Off-the-grid

Pembrokeshire, Wales

Home is where the harp is

I am sitting in a remote mud hut discussing ‘Big Brother’. Next to me an open fire radiates its welcoming orange cast, tinging all but the brilliant whites of the scene outside, trees freshly dusted with an icy coat of late January powder. Today, unusually, the topic of my conversation has nothing to do with any prophetic Orwellian nightmares of oppression but rather the popular reality TV programme.  Two months ago I traveled to this secluded corner of west Wales in order to photograph Emma Orbach, a 59 year old lady who’s been living in this isolated woodland for over 13 years. She tells me that shortly after my images were published in the media she received a call from the producers of the gameshow asking if she would like to become a contestant on the next series.  She declined I’m happy to say, but as it turns out her off-grid way of life has garnered a fair amount of media interest over the years.

Vogue asked me if they could come and do a fashion shoot here once” she recalls.  “At first, I thought to myself ‘Why not? That could be fun to see’.. and I told them they could come as long as they didn’t bring any motorised vehicles onto my land.  However, after a few weeks of discussion I ended up having to decline my offer because they were insisting on bringing portaloos for the models.  Portaloos!  Here!… Can you imagine that?!”

It’s true, there could exist nothing more absurd in this wild place than the over sanitized intrusion of a portaloo. Emma, of course has an outdoor compost toilet in the woods near her hut.  Inevitably, my mind runs amok with farcical visions of the comedy of errors that might have ensued here had those two worlds actually been allowed to collide.  Can you imagine?!

On face value, Emma is a rather unusual candidate for this kind of alternative lifestyle.  An Oxford graduate, she grew up in a Victorian Castle in Devises. “We weren’t rich” she admits, “We were quite poor actually and my mum and dad never specifically encouraged my love of nature.  As a young child though, I do remember that I was most happiest up a tree in our garden.  Me and my brother used to eat our meals up there.”

In the early 90’s Emma and her then husband bought a remote farm house a few fields away from the patch of land she now lives on. As her children got older she recalls having a strong calling to live in closer proximity to the nature spirits she perceived around her and consequently built her first mud hut in the woods before leaving the farm to live without electricity or running water.   Emma is quick to confess that she never wanted to impose her unusual lifestyle choice on her children, especially since they hadn’t been brought up that way from the beginning.

“Living simply like this takes a lot of determination in such a complicated, materialistic consumer culture” she alludes.  “However, I’m not a purist.  My goal is not self-sufficiency.  In my perfect future, there will be a lot more exchanging of goods between people but it’s nice to have a high level of food production… If the shops suddenly had nothing in them I would probably survive quite comfortably”

Vegetarian Emma keeps chickens and goats and grows an array of vegetables on a half-acre plot just outside her woodland.  Trips to the nearby village are relatively frequent… “To collect supplies or visit my mother twice weekly”.  The journey usually involves a long walk unless she’s feeling lazy in which case she can ride bareback on one of her horses, something that has in the past raised quite a few eyebrows in the local Welsh community formerly unfamiliar with alternative folk like herself.

She is keen to stress to me that she is definitely not obsessed with only living and eating on her land. “I enjoy a cream tea by the beach like anyone else” she concedes. “But I only ever tend to travel further than the local village when I’m visiting my children or showing visitors around the area.  It’s normally a sociability thing.  I certainly don’t do it because I miss the outside world”.

Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water

Many times during our conversations I find myself referring to the ‘outside world’.  It’s unavoidable in a secret spot such as this.  Following Emma down a meandering path, she balances an alabaster jar on her head during one of our trips to collect water from the stream. It strikes me that this ubiquitous chore which I so commonly encounter throughout the world was one that I had never actually witnessed first hand in my own country before.

Getting permission from the local council for the gathering of dwellings on Emma’s land has been a long and drawn out process since a surveying plane spotted their ‘lost tribe’ back in 1998. Fortunately for Emma and her neighbours, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority’s progressive policy on sustainability finally resulted in the granting of planning permission after almost a decade of negotiations.  Along with the correct paperwork came a council tax bill of £63 per month for each home which Emma earns from donations received running workshops in her woodland retreat.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door…”

 Emma tells me  that her own particular method of building has evolved over the years by trial and error revealing her secret recipe for plaster as ‘clay mud and horse manure’.

“It smells a bit initially, but after it dries its fine. However, I’ve honed my technique quite a bit over the years.  The first time I tried it, the walls turned completely green after a few days with sprouting seeds!”.

“Would anything ever take you away from all this?” I ask. “What about illness?”

Emma is optimistic.  “Definitely not…but to be honest, I’d rather just die if necessary than get taken away to survive in a world away from nature”.  She recalls the council’s planners asking her how she planned to deal with this kind of lifestyle in her old age.

“I would be really happy if I just slipped over and died banging my head on a rock on the way to fetch water one day…  that would suit me just fine!”.

It’s a strangely comforting thought since there’s no doubt that in the event of a serious accident, there would certainly be somewhat of a delay before the emergency services arrived.  On my way out I ask Emma if I can return to visit her again some time. Her matter-of-fact reply reminds me not to get too carried away with my overly romantic fantasies about her isolated lifestyle.

“Just call me on the phone if you want to visit!” and she disappears back into her woods.

Please leave a message: Emma’s ‘phone box’… about half a mile from her hut

.  .  .

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69 Responses to “Off-the-grid”

  1. Andrea says:

    Emma is truly an inspiration. What a wonderful lady! Blessings to her. X

  2. Lynda says:

    Emma has amazed me.I saw her information some years ago before Ben Fogles documentary. I feel inspired by her simple way of life. I care for my ill son for the past 20 years & would love to be free of my burden. He cant help being ill with chronic fatigue syndrome & multiple chemical sensitivities, (no cure as such yet!) To get away from the rat race & the pressures of this world would be paradise for me.

    Peace & happiness to Emma.

    Lynda xx

  3. Heike says:

    Emma, you have inspired me! I think you are a wonderful woman and I am really glad that people like you exist. In fact I believe you and others like you are helping to save this world from going under. I have started making changes in my own life towards a low-impact lifestyle. Got to start right here right now! There is lots we all can do such as using less hot water, fading out mobile phone and computer use (hard but doable gradually), eating mostly fresh locally produced foods, growing your own, learning to live with less light, switching lights off, writing letters and using land line, cycling and walking everywhere, buying only second-hand clothes and other items, recycling, fixing old things instead of buying new, reduce TV watching, eating less, and less processed food, not wasting anything from food to household items, furniture etc. And there is loads more we can do, just try it! It’s so much fun and has given me a purpose in life again after the children have left home. Of course it must be brilliant to take the plunge and live completely wild like you, Emma, but we don’t necessarily have to go to those lengths to make real valuable and effective changes. People, let me know of your ideas of improving energy consumption, waste production and harmful impact on animals and nature.

  4. Rebecca jayne says:

    So wonderful to see the simplicity of your life. Such peace. May visit one day. Inspirational. Bless you x

  5. Kumar says:

    To me, unique individuals like Emma are beautiful souls…very rare…

    Also I see here that some say that they also want to be like Emma so I thought of inviting them to do so…

    I am also a similar soul,a kind of “modern-hermit”, a free, independent, and smiling spiritual who has discarded the viciousness of worldliness, and well seasoned in living alone in tranquilizing nature/jungles/tree-tops… I am planing to vanish permanently into silence/nature in the future…

    In the meantime,I am also exploring the possibilities of organizing a small group of like-minded individuals who are longing to live happily in nature/jungle (or you may call it off-the-grid or whatever…) for the rest of their lives so that TOGETHER we can contribute “something” better for all of us, other like-minded people, nature and humanity as well…

    We can easily make this here in Sri Lanka, or else in any other part of the planet if you have the necessary background…

    I am a vegetarian, happy and funny, do not belong to popular religions,very open-minded,free from superstitions, politics etc, practice simplicity,healing arts,relaxation/meditation, enjoy non-violence and do not harm other living creatures too…

    So, if you are really longing for this FREEDOM and have the strength and ability to make it practically like Emma, feel free to contact me …

    Good Luck to All !!!
    Kumar (free777k@yahoo.com)

    • Michael Szymanski says:

      Ahhh Kumar, doesn’t it just sound perfect. Working hard but not for the annual goals business managers set us! Ahh sounds so freeing and ‘real’!

      • George says:

        I really want to live like this.

        Can i visit?

        • George says:

          There are so many comments on here and it seems we all want the same life.

          I am a 30 year old Beach lifeguard/Surfer from Cornwall and if Emma doesnt have room for me in Wales I would love to build something like this together with like mined people who care for the planet and want to be more connected.

          Lets do it!

          I just dont know where to start.

          Any help would be appreciated.

          feel free to contact georgie_t17@hotmail.com

          • Kumar says:

            Hi George !!,
            Thanks for your response. You’re welcome and I’ve already sent you an email. Please read it …

            Hello to Michael Szymanski too who has commented above, you’re also welcome and invited to get connected …

            bye for now…,
            Kumar

            • Kelly says:

              I would love to know more about this and the communities people who want to live in this way. I crave this lifestyle but am stuck in the rat race. Is it possible to stay with Emma at all, does anyone know?

              Thank you

      • Kumar says:

        Hi Micheal !, nice comment ! I can feel your desire for freedom … Why don’t you get involved…?
        kumar

    • Neill says:

      Hi, I’m very interested in the return to natural life but I’m disabled & have survived a breakdown/suicide attempt from a high pressure job & subsequent loss of wife/kids So I’m not liable to contribute a huge amount! I’m also not able to make phone calls easily. So how do I contact Emma ?
      Thanks all & apologies for the rambling, Neill

    • Jen says:

      I am so envious – wish I had the guts and knowledge to do it.

  6. Lynn says:

    Hi Emma, you inspire me! My partner and I are in our mid 50’s and your way of living is my future, we need help plz contact me.

    • Paul says:

      I don’t think you’re going to get a reply from Emma. She lives off the grid with no technology! This was an article written about her, not by her 🙂

  7. Louise barker says:

    Please advise how I can arrange to visit. Thank you

  8. Sarah and boys says:

    Amazing. Such a dream way to live. Just feel so drawn to her and her way of life for me and my boys (including my partner…..one of the boys). There are 5 of us how do we get in touch with her? How do we get there and stay there? Would bring willingness, more man power and love! Please get in touch.

  9. Hi Emma my 3 friends and myself would love to come and see you in spring we intend coming to Wales for. A week and are looking towards living off grid it would be amazing to see you and discuss off grid living as its what we are hoping to do,hope to get a reply and to hopefully see you we are all in our late 50s.
    Dawn x

  10. tyler says:

    Hi Emma,

    Attracted by Ben Fogle’s living off the grid in the UK I am fascinated by your story and intrigued about what it would be like to live like our ancestors. I would like to know how to contact you so that my partner and I could perhaps stay over in one of your huts in the future. Thank you for an inspiring overview. Wishing you good health and happiness x

  11. Sarah Mallett says:

    Emma, you’re brilliant, living my dream. Watched you on Ben Fogle with my 15 year old son and he said to me ‘That’s you!’ Thankyou for being. We’d love to visit.

  12. Kevin says:

    Emma please may I stay with you I would appreciate the lifestyle for my self and our planet

  13. paul bartlett says:

    Hi Emma my wife and i would love to be in touch with you not sure how to get your contact details but would love to hear from you.

    Kind Regards
    Paul & Julia

  14. Marie Roberts says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story and being such a wonderful inspiration!
    Blessings to you Emma

  15. Yanaz says:

    Wow what a lovely insight to your simple way of life , totally real and beautiful surrounded by nature and away from the robotic way of life , I have such admiration for you I often dream of living this life , one day I would love to come and stay
    Where can I find details of this
    Take care and continue to live like a free soul X

  16. gail says:

    I watched the programme last night in awe and admiration, at last someone with the courage of their convictions, what an incredible lifestyle you have created for yourself. This is how we should live, how I would love to live, giving back to and really appreciating all aspects of nature. Amazing lady, I was completely blown away by you as a person, and by all you have achieved, even through the media of television the peace, tranquillity and spiritual nature of your lifestyle shone through, and made me feel as if I was at home in your worl, I felt at peace. Thankyou for letting us have a glimpse of it. I would love to know how to request a visit even if it was just for a week, a day or an hour! thankyou again.

  17. Anonymous says:

    This is the real way of life and living total respect it takes dedication and will power many pepole would break after 24 hours.

  18. Greer Louise says:

    Hi Emma, you truly are inspiring. I live in North Wales and dream of oneday living off grid. Do you offer donations so that people can come and visit, stay and learn ? I would truly love to visit, Kind regards, Greer x

  19. Alison says:

    Hi Timothy
    Beautifully told and photographed. Thank you! I’m looking for a retreat to stay in January. How can I get in touch with Emma to arrange a stay? I’d be pleased to both contribute to her lifestyle both financially and by doing any jobs she needed to do.
    Thanks
    Alison

  20. Eradat says:

    I want to join Emma and for a long time. Please can anyone help? How to join her? How can I contact her or reach her?

  21. Eradat says:

    I want to join Emma and for a long time. Please can anyone help? How to join her?

  22. liam says:

    emma i wish i wanna be your bf

  23. I watched Ben Fogle last night, sharing your amazing life for a few days, the beautiful spirit house…it’s just perfect.
    Your life style is one that people dream of, you have created a little bit of Eden, a spiritual safe space, for people and your animals.
    Seeing you and the other wood folk, singing together Emma was lovely, it has encouraged me to fetch my singing bowl out….
    Thank you for letting me see into your life, it has prompted me to try harder to care for the earth far more than what I do.
    I love the sharing, the living off the earth,…watching this settled easy on my soul, made me feel lifted. Thank you xxx Love and Peace x

  24. Anonymous says:

    Goodevening Emma…Amazing Documentary,Just watched it searched high and low how to get intouch…with You.Would really be gladly happy to hear from You relations to Your seasonal visits if Children are allowed too.Thanks and kind regards

  25. pete v says:

    Hello! Emma is an inspiration to so many…but no one seems to realise that. Maybe there should be more attention drawn to this way of life and the amount of people that are drawn to this. I think it is fascinating of how many people there are that dream of this way of life in the ever increasingly modernising world we live in. I am looking for someone that feels the same way I do about living in the wild and being free and when that day comes….I’ll be gone, into the wild back to where I feel I belong. Roll on that day!

  26. Cobalt says:

    You can live off the grid if you have the motivation.

    Regards,
    – Cobalt

  27. Angeli Alvares says:

    she is living the life humans were meant to live but have been deceived by 1% money and power hungry individuals who keep us on the edge with their bullshit about development, progress etc and constant brainwashing to buy this or that…while alienating us from nature by mass producing our food with poisonous chemicals, pesticides and killing all other life forms which could entertain us. All we are left with is sex and violence on our cable TV channels to keep us perpectually dissatisfied so that we run out and buy more of the junk they say we have to have to experience the temporary illusion of happiness one may get for a few moments with the new fangled invented junk, till we run out and buy more unnecessaries to create irreversible garbage dumps that further contaminate the Earth. Media helps business which rules the world today to keep us in a cycle of never ending greed for imagined needs.

    • David says:

      You, Angeii, sound like the one who has been brainwashed. No offence meant.

      • Karen says:

        No, it is those living in the modern world who are brainwashed. Emma is living as humans have for millions of of years, our modern world is mearly the blink of an eye in time terms. Many billions of people all across this wonderful world live simply as Emma does. They are living in harmony with the earth, whilst the few are destroying it.

  28. Tracy says:

    Wow. I would like to do that. I know due to my injuries there would be no way possible that I could.. my fiancé wants to so bad. I can’t get cold and I can’t lift over 12lbs. I am in aw of her I think it is so great what she is doing. I do have a small garden . I try to do myself. Never as much as she does

  29. melvyn says:

    it seems a bit silly that the local council have the nerve to issue a council tax bill when there are no services provided

  30. carranetta fortner says:

    I was momentarily transported to where my heart longs to be. Unfortunately, for me, I am quite poor and have to stare out an apartment window at the few trees living out back. I will never know true freedom, but for a mere moment, I saw it in this article. Thank you for that.

  31. Georgia B. Sage says:

    so beautiful. so much appreciation. nature is everything… I am starving for nature… just seeing all this is so helpful to me in beginning to create a nature nest for myself.

  32. Nicky Blaber says:

    What a beautiful house,woman,life…thankyou for sharing x

  33. James Lockley says:

    Good on you for following a lifestyle choice many crave but few can muster the courage to create.

  34. Anonymous says:

    I think she us an inspiration to us all

  35. angela welsh says:

    It is brilliant what you are doing and so brave and good luck x

  36. Anonymous says:

    so glad to see you are living off grid ..many of us dream of this and very few will achieve to live that way ..wonderful..thank you for allowing us to see and share a little of your life with us all …love and peace.

  37. Joe Ellis says:

    Is there a larger community of other dwellers still nearby? If so, I would hope that in need of help, the tribal tradition of caring for the sick and the weak would prevail, as it must take much strength, health and determination to live this way. I do not think I am strong enough, so I admire Emma greatly for following the path she is called to, and hopefully peace this way.

    Bless thee, lady.

  38. Anonymous says:

    Thank u Emma!!….I admire u 🙂

  39. JB says:

    @Graeme Voigt

    I’m not sure if there is any global trend in off the grid living, especially in the biggest countries like China and India, where I would suspect people to rather go the other way around.
    Emma and her lifestyle definitely caught my attention, and I admire her for her strenght to survive in the half-wilderness. I would love to know more about the background of the decision to move into the woods. She mentions her husband, but he probably died after they bought the farm. Maybe this was the moment which helped her to make up her mind.
    I doubt she would ever read this blog, but I would like to wish her good luck anyway, I hope she will find peace and die connected to the nature. I definitely understand she does not want to end up in some hospital.
    Peace

  40. Ashton says:

    Respect to you and Emma for sharing this story, im happy to see that some of us still are connected to living the way it’s meant to be. What a experience this is. You always motivate me in what I do, I love the story and I too will also share my experience as well into future events as I encounter them around the world. Many thanks and love.

  41. It was such a joy to visit Emma and especially to hear her sing with the harp. I look forward to another opportunity to receive her wisdom. Thank you Emma for holding the ground so consciously.

  42. Angelique says:

    She is truly an inspiration to us all. I love the way she wont give up her love of nature, for modern commodities and comforts. I myself would want to one day at least have a 1/10 of the spirit she has. For now I will just have to suffice with going of the grid. Here is a guide for that if anyone’s interested.

    http://solarpanelsphotovoltaic.net/living-off-the-grid-or-on-grid-chose-part-2-on-grid

  43. JohnWolton says:

    What an amazing lady. A great read and photo’s. Would like to know more about the workshops.

  44. Thank you, Emma, for allowing us to have a clearer idea of your amazing way of living with nature and I understand what it represents for you and a few other followers. It is certainly very inspiring and beautiful… my friend Mark went for it and he has been transformed by the experience. I suppose he is still there?
    I will come and visit you one day.

  45. lisa says:

    thank you emma for showing your love of nature and being true to your self.x

  46. binnie shaw says:

    Hello Emma,

    We often think of how your doing, our Antique stall in Cardigan market closed where I (lynne shaw) met you on the day you were searching for that basket for your clothes. I knew you were living ‘naturally’ and admired you then.

    You certainly are an inspiration to us all as we’re just at the start of arranging shelter for our animals and hopefully ourselves pretty soon in our Woodland.

    I’ll understand if there’s no reply as can see from the photos your working with nature and there’s nothing finer.

    much admiration to you Emma xXx Happy Yultide xXx from us all.

  47. Nicky Vernon says:

    Thank you Emma for allowing us to share a few moments with you in this beautiful article which is both thought provoking and inspiring. I live in a straw bale house and am also 59 years old – however, my house does have solar power! I live 7 kms from the nearest village, Greyton, in the western cape of South Africa. I am in love with the beauty of the nature that surrounds me and can well understand why you have immersed yourself in it. I wish you many more healthy, happy years with Mother Nature.

  48. Carol Phillips says:

    Thank you for sharing your thought provoking, respectful and visually beautiful story…and thanks to Emma for letting us into her life for a moment. We have to be impressed too with a flexible, progressive council and park authority too – there was a time I’m sure Emma would have been treated very differently.

  49. Deborah Hattimer says:

    So very overjoyed that you would share your private dwelling with us.
    Thank you so very much.
    The photos are breathtaking.
    Growing up a Wisconsin farmgirl myself….its very easy to understand your mindset. There are many days more than not..that I have thought
    Of doing this, before I get too crippled with age.
    Thank you for sharing <3

  50. ngawang says:

    I absolutely loved going through this. Its and amazing effort and i think she is very beautiful inside out. Thank you for the joy you brought through this piece.

  51. Graeme Voigt says:

    Amazing! This was a great read, and I loved the clip too.

    Very inspiring… this way of life will only continue to become more and more popular. Slowly but surely, we’re all taking a step or two backwards and re-thinking the way we live out our lives on a global scale.

    • Harry says:

      One day Gods kingdom will come, and we will no longer have the need for consumerism or scratting about in the woods (ideal has that may seem).then true peace and happiness will reign in mens hearts.

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