Money

Why I Left the City to Live in a Mud Hut

Daniel Pike built himself a home in a forest just outside of London, and The Woodland Trust is now trying to kick him out.

by Oobah Butler, Photos: Chris Bethell
Apr 21 2016, 3:20pm

Daniel Pike sitting next to his home.

From the brutal dismantling of multigenerational communities in government housing, to people renting out sheds for £500 [$700] a month, London is a terrifying place to live at the moment. And it's only going to get worse.

So when they turn up at the door demanding £650 [$930]-a-week for your shared floor, what are you going to do? Where are you going to go then? It turns out you could literally build a mud hut in some woods and the cold reach of the capital's callous housing climate would eventually track you down.

In 2012, after suffering a nervous breakdown and being made homeless, Daniel Pike arrived in the lap of Merry Hill forest, near Watford. Carving into a riverbank, he began shaping a home with his own two hands. Over the next four years he transformed it into a sustainable, solar-powered paradise—all buzz words that would have London's rental market drooling.

The house—in the "perfect discreet spot"—built from "large, clay bricks" Daniel made from the riverbank.

So surprise, surprise, the 28-year-old is now being threatened with forced eviction. Usually this is the part of the story where I start describing the notice he's been served by WankerCorp so they can go ahead and build their Pret a Manger Plaza, but isn't a normal London-person-evicted-from-their-home narrative. The organization that finds itself in the unlikely role of cutthroat bastard here is The Woodland Trust.

The trust argues that it has to look at the possible impact Daniel could have on the site, and the other 1,000-plus sites across the UK. They say that allowing Daniel to remain living in the woods could set a "precedent for this type of occupation to occur across all of our sites." Fair point—but it doesn't matter how you rationalize it; you're still smashing down somebody's place and leaving them homeless. So it's complicated.

One thing that's indisputable, however, is the house. This is a thing of beauty; an accomplishment, a home. His first for a long time, in fact, which is why Daniel's friends have set up a fundraising page to try to protect it.

We drove up the M1 to see the hut and have a chat with Daniel.

Some of Daniel's supplies on the shelves he made out of clay from the riverbank.

VICE: How long have you been here?
Daniel Pike: Altogether, about four years. I've been building and living in this particular house for two years.

Was there a moment you thought you needed to leave London for good?
Years ago. I've been through this for much of my teenage life. Being homeless, meditating, and [living in] tents out in the woods. The longest time I did it consecutively when I was in my teens was around two years. It did get stressful sometimes, especially when it was cold, raining, and you needed a wash. My camp was attacked and vandalized, and that made me want to go back into society—and I did, many times. Then I was made homeless again. It's been a cycle that's been happening for a long time.

Daniel heats the water in the basin on the far left, locks the stream outlet, and adds it to the isolated area for warm bathing.

How did you develop the skills to construct this?
I bunked school and used to work at Tesco. Most of my learning came after from trial and error. I'd been building before with shacks and stuff, but everything failed, so I had to learn. It's within everyone. [People] have got it within them to learn. Nature teaches you, and you teach yourself.

So what inspired you? Did you grow up watching The Swiss Family Robinson or Rambo or something?
I took a lot of inspiration from being younger and watching Bruce Lee films and Dragon Ball Z.

Bruce Lee?
It was his ethos of calmness and peace. I'm a martial artist, too, and that meditation means a lot to me. I remember something he said: "You must be shapeless, formless, like water." The first time I heard that sticks out in my head. Then Dragon Ball Z also teaches about humans and all of the things they do to each other, the emotions. How energy works. It inspired me.

Daniel's bed, with a mattress made from leaves, is raised off the ground to avoid the damp and pests. A trick he learned "watching Ray Mears."

Have you had any moments, living here, where you've decided you want to leave?
No, no, no. This place has been quite an enjoyment for me. Even though there have been days of stress and depression, I've always wanted to stick here. This is home for me.

What's the latest interaction you've had with the Woodland Trust?
It's weird. They came here the other day and said something completely different to what I'd heard them say on the radio. It was two different people. On the radio they said, "We don't want to evict him; if we wanted to we'd have done that already. We want to sit with Daniel and discuss a solution with him." But the lady who came here, she directly told me straight away: "We will be moving you on."

Okay.
I kind of laughed and said, "Look, this is going to be dealt with in the courts if anything." But it was just two completely different voices from them.

A continuous rodent trap. Rats were "causing chaos," biting through walls in the foundations of Daniel's building, eating his food, making nests in his clothes, shitting everywhere. He's caught "30-plus rodents" in this trap.

Do you have the money to go to court?
Well, my friend set up a donation page without me knowing. The last time I checked it had £600 [$900] or something, and needs to make £2,000 [$2,800]. But if that target isn't met I don't get anything, or that option. The legal costs and the legal fees—I don't know about that stuff, because basically I'm going to be there on special visitation defending myself. They're the ones spending all the money and doing all the paperwork. I just need to go there and defend myself.

Have you had any support from the local community? What do they feel about you being here?
They don't want me to go. I've had a lot of people come here, especially people who come to this park and donate to the Woodland Trust, talking to me about the Woodland Trust's policy. And they're telling me that they don't want me to go, the policy can be changed, and that they've sent emails to them about that as well. They're very supportive. I've also had local people get a petition going. There are a lot of people on the nearby estate who support me. There's a local guy who comes here near enough every day with his dog and I've connected with him a lot. We've been through very similar things.

What is your message, then? Why are you doing this?
Freedom. You don't have to be living in a mud hut like I am here. It's just total freedom from the system. This is just me putting my foot in the door to the government and saying, "Enough." My freedom's not going to be chucked down the toilet.

What do you see happening if you are moved? What's the next step then?
It will just be a cycle. I don't even see that as a possibility, but assuming that I do and I go back into society, in less than a year I'll come back and do this again somewhere else.

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