It hardly seems possible that a year has passed since I published my first book, Just Passing Through, about our life on the waterways of France. It has done well, and to my astonishment I now have sales in the USA, Australia, Canada, India and Europe as well as the UK. I know many of you bought the book and getting those first crucial sales and reviews was key to this success. Your support, both through buying the book and recommending it to your own friends and families, made a huge difference. I had hoped to be able to inflict a sequel upon you this year but the pandemic has temporarily delayed our cruising plans. Instead our lives have taken a turn that we never could have foreseen and in the autumn of last year we bought a humble wooden cabin in the Pyrénées-Atlantique region of France.
Out of this unexpected twist in our lives, a new book has emerged. It follows us as we take an empty shell of a basic, one-room cabin and turn it into a comfortable home. When we moved in we had no electricity, no kitchen, no bathroom or bedroom and the loo was a bucket in the shed. Now we live an off-grid, sustainable lifestyle and, by choice not necessity, the loo is still a bucket in the shed!
I have called the book A Simple Life – living off-grid in a wooden cabin in France, and whilst it portrays a picture of the realities of a simple life, it also discusses some of the basic assumptions that underpin our modern world. How does it feel when you strip life down to the bare necessities? What makes us happy? And will life really come to an end without a flushing toilet?
Our cabin comes with five acres of land, split between a field and woodland, in a very remote and rural part of France. We don’t live here alone – we share it with deer, foxes, wild boar, birds and insects. These wonderful creatures are also part of this book, for it is not possible to live this type of life without gaining a closer connection to the landscape around you.
And lastly, you can never completely escape the real world, and so the book also provides an insight into French customs and traditions, gives an overview of negotiating Brexit, with all the implications it has for our daily lives, and of course there is the pandemic, as we find ourselves living through a series of lockdowns French-style.
This cabin is a part-time home for us, a winter-base and a retreat in these difficult times, but our boat, Olivia Rose, is still very much part of our lives. As soon as the pandemic allows we shall be back out on the waterways and Just Passing Through part 2 will hopefully be winging its way towards you in a few years time but for now, if you would like to try something a little different, A Simple Life by Mary-Jane Houlton is available on both Kindle and paperback through Amazon. The drawings of the wildlife have been done by Michael, who has now broadened his scope from birds to just about anything that moves.
I have included below an excerpt of the book, the foreword, which will give you an idea of what it is all about.
‘I think many of the big changes that people make to their lives happen by chance. An opportunity will drift past us, often when we least expect it, and we must decide whether to take it, or let it go. If we take it, our lives may change dramatically. If we let it go, our lives drift on and we will never know if we have missed out on something magical or avoided a catastrophe.
Our decision to try our hand at living an off-grid life in France was one of those opportunities. It came at the right time, in the right place, although we weren’t looking for it and, in many ways, didn’t want it. My husband Michael and I thought we had our life all sorted out. We had made our really big life-changing decision three years previously, selling our house and closing our business down. Now we lived a nomadic life, either on our boat in France, in our caravan in the UK, or travelling in our campervan. We split our time between Europe and the UK and it was all we ever wanted.
But life is like a river, sometimes calm, sometimes unpredictable and turbulent, and you never know what is around the next corner. In 2020 we foundered upon the Brexit rock. No longer able to live and move freely between Europe and the UK, we had to make a choice. We chose France.
Although we had no desire to buy another home, without it we would not be able to stay in France for more than three months out of every six. If we had bought a conventional house I think it would have meant little to us, being no more than a means to an end, allowing us to continue living in the way we had chosen, but by chance we found an off-grid, one-room wooden cabin in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques region of France. It had no electricity, no kitchen, no bathroom or bedroom, and the loo was a bucket in a shed, but it came with five acres of field and woodland. The idea of living off-grid on our own land appealed to us and so the deal was done.
I have followed my dreams in the past and some of them have turned out to be less than I had hoped for. This tiny cabin wasn’t a dream at all, just a solution to a problem, a part-time home for the winter which would allow us to spend the summers on our boat, and yet it enriched my life in ways I could never have foreseen. Off-grid living in itself proved to be a revelation, and we fitted together like hand and glove, but it was so much more than that. We were living in la France profonde, deep in the heart of rural France, where wild boar and deer still roamed the forests, where pockets of the natural world were still untamed and where mankind could at times feel utterly, wonderfully insignificant. No-one had lived in our cabin for at least a year and the wildlife had taken over by the time we arrived. Every day brought something new to marvel at: deer browsing in our field at dusk and dawn, salamanders on the doorstep, a praying mantis in the vegetable bed, vast, swirling migrations of wood pigeons filling the sky, birdsong by day and owls calling by night. I felt like a child again, the world full of possibilities and endless questions that needed answers.
If our own little world felt magical, the world outside was far from it. As well as working out how to construct our off-grid power system of solar panels and batteries, we had to negotiate our way through the Brexit paper trail, rearranging key elements of our lives. We also had to learn the French way of doing things, to begin the long process of integrating more deeply into French society than we had previously. In many ways this was a positive experience, but at times the French love-hate relationship with paperwork and bureaucracy was challenging. Worst of all was the fact that we were living through the Covid-19 pandemic, with all the worry and uncertainty that came with it.
When I began writing this book I thought the main theme would be off-grid living, but other elements have elbowed their way into the limelight and now share the pages. How could I ignore the wildlife who share our little patch of land? Or not be aware that we have a responsibility to manage our field and woods for this wildlife as well as for ourselves? I hope this book portrays a growing and enduring love for the richness of the natural world and a gratitude for the succour it gives when the outside world becomes a frightening place. And, last but not least, France and her people are also included as we learn about the country’s traditions old and new, and come to better understand the French way of viewing the world.
I can’t think of a time in my life when there has been such uncertainty on so many levels, when people across the world are reassessing both how they live their lives and what really matters to them. Change is in the air, and it seems this move to a simpler, more pared-down way of life couldn’t have come at a more relevant time.’
If you do buy a copy, I hope you enjoy it – and if you should like it enough to recommend it to a friend or leave either a review or a star rating I would be forever grateful.
Below is the link which should take to directly to the book on Amazon.
Otherwise, my best wishes to you all. Let’s hope that life begins to return to something approaching normality over the coming year.