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Peak Oil Transport

John Owen |
Thursday, 12th July 2012

Horse Drawn Low Impact Living on the Road. With property and fuel prices soaring, peak oil transport will inevitably herald the return of the working horse. John Owen describes his six years living and travelling on the road and explains why this lifestyle is so very permacultural.

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For six years my home and my transport were the same as I lived in a horse drawn caravan. This meant that wherever I was I was at home, whether it was at a festival, at the side of the road or visiting friends.

With my horse Magic I literally travelled the highways and byways of England and Wales, from busy dual carriagways with juggernauts hurtling by only a few feet away to quiet country lanes where the only sounds were birdsong and the clip-clop of hooves. I stayed in places that were breathtakingly beautiful, peaceful commons with sparkling streams and the flash of a kingfisher, and places more challenging such as industrial estates and tiny strips of land at the side of main roads. Despite these contrasts, the fact that I lived mostly outside and had time to observe made it obvious that nature is everywhere; blackbirds continue to sing next to the cacophony of industry and kestrels hunt at the side of motorways.

Living Permaculture Principles
I didn't know much about permaculture at the time but later when I started exploring the subject I found that horse travelling fitted many permaculture principles. Perhaps the most obvious is use edges and value the marginal; much of the time both the speed at which I travelled and the time my horses needed for grazing meant that I stopped on wide verges at the side of the road. Here there was a huge untapped resource where my horse could have fresh grazing every day with different combinations of herbs, a far better diet than that of those poor horses who spend all their lives in one field. As well as living on the edge of the road, it was also a life on the edge of society and a very obvious edge too. Sometimes I was lucky if it was only abuse that was hurled out of car windows, but I also met some of the friendliest, most generous people in my life. 

Essential Simplicity
As I lived in a tiny space, my wagon being 3 x 2m (10ft x 6ft), and I was always aware that whatever I put into it, my horse had to pull, so my possessions were pruned to the bare mini-mum and constantly vetted to make sure they were essential. I had to apply self-regulation and accept feedback as a way of life. Yet as I had no house or vehicle to maintain, I needed very little money, food being my only daily necessity and so my consumption of ‘stuff’ was tiny which also meant that I honoured the permaculture idea of producing very little waste. This way of life is indeed very low impact.

The permaculture principle of catching and storing energy took on a meaning it hadn’t before life on the road. It took the form of finding the best possible grazing for Magic both to make sure she had the energy for the next day’s journey (I was often travelling blind and so I didn’t know how long it would be until the next stop), and also to ensure Magic could store some of the energy for the lean winter months ahead. The other way in which you can catch and store energy if you have a mare is by allowing her to visit the stallion and have a foal. She achieved this once without my knowledge by escaping from the common where we were camped into a dressage centre to canoodle with a German warm blood stallion. I knew nothing about this till later and couldn’t understand why she was getting so fat!

Life’s Essentials
Each time I stopped, the most immediate priority was finding grazing for Magic. Once that was sorted there were the questions of wood and water.

The fact that I couldn’t catch and store energy in these forms in best permaculture fashion because of the issue of weight meant that they had to be attended to each time I stopped. A horse drinks a lot of water which you soon realise if you’ve had to fetch and carry it. Although this is not too much of a problem in Wales as water is everywhere, in England you sometimes have to carry it a very long way, may be from a cattle trough in a distant field. It certainly teaches you to value renewable resources!

The same goes for the need for wood. For most of my time travelling, wood was my only means not only of heating, but also of cooking. I became adept at finding wood which would actually burn (not as easy as it sounds) and at making the best out of a small amount of fuel. The natural process of observing and interacting happened all the time as I travelled down the road. I was always on the lookout for a nice wide grassy verge or places to stop for the night, whilst assessing road conditions and weather conditions. I often set out with a specific destination in mind but was always ready to change my plan if a more tempting option presented itself, such as meeting up with other travellers or being offered work and somewhere to stay for a while. You could say I was very creative at using and responding to change!

Use slow and small solutions ... Slow it certainly was as I travelled at walking speed, most of the time walking myself both because walking in the rhythm of a horse is an enjoyable thing and also to spare her my extra weight. The journey itself becomes not just a means of getting from A to B but the whole experience. It is an amazing thing to see a tiny speck in the distance get slowly, slowly bigger until it becomes a huge mountain. I became so used to travelling at this pace that when I occasionally went on a car journey I experienced something like jet lag; it felt like part of me had to catch up.

Diversity & Integration
The principles of use and value diversity and integrate rather than segregate are reflected negatively in society’s attitude to travellers.

The Permaculture Association website says, “Human diversity is key to creativity and a vibrant, healthy human society” and yet we are on the verge of driving travellers off the road completely, maybe because they are an easy and conspicuous target. All through history travellers have been part of society, filling the niche of seasonal workers and giving us a taste of a way of life that is light in its touch on the planet. It would be a shame to lose them.

So why did I leave the road? Well it was that unexpected foal – a German warmblood is a beautiful animal but completely unsuited to the travelling life both in physique and temperament. The decision to become settled so I could look after him led in an unbroken line to me meeting and marrying my wife with whom I have two children. Now I make my living as a woodsman, market gardener and permaculturist. Again, I guess this demonstrates creatively using and responding to change.

To learn more about horse drawn covered wagons or to purchase a Vardo of your own see: http://gypsywaggons.co.uk



Help spread the permaculture word...

scruffian |
Sunday, July 15, 2012 - 3:09am

how did you decide where to stop? did you get moved on a lot? are there places you are allowed to camp?

John Owen |
Sunday, July 15, 2012 - 4:25pm

The main criterion for somewhere to stop was enough grazing to last my horse at least one night and also land that didn't directly belong to someone such as road verges and common land. I always got moved on but was usually allowed to stay at least one night. There is nowhere that you are allowed to stay permanently.

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