Moving abroad for a more sustainable life

Kate McEvoy
Saturday, 1st May 2004

Currently hiring a company like United Van Lines to relocate to the Mediterranean seems to be sweeping Britain like South Sea Bubble fever. Kate McEvoy asks whether life in Spain is more sustainable than life in Old Blighty and looks at the reality behind the dream.

I'm not sure whether it all started with the book, Driving over Lemons, or if it was just coincidence of timing. One moment, everyone looked at the photos of our ruin in Spain and heard about our plans to move there and said politely but dubiously 'well it looks like it has a lot of potential'. A few years later, and British TV is full of 'move to a new life in rural Spain' stories along with the help of companies like United Van Lines. Judging by articles I've read in PM and other places, plus the people we've met, lots of these new immigrants have some sort of 'sustainable' aims in mind for their new life.

We moved to (very rural) Andalucía six years ago, to renovate a ruined farm and build up our mail order seed business. Having seen and read a few of the newspaper articles, books and TV programmes, I thought it might be time for a slightly more critical (cynical?) look at the realities of emigrating to the South of Spain.

Looking at our own family, it seemed like there were two main areas to consider. Firstly, how much more – or less – 'earth-friendly' is our new life, compared to our previous life in a terraced house in Cambridge? Secondly, what are the personal costs and stresses of being an immigrant in a new country?

Sustainable – Or Not?


Before we moved to Spain, we lived in a very ordinary brick-built 1930s terraced house, shared with a friend/lodger. Our current house is half buried in the hillside, and was originally made of stones stuck together with gypsum plaster (we live in the middle of the largest gypsum deposit in Europe). It is very traditional and fits in with the local landscape; it is also cool and pleasant in the summer heat. It was very dark, cold and damp in winter, but we have added lots of insulation plus carefully sited windows to let in more winter sun. The floors and ceilings have wooden beams supporting cane from the riverbed topped with more gypsum plaster, with clay tiles for the roof. In renovating it, we have tried to stick with the same materials, but have used some concrete in places for strength; we have also tiled the floors. Overall, our current house probably has rather less embodied energy (the gypsum plaster is burnt at a much lower temperature than bricks or concrete), but also a rather shorter expected lifespan. These houses generally need major renovation/rebuilding at least every 50 years.


In Cambridge, we generated some of our own electricity using solar (photovoltaic) panels, which ran the lighting circuits in the house plus Ben's 'solar C5' for his transport to work. The rest of the electricity came from the mains; at the time green electricity contracts weren't an option. The house was heated with gas central heating which also provided the hot water, and we used a gas cooker.

In Spain, our village has no mains services at all. We generate all of our electricity using solar panels. The system makes mains voltage to run more or less the same range of things that we used in Cambridge, including fridge, washing machine, laptop computers, fax plus various power tools. We have wood burning stoves to heat the house. There are lots of olive plantations nearby, which are pruned regularly, so wood for the stoves is in reasonably plentiful supply. Most of our hot water comes from a very basic solar hot water system using a big spiral of black tube set in the sun, which is very effective. We do some of our cooking on the woodburner in winter, but mostly we use a gas stove running off bottled gas. We also have a back up instant gas heater for hot water in cloudy periods.

Overall our non-renewable energy consumption is much lower than in Cambridge. We use some bottled gas, and the batteries for the solar electricity system have a limited lifespan (although hopefully around 20 years plus). But otherwise, the energy impact of our house is pretty low.

Other Services:

Water is always a big issue in Spain, and is becoming more so in the UK. Our Cambridge house had mains water, and was connected to the mains sewers; we only had a shower (no bath) to conserve water, and reused washing up water for the garden, but otherwise, no reuse of grey water.

In Spain, all the water for our village comes from an irrigation channel running 2km along the valley side from a river. The channel is maintained communally by the village, and so far has run well all year round, although other villages locally are starting to have water shortages in summer.

We recycle all of the grey water from the house onto our large row of compost heaps to reclaim the nutrients and keep the heaps damp enough to compost well. We also collect urine for recycling onto the compost heaps to keep them active, as we tend to have too much dry woody material. Originally, we just had a composting toilet on the terrace below the house, but we recently added an ultra-low flush normal loo in the house to make things easier when one of us is on our own at home with our daugher, Josie. At the time that we put it in she was just crawling – and hard to abandon for a quick dash down the hill to the compost loo! The flush loo empties into a 'pozo negro' or primitive septic tank next to a large prickly pear plant.

Again, our current house is clearly better in terms of water use and re-use than our city house, and both the compost and flush loo recycle all of the waste back into the land. Unlike in the city, water doesn't 'just happen', and nor does it just go away, meaning that we are well aware of where every drop comes from and goes to – particularly when the grey water hose blocks up!


At the moment, we grow nearly all of our own vegetables except potatoes (which hate our very alkaline soil), and most of the fruit that we eat comes from our land or other people in our village. In Cambridge, we also grew pretty much all of our own vegetables; we bought more fruit, but grew lots of potatoes, so in total there is little difference. It is harder to find organic sources in this part of Spain for other things, although this is changing – we can bulk buy organic flour and pulses (a big part of our diet) from a local supplier. We probably buy slightly more from the supermarket (no friendly wholefood co-op), but then the 'supermarket' is owned by a local family rather than Mr Sainsbury. Overall our food miles are probably pretty similar in both parts of the world.


Overall, on energy use, housing and water, our new lifestyle seems rather more earth-friendly than our previous city home. But, as for many in rural areas, this is where it all starts to break down. In Cambridge, we bought a car the year before we moved, which I used quite often for work trips. But otherwise, like most people in the city, we travelled pretty much everywhere by bike. Although I worked outside Cambridge, there were cycle lanes most of the way and cars are accustomed to seeing cyclists, so it felt safe to cycle at a reasonable speed and in all conditions.

In Spain, our village is about 6km from the nearest town. The town has about 1500 inhabitants, and all of the shops and other services that we need on a day-to-day basis, including 24 hour medical centre and council run day nursery. Compared with most rural areas in the UK, we are well served for local facilities. But the 6km to town is straight up and then straight down a mountain, on a narrow road heavily used by mine lorries and test drivers, both of which discourage us from cycling, particularly now we have a toddler. Although we try to keep trips to a minimum, we seem to drive into town at least two or three times a week. Together with occasional longer trips, we travel up to 8,000 miles a year by car, which is an awful lot of petrol. And looking at all the other people we know living in villages and farms, whether foreigners or locals, I would say that our car use is probably on the low side of average.

Not only do we use our car much more than in the UK, we also make many more long journeys. We want to stay in touch with our families, and apart from a planned holiday once a year back to Britain, there has seemed to be about one 'emergency' visit come up every year for family illness, funerals and so on. It is possible, although awkward to do the trip by bus or train. But in practise, we have usually ended up flying. Add a toddler into the equation, and even the car looks less appealing. We know quite a lot of British people near us, many of whom are much more commited to green ideals than we are, but I don't know of anyone who has done the bus or train journey more than once. Most seem to fly back to the UK at least once a year.

Compare this to the UK, where in the years before we moved our holidays were mainly by camper van to Thetford Forest or the Suffolk coast, and we could travel by train to visit most of our family. I did actually do quite a lot of flying before we moved, because my job involved a lot of travel, but it was one of the main things that I disliked about the work, and even had we stayed in the UK I would have looked for another job.

At least our work in Spain is home based (we grown and sell heirloom vegetable seeds). Looking at other people who are setting up various permaculture or 'sustainable' projects on the land in Andalucía, a lot seem to rely on tourism to generate their main income. I am sure that there is a market for low impact tourism aimed at people from the larger towns and cities in the region – and even from Madrid – as there are good and reasonably priced train services. But I don't feel that selling courses or holiday lets to people flying out from the UK can reasonably be considered low impact or 'eco-tourism'.

Life As An Immigrant

I use the word immigrant advisedly here. I strongly object to the description 'ex-pat' – why are we any different from any other economic migrant in search of a better life? But it is also a useful description, because being an immigrant, even in another EU country, is not always easy. This part of the equation is rather harder to set out in black and white comparative terms. It is telling though, that we have seen a fair few families come and go over the six years that we have lived in Spain.

The main reason that we originally thought of moving to Spain was, as for many people, the fact that it is still possible to buy a piece of land with a house without having won the lottery. We collect and grow vegetable seeds, and had started to seriously outgrow two allotments plus a greenhouse in our back garden. We also wanted to have more time to spend developing the seed collection, which effectively meant making our living from something other than our full time jobs (as an economist and in computers).

Integrating Locally

We both spoke some Spanish before we came to Spain, probably at about GCSE level, as a result of two years of evening classes. This might seem pretty basic, but it is surprising how many people, particularly now, move to our area speaking no Spanish at all.

Even moving within the UK to a rural area, it can be hard to integrate well into the local community. Add a language barrier, plus, sometimes, a very different outlook on life, and it can become almost impossible. Our local town is a very friendly place, and was particularly welcoming to newcomers a few years ago before so many foreigners moved here, but people have very close family groupings, and even someone moving in from 50 miles away will never be a local. We do have Spanish friends, but they are mainly outsiders in some way or another themselves. And, like every foreigner that I know apart from a few with a local partner or other family contacts, most of our social life is with other foreigners. This isn't necessarily a bad thing – Josie has friends with Brasilian, Argentinian, and Lithuanian parents, as well as English – but it can feel very isolating.

Impact On Local People

So far, the number of incomers buying up old houses and land hasn't had the same kind of impact on housing options for local people as in Wales, Cornwall and other remoter parts of the UK. While it might start to make houses less affordable in the future, Spain is a big and relatively sparsely populated country with more relaxed planning regulations than Britain. To be honest, at the moment, most of the houses and villages filling up with foreigners would otherwise be standing empty. Whether this will change in the future is an interesting question.

I used to worry more about the impact on the local community of so many English and German immigrants, but in a few years we have become so far outnumbered by South American and Eastern European incomers that it no longer seems so much of an issue.

You Really Need A 'Project'

This might seem like an odd thing to worry about, but looking at the couples and families that we know who have given up and moved back to the UK, boredom and lack of fulfilling work usually seems to be the main reason. People who really want to be in Spain and have some all-consuming aim may run out of money, get fed up of living in a caravan or building site, and want to strangle their partner, but they do usually find some way or another to make things hang together.

Again, it seems strange, but many families in particular seem to come to Spain simply because they can buy a house with some land cheaply. They want to get away from town or city life in Britain, without any clear idea of what they are going to do when they are settled in with their vegetable garden, fruit trees and chickens. At the moment, there is plenty of work available with various tourism businesses, teaching English, or building, but although they may generate enough cash, the easily available work tends to be boring, and doesn't really give you a good enough reason to get out of bed in the morning.


Perhaps the thing that I will miss most if we move back to the UK is the attitude to life in Andalucía. It may be a cliché, but people genuinely do take life more slowly, and refuse to run their lives for the sake of business or moneymaking. Coming back to visit, just the speed at which people drive in English towns and the way in which everyone hurries down the street is a shock. While there is less of an overt green conciousness (although it is growing), the strength of local ties and saner pace of life are an example of how life can be lived away from the dominance of multi-national businesses and profit-at-all-costs culture.

The Climate

I left this one for last, just because it's the thing that people always envy. Yes, southern Spain is much warmer and sunnier than England, both winter and summer. But funnily enough, its probably the one thing that I find hardest about the country. Even if you like the heat, three months solid of daytime temperatures reaching 37C plus, and night-times rarely falling below 20C (and often still well over 30C at 11 o'clock at night) can be wearing. Just like in Britain we moan about the rain, in Almería everyone moans about the heat.

So, Is This The Right Thing To Do?

Of course, there's no simple answer to this question. For some people, yes, if you have a business or project that will translate happily and which you can't make work in the UK. But I would advise anyone thinking of selling up and moving to Spain to learn some Spanish first, then let out their house if they have one, move to their chosen area, and rent a place to live for at least a year while they figure out what they are doing, why they want to do it, and whether it is as good in practice as in theory.

And don't make the move because you want to live a more sustainable lifestyle. We have enjoyed our time living on our farm in Spain, but we too are now considering returning to the UK, and it's not clear that at the end of all this the planet will be any better-off as a result of our experiment.

There's nothing that you can do in the way of sustainability in rural Spain that you can't do equally well, and probably more easily, in the UK. You don't have to live off the grid to generate your own power; you can grow food more easily on an English allotment where water falls out of the sky; you can build your compost loo and greywater recycling system in the midst of suburbia; and you probably have a lot more chance of cycling to work.
Of course, what you can't do in suburban England is provide mountains, hectares of empty space, cheap land, and a somewhat more relaxed and much more badly policed planning system. But those things are for you, not for the planet. 

Merika |
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 10:24
Thanks for sharing your moving your experiences. Is it necessary to know how to speak in Spanish to land a job? And can you directly feel the economy crisis that Spain is experiencing right now? What are the reputable local international movers, I've already inquired one that is based in NY (, but then it would be more practical if the mover's HQ is in the Spain for easier communication and transaction once there.
Tom Hogan |
Wed, 01/05/2013 - 17:38
How is it with visas? Can you live there as a resident without doing anything special, or did you have to register your business for example?