March 2010


We’ve been on an emotional rollercoaster this last week. Wow.

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It looks like our original Notaire was not entirely honest with us. (Fortunately, for him, he covered himself, the estate agent and the seller from conventional repercussions – and helped pull off what could reasonably be alleged a pretty good white collar crime.)

Two of the things I have learnt in the last few days, which would almost certainly have stopped us buying this land a few years ago are: 1) The planning permission (which increased the value of the land from €15,000 to €70,000) was not transferable – ie, if we’d wanted to build the house the planning was for, we would not have been allowed; and 2) The land was always in a non-constructible zone, and the guy we bought it from had to pull special levers to get the permission – he even skipped the CU application step and went straight to Permis du Construire. But no one we’ve spoken to knows how.

So aside from some kind of presidential involvement, plans for a beautiful luxury yurt campsite with all the latest green technology, with school visits out of the holiday season, where children can learn about sustainable development, natural waste treatment, recycling, traditional farming techniques – all that fun, forward-thinking stuff – are almost certainly never (almost certainly never say almost certainly never) going to happen here.

Having written the dossier, I’ve also discovered a few eyebrow-raising things. Like the money we’ve already spent (over €160,000) and the money we still need to make the luxury idea happen (almost €40,000 to the centime).

I now have to write a new, stripped down dossier, so I can go and ask a bank for money to create what we definitely are allowed (with the verbal go-ahead from the mayor): A single yurt for guests (this year) with facilities that are, shall we say, much more rustic. Not quite easyurt – the no frills yurt holiday I was joking about with Bob last summer – but not far off.

The temptation to write an article for the UK national press about how impossible it is for a single family to live sustainably in the developed west – even with a considerable capital investment – is strong. (It could even be strongly worded.) But that would seem like continuing to fight – which is something I am not going to do any more.

Instead, I’m going back to my simple, honest, peaceful peasant life, and pour my energy into making this little corner of a foreign field an even more beautiful place. Content to know that all non-conventional repercussions for any actual dishonest behaviour will be (here’s a gag for all you spiritual types out there) universally applied.

Oh, one more thing. Some people have implied privately that this blog is a little depressing. If so, I have failed as a writer – and the sense of detached amusement I have always tried to convey has been a bit too subtle. It’s true, I tend to dance around things a bit (you should read some of the scripts I’ve written where the biggest things happen off camera), and I almost never say things simply. So, for the record, I’d like to say this:

We are having the time of our lives.
We are happier than we’ve ever been.
We live in a more beautiful place than we’ve ever lived.
And we know the best days of our lives are still ahead.

We are in the right place at the right time – and if not knowing a few things helped that happen, there’s nothing wrong with that.

I’ve been resisting writing it for a couple of years and more. Partly (I realise now it’s almost done), because I didn’t know who or what it was for.

Let me make that a little less clear.

In France, you are nothing without a Dossier. You need one for your bank, your social services, your utility companies, your planning applications and, most especially, your new business ideas. I suspect most of these dossiers sit on desks, or on shelves, and are only referred to by the person to whom they are addressed, with a sweep of an arm, to demonstrate how much work they have to do. I’ve resisted writing one because I find writing quite hard (even after 18 years as a professional) and absolutely do not like wasting my time.

So what’s changed?

We have a meeting this week with Someone Really Quite Important. I won’t go into details, but (our old friend coincidence making a welcome return) he is a proper politician whose responsibilities are tourism and durable development. To make the process of turning it into French a little easier, I also have an offer of help from some previous owners of our land, who are near neighbours, one of whom is an English teacher at the local school, and both of whom have been active environmentalists for the last 30 years.

You can see why I might be eversoslightly excited. The temptation to feel that it’s all falling into place (what with a big meeting going on in the regional capital today about natural waste treatment on campsites) is strong. But let’s not get hasty.

I spent what was a beautiful day outside yesterday, inside, putting the dossier together – with further help from iWork on this laptop, which could put a lot of people I used to know out of business – and it looks pretty good. I just need to have a read through and send it to my neighbour.

Then I need to getback outside and do some proper work.

This morning I said to Her Outdoors that we had pate for lunch, but were short of a main meal for the day. (I was thinking chicken, but the butchers are pricey and the supermarket’s closed – it being a Sunday and this being a country that still plays by the Old Rules.)

She said: ‘Rabbit?’

Remember when I stood in the woods a couple of years ago wondering where I was going to find all the wood for the yurt platforms? It’s a bit like that – down in the Orchard/Chicken Run we have (other than chickens) ten rabbits approaching the right size for the table – one male definitely heavier than the rest – and the boys have recently started fighting, despite spending all day in a run with fresh grass under their feet.

Armed with a small, sharp (boning) knife, I went down to the not-supermarket, wondering if my headache was related to what I did yesterday evening with friends, or what I was about to do with the rabbit. (I’m still in the early stages of killing, and rabbits are especially fluffy. The last two were despatched by my friend Paul.)

I talked to the rabbits, asked them if they were still fighting, nearly backed out of the whole thing, then picked out the one who had selected himself by virtue of his size. I had a little difficulty holding him by the back legs, during which time I dropped him on the ground. Immediately, in my mind, he became a threat to our veggie patch and a potential pest that had to be dealt with (all without moving a muscle), which is what happened next. I then skinned and gutted him (this I’ve only done one and a half times before, although I’ve seen it done two and a half times – I didn’t do a bad job, but will research videos on youtube for technique and will post any excellent ones I find), and brought him back for dinner.

Which is what’s going to happen next. (Nothing too flash – you can use any chicken recipe for rabbit – I’m going to do a casserole – it could be the last one this winter… The weather’s just about to turn very, very warm.)

Felling trees is a bit of a hit and miss affair, for me.

More than once, I have carefully cut the horizontal line facing the direction I want the tree to fall; then the sloping diagonal line that meets the first line and spits out a wooden cheese wedge at my feet; then the second horizontal line from the other side of the tree (stay with me, here)… only to watch the tree fall – exactly – in the wrong direction.

A few times, I’ve made the same cuts and the tree has fallen – perfectly – where I wanted it.

Today was different. Today, I cut down some of my favourite dead trees (the cold is still with us in the mornings and these trees are very close to the yurt. Why drag wood from 100 yards [metres] away when it’s right there looking at you when you open the door?) This is what the tree tops looked like at lunchtime, when I’d only taken a few down:


I don’t know why I’ve always liked them. There’s something of the Crown of Sauron about them, I suppose.

Anyway, I did OK. Only one tree went in the opposite direction (I said that could happen). But it didn’t hurt the neighbour’s fence.

I got to the last tree. The biggest. Probably the tallest. I decided to fell it at 90 degrees to the yurt, for maximum safety. I asked Her Outdoors to leave the yurt, just in case (I said they were close). I made my first cut. Then my diagonal. Then the final cut. The tree started to go.

Me: (SHOUTING – A RARE THING) No! No!

Tree: (SILENT)

It went precisely towards the centre of the yurt. Even a tree surgeon couldn’t have planned it better. (I don’t need to tell you how inconvenient it would be to have a tree destroy our home, our stuff, the work Her Outdoors is doing, what with the client arriving this afternoon.) There was a great crashing of dead wood and an even greater sigh of relief. It fell short of the door by a few feet.

I wonder if that’s where the expression “Going sideways” comes from.

The yurt was flapping a bit the other night (probably something to do with the 140kph wind outside) and, at about three-something in the morning, Her Outdoors suggested I check the ropes on the roof-wheel cover. Which I did.

For some reason, I went to the front of the shack first, to check if the tiles were still on the roof (we dry laid these without any mortar – I was understandably curious). While I was there, shining the torch (US: Flashlight, not blowtorch) at the building there was a loud CRACK!

There was a lot of wind. It was pretty scary. I checked the ropes and went back to bed in the safety of the yurt.

The following morning, we saw this:


The loud CRACK was clearly my new compost bin breaking as a large ash was blown through it, coming to rest on the electricity cable that feeds the shack. If that cable wasn’t there, there’s a good chance I’d be dead right now. Which would have been both inconvenient and embarrassing (I wasn’t even wearing any trousers).

(I did’t know how dead I would have been until edf came and cut the tree down today. I chopped it up for firewood, thinking it would be as light as the dead chestnut I’ve been cutting recently – but when I picked the pieces up, it was surprisingly heavy. I would have hit me like a ton of tree.)