Almost every day, I/we learn something new. On other days, we/I learn something old, or re-learn something I/we should probably have remembered. Let me show you what I mean.


This is a scrap bit of kitchen worktop we were given which will become the sink holder for the tree bog. I made a template, marked it out, then needed to cut the hole without the benefit of a jigsaw. Thinking myself clever, I cut a 30 mm hole with a drill. The battery went flat, I found the spare battery was already flat, so I used my second drill, ran another battery down on that, changed to a 25 mm cutter thinking it was sharper then stopped when the drill started to smoke from the back end.

‘Sod it’, I thought, and used that saw to carry on cutting, which was Very Hard Work (even using wax to help keep the blade running smoothly). It was also Very Slow Work and I started thinking it would take DAYS to finish this small job.

Over a coffee break, I thought it might be worth using a smaller drill bit (like 8mm) to make a series of small holes that could be joined up by the saw. I tried it and did all that before the battery ran down.

I’m pretty sure it’ll only take another hour or so to finish (which I’ll get back to when at least two batteries are charged up). I’m also pretty sure I’ve been told this information before.

A few years ago, I bought a scythe and exhausted myself trying to use it. I’ve resisted using it ever since – until now. Just watched a few videos on youtube by “The Jolly Scythers” which helped me set my (much cheaper) tool up, then watched this awesome video, that includes how to make a haystack:

The information-gathering is complete. The next step on the road to self-sufficiency is about to begin…

Just over 12 years ago, I bought a work bench from Travis Perkins. I don’t think it cost much. I used it for the occasional DIY job when we lived in a house. It lived outside (it was only a little house) unprotected from the elements. It came with us to France and still lived outside. The leg braces broke a couple of years ago, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a bit of rope. Sadly, at the end of last year, it died.

I looked at the work benches in my local DIY place and was STUNNED by the prices. Not just that, but none of the benches on offer had wooden worktops (my cheap old one did – which is how it survived for so long). Fortunately, my dad had an almost new leading-brand work bench in his garage which he let me scrounge. I tried to look after it, but eventually it found its way outside for a few days. I also did some round-wood work with it, which is quite normal for us, but which immediately demolished the pressboard worktop. Look:

Absolute crap. Almost certainly designed to fall apart*. For the price it probably was, scandalous.

Fortunately, I had some pieces of chestnut lying around from a failed kitchen cupboard project and knocked up a new worktop in a couple of hours.

I had to do this because I was just about to go to work on the project1p solar shower. And I hope you’ll agree, if you’re going to work on a solar shower that’s been in the making for a Very Long Time and has cost an Eye-wateringly Large Amount of Money, you’re going to need a decent work bench.

More on this, later.

*(For more on designed obsolescence, I strongly recommend you watch Pyramids of Waste aka The Lightbulb Conspiracy (2010). Contains some very surprising information and tells you why that leading-brand printer isn’t working any more.)

If you’ve been counting the moons, you’ll know that our three formerly little pigs will soon be big enough to be become a selection of hams, roasting joints, salami, chorizo, bacon and anything else that takes our fancy.

Of course, we’ll be doing as much as we can ourselves, with only Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s “The River Cottage Cookbook” and “The River Cottage Family Cookbook”, and John Seymour’s “The New Complete Book of Self Sufficiency” for company.

Unless you count a bottomless glass of wine.

Or two.

(More if necessary.)

It’s a bit intimidating. Three pigs is a lot of meat. It’s got to last us as much of next year as possible without spoiling. And before the Wednesday before Hallowe’en, neither me nor Her Outdoors had ever even made so much as a sausage.

If you want to repeat our experience (and I wouldn’t recommend it, as you’ll see in a moment), this is what you do:

Buy a hand-cranked sausage-making machine from your nearest sausage-making machine retailer (passing on the motorised one which, at 200 euros, is four times more expensive and many more times likely to break).

Spend a long time washing what looks like engine grease off it, fix it to some wood and clamp it to a large farmhouse table (or similar) in your kitchen (or equivalent), thusly:


Mince 1kg (2.2lb) of boned shoulder and the same of pork belly freshly bought from your favourite butcher (who even sells you the sausage skins and laughs reassuringly when you tell him what you’re doing for the first time), using the attachment with the big holes:


Then mince again with the smaller-holed attachment.

Mix with breadcrumbs and herbs, à la recette (recipe):


Fry a quick pattie to taste (and find it’s bluddie delicious):


Put it back through the mincer, with the sausage attachment on now and the sausage skin carefully shimmied on (feeling a bit tired now – beginning to wonder if the one with the motor may have been a better idea) to create One Willy Wonka of a Stonker.

Spend a few minutes twisting The Enormous Sausage this way and that…


until your plate runneth over:


Relish the delight, awe and advanced orders heaped upon you by guests at your Halloe’en party.

Then meet an English butcher. During your conversation, realise that you can mix your diced pork with your breadcrumbs, herbs etc, BEFORE YOU PUT IT THROUGH THE MINCER THE FIRST TIME. Which means you can attach the sausage teat right at the start and do it All In One Go.

Seems obvious. But so does using a Gripple.

I still remember the first time I used a petrol strimmer. It was back in the days when every family had at least one car, two phones, and people thought nothing of flying to other countries on holiday – or even for work.

Did I ever tell you about aeroplanes?

I did?

Pity.

Ooh. Tea. Lovely.

I was trying to cut four acres of grass with my old scythe – on my own

Any chance of a biscuit? No, that one. Thanks.

The weather had been very wet, and very hot, and the grass was growing about four centimetres a week. I cleared about 10 square metres in about 15 minutes when my old secateur injury started playing up.

The smart money would have been to get some sheep and goats in, but we didn’t have the fencing for it. And we weren’t particularly smart. So we bought a new STIHL with a metal blade, which came with a free pair of gloves – you can never have too many gloves.

I strapped the thing on, and laid waste to some unwanted woodland vegetation. Then I cleared a path around the old pig woods. And made a path from the old workshop down to the veggie patch. All this took minutes, I tell you.

Then I went insane.

I was having so much fun, I stopped thinking about what needed cutting and started looking for what could be cut. “I’ll just keep going until the fuel runs out,” I thought. I was drunk on the power of it, aware that I had somehow become a metaphor for what was happening in the wider world around me.

Fortunately, it didn’t last long.

I walked across to near the orchard/chicken run/orchid meadow and started fragmenting a patch of particularly long and hard-to-reach grass, and the strimmer found a length of string and some wire I’d left there months before. It stopped dead.

Ironic, really. Seeing as how things turned out.

It’s got nothing to do with the workload. (Although with the population set to pass nine billion by 2050, a look of grim determination could be forgiven.)

No. It’s the scythe.

I bought one a while ago. But this week I had the excuse to take the wrapping off (plastic film on the blade – very 21st Century) and use it to cut down some grass on an ancient path through the woods above which an electric fence now sits. More on this, later.

Although a novice to the tool, I soon got into the swing of it. The forceful side-to-side action is not one my body has come across before, and I wondered what effect it would have on an upper body that is becoming increasingly triangular. I was, for a while, the Grin Reaper. The Getting in Trim Reaper. The Eversoslightlymore Slim Reaper.

I suspected I would feel the effects the next day. But no. It was the day after that. Possibly exacerbated by the planting of about 60 iron posts (some through limestone), the relocation of several barrows of manure and the doing of many other jobs not mentioned here.

Last night, I slept like the dead. All of them.

It didn’t help. The body aches in all kinds of places. I’m very, very tired. Not tired enough to buy a petrol-driven strimmer (why use fossil fuels when calories will do?), but I can almost see the attraction.

Maybe, like with other tools, reaping is a question of practice. Not too much. Wouldn’t want to do it all the time. That would be grim.

UPDATE: This is the most popular post on this site, from a google-search point of view. Stay with it. The answer you’re looking for is at the end. (I should also add, now I’m familiar with the tool, it’s a fantastic piece of kit.)

In “Farm and Smallholder Fencing”, Michael Roberts raves about the Gripple. His Gripple section begins: “If you have not come across this system before then you don’t know what you’re missing!”

I hadn’t. And I didn’t.

But when I went in to buy my Fencing Stuff for the Orchard/Chicken Run a few weeks ago, I insisted on buying a Gripple. The shop assistant (clearly missing something – probably the humility to say: “What the hell’s that?”) said I didn’t need one. I confidently overruled him, despite the unexpectedly large (from memory) 85-euro price tag.

Having decided the lowest of the three (to be) tensioned wires on the orchard/chicken run fence was the least important, I grabbed my Gripple and began my mistakes there.

Immediately, I found it to be quite counter-intuitive. Not just because it looks open when it is closed…


And closed when it’s open…


But the little Thingies…


Seem to work best when apparently upside-down. With the Gripple also, apparently, upside-down. Maybe I’m using it wrong, but it works for me. Now.

One thing I struggled with initially, was how to put the wire you want to tension in the cleat. I watched the DVD last night, but all it shows is a guy with forearms the size of thighs joining wire he could obviously do by hand.

I just referred to the book, looking for a phrase along the lines of: “As with all tools, there’s a knack to using it” without giving the knack. (I’m sure it’s in there somewhere, but clearly about another tool.)

Instead, I found the following indispensable piece of advice: “Open the tensioning tool as wide as possible and you will see that the wire gripper or cleat opens as well.”

Ah.

Books, eh?

After yesterday’s sudden death, I thought you might want a nice, easy blog with lots of pictures. I know I do.

First, here’s a shot of the lintel I made earlier, with new pigs rooting around in the background, and an idea of what two pigs do to a 40 x 10 metre (yard) stretch of grass if left alone for eight days:


Next, here’s the tools on the wall shot I promised “dave” in a comments section a while back:


Which leads me nicely onto my favourite tools – a section that’s nowhere near as boring as it could be.

In first place, a late 19th Century boxwood ruler made by John Rabone & Sons, which came from a treasure chest of tools last used by my Great Uncle, a shipwright. They really don’t make them like this any more:


Which is a shame:


But you can still pick them up on ebay:


In joint first place, a hammer my mind calls “Lumpy” whenever I reach for it. Which I do ahead of my shiny new claw hammer:


And second joint first equal, a cordless screwdriver my dad gave me when he came a few weeks ago:


Having used some of the ancient equipment now nailed to the wall, it was a joy to drill a hole with this baby. And thanks to solar panels, I’ll be able to use it as long as the battery lasts. Which is already way longer than the Bosch cordless screwdriver I bought a few years ago.

Tune in again tomorrow, when you will see me grapple with a Gripple. I’m serious.

Fencing the orchard/chicken run has given me a newfound appreciation for other athletes. Today, for example, I was thinking about snooker players and people who claim to sail round the world single-handed.

Two thoughts on this immediately:
o Such a feat surely requires the use of both hands.
o As they are apparently alone in the boat, how can anyone know for sure?

I digress.

Fencing equipment
Before you can play, you will need: A step ladder, sledgehammer, straight-and-slightly too-long crowbar-type object, a small axe, some string, several 2.5-metre fenceposts, a tape measure, a funny shaped stick and… a towel.

Fencing practice
Begin by making a 50-cm hole with the crowbar and sledgehammer. (This is not in the Rule Book, which suggests using a spade. But at least two knowledgeable shop assistants told me this is the way it’s done here and, as here is where I am, this is the way I do it.)

Balance a 2.5-metre fencepost in the hole. Sledgehammer in hand, climb the step ladder to an uncomfortable height (having made sure the feet are probably secure) and balance yourself. Lean against the rung above, which should be wrapped in the towel to protect the calves.

Raise the sledgehammer and SLAM it onto the fencepost – side on – about 15 times. Wiggle the post, checking it is roughly vertical and SLAM and wiggle away until only two metres remain above ground. (The Rule Book suggests using a post rammer – previous point re-applies.)

Breathing heaving, take one handful of soil at a time and use the funny shaped stick to RAM it into any visible bit of hole.

Repeat until exhausted.

Side effects
Frequent practice results in increased balance, energy, upper body strength and beer consumption. A very little bit like darts.

We never knew exactly how much land we had in Brighton (something like 366 x 274 cm – give or take an inch).

Half of it was wood and the other half tiles. And to clean it, we needed half an hour, a stiff broom, a bucket, some warm water and a splash of washing up liquid.

Similarly, we don’t exactly know how much land we have now – around 10.47 acres. We looked for the boundary markers the other day, and discovered we need to employ the local géomètre-expert (who has an office behind our house).

Again, half of it is wood (although untreated and mostly vertical). And to clean it, we will need this:

Question is: How does someone who’s spent 18 years sitting in front of a computer, where the only breeze comes from a dodgy air-conditioning system, make an informed decision about outdoor machinery?

First, you accidentally walk into a chainsaw and strimmer shop, while looking for a quad bike.

A few weeks later, you go into the local B&Q equivalent (which is over 200 metres away!) and stand in front of a selection of chainsaws ranging in price, size and brand, while your partner tries to stop your son climbing on all the lawnmowers, while saying: “tractor”.

Searching for some kind of guidance, you return to the first shop and find yourself looking at a wall of STIHL, where the cheapest would be the most expensive in the B&Q. “Why the one brand?” you ask the sales geezer, who reminds you a lot of Kevin from Minneapolis.

“Because that’s the brand we sell,” he replies truthfully. “And it’s the number one brand in the world.”

Convinced by his confidence and the offer of seamless aftersales service, you turn again to face the two-dozen seemingly identical weapons of woodland warfare and say: “But which one?”

After a few more questions, it’s obvious. The ones on the left are too small. The ones on the right are too large. The one pretty much exactly in the middle (pictured) is just right.

An instore demo, some free lube, a top-up, a free chain, second pair of leather gloves and 100 euros off and the deal was done.

What, you may be thinking, no ridiculous so-called coincidence? Surely the sales geezer knew which bit of land we had bought, had even been there, and knew the previous owner, who used to work in that particular chainsaw and strimmer merchant?

Yes.

To all of the above.

Relating this tale to our esteemed estate agent in Le P’tit Loup the following day, he says: “STIHL. I have a STIHL. It’s great. It used to be my father’s.”