Two go forest gardening

…or how to live at one with nature and the French…


A foot in the past, a foot in the future

Bournac from air 2 blogWhat exactly started us on our journey to self-sufficiency?

Nursing our little house back to life, we began to sense that we were entering into an ongoing story, that we would make our mark and then move on; that others would come after us, just as we had come after all the people who had lived in Bournac over the years.  And with that thought came the question: what is our part in all this?

At this point in my story, I’m going to ask you to imagine hovering over Bournac watching the progress of the works on our house as though you were able to speed up time.  Men are walking around and climbing up and down ladders like Charlie Chaplin.  There’s even a lady builder lugging around packets of floor tiles like… well, like a very competent artisan actually.

The sun comes up and goes down over the course of a year.  The trees blossom and bear fruit and the oaks turn from deep green to browns and golds before falling just as the snow arrives.  A year has come and gone and the house has a new roof, new floors, new doors and windows.

Monsieur Pioche has worked his magic and resurrected our old ruin.  He tells us that the house possibly dates from the 14th or 15th century.  In fact, when his brother-in-law researched their family tree, he unearthed a document showing that one of his ancestors lived in our house in the 15th century.  What’s more, he was a mason.  Monsieur P is particularly pleased about this.

2007-02-01 (3) blog2007-02-19 (5) blog2007-03-07 (1) blogjune 2007 22 blogAnd now, baked earth tiles are lying ready to be polished.  A huge Godin wood-burner is waiting to have its inaugural fire lit.  Shutters are anticipating their first lick of paint.  The San Andreas fault in the end wall has been zipped up and the bathroom which was once only attached to the rest of the house by a metal strut is now cemented firmly in place.

Monsieur P has guided us through the design, staying silent when we’ve proposed some of our stupider ideas, such as having a fireplace in the kitchen as well as a stove.  We later countermanded the work after finding out that the Godin is capable of heating a room of up to 450m3(!) and he shrugged Gallicly, saying, “I thought it was a bizarre idea.”

Now the fireplace has been recreated in the living space upstairs.  The end room downstairs which, when we bought it, was three feet high with a massive pillar in the middle has been turned into a laundry.

The design of the house has made the most of every aspect of the building.  Stone has been cannibalised from demolished walls and beams have been re-used in different locations.  Only the most eaten have been ditched (the goat-sounding thingies obviously did get in at some point before moving on to more inviting surroundings – see Chapter 2).

While we were still chipping off plaster, we uncovered a long blocked up window and the original front door to the house.  We also discovered that what is now our back bedroom used to be the kitchen.  One of the windows still bears the remains of the old stone sink and drain and there are scorch marks on the wall left by the open fire.  Six stone niches sit at ceiling height, four on one side, two on the other.  These would once have been situated on the external walls of the house, open to the elements and creating an updraft to carry away the smoke.

Farmer French's wall safe

Farmer French’s wall safe

In a couple of rooms, we found two roof tiles embedded edges together in the wall.  Monsieur P explained that these were hidey-holes for valuables.

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Air conditionning 15th century style

Once again, the house was a functioning home.  Its history was continuing and we were just two in a long line of custodians.

And what else would we leave behind?  We felt on the edge of something even more exciting because now we could turn to the land.  How could bring to it the same respect for its traditions and work with it to benefit from what nature has designed?

Where to start?

What better way than to consult the founding father of self-sufficiency, John Seymour, author of “The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency“.  So we set off for Ireland to learn how to do it on his small holding…

Join me next week to find out how we learned to use a peening anvil and a heavy duty pounder and a pig becomes my new best friend!



4. Not catching raindrops

2006-01-28 (2) blogWho would have thought that there would be such extremes of weather in the Tarn? We certainly hadn’t anticipated  foot deep snow falls or 44 degree summer blast furnace. Nor had we given much thought to the gallons of rain that get dumped in a few hours at various times during the year, while the rest of the time, the land dries out to a dust bowl.

Over time, we have come to know each of the personalities that make up the Tarn weather. We are now designing to make the most of the each season. But in the beginning, we were pretty clueless…

The fact that in days of yore Farmer French had built a large water cistern alongside the house should have given us a tiny clue that maybe water would be an issue. Its walls were a good metre thick and it was taking up prime position overlooking the valley. It was the only thing we agreed with the architect on – the water tank had to go.

In a fit of good sense, John decided that it would be best to make a hole at the bottom of the lower wall so that the water could escape slowly (any excuse to get his tools out) and he spent a pleasant afternoon chipping away like Clint Eastwood escaping from Alcatraz. By the end of the first day, he had gone about 6 inches into the wall and had rather a sore back.

Not one to be deterred easily, he went back to chiselling the following morning when he heard the lorry-rattle of Monsieur Pioche. John speaks no French and Monsieur P speaks no English and when I am around, they communicate through me. When I’m not, I have it on good authority that they get on like a house on fire, shouting loudly at each other and giving Marcel Marceau a run for his money.

John therefore made chopping movements at the wall and pointed exaggeratedly at his work-in-progress. Monsieur P scratched his head in a way that we have come to understand means “What the hell are they up to now?”

2006-04-26 (1) compressedAttendez,” he said and disappeared behind the house. A couple of minutes later, he chugged around the corner in his tractopelle. John saw it all happen in slow motion – the arm of the digger reaching over the wall of the water tank, pulling back with a jerk and the water cascaded out like Noah’s flood.

“But, but…” John was saying, his chisel limp in his fingers as Monsieur P leaped down from his machine, beaming from ear to ear.

Pas de problème!”

It would not be last time that our attempts to lead a simple life would have Monsieur P looking at us as if we were actually just simple.

RIP water tank.

Enter the well.

Yes, we were very excited to be the owners of a well which lived in a little house of its own, built into the wall of the garden.

“Hurrah!” we thought. “We can channel rain from the roof into the well and have a constant supply of water for the garden.”  There was a satisfying splosh each time we threw in a stone and the water seemed very deep because we could barely see the surface moving.  The lady from the Mairie was going to be very disappointed each time she came to read the water meter.

2008-04-29 (43) blogJohn rigged up a bucket and rope to the ancient winch and I was allowed to give it an inaugural lowering. It took a few goes before I realized that the plastic bucket needed to be chucked down at an angle so that it would fill with water – this should have been my first clue. I heaved up the first load of water to find the bucket half full of water and – piercing shriek – dead mouse. Not drinking water then, at least not for humans. The poor little mouse had obviously drunk quite a lot before exploding.

After a couple more goes, it became clear that the depth of the well was not deep at all. We started wondering how we could get it cleared out. Romantic thoughts of what we might find occupied a couple of evenings’ conversation over dinner, fuelled by the story the builder had told us of the World War II arms cache found in a nearby village. The area had been thick with Resistance groups at the time so maybe there was an oilskin of sten guns down there. I could even see the Time Team putting in a trench.

A few days later, the farmer came down to feed the cattle. He’s a jolly chap with a mop of white hair and a ruddy, smiling face and the broadest Jean de Florette accent. He burst out laughing when I told him of our plans.

Inutile,” he announced. Not worth it, hopeless, waste of time – we got the message. So inutile in fact that, after trying to get the water flowing from the well himself, he had resorted to digging out the spring at the bottom of the field so that his cows would have enough to drink.

“So no guns then?” I looked at John for some sign of optimism, but he just shook his head, patted my arm and carried on clearing up the mess at the ex-water tank.  Back to the drawing board…

Lessons we have learned #4: Things are usually as they are for a reason.


3. Everything happens for a reason

One of the rules of permaculture is to organize your living space in zones according to their use. We decided to learn this five years too late and started designing the house and its surroundings according to whatever whim caught our attention when reading Country Living – or at least the French equivalent.

This has not been entirely disastrous because, over time, we have come to understand the vagaries of the weather, where things grow and where they don’t, what will need to be close by and what can be stored or grown further away. Unwittingly, we were following another rule of permaculture: observe your surroundings for a year to learn its rhythms, then start to plan.

In the meantime, planning the renovation of the house was our first priority because it was completely uninhabitable. The previous owners had moved out in the 70s if the old newspapers stuffed into various nooks and crannies were anything to go by. Planning permission had come with the house, but the plans were all upside-down with the bedrooms on the ground floor and the living space above. The agent had assured us that this could all be changed so off we trotted to see the architect.

Hanging on the wall of his waiting room were pictures of buildings for which he was responsible – a hospital, an office block and various other buildings with a distinctly municipal character. He had now brought his talents to bear on our farmhouse and it looked as though we were going to end up with a Little Steelframe on the Prairie. It might have put us in contention for the Norman Foster Architectural Awards, but was not really in keeping with the French countryside. We thanked him and dived into the nearest bar for several restorative petit rouges.

For the first time, the hubris that had carried us into this new life deserted us. What should we do next? We were only going to be able to visit once a month at most so who was going to help keep the project on course in our absence? And who was actually going to rebuild the place?

Johnny vents his frustration

We returned to the house feeling distinctly depressed. Johnny went off to find a pick while I grabbed the crowbar and started whacking great lumps out of the rotten plaster in the upstairs room. There really is nothing more satisfying than peeling off old bits of render and seeing the original stonework underneath, especially the crash as it shatters on the floor.

Surprising then that we even heard the van as it drove down the lane. A young chap got out, took out some tools and went into the house at the end of the turning. I called to John so that we could go and see what he was up to. The English owners of the house, Fiona and Andy, had very trustingly given us keys inviting us to stay while we were doing up our place so we felt somewhat in loco parentis. The fellow had a key and seemed to know what he was doing, but all the same… We followed him inside on the pretext of making a coffee and found him lying upside down under the fireplace.

“Bonjour,” we said in unison and fortunately he wasn’t taken so by surprise that he brained himself on the stonework. His name was David and he was making a hole in the underside of the chimney to help the fire draw better. In old houses, there are always plenty of gaps in window frames and under doors to create the flow of air that fuels a fireplace, but as soon as you put in all mod cons such as double-glazing, there are no draughts for the fire to suck up.

David had a friendly face and since we were bored with talking to each other about our woes, we off-loaded them onto him instead.

“You should speak to my boss,” he said. “He lives in the village. I’ll ask him to come by.” Appearing happy with his handiwork, he pottered back to his van and off he drove. Knowing that things generally march at a snail’s pace in rural France, we went back to punishing the wall, wondering if we would see the boss this side of Christmas.

And then, not a half an hour later, we heard the clatter of a lorry making its way along the lane. Even now when I hear that sound, I know it can be only one person. Down climbed a wiry little man with the darkest hair and eyes – and we met our saviour.

“Bonjour,” he cried and stuck his hand out. “Monsieur Pioche. David tells me you need a builder.”

So began the story of how our little house was brought back to life by a man who understands the stones and timber that have been in place for centuries, who knows instinctively how they fit together and who has given us a vision of Bournac that will live on long after we are all gone.

Lessons we have learned 3: Everything happens for a reason


2. Bricks, bonfires and borers

There is nothing more satisfying than kicking down a wall.

I don’t mean one of those metaphorical ones like when you realise you can’t sing, but you’re not giving up karaoke. I mean the bricks and mortar kind – a wall you can stub your toe against. And there was one just ripe for the kicking in the main room of our new house. But I’ll come to that in a moment.

Yes, it was our house.  We had scraped together our pennies, turned them into sous and signed the final deed of sale three months after the day we set eyes on the place.  During that time, the agent had been gathering in all the tests and checks that are required under French law, such as confirmation that the house contained no asbestos, anything which might cause saturnisme (if you’re French, why use an obvious word when a complex one will do?) or termites.  Other words like capricornes and xylophages kept cropping up in conversation, but Monsieur Dubois assured us, “Ça craint pas!” – it’s not a problem.


An old-house borer

I really didn’t like the idea of that goat-sounding one, but the agent said that it only ate new wood and that there was only heartwood left in the house because it was so old.  I thought a goat could probably do quite a bit of damage, but it turns out that he meant the house longhorn beetle, also known as “old-house borer”.  Perhaps it’s as well I didn’t know this at the time.  And xylophages?  Just wood worm, nothing to worry about, apparently.

Fortunately, the parasite report came back negative, as did the one about asbestos and lead-poisoning (aka saturnisme – why the weird astrological link to all these nasties?)

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Nasty looking crack

Most important was confirmation from a structural engineer that the end of the house wasn’t about to fall off.  Even we might have thought twice about waking up only to find that the bedroom had been extended into the garden.  But his report stated  “the evolution of these disorders should be stopped by the recovery work to roof and floor”. That’s all right then.

Thus we became the owners of 2.39 hectares (5.92 acres) of France.  Henry VIII would have been proud.

And we could now start smashing, cracking, shattering and indeed kicking all the bits of the house that simply needed a bit of brute force to get the renovation started – which brings us back to the wall.

The house is the creation of the generations of people who built it – more of this in later posts.  For now, I’ll just say that Farmer French woke up one day, decided he needed an extra room and built a wall to divide the upstairs living area.  John had made the mistake of leaning against it and nearly falling through so the idea of putting on his army drill boots and stomping it down took only a millisecond to form.

2005-01-13 (1) doc 2005-01-13 (2) doc

The crumbling bricks soon gave way and we began to get an idea of just how big this room was going to be.

Next, I turned my attention to the wooden strips which had been nailed up to create a ceiling.  These were now hanging down in places so that the sky was visible through the gappy roof tiles.

While I was gleefully pulling down bits of ceiling, John had been disappearing outside with armfuls of wood. After a while, I realised he’d been gone quite some time. Always conscious of the risk that one of us could seriously hurt ourselves, I went to see where he’d gone.

I found him throwing the tinder-dry slats onto a massive bonfire with a huge and slightly demented grin on his face – I was married to a pyromaniac.

“Just look how it’s going up,” he crowed.

All I could say was, “You’ve got no eyebrows!”

“Be all right,” he said, as he grabbed another handful of detritus and tossed it in the fire. I had to admit that it was good to feel its glow on me because at 500 metres it gets cold in Bournac once the sun has gone down.

2005-01-14 (2) docSuddenly, the flames let out a massive crack and bits of bonfire flew out in all directions. I jumped back, shouting a very bad word. John was scratching his head as another great explosion shot bits of burning wood at us.

“Perhaps, it wasn’t such a good idea to put those asbestos tiles on there.”


I wondered whether it would entirely safe to allow him access to power tools. And where the hell had the asbestos come from?

“Be all right,” he said again with the sang-froid of one who has been under live fire. I think it translates into French as, “Ça craint pas!”

“Paula, I’ve glued my hat to my head – be all right.”

“Damn, I’ve sawn into my hand – be all right.”

“It’s not a problem, but I’ve drilled through an electric cable – be all right.” Oh, OK, I made that last one up.

After a while, the fireworks died down and I had the brilliant idea of proving that, despite not having been a Brownie, I could cook dinner over a camp fire. I had brought potatoes, peppers and cheese to make that winning combination of potato, peppers and cheese baked in a bonfire. The embers were glowing nicely so I dropped in the foil packages and went back to demolishing the ceiling.  Half an hour later, we were tucking into the mouth-watering mélange of barely baked potato with carbonised pepper and cheesy liquid.

This self-sufficiency thing is going to take a bit of practice.

Lessons we have learned #2: Always think forward

Next time: We start thinking about how to design the house and land to be self-sufficient…