October 2010

This week, Her Outdoors has been adding to the clay oven, which had a door cut into the side of it (at the regulation 63% of interior height measurement) and a new layer of clay, this time mixed with straw. Right now it looks like this:

Slightly OCD readers will be alarmed that the image on the Sand Filter Cam has not changed all week. This has been due to a technical fault genuinely beyond our control and – besides – it rained at the weekend and the mud has been too treacherous to dig out. Happily, it’s dry enough to move now. Unhappily, it’s going to start raining again in the next couple of hours.

But I’ve kept myself busy clearing a space for the pond the sand filter will run into, turning some overstood chestnut into firewood for next winter, at the same time (and this really is exciting) creating our first coppiced area of managed woodland. It looks a bit devastated at the moment, but will spring back to life in the appropriately named season.

While felling these largely dead and dying trees, I did spend time thinking about the current UK government’s idea about selling off half the nation’s forests. I didn’t come to any conclusions, but think they should have the decency to call a snap election and give everyone a chance to kick them into touch. Buffoons.

If you’ve been following my tweets over the last two days (and why the hell should you – what’s with this twitter thing anyway – I, for one, don’t get it), you’ll know I’ve been working on a hole. You don’t need to imagine it – it looks like this:

It’s not a new hole. In fact, a friend with a JCB started it last year and left it looking like this:

Perhaps I wouldn’t have been smiling quite so broadly if I knew about the next few weeks I would spend with a pick and shovel making it the shape it was supposed to be (5m x 5m x 1.10m to be exact) before finding out we couldn’t afford the €1,400 of sand and gravel we needed to fill the hole back up again. Which meant leaving it over the winter, and watching the walls collapse a little, and wondering what was going to happen next.

It became one of the Great Unfinished Projects.

What happened next was some excellent news of an inward investment nature. Which meant the Sand Filter (not the Swimming Pool as some guests guessed) could go ahead at last. But before we could fill it with sand and gravel, we needed to know how deep it needed to be. Which meant digging a trench from the sceptic tank…

…and taking a measurement. I then started to level off the bottom of the hole before realising my measurement was 10cm out, and the whole hole had to go that much deeper. Which brings me in a roundabout way to the point I am trying to make about the Great Pyramid at Giza.

When you’re digging a Very Big Hole by Hand, you have to minimise the amount of energy expended. I started with the wheelbarrow thuswise…

…hoofing (if I can be technical for a moment) the claysandy soil from 110cm below ground level up into the air to land in the barrow without knocking it over, and without spilling too much outside the barrow which would have to be picked up again.

After a day of this, I thought: Surely it would be better to have the barrow in the hole with me, and have a ramp leading out of the hole. I would expend less energy hoofing the soil through the air and, half-filling the barrow, would possibly save energy in the long run (we’re talking about several cubic metres of soil, here). I tried it for a while…

…and realised the ramp would get slippery and dangerous very fast.

Then Her Outdoors suggested knocking a hole through the side of the hole (which needed to be there eventually, for drainage) and driving the wheelbarrow through the wall at ground level. A curiously female and alarmingly sensible idea, which looks like this:

I will never know how long it would have taken for me to arrive at this solution. I was going to go back to the wheelbarrow-on-high and would have sweated and strained until it was time to dig the hole in the wall. Which is why I think a woman must have been involved in building the pyramids.

The first row of stones would have been pretty straightforward, being rolled along the ground in time-honoured style. The next row, I imagine, would have involved dozens of men with some stout hemp rope pulling stones from ground level; straining away, getting awesomely fit in the process. Or maybe someone invented a complex-looking pulley device that struck wonder into visitors from across the known world.

Over dinner, I can picture one woman asking the Chief Engineer why he didn’t just build a gentle ramp and roll the stones into place. I know the pause that would have followed this suggestion. I’ve lived that pause many times.

Fiendishly clever, these women.

Lots of people build clay ovens. This week, we started ours by marking out a circle on the ground:

Building a circle of stones using dry-stone-wall skills, with a thin layer of lime mortar to hold them in place (and stop hornets nesting in the cracks):

Completing the stone circle (which is filled with rubble that’s been sitting around up here looking untidy):

Laying some sand on the top to get it Really Flat, and placing some fire bricks (which have also been sitting around for a while) on top:

Making the inside shape of the oven, using bought sand that will be re-used later:

Covering it with newspaper:

Building up the first layer using our own clay and some more of that sand:

And finishing it just before dark:

We couldn’t have done this so fast without our new friends Ben and Anna who, for the second time this year, stayed an extra night because they couldn’t tear themselves away.

(Obviously, this wasn’t the only thing we did this week. We also cut, split and stacked a huge amount of wood, and dug a Very Important Trench. But it wasn’t all lazing around, enjoying the Relaxing French Lifestyle – we also ate great food, drank excellent wine, and stayed up far too late, far too often.)

One of this winter’s Very Big Jobs is to cut a road through the woods. It’s hard for me to spin this as eco friendly, so I won’t even try, but almost every tree I have cut down has been acacia, which is very fast-growing, incredibly strong, and perfect for fenceposts, steps etc.

But before we began, we had to locate a disused water pipe running between the Shack and the new pumping station. We should cut the pipe, the man from the Water Services said, on both sides of the access road and take the pipe out of the ground. I failed to find the pipe using their metal detector, so I did what any other rational person would do: I dowsed for it.

To dowse, simply destroy a perfectly good metal coat-hanger, create two L-shapes and stand quietly for a moment, holding a precisely framed question in your mind. (At least, I think that’s what you do – I know there are books on it, but I have’t read them). Then walk forwards slowly and wait for the rods to cross. Which they do.

(On doing this, I felt sure this is where the ‘X marks the spot’ expression comes from.)

I repeated the exercise a number of times, asking for the exact centre of the pipe. Then I started to dig for it. Eventually, when I had dug up to my armpit, I found this:

Which is just a hole. Disappointing, sure, but no great loss. Because a short time later, like a DIY episode of Time Team, a JCB arrived:

After just a few scoops, he found this:

Which is just another hole, only bigger. Disappointing, yes – and confusing. You see, I got Her Outdoors to check my dowsing with hers, and her rods crossed at EXACTLY the same points as mine – on both sides of the road. Which begs the question: What had we found?

It certainly wasn’t the water pipe, which was discovered about 12 feet away from where we thought it was; and way more than an arm’s reach into the ground:


This is what I’ve been doing for the last two days with our new HelpXer:

I call it: “A path”.