February 2008

Yurt Professional Matt – who runs yurt-building courses and workshops at Brighton-based Future Roots, and offers seriously beautiful, hand-crafted coppiced yurts for hire through Yurtopia – came down last week with the three remaining guest yurts made by Hastings-area Yurtshop.

(If that doesn’t get me near the top of yurt web searches, I’m not sure what will. The only thing missing is “yurt campsite”.)

So now our garage has a yurt campsite in it:

With four more roof wheels in the shed behind the house and another one in the spare bedroom with our front doors, there’s a very good chance we’re the current Dordogne, Aquitaine, French or even World Record Holders for Maximum Number of Yurts in a Rented House. We’ll never know.

While he was down here, as well as testing out our fresh-out-of-the-box organic, hypoallergenic organic bamboo guest bedding (with which, he said, he had the “best night’s sleep in ages”), he also helped me make the Mark IV Horse Field (more on this, later):

This shaving horse (that’s Matt looking rightfully smug on it):

And told me how to avoid being eaten by a tiger, or trampled by an elephant. Which I hope won’t be quite so useful.

The short of it

I put in a fence post today:

The long of it

Clearly our pigs can’t be allowed to fly at will. So fencing the veggie patch with wild-boar-and-presumably domestic-pig-proof fencing has leapt in front of the chicken house as Priority Number One (capitals mine).

The last two days have seen me put in two fence posts a day. Not in the old way, but by the book – the book being Michael Roberts’ “Farm and Smallholder Fencing”. (At least I thought I was doing it by the book, but the book tells me that “straining posts” should be dug three to four feet into the ground instead of my paltry 50 cm.

I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.)

So confident was I, I took the camera to show you how nice and easy it is.

I started with a nice, clean shot of all the tools you need:

Then, after a few centimeters, I took an amusingly unexpected shot of a rock in the hole:

Not wanting to move the hole (this was for a gate post and I’d decided the gate was going to be ‘yey’ wide) and realising that every hole is different, I decided to go through the rock. I thought it would be interesting to see what was on the other side.

I never found out:

Spoil (on something to keep the job nice and clean) is supposed to be brown and earthy. This was largely pulverised limestone.

My nice, clean working area wasn’t:

And I ended up using some tools not in the original shot. To be fair, I did feel this was cheating in some kind of holistic way. Before fetching the sledgehammer, another hammer and a rock splitter, I’d been doing very well using the pointed crowbar as a kind of ground-to-underground missile. (In fact, none of these other tools came close to being as effective.)

I did remember to document ramming the earth back in:

And got a nice, clean shot of the end result:

Especially compared to the gate post (yey metres away) I put in two days ago.

According to Wikipedia, the word bureaucracy came into use in France just before the French Revolution. (You can head off in a number of directions from there. I won’t.)

Instead, I will tell you about an encounter with a woman at a counter which gave me an insight into the process of process.

After waking up at 4.15 am, being driven on a coach for six hours, changing into ski gear and renting skis for half a day, I followed the woman running our trip up to the ski pass desk. She had arranged a discount on half-day ski passes for everyone. Or so she thought.

WOMAN BEHIND COUNTER (WBC): We don’t do half-day ski passes.

WOMAN RUNNING TRIP (WRT): But I’ve arranged a discount. Look. Twenty-five euros for half a day – for everyone in the group.

WBC: Where is this group?

WRT: They’re not all here yet.

WBC: [PAUSE] We don’t do half-day passes. You’ll have to rent a full day. The full day is twenty-nine euros.

A man next to me, finding this unacceptable, stomped off to return his skis. I looked at the tariff on the wall.

ME: (TO WRT) Why don’t we get a four-hour ski pass? There’s only four hours left anyway. And it’s 24 euros. [SHUFFLING FORWARD] (TO WBC) Two four-hour passes, please.

WBC: Of course. That’s 24 euros each.

So, to answer the question: “Half a day” is never “a half day”. They’re completely different. You can tell that by looking at them.

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Three Little Pigs.

Three Little Pigs who?

Three Little Pigs who pile earth onto the electric fence to stop it working, root around all night causing random destruction to that yummy bit of grass you wanted to keep, run around in the morning pretending to be scared of the fence so you have to tempt us back inside with breakfast, watch you kick all the earth off the fence and pull extra earth away from it and adjust it so you think it’ll work next time (instead of doing all those ‘more important’ jobs you came up here to do), and then sit around all day like this.

Ah. Those Three Little Pigs.

I would celebrate my 100th post, but me and Clare have been a bit unwell.

After a sustained period of feeling strong and invincible, I’ve come over all weak and feeble. (And now, I can’t even blame commuter trains or air-conditioning.)

Needful to say, weakness and feebleness don’t really go with the peasant lifestyle. Animals still need to be fed, water (or hoses) carried. Hay sourced. Electric fencing checked. Et cetera. Then there are all the usual domestic chores that go with Two Small Children.

Thank [insert deity] for Clare, with whom these things are normally shared fifty-fifty. (Yeah, right.)

However, after a spectacularly feel-good Friday, Clare ended up on the floor of the bathroom with a violent gastric something that’s been doing the rounds. Having blacked out just before she got into the bathroom, she also fell over and badly bruised (or possibly broke) a finger.

Which is not something that goes with all the above and making yurt covers (which I can’t help with at all).

So please excuse the lack of posts.

I could write one about the wildlife we see all the time now: huge birds of prey, woodpeckers, deer, mice. Or about our trip to Ikea in Bordeaux on Monday, where I saw more people in one place than I have for over six months. I just haven’t got the energy.

I’ll just sit here until the end of this sentence, then go upstairs and put the Daughter’s new bed together.

This is especially good when you’re expecting a dozen or so chickens and about the same in fruit trees.


17 2.5m pointed fence posts
8 2m treated timbers
8 1m pointed posts
8 nails
240m 1.5mm wire
80m 2m chicken wire
80m 1m chicken wire
650 ring clips
Fencing staples

Preparation time: A few weeks


1. Simply dig a trench to form a square, 20m on each side, about 30cm down and 30cm across, and leave the earth to one side. Then place your fence posts at regular intervals, hammering them about 49.7cm into the ground (remembering that two posts will need to be roughly 1.23m apart for your door).

2. Notch your corner posts with a bow saw and used the treated timbers and 1m posts as leaners, using nails as required (I always find pre-drilling the holes stops the wood splitting).

3. Attached the wire to the top and bottom of your posts, and again 30.4cm above ground level, and tension with a Gripple.

4. Now hang the 2m chicken wire from the top-most wire, securing it with the staples and ring clips. Then hang the 1m chicken wire from the middle wire and fold gently into the trench, using more ring clips where necessary.

5. Just fill the trench with the earth and – voila! All you have to do now is make the door.

Planning and planting an orchard doesn’t need to be hard. All you need is someone to spend an unfeasibly long time choosing a selection of trees designed to give you fruit for most of the year. And then plant them for you.

Which is where Her Outdoors comes in (and even helps me write the post so I can get away with doing even less).

Without lots of technical detail (pollinating partners etc), this is the orchard now putting its roots down in ecovallee:
o Cherries – a Burlat and a Geant d’Hedelfingen – both sweet eating cherries that will fruit in May-June
o Peaches – one white and one yellow, to fruit in July-August (assuming current weather patterns)
o Plums (this is news to me) – a Reine-Claude d’Oullins and a Reine-Claude Violette (good luck finding these in B&Q) – fruiting in August-September
o Pears – a William Rouge and a Doyenne du Comice (apparently the pear of all pears) – fruiting August & October
o Apples – a Cox’s Orange Pippin (October), a Belle de Boskoop (December-February) and a Reinette de Brive (January-March but will store until May, when the cherries start)

Even with three-year-old trees, you’ll also need to wait two years (TWO YEARS!) before you can put your fruit on your table (if you’re going to paint it) or in your stomach. It’s a long-term project.

Not too long term, though. The trees will need replacing in 20-60 years. By which time Her Outdoors may need a little help. Any volunteers?

To continue the Reality TV theme for one more post, we just went on a skiing holiday.

Only for the weekend.

And only because it cost 20 euros each for me and Clare, and 10 euros each for the kids – which included transport, overnight accommodation, and breakfast and dinner on Saturday and Sunday. It had its moments. Here are two of them:

The coach is speeding down a country road. The (surprisingly loud) onboard teenagers hold a mobile phone MP3 player to the driver’s microphone, and sing along to (presumably Algerian-inspired c)rap music. Boy screams his disapproval and I don’t believe it can get any worse.

Me and The Daughter are sitting on a ski lift, surrounded by mountains. The air is beautifully clear – apart from a dense brown cloud on the left which stretches across the sky until it meets another city-sized area of smog. Alarmingly, at least two of the mountains are on fire.

More alarmingly, the fires are intentional. Some farmers are apparently taking advantage of the fact that the mountains are almost completely free of snow, and improving their soil. Let’s hope they can find a way to water whatever they plan to grow.


Alex and Clare face camera. A noisy scooter goes past.

CLARE: When we bought the land, it had planning permission for a three-bedroom family home.

ALEX: Perigordian-style.

CLARE: Perigordian-style family home. With a turret.

ALEX: And under-house parking for two 2CVs. Do you want a top-up?

CLARE: No thanks.

ALEX: Don’t mind me.

CLARE: The notaire – that’s the lawyer – said, to keep the planning permission, we had to carry on building the house. [SHORT PAUSE] If we stopped for 12 months, we’d lose the permission. [SHORT PAUSE] But we were never going to build the house – we didn’t have the money for one thing – and we thought, if you can build a house, you can build something else.

ALEX: Or put up a tent.

CLARE: And we had all this support. When we met the mayor in February, he said he loved the idea. Everyone loved the idea. It’s a great idea! Planning permission went in, in early July. We were only expecting it to take a couple of months – three months tops.

ALEX: Why 2CVs?

CLARE: So we moved over in August, which is a holiday in France. Planning was closed for another two weeks in September, for some kind of meeting. The 12-month deadline for the previous planning permission expired in September.

ALEX: It’s a small car.

CLARE: And we didn’t find out until December that the land is in a non-constructible zone – and the mayor wasn’t supporting it any more.

ALEX: It’s a family home. What if you had – I dunno – a Saab estate? Or one of those four-by-f…

CLARE: Turns out the land was always non-constructible. But the previous mayor overrode the lack of constructibility and – ta-da – suddenly it’s not a problem any more. Mayors have that much power.

ALEX: Suppose you’d have to have the house re-designed with one big garage and apply for planning permission all over again.

CLARE: Which is why we’re waiting for the new mayor to be elected in March.

ALEX: Or park it in town and buy a 2CV as a kind of… What? Have I got a red-wine moustache?

We had a “Non” in the post on Saturday. From Planning.

At first glance, this means our request for permission to build a small-but-beautiful family friendly campsite, with five yurts and all the latest green technology – compost toilets, solar showers, reed-bed grey water recycling system, solar lighting etc. (“all that fun stuff” as they actually do say in America) has been denied.

It also means this at second and subsequent glances.

With the papers returned to us, I got to read the note from the outgoing mayor, who we assumed (partly due to his support for the project a year ago) supported the project. He wrote: “This zone is non-constructible.”

I will write separately about how land we bought with planning permission for a three-bedroom home became non-constructible, and how its value dropped from the 65,000 euros we paid for it to probably around 20,000 euros. It’s an amusing story.

But you probably want to know: “What are we going to do now?”

First, we’re going to finish planting the orchard we bought on Monday. Then we’ve got lots more fencing to do (don’t knock it – it’s cheaper than the gym). A dossier to write. People to talk to. All that.

I haven’t run this past Clare yet, but I think we should apply for permission to build a small-but-beautiful family friendly campsite, with the latest green technology including compost toilets, solar showers, reed-bed grey water recycling system, solar lighting and more. With four yurts.

How could they say no?