We went to England for a couple of weeks over the festive season, and left écovallée in the capable hands of two sets of friends, who may or may not meet while we were away.

Before we left, I sent them a document explaining how everything works.

Ours is a simple life, you might think (I thought as much), but as I wrote about water mains and T-junctions that might freeze, animals that might die, and all the other little things we now know and do, adding photos where necessary, the document stretched on and on. I even sent three appendices with things I’d left out of the original tome. But obviously the information was incomplete, because when we got back last night the toilet had been turned off. (I had forgotten to mention the need to tap the flusher a couple of times – lightly – until you feel the resistance that tells you the cistern is refilling. An oversight for which I take full responsibility.)

This document was nothing, however, compared to the bible we would have needed to negotiate life in the UK. The chapter on buying travelcards for two adults and two children alone, from a machine where the touch-screen worked for only one of us, and which offered an alarming number of options we didn’t need, would have made my entire manual look like a footnote.

So although it was great to be away, it’s even better to be back, surrounded by the running repairs we know and love, and to start considering the work ahead. I’m going to begin with some round-wood building, pegging the frame for the new 12-foot-yurt kitchen together with heart of oak, instead of lashing, while Her Outdoors knocks together a 15-metre dry-stone and lime mortar retaining wall. Before this, I need to find, cut and strip the poles, and learn to use a lathe. And before that, I need to clean out the rabbits – something we didn’t ask our yurt-sitters to do.

If you’re stuck for something to do between long-count calendars, try writing down your life as if you were going away and someone is taking over two hours after you leave. The document must include names and numbers of people to call if there’s a serious problem – and what those problems might be (ours included chimney fires and armageddon). It’s an interesting exercise.

snowy vallée

We’re having a rest from all things vallée over the mid-Winter period. So I won’t be blogging again until the days are getting longer and the kids are back at school.

Don’t worry.

It’s not the end of the world.

I got an email yesterday from a London production company looking for people who have just started, are are just about to start, living off-grid. If you fancy sharing the agony and the ecstasy of this life-changing event with a TV audience, send me an email through the booking form on the écovallée website and I’ll give you their contact details.

You never know how useful your experiences could be to other people. A couple of years ago, we had a guest at the yurt camp who experienced our Mark I compost toilet (a dustbin hidden by chestnut boards). She went back to New Zealand where, a few weeks later, the big Christchurch quake happened. The epicentre was 6 km away from her home and they lost their amenities instantly. One of the first things she did was grab a spade, go into the garden and make a new toilet.

If you do decide to take part, at the very least you’ll have something to remember how young (and flabby) you looked before off-grid living made its mark. Although, obviously, you’ll have no way of watching it.

If you’re joining me from blogger – thanks for coming! It’s going to take me a while to find my feet here, but lots of people I trust have said great things about wordpress, so I’m hopeful that everything will turn out alright in the end. (What could possibly go wrong?)

If you’ve found me on wordpress – blimey! That was quick.

Right. I’m going to move the blog to wordpress. Hopefully this will all go smoothly and all the links will still work. It’s bound to look different, but we’ll all just have to get used to that.

Wish me luck. I might need it.

It seems that Blogger has seen fit to fix something that wasn’t broken. Specifically, it now seems that whenever I post an image (as in the post immediately below), the leading (space between lines of words) looks hideous. I’ve made blogger aware of this problem and hope they can unbreak the issue.

If they can’t, I’ll obviously be decamping to a new blogging platform. Watch this (terrible use of) space.

For many reasons, pig keeping and the dream of self-sufficiency* go hand in hand. Tom and Barbara did it. Hugh did it. And so did we – as soon as we realised we were spending €700 a year on pork products at the local supermarket.

This money, we reckoned, could buy us pigs and feed them until time for slaughter. We could theoretically sell a pig, buy and feed more pigs, and keep ourselves in pork – forever.

For their part, the pigs would live in the woods, clear the land of unwanted vegetation, consume our meat-free food waste, turn weeds from the veggie beds into manure, and provide all the sausages, ham, bacon, lardons, roasts, salamis, filet mignons and more that we could possibly want.

(The €700 obviously excludes the set-up costs of fencing and housing, and the costs of slaughter if you’re using an abattoir, but you get the picture. Eventually, it would be a self-sustaining part of our lives.)

Now, for other reasons, we are looking again at this decision. In fact, there’s a distinct possibility that these two will be the last pigs we keep:


Partly, because carrying food and water hundreds of metres up and down the valley twice a day means we have very little freedom to do other things with our time. (If it’s too much to ask other people to do when we go away, isn’t it too much to ask of ourselves?)

Partly, because they are costing us more than that original estimate. These pigs, for example, will not go for slaughter until November when they’ll be over 1.5 years old. They cost us roughly €15 a week to feed. They’ll be too heavy for me to slaughter on the land and so will need to be taken to the abattoir.

Partly, because they’ve done their job of clearing the woods. If they stay there any longer there won’t be any woods – they’re that good at clearing them! They also damage the soil structure so severely that the land takes years to recover.

Partly, because since watching “Forks over knives” recently, we’ve all started eating much less meat. (It’s a film that describes the benefits of eating a veggie or vegan diet and I highly recommend watching it. Some of the points will genuinely surprise you and it might even save your life.)

Add a couple of these partlys together and we can look forward to spending €15 a week on veggie seeds or produce in the local market. We still have chickens, rabbits and geese for when we feel the need or desire for meat but, if we do the almost unimaginable and make the jump to a vegetable-based diet, we can sell these animals to other people and actually Make Some Money to buy these veggie seeds and products.

Which is a long-winded and largely unedited way of saying: We’re changing. One thing this challenging, exciting and enlivening (yet ironically, financially impoverished) lifestyle does is present you with the opportunity to grow, develop, play and explore new ideas.

On a personal level, I have never enjoyed taking the life of an animal, even though I can argue that the animal was always intended to feed me and my family. I have always been thankful to the animal, but could never shake the thought that ending a life is spiritually… an abomination (seems a bit much but it’s the word that feels appropriate).

Yes, it will be nice not to kill any more.

*We are so far from the reality of being self-sufficient it’s not even funny. I remember seeing a couple talking about being self-sufficient after about 15 years of constant work. It seemed a long time at the time, but now I think it’s reasonable.

These to-do lists are why I haven’t had any time to blog for the last couple of weeks:

I’ve only just had time to take a photo of our first gosling while it’s still a bit green:

The mother goose is sitting on another eight eggs in that wine barrel. We thought they’d all have hatched by now, but they haven’t. We don’t actually know much about geese yet, so wouldn’t know if this is normal, abnormal, or something in between.

I would write more, but I might just take five minutes instead to enjoy That Relaxing French Lifestyle.

Here’s an idea: join us on April 14th 2012 (that’s in just over a month) for the first of what we hope will be many Good Life Weeks in écovallée.

Over the course of the week you’ll get gloves-on experience of a whole range of essential self-sufficiency skills, like:

o Animal house construction
o Bread making
o Butchery
o Chicken catching
o Clay oven cooking
o Dry-stone walling
o Fencing (hedging, solar, stock etc)
o Hole digging
o Manure management
o Pig husbandry
o Sausage making
o Tractor driving
o Veggie bed planning
o Woodland management
o Working with must-have tools

You’ll stay in one of our 18-foot handcrafted guest yurts, each furnished with one double and two single beds including sheets, duvets and towels, sharing with other likeminded course participants. Additional facilities include a fully equipped canvas-covered kitchen with gas oven and BBQ, compost toilet and solar shower.

For four hours every morning, you will work with me and Her Outdoors, and be free to ask as many questions as you want. Following a communal lunch, afternoons will be yours to explore the surrounding area, and discover the countless delights that make the Dordogne one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.

A reasonable level of fitness would be helpful, but is not essential. The “Good Life” is very physical, and less active people will be limited to two hours of strenuous activity per day for their own safety. You will need to provide your own insurance, working clothes, wellies and gloves. Sunglasses and a hat are also a very good idea.

“Good Life Weeks” cost £300 per person including a welcome supper on arrival and daily communal lunch. For a bit more info, read the press release.

That photo I was telling you about before (below):