The Howdenshire farm offering lessons in self-reliance

When Di Hammill’s three children were younger she spent several years living completely off-grid in a remote dale in the North York Moors. There was no TV in the house and the family would collect firewood, forage for food and bathe in the river. Di would even line her children’s Wellington boots with the fur of rabbits that had been killed on the roads.

At the time Di was a single mum and admits: “It was very lonely and isolated, but I wanted to get as back to nature as I could and take the kids of away from popular culture to let them develop in their own way.”

Ten years on, Di and her children, who are now teenagers, are living a much more conventional existence here in Howdenshire. Di rents a former farmhouse close to the village of East Cottingwith, which has become the headquarters for The Wild Harvest School of Self-Reliance, a business venture inspired by the years the family spent living a totally self-sufficient lifestyle.

Di explains: “My kids are normal teenagers now, it wouldn’t have been fair of me to impose that lifestyle on them as they got older but they do say that the values asserted in our childhood come back to us; they certainly did with me. It’s true as my daughter can make pretty much anything.”

It was Di’s own childhood that equipped her with her fierce independence and steely determination, together with a ‘make and mend’ approach and a raft of practical skills, such as the ability to make traditional remedies from plants. 

She was raised by her father and grandfather but acknowledges that she pretty much brought herself up, explaining: “I was given to my Dad in a custody battle, which was rare in the 1970s. He was a single dad and a hippy. I was brought up by him and my Grandfather, who both expected me to become self-reliant from a young age; they’d kind of forget about me at times, each thinking the other was looking out for me. They even taught me how to break into the house when they’d accidentally locked me out! I wouldn’t change anything though; I’ve seen friends who had it all – two loving parents – and they’re weak as anything!”

Di continues: “If Dad wanted something, he would grow or make it, we had a very simple life. When I had my kids I started to see notice how everything is farmed out; we’ve become deskilled as women. Once we’d have cooked everything from scratch and known what plants to treat our kids with when they were ill. I wanted my kids to have these skills, and be quite tough and self-disciplined.”

She adds proudly: “They are pretty tough; they’re never ill!”

Keen to share what she’s learned with others, Di began running wild food walks showing people how to forage for ingredients and self-sufficiency workshops. 

She explained: “I was already working as a teacher and some of my skills, such as willow weaving, are self-taught, but I wanted to reskill myself so I went on loads of courses, usually with the kids!”

The Wild Harvest School of Self-Reliance really took off when Di moved to Boundary Farm near East Cottingwith following a spell living York and working as a teacher. She has established a network of self-sufficiency experts who she can call upon to run different courses, covering everything from bee keeping and wild medicine to an introduction to permaculture.

Boundary Farm’s old foldyard and brick outbuildings make a charming setting for the day courses that Di runs and she can now offer craft retreat weekends, with accommodation provided in a series of white tipis with wonderful views of the Howdenshire countryside. 

With a camp fire and quirky outdoor kitchen, not to mention the family’s Silkie hens and pet dogs roaming freely among borders stocked with herbs and medicinal plants, the farm is restful and creative environment for people looking to escape the rat race for a weekend or those who simply want learn some new skills.

The retreats are proving particularly popular with hen parties, who jump at the chance to try their hand at a wide variety activities during their stay – everything from making rag rugs, candles or bath bombs to willow weaving and archery. Di is keen to demonstrate that self-sufficiency ‘can be an urban concept’, rather than an exclusively rural way of life, and she regularly stages wild food walks in the centre of York, which have attracted students from as far afield as France. She’s an in-demand speaker at events nationwide and hosts workshops as part of the annual Country Living Fairs in Harrogate and London.

Like the mother, Di’s children can turn their hands to almost anything. The family grow their most of their own vegetables and Di has an apothecary stocked with remedies made from wild plants. 

Although she admits that she’s not such a ‘purist’ now her children are older because she doesn’t want deprive them of the typical trappings of teenage life, such as shop bought hygiene and beauty products and iPads, her mission remains the same; to empower people to provide for themselves and their families using the natural resources around them. 

  • For more information about day courses and craft retreats at the Wild Harvest School of Self-Reliance, visit www.wildharvest.org.

 

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