Loitering With Intent

That's not really fair. Hannah Twigg isn't exactly loitering, but her first child is due in four weeks: at such a time, frankly, you don't feel like doing much. And she lives in a series of interconnected yurts. The dictionary may define a yurt as 'a collapsible circular tent of skins stretched over a pole frame used by Central Asian nomadic peoples' but the Afghan word for it, rather pleasingly, is ooee - which is what you think when you go into her home. It is richly furnished with sheepskins and rugs and comfy chairs and cushions and candles. There is an air of permanence about it all, which is fair enough, for at least until the little Twigglet has established him/herself in this world, Hannah does not intend to be nomadic.

Hannah intends to put forth this new shoot (OK, I'll stop all this now) in a birthing-pool inside one of the yurts, and this afternoon has just missed buying one on eBay. It seems unlikely, somehow, to be doing internet shopping when you live in the corner of a damp field not far from Biggin Hill. But this place has more to it than you'd think. It has mains electricity: there is a washing-machine, a capacious fridge, a bath and a new Rayburn. Any day now there will be radiators... ...for Hannah and Roger are not hippies, not eco-warriors. They occasionally wish that they had lived a hundred years ago but they are realistic and know that compromises have to be made: they drive cars, not horses. They do recycle as much as they can - their floors, for instance, are made from old scaffolding-boards, and their sweet little rocking-cradle they picked up at a car-boot sale - but although they would dearly love to use solar or wind-power, they can't quite afford the necessary installation equipment. What they do stress, however, is that their life-style is low-impact, unthreatening and undamaging to the environment. "When we eventually leave," she says, " there will be nothing to show we were ever here."

That is not, however, strictly true. Some yards down a slippery track lurks the compost loo. It is in a somewhat, ahem, windy spot and it is essential that it doesn't blow away. When it was built, four bags of cement were used to strengthen its corners. Decades after the yurts have migrated, some future archaeologist will come across these four sturdy columns and wonder, briefly, about their original - probably mystic - purpose.

Hannah and Roger are in their late thirties now, and both have successful careers behind them. Hannah grew up in North London, where her garden backed onto Hampstead Heath. She studied architecture at Sheffield University but, when she came home, decided to re-train as a garden designer. Before very long she had her own business and was doing well. She is tiny, the youngest of three sisters: her website used her school nickname, little twigg.

Roger left school when he was sixteen and joined the Royal Marines. After finishing his stint with them, he transferred to the Fire Brigade but was suddenly, frighteningly, stricken with a virus which attacked his heart and necessitated a long period of recuperation. This enforced rest was the best thing that could have happened to him: it gave him time to think; he learned to make candles; he became interested in yoga. He went back to the Fire Brigade for a fortnight, then resigned and set off on his travels. He started a business importing musical instruments from Thailand, Nepal and Vietnam. He discovered that he loved gardening.

After six years of very hard work, Hannah gave herself some time off. She went to a tiny green festival called Earthwise, on the Dorset coast, and there in a field by the sea, she met her man. He was, at the time, living in a Bedford lorry, a three-horse transporter which he had converted. "He made it," she says, eyes shining, "into a palace..." And he also owned a yurt. Just the one...

At this point Roger arrived home from work with the Waitrose shopping and some lively dogs. Unconsciously he echoed her words. Gazing proudly round his domain, he remarked, "Isn't it a palace?"

And it is. When they discovered that she was pregnant, they sent the original, separate yurts back to their maker in Devon so that he could provide extra doorways to connect them all, and make a little one for the baby. Meanwhile, they arranged plinths for them, out of timber remaindered by tree-surgeons, and hoped, rather anxiously, that it would all fit together. Happily it did, and the result is somewhere between a building from the Hobbit's Shire and a spaceship, but far more comfortable and cosy. Hannah still designs gardens from here, though the heavy work must wait, and Roger goes out to do his gardening, and sells his drums and temple bells.

But their real work happens in a large, almost empty yurt, a little distance from the mother-ship, which is used for yoga. They hold classes and retreats there, and they teach meditation. We had a look at it. There is something about the large circular space that is calming and restorative or, as Hannah would say, energizing. Do they chant in there? "Well Roger is keen on chanting," she says, "and the sound echoes and grows around the central wheel in the roof. It is extraordinary, wonderful.." She tells me that their yurt-maker has recently been approached by international aid agencies. Many refugees are housed in tented villages, which often, sadly, have to be semi-permanent: yurts are much more welcoming and familiar than army tents or other shelters. It's easy to see the sense in that.

There are plenty of images of the Buddha around the place and I wonder if she is a Buddhist. "I feel no need for a religion," she replies, "but I do agree with many of their principles." Like what? "Oh," she says dreamily, "they're gentle, non-judgmental..." However, she isn't strictly a vegetarian, and she has trouble respecting the value of every living creature when it comes to mosquitoes. Well, don't we all!

Hannah uses Western Buddhist meditation techniques. Basically, these comes in two forms. One is called 'The Mindfulness of Breathing' which is reasonably self-explanatory. The other is 'The Metta Bhavana' in which you try to cultivate loving-kindness towards five people: "You start with loving yourself (which is often the hardest), then move on to a person you love, then to someone about whom you feel neutral and so on." It is inadvisable, apparently, for beginners to visualize their deadliest enemies, for fear of undermining the whole shebang.

Just as she finishes explaining, there is an almighty crash, as if a lorry had been dropped from a great height, and we both laugh. There's no getting away from the fact that this idyllic little spot is surrounded by racket - from the planes, the 'light' industrial site down the road, the slightly unsettling travellers' encampment behind the hedge and, at weekends, go-kart racing and clay-pigeon shooting. "We live on the northern borders of Surrey and Kent." she says, "between Bromley and Croydon and two fields away from suburbia." Nights are peaceful, and early mornings - but the hubbub of a huge city isn't far away.

Ever practical, Hannah points out that Londoners seldom even hear the noises; that being within reach of London Transport makes it easy for people to get to the yoga classes; that the suburbs contain plenty of people who want work done on their gardens. But she does yearn to be able, eventually, to up-yurts and go somewhere more peaceful, where birdsong can be heard all day long and organic vegetables grown in unpolluted air. You will not be surprised to learn that their baby will be named after a tree - though there is some discussion as to which.

The air of expectancy becomes so powerful that it's very tempting to stay until the dusk deepens, the noises die down, the stars come out, and all the twinkling lights are lit. Time, though, for just one last question. Is there anything at all she misses about living in a house? She is an honest woman. "Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I do wish we had an indoor loo," she admits, before gamely remembering the pioneering spirit and adding, "but only sometimes."

STOP PRESS

Just after I left, Hannah went into premature labour. Little Oakley, a boy, was safely delivered in hospital that very night and, a couple of days later, his delighted father rang to say that all was well. A benign fate had clearly intervened to prevent the purchase of the pool, and the family was now safely back in their warm and candle-lit cocoon. We wish them all health, happiness, every blessing - and lashings of loving-kindness.

To contact Hannah and Roger for yoga classes and workshops call 07931 758260 or visit www.yoga-yurts.co.uk

  • words Sue Gaisford
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Cherry Whytock