January 2012

Following a bit of research on tree bogs and how to build a tree bog, during which I found this link from PermaWiki with words and pictures and this video from the excellent woodland.co.uk site, I have a plan for a tree bog of our own.


I’ve never had such a detailed plan before, and I’m pretty excited about it. (Could it be that I’m actually learning something?)

To explain the image, there’s a 30 cm slope on the land over two metres (the whole thing will be two metres by two to allow room for a sink and baby changing area). The purple bits will be round wood stripped of bark to stop the little beasties that like to live under it; the turquoise bits will be sawn pine from a local builders’ merchant; and the pink bit will be decking. Everything else will make sense during the build process which will start as soon as the rain stops (hopefully Monday).

For anyone who thinks we’re over-engineering this, we over-engineer everything. Many of our guests have very young children and safety is obviously our main concern, along with beauty. Hopefully this tree bog will be both.

The first surprising thing is the length of those roundwood uprights – 3.45 metres on average and there are nine of them. It always amazes me how much wood goes into even a small building. If you’re in a building now, take a look around and picture the materials that went into it.

I know.

I nearly always forget to take proper “Before” shots before (ahem) starting a new project. But I always, always regret it. “Before” is not a moment that can ever be recaptured in all its natural glory.

For example, long-term readers may remember this shot from way back in November 2007, nearly before work on the orchard began:

Here’s the orchard today (“After” shots are easy):

Complete with new dividing fence which means we can rest the ground every six months to help keep the chickens healthy:

More recent readers may remember this shot from last November, almost-before I let the pigs into a new piece of woodland:

And here’s what the pigs have done to it after almost exactly two months:

Even more recent readers may have seen this shot of the field from just over a month ago, not very before the triticale we hand-planted started poking through the soil:

And this is what it looked like shortly after noon today:

But this is the reason for today’s blog post – a genuine, bona fide “Before” shot of the new Tree Bog:

Now all I’ve got to do is build it.

In April 2008, Her Outdoors noticed some wild orchids in écovallée. The following year, we paid more attention and photographed 10 on the land and another two across the road for good measure. Since then I’ve been too busy to record the dates they were spotted (but those I have are shown in brackets).

Early Purple Orchid (24/04/08, 18/04/09, 9/04/10, 27/03/11, 04/04/12)

Burnt Orchid (24/04/08, 18/04/09, 20/04/10, 10/04/11, 10/04/12)

Lady Orchid (18/04/09, 10/04/11)

Fly Orchid (18/04/09, 08/05/12)

White Helleborine (30/04/09, 20/04/11, 05/05/12)

Pyramid Orchid (18/05/08, 30/04/09, 26/05/10, 25/04/11, 03/05/12)

Red Helleborine (14/06/08, 31/05/09, 10/06/12)

Tongue Serapia (05/05/09)

Bee Orchid (across the road – 13/05/09; in écovallée end May 2012)

Greater Butterfly orchid (13/05/09)

Common Twayblade (16/05/09)

Lizard Orchid (across the road – 16/05/09; in écovallée – 10/06/12)

This is as close to scientific study as you get on this blog. The Early Purple’s an interesting case, having appeared earlier every year for four years. Seems to be true with some of the others, too. Then you look at the Pyramid dates and see they’re all over the place.

Orchids, eh?

One of the reasons we decided to set up the écovallée family yurt camp in the Dordogne was because it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in Aquitaine, which is one of the most popular tourist destinations in France, which is the most popular tourist destination in the world.

We thought everyone would enjoy the prehistoric sites, tree and water parks, canoe rivers, walking, bike and horse trails, chateaux, gardens, medieval market towns and everything else the area has to offer. Not to mention the food and wine. (Did I mention the food and wine?)

Some have enjoyed these things so much that they’ve already been back.

But there’s more to a holiday here than, say, a drive along the valley to Castelnaud, lunch in Domme and a leisurely stroll around the unmissable Marqueyssac. And don’t feel that you have to wait until summer to come.

April and September are great months to be here. All the tourist attractions are open, the crowds practically non-existent, and the weather is typically excellent. In April you get the added bonus of seeing the woods reawaken in the most vivid green, and watching our first wild orchids appear.

More on that, later.

Once again I find myself at a crisis point when it comes to wood for the burners.

In our first winter it was understandable. We’d moved onto the land in July, didn’t have a woodburner until December and I then spent my time finding dead-standing wood that was dry enough to burn straight away. For one reason or another (sometimes both), it wasn’t always quite dry enough and occasionally a smelly brown liquid would come back down the chimney at night, dripping on the concrete paving slab under the woodburner, and splashing nastily onto the floor.

But we were warm, with no heating bills, and I reassured myself that I’d be on top of the situation by the next winter.

However, spring, summer and autumn were spent largely building and running a yurt camp. And anyhow, a summer in the Dordogne is far too hot to don thick chainsaw trousers, helmet and gloves, and lug large bits of wood around. So instead, I marked all the dead trees I could find with a West-facing “X” at eye level.

Our second winter came and I found the marked trees easily enough, which I duly cut and burnt. This time I made a wood pile near the yurt, although I never got ahead of myself enough for it to become impressive. I also cut down half an acre of overstood coppice near our yurt for firewood for winter 2013/14. Like this:

In theory, the re-grown coppice will be cut in 2018 for use in 2020, but I’m sure some will go for fencing before then (or even yurt parts). By the end of the spring I’d pretty much exhausted the convenient dead-standing wood and was lugging wood from 60 metres away and more. Of course by hand and, naturally, uphill. (Is there any other way?)

But at least I could reassure myself I’d be on top of the situation by the following winter.

Now it is the following winter. It started well, with a covered wood store (made and part filled by our friends Alex and Laura)…

…but I still haven’t been more than a few weeks ahead of our need. Added to the firewood supply issue is the fact that we now have two yurts to heat, so two burners to feed, so nearly twice as much wood to find (we sometimes leave one yurt unheated during the day). I’m now going over 100 metres to find the nearest dead-standing wood, frustratingly passing the piles of cut coppice from last year that won’t be ready until next winter. I’ve also realised that those cut lengths are too long and they’ll need cutting, splitting and stacking under cover to dry over the summer or they still won’t be ready to burn.

But at least I have the reassurance that I’ll be on top of the situation by then. Won’t I?

Why am I blogging this? I suppose to tell you that all aspects of this self-sufficiency lark take time – and each year you only get it a little bit more right. Fifteen years from now I can imagine someone visiting, seeing our impressive wood pile, productive veggie patch and orchard, crops in the field, and established coppice, and telling us how “lucky we are” to have it all so easy.

Ah, we’ll say – you just wait until you see it next year…

Almost everyone asks us if there’s a swimming lake or river nearby. I love that no one’s interested in swimming in a pool (there is one in Lalinde, but we’ve never been) almost as much as I love saying “Yes” on both counts.

The nearest swimming lake is about 6 km away at Lanquais, in the shadow of the chateau (which is worth a visit on its own). It costs a couple of euros to get in and there’s a sandy beach, lifeguard, diving platform, grassed areas with shade from trees, snack bar and, for reasons best known to whoever came up with the idea, a fleet of miniature boats you can hire for 15 minutes a go. I went last year on a Very Hot Day and it was deeply joyous to sit in the sand up to my neck in water and let the kids run (reasonably) wild. It’s a very shallow slope for a good 20 metres into the lake, along a stretch of beach maybe 100 yards long. We’ve had several guests who went several times.

About 20 minutes away is a river beach at Pont Vicq. This costs nothing to get onto, has swimming areas marked out in the water and also has trees, shade and access to ice creams. One extra bonus here is that you can hire canoes, get bussed up the river to Siorac and paddle back down the Dordogne at your pleasure. The car park’s a bit small, so you might want to get there early. For non-drivers, there’s a train station at Le Buisson which is maybe a 20-minute walk.

It wouldn’t be fair not to mention Limeuil at this point, which is one of the most beautiful places you could want to see. Two rivers meet here, with bridges across both, and there’s a beach that’s popular with friends of ours. I describe it as Richmond (in London) without the crowds. At the top of the hill is a beautiful park with panoramic views that was about €7.50 per adult to get into in 2011, but is occasionally free (which is when the locals go). There are restaurants aplenty and this is on our must-see list. We hired canoes from here last year and were bussed up to Siorac, but by Pont Vicq I was knackered (and I was pretty fit) and looked longingly at the beach knowing full well that Limeuil was probably a good 45 minutes further on.

Another thing we did for the first time last year was visit the aqua park at Le Bugue. This was unexpectedly expensive to get into (and the entrance fee had to be paid in cash) but so good that we’ll definitely go back. There are pools for all ages, water slides, those bungee things over trampolines, playgrounds, and a lake with a load of huge inflatables. Bigger kids and adults put on life vests and dive in for 30 minutes of non-stop fun. Some of the inflatables are quite hard to get onto, even for a fit person, but well worth the effort. I didn’t bother with the huge pyramid, but other people couldn’t get enough of diving and somersaulting off the top.

There are other places, but these are the ones best known to us. Please add any more recommendations in the comments bit.

My world’s always been about to end. I was born a few years after the Cuban missile crisis and grew up, as you may have done, permanently four minutes from being annihilated by a rainstorm of nuclear bombs.

But it didn’t happen.

A few years later, after many lesser-known ends of the world had come and gone, we had the year 2000. Planes might have fallen from the sky, people might have died on operating tables, and all those nuclear deterrents might have gone off anyway.

But they didn’t.

Since then, we’ve been threatened by economic and environmental collapse, social and political chaos, more nuclear bombs (this time in the hands of unelected terrorists) and at least one The Rapture.

And it still hasn’t happened.

Which brings us to 2012. You’d have to have spent a lot of time in a cave not to have heard about the Mayan calendar coming to an end on December 21st. And certainly a lot of people are going to go crazy about it between now and then. But I’m going to put my pixels on the line below and write this:

It’s not going to be the end of the world.

Obviously, if armageddon’s just a few full moons away, there’s no need to save energy, manage resources sustainably, eat and shop responsibly, and all that. But if the sun’s going to continue to rise and set, as it has for an unimaginably long time, this is exactly what we should all be doing – planning for the world to go on.

True, many people have been wilfully making a mess recently, childishly assuming that someone will tidy up after them. But it’s my impression that we are that someone. There is no one else. Just us seven and a bit billion people scattered around the place, with our unique fingerprints, talents, hopes and dreams.

If any world is going to end on December 21st 2012 (at 12:21:12 exactly, if you like), I’d like it to be the world of selfishness, ignorance and abuse. In its place I’d like to see a world of awareness, compassion and love. That’s the planet I want to live on and the environment I want to leave for future generations.

To people who say it’s not an ideal world, I agree. But it could be.

There. I’ve said it. Now I’ve got to go and work on our to-do list. You wouldn’t believe how much we want to get done before January 1st 2013.