Britain has the reputation for being an over-crowded country with a population much the same as France but with only one third of its area. These figures can mask the fact that much of the British population is located in cities and conurbations and as soon as you drive outside these you can find solitude a-plenty, even in counties like my own, East Sussex. However, Wales is a much less-populated region and if you hanker after the quiet life, that could be the place for you.
Neil Ansell had the opportunity to rent a dilapidated cottage deep in the hills of Mid-Wales, in countryside so remote that you could walk twenty miles in one direction without encountering another dwelling. What started as short-term let, turned out to be a five-year period of solitary living, far removed from the services we expect to find today – hot water from a tap, central heating and plumbing. The rent of £100 a year reflected the lack of services but failed to take account of the incredible beauty of the location and the land available to the tenant.
Neil has a great affinity with nature and things which would phase other people were causes of delight. I am not sure how I would feel about sharing my home with twenty of thirty bats for example. Even Neil however baulked at the spring-invasions of mice – fortunately the pretty field mouse variety rather than the disease carrying house mouse. The mice reduced Neil to hanging food in carrier bags from ham hooks embedded in the ceiling. The only way Neil could reduce the population of mice was to trap them and carry them across a river where he released them. No doubt killing them would have had no effect other than to make space for others.
Neil found that his life settled down into natural rhythms, “I had a daily routine dictated by the simplicty of my lifestyle, and an annual routine too, led by the seasons, the elements”. He even developed his own rituals, such as seeing in the New Year from the summit of his hill or walking overnight into the hills at the Summer Solstice so he could watch the dawn from a mountain top.
Five years of solitude was broken up by visits from friends, but Neil became accustomed to his way of life and found that he welcomed the return to quietness when they departed. He writes,
I couldn’t fee lonely. Loneliness is the product of an isolation that has not been freely chosen. You can feel more lonely in the midst of a crowd of people if those people are not giving you the human contact you desir, in the same way that poverty surrounded by affluence feels harsher, more shocking, than poverty shared.
While it is interesting to read how Neil looked after himself, the major part of the book is a sort of extended nature diary – fascinating for anyone who loves the ebb and flow of the seasons and the changing wildlife that accompanies them. The hills of Wales are remarkable rich in wild-life of every description and Neil went out of his way to cultivate a relationship with it – maintaining a large number of nest boxes for example, which he patrolled regularly to check on the progress of his many bird families.
He became remarkably attuned to the life around him and was aware of every bird in his patch and any new arrivals which turned up. He rescued an ailing raven at one point and took it indoors to care for it, until passing it on to experts who could nurture it back to a full life. I was reminded of a time I went for a walk I knew well in the company of an enthusiastic bird-watcher – he kept pointing out birds which I hadn’t even noticed before and began to realise that the area I lived in was far richer in wild-life than I had imagined.
Neil already had an interest in “food for free” having lived in Sweden where “foraging in the wood in autumn is practically a national pastime”. He gathered chanterelles, parasols and ceps, preserving them in olive oil with dill and coriander seeds. He made thirty jars of jam each year from berries found in the woods, and he gathered wild strawberries – a pleasure I have shared while walking in South Wales.
Neil had two mild winters and then a third winter when he was snowed in for six weeks. Fortunately his hoard of logs supplied warmth enough, and he was able to draw flocks of birds and individaul rarities to his home with strategically placed seed and nuts.
The solitary life was a phase which could not last forever. Neil is now a successful BBC journalist and lives with his family in the city of Brighton. He still returns to his Welsh cottage but things are not quite the same – in his epilogue he gives the impression of returning to the location of an earlier part of his life, now long gone.
Neil has recorded a video for Penguin Books with some footage of the cottage which lets us get a good idea of where he spent his five years with nature and self-sufficiency.