Friday, June 29, 2012

making things

Tying a yurt wall

the floor deck being constructed in sections so that 
it can be moved into position later

yurt walls and willow working in the background

sunset dinner location

Woodworking?  Not yet, I spent my third and fourth day in the kitchen helping deal with two slaughtered pigs.  Processing offal into pate and faggots.  Not something that I had expected, but as life never goes exactly as planned, a good bit of experience which may well come in handy at a later date.  Sausages followed, but I managed to escape outside to help with yurt walls that had to be retied.  It’ll be slicing bacon next, once it has cured for a while.
The project is picking up pace here, eight days to go and still about a months work to complete.  I am looking at it as the possibility to gain experience and to embrace the madness that is sure to arrive as and when I get my own place.  I have been here ten days and have worked every one of them.  However hard we work there always seems to be more to do, new challenges to face, unexpected problems to resolve and endlessly changing weather to keep us on our toes.  There is no stress, no harsh words or pressure the team jovially embrace the challenge and several have prolonged their stay to see it through to completion.  Wendy and Matt, the hosts look after us all admirably and we end each day with a great meal, plenty to drink and a good evening round an open air fire.
I don’t think that I have ever spent time with such a committed bunch of volunteers.  My time in the vegetable garden is over and my ‘expertise’ with straw bale construction is being stretched to the max.  Being the only person here with any experience of working with this medium all eyes are on me for the wall building and shaping the walls of the round house.  I am so glad that I have read so many books on the subject, even things that I have never done seem to be familiar and the project is coming on a treat.  Everyone seems to have fallen into specific rolls, each contributing their unique skills.  With a boat builder, architect, stonemason landscaper, bodger woodworker, conservator, pub manager and all round handyman on the case, it appears that every base is covered.  We have some great conversations and discussions, everyone puts their point of view forward when they think it is needed and the project advances.  Steps are built, retaining walls are fashioned out of old tyres, planting is organised, whittling, weaving and construction continues.  There are always numerous books open on the giant farmhouse table for reference so we eat outside under the shade of beautiful elms next to a field of sheep or if a beautiful sunset presents itself we move ourselves to a prime viewing on top of the hill.


Wow, that all happened a bit fast.  One minute I am with french friends planning the summer, playing boule and chilling french style.  Forty minutes later I am in another hamlet a few miles away, seemingly back in england, surrounded by english speaking people drinking a good cup of tea (with milk) and discussing the weather.  I had been warned that the Dordogne was like little england and whoever it was, wasn’t wrong.  That statement was reaffirmed this morning at the local market when the stall holders automatically speak english to you and the dominantly overheard voice is not of the local tongue.
I feel as if I have been transported into a different world.  The weather has been scorching hot and sunny all day, my bedroom is a yurt in the corner of a sloping field overlooking rolling arable countryside and my main task for the day has been weeding along side a New Zealand girl called Nic. She is one of 6 other helpers here, all the rest are english through and through.  Disappointingly so are the hosts, so I won’t be getting much french practice here.  On the positive side the location has been on my favourites list on HelpX for at least two years and have been invited a couple of times in the past.  
The location is an off grid luxury camp site that is in the process of getting off the ground.  Two yurts up and running and a third in the process of construction.  The wooden frames are hand crafted on site and the canvas cut and sewn to fit. Alongside the third yurt site is a partially build ‘hobbit’ style round house that is to serve as a kitchen and showering area for the accommodation. It will be semi underground, with a grass roof, solar shower and old style larder food storage.  
At present the framework for the third yurt is being whittled, drilled and threaded, the roof poles are ready and a large roll of canvas awaits final measurements before being transformed into a weatherproof cover.  There are no straw bale walls to the roundhouse, nor flooring, water supply or roof.  The area is a building site and has to be completely transformed by early next month when the first paying guests are due to arrive for a relaxing and tranquil holiday.
I know that I have been weeding today, but I can hardly wait to get stuck in to helping out with these projects on hand.  A brilliant opportunity is unfolding before my very eyes to pick up those carpentry skills (and more) that I have been pondering about for the last few months, to glean first hand information about yurt building and rustic constructions that have been on my mind and to see just what it is like to run a camp site.  It is fortuitous, I feel, that the french hosts that I originally asked to stay with were unable to find space for me at this time.  Hopefully I will get to visit them a bit later on this summer.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

at julien's uncle's house

Now that I am back in france it’s easy to start writing again.  My last postings will have explained my plan and so far everything is going swimmingly, except, that is, for the weather.  
The weather has been appalling since I arrived, cold and rather wet, though thankfully I managed to get to my destination the first afternoon in glorious sunshine.  It hasn’t mattered that much as we have busied ourselves with planning the summer and discussing possible projects in more detail.  
There are still three interested parties which we have decided is sufficient as too many different ideas and needs could well make it impossible to decide anything.
On reflection, everyone wants to be close to the mountains, so the plan is to head south and start our search in earnest next month.  Julien and Vivien both have plans until then and need time to get other things sorted in the north of france.  I shall stay in the region for now and see what tempts me in the way of helpX or wwoofing sites in the mean time.  There are plenty of interesting hosts but they are taking time to respond.
We have already visited an Eco Centre not that far from here and explored straw, adobe, hempcrete, wood and canvas structures.  It’s interesting to get a real feeling of all the different types of building in close succession as it makes comparisons much easier.  More in a later post. We’ve BBQ’d with friends, sneaked a rather wet tour of a wonderful permaculture garden complete with “Belier Hydraulic” a water powered pump that can lift water far higher than its source. Once plumbed in, it works all on its own, day and night for ages without attention. Dined out with a lovely couple in the village and hosted most of the folks that we have visited for dinner last night.  It’s wonderful to be on holiday without work obligations getting to know folk that I may well be spending a lot of time with in the future.  
After shopping at the local town yesterday, we managed a walk in the afternoon sun round Brantome, before the heavens opened again.  It feels odd to be so far south and still be lighting a fire at night to feel warm.  My shorts haven’t seen the light of day yet and I have embraced the foul habit of wearing socks and flip flops indoors for the sole purpose of keeping my feet warm.  Meteo France promises warmer sunnier weather for the end of the week, but no promises thereafter. 
The pool is getting plenty of use.  I must say that it is odd to swim outside in the rain in very smart swimming pool on an overgrown plot of land.  The house is still under renovation and very little attention has been given to the outside areas for several years, except that is for the instillation of the pool.  I imagine a natural swimming pond for the future if space and budget allow.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

dear dicken

A post I should have added a couple of months ago;

Dear Dicken
Huge apologies for cutting our conversation short the other evening.  You just happened to call as I arrived with a friend at someone’s house for dinner and it felt rather rude to keep everyone waiting for introductions etc.  Very French that nothing can happen out of order or if someone is missing.  I once waited 15 minutes, drink in hand, before taking a sip or saying “cheers” because one invited person was absent!!! (No one would continue)
Anyway, you’d have loved the evening, we sat outside under some bushes in the corner of a garden with beers and wine, built a little fire, fashioned a tripod and suspended a chicken from a string just alongside the glowing embers.  Slow food at its best.  There were three of us, me, Simon a chap I met last year on a participative eco building site, the same straw bale site that I stayed at again this year and Marcos, an argentinian carpenter who has lived in Spain for the last fifteen years whom is now earning a living in France whilst the economy dissolves into ruins next door.   We chatted in french and stoked the fire and spun the chicken from time to time, basted it with olive oil, rosemary and garlic and watched it slowly turn from pink to a crispy golden brown.  Day turned to night and it spotted with rain but the theme stayed the same, we were having a bbq and nothing but a torrential downpour would stop us.  The chicken was eventually ready after just over two hours of gentle cooking, it was delicious, absolutely amazing, succulent, juicy and not like any other bird I have tasted.  The whole thing was demolished amazingly fast, with much finger licking and appreciation for the chef, host and for Marcos and I, who had never seen such a feat before, slight awe that it actually worked.  Simon, by the way has a natural knack for outdoor cooking, lives a fairly nomadic existence in a VW van and is always on the lookout for new ideas.
Having written the last paragraph I am suddenly wondering if you are vegetarian, I can’t remember at all.  Apologies again if I’ve made you feel slightly queasy, but as I am dually writing to you and for my blog at the same time, it’ll stay.
Continuing from where we left off.  I have just arrived back in Blighty for a while, it’s as cold and miserable here as it is in SW france, so you aren’t missing much on the weather front.  I worked the winter in Saint Lary Soulan, if you pass through the pyrenees you might come across it and have most recently been helping a couple of families with their eco straw bale building projects.  Fascinating, great fun and an interesting way to pick up new skills and learn the language.  I shall be heading back at some stage in the next year to see how they are progressing and give another helping hand.
In the mean while, I shall spend May circulating between friends and family, catching up with news, helping out and house sitting as is my habit when I visit the UK.  It is great to have the time to really visit people properly and catch up.  Spend the time to help out and get things in order for my parents and give them a bit of a break from everyday life and to share the spirit of my adventures.
Come June I shall head back to france to rendez-vous with some friends in the Dordogne.  We are going to spend some time together, probably WWOOFing or HelpXing and looking for some suitable land for an independent yet joint project together.  The possible plan is to combine our meagre budgets to buy some land together.  Divide it up so that each has their own separate plot for building along with a shared area for garden, orchard etc shared communal facilities, building and garden machinery and tools etc and shared labour, energy, ideas for constructing our dwellings and living a simple life thereafter.  We can appreciate the benefits of community but we don’t want a commune where everything is shared and no one takes responsibility. Its an exciting proposition and I am looking forward to spending time with Julian and Sandrine to see if our plans are along the same lines.  It may be amazing or just a damp squib, will have to wait and see.  I also want to spend some time on a commune or similar to help out and see how everything fits together, I have hears so many stories of disorganisation, lack of direction and excessive pot smoking I’d like to see for myself what it is like in real life.  Just for a week or two.  If you have any ideas or know of any locations that welcome volunteers in the region I would love to know.  Also, before I start my building project I need a bit more experience on roof carpentry and roofing, I think I have the basics but would like to have the chance to practice and learn first hand.  There are plenty of leads, I just need to do a bit of planning so that I am vaguely in the right place at the right time.  That’ll be another map of france with scribbled notes all over to see if I can fit some sort of plan together.
Up until now I have been on foot, hitching or taking the train from place to place.  Good, cheap and fairly dependable but hitching takes time and is very variable.  Covoiturage is good for longer journeys between larger towns but to get deep into the countryside to check out land and to arrive at appointments on time I am contemplating some wheels.  The chef where I was working through the winter has a scooter, he lives near Bergerac and it takes him a good nine hours to get to the mountains.  A bit of a trek but amazingly economical.  He is then mobile whilst there and isn’t stranded without transport. With the right clothing I reckon it could be feasable.  I’d have to minimise my luggage, get a couple of paniers, a helmet a comprehensive map of the region and off I go.  Longer term I could then get a van for bigger trips and keep the scoot for nipping about locally.
So, how about you?  I saw you and Windy discussing properties and opportunities on line earlier in the year so am wondering what your thoughts are?  Needing a change? Looking for inspiration?  tell me more.
It’d be great to catch up later on, when I am back in France, but the whole place is vast.  What are your plans?  Where are you heading?  How long are you there for?  Are you WWOOFing or HelpXing? perhaps we could find a mutually interesting host to stay with for a while?  
Drop me a line and let me know everything.
In the mean time find loads of things to have fun, enjoy what you do, look after yourself and travel safely.
Take good care.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

roast chicken on a string

 Light a small fire.
Find three lengths of wood and fashion a tripod using 
an old inner tube to hold it all together.
Run a length of string from the leg furthest from the fire to the top,
through a loop of string and down to the ground.  
Attach the string to the back leg through another piece of knotted inner tube.
 Wrap a roasting chicken horizontally and vertically with a length of copper wire.
Attach the wired chicken to a loop on the end of the string with a hook created from a 
short length of said wire.
Pull the string through the inner tube knot o the back leg of the tripod until the chicken 
is positioned several inches from the ground.
 Adjust the tripod so that the chicken hovers next to and not over the fire.
(the dripping fat then lands on the ground or in a pot rather than in the fire causing flare ups)
Spin the chicken on its string.
Construct a reflective windshield using recycled silver paper to reflect the heat
and protect the foul and fire from draughts.
 Keep the fire stoked and the chicken spinning until it is golden brown
and the juices run clear when speared with a knife.
Use the fire to cook other ingredients for your feast whilst the chicken is roasting.
When ready, unhook the chicken, detach the wire, carve and
feast on a treat well worth waiting for.

I did this with Simon back this spring whilst staying at the straw bale houses, it goes with Dicken's letter and is a wonderful reminder of how simple things are often the best.