Nina is washing dishes in the ice cold water of the spring next to our house, while I am digging a hole in which to bury the toilet bucket. I am labouring against frozen and sloping ground and cannot get one single satisfying shovelful of dirt as I am constantly colliding with roots and rocks. We are rushing as these chores have to be done before darkness closes in. Nina suffers from Raynaud’s phenomenon and her fingers sting and go a deathly white in the freezing water. It may be better if we were to swap roles, but she washes faster than me and I dig faster than her. Moreover, although we have no showers or mirrors, and make-up and leg waxing seem like otherworldly extravagances, she is still my angel and I draw the line at her burying my shit.
After these jobs are done we will light a Tilly Lamp and candles, one of us will make dinner while the other starts a fire. It is around 3⁰C in the house at the moment, the temperature of a fridge, but we cannot burn our fire for too long as we live half way up a mountain with no road to the house. All wood and coal must be carried on our backs up a steep, rocky and boggy path that no 4×4 could negotiate.
After dinner we sit by the fire with a cup of tea and Radio 4. Nina makes some hot water bottles and we change into pyjamas (including night hats), then up to bed. It is even colder upstairs as the drafty house doesn’t retain any heat from the fire. But the absolute stillness of living 2 miles away from our nearest neighbour, and the cold, fresh air always ensure we sleep deeply.
Nina’s relatives own this little house called Gelli. A long time ago when the old place needed a new roof, Nina’s dad helped his cousins to heave slate up the hill for a week. The herculean task earned him the freedom of the cottage. He and Nina’s mum spent their honeymoon here.
Nina and I have been together, but apart, for the past 7 years. We were both getting tired of living away from each other (Nina in Oxford, and me in London) but neither wanted to relocate to the other’s city. Somehow Gelli was mentioned as a compromise, we both laughed. But as time wore on and other options fell by the wayside, we couldn’t think of a really good reason why not.
The house is largely empty over the winter as it is so cold and the days are short. But we have lived here every November for the past 6 years and reckoned we could handle it. We have no mortgage, no kids, and no responsibilities. The world wouldn’t miss us terribly if we took 6 months out to have an adventure. The joke became more of an ambition, and something we got more and more excited about. We knew we may never have an opportunity like this again, so after receiving consent from the owners, we started planning our escape.
We both feel it has been a great decision for so many reasons. In London you can’t leave the house without throwing away a tenner it seems. Trains, tube, pub, Starbucks, cinema, Pizza Express, where ever you turn it is all so expensive, crowded and prosaic. Here we can live on a very small budget, food and petrol being our only outgoings. Walking in the hills is free, as is sitting by the fire reading. Life is completely dictated by the weather, a few sunny weeks and we feel like Adam & Eve running round in the Garden of Eden, a few bad weeks (or months as the case seems to be) and we feel like Russian prisoners, sentenced to a term in a Siberian Gulag. But however bad it gets, we are always alive and a part of it.
North Wales is vastly superior to the city if you like running, and we both love running. We are spoilt for choice with beautiful woods, hills and beaches everywhere you look. We are still discovering new fantastic places to run.
Running is a daily necessity for us out here, and not because we are ‘streaking’ (I am referring to those who run every day, not those who run around naked). We recently had a rest day, and were miserable the whole time. It is just too cold to stay sitting about up in the house, no matter how many hot chocolates you make. The act of running does more than keep us fit; it keeps our metabolism high and our body temperature up. A one hour run can keep you warm for the rest of the day, it is an amazing resource.
Discoveries like this give us insights into the lives of those who inhabited this house 300 years ago. They must have had similarly cold, snowy winters where the only way to get warm, paradoxically, was to get out of the house, and get working.