Sunday, 23 September 2012

Goodbye blogger. It's been virtual.

I've gone but I haven't stopped blogging. All future posts will be seen here.

Sorry for the need to click again. I hope it won't put you off.

Off to wordpress

Right. I'm going to move the blog to wordpress. Hopefully this will al 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.

Log cutting experiment

My old log cutting bench has seen its last season:

As I was sketching out a new, improved design, I remembered something that friend and helper Alex mentioned a few years ago. She said she'd made a log cutting system involving uprights with many logs stacked on top of each other. I guestimated she meant something like this:

This is how many logs you can cut in a couple of minutes, the first time you used it:

It's a huge efficiency in time and energy (physical and fossil fuel). There's at least one log lift less required than with the previous bench, and it may be close to perfect. It will also mean only one large pile of sawdust (for animal bedding and compost toilets), instead of several small piles with the old, portable bench.

This is a Mark I experiment to see if the gaps and angles work. It's based on the width and blade length of my chainsaw, to produce the 40 cm lengths required for our main woodburner. We have a second burner that uses 25 cm lengths and I'm still thinking about that.

(Worth mentioning that, going into my fourth winter in a yurt, I've never been so prepared when it comes to fire wood. I have dry wood in various locations, and have even got the beginnings of a pile for next winter.)

(Also worth mentioning that I'm hating the new blogger interface that I've been forcibly migrated onto. Instead of struggling with it, I'm going to start looking for another platform. I've stopped following other blogs that have migrated but please bear with me.)

Monday, 17 September 2012

Apology to readers

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.

(De)construction complete

This is what the studio-to-be looked like a few minutes ago.

Ripping out was fairly straightforward. (If you're going to do it yourself, it's worth knowing that the partitions and other bits of trim are stapled through the roof from the outside, before the skin of the caravan goes on. Which means you don't get to re-use many partitions.)

At both ends there was some serious leakage going on, rotting the wood frame to nothing. We also found ant cities in the polystyrene here, which we'll replace with some packaging scrounged from the tip and a friend's barn. Not quite sure how we're going to cover those bits back up again yet, but it'll all make perfect sense in the end.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

As if by magic, a studio appears

One thing you may not know is that Her Outdoors is an artist. Not your have-an-easel-and-a-set-of-watercolours kind of artist, but your seriously talented, fully rounded Artist who creates beautiful things using pretty much whatever is at hand, pretty much all the time.

True, she’s only won awards for her textile art, but her sculpture is incredible, she can draw, paint and make with the best of them, and (which is very depressing to someone who worked for 18 years as a professional writer) has Genuinely Good Ideas for at least four books in different genres, plus a trilogy she may never find time to write down.

You're unlikely to know these things because over the last few years she’s been mainly making big yurt covers in small spaces. Like the eating area in our old house...

...the kitchen in the Shack before we built the bathroom...

...the bathroom in the Shack before there was a toilet...

...and afterwards...

...more than once...

...or if she’s been really, really lucky, our yurt...

When what she’s needed all along is a studio. Somewhere to keep all the boxes of fabric, dyes, equipment, reference books and sketch books stashed up in the attic or under our bed, and the industrial machines in the bathroom and yurt. Somewhere that doesn’t need to be mopped after breakfast and tidied away before the kids come home from school. Somewhere she can leave stuff overnight where the cats won't walk on it. Somewhere, in fact, like this.

This is not her studio. It's a photo she found on a popular networking site a few weeks ago. But that's not the point. The point is, it gave her (yet) an(other brilliant) idea.

Because it just so happens that we had an old and neglected caravan in the field that we’ve been using as an animal feed store...

...and we had a space next to the Shack...

...that was almost exactly caravan sized.

It needs some work on the inside...

...and we've had to find another home for the scythes...

...but this studio-to-be appears to be here to stay.

Of course, it did mean we needed to build a shed for the animal feed. But you already knew about that.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Thursday, 6 September 2012

My most recycled structure so far

For reason that will soon become clear, we had to build a shed down near the chicken run. The challenge: To spend as little money as possible.

It's been so long since I made the pallet pig ark and chicken house, I'd forgotten how much fun it is to build with pallets. From the ground up, two pallets made the base, which was topped with some ply a friend was going to throw away. Two more pallets made the back wall and, with one for each side and another for the front, we nearly had a building.

At this stage it looked a lot like a bar, which coincided nicely with my birthday:

By a superb coincidence, the cladding for last year's temporary solar shower cubicle...

...was exactly the right length for the back and one side, and the uprights were re-used as uprights and roof timbers.

After another couple of days it looked like this:

And this:

The corrugated iron came from a friend's garden, the window came from our Shack when we were gutting it in 2009 and the door you might recognise as one I made a few weeks ago (originally intended for the new solar shower cubicle). The beauty of this kind of building is that you don't have to worry too much about making the wind braces beautiful - you can just slap them in any old how, which has a beauty of its own:

I had enough nails and screws in boxes for the whole structure, which came in under budget at €0.00 (£0.00).

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

From stook to stack

This is what the field looks like at the moment:

I can't help thinking, after spending several days picking weeds out of the cut corn, lining up the heads all in one direction and tying them into stooks, that this very long job would have been much easier if we'd used sickles instead of scythes. (Obviously, there's only one way to find out - more on this some other year).

The stacks, though, look fantastic.

Monday, 6 August 2012

To pig or not to pig?

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.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Field study - coming to a conclusion

Last week, Her Outdoors, who pays more attention to these things than me, said it was time to harvest the field of triticale we sowed at the end of last year.

From memory, this field was prepared by pigs' noses, horse with spike harrow, tractor with Canadienne, humans with buckets (for rocks - lots of rocks), tractor with plough, and tractor with spike harrow. It was then sown by hand, harrowed a couple of times and left for nature to do her job.

(There was actually quite a lot more to it than that.)

I've taken photos randomly since the planting which are labelled "cultivation" on the right for the true crop spotters among you. Here is how the field looked before we took our scythes to it:

Here's a close up of the heads:

And this is what the field looked like after a bit of sweaty work:

Obviously, there was quite a lot more to it than that. We decided to buy a second scythe, for example, to make the job go a bit more quickly. Then we bought a peening jig to get the blades really sharp, which needed a seat making for it:

And just before we started, Her Outdoors knocked up a couple of cradles (which didn't last long, but was worth a try):

After three mornings of scything, we're beginning to get the hang of it. Her Outdoors is now making stooks while I finish the cutting. And we have threshing, winnowing and storing to look forward to.

While shuffling up and down the field, I've been feeling a strong connection with the many generations who have gone before us. I wondered briefly about the sustainability ratio of this way of farming - how much energy we are putting in compared to how much energy we will get out. But then Her Outdoors reminded me that farming allowed the human population to explode way back when. So the balance will fall heavily on the side of success.

I'm grateful for a year when we had good rainfall at a good time (unlike last year). And hopeful that the seed will be good, will not spoil, will not be eaten by mice, and all the other unknown factors we have yet to encounter.

I just want to share a perfect moment from this morning before I go. I'd been up and down the field, before sitting down to rest (and to drink quite a lot of water). I noticed that there was not a mechanical sound anywhere. Images of Van Goch's paintings filled my head. The wind picked up briefly and delivered a sublimely timed gust to my face, and I felt a oneness with humanity down the ages. To top the moment off, I heard the sound of two horses coming up the hill.

It really doesn't get any better than that.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Token blog post

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.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Door bore

Earlier in the year, we put up a snail-shell cubicle for our solar shower and a tree bog. What I didn't mention at the time was that both of them were missing these:

I've never made a door before, and started with the one on the right which, I think, looks proportionally better. The one on the left has the horizontals just too far from the edges and the boards aren't pinned tightly in place like the other one. I might add a drip edge to this, which will sort out the bottom - but not straight away. (Far too much else to do before our first guests of the year arrive on Saturday.)

If you've never made a door and want to have a go (and it's cheaper than buying one if you have a woodyard handy), the diagonal bit should always go towards the lower hinge. This braces the door and prevents it dropping if it feels so inclined. I know there's at least one carpenter who reads this blog and Door Enthusiasts may find some Fascinating Door Facts in the comments section eventually. Joinery's probably the next step but who knows when I'll need a door that precise?

These doors are made from fresh-cut larch and seasoned chestnut, with hardware bought from down the road. They're currently missing locking devices, but I've got some ideas...

Coming soon(ish), a little bit more of the huge amount we've been up to.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

And rest

Spent the last two days putting the rest of the floor together. By six thirty last night, it was ready for the newly sanded and oiled frame to go on.

Early evening is not a great time of day to start putting up a yurt (when you were already staggeringly tired in the middle of the afternoon), but with rain forecast for first thing in the morning there was no other way. Apart from the road and car park, that's the last bit of infrastructural work finished for the year.

Yes, we're planning even more improvements.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

A new floor in our plan

This is what I've been doing for the last few days, among other things:

You might recognise it as my standard joist layout for an 18-foot wooden floor. We'd have done this last year but we didn't have the time or the money. This year, at least we have the time. (The woodyard has the money.)

It's taken a bit longer than previously, because this week temperatures have been in the mid to high 30s. Centigrade. And 38C is a bit hot to do much sawing by hand - even in the woods. Yesterday, I actually had to go and sit in a lake up to my neck. Something everyone should do more often.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Field study

The crop seems to be coming along nicely. But here's something interesting:

On the left is what the triticale looks like almost everywhere on the field. On the right is what it looks like in one smallish patch Her Outdoors dug over for some other crops last year. The difference in potential yield (we're not counting our grain until it's bagged) is almost unbelievable.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Sneaky peak inside the tree bog

Years ago, I promised a compost toilet that looks like the kind of toilet you'd find in a luxury hotel. I think this probably does the job.

Can't stop to chat. More photos coming soon(ish). Must go and turn some hay.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Double first

Her Outdoors usually finds the orchids in écovallée. But the other day I was the first to spot this, behind the polytunnel:

It's the first Lizard Orchid we've seen on our land. You'd think, at about three feet tall, it'd be hard to miss.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Showing my thinking

Almost every day, I/we learn something new. On other days, we/I learn something old, or re-learn something I/we should probably have remembered. Let me show you what I mean.

This is a scrap bit of kitchen worktop we were given which will become the sink holder for the tree bog. I made a template, marked it out, then needed to cut the hole without the benefit of a jigsaw. Thinking myself clever, I cut a 30 mm hole with a drill. The battery went flat, I found the spare battery was already flat, so I used my second drill, ran another battery down on that, changed to a 25 mm cutter thinking it was sharper then stopped when the drill started to smoke from the back end.

'Sod it', I thought, and used that saw to carry on cutting, which was Very Hard Work (even using wax to help keep the blade running smoothly). It was also Very Slow Work and I started thinking it would take DAYS to finish this small job.

Over a coffee break, I thought it might be worth using a smaller drill bit (like 8mm) to make a series of small holes that could be joined up by the saw. I tried it and did all that before the battery ran down.

I'm pretty sure it'll only take another hour or so to finish (which I'll get back to when at least two batteries are charged up). I'm also pretty sure I've been told this information before.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Scythe of relief

A few years ago, I bought a scythe and exhausted myself trying to use it. I've resisted using it ever since - until now. Just watched a few videos on youtube by "The Jolly Scythers" which helped me set my (much cheaper) tool up, then watched this awesome video, that includes how to make a haystack:

The information-gathering is complete. The next step on the road to self-sufficiency is about to begin...

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Solar shower power

A few weeks ago, we bought a 28-metre string of solar fairy lights from Nigel's Eco Store. Twenty-eight metres! That's enough to go all the way round the snail-shell solar shower, then across to - and all the way around - the tree bog. Look:

Can't see them? How about now:

Only one thing confuses me about these lights - and that's this claim made on the box: "Up to 40 hours run time per night".

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The coppicing experiment

During the winter of 2010-11, I started a long-term experiment in coppicing. This meant cutting all the overstood sweet chestnut from a patch of woodland near us, with a view to using the new growth for heating in about seven years time. Some young chestnut will be layered and others will, no doubt be taken for fencing by Her Outdoors.

Although each tree was carefully cut at an angle to shed water, then stacked for burning during the winter of 2012-13, the effect when I'd finished was dramatic. Here's the photo from February 11th 2011:

Some of our chickens were killed by an unknown predator early last year, which gave us the chance to transplant a few healthy ash saplings to add a bit of variety, but otherwise we left the area completely alone. And this is what it looks like today:

If a millionth of a millionth of the life seen in this image was discovered on another planet in our solar system, it would be heralded as the discovery of the millennium and radically change the way our species sees itself. But this is what we have, literally in our own back yard. To be honest, having been completely responsible for the first photo, it's a bit of a relief.

More on this, much later.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Tree bog finishing touches

I'm showing all the stages of the tree bog, because at least one reader is just about to start theirs and you never know who could glean what from my experience...

Having decided to use tongue and groove, I needed to add extra joists on either side of the seat to make sure the platform is solid. I also decided to make a wrap-around chute to encourage the processed food to gather in the right place, rather than just a urine guide at the front. The chute is stapled around the joists but stops above the straw to encourage airflow in the chamber (this is a key part of tree bog functioning from what I've read, but there aren't many around and I'd love to have some feedback from people who know more about it).

Although there's a good chance the chamber on the left will never fill up (we only have two yurts and are only open for a few months of the year), I've left the option to switch sides open because there's NO WAY I'm going to want to play around down there after the tree bog opens for business in the next few days.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Inside the tree bog

This is the dry fit of the seating area. I ended up using the same tongue-and-groove as the flooring instead of ply, partly because of the horrible glue used to make ply, partly because I didn't know what finish to use so it could be cleaned easily, and partly because - at €39 per square metre - it was far too expensive. (Also, I think ply always looks a bit naff.)

On the left you'll see some trim I'm going to use to finish the bog. I've never used trim before, but the pine is from trees only a couple of hours away from here and it should look excellent.

(It'll also give me an easy headline for a blog post next week.)

Friday, 18 May 2012

The écovallée snail-shell solar shower

A solar shower was always going to be part of the écovallée experience. Originally, I wanted us to have the latest and greatest green technology for our guests to enjoy. But the costs of running electricity to the field, the twin-coil boiler, evacuated tubes etc. - in France - were prohibitive.

Of course, we've got books on DIY solar showers and considered black radiators under glass, hoses in strings of plastic bottles, buckets with holes in the bottom and all that fun stuff. But even with our "budget", we're still aiming to provide an unexpected level of luxury. Plus, many of our guests have very young children who need a controllable source of hot water.

So we ended up buying an aluminium swimming-pool shower, and knocked up a temporary cubicle for 2011...

...while we worked out how we were going to make this (as conceived by Her Outdoors):

Fortunately, Project1p happened and we swapped what we had (one week in a yurt) for what was on offer (a custom-made metal object):

I asked a local company what the wood would cost, turned down their estimate of €1,400 and bought it for €83 from a local wood yard, then spent five days sanding it. Finally all the elements were in one place:

We laid out the snail shell shape:

And started with the short side:

Which was up by the end of the day:

And looked pretty good, even if I do type so myself:

The next day saw the snail shell finished:

Which just needed oiling and photographing:

A few times:

Even if it meant lying in the shower tray to get the shape just so:

And not forgetting the penny that helped it all happen:

You might have noticed the gravel bed behind the temporary shower cubicle in the first shot. This is the first stage grey-water treatment before draining into a willow trench planted a few years ago. Here's what it looks like at the moment, after one year of plant growth and some finishing touches by Her Outdoors:

Something else that will only get more and more beautiful over time.