In truly unbelievable act of generosity, one of our favourite neighbours gave us a tractor that looks exactly like this:

Renault tractor buffs will immediately recognise an R 7051 – but that’s not important right now. Blog followers will spot the cut off plastic bottle preventing rain getting into the air intake and killing the engine (I’m not getting caught like that again) – but that’s not important either.

What is important is that this new toy – includes bucket (but no battery) – has made our big winter project of collecting rocks from the field and dumping them on the road through the woods far, far easier. After only a few days it already looks like this:

Next year’s guests can look forward to their own access – and écovallée parking (thanks Simon) – when visiting the yurt camp. Which currently looks like this:

You may have read, somewhere in the archives, how I killed my tractor. But to save you looking for the details, it went something like this:

o I stalled the tractor while cutting some grass.
o Before I re-started it, I thought I might as well check the oil level, which I’d never done. It read: “DANGEROUSLY LOW”.
o I bought some oil. But not straight away. Which meant the tractor sat where it was for a while.
o I added the oil. But I still didn’t start the tractor. Because one of the tyres has no thingymajig in the wotsit. Which means it needs pumping up once a month (to save the tyre becoming dangerously low, too). But I didn’t have a portable compresser to put the air in. And in an effort to save €50, I waited for my friend Claude (who does have one) to drop by. He didn’t drop by any time soon. So the tractor sat there for a while longer.
o I bought a compressor and put air back into the tyre.
o I tried to start the engine. There was a bubbling sound and then… nothing.

Over the next year or so, I conferred with a number of people on what had probably happened. And the conclusion was: rain.

You see, my tractor has a vertical exhaust pipe. It turns out this is a very good way of catching rain. And while the tractor had been sitting there all that time, it had rained quite a lot – as much as several inches, to be imprecise.

When I tried to start the tractor, some kind of suction had drawn water into the engine, mortally wounding it. It might have survived if I’d contacted my friend Claude straight away. But I didn’t get him to look at the engine for about a year. By which time, it was a solidly ex-tractor. I felt terrible. The engine is a couple of years older than me. And it had died for want of an empty baked-bean tin (or equivalent) placed over the top of the exhaust.

It is one of the most expensive mistakes I have ever made.

So when I borrowed a tractor from a neighbour a few weeks ago, I was at pains to assure him that I would put something over the top of his equally vertical exhaust, in the event of rain.

Bernard’s tractor is magnificent. Me and Ed (one of this year’s last and loveliest guests) loaded several tons of rocks into the bucket on the back, which can be emptied by pulling a handle. In one afternoon, we moved the equivalent of about 80 wheelbarrows of rock from one side of écovallée to the other, in preparation for the new road and parking area.

But as I haven’t come close to making you aware, that wasn’t the only thing we’ve had to do recently. With the arrival of our two first (and equally lovely) HelpXers, our winter yurt platform leapt to the top of the list.

We cleared the site, dug away some hillside and put recovered concrete blocks into the ground, despite the rain (which was only really heavy one night).

A couple of days ago, I woke up early in the morning. I wondered why I had woken up and then… panicked. Because despite my promises to Bernard – despite a very expensive and easily avoidable lesson – I hadn’t put anything over the exhaust of his tractor.

I went down to the field, hoping that I had reversed the tractor into the woods far enough to stop the rain getting in. Or that a leaf had blown down to sit perfectly over the exhaust, saving me the cost of a re-build for which I would have to sell… something.

No such luck. The exhaust was open to the air, inviting all interested precipitation to enter and travel down the manifold straight into the engine.

I worried.

I resolved to call Claude and get his advice. But I still worried. And I thought it would be outrageous for me to get my tractor doctor in to strip someone else’s engine, without that someone knowing anything about it.

So I took half a dozen eggs round to Bernard’s house and confessed my stupidity.

He took it very well, as it goes. He told me not to worry and said he’d come round the next day and have a look. Which was yesterday.

We walked across the field towards the potentially stricken machine. He climbed in, sat on the tractor, turned the key and… no problems at all. Started first time. (TFFT.)

I think I’ve learnt my lesson now.

You remember that tractor that used to live on our land? The one I thought I’d bought but found I hadn’t? Here it is behind the kid’s play yurt, a few metres from where we’re living at the moment:

Can’t see it? It’s here:

I told you it was cute.

We always said we’d have a few months between pigs. To take a break from the twice-daily responsibility of feeding and watering, the frequent re-zoning of land for them to clear, the dismantling and re-mantling of Ark One, and the buying of food in ever-increasing quantities.

But then we got a phone call from Marlene. Two of her sows were farrowing, she said. Could we take four little ones off her hands to give them some room – at a knock-down price?

Of course, we said. Could we borrow her trailer to take our two big ones to the abattoir – to give them some room?

Of course, she said. We could have it for a couple of weeks if necessary.

Which would give us time to fix the tractor, so we could tow the trailer out of the field.

Which meant asking Richard the butcher (and tractor fan) to take a look at it.

Which he did, before declaring the battery was shot.

Which meant digging another battery out of storage only to find there’s more to the tractor problem than a shot battery.

Which meant towing the trailer out of the field with our two-wheel-drive car, on a frosty Monday morning.

Which got stuck in the muck (oh – what bad luck).

Which meant an emergency phone call to Sonia.

Which was exactly what we were trying to avoid. But which she responded to like a trooper – albeit a trooper with a Freelander.

Which impressed the hell out of me – having struggled for 15 minutes with brush, pieces of wood and much spinning of wheels – we just hooked up the Landy and off it went.

Which means I’ll never let anyone take the piss out of a Freelander again (Sonia still says it’s a hairdresser’s car – which is true enough – she’s a hairdresser – and it’s her car).

Which is how our pigs got to the abattoir and we got to have 24 hours before our new pigs arrived – a whole blissful day, when we only had to worry about feeding and watering the horse and chickens.

Which is just long enough to drag Ark One down the field, put it back together, fence off what will be a willow trench for grey water coming out of the guest facilities, and go and collect the new pigs from Marlene. They’re very, very cute. We took pictures.

Which you’ll see later.

For this exercise, you will need: one Fordson Major (1963 model or thereabouts), a grass-cutting attachment and a field of long grass sloping steeply behind you.

Warm up
Press the little wossisface on the side of the engine and climb onto the machine. Make sure the gearbox is in neutral and the attachment is disengaged. Push the thingummyjig and press the button to start the engine. Then sit for a moment, inhaling the diesel-infused air, taking the time to appreciate the beautiful scenery, the peace of which you have just shattered. (This is a good moment to put on your ear defenders.)

Yoga it must be
Engage the grass cutter, put the engine in reverse and release the clutch, then pull the gizmo to lift the attachment off the ground for the journey uphill. Turn around, placing one hand on the rollbar, and guide the tractor up the hill in an unnecessarily straight line. At the top, reduce the engine speed, drop the attachment, stand on the brake and engage first gear, bearing in mind that leaving it in neutral could send you hurtling to your death. Release the clutch and trundle gently down the hill, relieved that you are in gear, occasionally turning around to watch the long grass spewing out of the side of the attachment. At the bottom of the slope, slow the engine, brake, engage reverse and turn to the other side, ensuring an even development of the back, neck and knees. Repeat for one hour, or until the engine stalls and will not re-start.

May help weight loss as part of an intensive outdoor lifestyle.

Yesterday, two things were impressed upon me by the guys that sold me the tractor.

The first was: Never, ever, drive down a hill in neutral. A tractor is big and heavy. You’ll never get it back into gear. You could die.

The other was: Don’t drive it for more than an hour. It’s bad for your back. And your head.

Today, I did both of those things. In the background is the slope I drove down in neutral:

Note the clever use of an opposing slope to take the edge off the runaway tractor. Thereby neutralising the danger of death. (To be fair, I thought I was in gear when I let go of the brake.)

Next, here is me after cutting the grass for about an hour and a half:

Note man at ease with machine; man not realising that he’d been shaken so much that it would take many hours before the brain and body would function again as one.

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.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked a local eco-minded builder (who also runs one of the two local ostrich farms) to come and look at the work that needs to be done before we open.

In brief, this includes:
o digging out a six-car car park (for “écovallée parking”, as my friend Café del Nightmare suggested)
o improving the driveway down to the field (so it can actually be used)
o terracing about an acre of land for our poly tunnel and organic crops
o digging out a large pond for use by the fire service (that will eventually become a natural swimming pool)
o constructing a 60 x 40 foot deck on a steep slope (for our four-yurt home)
o and three platforms for the guest yurts (including recycled floorboard interiors)
o and another one for the yurt kitchen
o constructing a building for our Swedish compost toilets
o and another one for our solar showers and sinks
o digging a big hole for the septic tank(s)
o and a trench for the horizontal-flow reed beds
o burying the mains water pipe that currently swings from the trees above the drive
o creating a kids’ playground with a strong Peter Pan theme (ship, beach with palm tree, living willow crocodile etc)
o fencing 40,000 square metres of land against wild boar and even wilder hunters
o and other odds and sods

I’m a little worried.

Not by the amount of work that needs doing. No. (We still hope to open in April 2008, though this may slip for want of planning permission.) What worries me is the quote he gave me for cutting the waist-to-neck high grass in the field: 500-600 euros.

You can buy a tractor for that.

We lost the tractor.

Turns out Mandy’s husband bought it ‘cos it was such a bargain at 500 euros.

Telling me.

Now telling you.

A few weeks ago, in the Brighton paper, I saw a caption for a photo that read like this: “The winner of the beauty contest was [Name of girl] (pictured), aged 13. When she grows up she wants to be a forensic scientist, or a hairdresser.”

Here, surely, you’ve got to blame the TV. There are obviously far too many shows (“Cutting it”, “10 years younger”, “Queer eye”) giving young people the impression that a career in follicle management is for anyone. They should stick with Applied Maths and be happy.

That said, in our search for a man with a tractor to cut our waist-length grass, what better place to start than the local coiffure?

You’re right, the local café.

I also mentioned it to the parents at school. The accountant. The Notaire. And pretty much anyone else I found myself speaking to throughout the day.

It became a bit of a mantra: “We need to find someone with a tractor. Our grass hasn’t been cut for a year.” Sometimes I also said: “The guy we bought the land from had a tractor, but he sold it.”

Which is how I mentioned it to Mandy – the mother of one of the daughter’s friends – on Sunday. “Oh, there’s a tractor in the shed over there,” she said, waving her hand over there. “I think it’s for sale. You can see it later if you like.”

We did like.

And later, after a walk past the pool, through the barns, around fishing lake, the spare cottage (we never even went round the house) all swapped for a British B&B a few years ago, we opened a shed roughly the size of a hangar for a Learjet and saw, sitting slightly forlorn in the gloom…

A little red tractor (not pictured).

Straight out of a story book.

Or a kid’s cartoon.

Practically perfect in every way.

As boy (whose favourite word is “tractor”) sat at the steering wheel, too blissed out even to make “brrrrum” noises, and I wrote “sold” in the dust on the top, Mandy remembered something.

“This was Dominique’s tractor. It came from your land.”


Apparently, the sale of the tractor fell through and it’s been sitting there ever since. Waiting for us.

It’s a (so-called) coincidence so massive, even we are finding it hard to believe. Enormously affirming, after so many days where nothing much seemed to be happening.

Apart from the drinking of coffee.

And a haircut.