When Mathew Plumb met Lauren Youngs at Glastonbury in 2014 the tree surgeon was living in the back of his van.
The 43-year-old from Abergavenny had always been passionate about the outdoors and sustainable living but had reached a stage in his life where he admits he didn’t know where to turn.
“He needed it I think – the outdoors,” 28-year-old girlfriend Lauren says of Mathew in the middle of their dense 15 acres of forestry which is like something out of a children’s fairytale. They live here blissfully with Lauren’s three-year-old cat Baby, four pigs, and 20 chickens.
Lauren moved here originally temporarily after losing her job as an event manager in the first lockdown but the chimes of the birds and the hundreds of “gorgeous” oak trees pulled her back.
Drowned almost secretly in the shadow of the Deri mountain in north Monmouthshire they have no wifi, no bath, no television, and no office space. They live on the absolute bare necessities and they love every second of it – almost.
Asked how he managed to fall on 15 acres, woodcutter Mathew said: “Dad bought it for my sister because she was in Brownies then and they wanted a space to take the kids. He could afford it back then – times were different.
“I first came here when I was eight or nine. Then I started using a saw to chop the wood when I was 14. I realised straightaway that I loved it.”
After living here for two years alone with his chickens and Kunekune pigs, which hang around him as though they are dogs on a Sunday afternoon walk, he’s now happier than ever with Lauren by his side.
You’d be hard pressed to find a more eccentric and artsy pair. When Mathew isn’t chopping wood, hosting camps, or helping children at one of the local schools he is writing poetry – and that is how he met freelance artist Lauren.
She joked that Mathew “stalked” her and “lured” her to the forest. “I’m a freelance artist and people often approach me to discuss ideas and Mathew had been following me on social media since we first met so he got in touch about working with him to illustrate his book,” she recalled. “I was in Hackney at the time in a cute little flat I shared with my best mate at the start of the pandemic.
“I always like to meet up with clients to gauge exactly what they want. We had some breakfast and he ended up staying the night – on the sofa. Baby was all over him which is strange because she can be nervous with people she’s new to.”
“She was sleeping on my head,” Mathew laughed.
Lauren continued: “Mathew then got me here on the pretence of doing an art walk and sculpture trail thing and I came here to stay a couple of weeks for that. In the end I stayed for two months.
“When I went back to London I hated it. I had to leave the flat really quickly because I lost my job as an event manager in the pandemic. It was a snap decision really.”
Baby is right at home milling between the array of sawn-off timber and makeshift wooden huts which make up their home. Is Lauren as accustomed to the surroundings?
“It’s cold very often,” she laughed. “But I’m getting used to it. It was really weird – as soon as I came here for the first time I had a feeling I could be here.”
Originally from Bedford she’s always been a stickler for the outdoors since growing up on her granddad’s fields where she spent many a weekend.
“When I was small my only friends were my cats, dogs, and chickens. I’d have full-on conversations with them and I missed that lifestyle. I came here and it reminded me of that.
“And there are oak trees. As soon as there are oak trees I know I’m in the right place.”
You’d have to be a seriously closed book not to appreciate the beauty in the tranquillity of their forest but for most living out here would surely be too much to take.
The shower is a bucket of water with a hole in its center hanging on a chain, the toilet is a hole in a wooden bench in a small wooden hut – although it is beautifully decorated with Lauren’s creative touch, and the main living area known as The “charcoal shelter” relies on a makeshift curtain to block out the wind.
Asked if she has ever regretted the leap into the wilderness Lauren said: “I have thought ‘I wish I was back [in London]’ and I miss it all the time. But I prefer it here and I always try to focus on the lovely things that we can have here.”
It is a huge disservice to the pair to only make reference to the loo as an artistic masterpiece. The whole place is brimming with bright colors and beautifully carved and woven wood. It is remarkable that a few huts dotted around a woodland can look so homely and warm even on a cold winter’s morning.
“My dad is a carpenter and I’ve always loved it,” Lauren said. “This is all stuff Mathew has built from the trees,” she explains as we pass yet more precisely-chopped trunks which smell every bit as good as they look. “Mike our neighbor is helping us with the roof for one of the huts.” Neighbor is a term used very loosely in this instance. He’s about 500 yards down the road but is the closest to them.
Mathew says Lauren’s creativity has transformed their woodland. “At the start of Covid it hit home how much we needed to start future-proofing the business and Lauren has brought so many new ideas,” he said. “She does art therapy in the woodland for people who want to come and do that and she does an arts trail. It’s all for the mind – it definitely works.
“I can’t just be a tree surgeon. As well as the camping we deliver firewood and charcoal.
“The people we tend to attract are wild campers who come with really small tents or just with hammocks and just want to test themselves.
“We don’t take many people at one time. We try to keep it to five pitches so people can’t see each other and so they feel like they’re on their own in secluded woodland.
“There is a lot of uncertainty to life at the moment and we want people who come here to be reassured that there are other opportunities and different ways to live.
“We often get people here who are having a really difficult time and they just need time to be here and to have some space. It’s a form of therapy really.”
It’s their own uncertainty in life – particularly for Mathew – which has brought them here. Mathew describes how he was one of the thousands of “hidden homeless” in Britain when he lived in the back of his work van prior to moving to the forest near to where he grew up.
As the cost of living rises what better way to save money than to live in your own woodland?
“Before I came here I thought about buying a house,” Mathew said. “I had almost saved enough for a deposit on a small house in Merthyr, which was all I could afford at the time. Then it dawned on me: what am I going to do with a house? I cut trees for a living – that’s what I do and this is who I am. I want to do cool stuff. We couldn’t do everything we do here while trying to pay off a mortgage.”
Lauren said: “We would never have afforded to do what we do here and rent because this takes up hours and hours of our time. Mathew always has bookings with work. He does the cutting and I do the labor.”
Weekly outgoings for heating, electricity, water, and rent amount to less than £25 a month.
“It’s mental how much money you can save,” Mathew said. “I spend nothing on rent, zero on electric as we get all we need from solar panels, and about £25 every six weeks on propane gas. We have four pigs that I breed and 20 chickens we use for meat and eggs.”
The pigs act like gardeners by hoovering up any unwanted vegetation like bramble and ivy, leaving the lush wood-meadow. You can’t walk 10 yards without nearly stepping on a chicken.
“We had a lot more than this,” Mathew laughed. “We had 60 but a fox got hold of them. It was heartbreaking. I know it sounds silly but you begin to feel a real connection to all the animals.”
They’re in the process of building an eco-friendly chicken hut to keep them as safe as possible.
Each small cabin or hut made by the pair has been constructed without concrete and instead rests on wooden planks so as not to disrupt the soil.
While he was tempted by “the modern world” Mathew knows he is now in the right place.
“I think from my early 30s I realised I didn’t want to live a conventional life. Once I saw timber being milled up in a woodland I thought: ‘Why on Earth do people want to live in bricks?’ I imagine a future where people go back to living in a wooded land and mill timber on site and build sustainable, zero-impact homes.
“We want to start a family and for our kids to live a healthier and happier life than many people get in the modern world. More and more people are taking an interest in going off-grid. I think the pandemic has been a wake-up call.”
Even for Tarzan-esque Mathew sticking it out in the wilderness through another winter has been a challenge – but they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Mud, weather, cold, the general challenges nature presents to us – it’s all been there,” he said. “But it’s a definite buzz. It’s exhilarating – without a doubt.
“It’s all worth it in the spring – our favorite time of the year, watching the world waking up around us.”
Lauren added: “We wake up at about 4am and the cockerels start going and then again at 6am. I get to sit and listen to the birds while Mathew makes me a cup of tea. What more could you ask for?”
You can follow the couple on Instagram @bleu_jean_ and @twometresplumb.
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