March 2013

If you’re planning a family holiday at the écovallée yurt camp in the Dordogne, this sample itinerary should give you a few ideas. (Pause for SEO applause.) It’s what we would do if we were here for one week in peak season, with two children aged over five, and a car.

Obviously one itinerary doesn’t fit every family (it would be hard pushed to fit even one), but you have to start somewhere – and I’d start with…

The Welcome Picnic enjoyed by everyone booking one week or more

The Welcome Picnic enjoyed by everyone staying for one week or more


Arrive late afternoon, get shown to your beautiful yurt, leave the kids to run around exploring, rifling through the Play Yurt, bouncing on the trampoline and meeting other children as they arrive. Unpack the car and enjoy the Welcome Picnic, relieved you won’t need to find the nearest supermarket straight away. Watch the bats diving around in front of the outdoor kitchen after dusk, then gaze at the stars, spotting satellites – or was that the space station?


Have a cup of that organic coffee, then pop into Lalinde to pick up croissants, pain au chocolat, baguettes or whatever else takes your fancy (écovallée tip: at the boulangerie on the square they do a “poche” with a selection of the previous day’s croissants etc. – it’s cheaper and still pretty fresh – on top of the short counter in clear plastic bags).

Issigeac is heaving on market day and deserted the rest of the week

Issigeac is heaving on market day and eerily deserted the rest of the week

Drive to Issigeac, about 25 mins away, for the Sunday market. Walk slowly around this medieval town that feels like you’re walking through a Shakespearean film set. Buy supplies for a couple of days, then head back to écovallée. Make lunch and spend a few hours relaxing in a hammock. Then go to Lanquais for a swim in the lake. Resolve to return at least once during the week. Pick up some croissants for breakfast on the way home, grab a cold drink from the fridge-freezer behind Reception, then barbecue while trying to be the first to see a bat, then a shooting star.


This was taken at the medieval festival at Cadouin, but is typical of demonstrations in these parts

A typical demonstration (actually taken at Cadouin)

Drive West, following the Dordogne river, aiming for the spectacular gardens at Marqueyssac, about 40 minutes away. Buy a twin ticket that lets you into Castelnaud later, then be blown away by the awesome brain-like hedges. Amble round the large plateau, stopping in the play areas and being grateful that the whole two-hour (buggy friendly) walk is shaded by trees. Stand on the viewing platform hundreds of feet above the river and stare at La Roque-Gageac, a beautiful village built into the cliffs. After lunch with a view, drive to nearby Castelnaud and the museum of medieval warfare. There’s armour, weaponry, actors in period costume fighting, actual-size siege-engine demonstrations and a whole lot more, though steep circular staircases make it hostile to buggies. After an ice cream in the village, grab some supplies on the way back to écovallée, arriving before the bats come out.


From the swimming lake you can see the roofs of chateau at Lanquais - designed by the same architect as the Louvre

From the swimming lake you can see the roofs of chateau at Lanquais – designed by the same architect as the Louvre

A lazy day, today, starting with a morning at Lanquais swimming lake. It’s only ten minutes in the car, and a sandy beach overlooked by a beautiful chateau, with a snack bar, life guard and blue sky is not to be missed (many a guest has spent half their holiday here – and it’s easy to see why). After lunch in the square at Lalinde, head back to écovallée for an afternoon of nature trails, hammock dozing, chicken watching, trampoline bouncing, reading – reading! a book! – solar shower taking and whatever else springs to mind. Order takeaway pizza, because you’re on holiday and it’s beginning to feel like it.


Another adventurous day starts with a trip to the cave at Proumeyssac. It’s only 30 mins away, above-averagely spectacular, with a good-sized woodland play next to the car park. It’s also very close to the aqua park near Le Bugue. Here, there’s a swimming pool, slide, play area and bouncy thing for everyone, and plenty of space to lie around on the grass. The lake, with its huge inflatables (which aren’t that easy to haul yourself up on) is a must-do. There is a real danger of face ache though, and you realise that you need to spend more of your life grinning from ear to ear.


We cut paths through the meadows to leave wild flowers and insects waiting to be discovered

We cut paths through the meadows to leave wild flowers and insects waiting to be discovered

With the end of the week looming, it’s another day trip, heading for Sarlat but unable to resist stopping at Beynac on the way. This jaw-dropping castle overlooking the river was home to Richard I for 10 years. Its massive walls are built on top of sheer cliffs by people who must have redefined bravery. After lunch in Sarlat and a wander round old town, it’s an afternoon in one of the nearby tree parks. First timers will want to go round the easiest run to get used to the equipment, before getting as scared as they dare on the higher runs. Afterwards, looking at the tree park across the road, it’s tempting to wonder if those runs would have been even more fun – but could that be possible? Will you ever know? Although a planned return trip to Marqueyssac for the candlelit, music-filled Thursday evening sounds great, it’s been a long day and the barbecue’s waiting back in écovallée.


The bridges at Limeuil - yet another beautiful place to unwind

The bridges at Limeuil – yet another beautiful place to unwind

Wake up hoping the stiffness from the tree park will be cured by a morning canoeing down the river. Head to Le Buisson, about 15 mins away, hire a canoe and be driven upriver in a minibus to Siorac, then paddle back to the starting point and spend some time relaxing on the river (pebble) beach, occasionally getting dragged into its roped off swimming area. Then drive to nearby Limeuil and have a drink overlooking the river where the Dordogne and Vezere meet. Walk up through the village to the panoramic gardens at the top, then take a different route back down and discover a shop where a glassblower fashions amazing objects. It’s hot work, which reminds you to start planning what and where you’re going to eat.


It’s time to move on, pack the car, and plan a return to écovallée so you can do all the things there weren’t time to do this week. Like: have lunch in Bergerac old town, spend an afternoon in Domme, visit the Maison Forte at Reignac, and Roc St Christophe, and the villages of Monpazier and Cadouin, then there’s the caves, chateaux, markets, more canoeing, restaurants…

The Maison Forte at Reignac has a torture chamber that will chill you to the bone

The Maison Forte at Reignac has a torture chamber that will chill you to the bone

We’ve lived here six years in August and we’ve seen and experienced only a tiny fraction of what this area has to offer. We’ve done everything on this itinerary at least once and will do it all again (at least once). On our list for this year are a canoe trip down the Vezere from Les Eyzies, that other tree park near Sarlat, and some caves with drawings instead of rock formations. But that’s us. What about you?

PS Previous guests, if you’re reading this, please use the comment section to say what’s on your must-see-must-do list for in and around écovallée.

While Britain has been battered by what The Guardian online oddly called a “witch’s cauldron” of weather, we’ve been bathed in sunshine with temperatures in the low 20s – which means we’ve finished revamping the main Outdoor Kitchen (among other things). Here it was a few minutes ago.

outdoor kitchen

I re-used all the lashings, bungee cord, roof etc. from the previous kitchen. But I did need a new length of cord (about 60c worth) down the side nearest to the camera because the old cord was just too short. I also packed around €3 of limestone around the buried part of the acacia posts to make them last longer. The posts themselves came from our woods no more than 100 yards (100 metres) away.

The structure feels more solid than the last one and will stay buttery yellow during this first season, before mellowing to a silvery grey (US: gray) for many, many years. A couple of days ago, the commune chopped, chipped and dumped a whole load of wood just up the road here, so we’ve been out gathering free mulch for the floor. Which was a bonus.

The weather’s been seasonably wet, which is holding up work on two outdoor kitchens. The main kitchen looks a little bit further along than this at the moment:

main kitchen

And the new kitchen for the new 12-foot yurt looks like this:

second kitchen

Both can be finished in a matter of hours, but I’d like those hours to be dryish and warmish – which isn’t going to happen today.

In other news, Her Outdoors has been working on some yurt camp signage (we’re looking pretty dag-nammed professional this year I can tell you), altering a wedding dress for a client and writing a book I can’t tell you anything about. I’ve joined a good band that does an excellent set of motown covers and am putting myself Out There for ethical copywriting work, among other things. We’ve also been collecting wood for cooking, moving rocks for wall making and road building, thinking, planning, meeting new people and a whole lot more.

If variety is the spice of life, ours is a curry. Probably a thali. With a choice of rice.

A few people have told me that sweet chestnut lasts for years in the ground if you cut it green (which is why they say it’s good for fenceposts). But no one’s ever been able to tell me almost exactly how many years.

Instead, I had to find out for myself by conducting Quite A Long Experiment.

My experiment consisted of making this outdoor safari-style kitchen for écovallée, based on a drawing we saw in a book called “Living Wood” by Mike Abbott:

outdoor kitchen

I cut the chestnut green and stuck it in the ground within minutes, ramming our clay-rich soil around it. Then I waited. (To add a bit of random interest, one of the ‘uprights’ was hornbeam.) The experiment began in April 2010.

Last year, I replaced a couple of the smaller cross pieces – one because it snapped and another because it was sagging. This year, I was going to replace the whole structure with acacia – a decision confirmed when some of the thinner, now-brittle parts succumbed to the ravages of wind, snow and time during the Winter.

A couple of days ago, I took the kitchen down (it was all lashed together, which worked well but needed re-doing from time to time) and I can now reveal the results of my experiment. Here are the buried ends of two chestnut ‘uprights’:

sweet chestnut

The wood at the ends is soft but not all the way through. The thinnest chestnut ‘upright’  did rot through completely. And the buried part of the hornbeam vanished into the ground.

So there you have it: Conclusive proof that, in our soil, green chestnut of around 8 cm diameter will be good for around 35 months.

If you find yourself talking fenceposts with someone later this year (and that’s not as unlikely as it might sound), when they say: “It lasts for years in the ground if you cut it green”, and someone else says “Yes, but how many?”, you can say “Just less than three – it really depends on your soil”.

Last week, Her Outdoors came back from the local garage fuming.

She’d just discovered that a 25kg bottle of gas (we use one a month for cooking) had gone from €26 to €32 in one hit – a massive increase in anyone’s cheque book.

Now, we might be able to stretch to this extortionate price hike, but why should we? Besides which, it’s not a sustainable thing to do. If you’ve read anything about “peak oil”, you’ll know that these increases are only the beginning, at the end of which there will be no more fossil fuel. No one can say when this will happen, but that it will happen is certain. We are living through a few fleeting years in planetary history where our species’ success is a direct result of the non-renewable resource beneath the deserts of the Middle East and, tragically, the soon-to-be-fracked green and pleasant lands around the world.

So how did we respond? We put the new gas bottle next to the cooker in the kitchen and didn’t plug it in. We took the cover off the clay oven and started to see our woodburner as something more than a way to keep warm.

That was nearly a week ago. Here’s a shot from the second firing of the clay oven:

clay oven cooking

o corn bread muffins for the following breakfast

o roasted squash and garlic mash

o beans for the next day

o bread rolls for the day after, too

o sausages were in the oven at this point

It’s not without stress. Learning how to keep the clay oven hot enough to do several things, cooking without some very specific tools that would make the whole thing much easier, and walking to and from the kitchen several times to fetch ingredients and utensils is all a bit of a pain. But there are huge positives.

Cooking is now at the centre of our attention, as a family. The kids were out looking for scrap wood for the clay oven the other day. They’re seeing meals being made in front of them, instead of in the kitchen 15 metres away (in another building). The Daughter even made dinner for her and Boy on the woodburner the other night. Only a simple one, but how many 12-year-olds in her class have done that this holiday? Or ever?

It’s too early to have a routine, but we plan on firing the clay oven about three times a week for baking. Probably a loaf of bread, then a casserole as the oven cools. Making pizzas is quite stressful and not enjoyable for the person doing the making, so we won’t do that too often. We use the woodburner most of the time which means the yurt gets a bit warm three times a day. Surprisingly, it boils water in a pan from cold almost as fast as our stove-top kettle did, so although it takes longer to make essential things, like coffee first thing in the morning, the inconvenience isn’t huge.

I could write a very long post about our thoughts over the last week, but I’ve got quite a lot to do at the moment. I realise this is not the kind of thing many people can do, but it is exactly the kind of thing we set out to do. Our original plan was to have a beautiful Esse wood-fired oven for cooking in the Winter and then find another option for the Summer. I suspect we’ll eat a lot of salads and barbecue when we need to. A friend gave us a solar oven that we’ve been using to prove bread. We’ll explore rocket stoves, too. I’m not sure how else we’ll be boiling a kettle.

Have we plugged the gas bottle in yet? Yes. My tractor doctor came round the other day to take a wheel away (I don’t have the gear to fix a puncture) and Her Outdoors offered him a coffee before realising the woodburner wasn’t on. We may be happy to live like this, but we can’t assume other people will understand.

One of the most useful people you can possibly know in this lifestyle is a builder. Not so they can do the work for you (where would be the fun in that?), but so they can provide you with FREE materials on a random basis. Like this polystyrene insulation I’ve just stuck in our bathroom ceiling:

free insulation

I’ve been wondering how we were going to insulate the ceiling for a long time. I’d considered sheep fleece and heard about a place where loads were being stored in a polytunnel and could be given away for the price of a two-hour road trip. But I was hesitant about the insects that might come with it. I’d also considered raiding the local dump for polystyrene like I did for the bathroom floor. But I never got round to it – and it usually takes a few trips to pick up odd-shaped packaging that’s not very easy to work with, anyway.

Turns out, all I had to do was wait and the insulation would come to me, in large flat sheets, in the back of a transit van. Freshly ripped out of someone else’s house. If the man won’t go to the waste mountain, the waste mountain will come to him.