Going off the grid: What I learned after a week without technology in an “apocalypse dome”

Steve Dinneen
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"Smartphones are the new cigarettes,” screams one headline. “Why smartphones are making you ill,” warns another. Virtually everyone who lives in a city bemoans being connected to thousands of other human beings from the second they wake to the moment they fall asleep.

My relationship with technology is especially ambivalent. I fill every second of every day with some form of sensory input. John Humphrys’ voice wakes me in the morning; I listen to podcasts on the commute into the office; I check Twitter obsessively throughout the day; Sky News drones away in the background while I work; I fall asleep listening to an audio-book.

At least 80 per cent of fights between my partner and I stem from one of us checking our phone; it’s infuriating to see your own flaws reflected back at you in another person, a brief glimpse into the black mirror of your own digital addiction. We intermittently enforce rules – “No phones in the bedroom”, “No phones after 9pm” – but the fundamental issue, that we instinctively check social media at least once every 10 minutes, goes unchecked.

The barrage is incessant, yet I tell myself it’s necessary to my professional and social wellbeing, that without it I’d fall out of the loop, be poorer for my lack of a considered opinion on whether it’s okay to discuss Theresa May’s shoes. So I decided to go cold turkey. Not just from social media, but from everything and everyone, living alone and off the grid, to see if I would lose my grip on reality like Jack Torrance in The Shining, or have some messianic epiphany about how we could all live Better Lives.

A project called The Clearing gave me the platform. It’s the brainchild of artists Alex Hartley – best known for towing a big rock from the Arctic to the south coast of England and declaring it an independent nation – and Tom James. They built a geodesic dome in the grounds of the beautiful Compton Verney estate a few miles outside Leamington Spa, hoping to make people think about how we might all have to live if we run out of fossil fuels or nuke each other into oblivion.

By the end of the year, once the crops have grown and the chicken coop has been installed, it should be more or less self sufficient. Each week a different caretaker (or caretakers) is invited to tend to the dome, and introduce it to any visitors.

Steve gets to grips with the dome's herb garden

I’m aware that there’s something a little Marie Antoinette-ish about all this, living in my very own Hameau de la Reine at the Château de Versailles. Or perhaps it’s more like Jarvis Cocker’s hopeless rich girl from Common People, playing at being working class but knowing that a comfortable life is only ever a phone-call away. But there’s something irresistible about the thought of disconnecting from 21st century life, if only on the most superficial of levels.

It’s worth noting that of the four media organisations who applied to be involved in the project, three of them were City A.M., the Financial Times and The Economist; commissioning editors obviously think people in the financial sector, with their ever-more abstract professional lives, have something in particular to gain from a spell in the wilds.

So I packed a suitcase with blankets, dried food, some books and three bottles of red wine, and made the journey up to the Midlands. The final round of the French election was in full swing – would I emerge, unshaven, to discover a bona fide fascist in control of Europe’s second biggest nation? Will we be one step closer to the real-life collapse of civilisation? At least I will be prepared.

The site

Compton Verney is a stately home turned art gallery set in 120 acres of grounds designed by “Capability” Brown. The geodesic dome – originally conceived by renowned architect Buckminster Fuller – is built on a jetty on the far side of the lake, on the fringe of a small wood.

Constructed from reclaimed metal and timber, it’s like the log cabin from your wildest bucolic fantasy. A little wood-burner dominates one side. A kitchen with makeshift shelves and a sink nestles under a captain’s bunk. There’s a living area with a table and armchairs, and, on the north-west side, perspex triangles provide views over the lake.

“The location was crucial,” Hartley told me after my stay. “Having the view over the lake to the stately home provides such an amazing contrast to the dome. I’ve always been interested in these structures, which seem both futuristic and nostalgic at the same time.

“We didn’t build it for the caretakers. For me it’s more about how they animate it for the viewers. Their job is to bring the dome to life, so people can see it as an occupied space. It’s not an installation or a piece of performance art, but it is something that will shift and evolve over time. It’s already started to change in ways we didn’t expect. It was conceived as a way of making people think of how we might live if there was no food, or there were zombies or whatever. But we didn’t plan for how much time people would have on their hands to make it nice, how much they would improve it.

Wood, ripe for chopping

“In terms of connecting with visitors, even people who wouldn’t usually engage with the bigger ideas behind the project can appreciate the level of craftsmanship, and when they hear stories from the caretakers, they’ll hopefully start to imagine what it might be like to live this way.”

Beyond being available to speak to any visitors, Hartley and James are relaxed about how each caretaker approaches their time in the dome; most leave the site at some point to visit the local pub or raid condiments from the cafe, but I imposed some stricter rules:

• I would never leave the site, to preserve at least the illusion of solitude.

• There were to be no electronics. This initially included the solar-powered light in the dome, but then it got dark and there was nothing to do, and I decided that after the apocalypse I would make use of any available resources.

• I wouldn’t use a watch, to see how quickly I could adjust to waking up and sleeping by the sun alone.

• I’d limit contact with the outside world as much as humanly possible.

I got off to a bad start with number four. Having solemnly told everybody that I’d be living in the wilderness, conjuring images of man’s struggle against a harsh and indifferent world, I arrived during a festival, and the place was crawling with Morris dancers, all taunting me with their handkerchiefs and jiggling their leg-bells. For the first three hours, the dome was inundated with visitors, and I started to wonder if this had been a terrible mistake.

Later, the visitors slowed to a trickle (for the rest of the week they were limited to five or six a day, staying between five and 15 minutes), and then they were gone, and I was finally alone with nothing but the unfamiliar sounds of nature preparing for darkness.

Fanning the flames

With no electricity, your life begins to revolve around fire. It becomes your full-time job, your soundtrack and your entertainment. It’s a maddening chore, and a source of limitless fascination. It’s your first task in the morning and the last thing you see at night. It keeps you warm, cooks your food, and provides you with light. Building a fire is hard – like a child, it demands constant attention, refuses to do what you want, cries to be fed.

If the apocalypse is this cosy, it might not be all that bad

“There’s no way I can chop through logs this thick with a handsaw,” I said, looking dubiously at the big pile of felled trees.

“It says here that you’re supposed to,” said the lady from Compton Verney, reading from a letter entitled ‘Introduction to the Dome’.

“Impossible,” I said, shaking my head.

To prove this, I hauled a log onto the improvised workbench and began the Sisyphean task that would dominate the rest of my week. Sawing is tough, but after an hour, cursing every time the saw’s teeth clamped down into the wood, I was left with a pile of smaller logs.

Next comes chopping. The trick to chopping is to hold the axe (the bigger the better) behind your head and envisage where it will land, like a golfer lining up a shot. Then close your eyes and swing as hard as you can. Once you’ve mastered it, few things make you feel more alive than chopping wood: the perfect arc, the faint ‘swoosh’, the satisfying ‘thwack’, the two perfect hemispheres peeling off.

I chopped wood for hours. I chopped until my shoulders burned and a triangle of sweat formed on my T-shirt. I chopped until there was nothing left to chop, then I spotted some logs people had been using for seats around the camp fire, and I chopped those, too. All around me were splinters of wood, more wood than I could ever need. Until the third day, that is, when I had burned it all and had to start again.

To make wood into fire, I drew on distant memories of being a Cub Scout, piling up kindling, feeding it a dozen or so lit matches and blowing on it a lot. When it roared to life, I felt like King Louie from the Jungle Book. Over the course of the week I learned which pieces of wood were likely to burn and which would just smoke sullenly; which bits of kindling worked best; how to recycle the embers from one fire to build another.

On my last night I built a huge campfire, which was unforgivably extravagant for one person, but I reasoned that fire is really cool and did it anyway. Once fire gets to a certain size, it will eat anything, like a hungry dog. I sawed giant logs and tossed them straight in, until the flames rose 6ft in the air.

The Sisyphean task of chopping wood

The fear

At Compton Verney, nighttime is not your friend. Try to read outdoors and bugs will kamikaze against your page. Night is a period of all-out assault, when everything outside attempts to get inside. The first evening, I planned on reading until it got too dark, but the dome was stiflingly hot and I fell into a fitful sleep, dreaming of the French election.

I woke to the sound of footsteps on the wood-chip outside. It was so dark that even the faint glow of the dying fire was enough to make the windows reflective; whoever – whatever – was outside could be standing right by the glass, peering in. The footsteps had stopped and the only sound was the creak and snap of the dome adjusting to the cooler temperature.

With none of the white noise of 21st century society, my mind was in overdrive, desperately searching for sensory input to fill the existential void, like Descartes’ brain in a vat trying to reassure itself that it’s still alive. Every sound was amplified: the crack of a twig, some animal brushing past the dome, the serial killer plodding about outside.

When I pressed my face against the glass, the lake was black and ominous. Every so often the footsteps would return, never straying into the sliver of jetty I could see from the window. In the gloom, the decorations made by previous caretakers began to seem like sinister messages: a crayon rubbing of a skull atop an hour-glass (which I later found out came from a small graveyard on the other side of the lake); the sentence “Jo will be here” carved into the arm of a chair (who is Jo and when exactly will she be here?); oyster shells strung together and dangled from a tree, a la The Blair Witch Project.

All of my fears, I realised, are pieced together from horror movies. The area outside the dome looked exactly like a scene from Friday 13th: the deserted campfire, the placid lake, the tree-line shrouded in darkness. When I finally ventured outside, I scanned the woods for signs of movement, and when I got back into the dome, I checked the captain’s bunk to make sure nobody had crept in while I was weeing off the jetty.

Earlier that day, a child had asked me if I would be scared living here all alone. “No, there’s nothing to be afraid of,” I’d said. I should have grabbed him by the shoulders and yelled, “Of course I’m going to be afraid, you short idiot. Being alone in a cabin in the woods is absolutely terrifying.”

The dome's interior

I had a sudden urge to Google “How many people are murdered in the English countryside?” but I didn’t have a phone. At least nobody knew I was there alone, I thought, apart from all the people I’d spent the afternoon explaining to in minute detail how I was alone in this dome with no means of calling for help. In Compton Verney no one can hear you scream. I counted up the things I could use as weapons – little axe, big axe, kitchen knife, fire poker, some kind of machete – and felt slightly better. I fell back to sleep imagining the Venn diagram of “psychopathic murderers” and “National Trust members”.

The next morning I was woken by red-billed geese skating across the lake. The fire had gone out and it was freezing. I later discovered that the heavy footsteps were probably the sound of a badger – there’s a century-old sett less than 100 metres from the dome – although it could also have been a type of small deer called a muntjac, or a serial killer who had changed his mind.

By the second night I had no fear of Compton Verney. I wandered around the dome after dark, staring at the blurry reflection of the moon in the lake, watching bats perform impossible feats of acrobatics overhead, listening to owls hoot suggestively at each other. The solitude was invigorating and as I surveyed my empire, I felt euphoric (this could be partly down to the nice bottle of Malbec I had with dinner). I started to gauge the time beyond sunset by the changing sounds: the honking of geese giving way to the bleating of lambs, followed by the evening birds, then rabbits shovelling dirt under the dome, and finally the heavy-breathing of the badger.

Best laid plans

My plan had been to do as little as possible: enjoy the silence, read. I brought a stack of books about venturing into uncharted territory: David Thoreau’s Walden, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (previous caretakers clearly had the same idea; left on the shelf alongside Small-Scale Poultry Keeping and Food For Free were Outer Dark – also by Cormac McCarthy – and Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders).

But everything takes ten times longer without electricity. Breakfast becomes a two-hour task (make fire, watch the water on the stove creep up to somewhere approaching 80 degrees). Plus, I had an urge do things (related information: Walden is really boring). I went for runs at sunset, when the sky was the colour of a fresh bruise hanging over rapeseed fields so yellow I had to squint my eyes. I built a rudimentary gym: two logs and a plank of wood for tricep dips; an improvised barbell made from a fence-post and two 25 litre water bottles for squats, a similar design for bench presses (unsuccessful – I got wet).

Reading on the jetty

I took out all the rugs and beat them, scrubbed the floors, pulled all the dead leaves off the plants. I went foraging in the nearby woodland, returning with a job-lot of wild garlic (I cut the excursion short when I started having visions of the dome burning to the ground in my absence, which was a source of anxiety for the entire week). I tried to work on the allotment, but I know nothing about growing things and found it all a bit overwhelming: when I left, the flora was still as alien to me as the red Martian tendrils in HG Wells’ War of the Worlds.

On the third day I decided, on a whim, to build an outdoor storage box out of scrap wood, so that the freshly-chopped logs wouldn’t get wet in the rain. What seemed like a simple enough job became ever more complicated, involving dozens of pieces of wood, hinges I found lying around and a shower-curtain for waterproofing. It took from noon till dusk, and when I was finished I was so tired I had to go straight to bed. The next morning I found some paint and embellished it with pictures of flames. I am inordinately proud of this box.

The final countdown

There is one thing that everybody who visits the dome wants to know. Whether it’s an elderly couple or a precocious child, the first question was always the same: where do you go to the toilet? I’ve never spoken to so many people in such specific terms about my bowel movements. I was asked so frequently that I had a script worked out in my head, which I would change-up for my own amusement, throwing in fresh euphemisms.

“Well, there’s a compost toilet...” I would say. This was exactly what they wanted to hear. Their eyes would widen, anticipating all the sordid details about how I had to shit into a bucket of leaves. I’d let it hang for a few seconds.

“But it’s been banned. The park wasn’t sure they could safely dispose of a year’s worth of human excrement. So I just pop into the visitors’ centre.”

Steve with the firewood box he made

They looked crestfallen. I would throw them a bone: “But there’s no shower, so I have to give myself a whore’s bath over the sink.”

There is surprisingly little to say about my last two days. I would wake shortly after dawn (there are no curtains in the dome), and fall sleep at what I took to be around 9.30pm. Each morning I would make curried eggs using a bottle of squeezy mayonnaise I brought with me. I’m not sure if there will be squeezy mayonnaise after the apocalypse, but I hope so. For lunch and dinner I’d pick herbs from the allotment and use them to improve my packets of instant ramen. A 500g bag of dried meat I’d brought provided an easy source of protein.

Even after 120 hours of talking about little except my toilet habits, I didn’t crave company; I was more content than ever just staring at the fire, working out which things in the garden tasted nice, running through my list of daily chores. I loved it. When I had to leave, I was quietly devastated, and a little teary.

I have since decided that there are only a handful of people who need to know what’s happening in the world in real-time, and I’m not one of them. Not knowing the outcome of the Birmingham mayoral election, for example, is not the end of the world (and might, indeed, be preferable).

The unceasing tide of information enabled by smartphones makes you feel well-informed, but it’s a binge that never ends, leaving you tired and bloated. It reduces global events to a meaningless data-dump, contributing little to your understanding of the world. Technology promises to make us better connected, but ends up leaving us more remote than ever.

Glamping in a beautiful country estate is not, of course, a life-altering experience. I didn’t come back and quit my job, nor decide to name my first-born after a type of fruit. I did not have an epiphany in the woods, although I do check Twitter slightly less. But being a caretaker for this hippyish dome did remind me of all the things 21st century city life so often robs from us: the simple joy of building fire; scrabbling around in the mud like a child; making things with your hands; sitting back and watching the ducks kick against the current while the trees gently shush one another. And, for a week at least, that was enough.

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