Friday, December 26, 2014

crisp christmas weather

Winter solstice, and the weather is beautiful.  Cold and crisp but warm enough to work in a T shirt in the sunshine, especially if there is something energetic to be getting on with.

It’s been raining loads, so the ground is rather wet to work unnecessarily, so I have been tempted to start clearing part of the ruin where my new house is going to be.  It’s the first time I’ve done any work on this area, as my priority has been the productive garden areas of the plot until now.  

I decided early on that it would be best to get a lot of long term planting done as soon as possible so that whilst building work is continuing, all the trees and shrubs can get on with growing.  Once the house is complete they will already be a decent size and hopefully the orchard will start to be productive.  All my fruit trees are happily settling in, along with thirty or so evergreen shrubs that I purchased to replace or bulk up the hedge to the windward side of the property.  The sooner there is a decent windbreak there the better.  I still have hedges to plant, but am waiting to clarify the boundaries with the neighbouring farmer before I go ahead and order the plants as I don’t want to get them in the wrong place.  Hopefully they’ll go in this season, if not next year will have to do.

newly planted fruit trees 

new raised beds (under construction)

the new drive, complete with planting, in the winter sun

no point clearing all the brambles!!!

they should grow well with this view I would have thought

So I started clearing the ruin, the safer part where the walls have already fallen.  The brambles went in a couple of hours but the next stage is going to take somewhat longer.  It’s fine, as I can’t get on with much else, there isn’t a rush to start building as the final permissions will be another three or four months in the processing and it’s great to have the opportunity to salvage as much as possible.

There are loads of whole roof tiles which I’ll add to the earlier collection.  Plenty of broken ones too which will make excellent sub base around the site when the time comes.  Hefty, solid timbers, ideal for garden structures or raised bed construction, more rotten bits for experimental projects (check out Hugelcultur, a method of vegetable cultivation that mounds soil over rotten timbers, the rotting wood releases nutrients, retains moisture and yet allows for a free draining soil.  With free materials on site, I thought I might make a couple of beds to see how it works).  Then there are all the unknown bits and pieces underneath the rubble.  Who knows what may be lurking below and by taking a bit of time, I’ll be more likely to find things in tact than if a bulldozer gets anywhere near the site.  Going on a treasure hunt.

It’s great to be working now, during the shortest days, to see how the light works its way round the plot and where the sunny and shaded areas are.  The sun is at it’s lowest in the sky and, whilst it’s strength is weak, it is of the most benefit for passively heating the inside of buildings during the cold winter months.  I checked this out and am very pleased to see that my kitchen and bathroom windows get sunshine all afternoon and till just after five in the evening, almost to sunset, maximising the effect of those warming rays.  The house won’t roast in summer because the windows become shaded by a balcony when the sun is higher in the sky.  If that isn’t enough, some climbing plants will soon be planted to give a little extra shade.

this bit of old wall is where my new kitchen window will be, it's 15:55 on 21/12/14  sunny till the end
exploring in the remains of a barn

Percy in the evening light with new 'keep clean' walkway to the chalet

just a little clearing to do

I’ll post some sketches and plans of the house right soon, so that you can all have a good look, ask questions, make suggestions and generally give it a good going over to see that it all makes sense.  I’ve been living imaginarily inside it for some time, yet still find details that don’t work and improvements that can be easily added at this stage of the proceedings.  Hopefully my next post, I just need to get some paperwork from on site.

it's caught on here too!!

to you all

So, that’s it for now.  A slightly belated Christmas to you all, I write on Boxing Day (Dec 26th) and with the sun shining am heading right back out there to carry on.  Best wishes and much love.  xxxxx

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

warmed by godin

It doesn't look much different from the last picture I posted about a month ago.  though now, it works.  All the parts for the chimney have been sourced, ordered, delivered and fitted.  I fired her up and she burns like a dream, keeping me hot and toasty for the sake of three or four logs an evening.  THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH Brigitte.  

The flue passes out through the wall directly behind the stove before rising to above roof level outside.  I thought it would be easier this way to make/keep the chalet watertight.  The home made double lined flue is insulated with perlite which is held in place with steel wool at each end of the second tube.  The flexible outer tube starts before the insulating boards inside and extends some 15cm past the wall on the outside of the chalet.  It also has a light steel wool stopper at one end to keep vermin and the worst of the draughts out whilst allowing much needed air flow close to the stove.

le conservatoire vegetal d'aquitaine

Fruit trees.  One of my major goals this year has been to get plenty of long term planting done.  Completed before construction work starts so that during the busy months/years, the trees and shrubs can establish and start to bear fruit, so that once I move into my house there will already be the startings of an orchard and some decent sized trees, shrubs and hedges to continue my gardens around.

I have spent hours and hours researching fruit tree nurseries in the region, visiting several and perusing websites when I’ve had the chance.  Then, by chance, I visited some friends who planted an orchard several years ago.  They had an old catalogue from the place where they had bought all their trees and were still excited about the memories of their visit to the nursery.  

Pascale explained that one weekend a year the nursery has a exhibition and open day to celebrate fruit trees with demonstrations of planting, pruning and grafting.  tastings possibilities for the majority of fruits that are in season, a market area for associated goods and products and, as always at such events in france, the opportunity to eat well and copiously at lunchtime in a marquee dedicated to food.  

Since August I have slowly been learning the technical vocabulary to understand this catalogue, dreaming about my orchard and attempting the almost impossible task of reducing the contents of several hundred trees to a manageable number to buy, plant and care for.  It’s not even as if I have reference from all the British varieties that I know.  Whether they be apples, pears, cherries or grapes, all the names were foreign to me.

I managed to limit my choices to four cherries, four plums/gages, five pears, three hazle nuts, two walnuts, two chestnuts and one quince, though with the apples i reduced the hundred and fifty or so possibles to twenty five and took advice from the knowledgeable  staff to finalise my selection to eight varieties.  I sent my order ahead of time, in the hope that they would all be available.

To be accurate, it’s not specifically a nursery but a conservation orchard. It’s grand name is ‘Le Conservatoire Vegetal de l’Aquitaine’ and it’s aim it to preserve heritage varieties of orchard fruits, research new varieties, care and pruning techniques in a way that helps the wider environment.  The use of mixed species plantings to reduce pest invasions, minimal pruning techniques that stress the plant less, increasing the biodiversity within orchards to aid pollenisation and attract beneficial insects, a whole gammut of ideas that lean towards a more holistic and natural way of caring for our environment.  

The date of the exhibition had been in my diary since July and I wasn’t going to miss it for anything.  

It was amazing.  As described by my friends and more.  I was able to taste the vast majority of the apple varieties that I had chosen, plus a couple of pears and walnuts. I made changes to my order without problem. Noted kiwi varieties that were tasty for later on, along with grapes, cherries and other gages that looked good either in the flesh or on posters and was awed by the sheer enormity of the event.  Photographs will tell the story .......

from afar, and already busy

one of several  demonstration marquees

nice juicy pears

small choice of walnuts

jam making demonstrations

thankfully the organisation was faultless

and more......

Between eight and nine thousand visitors from over 30 departements of france in a weekend.  Three hundred or so volunteers from all over the south west to help, advise, demonstrate and transport peoples purchases back to their vehicles.

Friday, December 05, 2014

festive preparations

Four days in the mountains, a mini break of sorts, with Pierre at Lou Rider.  Our aim was to bake Christmas cakes and make chutney, get out and enjoy the mountains for the last time before the snow arrived and enjoy being away.

I picked up a couple of crates of ungraded apples at the market, fine to eat but ideal for cooking with, though some varieties tend to keep their shape however long you cook them for.  Apples and a couple of home grown winter squash were the basis for chutney, along with two mixes of spices and other ingredients for the two batches planned.

I got to use one of my latest car boot treasures, an apple peeler, corer, slicer all in one.  It really was amazing and already paid for (3 euros) for the quantity of apples we processed.  Check out the pics.

one of my new kitchen toys

chutney in the making

peels, cores and slices in one easy action

 Pierre had been soaking dried fruit in alcohol for weeks in preparation for the cakes and we raided a supermarket on the way into the mountains for all the other ingredients.  Between us we made nine beautiful cakes of varying sizes and two cases of chutney, one of which will blow your head off!!!  I can’t wait till they’re nicely matured and ready to taste properly.

alcoholic fruit

Christmas is coming

Neither of us were on form, so we didn’t really venture out that much which was a shame.  The winter cold bugs were busy doing their thing and our bodies probably benefited from a bit of a rest.  Thankfully all the produce we made was thoroughly cooked and none of the bugs will have survived.

Monday, December 01, 2014

bramble clearing

I filled my time doing less technical tasks, like preparing the holes for the twenty or so fruit trees that I had on order.  Some were in fairly short grass, so relatively easy, others directly through landscape fabric, so not a problem, though several, for the sake of getting it right first time, were destined to be in the thick of a bramble thicket.

The thicket didn’t look too daunting when I approached it with my metal bladed strimmer.  It cuts through bramble stems like butter and the shredded plant matter creates a thick, woody, hopefully weed suppressant mulch.  Well worth the investment.  Several minutes later the task begun to morph into something larger, half an hour in, the brambles all around me were over head height and taking a whole load of work to cut into pieces.  

I persevered, doing a couple of hours at a time, whilst feeling rough with cold, then as I improved half a day or so at a time.  A good couple of days total work and I now have an impressive warren of tracks and clearings through the bramble thicket.  Several areas of freshly turned, root free soil with piles of compost await the arrival of the trees.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

mini digging

Tomorrow has come and gone for nearly a month ( I change the blog dates so that they are just about accurate to when things happen) and I have a quick chance, once again, to catch up on blogging.

Simon and I have just spent two days playing with a mini digger, day 1, heavy rain showers and blustery rain, proper November weather, but we got on with the task in hand anyway.  You really can’t sit around, especially when there is a machine on hire that is costing a small fortune every day.

Day 2, as if summer was back, well nearly, blue skies and warm sunshine, just the ticket to lay pipes and backfill as many of the trenches as possible whilst the machine was with us.

We got just about everything finished, save all the joints and construction of an inspection chamber for the isolation valves which will go near the water meter.  The system is devised so that the garden sections can be turned off during the winter to lessen the chance of frozen pipes, whilst the (future) house and chalet can be supplied or isolated as necessary.  

At the same time we installed a pipe to transfer saved rainwater from the chalet to the garden, saving countless trips with a watering can or strimmed surface pipes hidden in the undergrowth in later years.  

Whilst digging it seemed sensible to lay a conduit for a phone line, directly to the chalet with the possibility of branching off towards the house when needed.  

The place is a bit of a mess superficially, but it’ll soon grow back and hopefully it’s the final time that this area of the property will need to be disturbed in such a manner.  The big disruption and earthworks is yet to come.......... next year with any luck.

trenching to the garden for water and phone cables

Add caption

the mini digger makes quick work of it

refilled as far as we could go

water to the door.  Thankfully the trench is now filled in

 I continue a month later with this same post........

And then I was hit by a virulent head cold.  A week after all the digging, I attempted to continue with the water works, feeling somewhat groggy in the head.  The first task was to dig out space for an inspection chamber near the water meter.  Easy I thought, ten minutes with a spade and it’ll be done.  Two minutes later with water spraying everywhere, I manage to slice through the last remaining length of active pipe much closer to the meter than I had planned.  Thankfully the water was easy to turn off.

Minutes later, whilst attempting to continue with the same task, I break the concrete surround by hitting it with said same spade.  Bad head, slight mal co-ordination, it’s obviously not the ideal time to be attempting even vaguely technical work.  I have a cup of tea and write myself a large note that has stayed on the table for nearly three weeks.  DO NOT ATTEMPT TECHNICAL TASKS UNTIL YOU’R HEAD IS BACK TO NORMAL. YOU’LL ONLY BREAK THINGS OR MUCK IT UP.

I listened to my advice and am still in the throws of finishing the last of the technical part of this task now, in mid December.  It’s been interesting even with a clear head and fully functioning brain.  Missing parts, difficult, drippy joints that needed redoing several times, cold, uncooperative pipework, all add to the challenge.  A good job done, something that will (should) last the duration, without having to be revisited during later stages of the build.

about one year since I discovered my plot and nothing much has changed to the buildings

Friday, November 21, 2014

photographic evidence

wholesome lunchtime salad, followed by bread and cheese and a good cup of tea 
washing up facilities have improved

earthworks by the drive are now settling nicely

the mustard and broad beans that I sowed have germinated well and the roots will bind
the soil together nicely before the winter sets in

starting to leaf mulch the vegetable patch to keep it snug for the winter.  the worms will
work most of those leaves into the ground and it'll be easier to work next year.

progress with the extended vegetable area.  three beds now dug and mulched
paths covered with cardboard to keep the weeds down till I can sow clover next spring

the piles of reclaimed items continues to grow

Sunday, November 16, 2014

good to be back

Thursday and Friday back on the ranch, at last, feels like I’ve been gone ages.  Getting loads done with the cooler weather and a good soaking on Friday from incessant rain. Protected the wood pile with corrugated iron before it gets too wet. The third vegetable bed dug over and thoroughly weeded, only four barrow loads of nettle roots this time, all the paths cleaned and ‘carpeted’ with cardboard to make it easier to get around on the wet clay without gathering huge clumps on my boots the whole time, it went down a treat in the rain.  Ten more barrows of good humus mulch out of the ditch by the road, full of leafmould and worms, so good for the soil.   Sorted through a pallet load of corrugated concrete roofing panels a neighbour had dropped in for me to finish the cabin roof.  Unfortunately, unbeknownst to him, each and every sheet holed, in a properly damaged sort of a way so not suitable.  They’ll be fine for a lean to or log store later on so have stacked them out of the way in a pig sty.  Moved all the first stacks of roof tiles as they’re exactly where we need to dig for the water pipes. Finalised my fruit tree order list and hedging plant order list. Made roasted pumpkin soup with my little gas cooker, first time for the oven, so pleased that it works fine.  It’s so cozy with the lights on in the evenings, being able to read, make notes and just get on with things, just need the quote back for proper solar electricity, then I can even charge my drill and computer in comfort.  

Think I’ll do more of the same tomorrow.  Whatever ‘the same’ happens to be.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

wood burning stove instillation

Next task, to install the wood burning stove.  I’ve had it for ages and not been particularly concerned, it being a Godin, one of the most popular makes in france, about getting fittings to install it in my home.  How wrong was I?  Very.  I spent most of Monday visiting a variety of fireplace and DIY stores on the way home, to no avail.  I spent the evening beginning to prepare for the instillation and the following day started in the local scrap metal dealers.  Metal plate was easy, bought by the kilo (50 centimes a kg) then back to the quest for chimney pipe.  The stove is old and the new regulations have increased pipe sizes dramatically, no one has the appropriate bits and I go from shop to shop, waiting an eternity each time, it’s the first really cold day of autumn (everyone and his dog wants a fire installed and now) just to be told the same story.  By chance an engineer in one shop decided to try and help those waiting, he told me to try the Godin showrooms out of town.

The Godin showroom, joy at last, the kind lady knew exactly what I wanted and corrected my measurements by a millimeter or two to be precise.  The catalogue showed they were still made and she would order them with some other parts later in the week.  Result, although patience will be needed as the delivery won’t arrive till later in the month.  Good job I’ve got my thermals and I can sleep easy knowing that the problem can be solved.  I shan’t make the hole in the wall just yet, but wait till I know all can be done at once.  By now it was five in the evening, just time to drive home, catch my breath and pop to the neighbours for dinner.

bricks to support the metal plate where the wood stove will stand with battens on the
wall for the rock wool insulation panel

metal plate in situ.  (it has two more bricks underneath now to take the
weight of the stove)

first panel of wall insulation in place.  It'll need a hole cutting through when I have exactly the
right dimensions for the chimney pipe.

second metal plate to deflect heat and protect the wood store from  too much radiant heat

stove in position.
Now all I need is the flue pipes and I can heat the chalet

Slightly groggy start to Wednesday but that soon went when I started digging.  Tidied the weeds from the paths between the new vegetable beds then headed into Lannemezan, market day, to pick up provisions, made the most of the trip by gathering most of what I need for the water pipe work.  It’s too risky leaving buying things till the last minute, plus it’s easier to mentally check that everything has been thought about once the bits begin to gather.  Lunch with Pierre in a busy little bar by the market, everybody crowded inside  protecting themselves from the wintery weather, noise and activity filling the tiny dining area.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

the calm of november

The calm of November is here.  Not that the first seven days have been calm at all, I’ve only been home for two and a half of them.  The weekend spent in the mountains, Friday night Halloween Party at Lou Rider with Pierre and a group of his french friends from St Lary.  It’s still strange to be at Lou Rider in the summer with it being warm outside, I always expect to be greeted with a blast of freezing air whenever the door is opened, not this time with the last dregs of summer warmth.  Saturday we hiked up a couple of red ski runs, high into the mountains, to have a look at the view and some new structures that have been built to help with crowd control on the winter pistes.  The weather remained impressively warm and my lungs reminded me that I need to do more hill walking to get back into some sort of cardiovascular shape.

Sunday continued in the mountains, I left Pierre, crossed a nearby pass into the next valley and met up with my good friend Simon.  We had intended to pass the afternoon together but one bottle of wine turned into two, the roast chicken on a string took it’s time and was just as delicious as the previous time - four or so years ago.  We chatted till well past dark, watched the stars and the moon from our grassy outpost high in the mountains before retiring to our respective vans for another night at altitude.  

That was the end of summer.  Next morning the temperature had fallen dramatically and the weather turned to grey and damp, the first morning without sunshine since early September, if I remember rightly.  Spoiled by the weather.  We have a plan to learn mini digger skills together, I have water pipe to bury before it gets too cold and Simon suggested he would help if I hired the machinery.  All booked and diarised for the 17th and 18th of November.  

Saturday, November 01, 2014

fergus and family come to stay

hiding in a hide L-R Me Don Ginny & Fergus

My godson comes to visit, it’s half term in the UK and Fergus and his parents, Ginny and Don are here for three very quick days.  Lodged in comfort in the B&B just down the road (in case the weather was cold and autumnal) they have come to lend a hand.  That hand has already been well used, with a whole suitcase of goodies that I have been ordering on line inthe UK to take advantage of free delivery.  It has been arriving at theirs for the last three or four weeks and transported as hold luggage for a fraction of the postage price.  Thank you SO VERY much.  

I am now fully kitted out with all the chainsaw security clothing, all I need now is a chain saw!!  have decent solar lighting that will do fine till the next stage of investment is arranged.  Various english food items including baked beans and christmas pudding - something that I have been raving since a conversation a few weeks ago,  I’ll keep it till nearer the time and enjoy the wait knowing that it’s there.

My guests loved the place, the whole area in fact and thoroughly enjoyed their short time with me.  We got plenty done in the garden, namely the second vegetable bed properly dug and composted, the lights up in the chalet and, importantly some decent time spend discovering my locality.  

I have the most amazing lake about ten minute drive away, a huge nature reserve that is frequented by tens of thousands of migrating birds each spring and autumn, we happened upon a guide whilst we were looking who explained a great deal of what happens and the kind of birds expected.  Next visit will be in the late afternoon as that is the period of activity, as all the birds return to roost.  Safety in numbers.

That same guide proposed an amazing restaurant, well, farm where one can dine.  You have to book, so we did so and enjoyed a fabulous meal one lunchtime, emerging into the sunshine mid afternoon, fit to bust, and in no fit state to participate in strenuous activities.  A leisurely afternoon was spent strolling around my closest market town, checking out the architecture and a fascinating junk shop ( to become a frequent haunt I am sure).  

I breakfasted leisurely at the B&B each morning, sneaking in an hour or two of tasks before hand, the neighbours invited us in for drinks one evening and with a trip to the market the time was gone, far too fast.  It was wonderful to have guests, especially now that I am better equipped and in the knowledge that there is shelter and comfort, to some small degree, should the weather turn.  Will be thoroughly ready by the time spring arrives.  Future bookings now being taken.

selfie - 'nuff said

fascinating corn on the cob.  shame it's animal grade and terrible to eat

enjoying the autumn sunshine

lake puydarrieux from one of the hides

looking towards the mountains from the dam