January 2013

One thing I haven’t mentioned was how perfect the weather was in écovallée last year. Temperatures in July and August were typically in the high 20s to high 30s with very little rain. The view from the Play Yurt, for example, looked like this most of the time (shot on August 11th, just after lunch):

play yurt view

I mention it now, because yesterday felt like the first day of Spring. (Someone said it was 19C.) Certainly too hot for thermals and a perfect temperature for working on the new outdoor kitchen (the first four uprights are in – photo to follow). But it’s February and, naturally, the warm weather can’t last. Next week’s forecast is promising single figures with overnight lows of minus 4. But at least it won’t be raining all the time.

Which, apparently, is not something that can be said about the weather in the UK.

When we were over there at Christmas, the rain came up a lot in conversation and down a lot outside. One of the people I spoke to was a Producer/Director for the BBC (someone I met on my old commute – I’m not that well connected). He had been talking to someone who was doing a show about the weather. They were interviewing an expert and asked if the near-constant rain that has plagued the country during the last few years is ever going to end. The expert said, according to all the information they have available, it won’t. He said, as the crew looked at him in horror, that there may be a few days of dry weather in a row from time to time, but the future for the UK looks wet. With parts of the country permanently under water from flooding.

Hopefully, the expert’s wrong. Who’s to say the jet stream won’t do something interesting and bask Northern Europe in balmy 26-degree days for all time? But it might be worth hedging your bets and booking a holiday further South. Hey – maybe even here. I can’t promise it won’t be raining, but if it is there’s still plenty to see and do.

I don’t know if you’ve read one of Julia Donaldson’s many brilliant children’s books, called “A Squash and a Squeeze”, but it’s been a bit like that in écovallée.

We started with land, just as we’d planned.

We took in a horse, to eat the grass (of course).

We raised some pigs, who grew pretty big.

Then added some hens, who lay eggs in their pen.

We were given some rabbits, that bred, um, like, more rabbits.

We tried a duck, but he went home (worst luck).

Then we had geese – mild, not wild, geese.

Add to this crew the cats, dogs, kids and us two.

At 12.5 acres, the smallholding began to feel just that – small. And every next animal we discussed – a cow, or goats, or sheep – seemed like an additional strain rather than an exciting new possibility.

Because apart from food, water and the occasional vet visit, a cow needs a shed and a shed needs building. Goats need a smaller shed, and very good fencing. Sheep need good fencing and big holes digging, when they die for no reason (whatever the season).

And when you do everything in the most labour-intensive way – by hand – without money – often alone – all of these things are quite daunting. (It would have been easier to start with existing farm buildings, but all we had was a field.)

Last year, having hand-sown, grown, scythed and gathered a crop to cut down the animals’ Winter fuel bill, but not having the time or energy to process the harvest, we realised we’d reached our holding’s limit to growth.

We said goodbye to the last pig – and the workload now doesn’t feel quite so big.

I’ve always said that pigs are easy – that they look after themselves. But that’s not quite true. Once the fencing’s up and the pig house in place, they’re good for a few days, although it’s worth checking the fence regularly to make sure it hasn’t been earthed up. And every few weeks, it’s worth pulling all the earth piled up near the fence outside the fence for the same reason. Then it’s just a question of feeding and watering the pigs twice a day, in our case carrying it all up hill (they’ve been living up hill for years). Watering in winter can be annoying when you fill their trough and they immediately turn it over so you have to fill it again. But it’s only really annoying when you have to carry the water 500 metres from our bathroom to start with because the outdoor tap is frozen.

Then there are the hunters. Or rather, the dogs. Hunting is a popular hobby in rural France and wild boar is one of the most popular targets. One big problem is that a hunting dog doesn’t know the difference between a wild or domestic pig. Twice we’ve had our pigs attacked by innocent-looking terriers. And every time we’ve heard a dog barking – usually on a cold and misty Sunday morning with the first cup of coffee in hand – we’ve donned clothes and boots, then jogged to the pig area to protect our livestock and shout at people with guns.

Now we don’t have pigs, we can enjoy our coffee in peace. The urge to run is still with us when we hear the bells round the dogs’ necks, but it will fade in time.

Without the pigs, feeding time is more fun. There’s more room to give attention to the rabbits, chickens, geese and horse. I look at the hill where the pigs were and am glad I don’t have to carry heavy buckets up there. I won’t get flabby – there’s plenty of other heavy stuff to carry (outdoor kitchens to make, platforms to build etc.).

And the other animals are all eating more interesting kitchen scraps.

So yes, we’re all happy. We’re really quite pleased.

It’s not such a squish – more, a breeze.

The snow a few days ago didn’t lend itself to photos. This morning was different, though. Everywhere looks beautiful:

snow branches

snowler shower


toilet & shower


play yurt


snow yurts


snow yurt


snow path


There are a few more on a facebook album, with captions.


This is what the new 12-foot yurt and kitchen area looked like about an hour ago.

outside office

The rubbish has been mostly cleared away, leaving just one dangerous piece of farming machinery to work around. The clean-cut stump in the background was an oak will some high dead branches that we decided to take down. The oak was about 80 years old and will keep us warm for a few weeks (at best) in the winter of 2014-15. The green oak is stacked, waiting to be taken for drying out. Some odd-shaped bits are being kept back for chopping boards, toys and carving, and the dead stuff can be burnt shortly. The stump itself has been cut to be comfortable to sit on and we’ll see how/if it coppices.

Now we’re digging a shallow trench for a retaining wall that will run half way down the long side of that muddy area, then at 90° at both ends. The wall will be made from our own limestone with a lime mortar to hold the rocks in place. (Cement is banned in écovallée, although I’m keen to explore hempcrete when I get the chance.)

The yellow posts are where the acacia uprights will go and also mark the edge of the canvas roof. I was very keen to do tenon and mortice joints, pegged with seasoned oak for this frame, but I had a good look at Ben Law’s books and decided the wood I’ll be using won’t be wide enough and I don’t have the tools or the time. So it’s bolts or nails and lashing again. I’m going to protect the acacia from soil-based organisms by digging larger holes than normal and ramming stones around them. Wind braces will keep the structure in place (and look beautiful and give climbing plants the chance to spread their leaves).

We’ve got some mixed weather coming up, so we’ll have to see how quickly this kitchen takes shape. We’re also taking it a bit easier having had a mid-Winter break and need to get back to full fitness. BUT this is project number one so you can expect to see more soon.

Happy New Year by the way.

Rock lovers will be almost catatonically pleased to see the following pictures and help me answer a new, improved question: Is this a bone, a sponge, or just a lump of limestone?

I’ve put one of my Christmas gloves in the shot for scale, although the oak leaves would probably have been fine. (And no, the other glove is not labelled “B”.)

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Paleontologists, biologists, geologists, doctors, butchers or anyone else, can you help me put a name to this bone? It’s rock now, and the colour matches the surrounding cretaceous limestone, but the shape and pitting in the broken ends don’t seem particularly rock-like. Photographed sitting on A4 paper, for scale (last image with flash, hence a bit washed out).

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We went to England for a couple of weeks over the festive season, and left écovallée in the capable hands of two sets of friends, who may or may not meet while we were away.

Before we left, I sent them a document explaining how everything works.

Ours is a simple life, you might think (I thought as much), but as I wrote about water mains and T-junctions that might freeze, animals that might die, and all the other little things we now know and do, adding photos where necessary, the document stretched on and on. I even sent three appendices with things I’d left out of the original tome. But obviously the information was incomplete, because when we got back last night the toilet had been turned off. (I had forgotten to mention the need to tap the flusher a couple of times – lightly – until you feel the resistance that tells you the cistern is refilling. An oversight for which I take full responsibility.)

This document was nothing, however, compared to the bible we would have needed to negotiate life in the UK. The chapter on buying travelcards for two adults and two children alone, from a machine where the touch-screen worked for only one of us, and which offered an alarming number of options we didn’t need, would have made my entire manual look like a footnote.

So although it was great to be away, it’s even better to be back, surrounded by the running repairs we know and love, and to start considering the work ahead. I’m going to begin with some round-wood building, pegging the frame for the new 12-foot-yurt kitchen together with heart of oak, instead of lashing, while Her Outdoors knocks together a 15-metre dry-stone and lime mortar retaining wall. Before this, I need to find, cut and strip the poles, and learn to use a lathe. And before that, I need to clean out the rabbits – something we didn’t ask our yurt-sitters to do.

If you’re stuck for something to do between long-count calendars, try writing down your life as if you were going away and someone is taking over two hours after you leave. The document must include names and numbers of people to call if there’s a serious problem – and what those problems might be (ours included chimney fires and armageddon). It’s an interesting exercise.