Monday, December 14, 2015

another winter in the mountains

Now I am in the mountains, the Pyrenees to be exact.  Back again for another winter season.  This time its somewhere new, a mountain top refuge and hostel for walkers in the summer and in the winter a ski lodge and restaurant.   No doubt I’ll write more about the Refuge de l’Oule during the winter, so will leave it for now.

Unlike before I have to find my own accommodation.  Fortunately, after the last few years being here, I knew that renting would be difficult close to the start of the season, with the number of seasonal workers that arrive to make the place function as it should.  Forewarned, I rented a small apartment back in November, before heading to the UK, so that all would be in place on my return.  It’s a great little place, quite modern - so not draughty, about ten minutes walk from where I need to be in the mornings for work, slightly removed from the touristy part of the village so nice and quiet too.  There’s a tiny snug little bar just down the road, just to make it easy to stretch my legs of an evening if I feel the need.

For the last few days I have been driving backwards and forwards gathering all my belongings here for the winter.  Sorting out work contracts, seasonal worker ski passes and making sure that I am properly equipped for the next four months.  The flat has two bedrooms which makes it ideal to sub let.  I’ve bagged the small room for myself and, with minimal difficulty, now have two younger lads to share the large double upstairs.  Their room so big that, with the right configuration of furniture, the two beds are almost completely separate and both are very happy especially as they both have decent work contracts for the whole season.

view from my apartment window

village of Vignec, my winter home

the way to work

the green lights show the open ski runs - waiting on more snow......

festive lights in Saint Lary

I’m excited to have the whole winter pre-planned and am looking forward to getting stuck in to whatever is in store for me up in the mountains.  It’s going to be a bit like before, but more.  Snow clearing, bar work, kitchen hand and server, washer upper and cleaner, though no ironing or making beds, the guests have to do that themselves. An entirely french team, with a proper work contract and decent wages, a real step up in the greater scheme of things.  The journey to and from work is by cable car, bus and chair lifts, with a bit of a walk across the snow somewhere in the middle, I can see that being a blog on it’s own one day.  It’s remote, and at night the only visible light from the building is going to be the stars.  It should be amazing.  Just watch this space.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

belated celebrations

I have moved on yet again.  Since I last wrote a lot has happened.  I left Spain full of dreams and excitement for relocating only to arrive back home, in Vieuzos, to the most wonderful spell of weather imaginable for early November, It was hotter, sunnier and more enjoyable than the weather I experienced in Spain.  My heart was captured once more.  Confused yet again.  I spent a couple of weeks in Vieuzos tidying up for the winter and preparing for my departure.  House sat for a neighbour with 8 cats and enjoyed the glorious weather.

Relocation to Spain manifested itself once again as I headed to the UK.  Away from the enchantment, a more all encompassing vision of the future rematerialised and it is that that I have focussed on ever since.

I need to jump ahead, else I will be writing for a very long time indeed.  My trip to England was a great success, I celebrated my 50th Birthday again with the rest of my family and then many friends, some of whom I had not seen in years.  The venue was in London, to make it accessible to more people, and a good friend found the most amazing room in a pub, The Cellars, in Stoke Newington to host the event.  A wonderful occasion, the landlords were very welcoming, hospitable  and arranged great food and kept everyone well plied with drinks throughout the afternoon and evening.  The room was just right and provided a warm atmosphere for everyone to have a good chat, catch up and meet up with folk that they too mightn’t have seen for years either.  It was just as I had imagined, a gathering of my wonderful friends, though a few were sadly missed due to prior engagements of one sort or another.  We thought of you too!!  

Friday, November 13, 2015

around vilanova i la geltru

I have visited the area several times on holiday, but never considered it as somewhere to live.  Hadn’t taken time out to explore or consider the less touristic and leisurely options of the area.  Difficult to do when without a vehicle and on a short break with friends.  I was shocked at the prices of property, the amount of unfinished building projects (due to the economic crisis) and quantity of coastal development.   Once I’d gotten my head around that, I started to discover little pockets of suitable land, between the urbanisations, considering my new criterion:

**Still a large piece of land suitable for growing a productive fruit and vegetable garden.  With a property ready to move into, perhaps some work needing doing, but not a huge building project straight off.

**With easy access to a town, ideally on a bus route, or close enough to access at least some basic shops by bike or foot.

**If I’m to relocate to somewhere near the sea, it might as well be accessible without too much effort.  A walk or bike ride would be ideal.  A 20 minute car journey wouldn’t do!

**Somewhere with a more diverse community, where I can meet like minded folk, participate in a variety of community and leisure activities and have more fun.  It doesn’t need to be on the doorstep, but accessible without much of a problem.

** Find a location that will encourage more of my friends to want to come and visit, so that I can spend more time with them and share what I create with as many people as possible.

I could go on and on, but I hope that I have learned enough from the previous two years to make a well informed decision.  Requests please......

Thursday, October 29, 2015

decisions, decisions

Ongoing, I am not so sure.  My straw bale build project in France seems less appealing for a variety of reasons.  Though have still NOT ruled it out.

a raft of new rules and regulations for new build properties will push the cost up dramatically from my original estimations.

I already feel that the location is somewhat isolated and for the prospect of one, meeting a significant other and two, for attracting paying guests at a later stage, it is not the most obvious place to be located.

should I build, I would have to keep the property for ten years before being able to sell it as a house.  Rules stipulate that any new build property has to be guaranteed for this period and, as a self builder, I would be unable to offer such guarantee.  A sale before such time would only be as building but a not a house.

it is significantly more difficult to start and run a small business in France than in many other european countries.  The rules and regulations are daunting even with a fairly decent understanding of the language.  The french think so too.

if I choose to change location, my improved budget gives me much more scope to get ahead with other plans, rather than spending two years building, before I can even start.

the longer term plan is still to create the example of a productive garden and invite/allow people to come and learn how to grow fruit and vegetables hands on. 

Building a straw bale house still remains an excellent idea.  It was a means to an end to enable me to afford a home within the budget I had.  Where as now it can become a more leisurely project in the back garden should I move on.

a move now would give me ample opportunity to do something else before I get too old.  Not a valid reason at all, it’s never too late!!

I can now afford to invest more in a better located, more attractive piece of land/property than I could have done until recently.  

after a couple of trips away, the lure of sunshine and beaches is pulling and is now also achievable and within the new budgetary constraints.

All of that said, I still love my piece of paradise, where the occasional tractor, car or aeroplane are about the only things that disturb the peace, where the birds sing and the weather does it’s thing (mainly sunnily) throughout the year, I enjoy my time there, almost without exception, although, for a more rounded life experience, there is a whole lot missing.  Oh how much easier it would be if I disliked being there or the idea of building an ecologically sound house, I could be gone in a shot.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

50 and beyond

Onwards, to 50 and beyond.  Wendy, my sister, gave me a great Birthday card that read:

“Just remember,  Growing old is inevitable.  Growing up is Optional.  Happy Birthday”

Which just about sums up my outlook on life.  Inside, I don’t feel any older than I did twenty or even thirty years ago, perhaps a bit wiser than when I was twenty, but there is no way I feel that I should be slowing down or taking it easy.  If anything I feel the need to push harder and get myself into better shape than I have been for a while.  I guess that comes from hesitating on my journey and considering options for a while.  Pressure off and things tend to go downhill slowly without even realising. 

A good friend laughed at me the other week when I explained that I was planning on working in a ski resort again for the winter and if my accommodation ended up being mattress on the floor for the winter I would be quite content, so long as it was warm and comfortable.  She protested and said that at my age she would have expected that my demands for luxury and comfort be a bit higher than that.  

I can assure you now, Ginny, that it is I who has rented the apartment, so if anyone sleeps on the floor, it won’t be me this winter.  Not that it would have bothered me if I had.  I now have to find two or three other seasonal workers who need a roof over their heads and are willing to share with an aging english man in the mountains.  Another exciting winter ahead no doubt.  Can’t wait.

Four months in the mountains, well occupied every day, will give my subconscious time to process the events of this last year, (along with those of the last fifty) and hopefully come to some conclusions of what to do for the next few years of my life.  I’m looking forward to being part of a french speaking team in a ski refuge (accommodation for 30 in dorms with half or full board) and also a lunchtime restaurant on the pistes.  The only access in the winter is by ski and ski lift, so when the weather gets bad, there is no way in or out.  Last season, an overnight team ended up working for five days without a break due to storm that closed the resort. They didn’t get lunchtime visitors but fed and provided for the guests that were also cut off from the outside world.  Sounds exciting, and having visited the location already, know that it is equipped for almost any eventuality, well located and looks to be a great place to spend the winter.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

rocket stove cooking

I love my Rocket Stove.  I’d seen them here and there before, mainly home made affairs, cobbled together with old baked bean cans and old oil canisters and I’d had it in mind to build one of my own one day.  In Dorset I was caught with my guard down, at the Scythe Fair, where I saw a professionally forged, easily transportable, robust affair which I bought it without a second thought.  

How right I was.

Since getting back to France I use it most of the time for cooking meals, not just for myself but for four or five people at a time.  Mainly pot meals that require simmering for a while, but also fry ups and dishes that require a proper amount of heat.

Lighting it was tricky to start and then getting the burn temperature right.  I’ve since improved my wood drying technique and shan’t ever need to cut down another tree to cook with it.  It’s a joy to gather those fallen twigs and small branches and know that they have a serious role to play and also to be able to cook on free, easily gathered material at almost a moments notice.  I’ll need to be more prepared for when the weather turns and keep a good supply of well dried twigs available for cooking.

Thinking about how much wood I would use on a traditional fire, or the gas I would burn to achieve the same result is absurd.  A small bundle of kindling is enough to cook dinner and provide a nice cup of tea to wash it all down.  I’ll be heating my shower water with it soon and filling my hot water bottle with it when the nights get cold.  The gas stove will always be a welcome alternative for when the weather is foul, an oven is needed or speed is of the essence, but ongoing, my rocket stove cooking is becoming an integral part of my daily routine.  

The wheelbarrow in the photos is a makeshift wind deflector, self standing, easily positionable and has many other uses.  Ideal

dinner in the making

the twigs are burning within the metal tubing

a mini furnace

a near complete burn with no smoke and hardly any ash

MMMmmmmmm  lentil, tomato and nettle stew nearly done

clay render on a straw bale house

Anaig is a specialist in clay renders and I have worked along side her on a couple of straw bale build projects.  Here was slightly different, it was her project.  For years she has put her time, energy and expertise into building houses for others and now it is her turn.  I wasn’t sure how the experience was going to unfold.  Either there was going to be stress, angst and aiming for perfection or else a very laid back attitude.  Thankfully it was the latter.  A great team of volunteers, mainly there to gain experience before their own builds and some just for the sheer heck of participation and in return for the great work they have already received.  I think that once you’ve done some clay rendering there is always a hankering to do a bit more.  It gets into your blood so to speak.

I’d missed the first week, where they’d concentrated on rendering the outside of the building and arrived just as the interior was commencing. There had just been raw bales of straw at the start, which need to be promptly covered to protect them from the elements and rodent attack.  We worked at an unpressured pace, achieving a huge amount of work within the allotted time.  Just a small section upstairs to complete at a later date and a couple of patches that needed quiet, undivided attention to get right.  I got stuck in to some of the more challenging tasks such as corners and getting the two sides of doorway and window openings to match.  It was great to be given the opportunity, wonderful to have advice and guidance of a professional within the field and a proud moment to be told that my work was ‘superb’ by someone as exacting as Anaig.  

The week flew by, we never left the building site, dining in the adjacent barn or outside when it was fine, showering in a makeshift shower room with camping showers hoisted up by a pulley system and spending the evenings discussing our various projects and plans for the future.  

I’ll have to pop back again later in the year to see how work is progressing.  The site stops and starts as Anaig is still working on other projects to fund her build. 

what a beautiful setting

waiting for windows, doors, cladding and a roof

core render complete

straw walls before render

now that's a picture frame

some of the tools we used

A Fuller week

Here’s a tiny glimpse of a great week spent with good friends from the UK.  For some reason there is minimal photographic evidence, but I have excellent memories of us having a lovely time.  A lack of sunshine on certain days meant that the showering facilities were rather colder than expected and the composting loo was deemed not to be up to the standards of modern day living, a few too many flying, stinging, biting things for comfort, but all in all, I believe a positive experience.  We ate and drank well and had several tourist excursions to places that I would never have visited on my own.

A great, though much longer than expected, walk in the mountains to see the tallest waterfall in europe.  Little Emma did amazingly well having set out on a walk that we thought was going to be an hour and a half but was actually nearer to five hours.  we should have taken out picnic with us.

there were that many people we could see where to go

can you spot the Fuller family?

getting soaked

Brilliant achievement

Cirque de Gavarnie from a distance

Next time I’ll wear appropriate footwear when I have the opportunity to visit the local amusement park. Parc de Demi Lune.   Proper flying fox and tree top rope bridge experiences - they didn’t approve of flip flops as appropriate foot wear otherwise I’d have spend half the day up in the trees.  Emma thoroughly enjoyed her pony ride and we all had great fun with the craziest crazy golf ever, but the best bit for everyone were the bumper boats.  Out on a lake with ten or so other bumper boats.  Little, inner tube surrounded tubs powered with outboard motors, with their drivers intent on bumping into and splashing the other occupants, known or otherwise, for fifteen minutes or so.  It was a free for all, we all ended up soaked having had great fun.

The whole visit flew by in a moment and i was left standing in a bit of a daze, had a short moment to gather my thoughts before heading off for a weeks’ participation on a straw bale build project in the mountains.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

an untended bounty

I had always imagined that a vegetable garden needed constant attention for it to thrive, so my spring efforts were somewhat of an experiment, knowing full well that I would be absent for a good three months at the start of the growing season.    I had diligently planted a whole array of seeds and seedlings before my departure, tucking them in with a good layer of mulch and through the wonders of modern technology, 3 minutes of water each morning through fifty meters or so of leaky hose.

From the cool of the UK I watched the weather maps as a heat wave passed overhead, temperatures frequently reaching the mid 30’s and several weeks without a drop of rain.  Would my tiny quantity of irrigation be adequate?  Had the sun fried everything to a crisp?  would the deer have found a bounty of tender shoots and ravaged everything in site?  I could only wait and see.

Prior to my return, the weather had broken and a series of storms had passed over the region giving everything (left?) a good dousing.  The weather continued to be warm, but the excessive heat had passed for the time being.

Wow, what a wonderful surprise.  I strimmed my way towards the vegetable beds, clearing the thigh length grass and weeds as I went, to be greeted by an a bountiful array.  There was a massive carpet of squash and pumpkin leaves reaching the length of the plot, numerous orange and red mounds protruding through the greenery.  Spires of swiss chard thrusting up through the weedy undergrowth, hints of beetroot leaves poking through - the tenderest, sweetest beetroot that I have tasted in an age, large as a fist and without a blemish in sight.  They had sheltered well under the weedy layer.  The french bean seeds had germinated, done their thing and plump pods of semi dried beans awaited harvest.  They will do well for soups and stews later on.  A second sowing followed immediately and are now flowering several weeks on.  The lettuce had thrived and produced great flower heads of fluffy seed that was caught and blown by the breeze, I’ll not have to sow lettuce again for a while I imagine.  Four tiny tomato seedlings, had decided to stay too, planted the size of a match stick and abandoned, I hadn’t imagined for a moment anything would come of them.  Left to their own devices, without support or training, they had spread wildly, crossing paths and scrambling through the current bushes.  Garlands of green tomatoes nestled in the foliage, here and there with the faintest hint of red.  Again, they have continued well, providing a bountiful crop for over a month, unfortunately recently hit by blight after a few wet weeks, the remaining crop has been immediately transformed into jars of chutney.

There are varieties that are missing in action.  No carrots, new zealand spinach or parsnips.  I imagine that they either didn’t germinate or got crowded out by the weeds.  Many seeds need frequent watering till they become established in a garden situation, others may have been discovered by the birds, slugs, snails or smothered by mulch.  

Now that the bulk of the weeds have been cleared.  More accurately I should say reduced, a few late starters are emerging.  Not surprising really as the dense weed layer was at least waist high in places.  Brassicas are taking up the challenge and forging ahead, I remember last year, they did very little till the cool of the autumn arrived, then forged ahead to produce admirable.  It looks as if we’re heading the same way this year.  Curly kale, savoy cabbage, hopefully brussel sprouts here we come.  I say hopefully, as my random line free planting doesn’t allow for easy labeling, so it’s a case of wait and see.

As the season progresses I keep sowing a few more seeds, tucking in a few more transplants of things for later on.  It’s a never ending process, cultivating food, harvests need to continue for as long a time as possible and with as much variety as can be achieved.  The variables are enormous so it’s always an exciting challenge.

When I find the lead to connect my camera I’ll post some photos and you’ll see the transformation over the last few months.  It’s great to be back to see what has been occurring in my absence.  

Elsewhere the weeds have grown and it almost looked like it did when I first bought the property.  This time, however, it’s quick strim to get the place back into some sort of order.  Those back breaking hours of bramble root chasing certainly paid off.  I’d certainly recommend taking the time to dig out that knobbly bit of root where all the bramble stems spring from, as opposed to just strimming the stems back, relentlessly for years and years.

Friday, September 18, 2015

an untended bounty - a few photos

Still not taken a great number of photos, but here are a few of my successes in the garden:

Thursday, September 17, 2015

a dilemma

A dilemma, or as one good friend remarked, a golden spanner in the works.

After patiently waiting for many years, I have received monies owed to me from a venture that I left nearly a decade ago. Through changing circumstances my ex colleagues have managed to buy my share of a house and land that we owned together, something that I hadn’t envisaged happening for many years, perhaps at retirement age or possibly never.

Immediately after receiving the cheque, I was overjoyed to come to the end of the waiting, the uncertainty of broken promises and disappointments as their attempts to arrange finance fell through.  The relief to no longer worry that investment for repair and upgrade would become necessary on a house that I no longer wanted or needed.  

Over time the weight of this invisible burden is lifting and the life changing possibilities of such additional finance are dawning on me.  A process of realisation that has continued for several months now with more and more diverse and interesting options manifesting themselves to me as time goes by.

Needless to say, my original projects are on hold whilst I reevaluate my options and try to discover the true impact of this fortunate change in circumstances.  I shall take my time and enjoy discovering the possibilities.  There is no rush to press on regardless and the future will reveal itself when it is good and ready. 

Thursday, August 20, 2015


Bristol was a real treat.  I’d never been before and was lucky enough to stay with a great friend, Mike, just before he packed up and headed to a new life in Spain.  He knows the town like the back of his hand and we spend several days touring round all the interesting and alternative spots that he thought might take my fancy........

Clifton Suspension Bridge

Eco hamlet in central Bristol

they even stick pencils in the road outside schools!!

Gaudi style community restaurant

Shaun the sheep was everywhere - on tour

Then off to see Simon, another host with a stunning wooden house and fascinating gardens just out of town.  A short visit but definitely worthwhile and someone I hope to meet up with again.  His home was an inspiration to home made, lifestyle similarly put together and outlook on life coming from the same sort of place as me.  Along with two other helpers we had a terrific time, ate the most amazing vegan, mainly raw, feasts and put the world to rights.

my home for the week

hand made home

a pizza rocket stove

inside the wooden yurt

with a mezzanine bedroom space

grow it all together garden

brilliant use of digger tracks

My return, through Bristol was timed for Bristol Pride. Stayed with Mike again. I hadn’t been on a Pride march since the 90’s in London and was pleasantly surprised with the size and efficacy of the event.  The march, complete with banners, music and chanting took us through the centre of town, including a shopping centre! culminating in a canal side park with stands, stalls and a couple of stages hosting various acts.  The main stage, rather mainstream and modern for my tastes so I tended towards the alternative stage, with drag acts singing the old favourites, encouraging audience participation and plenty of the usual acid humour thrown in for good measure.  We ate drank and enjoyed the acts, scenery and spectacle of the day before heading back for a couple of hours shut eye before heading out clubbing.  The things one misses without realising.  I had thought that my clubbing days were long gone, but no.  I thoroughly enjoyed myself, dancing the night away through to four or so in the morning.  Unlike days gone by, I was fuelled with mineral water and lemonade this time so woke up the next morning almost as bright as a button, vowing not to let it be so long again before I hit the dance floor again.