Sunday, May 17, 2015

deadlines get work done

House sitting is becoming a bit of a habit.  I’ve just completed the second sit, this time with a bit of a menagerie.  Three dogs, two cats, chickens and a horse.  Just down the road, so have continued to work on my ongoing projects.  The dogs were mischevious but very loving, several things got chewed to pieces, including my camera which I stupidly left within reach for a few minutes. (thankfully it still takes photos, but the screen no longer functions and it’s all a bit worse for wear.)  It was lovely to be in a house with all mod cons.  Light a fire on the cold damp days and watch crappy english TV via satellite. Not something I would normally entertain, but on those odd occasions, just the ticket.  I felt guilty if I left the animals alone, in their kennels, for too long, so tended to spend a fair amount of time at the house.  

A deadline can work wonders for productivity.  I’ve come away to visit friends and then on to England for a few weeks, so have been focussed on getting as much done as possible.  

Installing the guttering and getting the water saving system to work.

water butts in the vegetable garden 
Clearing and mulching all the newly planted shrubs and trees

straw mulch as a weed suppressant and for water retaining 

Building a table out of reclaimed pallets so that I could have the neighbours for lunch.

ten minute pallet table

Strimming round the field and mulching all the new hedge plantings with straw.

the hedge line looking great with it's new straw mulch

Finishing the steps through the hedge.

steps from field to garden

Planting all my seedling vegetable plants.

Then tidying the whole site to minimise loosing items into the fast growing vegetation which will have grown enormously by my return. 

I'm not going to be back till late July, so have my fingers crossed that the weather remains changeable with enough rain to keep the vegetables alive.  I hope that with the efforts in mulching and early care, they should be off to a good enough start to survive most eventualities.

new roof

A couple or three weeks ago I went up onto the roof of the chalet to spread out some black irrigation pipe so that it gets plenty of sunshine.  Now that I have mains water to the front door, thought it the ideal time to install a basic hot water shower system.

The black, water filled pipe rests on the roof in the sunshine all day soaking up the rays of the sunshine, the water inside getting warmer and warmer, by mid to late afternoon I then have 25m of toasty hot water to draw off through a shower head.  More than enough for a quick soaking before turning off the supply to soap and clean then plenty of warm water left for a decent rinse and light relax.  Too long running and the cold comes through.  It concentrated the mind to matters in hand and ensures that a minimum of water is used for ablutions.  Next step, a way of saving this water for reuse elsewhere on site.

Anyway, whilst I was up on the roof I noticed some worrying signs.  The nails had started pulling on the tarred felting, a waterproof layer that is supposed to keep the chalet protected from the rain.  Several nails had pulled right through the felt, whilst others were well on the way.  A more permanent covering is definitely needed.  In the back of my mind I had thought that I would find enough second hand corrugated over a couple of years to give the shed a rustic, lived in ‘hat’, but this discovery changed my mind.

Within the week it’s done.  I took advice, got a couple of prices for tin and timber then set too.  The guy at the builders merchant couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw Percy the camper van reverse into the store to load up.  “No,no,no.  It’s not possible.”  he told me when I got out.  “It will never fit in that.”  He soon changed his mind when I opened the back doors, revealing a clear passage through the centre of my home, large enough for the 4m long battens and rafters and all the 3m long tin sheeting needed.  He’s great is Percy and took it all in his stride.

The first bit of roofing I have done, completely on my own.  No one to discuss things with, take advice from or follow.  I just got on with it.  Vertical battens up the roof at 50cm spacings followed by horizontal rafters across the width of the roof.  These I positioned directly above the structural rafters within the building so that they could be secured well with some hefty screws.  I screwed straight down through the rafters, battens, felt and wooden roof structure right into the fabric of the building and it’s as solid as can be. 

Thankfully the tin sheets were all but the right size for the roof, because without power on site, any cutting would have been a major undertaking.  There is a little overlap around all edges, but that can only be a good thing.  It all fitted together smoothly and without hitch, even though I did finish part of it early one morning in the rain.  Foolish, as everything becomes real slippery, though it only took half an hour and the roof is watertight and the timbers protected.  I’ll go up on the next dry day and just put in the last few fixings.

This now leads to guttering and rain water harvesting.  I have been playing around with ideas for ages as I really need water in the vegetable garden which is about 75m away rather than near the chalet.  Not that far, but with watering cans, far from ideal.  My idea is partly in place, a pipe installed when I dug in the mains water last autumn.  It will need a bit of playing around with, bit I am pretty sure I can fill my water butts in the veggie garden directly off the shed roof.  I buried a second pipe through to the vegetable garden and hope that the levels are such that water will flow directly to where it is needed.  Gutters first then a lot of messing about in the rain to see if it all works.  I can’t wait.

basic hot water shower

black heat absorbent pipe on roof

dodgy felting

battens, rafters, etc.

new tin roof

Joy visited

My dear friend Joy has been to stay.  She booked a flight from the UK ages ago and I was slightly concerned that the weather wouldn’t be at it’s best during April.  Thankfully it was kind.  We saw days of warm sunshine, a bit of rain, the most amazing storm with thunder and lightening crashing right overhead that went on for most of the afternoon, missed snow, by a day, when we visited Pierre at Lou Rider, but mainly it was lovely.

Joy enjoying a spectacular sunset

snow on the mountains just before going through the tunnel to spain

through the tunnel to spain

Ainsa, on the warm sunny side of the mountains
 Joy’s visit was timely and gave me good reason to ease back into ‘full on’ working at a sedate pace.  We did plenty of touristy pottering about, visited markets and had long leisurely lunches found flattish places for strolls and discovered the opportunity for plenty of pauses for cappucino’s  or cups of tea.

I got to thinking how little of this I do when I am on my own, and how that must change.  Now that the project is coming up for a year in the making, the hard graft can be seen to be making a big difference.  The clearing that took months last year was brought back under control with an afternoon strimming.  A couple of hours weeding in the well mulched vegetable areas and it all looks clean and tidy.  I am smiling writing this, as the vision of ‘clean and tidy’ resembles little of what I would have imagined a few years ago.  

A deep layer of autumn leaves surrounds the wanted plants keeping annual weeds to a minimum, they protect the soil from heavy downpours and days of hot sun, regulating the soil from excessive temperature and humidity fluctuations, slowly decaying to provide food for the plants and soil organisms alike.  Meandering paths allow access to different areas of the plot, cut through swathes of fast growing natives.  Beautiful drifts of wildflowers are already bringing colour and interest for myself and the hosts of wildlife that keep themselves endlessly busy day by day.  My hours of bramble root digging look to have paid off in the most part, an occasional tour with the strimmer should knock back any determined shoots and, theoretically, in three or so years, the majority will have given up.  Other weeds are taking their place.  Buttercups are highly visible this spring, dandelions put on an impressive display and the docks are springing up here and there.  It’s going to look spectacular as summer unfolds.

still plenty of veggies fron last season

a good layer of mulch keeps the weeds down and the soil moist and friable underneath

My trays of seedlings are growing fast and will soon be ready for planting out.  Need to get some ‘friendly’ slug pellets, if there is such a thing, but I really would appreciate some of the vegetables reaching maturity and with the dampness about at present I fear or the little ones.  I’ll try a light liming of the raised beds too, though not too much as it may not go down too well with everything.  Perhaps half and half, to see if there is any difference.  Will keep you posted if I remember.

the seedlings travelled too!! 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


seldom is the air so clear at this time of year.  the storm last night did a marvelous job of clearing the view.  I have a friend staying and this was the first real view of the mountains as we head off to spend a few days discovering the sights and sounds of the Pyrenees.

spring is sprung

Everything is growing at breakneck speed at the moment.  Alternating rains followed by warm sunshine for several days is providing ideal conditions for everything including the weeds.  Spring has really sprung, the surrounding countryside changing colour day by day, getting greener with every hour.  Seeds sown and germinating fast ( they will be going on holiday as I will be sepending a few days in the mountains at Lou Rider, so they’ll have to come with me to get watered!!)  Check out the photos......

fresh new growth of spring

loving the purple sprouting.  even the second cut is delicious

the raised beds have remained almost weed free where a decent mulch was put down in autumn.
liking this very much

cut a hole through the trees to get easy access to the lower field

first walk of the season

I phoned my friend Simon for a chat and he suggested heading to the mountains for a picnic the following weekend.  Good idea, though I do know that such affairs with Simon involve plenty of time, an open wood fire, meat and often an overnight stay.

Bagneres de Bigorre market, that Saturday, was lovely.  The first time I had been there for over a year, the sun was shining and the narrow streets and small squares bustled with spring excitement as folk mingled, shopped and caught up with friends after a winter of cold and often grim weather.  

Simon and I crossed paths almost immediately, arranged a place to meet and carried on with our shopping. I bumped into Dominique, a host from several years back and had a good chat.  Several stall holders recognised me from my local Wednesday market trips closer to home, everyone has time for a few words, so my shopping trip took a fair amount of time.  

We met up, was introduced to Sabrina, Simons girlfriend and Nina who was to join us for the afternoon, had a leisurely coffee in the sunshine, watched the world go by for a bit before heading to the mountains.  We stopped for wood on the way and installed ourselves on a favourite patch for the duration of the picnic.

Fire lit, we settled down to enjoy the impressive view in front of us.  For everyone it was different as we had valley, pasture, snowcapped mountains and distant activity of the glimpse of a cable car accessing the observatory on the highest peak in the region to take in.  The savage beauty of the mountains surrounded us.  There were patches of snow fairly close by that hinted of recent coldness yet frogspawn had already hatched into millions of tiny tadpoles in ponds of water, obviously warmed by the intensity of the spring sunshine.

Simon cooked his, now famous, chicken on a string.  I have blogged about it in the past and enjoyed several such meals.  It always tastes exquisite, probably because you sit round the fire and watch it spin and cook for the whole two hours it takes, frequently discussing other such occasions or food in general.  Nibbles of saucission, nuts and cheese were passed round and the wine flowed.  Our glorious sunny morning turned into a sporadically cloudy afternoon and the temperature started to drop.  No problem, just a few more clothes.  The chicken, as ever, was absolutely delicious, moist, succulent and probably all the better for being ripped from its bones with our fingers, almost too hot to hold onto, grease running down our hands and, for me, with a frequently vegetarian diet, a real treat.  Lovely.

Conversation continued into the evening.  The weather turned and we huddled under a hastily constructed shelter that protected us from the wind and the worst of the rain, the radiant heat of the fire warmed us as the light faded and day passed to night.  We snacked on bread, cheese and fruit in the evening and retired early to our respective vans.  

I snuggled into my bed in Percy,  piling high the blankets and sleeping bags to ensure that I stayed warm through the night, half expecting a dusting of snow in the morning.  Most of the bedding was quickly discarded as I warmed my cocoon, falling into a deep and satisfying sleep without delay.  The early morning light woke me, brilliant oranges, pinks and greys quickly turning to blue, blue and more blue.  A couple of isolated clouds and, on opening the door, surprisingly warm air.

We breakfasted on vast quantities of toast, home made jams, steaming tin mugs of tea and a few slices of fire cooked bacon, a new find at the market - someone who produces real, english style bacon all prepared on the rekindled open fire.

After a leisurely start the three of us headed off to stretch our legs for the first time this season.  A light hike of a couple of hours to a low peak some 400 metres above our camp site.  It was tough going and we took it right slow.  Sabrina left Simon and I after half an hour or so, returning to the van to read and enjoy the sunshine.  We persevered and hit the peak without too much of an ordeal.  I vowed to get out more, stretch my legs and get in a bit of decent exercise on a more regular basis.  Gardening and land clearance is strenuous, but in now way energetic enough to get the heart and lungs working properly.  It will be done.

The views were stunning and the sunshine warm.  We snacked on bananas, apples and a handful of nuts whilst taking in the scenery, chatting about our winter activities and achievements and being thoroughly warmed by the spring sun.

An easy descent, reminding me that there were yet more muscles in my legs that needed to be put through their paces more frequently.  I can think of no better place to do it either.

Sabrina had tended to the fire and on our return proposed a light lunch before  heading back to civilisation.  Pan fried mackerel, purchased fresh the day before and kept cool in the mountain stream ever since.  Food and the french go hand in hand, the appreciation and excitement over every meal, however simple and light leaves me slightly lacking in my english mentality.  Rarely do I come across a meal that is fast here, eat and go is not part of the mentality here.  Enjoy, savour, discuss and take your time.  It was gone four in the afternoon by the time we said our goodbyes and headed back to our respective homes.  An amazing weekend spent in great company.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

two months away

Wow, that was over to months ago, my last posting.  I did go to the UK, I spent a wonderful month visiting family and friends, catching up with folk and generally escaping the worst of the wet, cold weather here and waiting for the spring to commence so that I can get on with planting and more clearing work.

On my return I brought with me a ‘flu like no other I have ever experienced.  It really knocked me for six.  I spent the better part of two weeks in bed, mainly aseep and toe following ten days or so on a very slow recovery.  I am pretty much fit and well now, happy that it was only ‘flu rather than anything more serious, but things like that certainly bring home the fact that we are not invincible and that change can arrive without warning in any manner of guises.

I am hugely grateful to my neighbour, Heather, who packed me off to bed in her big warm house and told me I was welcome to stay as long as necessary to get me back on my feet and well enough to resume my camping lifestyle.  She’s let me be, not fussing or bothering overly, but giving me the space and time to recover under my own steam, insisting that I do less than I wanted to during the early days so as not to cause a downturn in progress yet making sure that all was well.  It’s been a resounding success.

This last few days I have been up to strength, albeit with shorter days, and have tested my abilities by helping out around the garden here, doing a bit of pruning and planting twelve fruit trees in the orchard area of Heather’s garden.  All has faired well and now I am back on my land attacking knee high weeds in th vegetable garden and planning what to sow first, where and how.  

Do I go for direct planting in my heavy soil, probably with a bit of soil improvement, or into pots first, with the extra challenge of transplanting and watering issues later on in the season.  I’ll probably do a mixture of both, just to be sure.  The sun is shining again and the soil surface is dry enough to produce a fine tilth.  Better get on with it now before it hardens to rock or becomes a soggy mess again if it rains.