Saturday, April 20, 2013

straw bale rerevisited

I left the mountains in a snow storm, concerned that the roads wouldn’t be clear enough for the car.  Fortunately Pierlo arrived with a sturdy 4x4 which managed the conditions without a problem.  The weather has now changed for the better, the storms of the weekend have ceased and it appears that spring has decided to arrive.  

After such a snowy, cold winter it is surprising to see that lower altitudes in the area have already sprung into life, there are flowers everywhere, the fields have a new flush of green, the first buds are bursting on the trees and the bees are busy restocking their supplies as fast as they can.  Life continues even though the mountains are still covered in meters of snow, they are a view now, distant, cold and uninviting, rather than the purpose of being there.  The ski season over, a new chapter begins.

Straight back onto building mode, the early part of the week mixing earth plaster for the final indoor phase, finishing the walls of the living area downstairs.  The first floor rooms are now finished, decorated and well lived in, the rest should be done this summer.  It was great not worrying about being clean and tidy all the time, getting clay on my clothes and living in a house that is still under construction.  The straw bales, that had been visible  walls since the house went up, fast disappeared under a couple of layers of mud plaster, along with the strapping and electricity conduits, changing the appearance dramatically, giving the space clear flat walls.  The final coat will be added later on, when all the walls have been given the initial treatments and have had time to dry.  I’ll be back again to see the finished result and the transformation of the earth floor into something more durable and suitable for modern living.

The latter part of the week was taken up with gardening and starting a structure for some newly planted kiwi plants.  Part support for their climbing habit and part a shaded dining area for the family.  Constructed in a similar fashion to the greenhouse that I erected here a couple of years ago but a lot quicker.  Firstly because I only had a little over a day to get it done and secondly the wood needed a lot less preparation as it wasn’t going to have plastic stretched over the top, none of the knobbles, buds and pointy bits needed to be trimmed away.  Elsewhere in the garden I planted onion starts, harvested nettle tops for use in the kitchen, wild garlic for pesto, weeded, reconstructed a badly leaning compost heap, spreaded manure and transplanted hundreds of tiny seedlings.

It was great to be back at the house to see all that had been done the last year, to catch up with Pierlo and Sandrine, both of whom were on form and, with much improved french, have some much more indepth and interesting conversations.  Jules and Maryon have grown up a lot in the last couple of years and are mainly great fun to be around.  

The families’ diet is somewhat radical, but I love it for the time that I visit.  Mainly raw food, fresh preserved from the garden and market, minimal cheese, milk and meat products, minimal wheat, no alcohol or stimulants (tea, coffee etc) or refined sugars.  Amazingly I feel different after  just a few days, lighter , with more energy, more eager to get on and do things, less tired and infrequently hungry.  Each time I stumble on people who eat like this I am more and more sure that it is the way to go for the future.  I feel great.

Having said that, I did catch up with a friend, Simon, who took me along to a bbq one evening where the combined spread was amazing.  Everyone invited took a plate or two and bottle and something to cook on the fire.  Wonderful evening, a great group of alternative people, delicious food and drink Simon did his famous bbq roast chicken on a string, it’s always delicious, even more so when it is shared between twenty hungry people, all eager to try a bit.  MMmmmm, the quandary of eating what’s good and what’s nice. 
the morning I left the chalet 
sunrise from Esconetts

straw bale house from the garden

transforming the walls with clay render

living in a building site

finished wall and ceiling with bird detail

land at Barbazan

I found some land on the internet.  It looked like a great deal, and not that far from the chalet, so I went and had a nose.  I recognised the village from a visit four years ago, though I hadn’t put two and two together and had no idea that I was in the same area until I really thought about it.  Anyway, all looked promising, the village had an old thermal baths, abandoned in the seventies when some restoration work on the source caused it to stop flowing completely, rendering the whole complex unusable.  It’s rather a sad affair, but the village is lovely and well positioned for the mountains and further afield.

The agent was already there.  In france you can’t just go and have a look at property, in case you contact the owner direct and come to some arrangement, you have to be met and sign a form that states the you have officially visited and they were involved.  Once signed, she didn’t stay long,  I asked all my questions and was left to inspect on my own.

It was a great plot, sloping away from a quiet country road, on the outskirts of the village, view across the valley to fairly distant hills, a stream at the bottom, needed a bit of clearing but nothing disasterous so I started to get excited.    I positioned the house, greenhouses, pond and gardens all in my head.  There were woods on the other side of the road and a walking track.  The local village had a railway station and the motorway  passed not that far away.  All good.  Then there was a break in the clouds and I really got my bearings, I calculated south, then east and west to see the passage of the sun and realised quite fast why the land was such a good deal.  The enormous hill behind, just across the road was to the south east, where the morning sun rises, by looking at the sun at five in the evening it was obvious that there would be no sun in the winter till mid afternoon and probably very little morning sun except in the height of summer.  

It was a NO.  There’s no way, with the lifestyle plans I have in mind, that I could pass the winter without sunshine, or try and raise a garden on land that stays shaded most of the day.  I imagined being cold and in the shade, looking out on a sunny view of the valley and waiting till the earth rotated enough for the sun to arrive.  It wouldn’t do.  Later I spoke to a couple of locals who confirmed the situation, they also added that the valley suffered terribly from cold winds in the spring till the mountain snow had melted and from frequent cloud cover, though not so much rain, as the warm atlantic air circulates and is forced to rise by the mountains.  I’ll take their advice and adjust my region still further for my continued hunting.
a bit of clearing to do

the only neighbours

pretty good view

what remains accessible of the old thermal baths

Friday, April 05, 2013


The last few weeks have flown by and taken ages at the same time.  The weekends extremely busy with guests and week days occupied with chalet maintenance and enjoying the great outdoors.  Normally by now the weather is a little too warm for a ski resort and the snow melts faster and faster up the hillside, the mountain sides start to green up and spring tries to make an appearance.  This year it’s still snowy.  As I write, three days before the end of the ski season, it is snowing, the snow plough has been working through the night and it feels like January again.

It has been sunny, we have had some wonderful days, but like elsewhere in europe it has remained on the cool side.  

After much deliberation I rented a snowboard and gave it a go.  All the comments over the years are true, plenty of padding is needed.  I fell all the time for the first two days, thankful for a helmet and wrist protectors that undoubtedly saved broken wrists and concussion.  More padding would have helped for just about everywhere else, ribs, elbows, shoulders, knees and the like.  I quickly realised that the softer spring snow was more forgiving both for getting to grips with the board and for falling onto.  An early frosty start was not in the least bit enjoyable and I quickly swapped back to skis.

Five half days in and I am starting to enjoy snowboarding.  Getting the hang of linking turns and finding out the tricks of balance and movement that are so very different to being on skis.   It is strange to move sideways all the time and frustrating to buckle and unbuckle a boot to move anywhere once stationery, the alternative is to scuttle around like a crab with both feet strapped in.  I now know why boarders like to board with skiers, the skiers can always give them a tow when they get stuck.   It’s a different sensation to skiing, that uses more energy, especially at the start, and involves more whole body movement.  I’m not one of those numerous people who tries boarding and never uses skis again but I shall return for more next season.  For now, though, the last precious days in the mountains, I shall be making the most of my trusty skis.

Heading back to Pierlo and Sandrines to check out progress at their straw bale house, give them a hand in the garden and get back into speaking french all the time, followed by a couple of weeks on a small farm where they make jams, chutneys, conserves and honey, have a small B n B and are new to HelpX.  They’re close to my departure airport for my spring trip back to the UK.  Looking forward to seeing family and friends back home next month.