Friday, September 30, 2011

2Ha Tarn Valley

Just a few photos to show you what the ruin and land looked like.  I have decided that there were just too many challenges and I am not going for it. The main and unalterable one being that the whole site is on a north facing slope fairly low in a valley, with high sides that would obscure the sun for far too long during the winter months, probably leaving the whole site in shade for quite a while.  That with the lack of electricity (solar wouldn’t work well in the shade), water, phone line and mobile phone coverage, I think, is too much to be going on with.  Not to mention the lack of habitation license.
Other than that the site was just about perfect. 1 Hectare of woodland and another hectare made up of three parcels, the main one being half a hectare of pasture.   A great size, gently sloping with stream and woodland, I said that there was a catch and I think that orientation is just that.  I would have been very tempted to overcome the other challenges if it had been south facing.  Still, not bad for a first attempt. It has concentrated my thoughts and made me really consider what it is I am looking for and what is important both for successful growing and also personally for successful living, my list is now long and varied, with plenty of scope for modification.  For now, I’ll just keep on looking.

Friday, September 23, 2011

hosting hosts

 John and Julie were my first ever helpX hosts back in December 2006.  I spent a very enjoyable Christmas with them and great selection of helpers, harvesting flowers and enjoying the summer sunshine in New Zealand.  It was so good, in fact, that I returned for a second December the following year.
This time I was closer to home territory than they were, having flown half way round the world for a family wedding and to explore a corner of europe.  They had done a fair bit by the time we met up, an impressive tour of  the  westerly part of the Pyrenees and Bordeaux with two french helpers who had also visited NZ and then circumnavigating Spain and Portugal in a matter of days on their own.  I was charged with showing them as much of the rest of the Pyrenees as possible during their last few days on mainland europe.  
We met up in Ceret as the market was packing up and had a coffee and chat with Susan and Geoff whom I had just spent a great ten days with.  Grabbed some food at the supermarket as it closed and headed off.  John chucked me the car keys, he had had enough of driving in europe and was happy to be chauffeured for the rest of their stay.  Managed to find a sport/camping shop that was open and I grabbed a sleep mat for a bit of comfort as I knew that I’d be under the awning of their tent.  (Trust the Kiwis, they had brought all their camping gear over and were almost fully equipped for three.)
It was going to be inland to valleys and mountains as the two of them were through with the mediterranean coast as it was all high rise, touristy and spoiled.  I disagreed, having just spent the most amazing day the previous week at Colliure and knew that there was at least one unspoiled spot not that far from where we were.  We headed inland to a campsite destination and my first night under canvas in a long time.
Setting up camp
The campsite was great, as was our evening and a huge catch up on all the news that had gone on since I was last in NZ.  Scary stories about the earthquake and its continuing aftershocks.  Yes, it’s still going on to this day.  What other helpers have gotten up to, their two sons and their friends and folk that I got to know whilst I was staying. The catch up didn’t end, it continued throughout our time together and was wonderful, almost as if I have another life somewhere else that I hadn’t quite thought about enough.     It brought back the most amazing memories and reminded me how much I loved my time down under.  A band played outside reception, way into the night, Julie and I went to watch for a while but retired to bed long before they finished.  It was great to drift off to sleep listening to them play.

Port Vendres, neighbouring Colliure

After an uncomfortable night, the sleep mat did little to soften the lumpy ground, with less sleep than I had hoped for, we breakfasted and discussed  a plan for the day.  My enthusiasm for Colliure hadn’t gone unnoticed and we backtracked slightly to a beautiful stretch of unmodernised French mediterranean coastline, John and Julie were suitably impressed and I finally got the swim that I had missed on my previous visit.  We dined alfresco, overlooking the fishing port, a local dog doing two circuits for scraps by the time we had finished, before getting back on track.
Wine country, almost all the way.  It petered out when we hit the mountains, but continued a good way.  John being an ex vineyard owner and wine maker , amongst other things, was fascinated by the passing countryside and I made several unauthorised excursions onto dirt roads to get a better look.  Sharon, our sat nav lady was totally unimpressed by my lack of obedience when it came to taking her directions.  She insisted that I make a U turn at the next available opportunity on several occasions, otherwise went quiet for a while whilst calculating a new route after my ‘mistake’.  Thankfully I had half an idea of where we were supposed to be heading as the mountains didn’t half play tricks on her navigational skills later on.  We put it down to an insufficient view of satellites, obscured by solid rock and the amazingly windy roads that we took.

We managed Cos by evening, just up the road from Foix, a town I have passed through on several occasions.  Another beautiful, secluded, municipal campsite at an extraordinarily good price.  Municipal being the key word, we decided.  Sharon had just taken us up the most amazingly steep and narrow road, a short cut that was very impressive even though we were sure that she had gone off on one again.  So we were happy to arrive and set up camp again for the night.  My morning mattress find was a most welcome sight, not only did it make the night more comfortable, it provided us with seating for our evening meal.  I had pulled it from the bins outside the campsite as we left in the morning, managing to squeeze it into the already packed vehicle.  Thanks John for putting up with it in the back, it was most comfortable.

Day two was a bit of a trip down memory lane for me.  Back to Foix and then Tarascon sur Ariege, where I had stayed with Donna.  I pointed out her house on the way up the valley to Col de Port, a saddle that took us over, deep into the mountains.  We stopped off for a bit to head further up the hill on foot to enjoy the view.  I knew it was there after doing the same with Martin, Virginie, Cat, Freddie and Felix last summer on our way to Andorra.  It was as stunning as ever, I love nearing a crest and a wonderful view unfolding in front of you step by step until you reach the top and can see right down the other side as well.  The climb was much easier this time, probably fitter but the lack of smoking makes a huge difference too.
Onwards, back to the car and down towards Massat.  I pointed out Justin and Emily’s as we dropped down into the valley, no time to stop and I would have feared for the car on their steep, unmade track if we had. I hope they are doing well with their pigs and the twins that were born whilst I was staying.  An odd mix, but that’s how it sometimes is in the mountains.
A little stroll round the sleepy little town and on to find a picnic spot for lunch.  We made the only shop in town with minutes to spare before it closed for the obligatory hour and a half for lunch.  I recalled a raucous evening at the local bar last summer, where the locals were out in force and the music played way into the night.  We enjoyed the timelessness of the old town with buildings that had been there long before New Zealand had even been discovered by Captain Cook,  their hand hewn roof tiles and shuttered windows aged by centuries of exposure to the elements.  
Our route continued down the valley to St Girons, Totnes of the Ariege, with much a similar feel.  Either you know it or not, I shan’t be trying to explain it here.  But we stopped en route, a quiet patch of grass by the river for lunch, the mattress was invaluable again, I even saw Virginies’ crazy painted car whizz by.  Its a small world we live in, or is it just that valley?
Back out of the mountains and across the plains between St Girons and Lannemezan before heading up another valley.  The expansive sunflower and maize fields stop as soon as the land starts to rise and land use changes to smaller pastures and woodland, further up the valleys as the mountains rise, the fields are forced to the flatter areas, forests clinging to the steeper terrain, colonised by differing species depending on orientation.  
I had forgotten how picturesque this particular valley looks in summer as I have usually visited during the winter months when it is dank, damp and grey.    Talk turned to skiing as I set the scene for where we were heading and explained how I had come to spend the last two winters at Chalet Lou Rider.  Saint Lary Soulan was beautiful in the sunshine, a ghost town compared to mid winter, but still with plenty going on and a good feel to it.  We headed up the steep mountain access road into very familiar territory.  It seemed strange to be there in the hot sunshine, to see the ski fields lush with pasture and cows grazing under the lift lines.
Clare greeted us from the balcony with news that the kettle was on for a cup of tea.  She had guessed it was our car heading up the hill and was prepared.    Clare had one helpXer, Tom, who was staying for a couple of weeks and doing some amazing painting work round the property.  Chester went mad with excitement, bouncing, barking and leaping about when he realised that I was someone he already knew, but soon quietened down with the sight of John and Julie, though he did become more sociable later in the evening.

Julie, John, Me (Sam), Clare and Tom
We all chatted in the sunshine on the terrace, prepared dinner and dined with two french guests who were staying for a few days.  It sounds as if the chalet is going to be busy next season, with Christmas and the New Year almost completely booked already.  It was great that John and Julie had run a vineyard restaurant in the past, as they could appreciate the challenges of catering for a seasonal trade and were fascinated by the set up and how it all worked.
I slept in a regular guest bedroom upstairs and was woken to the smell of croissants wafting up from the kitchen.  I imagined momentarily that it was cold and snowy outside and I was about to head off for a day skiing, it wasn’t about to happen with the twenty or so degrees and bright sunshine, but we did head up the mountain for a quick stroll and to explain the extent of the domaine that was used in the winter.  Julie, I know, was most tempted to keep her bag packed when she got back to new Zealand and return to helpX and ski through the winter, she’d love it.  John, being less sporty was not so keen.

Julie checking out the ski fields and being very impressed

Being a whistle stop tour, we were off the mountain by midday and stopped to eat lunch in a sleepy little village on the way on to the plains.  A local chicken joined us almost immediately, determined to be fed.  John fed it most half a baguette in the hope that it would leave us alone, but it persisted until we were almost done, then a man from the fruit and veg stall by the road came and claimed her back.  We weren’t sure whether he was happy that we had fed his chicken or not.
The afternoon continued hot outside as we headed north east towards Toulouse and our final nighttime destination.  The roads were long and straight, passing through still more familiar territory, Vanessa and Lisa’s, Cherry and Chris’, Pascale and Christian’s, all not that far from the route that we took, through fields of maize and sunflowers and sleepy villages enjoying the late summer sunshine.  
We hit Toulouse just before rush hour, with the help of Sharon, found our hotel, a tiny 36 euros for a room for three just down the road for the airport. Handy for the following morning and the eight a.m. car drop off, the most compact room I have ever seen, a double bed with a single ‘bunked’ overhead, just enough room for a table, chair and preformed en suite shower room rammed into the corner.  It did the job, and for the price, we were happy.
A final meal in the centre of town, reminiscing about the action packed few days that we had spent together and of John and Julies’ whole French, Spanish and Portuguese whistle-stop tour.  We sat outside on a terrace enjoying the warm evening air just opposite the restaurant that they had eaten their first meal in France just over three weeks before.  I had thoroughly enjoyed myself and feel proud to have been able to share my knowledge and experiences of this corner of the world with two very dear friends.
Sharon gave us one last treat whilst returning to the hotel.  She got mightily confused and navigated us five times over the same roundabout, including a detour of more than half an hour.  Don’t you just love sat navs.  
We slept soundly, returned the car and said our good byes at the airport before continued on our separate journeys.  John and Julie to London, Edinburgh and then back to New Zealand.  Me, northwards to revisit Nicolas and to see my first possible plot of land.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

raised beds

peeling bark

raised bed detail


construction finished, awaiting soil

These beds are a bit different to the ones that I have made in the past.  To start with there was no wood, neatly cut into planks, waiting to be used, just the surrounding forest with trees aplenty.  Secondly, the beds mustn’t look anything, not anything, like coffins.  Sue had ripped out the last raised beds that had been constructed as they reminded her too much of death, the way they were laid out like graves in a cemetery, so not a regular rectangular shape then.  On top of that, the ground sloped at a strange angle, so with the design I chose, to produce a horizontal planting surface, construction had to adjust to the slope on two planes.  There is nothing like a good challenge.
Thankfully, almost by magic, Jordi (I think that’s how it’s spelled) came out of the woods to work to earn some money clearing the forest.  He embraced the task of finding suitable timber for construction, rather than the usual firewood demands and before the day was out, had cut and prepared good straight trunks of a couple of dozen pine trees.  He expressed concern that they were not going to be left to dry and harden for a year, but assured us that they would last a good eight years, if not ten or twelve, even if used immediately.  
I hauled the timbers back to the garden area, sometimes with the help of Geoff, and set too peeling off the bark.  This allows the wood to dry and harden faster and reduces the possibility of rot setting in, especially where the wood remains in contact with damp earth for any length of time.  Improvisation is often required and the best tool I could find for the job was a scythe blade.  I knew it was available as I had stolen its handle to repair a fork whose handle had disintegrated in my hands, absolutely riddled with woodworm.  It’s no big deal, as Jordi will no doubt cut a nice length of chestnut and craft a new one sometime.  The scythe blade worked a treat, just like a giant potato peeler, sliding under the bark, peeling it free from the wood in long strands.  A bit tricky round the knots and sticky from resin, I peeled for a couple of days whilst working up courage to tackle the next stage of the operation.
Cutting and notching the poles so that they fitted together easily was going to require using a chain saw.  I know that they look simple to use but I have  avoided them till now, graphic descriptions of injuries and visualising the speed that flesh disappears under a fast moving blade has always been enough.  Leave such tasks to the professionals and stick to hand tools when possible has been my motto.  Here I was offered the full protective kit, so I thought I would give it a go.  I consulted several safety videos on line then donned my kevlar trousers, heavy duty boots and gloves, face, head and ear defenders, checked over the machine and was ready.
(Kevlar is an amazing material, it consists of millions of threads, compacted into a thick cloth.  Once it is cut, the threads expand to produce a mass of strong fibers that break loose and jam up the moving blade of a saw in moments, stopping it before it has time to do excessive damage.  I wasn’t about to test it, but allowed it a small amount of my trust.)
Equipped with a tiny chainsaw I started with straight cuts and tidying up errant branch stubs that had been left during the felling.  I soon progressed to forming the angled notches needed to stack the timbers and form the beds.  Construction started with the lowest angled corner, building up level by level, adding longer lengths and additional corners determined by the lie of the land and the thickness of the branches. The aim was to build high enough to get one complete layer of wood, defining the outline of the planting area and then to fill the structure with soil.  It was great.  I enjoyed using the chain saw, progressing with more speed and efficiency each time I used it.  (never forgetting how close I was to those flesh eating teeth) 
I finished one bed then continued with another two simultaneously, using the offcuts from one to fill in gaps in the other, finishing the construction with a couple of days so spare.  The notches were not always perfectly aligned and there were a few gaps here and there, but for garden beds I was more than happy with my efforts, as were Sue and Geoff.  Jordi reappeared from time to time and took responsibility for completing the task.  We discussed filling gaps in the structures with smaller branches, choosing juniper as there was plenty around and its durability was consistent with the life of the project.
The bark peelings were raked up and spread between the beds, acting as a weed suppressant mulch and a mud free surface to walk on.  A trailer load of soil was gathered from the forest, a mixture of rain washed sand from the gutters and rich leaf mould from under the trees to fill a couple of the beds and my time on the project was over.
It’ll be great to return one day to see the rest of the garden beds full of soil and produce.  By which time I’ll have taken a chain saw course, when I get back to England, and be ready to tackle some of the bigger tasks.

Monday, September 19, 2011

the most southerly house in france

It probably isn’t the most southerly house in France, but it is the most southerly inhabited house in the country.  Nestled low in a wooded valley looking out across what used to be productive farm of orchards, terrasses and fields to Spain on the other side.   Over 7km from the nearest village and accessed down a challenging dirt track, the property is off grid, off water and is only  connected to the phone due to a wealthy, earlier owner.
The farm has lain dormant and unused for several decades, probably abandoned before or during the last great war.  Trees have grown up and now swamp the whole area, they loom above the fruit trees and a forest disguises the toil and sweat of yesteryear.  Terraces crumble and water courses, constructed to distribute irrigation water, lie filled with debris and completely unusable.  It is now the product of man and nature, once cleared and tamed, capable of supporting a community of over sixty people, the farm is now all but completely reclaimed by nature.  The occasional apple tree evident amongst the pines and chestnuts, yellowing leaves of a vine left to climb and ramble amongst the treetops, escaped from its once controlled environment and free to explore its environment.  
Reclamation by nature is fast, it has an energy that does not cease and a determination of untold energy,  it does not rest or tire, it rises early and continues each day through rain and shine,  at night it harnesses other energies and continues its work through the darkness, endeavouring to erase the mark of man and claim back the land for its self.
The current owners, my hosts, find themselves in this new world by accident.  They were searching for a compact house with a small garden on the outskirts of a village, with easy road access to local towns, fully equipped with all utilities on tap and neighbours to pass the day with and invite for drinks.  Instead, they fall in love with almost completely the opposite.  A large rambling house set in this neglected 54 hectares of woodland, down an unmade track that takes a good twenty minutes to negotiate by 4x4 and a further ten minutes to reach the first small village.  No electricity or treated drinking water on site and a sewerage system that consists of a neverendingly deep crack in the rocks where everything has flowed for the last sixty or so years. It gets cut off by snow frequently in the winter and there are no other houses in sight or earshot.   For the most part, they love it and I certainly loved visiting.

Saint Laurent de Cerdans, the local village

One foot in France, the other in Spain

Somewhere in this valley is a house

there it is, fully off grid

and right in the middle of nowhere

Friday, September 02, 2011

england in the summer time

I am back in France again after a great holiday in Portugal, a couple of months visiting family and friends and helping my parents move house in England.  I had expected it to be a bit of a break after my springtime adventures, but as usual my life seems even more full on when I return home for a bit of peace and quiet.  This time was more challenging with the moving of my family home, parents are now happily installed in their new house just down the road from my sister and everyone had calmed after the intensity and stresses of the move.  It has been great to see them move and readjust to a completely new surroundings so quickly after so many years.  
There was other long awaited news too, whilst I was in the UK, on a subject that I have written about on several occasions during the last couple of years.  News of my visa.  The application for a visa started as a quick few months after filling out the application forms that I had to wait till I returned to California and Love Apple Farm.  Difficulties with the original application forced an appeal and, unbeknownst to us at the time, a more prolonged period of waiting for processing to occur.  The news finally came through from Homeland Security, two years and three months after the original application was filed, the news that the visa has been denied and that I will not be heading back to Love Apple Farm to work, not now or any time in the future.  You can imagine my initial reaction, although on reflection, we gave it our best shot and it was not to be.  
I was fortunate that my life was so hectic at the time, what with sorting out and packing my parents house, planning visits to countless friends around London and catching up with folk in Salisbury, I hardly had time to focus on the news for a couple of weeks, and by the time I did, the big disappointment had faded a bit.  My vague Plan B had adjusted to become a specific Plan A and the last two years of my waiting and learning and traveling around south western France all made perfect sense.  Not one moment of those years had been wasted, the knowledge that I had gleaned, both consciously and subconsciously, has sorted itself into an order, my outlook on life has slowly and steadily reformed itself, (I do believe this started from the time I first began to travel) and I find myself ready to begin a new and exciting chapter.

 the old house

the giant truck full of belongings

the new house

Mum, Dad and me

The plan, it has been quite a revelation to me, as well as most of my friends and family, but I think that they probably saw it coming too, is another project.  This time though it is different.  It isn’t about making lots of money and gathering possessions to find happiness, although I do recognise that I will need some of both.  It is about sharing the joy and the bounty of life and encouraging others to do the same.  I have realised along my journey that I have been more content with a rucksack on my back and a minimum of possessions to contend with than I possibly was before, a simple life with less frills and expectations, less demands for physical things and a more simplistic  outlook on what gives pleasure and contentment.
I have absolutely loved sharing my knowledge of gardening and horticulture  with others and empowering people to progress on their own, spending time with folk, hearing their stories and getting an insight into differing ways of life.  Learning new skills, discovering how the world is changing and allowing myself time to focus on what to do next.
Imagine a small house, surrounded by gardens of vegetables and flowers, with an orchard and probably a stream.  Perhaps cats and dogs, chickens, rabbits, a goat, some sheep and possibly a cow or two, although that is getting a bit excessive on the animal front.  Outbuildings for storage and shelter, a small classroom, clearings under the shade of trees where people can gather for workshops, a communal kitchen, camping facilities for several tents.
A place where everyone is welcome to come and get involved, to learn and teach and share their knowledge of gardening, the outdoors and of simple living.  Somewhere to relax and soak up the atmosphere whilst contributing to the project as a whole.  I think that I want to create an environment like that.
At present it is just a dream.  I am starting my search for land with an open mind.  If it is there I shall find it, if other opportunities present themselves along the way I shall consider them as well.  Who knows what joys life shall bring and what adventures will be waiting along the way.  To that end I am back in south western France, close to the Pyrenees, continuing my helpX hosted life with my eyes and ears wide open in search of that perfect piece of paradise.