Meet the couple who left the rat race to live off-grid in a run-down Co Down cottage they’ve lovingly restored
Ever felt tempted to unplug yourself from modern life? Stephanie Bell talks to a NI couple doing just that in but without having to sacrifice washing machines, laptops and phones
Many people today regard themselves as eco-warriors, but few have taken it to the extreme - where every day they live, work and breathe it - like Co Down couple Claire and Steve Golemboski-Byrne.
The husband-and-wife team live entirely off-grid in a formerly run-down rural cottage they painstakingly restored using recycled materials.
Living in an idyllic spot in the shadow of the Mourne Mountains, the couple are now enjoying the good life, having become increasingly self-sufficient through drawing their power from the sun and the wind, and growing most of their own food.
They have even managed to carve out a living on the farm they bought by offering self-catering accommodation and running courses.
One of the most popular course is teaching other people how to live by fulfilling most of their needs with the help of Mother Nature.
In just a few short years, they have become a global model for how to live off-grid, with visitors coming from every part of the world to see their way of life first-hand and learn from them.
And while the couple are not wired up to the national grid, they are proud of the fact their lifestyle proves that living naturally can be achieved without sacrificing modern comforts such as washing machines, laptops and phones. What is most surprising, though, is that until just seven years ago, Claire and Steve were very much like the rest of us - working hard in nine-to-five jobs and struggling to pay their bills.
Deciding to live off-grid was as much about dropping out of the rat race as it was about doing their bit for the environment, which they both feel even more strongly about since becoming parents five years ago to little Lyra.
Steve (47) worked as a production manager for a local newspaper and Claire (43) was a sound engineer who retrained as a gardener when they first met while volunteering on the farm of a mutual friend in Bangor seven years ago.
They pretty much clicked straight away, sharing views on a simpler lifestyle and concerns for global warming.
Within a year, they were living together, albeit very basically in a horse truck, which Steve says was perfect preparation for their new life.
"When we met, we had both been starting to look at growing our own food and building our own basic houses," he explains. "It was at the time that a man in Wales famously built what later became known as the Hobbit House for £3,000, and we both loved the idea of that.
"Being aware of the environment was something that crept up on me over the years. When I met Claire, my only asset was an old horse truck as I had always been into horses, and we decided to do it up and live in it and save money from renting.
"We had the idea of the off-grid thing, and living in the truck was like a trial run. In many ways, it was more extreme as the facilities were very limited and we only had a bit of power for our laptops and phone chargers. We both wanted to get out of that nine-to-five routine where you worked and paid the bills and weren't able to do a whole lot else.
"We both believed there had to be a better way of living, and we were also very aware of environmental issues and climate change.
"I don't think at first we thought about it as something we would do for ever - it was just exciting and we were enjoying it."
The couple wanted to buy a house with a bit of land, but they couldn't afford most of the properties on the market in the Bangor area.
By chance, Claire came across their current home - Lackan Cottage Farm - which was then a run-down cottage with six acres of land, nestled in the shadow of the Mournes between Rathfriland and Castlewellan.
The derelict house had been in the same family for 80 years, and the couple secured it with the blessing of family members who were delighted at their plans to bring the home back to life.
Again, with little money behind them, they set about restoring it, using natural and recycled materials, and doing most of the work themselves.
With their first child on the way and a lot of hands-on help from their friends, they made it habitable within just 16 weeks. "The house had very much fallen apart with neglect," Steve says. "We didn't have much money, which meant we had to be very inventive.
"We tried to use local materials, and we used lime plaster on the walls and tried to avoid using any chemicals.
"We got the house in June 2012 and were still living in the truck. Lyra was due on September 15, so that was our motivator, and friends came and helped and we got it ready in time."
Since then, the property has been a labour of love for the couple, who have gradually evolved the land and house to not only enjoying their dream of a life off-grid, but also making a living from their passion.
Today, it is a successful organic smallholding. Claire and Steve cook their own food and heat the home with wood from their land, using a range-style cooker that came with the cottage and which powers the central heating.
Solar panels and a small wind turbine (donated by a friend) provide enough electricity to maintain the property during the summer and (with more care about the use of their appliances) in winter too.
Their toilet is flushed with harvested rainwater, which they also use for their plants and animals - they have a Labrador called Missy, three horses named Mel, Rain and Paddy (which all contribute to the working of the farm in some way) and several cats, as well as chickens that provide eggs and the occasional roast dinner.
While it's certainly a unique way of living, the couple are delighted to have proved that normal life can be enjoyed without harming the environment.
"At first, we didn't have a kettle or toaster and my mum came to stay and begged us to buy a kettle," Steve says. "We have always been open to compromise.
"We do have enough electricity in the summer, although we have to be more careful in the winter months. If the washing machine is on, you think twice about putting the kettle on.
"Last winter, we were praying for wind because we went for two weeks without a breath of it.
"I think it proves that you can live off-grid, and you don't have to go and live in a hut or shack somewhere to do it.
"In the summer, three-quarters of our food would be our own, but we can't grow things like rice, and I quite like a beer, so we are not trying to be completely self-sufficient.
"If the lights go out I can't ring Northern Ireland Electricity. I have to get my screwdriver out and go and fix it. It is great when it works. When it doesn't, it's a challenge.
"There is a lot to be said for it. We have our own heat and hot water, and it makes you ask the question, 'Why are all houses not like this?' It is not rocket science and it's not cutting-edge."
The couple don't have a television, but they do have internet, and little Lyra is as clued-in as any modern child when it comes to using gadgets and watching her favourite programmes on the web.
While there is a curiosity about their way of life, Steve believes that, ultimately, his daughter benefits in the long and short-term from their contribution to protecting the environment.
"We have people here all the time for courses, open days and staying in the self-catering accommodation, and Lyra benefits from that in that she is quite good around people and now shows people around," he says. "She also knows where her food comes from.
"She also loves YouTube and is well aware of how to get on to the laptop and go online.
"We are like any parents, encouraging their child not to spend too much time in front of a screen.
"Climate change is like the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. You can't bring it up as a cheerful subject, yet it is coming down the road.
"In some ways, we are insulated here in Northern Ireland because it doesn't make the news and it is very difficult to say to people that they need to change. Most people think, 'Why should I when others aren't?'
"Our climate is okay at the moment and, because it doesn't affect us quite directly, it is not on the agenda and there is no sense of urgency, but we really think that there should be.
"We are getting to the point where we won't be able to prevent the changes happening, and my five-year-old daughter will have to deal with that.
"In 50 years' time, she will be the one having to live through what we've left behind. For us, we are making a small contribution to changing that.
"If everyone who comes here for our courses takes a little bit away with them, then hopefully it will make some difference."
- For information on the courses and open days the couple run, or for details of accommodation, visit Lackancottage.co.uk