September 2012


Just put a bottle of Hobgoblin in the freezer. In a few minutes it’ll be cold enough to celebrate the end of a week that sees the caravan looking like this:

Or more accurately, half of the caravan. Because the rest of it looks like this:

No prizes for guessing what I’m doing next week.

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I’ve been spending more time blogging recently than working on Her Outdoors’ studio-to-be. One of the reasons is that I had to get beyond a low-energy funk about the complete lack of budget for the project. With help from the local dump and a friend with stacks of thin polysytrene in their barn, I got it to this stage:

Which was OK. Then I cut up some salvaged bits of caravan to cover the walls, and Her Outdoors remembered a roll of carpet we were given a few years ago. When I dug out the carpet and some spare (ee-baa, ee-baa) underlay, I found some bits of wood that Her Outdoors bought in 2000 to make a cutting table, and a bit of kitchen side that will work perfectly down the short wall. So I’m feeling a lot more positive now it looks like this:

No, it’s not beautiful. But that’s not the point. It’s a clean, dry space in which to create beautiful things. And so far, it’s bang on budget.

From a smallholding point of view, I’m fortunate enough to have my birthday at the end of the Summer. It’s a time of plenty.

Plenty of tomatoes:

Plenty of butternut squash:

(I told you there were plenty of tomatoes.)

This year, there was even plenty wine and beer brought by visitors to écovallée. Which meant I didn’t have to spend my birthday money on anything. Which gave me the opportunity to entertain wistful ideas, like the buying of a longbow I promised myself years ago (until I saw how much they actually cost), or a new pair of gloves (although there’s really only one big hole in one of them at the moment), or something I hadn’t even thought of yet.

Unfortunately, the economic reality of smallholding caught up with me and what I actually bought was this:

From left to right: a 40 kg bag of maize, a 25 kg bag of rolled barley, a 10 kg bag of corn and a 25 kg bag of rabbit food. These are things that have to be bought with alarming frequency (except the corn – that’s a treat for the chickens and geese) and which are increasing in price at an alarming rate (and will continue to do so, until the oil runs out).

I was going to use the opportunity to write an indepth post about the economics of smallholding, including an aside about the impossibility of self-sufficiency in the early 21st Century, but that will have to wait. It’ll take a bit of time to write and I really have to get back to work on the caravan project.

So I give you this slightly self-indulgent woe-is-me post instead. (Cue world’s smallest violin.) It could have been worse, I suppose. I could have used the money to buy fuel, like last year. And the year before. (Violin fades out.) But I can’t ignore the fact that the chickens got me something in return:

Which would be perfect. If I only liked eggs.

Every now and then we get an email asking for advice on setting up a yurt camp or glampsite in France. You may be reading this because you just asked me that question and I sent you this link. Or you may be starting to explore the possibility of a life-changing adventure by putting appealing words into a search engine.

Either way, the first thing to say is: “Hi”.

(If you’ve stumbled across this post because you already run a glampsite, yurt camp, tipi place, safari encampment, tree house village or something similar in France, please add your thoughts in the comments section. You never know what our future friends and eco travel colleagues will find useful. Oh, and come round for a drink some time. Don’t be a stranger.)

Before you read on, if you haven’t read the bureaucracy category posts on this blog, now would be a good time to do so. These will give you some idea of the journey we’ve been on vis a vis the authorities. But we’ve left out some of the more horrible stuff because it’s just too upsetting to live through again.

Next, here are some thoughts based on our own experience, in this part of France:

o It’s complicated – you’ll hear this expression a lot, so you may as well start hearing it now. The good news is that it may not be as complicated as it was in 2006, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t still very, very, mind-bendingly complicated.

o We’ve been through hell putting our yurt camp together – even though it was always a beautifully simple and lovely idea – and there’s a good chance the same will happen to you. So prepare for hell. Expect to be lied to, ripped off, treated like an imbecile, lose all your money, spend huge periods of time in fruitless meetings, and just try not to be one of those people that lose everything only to return to the UK broken and disillusioned. It’s not personal. It happens to most people.

o Rules change very regularly, often on a Thursday, and usually just before you have successfully achieved everything the previous set of rules asked you to do. This can feel personal. It might be.

o If someone is not doing exactly the same as you a few hundred metres away, you may have a very tough time getting your project off the ground. It can seem that French authorities are not open to new ideas. This is why much of France is still beautiful and unspoiled (which is why people come here), but that’s not much help if you’re trying to do something new. We’ve heard about plenty of French people who have moved to the UK or US where they will not spend their lives banging their heads endlessly against rules and regulations.

You will have a greater chance of success if:

o You buy land with a building on it – this building may need modernising especially regarding sewerage – which can cost a lot of money. But it does mean you have the right to have a certain number of yurts on your land (unless this law has now changed). If you have already bought land that is non-constructible, you may have the right to camp on your land from April to October. But you might want to think about selling it and staring again.

o You have a good-to-excellent level of French. (Lower levels of French just mean it will take longer, while you learn the language. Ce n’est pas grave.)

o You have a dossier explaining your project very simply. This dossier should be extremely comprehensive, containing aerial photos, plans, mission statements, facilities, amenities, pictures, permissions and more – and it should be in French. Do not worry. You will meet French people and some of those will be more than happy to help.

o You have written support from your Maire, which will smooth the way with the DDE (planning department), the Services des Eaux (water people), the DDAF (department of agriculture and forestry), the CCI (chamber of commerce) and anyone else you may come into contact with. Given my time again, I would approach a Maire with a dossier and get their approval in writing before even looking for land in their commune. Some Maires will bend over backwards to welcome new people – especially if they have children of school age – you want to find a mayor like that. If you have any doubts about the mayor’s support (lean hard on your intuition here), I’d end the meeting and walk away. If a Maire seems genuinely supportive, I’d ask if they know of any suitable land and hope he/she doesn’t take the opportunity to rip you off.

There is another option. One we were told to take many times:

o Declare nothing. Just get on with it and hope the neighbours don’t report you. If your land is hidden and you don’t bother anyone, there’s a good chance you’ll get away with it. (Worth noting here that you can’t do this if you’ve already asked the Maire. Also worth noting that the Maire could have you arrested and fined.)

And of course, you can always:

o Find another country where there aren’t so many rules and regs.

If that hasn’t put you off, I wish you every success in the world. You’re about to go on an incredible journey that will test you beyond your limits, emotionally, financially, spiritually and physically. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: You only live several hundred times – you might as well enjoy it.

If you’re joining me from blogger – thanks for coming! It’s going to take me a while to find my feet here, but lots of people I trust have said great things about wordpress, so I’m hopeful that everything will turn out alright in the end. (What could possibly go wrong?)

If you’ve found me on wordpress – blimey! That was quick.

Right. I’m going to move the blog to wordpress. Hopefully this will all go smoothly and all the links will still work. It’s bound to look different, but we’ll all just have to get used to that.

Wish me luck. I might need it.

My old log cutting bench has seen its last season:

As I was sketching out a new, improved design, I remembered something that friend and helper Alex mentioned a few years ago. She said she’d made a log cutting system involving uprights with many logs stacked on top of each other. I guestimated she meant something like this:

This is how many logs you can cut in a couple of minutes, the first time you used it:

It’s a huge efficiency in time and energy (physical and fossil fuel). There’s at least one log lift less required than with the previous bench, and it may be close to perfect. It will also mean only one large pile of sawdust (for animal bedding and compost toilets), instead of several small piles with the old, portable bench.

This is a Mark I experiment to see if the gaps and angles work. It’s based on the width and blade length of my chainsaw, to produce the 40 cm lengths required for our main woodburner. We have a second burner that uses 25 cm lengths and I’m still thinking about that.

(Worth mentioning that, going into my fourth winter in a yurt, I’ve never been so prepared when it comes to fire wood. I have dry wood in various locations, and have even got the beginnings of a pile for next winter.)

(Also worth mentioning that I’m hating the new blogger interface that I’ve been forcibly migrated onto. Instead of struggling with it, I’m going to start looking for another platform. I’ve stopped following other blogs that have migrated but please bear with me.)

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