Back to Nature
The work-anywhere culture of Spencer West has given education specialist partner Tanya Thomas the opportunity to live in one of Britain’s most remote and romantic locations. Tanya tells ESG (Environmental Social and Governance) Director Ian McDowell about the ups and downs of going back to nature.
Where do you live, Tanya?
We are at southern tip of Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales. There is this tiny corner that is also a nature reserve, and that is where our house is located. The A470 cuts through the national park, just off that A470 road. Pen Y Fan, the highest point in North Wales, is just up the road from us. The summers here are very hot and the winters are very hard.
What is it like to live in such a remote location?
The British countryside is underrated compared with other countries. We live in a nature reserve, which brings some surprises with it. In the summer, we have bees that are almost the size of your hand. Part of our land happens to be a “Site of Special Scientific Interest” because of the rare Molinia grass that grows here (also known as purple moor grass). It makes the landscape look very exotic, like porcupine spikes sticking up out of the ground.
We see incredible birds of prey on a regular basis. An eagle was spotted here a couple of months ago. The road that runs beneath our house is always full of birdwatchers at weekends.
Why did you decide to settle in rural Wales?
We were already living in a semi-rural location, and we are both nature lovers. We thought long and hard about it. We knew it would not be easy, but I am quite a hardy individual. I love being out in all weathers.
Have there been any moments when you wanted to live someone more straightforward?
We adore it here, and we are determined to stay, but there have been some challenging moments. Like when a swarm of bees entered our chimney and we had to evacuate. But we were so impressed by those bees we are now planning to get some bees of our own!
There was also a slightly embarrassing incident when we had a new touch-sensitive oven hob installed in the kitchen, and suddenly in the middle of the night the bleeper started going off. I went down to the kitchen and discovered that a giant slug had turned the oven on.
Things are living in the roof. There are scurrying sounds at strange times in the night. At Christmas, I had a robin on my dressing table. Swallows sometimes fly into my room. We even had an invasion of bank voles, but I didn’t mind too much because they were so cute, like little balls of fluff.
Have there been other strange occurrences?
Everything strange that has happened to me has happened to me while I have been living here. Our house is incredibly old. It must be pre-1600’s because we have copies of census documents going back to then. It is stone, and the walls are really thick.
The house is called “The House of the Springs in the Upper Spring Grove” and we think it was built here because of the natural water springs which are still going strong. My daughter happens to be called Manon after the girl in the French movie Manon des Sources. And that was before we came here, so that is quite a strange coincidence.
There have been other strange coincidences. My husband once sat next to a woman at a conference in London, and after a bit of small talk it turned out that her great-grandparents were born and raised in the Brecon Beacons. When they went into it further, they discovered that it was in our actual house. Now, what are the odds of that happening?
She has become a friend, and she once told me that the house is so old they used to bury their dead in the garden. She was looking into her family history, and she had collated documents going back several hundred years. She sent me copies of these and I found out a lot abut the history of the house and surrounding farms.
A friend of mine, who is quite spiritual, claims a very angry lady lived here. She told me the woman lost her husband, and people tried to take the farm from her, but she had no fewer than eight children, and she fought to keep the farm for their sake. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I think a lot of her energy is here, and there are “echoes” of people who have lived here.
Some months later an American lady turned up at the house, and she told me that it was her great-great (great?) aunt’s place and that she had lived here alone with her eight children. So that might be the same person.
An ancient public footpath runs through our fields, and it is regularly used by Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme participants. One year we had to rescue ten youngsters who had got lost in the middle of the night. It was raining and they had got completely saturated and disorientated. We dried them out in front of the fire until they were rescued!
Are there other things about your lifestyle that town dwellers might find surprising?
We don’t have mains water because we are too far from the mains, which means we have to use natural spring water. We have found back-up springs using dowsing rods. I know that might sound strange to some people, but it really does work and was suggested by our water engineer.
How does dowsing work?
It’s not difficult at all. You get the rods in your hands and then you ask the question and say, “show me.” The rods just do their thing. It is really quite thrilling. It seems like anything can happen here: sometimes it is best not to question how.
We have a ground source central heating system that uses heat from the ground to heat the house via a complicated heat exchange system. It powers our downstairs under-floor heating, which my dogs love, and our hot water and radiators upstairs. I can leave the heating on all day at reduced cost to me and the environment.
It was subsidised by the UK Government, so we pay much less than we would pay with a standard system. We also have a solar installation, and in the summer that runs all our appliances for free. We are going to get a battery at some point so we can store the electricity to use when the sun is not out.
These things are expensive, but the installers walk you through the subsidy schemes, so it is much easier than you think. Everyone should consider it.
Because we are not on mains sewage all our sewage water goes into a package treatment works, and we needed a licence for that. That was another major investment.
We were lucky that there was already an allotment in the garden – overgrown when we discovered it – so now we grow our own vegetables. We have just had a glut of strawberries, and now we are going into broad beans and courgettes season, and soon we will be growing potatoes. We keep our own chickens, so we have fresh eggs every morning. I do sometimes shop in normal supermarkets, but in the summer, we are fortunate to eat a lot of the produce we grow ourselves.
And if that’s not enough, Penderyn Distillery is just down the road. It is the home of Welsh whisky and produces award-winning single malt whiskies and spirits made from the local spring water. We really are in one of the best locations imaginable!
Has working for Spencer West been a factor in being able to live this incredibly special lifestyle?
It would be impossible to live this way if I were in a traditional law firm.
What a wonderful thing it is to work for a firm where you can live in a place like this! Super-fast broadband is on the way, but we manage all right with ordinary broadband at present.