Tuesday, December 31, 2013

no skiing this christmas

My plans haven’t been going to plan since I last wrote, but it’s all worked out extraordinarily well.  I had been invited to work on constructing a wooden house back in October, but a few days before I was due to arrive, heard that the owner wasn’t there at all, but working away on a humanitarian project on an island in the Indian Ocean.  Thankfully I emailed to confirm.

By chance I had called in to see Cherry and Chris the week before, hosts that I had stayed with in 2010, just to see how they were and they said that they were in need of help should I become free. I said I’d let them know but didn’t imagine things would change before early next year.  One mail later my plans changed and I returned to Las Bourges and a new project that is probably going to last me well into 2014.

More tree planting to start with, along with remodeling a garden, putting in hedges and reclaiming the potager from an autumn of neglect.  I initially suggested a couple of weeks, but their location is excellent in regards to my proposed purchase.  About half an hour away from the land, twenty minutes from the notaires and in the right area for discovering everything I may need in the future.  In addition, Cherry used to be a property dealer, so knows all the ins and outs of buying land, how to approach negotiations and speaks very well the french.  We have had plenty of interesting discussions and I have modified my requirements for proceeding with the purchase with her guidance.  To keep me here for longer, there are a variety of interesting and challenging opportunities to help on their latest venture.

Their project is half an hour away in the other direction.  A new house purchase, well, an old farmhouse in need of much renovation and alteration that they intend to move to next spring.  Initially they’ll live in a converted outbuilding whilst being on site to oversee renovations and keep an eye on things as work progresses.  Their current address is sold, so will need to be vacated fairly early in 2014.  Once I’ve got the major planting and garden maintenance up to date, I’m hoping to work along side Ben and Mattieu as they install wiring and plumbing in the barn conversion, help with continued construction work and maybe even finishing if I stay around long enough.  I’ll learn plenty, get to practice my french whilst on the building site and have time to concentrate on my own project.  The woodworking’ll have to come at a later date.

It’s slightly unnerving being so calm and relaxed over Christmas after the last four years in the chalet.  I do wonder how they’re all getting on up there in the mountains and the snow and have the occasional pang of nostalgia, though with my long term project about to start feel happy to have the mountains in the distance and a calmer workload to contend with.  No mornings with thirty beds to change, or sacks of spuds to peel, or mountains of ironing to contend with, no digging snow and waiting tables or mending broken toilets and taps.  I've been missing the camaraderie, the clients, the snow and the skiing, but the calm is lovely.

Instead I have a more regular timetable, with chickens to feed, Suzy the dog to walk, wood to fetch and frequently, a house to mind, as Chris and Cherry travel frequently for business and are often away.  Free time to chill with a book or walk in the countryside, the weather has been amazing.  Cold and clear with wonderfully warm afternoons in the sunshine, great for gardening and getting things planted.

Christmas has been great, christmas day, a family affair, with a smoked salmon, scrambled egg and bucks fizz breakfast, plenty of snacking and a delicious main meal starting with a hot asian prawn salad, followed by beef wellington and finished off with traditional english christmas pudding all washed down with plenty of suitable wine chosen by Chris, a veritable connoisseur.  That saw us good for the rest of the day save a slice of cake early evening when other members of the family arrived for present exchanging.  A lovely relaxed time with folk coming and going, popping out with Chris and Cherry to shop for plants whilst the weather is being kind and the bare root stock is still available.  More delicious meals, a choice of english or french TV, a real treat as I hardly see the screen whilst I’m away, walks, chats and plenty of fresh air.

It’s been quiet on the property purchase front, I expect that everyone is otherwise occupied through the festive season, but I do hope to have news as we head into January that things are proceeding. 

It’s New year’s Eve as I write.  Home alone again just with the dog for company.  We’ve had a good long walk in the sunshine this morning, I’ve prepared dessert and Simon, who I’ve probably mentioned before in my writings, a great english guy who keeps himself busy on building projects and traditional style restorations, is turning up in a while to welcome the New Year in.  He’s picking up a rabbit on the way, we’ll drink and prepare and cook and drink, chat about allsorts and probably watch a bit of TV and toast 2014 as it arrives.  Happy New Year to each and every one of you, may you be healthy, wealthy and wiser through the coming year.  Embrace and enjoy it all with my love.  xx

Monday, December 16, 2013

no dig vegetable plot

Preparing the vegetable garden for winter.

This is a no dig method that we all knew about discussed at length before putting into practice.

The land had been used for onions last year and had produced a pretty good crop.  The soil is heavy clay and needs improving for the future.

This is what we did:

1 pick off the worst of the weeds

2 cover in cardboard, without too much tape or plastic

3 add a good layer of compost, this trailer load came from the local municipal facility for just over 8 euros.

cover the whole plot with plenty of straw to keep the warmth and humidity in, whilst the worms and soil beasties do their work over winter.

In the spring, the worms will have worked their way through the cardboard into the mulch and started to incorporate it into the soil below.  All that needs to be done is clear away little holes in the straw to plant seedlings and leave the soil beasties to continue elsewhere,  if there is still cardboard at the bottom of the hole, cut a small hole so that the seedling roots can continue down into the soil below.  Try not to walk on the plot and compact the soil, use a plank of wood to spread your weight.  For seed planting the straw will need to be cleared completely until the crop has germinated and gotten off to a good start.

Hopefully I’ll be back next year to see how productive the plot is after our efforts this autumn.

Friday, December 13, 2013

chez Vanessa and Lisa

Back at Vanessa and Lisa’s, our projects continued.  Social visits out for pizzas on a Friday evening, mulching the hedging plants with straw to keep the weeds down whilst the plants establish,  off to see Greets new vet practice location and advise on how to decorate it, collect mulch for the vegetable garden then put it to bed for the winter.  The girls were loving the change after working on the house for so long and it was great to make the most of the cold sunny weather at the start of winter, with no idea how long it would last.  Their house was warm and comfortable even there were no finished rooms, the ground floor was missing its final flooring and the loft was missing wall dividers and a door but the wood burning stoves were working well and there was a serviceable bathroom.  Bliss.

Vanessa loading compost 

the view from my bed in the mornings, beautiful roof timbers

a much improved facade without aluminium and glass porch

we stacked wood 

we rolled bales of straw

and stopped them

more land?

Having Percy is great, I can just head off for the day and do as I please, without begging or, borrowing a car or trying to work out how to get to the middle of nowhere with public transport.  I visited another couple of agencies, one of which had nothing and the other that showed me a possible three plots.  We went, another day, to visit them, though nothing so far rates nearly as highly as the plot with the ruins and the old oak trees.

not bad, facing SSE, with a stream passing one side, sloping

looking back up the plot.  Half the field only

a NO even before I got out of the car

another NO.  3Ha with a tiny building plot 300 m away in the village

I visited the town hall in the village where my favourite bit of land is to ascertain how certain it was that planning permission would be granted, the lady mayor was great but couldn’t give me a definitive answer but directed me to the local planning office and hour and a half away.  I headed there after making a phone call to make sure that there would be someone to see me.  I arrived and the person wasn’t there after all.  The receptionist made me an appointment for early the following morning so I stayed over in Percy, saving myself a ‘there and back’ for nothing and got to check out the heating properly for the first time.  Temperatures got down to minus seven overnight but I stayed snug and warm, bothered only by the hum of the fan blowing warm air into the van.  

The visit was worthwhile.  The planning officer could see absolutely no reason why any but the most unimaginable of plans be passed for this plot of land.  I can rest easy now, with no concerns to do with planning.  He even told me where to go to get free advice on design and how to present the plans without using an architect.  Now I need to make the next steps.

planting a hedge

The idea was to give planting a little go on Sunday and then go for it on Monday, as the forecast was for better weather.  Sunday turned out to be fine and between the three of us, made short work of planting a good half of the boundary.  I dug the holes, one every metre, Vanessa added a spade of compost and worked out which species went where, there were twelve or so varieties to plant in some sort of random mix with tree at regular intervals down the line, and Lisa followed on afterwards, planting each plant in its allocated hole.  It was cold but the sun shone, the soil was just about dry enough to work and we were doing what we had planned to do.  We continued with help from several friends of the girls who popped by to lend a hand and got the whole boundary done in a couple of days.

bundles of plants awaiting planting

soaking the roots in the bucket and adding compost to the soil

Lisa and Vanessa the Lady Landowners

it's started

a fair way gone

but further to go

proper deep holes for each one

collecting trees

It was great to see Vanessa and Lisa again, in their new home this time rather than living outside in a caravan and barn.  I say in, in the loosest possible sense as there is still an enormous quantity of work to do before the house is anywhere near finished, but the majority of constructional work is complete.  A lovely old farm house with wrap around barns on the brow of a hill with views overlooking the countryside and the mountains beyond.  I was there to catch up, but in the main, to help with the planting of two hundred trees that they had ordered back in the summer.

The idea is to replace some of the old boundary lines with hedging, and as such, the girls approached an organisation that specialises in the replanting of hedges and woodland for some advice.  a very helpful lady visited and discussed their plans, showed them possible choices of plants, helping with selection, quantities needed and explained the timescale for planting.  The plants were ordered then and a couple of weeks ago Vanessa received a letter explaining that the trees were about ready and they were to go to a local collection point in a nearby town to pick up the order.  We/they had no real idea of what to expect, we went in their estate car, with trailer and we even debated if there would be room for me and whether I should go or stay.  It was a bit of an unknown quantity.  I could imagine bare root shrubs, but their list contained over thirty trees that I imagined would be in pots just like one would find at a plant nursery.

We arrived in the town and parked up in the square and discussed what type of vehicle might be involved in distributing such trees.  Were we the only ones, or were there other people collecting at the same time?  How would we know who they were?  It was all a bit of a puzzle.  Time ticked by and nothing obvious appeared.  Vanessa and I did a little tour of the surrounding streets in the hope of discovering a throng of hedge happy people gathering their orders, but nothing, the town was quieter than one could imagine on a cold winter Saturday.  No one about at all.  we debated going for a coffee, but decided that it would tempt fate, the lorry would turn up, see no one and head off again without stopping.  We waited and looked and looked and waited.  

A good half an hour later, after checking and rechecking the details,  the name of the street was right, in front of the church was right, the date and time was right, but no one, nothing.  We gave up hope and decided to leave.  Lisa pulled away and headed up around the church to the other side and there, by chance, was what we had been waiting for all along,  a throng of hedge happy people collecting their wares.  They must have arrived a little late and set up after Vanessa and I had done our little tour, as there had been nothing there before.  Anyway, we were welcomed into the gathering and immediately told to head into the community hall to get the tutorial on what to do.  The association takes the business of planting hedges and trees very seriously indeed and provides novices with a forty five minute lecture on the do’s and dont’s of planting.  Unfortunately we missed the most of it, completely in french, and got the final wrapping up summary of what we were expected to do. 

They come and check too, during the following summer, to see how the plants are doing, if you have followed their mulching and aftercare instructions well enough.  Impressive, but much more than any of us had expected and we still didn’t know what we were collecting.  Once the talk was over we headed back outside, as Vanessa and Lisa were queueing to pay and get their order I had a good look over what was waiting to be collected,  bundles of tree stakes, fibre weed mulch matting, bags of bare root trees, tree guards - protection from deer, rabbits and other predators. I spotted the order, two small bin bags with a few twigs poking out of the top, plus a small pile of guards, it would all easily have fitted in the car.  The girls didn’t believe it, they asked a couple of times for the rest of the plants but were told that that was it, two bags and the guards,  it was all noted on the lists and there was to be no mistake.    

The organisation of the collection of plants was all very efficient in a french sort of a way.  You presented your letter and cheque of payment to one person, they took the cheque and stamped the letter which was then passed to another person who cross referenced the letter with name to find another page that outlined the order, this had a code on it that corresponded to another list that provided them with what the last person had to go and look for.  In our case two bin bags and a bundle of guards.  Other people were collecting crates of small plants, bare root fruit trees, all sorts.  The organisers were keen to make sure everyone knew what had to be done for successful planting and establishment of their purchases.  If I end up settling in the vicinity I may well get involved.

We laughed on the way home about what we might have got and what we actually did.  It seemed stupid to have taken the trailer and gotten ourselves all geared up for such a massive event,  we nearly missed it all together.  But the trailer did come in handy, we picked up the order for some friends as Vanessa and Lisa knew that they were midway back from a trip to the UK and had obviously forgotten about their order.  It was a much more voluminous order, with a hundred or so planting mats, guards and trees that almost filled the trailer, we dropped it off on the way home and continued with our little sacks.

Friday, December 06, 2013

27 november

November 27th. A day, this year, that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to.  In the past it had been a day of celebration, my Mothers’ Birthday, a day that I always tried to be at home for, but as she had passed away earlier in the year I was not so sure how I would feel at this time.  Additionally I had a dental appointment for a wisdom tooth extraction and the weather was foul.  Just warm enough to be raining but bitterly cold, windy.  What a day it was going to be.

Percy managed the descent without so much as a shudder and felt much better on flatter ground.   I had time to stop in at the estate agents to discuss the land with the ruins that I had seen before and clarified a few points.  Suffered the french dentist with much less pain and discomfort that I had been led to believe (the noise of the tooth leaving the jaw bone was the worst part) and some excellent advice - to take pain killers  as the anaesthetic wears off before the onset of pain as it is easier to keep the pain at bay than to dissipate it after it has arrived.  I dislike taking pain killers, but on this occasion was more than happy to take his advice and it worked a treat.  

Slightly numb, I revisited the land at Vieuzos, with the huge oak tree, discovered the real site of the well, with it’s huge concrete safety cover, located more fruit trees and paid much more attention to the ruins and their possible future uses.  The space felt good again, better in fact than the first visit, it is ticking loads of boxes and has character, something that most of the plots I look at lack, definitely one to persue further. The rain held off whilst I visited and later in the day, rays of sunlight streamed through a distant gap in the clouds, illuminating the hazy landscape beneath, as if angels were shining lights from above, letting me know that life was rosy on the other side.  I continued north for a while, aiming for my good friends Vanessa and Lisa in their new abode to see how the renovations were coming along and to help with the planting of two hundred trees.   All in all a much better day than I had expected.

cabin in the mountains

I had a day before heading off, so Pierre and I made the most of the following afternoon and headed up the mountain to enjoy the scenery.  We went on snow shoes, giant, tennis racket type contraptions that strapped to your hiking boots to stop you sinking too far into the snow.  THey took a little getting used to, big high steps over the snow in front, with feet a bit wider than normal to allow the rackets to pass one another without catching.  We were thankful that there were already tracks to follow as walking across deep snow for the first time was exceedingly energetic.

Pierre had a plan in mind.  His landlord owns an old barn in the mountains that he is renovating.  We had talked about visiting for a while but never had the opportunity. He thought that it might be inspirational for my much discussed project, a tiny space, basically furnished, with all the necessary mod cons for living.  He wasn’t wrong, though Felix still has some way to go before the barn is finished.  

We got there in good time,  two hours instead of the three that his neighbours had suggested, though we did go at a fair pace all the way.  Just as well really, as the weather was coming in again and grey clouds loomed over the adjacent peaks.  That didn’t stop us having a good nose inside, though it was challenging to see that much after the brightness of the sun drenched snowy landscape outside.  I loved the solid basic stairs and the double use lift top bench, storage seat, it’ll be tin lined to keep the mountain critters out, else they’ll eat the food or nest in the blankets and shred any clothing.  The table had bark covered legs to match the counter top support and another long curved freestanding bench allowed a probable five to sit the same distance from the open fire.  

We didn’t stay long enough to light the fire, we just took a couple of swigs of wine to fortify us for the twilight descent down into the village.  Just as well, as that cloud kept on coming and it was almost too dark to see until we rounded the corner into the street lit glow of civilisation.  Inspired, invigorated  and set for the next chapter.

fancy effects from having a frosty lens

me and Pierre 

that much snow and it's not even December yet

our destination

we only just got in

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

percy in the snow

The snow remained pretty much everywhere from that morning on.  I left later that day for a week in the UK, fully prepared to return to a damp grey valley, how wrong I was.  It had continued to snow sporadically throughout the week and as I returned to the mountains became increasingly worried about retrieving Percy from his mountain hideaway so that we could continue our travels.  Way down at 500m there were mounds of snow on the sides of the roads, evidence that the snow ploughs had been out already.  Further into the mountains, climbing, there was more snow than I could remember from previous years when arriving at the start of the ski season.  Now, there was another month to go and it looked like a midwinter scene.  The tiny road up to Barrancoueu, Pierre’s village, was clear, just, with deep snow everywhere around,  it was odd to see the poor trees struggling under thick coats of snow, still clinging on to their autumn leaves and fields that had been vibrant green not that long ago transformed into a black and white wonderland.  Time to get out there and enjoy.

all covered in snow

a good bit of insulation!!

it snowed all night

11.11.13 at 11:11 in front of the church of Barrancoueu            Lest we forget

It snowed all night and the morning view was something of a surprise.  Yes, I know that it had been snowing the night before, but so often a few evening snowflakes fail to fulfill their mission, especially during a mild autumnal spell when one wakes up to the same view that had faded into the sunset the previous evening, the snow an temporary flirtation with winter and nothing more, leaving the weather to continue its gradual seasonal decline. Not this time, this snow meant business.  The sky remained grey, heavy with precipitation and the white carpet continued to thicken as I stood watching  from the window.  I had been right, winter has arrived.

up there in that tiny village

the following morning