As promised, here’s the first almost-live blog on getting the yurt camp ready for opening on Thursday.

This year, Philippe came along and helped me put up Mustardseed – one of the two 18-foot yurts in the camp. It all went smoothly. Which was a good thing, as there was some kind of fierce storm due at 5 pm.

If you’re going to try this at home, you will need:

Yurt 1

A platform set into the corner of a few acres of mixed woodland. In this case, there’s quite a bit of false acacia (perfect for yurt platform uprights, fence posts, firewood – and lasts in water for 100 years), hornbeam (a personal favourite), hawthorn (which provides the welcome first bit of green in spring), oak (mainly spindly – I need to do some thinning out – but half a dozen beauties), sweet chestnut (which produces a very labour-intensive breakfast toast topping, and isn’t great for firewood; but it got us through a few winters), wild service trees and a whole bunch of other green stuff.

You will also need to carry the frame of your 18-foot, coppiced-chestnut, Kyrgyz-style yurt, by hand, from way over there.

yurt 2

Clean off the edging strips that go round the platform. These ones are 1 cm plywood – it doesn’t need to be marine ply, although that would probably last longer.

yurt 3

That unfeasibly heavy oak door spent the winter leaning against the sink in the outdoor kitchen a few metres away. It must have been carried for miles in the last 10 years. That’s the shower in the background.

yurt 4

Screw in the platform edges, with an unnecessarily intense look of effort. It’s not actually that hard with a machine. (A few years ago, I put some up with a socket set – don’t ask.)

yurt 5

Stand the walls up and try to remember how they fit together. Wonder why you didn’t take a moment to mark them in some helpful way at the end of last year. Or the year before that – even more sensible.

yurt 6

Pause, while Philippe takes a caught-on-CCTreeV shot.

yurt 7

Unwind the tension band.

yurt 8

Raise the roof.

yurt 9

Here’s further proof that marking poles when it matters is worth considering. Although, it does mean the yurts are different every year.

yurt 10

Here’s what Mustardseed looks like for 2016.

yurt 11

If there’s a storm coming, you need to carry the cover over, heave it on and rope up the wall.

yurt 12

Like this.

(The storm didn’t come.)

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Looking for a holiday that ticks everyone’s boxes? Here are five top reasons to stay in a yurt in écovallée (in the Dordogne, in southwest France), from someone who lives there all year round.

 

yurt camp

écovallée on a cloudy day, with the Play Yurt, Mustardseed, the outdoor kitchen and solar shower visible.

Lots of space

How would you like to swap your four walls for a 12.5-acre park, with a huge field surrounded by woods, overlooked by no one, a trampoline, Play Yurt, sand pit and more to entertain the kids? 

City-dwelling parents often realise they’ve never been more than a few feet from their children since the day they were born. In écovallée, they can be 100 yards (metres) away, with no worries at all. Toddlers can learn to walk on grassy slopes and up steps cut through the woods – it might be the first time they’ve experienced their natural habitat. 

If you are travelling without children, come during term time and enjoy the peace. Cars are not allowed in écovallée, and only a few planes fly over each day on their way to land at Bergerac, 20 minutes west. The rest of the time, it’s just you in a hammock made for two, buzzards circling in the midday heat, deer in the cool of the evening, and bats at dusk.

Letting your eyes rest on the trees in the breeze on the far side of the valley is as relaxing as watching the ocean. And the best news is, you’re already home for the night. If you’ve made the short trip down the hill to the medieval market town of Lalinde for supplies, you can relax and look forward to the evening show in the actual-sized planetarium.

rouffignac01

A few of the drawings you’ll see at nearby Rouffignac.

Human prehistory

You’ll be at home in the Dordogne in a way you’ve never been before – because the Dordogne and Vézère valleys are where we modern humans established ourselves as a species, about 40,000 years ago. Our ancestors sheltered in the limestone caves carved out by the retreating ocean that covered Aquitaine about 4,000,000 years before that. Some of these are decorated with images of the wildlife of the time. It’s incredible to stand a few inches from a painting that was created thousands of years ago, by the Michelangelo, Tony Hart or Banksy of the day.

The Vézére valley has 147 prehistoric sites and 25 decorated caves dating from the Paleolithic era. In 1979, UNESCO designated these a World Heritage Site, including the caves in Lascaux. (Lascaux II is a millimetre-accurate replica, which is well worth a visit.) Les Eyzies, with its cliffs overhanging the road, is an incredible place – and home to the national museum of prehistory. It’s not all primitive art, though. Other caves have magnificent rock formations and are naturally air conditioned – so great places to visit on a hot day.

There are too many caves to see in one trip, so you should plan ahead. Here’s a site that might help.

golden oriole

The golden oriole has the most exotic song you’ve ever heard. A real bird of paradise.

Rare birds

Nothing beats turning into the road towards écovallée and following a swooping green woodpecker down the hill. Or spotting a buzzard as it glides out of a tree, hoping the sound of your car will scare its next meal out of hiding. Every few weeks sees a rare or stunning bird come back to écovallée, like the hoopoe or golden oriole. At certain times, woodpeckers and cuckoos abound. At others, you drift off to sleep with owls hooting their presence to each other. Crossing the river on the way into Lalinde, you will see storks, ducks and swans. Hire a canoe for a microadventure upriver and you may even spot a kingfisher. 

solar shower

The big solar shower tank was new in 2015. Now everyone gets a hot shower whenever they want.

Low-impact living

Everything about écovallée has been created to minimise its environmental impact. The yurt frames are carbon positive (having re-grown since). The two outdoor kitchens are made using wood, rocks and pounded earth from écovallée, recycled fittings and furnishings, and are lit by solar fairy lights. The 160-litre solar shower drains into a reed bed and willow trench. The compost toilet and baby-changing area – a tree bog – will never need emptying. The fridge-freezer at reception runs on 100% renewable electricity. And the eggs and vegetables (when in season) are grown a few hundred metres down the field. 

Come and see how écovallée was made, pick up some ideas, and offer a few of your own. You may meet new friends who are on a similar path to yours. If you have enough friends already, why not bring some of them instead?

How to repair our pizza oven

Playing with mud – the pizza oven at reception during construction.

Try before you buy

Maybe you are thinking about getting off the hamster wheel of 21st-Century living. Perhaps you want to do something similar to écovallée. Or you’re considering buying a yurt as a studio, spare room, or home. Come and talk to Alex about the good and the bad. Find out what he would have done differently, knowing what he knows now, nine years after moving to rural France, and seven years after living in a yurt full time.

Yes, it’s beautiful. And peaceful. And warm. And it doesn’t rain all the time. And you stay fit. And healthy. And you get to live fully as a human being, in the environment we evolved to live in, with all your needs easily met. It’s perfect for a holiday, where you can unplug from the grid, and still hook up to WiFi if you must.

But could you live somewhere like écovallée 52 weeks of the year? Growing as much of your own food as you can? Cutting your own wood? Generating income to pay for life’s mandatories, like petrol, gloves and insurance? Right now, you can only guess that this lifestyle would suit you. The next step is to try it on for size.

For further details, visit ecovallee.com – there is still availability in all three yurts (two 18-foot yurts sleeping up to five and one 12-foot for a couple) for 2016. Book early to avoid having to stay somewhere else.

Here’s the almost final installation of the solar shower. I had a few problems with the instructions and exchanged a few emails with the excellent and very helpful manufacturers in Greece. All I need to add now is some insulation around the hot water pipe going to the shower and it’s done.

solar shower

With the cost of the platform, cubicle, gravel bed liner, gravel, plants, willow and the original shower, this must be one of the most expensive installations in the world. You want to use it? Be my guest!

 

As promised in this post, the new solar shower went in this year. Made by Nobel in Greece, with some parts from Italy, guests now have hot water at any time of day or night.

solar shower

The last remaining big project is now the road through the woods to the car park behind the Play Yurt. Which will almost certainly be finished this year…

Now, we blushingly admit that écovallée gets gushingly great reviews on Tripadvisor and Canopy & Stars. But we know where there’s room for improvement – and one of the improvements you are going to see in 2015 is this:

solar heater

You see, our existing solar shower has not been up to the job. Yes, it’s simple. Yes, it cost enough to make you believe it should last for years. But the tank is too small, it’s cold in the mornings when most people want to use it, and last year something went so wrong with the regulator that it ran cold much of the time.

We’re not going to fight it any more. We’re going to put it in storage and invest in the kind of thing you see above. Our friends Ben and Anna at the Quinta do Figo Verde campsite in Portugal have tested this Greek-made system for a couple of years and they love it.

Don’t worry – everything else about our beautiful solar shower will stay the same. The snail shell cubicle, the gravel filter and reed bed, the willow trench, and the joyous experience of showering in the open air.

The only difference is that the water will be as hot as you like, whenever you want.

A few weeks ago, we bought a 28-metre string of solar fairy lights from Nigel’s Eco Store. Twenty-eight metres! That’s enough to go all the way round the snail-shell solar shower, then across to – and all the way around – the tree bog. Look:


Can’t see them? How about now:


Only one thing confuses me about these lights – and that’s this claim made on the box: “Up to 40 hours run time per night”.

A solar shower was always going to be part of the écovallée experience. Originally, I wanted us to have the latest and greatest green technology for our guests to enjoy. But the costs of running electricity to the field, the twin-coil boiler, evacuated tubes etc. – in France – were prohibitive.

Of course, we’ve got books on DIY solar showers and considered black radiators under glass, hoses in strings of plastic bottles, buckets with holes in the bottom and all that fun stuff. But even with our “budget”, we’re still aiming to provide an unexpected level of luxury. Plus, many of our guests have very young children who need a controllable source of hot water.

So we ended up buying an aluminium swimming-pool shower, and knocked up a temporary cubicle for 2011…


…while we worked out how we were going to make this (as conceived by Her Outdoors):


Fortunately, Project1p happened and we swapped what we had (one week in a yurt) for what was on offer (a custom-made metal object):


I asked a local company what the wood would cost, turned down their estimate of €1,400 and bought it for €83 from a local wood yard, then spent five days sanding it. Finally all the elements were in one place:


We laid out the snail shell shape:


And started with the short side:


Which was up by the end of the day:


And looked pretty good, even if I do type so myself:


The next day saw the snail shell finished:


Which just needed oiling and photographing:


A few times:


Even if it meant lying in the shower tray to get the shape just so:


And not forgetting the penny that helped it all happen:


You might have noticed the gravel bed behind the temporary shower cubicle in the first shot. This is the first stage grey-water treatment before draining into a willow trench planted a few years ago. Here’s what it looks like at the moment, after one year of plant growth and some finishing touches by Her Outdoors:


Something else that will only get more and more beautiful over time.