Thursday, October 30, 2014

Most of the rest of October

Since the Belgians were here and my last blogging stint whilst dog sitting at Vanessa and Lisa’s a fair amount has happened.  Mostly not here, but have been getting things done too in the gaps between.

I spend three days on the Atlantic coast, celebrating my birthday, having some time on the beach and enjoying gloriously hot and sunny weather.

we made it for sunset and stayed in the same spot as last year

Had a very interesting house construction meeting with a carpentry company that produces timber framed buildings in the ‘old fashioned’ style but using modern computer guided milling machined to do all the technical joints and angles.  The finished product looks amazingly smart and the time spent on construction is minimized as everything is ready cut to fit.  Not quite the real thing, but affordable and close.  We’ll see when the quote comes in.  

A day discovering Tarbes, my larger local town, nearly an hour away.  I had two leads to get solar electricity quotes, partly for now and out of curiosity for the house in the future.  I found both companies and know what they need to work it all out.  An evening or two of listing all my electricity requirements, then they can get on and do the sums.

Help from Pierre to cut my wood.  It was a worryingly large pile that I thought may take a day to get through.  We were done by lunchtime and stacked away soon after.  The joys of a decent chainsaw - I really must get one soon.

cutting wood in readiness for winter

Pierre admiring some of the wood

Hosted lunch for old helpX hosts from the past who live not that far away.  It was great to catch up and share with them my ideas for the future.  Really enjoying being able to host again.  A french lunch event is great if you’ve got nothing else to do for the rest of the day.  I’ve had two couples round for lunch now and both times we’ve still been chatting at four or so in the afternoon, an excuse then for tea and cake.  A properly leisurely affair.  

A cry for help from Cherry and Chris had me over near Carcassonne for two days helping Ben repair a collapsed roof.  Hairy stuff, jacking up one of the main beams of an ancient roof to the right hight so that it can be braced and secured back into the wall.  There were a few tense moments with loud cracking sounds, sliding tiles and unexpected noises but all went well.  The rotten end of the beam was removed, we added a new bit, thoroughly braced it with oak planks on either side and secured it back into the wall.  I would have stayed for a further week, to reset the tiles outside, build a staircase (from a kit) and continue a list of outstanding jobs, but with more guests arriving, I really couldn’t afford the time.

Another offer for a weeks paid work came in at about the same time.  A project that was overrunning with a deadline to finish.  It’s amazing how all these things seem to come at the same time. 

The Chestnut Fair.  A fun fair in a tiny village in the foothills of the Pyrenees where the chestnut is celebrated.  Stalls selling all things chestnut, jams, cakes, drinks, basketry, tools, demonstrations on grafting, pruning, woodworking and more.  Stalls selling local produce, honey, wool, handicrafts, the local male voice choir circulating amongst the throng, singing in the local language that only they seem to understand.  Three hundred or so people lunched on chestnut and pumpkin soup or chestnut raised pork charcuterie, local lamb and potato gratin followed by a chestnutty choice of deserts.  It had to be done.  Amazingly I ran into the chap who had come to look at providing me with hedge plants way back in June.  I’d heard nothing since, so had rather abandoned the idea of using him.  He assured me that the paperwork was ready and waiting since June but he knew that I was visiting the UK so hadn’t delivered it.  He called round two days later, excusing the handwritten estimate of costs, explaining that his colleague hadn’t been in the office yesterday to do a proper one. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

my temporary home

kitchen, dining corner 
library, planning and tool area

double doors with tools accessible from outside.
(keeps the floor cleaner) 

sunset from the kitchen window

getting more and more organised 

evening light

winter squash and nuts drying 

improved facilities

I have guests coming.  Well, now that I write a family of five have just spent a great weekend with me, they camped and we ate, drank and had a great time  around and about, including two great evenings in the comfort of my new garden shed/chalet.  Facilities were needed, something better than a chair with a hole, a bucket and a windbreak.  Thanks Dad, it was a brilliant start and will remain an emergency second, but things are moving on quickly in some departments and a better dunny is called for.  So I set too:

a collection of pallets and salvaged wood awaiting inspiration 
a path in the woods with no destination

I checked on the ground to see that the pallet base fitted

but not in the trees above.  The structure had to be moved to fit the walls and roof

a round hole in some planks to provide a comfortable seat

With a bucket below and a well fitting lid to keep everything where it belongs.  An old enamel saucepan to keep the sawdust and toilet paper dry and when I find one, a little brush to tidy the seat.

I finished the main construction with four hours to spare, the driveway had preoccupied me somewhat during the last week or so and I used a sheet of groundcover plastic as a temporary door.  Got a real one at a local junk shop over the weekend but haven’t had time to fit it yet.

It works like a dream, is comfortable, private and won't blow way in the breeze.

Monday, October 13, 2014

minimizing soil erosion

Stabilizing the bank.  Theory into practice.

There is just a bank of solid, dry clay, with a scattering of loose lumps of soil over the surface.  Just walking on the surface causes mini landslides so I can only imagine what would happen if there was a torrential downpour.

Before the work started, the slope was much steeper but solidly held together with a strong network of interwoven roots from trees, bushes and undergrowth.  Additionally, the vegetation provided a covering blanket, gently breaking the fall of hurtling raindrops, cushioning their impact and minimising their destructive action on the surface of the soil.  By the time the water reached the soil it was either as a fine mist of slowly trickling down the stems and trunks of plants in a gentle manner, giving the soil time to soak it in.

This I needed to replicate quickly.

The mini terraces provide plentiful flat areas which will stop the flow of water from becoming too large.  If a trickle starts to flow it will have be slowed or stopped at each terrace, allowing it to be absorbed by the earth.  LIttle landslides will be halted before they gather speed and weight.  They also provide places for autumn leaves to gather and wild seeds to germinate

To encourage the network of roots immediately I have planted broad beans, which are normally planted in autumn.  They will germinate quickly and begin to hold the soil together, the shoots will rise, providing the start of a cushioning layer of vegetation.  In addition, they are legumes, the one family of plants that take nitrogen from the air and transforms it into nodules on their roots, available for soil microbes and eventually other plants to use.  Nitrogen is needed by all plants to produce chlorophyll (the green) and is an essential nutrient for plant life.  I have also planted mustard, cheap and easily cast over the ground, it’ll die off in the winter, but not before sprouting a decent root network and some greenery.  All good news for reestablishing a humus layer for future plants to root into.

There was also that bag of seeds that has been hanging in the van for the last year, getting heavier and heavier.  All the seeds I have collected from hedgerows and gardens around Britain and France.  In a moment of abandon they too all got sown on this bank, so who knows what it’ll look like in a few years time.

Immediately after sowing the seeds, I covered the whole area with a decent layer of partially composted weedy clippings.  The easiest thing to hand and another contribution to soil regeneration.  It will also provide a cushioning effect for any rain that falls before the plants have time to get going.  

Then. as a protection for it all a three to four inch layer of straw. This is the final layer for this side of winter, though there is an additional bale of straw (a big round one) at the ready, should gaps appear, or the wind become strong enough to blow away what is already there.  Amazingly, it all seems to hold together really well and now that there has been some gentle rain, it shouldn’t be going anywhere.

verdant green self protecting slope

bare, erosion ready earthworks in need of protection

mini terracing immediately stop the tiny landslides from getting bigger

plant roots will help stabilize the soil and the compost mulch will
cushion the falling rain

a decent layer of straw to keep it all together, regulate the  humidity of
the soil and keep of the drying rays of the sun
A week later as I write this post, there has been a torrential downpour with no obvious consequences, the mustard has sprouted and is showing green through the thinner areas of straw and along the bare lower slopes and all the wild plants that I put aside have been tucked back in and are looking fine.

new drive II

Bertrand and Lionel returned as promised and laid a white carpet of felted geotextile membrane.  THis will stop the mud lifting through the stones and keep the stones from drifting downwards into the soil.  It looked almost too clean and neat to cover with stones but it disappeared soon enough with the first four cubic metres of stone.  They spread it with the digger whilst the lorry headed off for the second load.  Three hours later it was all done, or so they thought.  I was encouraged to get the van and give my new drive a go.

I rounded the corner, with slight apprehensiveness and started to climb.  The corner was tight but achievable, but I didn’t start with enough speed.  I stalled, then dropped back to give it another go, foot down, the wheels spun in the stones digging an impressive hole.  OOps. I dropped back again and realigned Percy managing to overcome the slope and get to the top without further problem.   After much gesticulating and tutting it was decided that the campervan was rather heavy and had a long wheelbase - yes, I could have told them that in the first place.  On top of that it’s turning circle (I forget the french for that) was rather pathetic.  Yes, I know that too.  So all was not good, they had a little discussion and came up with a proposition.  To acquire some tarmac and add a thin layer to the bottom of the drive, just enough to take in the worst of the corner and give traction till the wheels had time to straighten out again.  They’d head off and have a look on Monday, but it would cost another hundred or so euros.  I agreed and they went off home for the weekend.  

About twenty minutes later as I was busy with the terraces again, leveling the soil and positioning some plants to go in, Bertrand and Lionel come hurtling up the road in a pick up, overshoot and reverse straight back onto the drive.  They had come across a highway team, some of Lionel’s colleagues (from his real job) with just enough fresh warm tarmac to do the job and they were finishing for the day,  what an opportunity, not to be missed.  They got on with spreading it out and rolling in into the gravel sub-base just as promised.  The roller hadn’t yet been collected thankfully.   It looked rather smart and a bit over the top for a rural driveway, but if it does the trick I’ll be a happy man.

“Leave it a few days, and water it well” I was told.  It’s a new formulation with ‘eco’ oil products in it, whatever they are.  It was sticky and moved about under foot, so I vowed not to abuse it for a week and continue to do my turning round up the road just till it is right solid.  We had a beer to celebrate and they went away again, happier that they had completed the job in it’s entirety and confident that they’d done the best they could.  Fair play to a bit of later evening work on a Friday in the land or rules and can’t do’s.
it's going to change the landscape fast, that one 
before spoil

after spoil

overnight, with Percy in the background

it feels so bare and open
stabilizing in progress

new driveway

beautifully green, but steep and virtually inaccessible

not to be attempted in less than a 4x4

Earlier in the summer I got some quotes to improve the drive access to my property is it was rather steep and at an angle too tight to negotiate from one direction for even the nimblist of cars, I doubt even a London cab could have taken the turn.  Quote chosen, it was then suggested that I arrange for someone from the water company to come and mark where the mains pipes go so that they don’t get damaged during the excavations.  We’re talking 20 - 30 cubic metres of soil movement here.  That was easy, an engineer was on site by the time I’d returned from the offices via the market and he took several hours to be sure that he was marking the right place.  The pipes in question come straight from the reservoir on the hill and supply three or four neighbouring villages.  I would not have been popular if there had been any disruption to supply.  Thankfully the pipes are well out of the way and I asked that the company come to do the work.

They had suggested two days of work with digger, tractor and trailer, a couple of lorry loads of stone chippings and all would be done.  But when would they come to do it?  

By chance, on the Tuesday afternoon, hours after I had returned from two weeks away, they popped by to look at the pipe markings.  Happy with what they saw, we agreed that work would proceed on Thursday and Friday of that week and they went away.

All of a sudden I to decide what I could do in preparation as I knew they would just rip everything out with the bulldozer and I would be left with a couple of hundred metres of bare clayey soil.  All the plants, trees and shrubs would end up in a big pile with the disguarded earth and it would take ages for it to settle afterwards.  Much better to get rid or save as much all I could and leave them with a clear area to work with.

My other tasks went by the by as I hurriedly sawed down trees, by hand, that might serve as firewood, haul away old decaying branches and timber for compost, soil improvement and insect hotels.  I dug out crates of wild plants, wild strawberries, lungwort, ferns, geraniums, iris, violets, dead nettle and thirty or so smallish hedging plants and tucked them away in the shade for later.  I worked till dark that Tuesday and again all the next day, dismantling my newly erected letter box and getting everything as sorted as I could before the carnage began.

Sure enough at 07:15 on Thursday morning, just at first light, the digger arrived and I managed to squeeze Percy out before it was too late.  He spent two nights next door out of the way as the digger worked it’s magic and the tractor and trailer carted load after load of soil to the other side of the property.  Thankfully I had somewhere easy for it to be tipped and I made the most use of the earth moving opportunities with the big machinery on site.  Two loads of topsoil await spreading by the chalet to level off the ground and make it more usable in the long term.  A large mound, of topsoil again, to supplement raised beds in the veggie area and two large loads of the cleanest, crumbliest, clay we could get, put to one side in readiness for my wall renders.  There’s nothing like making the most of an opportunity, it can sit there, under it’s tarp for the next year or so and be ready to mix when it comes to constructing the house walls.  The rest of the spoil, tree stumps and all have gone over the bank at the back, roughly leveled with the giant machine then shoveled and raked by my own fair hand in readiness for sowing with seed.  I’m not sure how it’ll work as there’s little top soil to be seen, though I sprinkled on a good quantity of grass and clover seed to see what happens, then as an after thought, just to get it green again, a couple of packets of radish.  If they do well I’ll have plenty till the weather turns and then possibly even enough seed for resowing next year.  Too late really, I know, but it’s rather worth a chance.

In a day the heavy work was done.  It took several discussions and a bit of insistence to get almost exactly what I wanted, which wasn’t bad in my book after hearing some of the stories people tell.  I think it’ll stand me in good stead, to have used a french company, as the two guys know everyone in the neighbourhood and one of them is in charge of the team that looks after the road that goes passed the end of my drive.  

I was right, there were several hundred square metres of bare earth, much on a steep slope, with rain clouds threatening in the distance.  The guys stopped for the day and went home, gravel on order for delivery after lunch the following day.  I swung into action, with the aim of stabilizing the steepest of the slope before it was washed into the road by the threatening rain.  I hauled old beams and lintels from the other side of the garden, crafted pegs out of broken pallet pieces and set too creating a series of mini terraces.  By nightfall the most precipitous slope was secured at the most basic level.  The overnight rain was light and there were no major landslides so following morning I continued hauling timbers from about the site and pegging them to the slope until, by lunchtime, it started to resemble a grandstand at a sports field.  The first stage of stabilizing done.  

work in progress

an easier slope and a gentler corner 
the end of day one

that's going to wash away if it rains, for sure

what to say next.....

Just thinking of all that has happened during the last couple of weeks and don’t really know where to start.  It’s been full on and a bit all over the place, now I’m not at home again and have time to sit, think and plan some more.  

Three nights of house and dog sitting in comfort.  My washing is on the line drying, I’ll enjoy a long warm bath later on and slip back into the world of electricity and indoor running water without a thought, life is good and the weather is being kind for the better part.  I got caught in an torrential downpour the other afternoon, had to check the van windows were closed and got absolutely drenched in the process.  Percy then got stuck in the mud and I had to get a local farmer to pull him out with a tractor.  Lesson learned.  Other than that, warm autumnal sunshine, the ground is more workable after the rain and I’m getting on with preparations for planting fruit trees and hedges this autumn and space for next years veggie patch.  

an arty one of me taken by Bert at the weekend

Once it has rained for a week it will be too late to work the soil as the ground here is almost solid, sticky clay that clings to tools, boots and clothing alike.  It’ll need a few days to dry off after each storm and the time in between will have to be filled with other tasks.  Oh, I momentarily forgot the 7500m2 of brambles to be cleared, the ruin and all the planning that has to happen.  No, I shan’t be short of things to do for some time to come.

So, in no particular order, some of the things that I have achieved and have happened since I returned home.  Post by post.

roundhouse update

lime rendered and ready to go

Matty posted a photo of the roundhouse with render so I’ve nicked it for my blog.  It looks magnificent.

Weatherproof yet breathable, quick drying (compared to clay) lime and sand render, two coats, now all he needs is a door, some windows, a floor, some lighting, furniture..... still a way to go then.