November 2009

I happened to meet the mayor today, while picking up some papers to scrap or sell the car. ‘Work (on the house) coming on?’ She offered.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘But not so well with the business.’

‘Why? What?’ She said.

I told her that: ‘People have told us it can go ahead with only a Simple Declaration in the Mairie; Her Outdoors picked up the papers and went to the DDE (Planning) to get help filling it in; Madame Couderc said it couldn’t be done with a Simple Declaration and had to be a full CU…’

She didn’t even let me finish. ‘If the DDE have said no (they haven’t – one woman has said no and not even on paper), I can’t change it. I’m not going to fight for you. If they’ve said no (they haven’t), it can’t be done (it can).’ Then she walked away angrily, muttering something about yurts.

Which, I must admit, left me feeling more than a little pissed off.

With good reason.

Here were are (actually, I am – Her Outdoors gave up the fight a few weeks ago, in tears after that meeting with Madame Couderc), trying to launch a sustainable, forward-thinking business IN ORDER TO PAY TAXES, create employment in an area which is bereft – and not just for the over-educated, formerly well-off English population – and promote environmental tourism. And here is my mayor, whose duty it is to support her constituents, telling me she won’t support me – mere months after giving me her word that everything would be OK.

The apparent futility of trying to get the yurt camp off the ground – or rather, onto it – and the pissed-offness it caused all morning made me realise I don’t have the strength to fight this any longer, either.

I give up.

We came to this country to live self-sufficiently because land in the UK was too expensive. We are still utterly behind that decision. It feels right. It is right.

Trying to get the yurt camp on the ground has caused endless amounts of grief, sapped us of our capital and, at times, made us resent our land – our 14-odd acres of woods and meadow – which is insane. I have often suspected that we would only succeed in getting past all the rules and regulations one moment before the global economy crashed and all the rules would be thrown out of the window anyway. So I’ll stop early and save my energy for some much-needed focus on self-sufficiency.

We’re a long way from it. But we’re a hell of a lot closer than we were.

Oh yes. I nearly forgot. For sale:
o Three 18-foot coppiced chestnut yurt frames (with or without covers), two of which have extra-wide doors for disabled access.
o One 12-foot coppiced chestnut yurt with extra-wide door for the same reason.

If you or anyone you know has the land and the stomach for a fight, do get in touch. Friends and friends of friends, worry not. There’ll be a yurt for you here and we’d love to see you. We’ve got a few stories. Let me tell you.


A very short time later, we had a visit from the mayor, we ungave up, we built a yurt camp, opened for business, were listed as one of the top 10 eco campsites in Europe by The Guardian, were filmed by ITV1 for a series called Little England and a whole lot of other stuff. More recent posts explain how.

I’ve learnt a few things since the car’s been out of action.

Thing one: You meet a lot more people when you don’t have a car. (Although most of them are either helping you out, or trying to.)

Thing two: Suggesting you can live without a car has the same reaction on people as suggesting you can live without a house. (And here we are, basking in a very warm and cosy yurt, tossing the occasional piece of free wood into the Yotul, feasting on venison given to us by another parent from school.)

Thing three: A crime against humanity seems to be being (a rare construction, that) perpetrated by at least one Western government. Here, it’s called Prime à la casse. The guy in the breaker’s yard told me…

I went in to find out if I could have a new-old engine put in the car. Fine, they said: Engine €300. Fitting it, an extra €1,200. Bugger, I said. That’s the same as the Renault garage. Too rich for my blood. How about trying to sell it without a working engine?

Non-starter, I was told.

During the following conversation, the very nice man pointed out of the window at a car very much like mine. Only in perfect working order. It was sold to the breakers for €70, on condition that IT MUST BE SCRAPPED. Me and my friend who drove me there were open-mouthed. The very nice man said he had a Golf IV – €70 but must be scrapped. Apparently, it’s to create a shortage in the second-hand car market so people are forced to buy new.

It makes me want to cry, I said.

Me too, he said.

You probably know about this from the telly – sadly, like the tractor and now the car, our fantastic small TV/DVD player is out of service – but it’s news to me. In a world where there are clearly enough cars, governments are encouraging the scrapping of perfectly good vehicles to make room for even more.

I don’t know what to say.

Her Outdoors drove down our lovely new road the other day and said the car had lost power and started making a horrible noise. So I took it to our usual garage.

‘Ooo,’ he said. Only in French. ‘Sounds like it could be the timing belt.’

Hoping not, I left the car there and awaited further news.

The next day, I phoned several times and was told something about letters in the post.

The day after that, I got the letters. Actually, bills that appeared to be for someone else. The name was right, the street was very like one we used to live on, but we’d never lived in the village. So the whole family walked into town and I questioned the invoices. Surely they are for someone else, I suggested.

She showed me the dates: 2007. My bills, unpaid, forgotten about, sent to an address that didn’t exist. Bills for about €300.

‘OK,’ I said. ‘I’m pretty sure I paid them. I’ll have a look at home (yurt). But what about the work to fix the car now?’ She showed me an estimate for €2,200. Could be less, but they’d want €840 before even looking at the engine.

We have less than €20.

At yurt (home), I found another invoice that seems to be unpaid, for €145. (Stay with me here, if you can be bothered.) Another thing: The heater doesn’t work. Other things: The back door holder-uppers don’t work (and one of the invoices from 2007 was to replace them when they broke last time). Which would be about another €450.

So it’s beginning to look like we’re not going to repair the car. Or even replace it – an idea that would save us around €250 a month in fuel and insurance. Which would also draw a line through (not under) our €150 a month overspend.

The only real difficulty is going to be getting the kids to school.

More on this, later.

Turn up unexpectedly with some big machines.

Scrape back the crummy old road and add a fresh base of pale stone… Wait for a while (or some time, whichever is more random)… Then turn up unexpectedly with more big machines and add a layer of black gravel.

Roll flat (at this stage I didn’t think the new road would be up to much).

Bring in more big machines.

Spray what we used to call tar (I think it’s called tar now).

Add gravel, looking thoroughly bored by the whole process.


Repeat until the sun fades.

(Needful to say, Boy no longer wants to work in the garage where they test cars for road-worthiness. Now he wants to drive a blue roller.)

Bob moved on to pastures new today, but not before leaving permanent marks all over écovallée, many of which will never be seen. I’ve got to say, he’s a very handy guy to have around. Because it’s true. Look:

Here, Bob’s hands are applying lime mortar on top of Isochanvre – a carbon-positive, hemp-based insulation product we used to block up a gaping hole under the bathroom window. My mistake. (Note to people ordering windows over the phone in France: They always give the height before the width in this country. Even if you say, ‘115 centimentres side to side’ just to confirm. Don’t say I didn’t tell you.)

As with all Bob’s work – and now his time with us – it was beautifully finished.

After a meeting at the Chamber of Commerce a few weeks ago, we discovered that all we needed to do was make a Simple Declaration at the Mairie and our yurt camp would be up and running. The Maire wouldn’t even need to send it for approval from the regional capital.

So we picked up the forms for a Simple Declaration from the Mairie. (Imagine here a photo of many, many sheets of paper, all numbered, in triplicate.)

Her Outdoors filled it in.

She took it back to the Mairie to ask if she’d done it right.

The Secretary looked shocked. How the hell would she know? The only people who know are the Planning People (remember them). We must phone them and ask. They answer the phones from Tuesday to Thursday, she added helpfully.

Today is the next Tuesday. Her Outdoors phoned and was invited to a two o’clock meeting.

She went and saw a very familiar face, and found (among other things):
o We could apply for permission using the Simple Declaration but there is no point, as the people in the regional capital will only reject it.
o Buying the Shack didn’t change our case in the slightest – why don’t we buy a piece of land with camping already on it? Or apply to have our land re-zoned?
o The Maire can’t decide on camping using Simple Declarations any more – everything has to get sent to the regional capital.
o The regional capital has just decreed (by ‘just’ I mean “just” – the woman Her Outdoors spoke to was the only person in Planning to know this) that all camping must now be applied for formally, with a CU (regular readers will know what this means).

So it seems we’ve come full circle. Back to the beginning.

It’s OK though. I have a few ideas.

The Very Exciting Idea I had the other day is a way of raising money to make écovallée even more fabulously eco.

It’s called: “YURTOPOLY”.

As might be expected from the name, it’s a Game/Prize Draw/Thing where players pay €2 for the chance of winning a week in écovallée in July 2010. Having investigated it a little further, it might well be illegal.

But the possibility of super-eco-luxury having raised it’s beautiful head again (rather than the less glamourous although less expensive and therefore open to more People Like Us alternative), I carried on thinking.

And my think went like this: What we’re doing here, fighting the French system to open a sustainable, forward-looking etc etc business, is a bit like cycling from John O’ Groats to Land’s End and back again – several times – only more demanding. And people get sponsored to do that kind of thing. Which is how “FRIENDS OF ECOVALLEE” came to be.

It would cost €10 to become a Friend; for €50 you could become a Good Friend (and have a free massage when you’re here); for €100 you could become a Great Friend (and get two nights free when you book a week); and for more than that you could become a Soulmate and enjoy our unending love and appreciation (two people have already done this).

My question to you is: What do you think? All comments welcome.

Not that I’m lazy or anything, but I’ve just joined Twitter. And it’s got nothing to do with Search Engine Optimization or Driving New Traffic to this site, or to for that matter.

(That last sentence is a lie – we’ve got a business to open next year fordeityssake.)

You’d be forgiven for thinking that all is not well in the vallee of eco.

We’ve been spending our days rushing from one fire-fighting job to another: a(nother) escaped pig who needed capturing with the aid of yet more fence and a(nother) expensive battery; a sick child, then ten days of school holiday, then the same child sick with a different illness; a car with no heater at the start of winter, necessitating trips to breakers yards in search of parts that, like black cats in dark rooms, aren’t there; multiple trips to builders merchants to express surprise at outrageous French prices; escorting an injured Bob to hospital after a few strenuous days burying a sceptic tank; and much more besides, like today, which we spent moving our treasured belongings from the basement which Her Outdoors discovered to be flooded first thing this morning, to the attic space, where they will hopefully stay dry tomorrow.

In fact, I don’t think I would be exaggerating to suggest that we have, at times, been a little upset.

HOWEVER (and it’s a big however if you didn’t notice), thanks to something Bob said the other evening (I know, I still haven’t told you about Bob), I’ve had a very exciting idea. Which I will tell you about. Soon.