Tuesday, October 19, 2010

the potager

I haven’t spoken much english since I arrived which is brilliant, rather daunting and restrictive when it comes to anything but the simplest conversation but never the less, brilliant.  Everyone here is extremely patient, understanding and encouraging and although I make mistakes, I am making myself understood and am able to follow conversations better than I thought I would.  French television is great for learning, as the images give good clues as to what is going on, but you need to follow the conversation to really get it.  I seldom do really get it, but just enough to follow dubbed episodes of “Bones” “CSI Miami” “The Mentalist” and the like.   I have my vocabulary book where I write new words and phrases that I come across and study in my free time.  Unfortunately it is so long since I have done any learning like this that I appear to have forgotten how to learn.  Practical items stay put much easier than others, drawings tend to help too, the grammar book that I brought with me is OK in the tiniest of doses but my brain turns to mush far too fast for my liking.  Can I get a new one please?

When I arrived I was given a few initial tasks and then a choice of possible projects to get my teeth into during my stay.  That was good as I had time to mull over the possibilities whilst I cleared several borders of summer annuals, did a bit of general weeding and tidying about the place.  It was then that I discovered that I could probably work without a break for the rest of the year and not really make a huge dent on this park.  

Revamping the rose garden was discarded first.  I am not a fan of roses in the first place and the fact that the whole border was wall to wall Oxalis did not fill me with joy.  Oxalis is one of those dreaded weeds than people end up hating with a passion, it is small and quite pretty when it first arrives, probably by seed or hidden in the compost of a purchased plant, it looks as if it can do no harm.  At the end of the season when its pink flowers are over and the grey green clover like foliage start to look untidy, is probably pulled or dug up and thrown away, that is when the fun starts. For clustered around the main roots is a gathering of tiny bulbils, they don’t hang on very tight, and unless you know that they are there, most of them will end up scattered over the surface of the flower bed as the plant is removed, ready to start the next generation the following spring.  That is what had happened here, probably for the last several years.  The border would have looked good for a few months, then wham, up they’ll all come again in the spring, as if nothing had been done at all.  Been there, done that with countless other weeds, and given the option, didn’t fancy doing it again.

Pruning and cutting down trees would be much better left for another month when all the leaves have fallen.  The sap will have returned to the roots for the winter and salvaged trees will fare much better.  Those to be removed will be easier to see, cut, fell and clear away afterwards, it would have been great fun though.

I wanted to leave a lasting improvement behind, and also, hopefully inspire Daniel into gardening with a bit more passion.  He mentioned the potager a couple of times and was proud of the tomatoes that he harvested and served at dinner, we had courgettes too a couple of times but it was nearing the end of the season so there probably wouldn’t be many more.  There was talk of a lettuce glut earlier in the summer where he had planted a dozen tiny plants from the market and immediately sowed a whole packet of lettuce seed at the same time.  The result, hundreds of lettuce ready at the same time, everyone gets sick of eating lettuce and no more are planted.  Easily done and a good lesson learned, just sow a few every few weeks through the season, vary the varieties and leave gaps in production so that the pallet gets a break.  Do I need to say more?  I took the potager challenge.

My task, to create an interesting, easy to care for, well defined vegetable garden in an area  amongst the trees.  Initially I tried to convince Daniel and Patricia that a sunnier position would be favourable, but after hitting resistance, a lack of suitable alternative sites and spending plenty of time out there, it’ll probably do just fine. The soil is terrific, much better than elsewhere, I learn later from Michael, an old chap that pops in to help with the horses and feed the chickens, he used to live here, and likes to see what is going on, that it is the same the area used to be for vegetables years ago.  Much of it has been swallowed by the advancing army of trees, but a sizeable area is clear, cultivated and ready for a makeover.

The idea was simple.  Just gather some smart looking, flat stones from around the place, there were enough of them lying about, form a border around the outside of the area, a path up the middle and “voila” one potager ready to go.  Set the stones into the soil so that they retain the garden on one side and provide a good edge to mow over on the other, it suddenly becomes easy maintenance and very smart.

In practice it was two weeks of hard work. To start with most of the easily accessible stones were far too large to handle easily, even with two people, then the whole area was much more uneven that initially imagined and thirdly, the underlying soil was hard as rock after the long dry summer.  None of this deterred me, it just became more of a challenge.  I rolled rocks out of bramble thickets, hefted them over piles of rubble and gathered them for transportation by tractor trailer.  Then I set out string lines for guidance, dug, raked and positioned my stones.  None of them were the same thickness, so it meant a lot of placing of stones, removing, scraping of soil, replacing, stamping and general faffing about to get each one straight and level.  The sides of the first half went in without to much difficulty, the central path was more interesting, it was much more difficult to get the stones back out if they were not immediately flat and level, which, of course none of them ever were.  Daniel assisted when he wasn’t otherwise occupied which was a great help and also excellent for my vocabulary skills.  

After two weeks the major construction stage was over.  We weeded the plot and removed as many perennial weed roots as we could, it’ll make life a lot easier next year, I am sure.  Then the rotorvator came out of the shed and made quick work of turning the soil into the most wonderful fine tilth, I hope that I end up with soil like that to grow my veggies in.  We moved the strawberry plant collection to their new home, set to and planted onions, shallots and broad beans for the spring, built supports for the raspberries and replanted them to profit from the sun. Demolished high areas of ground and used the spoil to fill in the dips around the outside, ready for a handful of grass seed at some stage. On my last working day we constructed a compost bin near by for easy use, I was asked to signe my name on one of the stones for posterity and over lunch made a long list of other things that need doing around the place for the next lucky volunteers.  The weekend off and then on to my next adventure.

Friday, October 15, 2010

fallen splendour

Finally, the last host this summer and I find somewhere truly french.  A once grand, but now dilapidated farmhouse, the locals refer to it as a chateau that was purchased some eleven years ago and is slowly being renovated by its new owners Patricia and Daniel with help from their son Gregory and a constant flow of helpXers.

Daniel met me from the station after a day of traveling and waiting around for connections.  A four hour journey by car stretched to nearly eight by public transport was more tiring than working or hiking for the same amount of time.  I was pleasantly surprised when the final leg of the journey was only minutes long.  It makes a nice change to be close to civilisation and I’ll get chance to walk or cycle into the town of Jonzac before too long.

Back in the day, the house was central to a large wine and cognac enterprise, the farm employed more than fifty workers and owned much of the surrounding countryside.  Through the generations the land has been divided and bits sold off to satisfy inheritance’ and the remaining buildings, within several hectares of walled land, fell into disuse some thirty years ago when the seven, then inheritors couldn’t decide how to divide it up.  It suffered through normal neglect and then the ravages of a huge storm in 1998 that felled seventy or more large trees and caused untold damage to the fragile unmaintained buildings.  It has been an uphill struggle since then, but having seen some of the photographs that were taken at the time, a huge amount of progress has been made to the house and grounds.  Personally I wouldn’t have any of idea where to start as the whole project is enormous and seemingly unending. 

As we toured the grounds, evidence of former splendour could be seen in the craftmanship of the buildings, flat, finished stone was used almost everywhere, none of your rough walling here,  Workshops with successions of arched doorways, some purely ornamental, flank the main house, a separate property stands to one side, with an impressive and steeply pitched roof, probably for a farm manager, the pillars supporting barn roofs are smart and with detail at both base and top, a row of pigsties, full height and with doorways to match the workshops, the whole of the back, or is it the front? of the impressive three storey house is a wonderful terrace stepped across its entire width down onto a great expanse of lawn.  When they built this place, they didn’t skimp on fine detail, it mush have been something great during its heyday.   Unfortunately, that was back then.  Since that time many of the roofs have collapsed, followed subsequently by the surrounding walls. Nature has taken hold and those once tiny saplings, bramble seedlings and shoots of ivy have had many years on their own.  The remaining great park trees have been joined by an army of invaders, sycamores, acacias, beech, elder and so on, crowding in and devouring the volume of the farm.  They tower over much of the property, blocking out the light, slowly taking back the lawns, the buildings and the pathways. They grow where their seeds landed, up out of the ground, from barn floors, through piles of stones, and swathes of undergrowth, their expanding trunks toppling more walls, their leaves falling in autumn to decay, rot and feed yet more growth, it is an unending cycle.  The undergrowth covers up pathways, disguises small buildings and envelops everything in its way.  Left unchecked, the whole property would disappear under woodland in no time at all.

Plenty has been done to improve the interior of the house, to maintain decent access and some of the immediate garden areas but much of the rest is “for another life”.  I expect that it is the only way to keep some sort of sanity when faced with such a property, deal with what you can and almost forget the rest.  Some of the buildings are utilised for stables and kennels for horses, dogs, a goat and a donkey, others for storage and keeping machinery protected from the elements.  The rest is handy building material for ongoing projects and for any repairs that need tending to.  Daniel tries to keep everything under control but it is far too much for one person to do, he also runs the house, tends the animals, does a great job of feeding the helpXers amnd making sure that they are happy.  A full time professional gardener would need more than help and there are enough unnecessary trees here to keep a keen arborist (tree person) happy for months.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

more walling

Crepie colour choices

the form we prepared to lay the paving in concrete, 
it didn't get used during my stay

the end of the wall running into the rockery

walls complete, time to move on

Minds change again and it is thought better to render the walls first and then attempt the terrace afterwards as covering the curved walls with crepie could be quite a messy business.  Countless colours of render are mixed using yellow and white sand, different cements and colorants before the ideal wall finishes are found.  We go to the local builders merchants to get the materials only to find a locally limited range.  Changes and adaptations are needed to recreate the mixes needed and the project surges ahead once more.  

Not only can I create level foundations, consistent mixes of mortar and impressively curved blockwork walls, I can render them to a passable finish too.  It takes time, an understanding of the materials and a fair amount of guesswork to achieve some of these things, especially when the people around you have limited knowledge too, but we are definitely getting there.  Who would have thought that a gritty mixture with the consistency of runny porridge would stick to a vertical wall and even more surprisingly that once it has started to harden, if it is slightly wetted and reworked, a passably smooth finish can be obtained.  By no means perfect but great for its setting outside a period french farmhouse. It was a messy business and definitely best done before the paving.  In fact, I have run out of time, just managing to get the walls finished during my last day at the house.  Everyone is pleased with the results and it was great to complete, although I am disappointed to have left without completing the whole project, it’ll be a good project for the next unsuspecting helpXer and Ben to get their teeth into before the winter sets in.

Monday, October 04, 2010

bandas madness

Bologne bovine fair, a biennial fete, with the feeling of a county show but on a tiny scale.  The local farmers show off their cows and bulls, a smattering of stalls promoting local clubs and societies, businesses selling their wares and the suggestion of a farmers market, comprising eight stalls, I bought some locally made wild boar cured sausage which we enjoyed with our aperitifs, but unless cattle are a fascination, it wasn’t much to write home about.  Until the evening that is.

There had been an ox roasting on a spit all day in preparation for the fete meal, a huge affair that took over the sport centre and a large marquee.  It was billed as a meal for a thousand and it certainly wasn’t far off. Rows of tables were set out and laid up for the evening extravaganza which turned out to be spectacular.  Local bands called banda were the entertainment and they did an amazing job, hard to put into words but I’ll try.  There were probably eight bands from around the region including one from northern Spain, they took turns in performing early in the evening, each trying to outdo the previous performance, the music was very varied, from pop to jazz to more traditional tunes all as loud as you like and very catchy, many people were dancing as the beer flowed and the atmosphere warmed for the evening.  They played and played, the audience drunk and drunk and then, mid evening we were invited to take our seats for dinner.  Imagine how long it takes to serve a thousand people.  Bread, wine and water were already on the long tables and in good time a starter of locally produced melon and cured ham arrived.  The waiters transported them into the marquee on huge trays that held sufficient for each long table of twenty or so, they were efficiently passed down the rows of diners and the meal began.  All the time the bands took turn in playing, they gathered at the ends of the tables and filled the tent with music, it was that loud that you could bang a fork on a plate and not hear its sound, impossible for conversation, although between songs we managed to exchange the occasional comment.  The wine was initially a bit rough, but by the time the ox arrived it was going down a treat,  the same plates were used and huge platters of red beef circulated, accompanied by a delicious sautee of potato, lardons and vegetables.  The bands changed, often marching in with a louder tune and drowning out the current players, the performers didn’t appear to stop all night, they just kept on playing, we kept on drinking and the atmosphere kept on getting better.  The dessert arrived at around midnight and I knew that my ears would be ringing in the morning, I can’t imagine how they managed to keep getting louder and louder but they did.  Songs that I recognised, some that I didn’t some that the French sang along to and others that they didn’t.  As the meal came to a close many of the diners got up and danced, the old folk that were normally tucked up in bed by nine sat and tapped their feet in participation or suffered silently for the village, it was expected that everyone was there no doubt.  We eventually left, well fed and entertained at about two thirty in the morning, it was only a short drive home and yes, my ears did ring for at least a couple of days afterwards.

Google “Banda” if you want to experience the sound, choose a video clip, set your sound on full volume and you might just start to get the idea......

fig chutney

Back at Vanessa and Lisa’s.  Brian the cat has grown somewhat and is now in control of the whole household.  She, yes, she, there is no accounting for the names people give to their pets, stands up to the dog now who is most upset by the newcomer and insists on getting poor old Ziggy to play.  

The pumpkin that we had meddled with earlier in the season had grown a treat.   Once the flower had withered, the stocking was removed and it carried on growing as if nothing had happened.  It is probably two feet in circumference now and is packed with seeds that will come true when they are sown.  

Windowsills throughout the farmhouse are covered with bowls and jars of seeds, sitting out to dry and awaiting packets.  It was so much fun to return and be immersed in the enthusiasm of vegetable growing, preserving and seed saving and be a small part of life on the farm once again.   We picked ripe figs for a couple of hours then spent the rest of the day immersed in canning and making chutney.  Jam is a no, no, as neither of them like it, so several batches of red and green chutney were concocted and the tantalising six week wait now ensues before it is mature enough to taste.  How will I ever know how good it is?  The whole figs in syrup have an amazingly vibrant colour, the bright green fleshy fruit suspended in pink pink liquid contrast so well with the jars of the near black varieties.  

The taste of summer preserved for a cold night surprise in the depths of winter.  Excitement in country life comes in unexpected ways.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

time off from building

the neverending Gers countryside at the end of summer

Ben and Abi looking like a lovely couple

Cheers to my hosts Chris and Cherry

sailing without wind

Time off I hear you say?  Has there been time?  Sometimes if feels as if I have been working non stop for weeks, but I haven’t.  There has been plenty of time to explore the local area and more than enough things going to keep me occupied during my free time.

A grand meal out on Abi’s last day, to the most dilapidated seventies building with a weed strewn carpark, broken signs and shabby exterior, concealed a wonderful restaurant where meat was cooked on an open fire in the dining room and delicious food emerged from the kitchen.  It was so bad from the outside that Chris nearly drove away, but we had a great evening and left more than satisfied with what we had discovered.

We took to a local reservoir one weekend and met up with one of Ben’s friends who arrived with a sailing boat.  The setting was wonderful, out in the countryside with woods along one shore, a man made beach, easy swimming in less than cold water and clear blue skies.  The only disappointment was that there was a complete lack of wind.  We launched and flapped our way out into the middle of the lake with the occasional draught and then came to a complete stop.  The water became glassy calm and we just sat there for about twenty minutes, the only movement came from fish, jumping to catch the occasional insect that landed on the surface.  After a while we paddled the boat back to shore.  It was fun, but could have been much better with a good breeze.

I took the car out several times to explore the local area and also to visit Vanessa and Lisa who were about twenty minutes away in Charlas and on other occasions just chilled with a book.  

Monday, September 20, 2010

thinking, planning, doing


thinking .....   planning



doing more

My task was discussed over breakfast, to transform a patch of gravel outside the back door into a more useful outdoor dining area, some paving and a low wall to hold back the grass, I listened and then asked loads of questions, just as I would have done with a garden design client.  How was it going to fit into the plan for the rest of the garden?  What else was wanted in this area?  Had any consideration been given to shielding the huge barn next door from view? Ideas bounced back and forth and after a while I got the gist of what was required and took myself off with a pad and pencil.

Things happened fast, my idea was embraced even though it was a much larger project than the original suggestion, it encompassed the whole of the side of the house, raised planting borders, a more level lawn for easy mowing and the screening of the barns, although this was to be left for a future project.  The removal of an unsightly tree and temporary wooden planter. By mid morning a mini digger had been hired and by early afternoon Ben was busy clearing the ground and digging foundations.  The few plants there were lifted and potted temporarily as the ground was cleared in preparation for some fairly major earthworks.  I knew the theory of what needed doing from garden design, but had never had the opportunity to attempt most of them in practice.  It was going to be a steep and very interesting learning curve.

My rough sketches were modified and amended to incorporate more thoughts and ideas as the digger rolled and the white chalk lines became foundation trenches.

Calculations for volumes of foundations, lengths of walls, blockwork and mortaring were done and the corresponding materials ordered.

Three days into the project, the first cement was mixed in the brand new mixer and poured, as foundations, into part of the 41 metres of trenching that had been prepared.

Ten days later and the walls are all but built and experiments are taking place for the finish of the terrace area.  It is a new process for me, meter square areas of concrete are going to be laid in a form with a divided top, each section can then be finished with a different style, giving the appearance of a paved area without having to lay numerous stones. There are pros and cons as with any method and it is fun experimenting with the different options.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

boulogne sur gesse

I had postponed my visit to a helpX host to stay on in Spain, with the promise that I would continue onwards to them after my extended stay.  Unfortunately things didn’t quite work out that way and the day before I left Sitges I still had no where to go on to.    I checked out a couple of places on the coast further north but they were both unable to take me at such short notice and also wrote to another couple that had contacted me not that long ago in france.  Fortunately I had declined politely and found myself heading back in their direction following several emails and telephone conversations in the last few hours of my holiday.  Nothing like leaving it to the last minute, and it didn’t phase me at all.  A couple of years ago I would have been going out of my mind with worry at such last minute preparations, my anxiety is now definitely firmly back in its place and very manageable.

Cherry and Chris’ place is not far from the pottery that I visited with Vanessa and Lisa about 6 weeks ago, it’s just across the fields in fact.  Cherry had seen my blog post through helpX and invited me to help with a project that they had in mind.  At the time my plans were very different but I am so glad that my journey has brought me here as they are wonderful people and their house is in a truly superb rural location.

I got here by train, leaving the hotel in Sitges before sunrise and traveling through Barcelona at rush hour.  Crossing town on the metro then finding my departing station almost before I had time to be properly awake.  The journey was smooth and uneventful and the european train system impressively punctual.  Both my connections were tight but I managed them without a hitch, climbing onto the bus for the final leg of my journey moments before it departed.  I had glimpses of the spanish coastline up to the border, a slight delay as the train was checked by police at the border and the wheels were realigned to fit the the french track width, it all happens automatically now and the trains only slow to 15kmph, (I had to google to see how it was done when I arrived), then up along the coast of France through salt flats and marshes as far as Narbonne before turning inland and heading once again to Toulouse.  I recognised some of the landscape from the car journey down and as familiar towns passed by recalled more of the journey and my long lesson in french some two weeks before.  The final leg of my journey took over two hours and yet cost only 3 euros, it followed an ancient route out of Toulouse towards the mountains, through quaint villages and fertile land peppered with farmhouses, terminating at my destination, Boulogne sur Gesse.  

I was met by Chris and Ben, Cherry’s son and we were soon at the house.  Met Cherry, and Abi was also there, staying as I was, but through a different website, the atmosphere was right, I immediately felt like part of the family.  We chatted, dined, watched english TV for a while and almost too soon, the day was over.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

a holiday

A short train ride and I left the bustle of the city behind and found myself yet again in a new town without a real clue of where I was heading.  All I knew was the address of a villa where my friends were staying and that the cab ride would cost no more than 6 euros, twice as much as my train journey from Barcelona to Sitges. It’s all part of the journey and no longer phases me in the slightest,  I imagined doing the same in Japan or Russia where even the writing is different and decided that would be more of a challenge.

The cab driver got lost and tried to tell me to walk up a rough track to find the address.  I declined so he took me to the door and tried to charge me extra for the detour.  Facial expressions and sign language got the message across and I gave over the 6 euros that I had been expected to pay and went to find my friends.

As imagined, the villa was superb, wonderful views over the countryside with the sea in the distance, a large open plan living area, terraces, a pool and plenty of space for ten or more.  I had a twin room on the second floor with its own bathroom, a far cry from the building site I had been staying on the week before.

It was like being back in London,  Jac, Tania and Alix were there, along with Alan and John who had popped out for a few days, all good friends whom I have known for years, already installed and in holiday mode.  We relaxed, drank wine, nibbled on crisps and cured sausage and caught up on what had been going on.  The girls had been in Spain for two weeks already with Jacs family, sightseeing in Barcelona and then relaxing at the villa, they had returned to Wales the day before.  

We ate well, drank well and enjoyed doing very little.  Baby Alix kept us amused demonstrating how well she could walk, pointed to her nose, eyes, ears and chin, busied herself with dominoes and plastic bottles and assorted toys for hours, was read the same book countless times always wanting more and was a joy to be with.  Two cabs were needed to get anywhere so much of the time was spent lounging around on the terrace and floating about in the pool.  It was so so nice to be on holiday, in good company and not needing to do anything at all.  I counted back to see when I had last done nothing so convincingly and decided that it was nearly two years ago in Hawaii when I stayed in a hostel by Waikiki Beach, no wonder it was so good.

magic fountain

I had seen it earlier in the week during the day and Donna had enthused as to its wonder,     we had walked passed it and looked down on it from in front of the museum at the top of  the main avenue through the old world Trade Exhibition site, it was a big circular pond with numerous tubes protruding from the water and I knew that it was the magic fountain but I was woefully unprepared for its spectacle.  

Every week during the summer from Thursday through to Sunday night it is set in motion from just after sunset until eleven thirty or so.  Music plays and the huge fountain comes to life, synchronising its jets and illuminations to the sound and tempo of the tunes.  It performs an astounding array of tricks with its numerous jets, reaching high into the sky and spilling out into the catchment ponds around, the colours change and merge as the water arcs and sprays in an everchanging display.

We arrived from below, following the grand avenue from Playa d’Espagne with its hideous monstrosity of a statue, if you can call it that, at the centre, towards the museum on the hill.  Past the Venician towers and two striking rows of fountains, leading the eye towards the summit.  These fountains played to about ten feet, illuminated white and giving the impression of two rows of conifers covered in snow.  On their own and in a more intimate setting they would have created quite a stir, but here, due to the grandness of the setting they appeared rather small.

In the distance a big jelly mould affair was partially blocking the view of the museum.  It writhed and wriggled within its invisible constraints and changed in colour like one of those modern mood lights.  It was too far away to look like a fountain and the sound from the white trees drowned out the music that it was accompanying.  It just looked a bit strange.

Closer up, and with recollections from the day before I began to realise the enormity of it all.  What had initially appeared to be mouldings around the base of the fountain were in fact humans, their heads and shoulders silhouetted against the water, indistinguishable in the darkness from the structure itself.  I remembered the fountain structure rising by several layers but the sheer volumes of water in motion hid all of that from view, it appeared to be much larger under the cover of darkness.  As we climbed the stairs through the throngs of sightseers the whole spectacle started to come together.  As the music played the fountain performed its dance.

I stand and watch for a while, captivated by its immensity and beauty, indifferent to the people around me and the fact that I am there with Donna. After a while she speaks and the spell is broken.  She loves the fountain and often passes by on her way to or from town to enjoy the atmosphere for a while.  We move on, passing through the crowds and find an outside table at one of the tiny bars hidden amongst the trees.  The vision of the fountain fills our view, we order a couple of beers and sit and soak in the atmosphere. It is mesmerising and almost as spectacular as a firework display.  After a while the music fades, as does the water, the twenty minute performance is over and a calm descends on the square. We chat about our action packed day and wonder about the workings of the fountain for a while.  

Before we know it, the music begins again and the water springs to life.  Higher and brighter and so very different to the last performance, the music this time is a jazzy number and the magic fountain knows exactly what to do.  We order more beers and watch, captivated once again, enjoying the warm evening air and the beauty of the moment, I love the Magic Fountain and I love Barcelona.  

Friday, September 10, 2010

gaudy gaudi

La Sagridia Familia, check out the detail

La Pedrera, with seaweed detail balconies

La Casa Batlló

Thursday, September 09, 2010

street art - gracia

Fiesta de Gracia, sixteen streets decorated with recycled materials, bands playing every evening 
and a complete party atmosphere.  Ingenious and great fun.

guel park

five photographs cannot start to depict the park in its entirety, but a good taster none the less.