but there are unimagined benefits. Sustained by their dreams of a self-built home, Matt and Lily are determined to accentuate the positives. Lily has noticed how well Louise sleeps at night in the tent. In fact, they all sleep much better than they did. On clear nights, the moonlight shines through the canvas and they hear the hoot of owls and the barking of foxes. Are they woken by the cockerel in the morning? "There are about 15 of them, which Louise loves," says Matt."I love the sound of rain on the canvas, the candle light and the woodsmoke. I like everything being simplified," adds Lily. "It might be a cliche to talk about being in harmony with or close to nature but an element of that is very true."