Two go forest gardening

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

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?)

2004-09 edited

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…


5 thoughts on “2. Bricks, bonfires and borers

  1. I love what you wrote ! so true and real ! it is like if we were with you ! i want to be on next monday to see what happened ! xxxxx

  2. Such a pleasure to read. C x

  3. Very funny! Maybe the next time you have a house-burning session you could have some sweet potatoes on hand – take a bit less time to cook….. LOL

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