Two go forest gardening

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

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Fuel for free – the wonders of wood

Imagine yourself in the French countryside in a little stone house, built when people wore four layers of clothing as standard and heating was limited to an open fire.  Then go outside and realise that it’s minus 14 degrees and the water has frozen in the pipes.  Fun, fun, fun!  You might almost be in a situation out of the “Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook”.  And yet, this is what we may well be faced with once we live in Bournac full-time.

Last year, the winter was exceptionally hard.  We were only there for a few days and missed the worst of the weather, but we heard horror stories of people suffering tens of thousands of euros of water damage and that others had burnt their way through €10,000 of heating oil.

Husband Johnny is from tough Irish farming stock – his grandmother cooked over an open fire until the 1960s, fuelled by peat that had been cut by hand – so he knows a thing or two about keeping warm.  He had been adamant that, if we wanted to be truly self-sufficient, we would need to solve the fuel problem from the start.

Freedom from fossil fuel has always been our goal and, since Bournac is in the middle of a Hundred Acre Wood, the obvious decision was to copy the French paysans and burn firewood.

You have already heard about the amazing Godin range that now squats in our kitchen, chunting away like the Flying Scotsman on a full belly.  We have also installed a little stove in the bedroom and have another two ready for the downstairs living area and the second bedroom (once Monsieur P gets around to finishing them).  But obviously they need to be fed, particularly the Godin which gobbles up a good 6-8 logs an evening.

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“I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay, I sleep all night and I work all day…”

This is when the lumberjack in John decided to make an appearance.  Why buy wood when he could cut it down from the surrounding land?  He could do a coppicing course, keep fit, use the Landy to drive across the fields and drag back the wood – the hunter/gatherer was being given his head and…

…this turned into a marvellous excuse to buy all kinds of rusty cutting implements from car boot sales and junk shops.  Imagine my delight when he came home with a 4-foot-long, double-end saw (and just who did he think would be on the other end from him?) which then lurched about in the garden shed, looking for an opportunity to fall on me and make its presence felt.

I lost count of the times I had to sign for ludicrously heavy parcels which a panting delivery person had lugged up the front steps of our London house.  These contained all manner of mallets, chisels and wedges for splitting the logs once John had felled a tree.

To practise his wood-splitting skills, John took to loading the Landy with wood that he found on building sites and making friends with tree surgeons who are only too pleased to get rid of large pieces of tree trunk.  Soon the back of our garden in London was piled high with logs.  Fortunately, we also have an open fire here so getting rid of them wasn’t a problem.

Then came the grand opening of the double-ended saw.  John disappeared in the Landy to drive to the top of our field in Bournac.  After an hour or so, I thought I’d better check that he hadn’t done himself and injury and – yes, you guessed it – found myself on the other end of the saw (as I think he had planned all along).2010-02-02 (17)

And what fun it was!  The teeth cut through the wood like the proverbial hot knife through butter and I felt fully justified in scoffing a massive cake that afternoon as a reward.  It was also really satisfying to work together as a team and to cut the wood together in less than half the time it would have taken Johnny on his own.

I’ll blog more on how John has organised his wood-cutting activity because it is a free and sustainable source of fuel and you don’t need your own personal forest to provide the wood.

But now, I’m going to light the fire in the sitting room here in London because my fingers are frozen from typing this and it’s not going to cost me a penny!



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.

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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…


1. It could happen to anyone

You know how it is. You go on holiday and you come back with a house.

You might construe this as a moment of inattention, careless even or, as my parents declared, “downright irresponsible”.  I had to agree that this particular purchase trumped any other impulse buy I had ever made.  “And it needs so much work!” they wailed as they surveyed the lack of windows, doors, electrictricity supply… (the list is quite long so I’ll stop there).  Not for the first time, they were shaking their heads, wondering what on earth we thought we were doing.

It had all started a few months earlier in a jaunty little conversation with our hosts at the chambre d’hôtes.

“How much would you pay for a little house in the country around here?” I asked, thinking that Madame would give me directions to the nearest estate agent.  Instead, she put her finger in the air with a “Ah!” and started talking animatedly to someone at the other end of the phone.  We were lucky, she told us, Monsieur Dubois was free to show us around some properties.  She had in fact given the estate agent directions to us.

I looked at John who was wearing his what-a-waste-of-time face, but by then a car was pulling up and we were shaking hands with the agent.  Even as we set off behind his car, we were arguing – John had been looking forward to a nice long lunch and a not-so-petit rouge.

“Apart from anything else, we haven’t got any money to buy a house,” he said, then shut up when he realised he couldn’t talk and concentrate on keeping up with the Alain Prost driving the car in front.  His mood did not improve as we were shown around a house with termites and a house in a valley so deep you would only see the sun at midday.

And then there was Bournac…

2006-11-19 (13)At the end of a downhill track stood a cluster of stone houses in varying degrees of delapidation and, behind them, nothing but the fields and forest of the Tarn.

Looking out at this view, I had tears in my eyes at the unfairness of life showing me this place.  We could never afford somewhere so perfect, so unspoiled in England (unless one of us discovered a connection to the landed gentry).  OK, so the asking price was twice the amount I had thought of paying and yes, maybe it did need a little work, but look at that view!

John was mooching around, wiggling bits of wood which might once have been a window frame and testing the give in the floorboards.  I noticed that Monsieur Dubois waited for us outside the house.

April 2006 114As we climbed back in the car, I said nothing, not out loud at least, and off we went to look at yet another three properties, of which I have no recollection because I could only think about the house I would never have – and that view.

At the end of the day, when I asked John what he thought, he made the shock announcement,

“We have to have number three!” and promptly asked Monsieur Dubois for a dotted line to sign.  It made me glad I’d married him.  Then he started chuntering on about how to convert the manger and pig pens – never had I seen him more enthusiastic, the best sign to me that this was absolutely the right thing to do.

We headed to Toulouse airport somewhat heavier than we had arrived, weighed down by the document we had signed stating that we were obliged to buy the house and, if we didn’t, we would have to pay for it anyway – no gazumping mullarky allowed in France.

Thus, we were destined to become les nouveaux Tarnais, with no idea how to renovate a house, let alone how to do it in a foreign country, just an overwhelming sense of optimism over experience and the hope that we could somehow scrape together the purchase price.