Two go forest gardening

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


In Bournac this week

For once, I am writing in real time from our kitchen table in Bournac.  On it sits a vase of lilac which is perfuming the entire room.  Bushes everywhere are weighed down with the mauve and white blossom of this most elegant of flowers.  The countryside is finally waking up after what locals tell us has been the worst spring they can remember.  Given that some of them are ancient, that’s a long time indeed.

On Wednesday when we stepped out of the plane at Toulouse, we were hit by 30 degree heat and the sweet scent of things growing.  I even managed to get sunburn because I’d forgotten what it’s like to be in sunshine.

But since then a dastardly north-westerly has been blowing, flattening everything that’s not nailed down.  I have been tying raspberry canes to stakes and attaching extra ties to our fruit trees for fear they blow over and snap.  This morning when John went to use the garden hose, he discovered it had frozen up.  It’s not always Jean de Florette hot down here.

So we’re here to tame the weeds that have a party every time we leave for a couple of weeks.  The warmer temperatures and constant rain have provided the ideal growing environment.  But I am pleased to announce that the grass clipping mulch I put around the raspberries and blackcurrants last month has worked a treat.  They are sprouting away happily with nary a weed in sight.

Johnny as usual reserved the fun of strimming for himself.  I guess it’s a boy-thing, but he just can’t wait to wreak havoc with his petrol-driven brush-cutter.  I remind him that a vital part of self-sufficiency is to be independent of oil products, but he comes out with some reason why he can’t use his scythe.  He hasn’t got the right type of blade or his peening anvil is back in London.  I give up the argument and rush out to the garden with my shears to cut around all the plants that are not weeds.  I have learned the hard way that a boy’s eye doesn’t distinguish between weeds and fruit bushes.  Unfortunately, I forgot to mention the violets and cowslips.  The former are now bald and the latter quite decapitated.

It's wine o'clock after a hard day of digging.

It’s wine o’clock after a hard day of digging.

Our days follow the same timetable: breakfast, a bit of work, elevenses, a bit of work, lunch, a bit of work, cake o’clock, a bit more work, dinner, bed.  It’s easy to lose track of time here, but every day at 12 o’clock and 7 o’clock, the chime of a distant church bell reaches us on the wind.  For ten minutes, the bell of St Pantaléon (otherwise known as St Trousers) faithfully calls its parishioners to lunch and dinner.  The fact that the bell has never called us to a church service says a great deal about the importance of food to the French.  In my mind, I saw an elderly, bent-over, little priest in a black robe and Don Camillo hat tugging on the bell-pull for dear life, crying, “Allez, tout le monde à table!”  My fantasy was shattered when someone told us the bell was on a timer…  Such is the price of progress.

Speaking of French food, we thought that we had had all the surprises that French cuisine could present to us.  In this part of France, hunting is a way of life and restaurant menus are a long list of various bits of game: wild boar, venison, hare, guinea fowl.  These dishes usually involve a generous helping of goose fat.  Then of course there are the various bits of insides that the French love so much: sweetbreads, kidneys and our all time favourite…gizzards.  I had to look this up and, according to Google, it’s the “muscular, thick-walled part of a bird’s stomach for grinding food, typically with grit” and it’s particularly delicious served in a salad (yes, a salad).  We like telling our French friends that gizzards were our little dog’s favourite treat and watch them trying to hide their look of disbelief.  Anyway, we passed a menu board this week announcing the starter of the day to be nems aux gésiers aka gizzard spring rolls.  It almost made me regret being a vegetarian.

And then we went into a supermarket and at the till, right where shops like to put sweets and chocolates to tempt customers as they queue, we saw the most delectable-sounding confectionary: bonbons au lait d’ânesse…donkey milk sweets.

We took our pulses, veg and yoghurt and hot-footed it back to Bournac to cook dinner.  I can just hear Monsieur Dubois’s voice, “Mais on n’est pas des oiseaux…”  But we’re not birds…  Being veggie in France is not easy.



In praise of the Landrover

2013-03-16 (2)Driving a car that is shaped like a brick is an interesting experience. But when it can also pull an army surplus trailer, fit 30 bags of horse manure in the back and run on recycled chip fat, it’s the forest gardener’s must have accessory.

I am writing this sitting in the kitchen in Bournac, listening to the roar of the stove (John has done is best Gene Hunt impression to “fire up the Godin”), the massive 650 mile drive to get here now fading to a vague memory. This always happens thankfully because, similarly to what I am told about childbirth, if we remembered the agony, we probably wouldn’t bother to do it again.

As usual, we braved the journey in our beloved Landrover which at the best of times can manage 70mph if we are using the overdrive and are following a lorry downhill. The quickest we have done the trip is 17 hours, the slowest 32, but in fairness the alternator had broken and left us stranded on the Paris périphérique. Having found a replacement battery, we had to continue the journey without switching off the engine in case it wouldn’t start again.

For this trip, we had the brilliant idea of strapping two rectangular water butts to the roof which made the car look like a vehicle from the Wacky Races. Johnny had already warned me that it would mean a slower journey with more stops for fuel, but we hadn’t bargained for the effect of the wind buffeting us around the motorway. I’m glad J was driving in the first leg because I could see him tussling with the steering wheel.

2013-03-16 (4)On our exit from the motorway in Paris, we were flabbergasted at the price of the toll – almost 10 euros more than normal. The same happened on the next leg – another great price hike. It was only when we reached the last péage that we realized what was going on. We had spent five minutes wondering where the ticket was, only to find it two feet above the level of my window. There are sensors as you enter the lane that read the height of your vehicle and we were being taken for a lorry! Sorry François Hollande if your ears were burning – we had been bad-mouthing the huge increase in tolls, thinking they must surely be another bonkers indirect tax increase brought in by the socialist government when in fact it was because we were unknowingly driving a juggernaut.

We left London at 10am and arrived in Bournac at 5am the next morning. Not bad going considering that we rarely got over 55mph and, rather embarrassingly, kept getting overtaken by lorries along the way.

I have already mentioned that our Landy smells like a chip van and this is because we have fitted a converter to it that allows it to run on vegetable oil. This has got to be the greenest thing that we do despite the rather odd smell that accompanies us wherever we go. Once we were stopped by French customs officers who asked to see in the back of the car. He started sniffing very deliberately and then announced, “Ça sent bizarre ici.” When he saw the dog, he backed off. How insulting! How could little Lucy ever smell as bad as the Landover?

John has perfected his refinery set up in the shed in London. He collects used cooking oil from a local hospice and drips it several time through a filter shaped like a windsock. It took a while for me to realize why all our clothes were also stinking of chip fat – he had been putting the filters in the washing machine when they got too clogged up with gunk. It’s a wonder that our marriage has survived this long…

And the great thing is that the engine will run on any kind of oil. John once found 5 litres of out-of-date massage oil and slung that in the tank. For a short while, the Landy actually smelled quite pleasant, of almonds. Which makes me wonder what would happen if we chucked some lavender oil in there. It would certainly take cyclists by surprise. Now they just get stunk out at traffic lights.

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Lots of lovely compost for the raised beds

So having arrived in Bournac, we made the most of having the Landy with us this time. I was determined to start on the raised beds in the garden and this was going to require a significant amount of soil and compost. Pas de problème! We just chucked buckets of mole earth and forest floor in the back, along with odd bits of fallen wood that we found along the way. You’d have trouble doing that with a Citroen Saxo.

2011-11-01 (2)Perhaps the most loveable thing about the Landy is the effect it used to have on Lucy the dog who left us in June last year after a long and happy 18 years. Now we are left with many fond memories of her snoozing away on my lap, driving all over the place. In fact, when she was hospitalized in France for four nights, it was only by taking her for a drive in the Landy that she finally recovered from the stress and got better.

2011-05-04 (1)aThe leaky sunroof is sealed up with Vaseline, the heating burns your face while your knees freeze in the draughts and John wears ear-plugs to prevent himself getting a headache from the noise of the engine. BUT we love our Landrover and will never be without one. Creating our forest garden and living a sustainable life would be so much harder without it.

Go out and buy yours today!


Help, there’s a house in our garden!

You would have thought it would be impossible to mess up digging a hole.  But I can tell you now, it’s not!

Back in Bournac, we were so excited about planting that we decided to ignore the old army 7Ps adage (Proper Prior Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Planting – or something like that) and just do it.

One of the main tenets of forest gardening is that we replicate the structure found in nature.  This means planting the garden so that the vegetation forms the layers that are found in a forest.

        1. ‘Canopy layer’ consisting of mature trees
        2. ‘Low-tree layer’ of smaller nut and fruit trees
        3. ‘Shrub layer’ of fruit bushes
        4. ‘Herbaceous layer’ of perennial vegetables and herbs
        5. ‘Ground cover layer’ of plants that spread horizontally
        6. ‘Rhizosphere’ or ‘underground’ dimension of plants grown for their roots and tubers
        7. ‘Vertical layer’ of vines and climbers

We already had the benefit of the old ornamental cherry trees which line the lane on one side of our garden so we decided to go straight for the low-tree layer and plant some fruit trees.

I had visions of peaches and nectarines drooping off overburdened boughs, but those dreams were nipped in the bud by everyone we spoke to.  “It’s too cold up here/there,” we were told by Monsieur Pioche, Monsieur Dubois, the owners of the wine chateau B&B, the garden centre man…  Try as I might, I couldn’t find any dissenting voices so my fantasy was knocked firmly on its head.

John’s idea of growing olive trees was unceremoniously laughed at too – the French don’t mask their feelings like the English – and we could see people thinking, “Townies! And English ones at that.”

But John was puzzled.  If olive trees were such a ridiculous idea, why were they on sale at the garden centre in Gaillac?

And then we learned another invaluable lesson: each area has its own climate.  It is part of the French concept of terroir, the unique combination of climate, soil and geography that produces the distinctive growing conditions in an area.  Gaillac is only 30 kilometres from Bournac, but it is also 300m lower and it benefits from the microclimate that exists in the “golden triangle” of Gaillac, Cordes and Albi.  This is why the area is stuffed full of vineyards.

For Bournac, we needed to buy plants that would survive 40 degree heat in the summer and -14 degrees in the winter.  Cherries and pip fruit were the ticket.

In our determination to respect the ways of our adoptive country, we waited patiently until 25 November so that we could adhere to the saying “A la Sainte Catherine, tout bois prend racine !”  According to folklore, if you plant your fruit trees on St Catherine’s day, they will put down strong roots.  It was even given a five minute slot on the evening news: “People all around the country have been planting fruit trees…” accompanied by clips of assorted gardeners toiling over their holes.

Being fruit tree virgins and after the rather frank reaction to our original plans, we thought it best to be guided by the garden centre folk so we hooked the trailer up to the Landy and off we tootled to fill it up.

A lady in a headscarf and pinny greeted us.  She had the lined face of one who had spent her life outside and the broadest Tarnais accent.  She would surely know a poxy pippin from a robust russet.  But then she started digging out our selected tree with a fork and a lot of levering back and forth until it came free from its moorings with an unpleasant ripping sound.  With a wide grin, she lifted it out, waving about its rather broken-looking roots.  Johnny and I glanced at each other, but were too polite to ask whether she had actually killed it.  We’re definitely going to have to toughen up!2010-11-25 (12) compressed

Five trees and seven shrubs later, we arrived back in Bournac just as the rain started.  Oh, joy!  But at least the trees would be well watered once we got them in the ground.  We had two cherries, two apples and a pear – five holes to dig.  We reckoned on an hour for each, then a cup of tea and massive cream cake to celebrate.

Like I said, surely it was impossible to mess up digging a hole?  Well, it’s not.  What we hadn’t bargained on was what we would find on hitting the ground with our spades which turned out to be useless.  So we tried forks, no better.  John resorted to a pick which lasted about ten minutes before the handle broke.  Soon our fingers ached from prising out of the soggy ground stones and bricks and roof tiles and not a few rocks.  What the heck was going on?

The story goes that Farmer French became quite successful and, as the inhabitants of the hamlet died off or moved away, he bought up their properties.  Eventually his family owned most of the land and since times were moving on and machinery was l’ordre du jour, he splashed out on a shiny, new tractor.  Unfortunately, the hamlet had grown up without anticipating the day when Farmer French would want to drive his monster truck down its lanes and the huddled buildings allowed no space for it to pass.

With the French battle-cry of “Pas de problème!” Farmer French put his foot on the gas and bulldozed a path through the settlement, leaving a swathe of rubble behind him.  The hamlet, which had once housed 66 people, now comprised four dwellings, a couple of barns and lots of stone.  Over the years, the traces of the ruins were covered over by the rampant vegetation and, by the time we bought our house, nothing could be seen of the old hamlet…

Paula trying to look happy with her 6 inch hole

Paula trying to look happy with her 6 inch hole

…and then we came across it when we started digging holes for our fruit trees.

After two hours of back-breaking work, we had managed to dig down about 6 inches – and the garden centre lady had said we needed a 1 metre x 1 metre hole for each tree!  At this rate, it would be Christmas before the trees were all planted.  The rain was coming down in buckets, which was turning the soil into clay and our feet were twice their normal size because they were covered in grey, sticky mud.

Thank goodness for the trusty tractopelle

Thank goodness for the trusty tractopelle

And then as if by magic (again), the rattle of Monsieur Pioche coming to our rescue.  He comes to check on us every now and then when we’re in Bournac.  We’d like to think that it’s because he’s worried we’ll do something stupid, but I’m sure we provide him with some good material “You’ll never guess what those English have done now…”

He was polite enough not to laugh too much at the sight of us bedraggled and mud-covered in front of our piteous little hole as he drove his tractopelle to the rescue, not for the first time.  You can see from the photo just how much rock we were up against.

We found out some time later from Farmer French’s family that three houses had stood in the area we now think of as our garden.  Heaven knows what else we are going to find when we get on to creating the main beds.  We will have to work hard to bring the soil back to fertility after having hosted all that building material for so long.

2010-11-25 (17) compressed 2010-11-25 (18) compressedEventually we were able to put all the trees to bed.  Even with Monsieur P’s help, it was dark by the time we finally had our cake – and a massive plate of bread and cheese.  But our trees can now spread out their roots and get ready to produce fruit for us and those who come after.

Maybe the Army has a point – a bit of PPPPPPP will be a good idea for making sure that everything else grows in the right place!


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…