A quick update that’s too long for a tweet but too short for a blog post: The brasse of firewood from this post has nearly all been converted into heat and we just had another brasse delivered this morning. The wood would (ahem) have gone sooner, but the weather has been incredibly mild. So mild, spring flowers are beginning to appear. It’s also been annoyingly wet, so I haven’t been able to cut the dead-standing chestnut I’ve relied on in years gone by.

Yes, I feel like a failure. Yes, we’re €250 poorer. But we looked hard at the situation and decided being warm is a fundamental human need. And on a positive note, I can finally answer the question: “How long will a brasse of oak last if I live in a yurt in the southwest of France through a mild winter?”

Eight weeks.

While I’m here, I’d like to share a piece of news that will make some readers smile knowingly and others feel a bit weird. In this post, I said you’d be hearing a lot more about Transition from me this year. Two days ago (just 24 days after that post was written), Rob Hopkins – yes, the Rob Hopkins, who co-founded the Transition Movement – emailed me (!) to ask if I could write something for the Transition Network.

Very. Exciting.

 

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So, I had the right pig in the right place. All I needed now was the right method.

For my first trick, I tried apples.

On the day before our next planned trip to the abattoir, I walked past the pig field rustling a bag of apples. I tossed a few into the back of the trailer (I’ve become quite an impressive tosser in the last year – more on this, later) and went off to feed the chickens. Out of the corner of my eye, with much pleasure, I saw the pig climb into the trailer and go about his breakfast.

The next day, I repeated the exercise: I rustled the bag; I tossed in more apples; and after the pig climbed in, I shut the door.

Ta-da. (Thank you very much.)

Minutes later, Sonia turned up with her 4 x 4 and pulled the trailer out of the field. We gave him some extra breakfast to calm his nerves. Then drove, with the mixed feelings that come with taking full responsibility for your decision to eat meat, the 25 minutes to the abattoir at Bergerac.

Which was a surprisingly nice place.

We buzzed at the big metal gate, which slid open to receive us (at 12.05! Lunchtime in France!) and checked in with the receptionist. She put down her roll-up and welcomed us in.

She: (in French) ‘How old is the pig?’

We: ‘About a year.’

She: (looking relieved) ‘He’ll be a good size, then. (PAUSE) There have been lots of pigs in lately who are only six weeks old. For Christmas in Paris. They’ve had to put boards around the bottom of the pens to stop them escaping. It’s absolutely savage.’

This was literally the last place you’d expect to meet an animal lover.

Next, we went through another push-button gate to the dropping-off area. Past the entrances for cattle, sheep and veal, to pigs. A rather impressive piece of reversing followed and we were set. With a little help from a very strong (and equally nice) man, we walked the pig through a shed that felt and smelt very much like a farm, into a waiting pen.

At that time of day (five minutes after opening) there were only two other pigs in there. Two pigs that, “coincidentally”, had been delivered moments before by one other than Gary and Marlene – the people we bought our pigs from in the first place.

My first trip to the abattoir had an immediate effect on the way I look at meat.

When I opened a packet of mince that evening, I didn’t just see a pile of diced beef. I saw a living and breathing animal that had been taken to an abattoir, walked through the same kind of shed and waited in the same kind of pen as our pig was waiting in. It completed a picture I’d never had reference for before.

(Vegetarians will enjoy a small break from pigs while I catch you up with some of the many other ecovallee jobs that are making our lives so unbelievably full at the moment. Then it’s butchery. Without the pictures.)

Yesterday evening, we admitted to ourselves that we have – officially – Nearly Run Out of Money.

That wasn’t supposed to happen.

If all had gone to the original plan (hereafter Plan A), we would have been open at the start of April, with three yurts full of fabulous eco-friendly families, paying enough to cover the various bills and taxes that come with 21st Century nearly self-sufficiency, and ploughing what’s left into further improvements, reforestation schemes and the like.

But Plan A, as you know, only worked in a parallel universe (where, I trust, it’s doing fantastically well).

Plan B (and you may remember, there was no Plan B) is unfolding by the day.

My job pays just enough to cover the rent and fill the car. Bills, insurance, food, tools, animal feed and the myriad costs that come with non-self-sufficiency are all paid for by the house we sold last year. There’s not much left.

So you’ll understand why we went to bed a little bummed last night.

We’re at one of those points where you need something – anything – to let you know that you’ve been doing the right thing (before I go any further, I’m talking about something from my belief system, not yours – unless you share mine – in which case: “Hi” – and ignoring the fact that it’s impossible not to do the right thing and that there is no right… I’ll get my wine).

Clearly, we need to increase our income, reduce our outgoings, and/or have some kind of meaningful pat on the back.

So when the cheese woman in the market said, this morning: “Is your wife looking for a job?” and gave me the phone number of a rich person who lives nearby (who may have a gatehouse to rent – you never know), I could have taken that as a sign.

I didn’t.

Nearly did. But it wasn’t funny enough. Or coincidental enough.

Like the coincidence I didn’t tell you about from a few months ago, where our neighbour on our land is also our neighbour in town – not a nearby neighbour – I’m talking NEXT DOOR.

Cheese stashed in the fridge, we had work to do. Proper work. Moving the horse field (again – the plastic fence posts must hate us). Taking the temporary chicken ark away so our two flocks can become one. And clearing a path for a new pig enclosure in the woods.

Impressing Her Outdoors (an Aquarian, for those who see meaning in these things), I (a Virgo, which will be shocking, interesting or intriguing for those very same people) chose a meandering route through the woods. A sharp turn here. A straight bit there. A little wiggle between a couple of pine trees in that bit.

After I’d cut my swathe and put in my metal posts (don’t use anything else, seriously), I paced out the new fence so I’d know how much wire I’d need. It came to 143 paces.

Arse, I thought. That’s loads more than the old fence. I’ll have to do some arsing about with the wire. To see how much arsing I’d have to do, I paced out the old (current, excuse the pun) enclosure.

At 100 paces, I started to smile. At 120 paces, the smile grew broader. My last pace came down exactly where I suspected it would. A completely random, but reassuringly exact 143.

I don’t know if you’re the same, but every time I’m sacked, made redundant or constructively dismissed, I pick up a pen (and usually a piece of paper to make sense of the pen) before I walk into my final meeting.

I’d like to say it’s my idea.

But I’d be lying.

The first time I saw it was in Nottingham, in 1994, when one of the most talented art directors (and creative directors) I’ve ever worked with, received a phone call from the Managing Director at the end of his first day back from paternity leave.

Paul picked up a pen, went downstairs, and was canned. (But allowed to keep his company car for two weeks. See? Advertising’s not all bad.)

So when I picked up a cheque book before leaving the house this morning, to go and “look at” a tractor, I must have known, deep down, what was coming.

I was pretty determined not to buy it.

Even though the guy selling it was a few hundred metres (yards) away from our land.

“Not a coincidence,” I said. (There’s no way that qualified.) We’d dismissed the idea of a tractor, anyway. We were going to buy a horse. In the Spring. The grass would just be cut and the fallen trees removed… somehow.

I turned left, and left again. Then along the road, following directions given over the phone. I turned right. And realised I’d been there before. A couple of weeks ago. The guy selling the tractor is the direct neighbour of a new friend of ours.

“Not a coincidence,” I insisted. (Though this came pretty close.)

The guy looks a lot like a friend of ours from Brighton. (There’s no way that’s a coincidence.)

I followed him a couple of hundred yards (metres) down the road. There’s the tractor.

It’s blue. (If you’ve been reading, you’ll know, before the horse idea, we were looking for a red tractor. Antique, like this one. Cute, like this one. But red.)

It uses red diesel. (Doesn’t count.)

It’s English. (Pah.)

These guys both know the previous owner of our land. (Such commonplace coincidences leave me untouched.)

I ask if there’s a grass-cutting device that fits it. And I’m shown one, along with a price tag of 500 euros. (They’re 1,000 euros new.)

I drive the tractor. A slightly terrifying experience. (Easy when you’re going along, but did you remember how to make it stop? It’s not like a car. Ask anyone.)

I borrow a pen (times have changed – I’m not in advertising now) and use my cheque book to buy tractor and cutting device.

They are delivered, as one, this evening. And there are beautiful (BEAUTIFUL, I tell you – after so many months of waiting) swathes cut through the field. Long grass chewed up and spat out, already decomposing the way nature didn’t exactly intend, but is OK to go along with.

We have a tractor.

We are very, very happy.

We have drunk Champagne (Champagne so excited – like us – half of it ended up on the floor of the kitchen).

We are looking forward to a day, this week, when écovallée will look the way we have in mind.

We have done this, which should keep sceptics everywhere happy, without any unarguable coincidences.

Except this one.

The original budget for tractor to cut grass was £1,300.

We paid €1,800 euros for tractor with tondeuse (cutter).

At today’s exchange rate (it’s bad – but the Americans have it worse), it’s the same thing. Give or take the cost of the Champagne now evaporating off the kitchen floor.

If you’ve been following this blog lately, you’ll know we’ve been looking for a tractor.

Not just any tractor. That would be easy.

We’ve been looking for an achingly cute antique (red) tractor that can cut grass, drag fallen trees, and (eventually) transport guests’ suitcases from their car to their yurt.

And we’ve failed.

True, we’ve been offered an excellent John Deere. We’ve answered a few classified ads for 1950s Masseys. We’ve been to the tractor garage a few kilometres (couple of miles) away. Twice. But they all wanted more euros than we were happy to part with.

If you know anything about coincidences, you’ll know that if they’re not happening, something needs to change.

So we changed our minds – and returned to another of Clare’s ideas that I dismissed early on (I really must stop doing that). It’s an idea called horse.

Here are a few of the advantages of horse over tractor (in alphabetical order, for no apparent reason):
Cheaper
Friendlier
More sustainable
Produces emissions we can actually use
Quieter
Safer

Besides, what could be cuter than arriving on holiday and watching a horse clomping up the drive to collect your stuff?

Having made up our minds, I just asked a man about a horse. A man who runs the Pony Club where Clare and the daughter have their lessons (see below – “on riding” which, in retrospect, should have been called “on horseback”).

Coincidentally (other than knowing the previous owner of our land), this man has several horses that are suitable, for sale, five years old, with years of experience towing gypsy caravans. For 500 euros less than our tractor budget.

Which might be enough to buy the cart.

There’s one for sale in this week’s free paper.

But I’m not sure we should be getting the cart before the horse.

For the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen a lot of posters advertising the Tree Fair in Le Bugue. Being photocopies, these posters all said the same promising things about trees, an exhibition of antique tractors and duck fishing.

With a hedge and orchard to plant in the next two months, and a tractor to find, this was clearly the Fair we’d been waiting for.

Yesterday was the Big Day. We went out to Le Bugue. Drove past the big sign that said Tree Fair (in French). Through town. Over the bridge. And stopped at the mini roundabout in the centre. With no further signs for the fair (incomplete signage no longer comes as a surprise to us), we turned right. Drove past the aquarium, past a yurt that, for some reason, forms part of a prehistoric exhibition. And past the back of another big sign for the Tree Fair.

We turned round. Went back into town. And drawing on tactics developed while playing 1990s video games, turned right again. Drove out of town. Came back in. Past the tiny Flower Fair (complete with full-colour signs) and parked.

After a short stroll around the Flower Fair, I asked an exhibitor where the tree fair was. “This is it,” he said. “So, where’s the tractor exhibition?” I asked. “It should be over there,” he said, pointing behind a small copse of fairground attractions. “But it’s cold,” he added, with a shrug.

The kids had a short-but-expensive go on the strange Disney inspired merry-go-round thing (next to the duck fishing stall). And, following a lunch in Les Eyzies where (in need of a coincidence) we sat next to our architect, we went here instead:

Which we’ve wanted to do for ages – even longer than the tree fair. If you’re interested in French website design, you can find out more about it, here.


It wasn’t so hard.

All we had to do was go into the Tourist Information Office in Bergerac, get directions for the Préfecture and pick up a form.

Which had to be completed and submitted along with another form from the Hôtel des Impôts, on the other side of town. (“Impôt” is French for “tax”. I love the idea of a hotel for taxes. Gives you the impression you can check in to pay any time you like.)

And a valid Contrôle Technique (if you’re British, the French equivalent of an MOT).

Which necessitated a rendez-vous (meeting) with our local Renault garage, a good 300 metres (yards) from our house.

Where our car got a “CT” sticker on its windscreen, and an invitation to return in two years for another one. (I have no idea how much this cost, as the garage seems unwilling to give us a bill.)

Which meant I could go back to the Préfecture and hand over the completed form I got from them. And the one from the Tax Hotel. And the CT. And my passport. My proof of address (this is called a “Justificative de Domicile” – with a soft “J” – took me about a week to say it – you try). And the British Registration papers. And the car’s first registration paper, which was from the Charente, just North of the Dordogne.

All of which was carefully photocopied and handed back to me, along with my Carte Grise (French registration) tantalisingly partially filled out.

Then I waited.

Until someone called me over to say that the Préfecture in Charente had no idea the car had been taken out of the region, let alone the country.

I should return when this was sorted out.

Which I did. And, after handing over the same documents for further photocopying, walked away with a completed Carte Grise – and the impression it takes 48 hours to make a number plate.

Fortunately, as I picked up the daughter from school and mentioned my success, another English parent said I had to have the number plate made within 48 hours. Or face a fine.

Needful to say, I went to a garage near our house and had the plates made. Which took about 48 seconds.

I’m glad I went.

Turns out the woman that works there is our neighbour from where we’re going to live. What seems more bizarre is that she didn’t know Dominique – the previous owner.