Self-sufficient living in Haute-Vienne

Jo and Martyn Clarkson crossed the Channel for a simpler, self-sufficient life in which even the clothing is organic, as Gillian Harvey discovers

Picture ‘the good life’ in France and most of us will imagine a rambling stone house, some land and perhaps a modest vegetable plot.But for Jo and Martyn Clarkson of Arnac-la-Poste, in a quiet corner of Haute-Vienne, self-sufficiency comes on a far more ambitious scale. Wander through 20 hectares of lush meadows bathed in sunlight, with tame, hand-reared animals trotting at your side, and you will meet the couple, beavering away in one of their many polytunnels, milking their dairy goats, or even shearing.

In fact, not only do the Clarksons and their five rosy-cheeked and happy children – Bec, 12, Oliver, 10, Emma, eight, Toby, four, and one-year-old Theo – embody the dream of organic living, they have also developed a new passion: producing high-quality wool and felt from their rabbits, goats and sheep.

The world that the Clarksons now inhabit is a dream away from life in Settle, Yorkshire, from where they moved in 2006. “I used to work in social housing,” says 41-year-old Jo, “and Martyn was a logistics manager for a haulier.”

Life changed for Jo when a car accident rendered her disabled for a few years. “I was in a lot of pain, and work became difficult,” she says. “I had also got tired of the bureaucracy that came with the job.”

Having been brought up in Lancashire in the middle of sheep-farming country, Jo’s mind turned to a more rural occupation. “I’d always been enthusiastic about organic produce, so in 2004 Martyn and I opened a small organic nursery in the Yorkshire town of Low Bentham, where we lived at the time. Business went so well that we looked to expand, but this posed a problem.”

With land suitable for expansion in short – and expensive – supply, the Clarksons turned their attention to the continent. “I’d been to France several times a year for many years, and my French wasn’t bad, so it seemed logical,” says Jo.

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When deciding to opt for French living, the Clarksons also aspired to a complete life-change. “It was always a dream to have an adventure and move to a different country,” says Martyn, 47. “We wanted to try to have a simpler way of life, both for us and the children.”

Despite having the usual worries about how the children would adapt, the Clarksons found the move had minimal impact on their growing family: “Bec was almost six, so struggled most with the language, but she soon caught up. And Ollie was just three, so adapted easily,” says Jo.

The family are now at least 80% self-sufficient and producing their own vegetables, dairy products and meat. In fact, not only is the farm produce organic, but the children are too – racing around the land, helping enthusiastically to rear and nurture animals and crops; and all without a television in sight.

“The children work on the farm and are involved in everything we do – they help us to produce all our food, they know where everything comes from. Everything’s fresh; it’s got nothing nasty on it, so we feel we’re giving the best possible start we can manage.” says Jo.

The wool side of the business was something that was always on the cards for Jo: “I’d had a connection with wool – always,” she says. “Both my mum and dad weave and do a lot of textile stuff.”

“We’ve had sheep since we came here – originally for meat, but I’m too sentimental about it! I raise the lambs and I know them all, their mothers, their grandmothers... so it’s difficult to take them to the abattoir.”

“I started messing about with fleeces years ago, and having a go at spinning and processing. We started to sell some things in the UK – through my parents – and we’re gradually getting involved in the local markets.”

The family keep merino sheep, angora goats and angora rabbits, all of which get sheared – the sheep yearly, the rabbits every three months – either by the Clarksons themselves, or a professional shearer. The fleeces are then sorted and soaked in rainwater. This removes most of the sweat and lanolin from the wool.

The washing process is next. “We heat the water to high temperatures using mainly solar power,” says Jo. “We use some natural detergents, but we don’t use chemicals. I don’t like using anything that I’m not happy to use on my children’s skin.”

The fleeces are then dried, and sorted into quality and length. They are labelled, so that the Clarksons know from which animal each fleece has come; then the processing begins, with Jo spinning some into yarn by hand, and using a felting machine to produce wonderful fabric from the rest – dyed with only natural substances, of course.

As well as wool and felt, Jo produces everything from clothing to wall hangings with the organic fleece, and produces her own hand-designed cushion covers and drapes.

While the business is in its infancy, the couple have created a real buzz about their organic wool and felt: “Lots of people out there want to be assured that they aren’t buying things that have been processed in a damaging way; and of course that they’re not putting anything on their skin that’s not natural. It’s also a real plus for customers that our wool and felt is French. It doesn’t have to be flown from the other side of the world.”

The launch of their new website this year marks the start of an expansion in which Jo hopes to help other smallholders process their fleeces, with the emphasis on reducing waste and environmental impact. “Lots of people in rural France have just five sheep to keep the lawn down. They don’t know what to do with the fleeces,” says Jo. “There’s a lot of interest, from basic processing into a ‘batt’ – where it’s combed, like the stuffing in a duvet – to ambitious items such as personalised rugs and clothing.”

Felting is a relatively new step, but one that is wholly embraced by Jo. “The great thing about felting is that there’s so little waste. You can blend the shorter fibres in, and it’s more instant,” she says. “With knitting and spinning it’s a long process, whereas felting is not so labour-intensive. You can enjoy it: it’s there; it’s done.”

Jo and Martyn both admit that producing wool and felt organically is far from the easy option. “It’s very physical work. It’s much harder to do it this way; trying to do it on a larger scale would be very difficult,” Jo says. “But our philosophy is trying to live life with as little environmental impact as possible.”

There’s certainly something romantic about having a garment made from the fleece of an animal that you’ve named, nurtured and nourished yourself, and, touching the feather-soft angora from the rabbits, and the beautiful merino wool, one is instantly struck by the quality and softness of the material.

With their organic diet and clothing, the Clarksons have certainly got a lifestyle to be proud of in a world where chemicals abound. Their children clearly thrive on outdoor life, and it is impossible not to admire the effort and time that goes in to creating a lifestyle with such minimal environmental impact.

It’s hard work, but it’s clear from the happiness that flourishes in this beautiful French smallholding that it’s entirely worthwhile. LF

www.angorasandco.com