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

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

apple juice

Apple juice is something that I have wondered about for ages, how is it made, what do you have to do to the apples before they are pressed and how much do you get for your harvest?  I expect that commercial presses are much more high tech, but for home use what we did here was superb.  Three decent baskets of windfalls, none too bruised, the wasp and bird eaten ones are fine so long as it remains fairly clean.  A fairly robust mincer a small multipurpose press and some sterilized bottles.

We shredded the apples

Tipped them into the press

Added the top of the press with additional blocks of wood to help maintain pressure

turned the screw threaded head until the juice started to flow

continued till winding until it was too difficult and there was no more juice to flow filling bottles as we went

Opened the press, chucked the pressed apple ‘cake’ onto the compost, hosed everything down and left it to dry in the sunshine.


Sunday, September 23, 2012


Claude and Susan were great hosts, they are artists, often performing as ‘Un kilo de Cirque’ and between events lead a calm and pressure free lifestyle.  No animals to look after, save a couple of horses and a cat, so no daily feeding routines and rushing around, no work schedules and times to keep, it made a great change from other more hectic hosts.  That said, they practice their routines and learn new sketches frequently, fabricate their own costumes and have just finished renovating the old barn into a community events venue, their plan is to host local events and loan the space to societies and associations as there are few local resources like that available on a regular basis.  It’d be great to be there for a dance or musical event as the building is beautiful and the sprung dancefloor just waiting for the movement of feet and music.  The opening event is next month but unfortunately I won’t be there.  Julien and Vivien are helping out for the two day event as ushers/parking attendants/general help and I shall be in portugal visiting my brother in his new home.......

Susan started life in London and has lived in france since the eighties.  It was great to spend time with someone who has spent so long here and has settled almost completely.  Many of our conversations were in french, especially if the others were involved, but often alone, her french with a definite west london accent made me smile.  She prepared us great meals and, much to the amusement of my french friends, kept us well supplied with tea at all the appropriate times and with cake or biscuits in the afternoon.  How civilised.  Proper pot with cosie, I wish I’d taken a photo now, PG Tips, though in tea bag form as they were easier to get hold of.  

Our accommodation was wonderfully comfortable and definitely different to the usual room , Julien had a wonderful gipsy caravan and I, a white van.  We were going to swap halfway through our stay but as we were both comfortable in our beds decided not to change in case it wasn’t for the better.  Vivien stayed home in his camper van as usual.

We put down new stones on the floor of the winter horses shelter to help keep their feet dry, spent a couple of good mornings clearing brush and scrub in one of the higher pastures, no bonfires as it was far too dry, but plenty of fun for whoever is there in the winter.  Collected several truck loads of heating wood and stacked it ready for the winter, I can imagine that the hall takes a fair amount of heating even if everyone brings their log contribution that is requested of them.  Put up the framework for a tack room, I guess you can call it that, somewhere to keep saddles and straps and all the paraphanalia that goes with horses.  Someone else will get the pleasure of boarding the sides and kitting the inside out when the  wood arrives.


The house was situated in a valley with a stream running through the garden, high above a huge rock face dominated the skyline, towering over the steep green valley like a wall, protecting the mountains from the flat plains of france on the other side.  

After our first morning or work we took off on foot to climb to the top.  There’s a village on the higher slopes then an almost impossibly steep climb round one rocky outcrop to reach the remains of the chateau of Roxfixade, an ancient Cathar outpost from back in the middle ages.  The chateau didn’t fall down, it was dismantled stone by stone and used to construct the village down below.  There is still plenty left, though I am not sure what would be said if I helped myself to a few rocks to start my foundations.

The walk was strenuous after our lunch and the view amazing, it took us a good couple of hours to reach the summit and just over half an hour on the run to get back down again.  Just in time for tea time.

les jardins extrordinaire

And on again.  Back with Julien and Vivien in an area that we had planned to visit earlier in the season.  The Ariege, a mountainous region peppered with villages and small towns, beautiful wooded valleys and rocky outcrops.  An area once thriving with small industries, mines and farming communities to supply their needs, it has suffered from depopulation since the industrial revolution but is becoming a more popular destination for folk who are looking to live far from the rat race.  It was the first area that I visited when I ventured to france three years ago and it still appeals.  

Our hosts suggested that we catch up with them at a local event not far from their house.  We found the Jardins Extrordinaire which was hosting an artistic weekend with numerous instillations and artistic displays, one of which were Susan and Claude, who we were about to spend a week with.  Unfortunately we passed their circus location a little after they had finished, but the gardens were truly extraordinary.  Check out the photos, describing them could take an age.  I’ve gathered numerous new ideas for the future and we spent a very enjoyable afternoon exploring the site.  It never ceases to amaze me the ingenuity  and inventiveness of artists and the time invested in temporary instillations. 

We overnighted in the camping van and joined our hosts the following morning.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

friends moved house

I hadn’t seen Lisa and Vanessa since last spring.  Old friends that have been searching for a property in the region for a good three years.  They have been renting properties locally and have moved twice since I saw them last.  It’s always interesting visiting, as they keep themselves busy with all sorts of projects, I arrive and encourage them a bit and we end up making jam or clearing brambles or having huge bonfires or cross pollinating vegetable plants.  We laugh loads, enjoy each others company immensely and have great fun.

The most recent visit was no exception.  They have found their ‘dream’ property and got the keys a mere 5 weeks ago.  I had no idea how to find them so we met in the local town and shopped for the week at the same time.  Both of them were a bit cagey about their new living arrangements and the air bed in the shopping cart should have given the game away.  There were no beds in the new house, in fact they weren’t living in it at all.  The only room that was used was the old kitchen that still had running water and an emergency electricity supply, there they had plumbed in a washing machine and an old dish washer that a neighbour had given them.  All living went on in an adjacent barn and very smart ’70’s camper van that they recently picked up for a song.  My room, as it were, was a corner of said barn with airbed on a tarp and a small table,  the rest of the barn was well equipped with wardrobes and clothes storage, a kitchen sink, work surfaces, cooker, fridge freezer and, through the week that I stayed, gained a sofa , comfy chair and for my corner a real bed.  Unfortunately the air-bed let me down each night so the girls brought the real bed out of storage early so that I would sleep well at night.

There was a massive, archaic crane outside, ready for the builders to repair the roof.  This involves taking off al the slates, checking that the structure beneath is sound then covering it with an insulative membrane and replacing the tiles.  At the same time the rotten floor in the loft is going to be replaced and several new openings made for additional windows and doors that will connect the old house with the extended section that will be constructed in  one of the old barns.  It’s going to be a great house when all the work is done and I can understand fully why it isn’t lived in for the moment.  The dust, dirt and work that will go on will be huge and can be attacked much easier without trying to keep things clean and tidy at the same time.

During the week we discovered an ancient well that had hidden itself under an enormous pile of brambles and saplings, over thirteen metres deep with a good eight metres of water, at the end of August is a really good find and will supply the vegetable garden as soon as it is up and running.  We moved piles of wood that they had already removed from within the buildings, ready for burning during the autumn, dismantled a strange concrete block structure that had been slung up by the previous owners,  a couple of afternoons wielding sledgehammers, shovels and wheelbarrows soon put pay to that.  It was ugly, it leaked and was very badly positioned for their future plans, so it had to go.  Discussed plans of how to use the land around the house for the future, what trees to keep and dispose of, strimmed areas of grass and picked glass and old metal from an old tipping area. 

It was great to spend time with friends and to totally relax, we ate well, dined out a couple of times, visited a couple of land propositions for me - there doesn’t seem to be much about to fulfill the needs of the group as a whole.  Nothing worth noting, but visiting always gives something to compare the next one too.  I got my fill of english TV that’ll last a while and met some more great people who are well installed in the region.  Hopefully will be back to helpX with a couple of them later in the year.  We didn’t make jam, chutney or harvest vegetables, that’ll be in the future, once their project has progressed somewhat.  Until then, it’s a great building project to lend a hand with when I get the chance.

les jardins de sortilège

Denis’ parents are an inspiration too.  His mother has created a series of demonstration gardens on the steep slopes of their land, they are open to look round and for guided tours  throughout the summer. Les Jardins de Sortilège. Each area is themed with explanations by storyboard, an illustrated booklet and if you take a tour with a guide, in-depth explanations, edible plant tastings and discussions with a friendly guide along the way.  There were medieval, medicinal, culinary and ornamental areas, collections of mints, plants for dyeing fabrics and producing fabric.  Areas that represented old curates gardens, herbalist gardens and a garden for lovers, a scented leaf geranium collection, several vegetable gardens containing rare and heirloom varieties and most surprising of all, at around 800m altitude in the mountains, a twenty five year old lemon tree, full of fruit, that survives outside with a minimum of protection throughout the year.  It gets a plastic corrugated roof in winter and is a picture of health, there must be an amazing microclimate in this tiny corner of the valley.  Denis' father is a writer, his subject matter is herbal plants, comestible, wild and useful plants and how to use them, the shop at the gardens is packed with his publications and I could easily have bought a copy of just about all of them.

Working in remote areas of the mountains is all very well, but is doing little to forward our search for land.  We chat to folk and spread the word, but as with anywhere out in the countryside, things change slowly and it’ll be by chance that we stumble upon the quantity of land that we need using these methods.  That said, the week at Denis was an emergency stopgap after fleeing the previous host in disgust, it turned out to be inspirational, educational and with the work we did, very good exercise too.

the view from my bedroom window

following the garden path

it looks dangerous but does't sting at all, just a plant that used 
to be used for dieing fabric. 

good gourd

mountain lemons

our work in progress.

Monday, September 03, 2012

touring round

Since leaving the barn in the mountains, we visited the market at Cauteret, way up on the mountains, a summer tourist resort and ski station in winter.  The organic Market Halls in Pau, a largish town in the region.  It was disappointing to pass the regular food halls and see the throngs of people clammering to buy produce, only to discover a less populated organic location in a different area.  Personally I think that I would choose the regular market hall and pitch my wares to all then try to attract customers from a much smaller section of the population who probably already have their favourite stalls.  Arthes d’Asson market, again hugely seasonal for the tourists, but much better situated down on the valley floor, didn’t have a brilliant vibe, but good to visit none the less.

 Pont d'Espagne, with all the tourists

Between market visits we have been making the most of our free time, taking energetic mountain hikes, cooling ourselves in arctic mountain streams (accidental canyoning incident in my underpants that amused everyone on the bank no end), soaking up the sunshine and never for a moment finding time to do absolutely nothing.  There is always a distraction or a discovery to be made or something to discuss, even if it is only deciding where to sleep rough for the night, which we did for a long weekend.

temporary sleeping arrangements

We spent the following week helping Denis, a young farmer who has bought several hectares of abandoned agricultural land above his parents farm and is busy clearing old pastures that have been reclaimed by nature.  There won’t be a shortage of firewood for many years, but it takes an extraordinary amount of effort to gain even the smallest parcel of land back from the wild, his project is truly of enormous proportions.  He produces organic meat for consumption, grows fruit for jams, juices, jellies and sorbets that he sells locally, along with various balms and creams from cultivated and wild sources.   Our work involved strimming bracken to reduce its vigour, apparently if you cut if every time it reaches the three leaf stage it slowly weakens the root structure and eventually the whole plant gives up.  Another task that will take several seasons.  We harvested blueberries and blackberries and enjoyed delicious sorbets and also provided the manpower to erect a machinery store that he had had in mind for ages but never the hands to get it done.  It was good to feel appreciated and to achieve obviously beneficial projects for someone who works so very hard every day.

 Vallée Arthes d'Asson

Saturday, September 01, 2012

looking for land

Julien, Vivien and I have been traveling together now for a couple of weeks, we are getting to know each other better, having spent hours discussing our dreams, needs, requirements and aspirations for our future projects.  They are all a bit different but follow the same main criterion.  

We all want to buy some land, we all want to set up some sort of agricultural / horticultural project, we all want to build our own houses and all want to remain as independent entities.  That bit is simple.

The more challenging part is our budgets, I thought my 50k or so was stretching it somewhat.  Vivien has around 30k and Julien just over 10k.  I was struggling last year to find building land that was large enough for my project that still left enough to start the project and buy materials for a small house.  Their approach is from a different angle.  Somewhat like in england, there are certain agricultural projects here that will permit the farmer to construct a dwelling once need has been demonstrated.  If animals are involved it is almost a certainty and the decision can be made with minimal interference from planning within two or three years.  They both have such projects in mind.  Julien is more than happy to rough it in a shelter or old caravan for several years to get his project off the ground before even considering construction.  By then he will have increased his income and had chance to source local materials at minimal cost.  Vivien already has a camper van that he has lived in for nearly two years so is totally self sufficient on that front and also wants to take building slowly.

The thought is, that combined, we have more purchasing power, less legal costs and any suitable land that we find can be divided at purchase to suit our budgetary input.  We will end up with neighbouring parcels of land for our projects, decent neighbours that are willing to share a hand or get involved with larger projects and the possibility of shared purchases such as a trailer, cement mixer, perhaps washing machine, certain tools and, to start with, shared facilities and shelter.

Finding out rules and regulations is always a challenge.  Local folk often offer differing information that they swear is correct.  Differing communes and departments interpret national rules in all manner of ways, so until we find some land that looks promising, it is very difficult to be sure of anything.

My ideal project is somewhat different and will involve the purchase of building land.  I believe that I have enough money to construct my property and have no urge to become encumbered by a flock, herd or gaggle of any kind.  Being single and without dependents, I am keen to keep “freedom to roam” as an option and any project will be the type that can be put to bed for a while from time to time.  For the moment I have a strong urge to settle down and stay in one place for a good long time and I think that the possibility of  being able to leave will actually make staying put more achievable.  We shall see.

So, to progress, we are networking with the locals, discussing our plans with everyone that we encounter and spreading the word as far and wide as we can.  Each market we visit we try to chat to local producers and frequently pin notices to event boards asking for pointers to land.  Everyone is very encouraging and interested, but as yet there have been minimal leads.

what could you do with this?

and this 

there is even a barn

16Ha along a river, unfortunately it's north facing and probably 
gets no sun in the winter, but it's a start.