Saturday, December 29, 2012

the end of another year

Another catch up posting after having been in the UK for a while.  I am back at Chalet Lou Rider for the winter again, my fourth season here and the place that I have spent the most time during my last four years on the road.

Christmas flew by in a blur of meal preparations, serving drinks, washing up and helping the new team get acclimatised to their new environment.  We are now in a slight lull before the excitement of New Year celebrations kick off, I have time and I am in the mood to write.

Where had I got to?

Matty and I returned to the Dordogne, to Matt and Wendy’s for a couple of weeks for a promised introduction into willow weaving as a thank you for the efforts we put in back during the summer.  Ben, one of the summer team joined us too, it all felt very easy and a bit like coming home.  We laughed, ate and drank as well as we had in the summer, enjoyed gite accommodation (indoors), got to see our roundhouse creation again which looked more amazing than before, and became part of the family for a second time. 

Hurdle making in progress

The finished article

We coppiced various varieties of willow, learned the basics of hurdle making and started a long curving in situ fence for one of their future projects.  Due to a prebooked flight I left before it was finished, but have seen the finished result, it looks amazing,  missed to salmon trap and fan lessons, but with a decent book, can’t imagine that it is hugely difficult to master in the future.

freshly cut willow varieties, with in started situ fence behind

progress with the curved in situ fence

I flew back to the UK at the end of November, in time to celebrate Mum’s birthday, make flying visits to some of my favourite friends and catch up with news and goings on.  It is always great to spend a decent amount of time with folk and share some love where I can.  Work on allotments, choosing Christmas Trees, reading books and playing with children, cooking meals and turning compost, walking dogs and shopping.  It’s all good fun and contributes to making life run smoothly.

My brother was home for a week too, so we got to spend a day together and almost has a whole family Christmas meal, unfortunately not everyone was able to make it.  He, however is much happier than when I visited him in Portugal and his house project is coming on leaps and bounds.  The track is finished, the house reroofed, has a new floor inside and a temporary wood-burning stove, he and his partner moved in on Christmas eve after several months in a caravan. I am so glad that they have somewhere warm and cosy to spend the rest of the winter. 

Windy's new roof

The land that I am looking for has been somewhat elusive this last year so I decided that another winter season at the chalet would allow me to pass the worst of the winter somewhere enjoyable, warm and in a location that might allow me to visit land possibilities should they arise, continue to improve my french and learn further kitchen skills from our great chef Mark.  I arrived by Eurostar again, by far the most comfortable way to travel with extra luggage, complete with hundreds of tea bags and other english supplies, straight into a busy chalet.  

Chalet Lou Rider
My quiet morning is disappearing fast, with reservations coming in for lunchtime, new guests arriving and an extra ten eating tonight.  I’ll be needed in the kitchen soon to lend a hand and keep things running smoothly so I’d better upload this whilst I have time.  Wish you all a Very Happy New Year and hope that the coming year is a good one for you all.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Aveyron, Creuze, Dordogne....

Time flies when you are having fun.  And it does.  Can’t believe that I’ve been back from Portugal for nearly three weeks, I guess with a weekend in Toulouse and numerous projects going on at Nicholas’ plus friends visiting for a weekend and other helpers arriving the time gets swallowed up in no time.

I have been charged, as is now usual, with sorting out the garden produce before the frosts arrive and then ensuring that as much as possible is preserved for the winter.  All the winter squash are now drying inside, there are numerous jars of tomato paste, ratatouille, green tomato chutney and jam safely stored away in the cellar.  Onions that got a light frosting now transformed into a mean start to any chilli dish, just add to beans, mince or vegetables for a hearty meal on any winters night.

Nic has been collecting large bottles, amongst many other things, you should see his loft space, for several years but is always wary of using them as they tend to be rather fragile, especially as they no longer have their wicker protection.  Thanks to a couple of rainy days and my needle skills, they now have neat hessian bands around their middles, a quick and easy way to protect them.  Several have already been  decanted into and the rest wait for the next bulk purchase of wine or hazelnut oil, pressed from the nuts that we collected earlier in the autumn.

We had a great weekend with a couple of Nic’s mates from down south.  We planned to follow a mini ‘transhumanse’ (the process of moving livestock from high to low pasture in mountain areas) on Saturday morning, followed by a lunch with a local sheep farmer, in fact it took most of the day, with a good walk in glorious sunshine followed by a delicious slap up meal in a barn completely put together with local produce, plenty of lamb and local wine.  The meal was followed by a demonstration by the local folkloric association and a quiet evening in.  On Sunday we spent an afternoon in a thermal spa resort, soaking in jacuzzi’s, steaming in saunas, relaxing in hammams and hot pools.  All the more enjoyable after being in his rather chilly house during the first frosty spell of winter.  Much improved from recent years, but still in need of final insulation and a couple of doors to keep the last of the draughts at bay.  Returning from the spa was exceptional, the sky and sunset was one of the most spectacular that I have ever seen.  The blazing golden orb of the sun descending from view with a multicolour display of cloud formations, con trails and stunningly lit scenery,  It’ll have to remain a memory as no one had a camera.  The everchanging blend of purples, reds, oranges, greys, greens, blues mutated as the sun and clouds moved across the sky and we traveled through the autumn landscape.  The spectacle lasted long after sunset and finally came to an end once the stars has started to light up the night sky.  What beauty.

We have spent a fair amount of time working in another property in the village, one that he bought at the same time as the tower and is now being done up for sale.  The proceeds will go to fund the continuing restoration of the tower, professional help with roofing and the purchase of ten metre long beams do not come cheap and the small income he has is easily used up each month.  We’ve been replastering with lime mortar, installing electric lighting and power sockets in one of the main rooms, it’ll look smart once it’s finished.

All good things come to an end and I have headed north to catch up with Matty.  We are heading to a location that we visited earlier this summer and helped with the round house.  This time we are going back to learn the skills of willow weaving.  Not baskets but hurdles, fences and garden structures, things of a grand scale.  It was something that our host Matt promised us back in the summer and now is an ideal time to coppice, prepare and weave.  As ever he is slightly delayed, so I am giving Matty a helping hand with some work he is trying to get finished before we drive west.

the taste of a wall

I have spent the last couple of days repointing an old stone wall and my arms don’t want to move any more.  It’s not that difficult and I am really enjoying the work, unfortunately it is using muscles that are infrequently used, so they are protesting somewhat from over use.  Tomorrow we should be finished and we can travel at ease on Thursday, enjoying the changing colours of autumn and the french countryside as we head from the Creuze across to the Dordogne.

Matty and I have struggled somewhat with the aesthetic taste of his client.  Matty is a qualified stonemason of many years and we have a good idea of what a stone wall should look like when pointed.  Strangely, the owner of the wall we were working on had slightly different ideas, he wanted it flat.  After several demonstrations of possible finishes, adding more and more mortar, I decided to go overboard and smother a portion of the wall almost completely with the mix, as a joke.  Amazingly we got a positive response and so continued the same way, covering most of the beautiful stonework to get the desired result.  You can imagine the conversation that went on between Matty and I as the stones disappeared out of view.  The client is happy and there is no accounting for taste.  

We have been blessed with dry weather, a little cold and frosty to start with but comfortable and sunny thereafter.  Treated too to the a huge midday meal with the family every day, we settle round the kitchen table with the fire blazing and eat and chat at a gentle pace for a good couple of hours before heading back for the afternoon, I rather like the pace of life here.

Chez Gregoire

the repaired wall waiting to be repointed

the required finish

autumn colour in the garden

Matty finishing the neighbours side in his preferred pointing style

sheep herding

off to find the sheep

herd versus herd

shepherding modern style

checking out the view

feeding time

whirling dancers

Dolly taking a nap

Monday, November 05, 2012


Porto was beautiful

the landmark between the station and finding my hostel for the night

everyone loves the sunshine 

looking over the river to the port district

famous double decker bridge, top for trams and right down
at the bottom, cars.

reminded me of San Francisco

and of England

can never have too many tiles!

I think I need to spend more time in Porto next time I visit my brother, I only saw a tiny corner.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

quinta libelula

Back in the modern world.  I left from Nic’s, where I have stayed before, four weeks ago tomorrow.  I have had three very interesting weeks away followed, almost immediately by a social weekend, partying and supporting Nic’s rugby team in Toulouse (great fun) and a couple of days working here at the tower, catching up with emails and organising my next couple of months.  That done, I can now concentrate on writing some more.

Nic lives a stones throw from Rodez International Airport, it is tiny and has maybe a dozen destinations, one of which is a summer Ryanair flight to Porto, that is why I am here, I got a cheap return flight to see my bro and the opportunity to spend time with a great friend too.  

I arrived in Porto late in the evening and found a great little hostel to stay overnight.  The following morning I discovered that, not only was it a national public holiday, but there was a train strike and nothing was running.  Thankfully I managed to get an afternoon coach to our rendez vous in Coimbra and spent a bonus morning wondering the streets of Porto in the sunshine.  I didn’t take a map or have any idea of where I was going, but the city is beautiful and I shall enjoy exploring more next time I visit.

Quinta Libelula is a hidden oasis nestling in a tranquil wooded valley, high in the hills of central Portugal, away from the bright lights  and bustle of modern life, where even the sound of a distant car is an infrequent disturbance.  The property, abandoned for many years was once a flourishing farm, producing maize and vegetables for the local villages and an important employer in the immediate area.  Massive early investment in terracing, dams and a complex series of irrigation channels has left lasting marks on the landscape in the form of beautiful stone walls, cool ponds and a series of near flat, fertile gardens that rise up the valley floor, bordered on either side by steep wooded slopes that clothe its steep sides.  A stunning schist farmhouse can be found at the lower end of the property, roofed partly in the traditional stone manner, complete with wood fired bread oven and impressive views both up and down the valley.

I could go on, and it’s all true, but reality, for the moment is in need of encouragement.  The house is a shell, in need of re-roofing, insulation, doors and windows to keep out the draughts (yes, it’s freezing there in the winter) a new floor, a kitchen, bathroom and a few modern comforts.  Windy and Michael are, for the moment camping out on a forestry track, high above the property and walking in every day down a steep woodland track.  There is no vehicular access, this was started whilst I visited and should hopefully be completed by now.  Only then can renovations easily start on the house.  It would be possible to carry everything in, but hardly practical and a huge challenge, especially as a track was always on the cards.  Camping, I can imagine was great fun during the summer and continued to be for the first few days of my visit, but when the weather changed to torrential rain storms and a nighttime high of 8 degrees, my little tent became a haven against the elements.  The boys faired better in their caravan and awning with the four dogs but without decent heating once everything is damp and cold it stays damp and cold until the sun shines again.  Thankfully the weather remained changeable throughout my visit and I got to see a good deal of sun between the inclement days.

Whilst waiting for the track to be installed the boys have made huge progress in rediscovering their hidden oasis.  From impenetrable bramble, scrub and sapling thicket, often ten to twelve feet high or more, they have cleared extraordinary areas of land, finding no end of surprises along the way.  Beautiful stone walls, some with inbuilt steps, water channels and ponds filled to the brim with silt.  Vines, once well trained that now cover huge areas  strangling trees and blocking out the light, olive orchards that, due to a late frost or some other spring phenomenon have not set fruit this season.  I guess next spring will be the telling time to see if they are productive or not. They have gone so far with initial clearing and have enough space to keep them busy for the next couple of years.  At my estimation they have cleared about half the terraced land and have done nothing to maintain any of their hillside forest, a project that will take many years, if ever to complete.

One of the water reservoirs had already been cleared and was an excellent place to bathe, if a tad cold at times, the second, much larger one was being debrambled when I arrived and we spend probably two solid weeks digging silt and debris from its depths.  Measuring six metres by six, with a sloping depth from nothing down to a good two metres in the centre, this pond is high enough to provide the house with a huge volume of water once it is plumbed, providing that it fills through the winter.  It may need some remedial filling as the mortar has decayed somewhat and several trees had grown up from within.  It was a good project, especially on the cooler days but as time went on, decided that my skills were probably better put to use on more creative projects.

We visited a local nursery to pick up a few fruit trees.  It turned out to be a colossal establishment producing a huge range of plants and was billed as the biggest commercial camellia nursery en europe.  The black shade netting tents stretched up and down the valley for miles.  We got some great trees and the guys will head back in late November to benefit from the new season bare root stock once a bit more land has been prepared.  Thinking a trip back once I have found my land to stock an orchard as the prices were more than reasonable.

I spent a morning digging over a corner of one of the terraces and replanted some of the seedlings that Michael had put in earlier.  They were doing well but as the season progressed it was obvious that they weren’t getting much sun and the newly cleared area was a way better option for winter progress.  Advice at the local market had me planting cabbages and purple sprouting, leeks and chard for cropping this winter, overwintering onions and garlic for next summer.  By the time I left, they were all growing well and the cabbages had doubled in size.  One can only imagine how fast things will grow in the summer in the sunshine with all that water available.  I only hope that the whole irrigation system can be explained by someone before it is too late.

the temporary encampment

getting the veg planted

my brother's new abode

perched above an olive grove

rediscovering the old irrigation system, the back wall is over 7 metres high

errant grapevines now festoon the trees

evening inspection of the works.  the new track which will allow
vehicular access to the house

getting the fences in for the luxury chicken run 25m x 20m

solar hot water, my second construction this summer

My poor brother doesn’t do well in the cold, or being dirty for that matter and frequently moaned about the useless camping showers they were putting out in the sun in the hope of some warm water of an evening.  I got a thinking of previous projects and places that do so much better than that and in the final days before I left, created a sturdier, larger and hopefully more efficient solar hot water system.  Unfortunately it was mainly overcast on the day I got it running but I did manage to get a pre travel dip in a very cold pond followed by a less cold rinse from the newly installed system, I can’t have smelled too bad as I got an invite to stay from the passengers that I sat next to on the flight back to france.  Still waiting for news of how well it fares after a day of sunshine, I have my fingers crossed.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

unexpected detour

I said good bye to my hosts last Wednesday, and to Julien and Vivien too.  It is definitely the end of any project together, the three thing was just too difficult, though I would be more than happy if Julien were to end up with a plot of land next to mine.  One of my most enjoyable and eye opening visits of my journey so far.  So many things achieved, so many things possible, with an open heart and a sense of sharing and participation for everyone who visits, what a great place.  I am sad to leave.

Though on what an adventure.  My brother has been hankering for me to visit him since he moved earlier this summer, though I have declined, believing that his new life is his project and he should decide what route he needs to take.  He had a dramatic journey by car from the Midlands to his new home, with break-downs causing his journey to take over two  weeks rather than the 48 hours originally planned, though that is another story.  

He moved to Portugal earlier this year, to a large plot of land in which stands a ruin and the remnants of some very productive horticultural land.  I am aching to visit to see what he has bought with his partner MIchael and am already desparately telling myself not to get too involved.  I know that they have a list a million questions long for me and I can’t wait to hear their stories, see the land and stay with them in their tiny caravan and help out for the next three weeks.  There is no phone, no WIFI, no electricity or running water, it’s back to basics and from all accounts, so far, they are loving every moment of their new life.  Watch this space for what I discover, as I shall update you when I return to the modern world.

donkey stables

I am less than 24 hours from being out of computer contact for three weeks and have too much to tell you.

This is what Vivien, Julien and I managed to build in two weeks, on helpX hours, with a little guidance from Jean Francoise.  His advice changed like the wind as he adapted the design as he went, adding or altering specifications and requirements as the project evolved.  An interesting way of working and with a well equipped woodworking workshop at our disposal, little alterations didn’t need to take for ever to complete.  Our competence with hand tools and big machines increased dramatically during this project and the result was satisfying for everyone. 

as close as I got to a before photo

not sure of the correct technical term in english but the french call 
them "jambes de force" (legs of strength)  which works for me.

not tongue and groove but good enough to be a weather proof stable

roof detail

waiting patiently

Monday, October 01, 2012

a photograph of me

you wanted a picture of me????

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


During the last few years I have discussed countless projects and possibilities with people, all of whom have done a few of these things.  Whether it be pizza and bread making, cultivating fruit, keeping bees, building with local materials, renovating old buildings, making a bread oven, drying fruit and vegetables, keeping poultry and sheep, working wood, mending mechanical things such as rotavators, bicycles, food processors and motorbikes, recycling and re-utilising discarded objects, conserving fruit and vegetables, making juices, having solar heated water, dry toilets, composting, living in yurts and caravans, storing rain water, gardening organically on a large scale with traction animals, there have been many discussions, I have gleaned many ideas for the future and made countless notes on what to and not to do in many situations.

Now I find myself at a location that has or does all of these things, it is truly amazing. The amount of time and effort that has gone into these projects over the last twenty or so years has been incredible and the fruits of this labour are a joy to behold.

Up on a hill above the ancient town of Montbrun Bocage with a view that stretches as far as the Black Mountains in one direction and the high peaks of the pyrenees in the other, there is an ancient farmhouse called “Beauregard’ and it is there that I am staying and discovering all these things.

It is the last location on our list for the summer that was decided back in June when Julian Vivien and I decided our summer route.  It hadn’t been one of my favourite choices but it  would allow us to spend some time in a new area to see if it would be a suitable place to look for land.  Jean-Francoise had written back saying that he had decided on a project that would keep us busy for a couple of weeks if we were interested and we would be welcome.  He proposed that we build a shelter for his donkeys and that was about it. So we added it to the list and arrived a week or so ago.

The family of four plus another four grown up children who come and go from time to time, plus another WWOOFer, Cecile are all really lovely people, welcoming, kind and of generous spirit in time, energy and soul.  Day to day life is full of tasks, planned or otherwise and things move along at speed.  With ten or so folk to feed there is always something needing harvested or chopped or peeled.  Hens, ducks, sheep and donkeys to be fed and watered.  Gardens to be tended to, crops to be harvested either for immediate consomation  or to be preserved for future enjoyment. Bread to be made and of course our predetermined tasks in hand.  

As a team we are progressing well with the framework for the stables, there isn’t a fully worked out plan so we consult every morning and discuss what the next steps are to be.  So far we have made more mistakes that I care to mention, although, happily recoverable from and we haven’t had to waste any wood just yet.  The errors come from miscommunication of ideas, changes of mind and further reflections that result in modifications for the future.  All are taken in good humour and with an attitude of learning, discovery and the fact that we are only, in fact, building a shelter for some beasts, not a work of art.  That said, we are paying attention to detail, trying to perfect techniques and do things to the best of our abilities, fully aware that in the not to distant future it may well be our houses that we are working on. (Well, I am anyway).

We work in the mornings, starting early, and then have the afternoons free to do whatever we wish to do.  Explore the area, read or write, go for a walk, do nothing or else participate in whatever else is going on at the time.  Cecile has different tasks and often works the afternoons, Jean-Francoise always has several additional tasks on the go, so there is always something new to get involved with and learn.  For the evening meal there is a voluntary helping out with tasks which means that meals get prepared fast, eaten at a leisurely pace, often on the terrace overlooking the valley and tidied away without fuss or bother.  It all works wonderfully and I am quietly content that I can now follow the gist of a good number of the conversations that go on during mealtimes.

the caravan where I sleep at night

solar food drier

the smartest duck shelter I have ever seen, we're going to
waterproof the roof next week with old hessian sacks and chalk render.

the dreaded asian hornet.  the sting is intensely painful ( I know)

home constructed bread oven.  made bread, pizzas for 20 people, cooked
meringues and dried figs and tomatoes from the garden

bakers tools

preparing to press apples on a grand scale

almost industrial

the big press in front of the honey and juice workshop!!

vines protected from the hornets and birds

another composting toilet

patiently waiting for their new quarters to be finished

the Sunday market at Montbrun Brocage