jeudi 31 août 2006

A varied day

View from the bedroom at dawn

Today was perhaps the hottest day of August here. A small fire below Mont Valier some time in the mid morning sent a plume of smoke into the atmosphere which created a gossamer veil of haze around the mountain, very beautiful.

I started early to split most of the logs cut around Philippe’s ruin earlier in the week, but Claude and his son Yves were playing ‘tag team fat chewing’. No sooner had I finished chatting with one of them for about 45 mins than the other would turn up for some more small talk. By 11 the sun was hot and I gave up – only about 2/3rds of the logs split.

I returned to Quelebu and laid the tiles in the shed. The tile adhesive ran out with one tile to go but I managed to improvise with some grout as glue. I erected the structure for a boardwalk around the shed then headed for the field for a little more clearance work.

At 5 it was time to visit Claude for 'l’apero' but first we went to collect some gentians for the roof of the shed (now complete with soil). Susan (his wife) also gave me some succulents for the roof and afterwards I got some heather from the fields below the house.

Tomorrow, as the weather is fine, I’ll complete the traverse of the skyline from the Col de la Core to the Col de Crousous. Then on Saturday I’ll finish the boardwalk and gravel to the perimeter of the roof.

lundi 28 août 2006

All this was fields when I was a boy

Met a man today who was born in one of the houses at quelebu. He lived there with five other members of his extended family in a tiny house. Now he lives in Aleu but he was telling me how they had to fetch water everyday from the well which is about 200m away and how back then it was still mostly fields (I guess he was in his mid to late fifties).

Talking of fields here is one of mine under clearance...

...and here's the path to get to it.

dimanche 27 août 2006


Got back from the UK too late for shopping and as food supplies are low I thought I'd go for a quick mushroom hunt for supper. Just a few hundred yards from the house the first mushroom I found was an enormous cep. Wow, dinner sorted.

Had a long lay in this morning - well it is Sunday! Then spent the afternoon beginning to put the soil on the roof of the shed...hmmm this will take several days to complete as I can only lift one bucket of soil at at a time up the ladder.

Watercress Anna - hope you have managed to look at the site. I think I gave you the wrong e-mail address so add a 'comment' to one of the articles on the blog to contact me or telephone. Hope you can make the time to come and stay at Quelebu and give me some advice, would be great to see you. I'll post some pictures of the 'fields' tomorrow.

mardi 22 août 2006

Le Suisse

The morning began with the task of splitting the logs from yesterday to make them manageable enough to load into the trailer. There were about 30 of them each about a 12”-15” in diameter.

I’ve split plenty of logs for the fire but these were about 3ft long, so this was new territory. Once they’re dry you can cut a three foot log in half for the fire or into three for the rayburn.

I started with the biggest. The felling axe was clearly not the tool to use, so out came the 7lb maul and some steel wedges I’d found when clearing the old shed. After about 15 minutes of axe swinging and wedge hammering I finally managed to split it in half. The remaining logs would take ages, so clearly a different approach was required. I decided splitting these long logs must be like splitting shorter logs only more force would be required, so I picked a medium sized one, stood it on end and took the biggest swing I could at it with the maul, aiming dead centre – crack!! I cleaved it clean in half and the two halves flew apart in opposite directions. Oh the satisfaction. After about an hour all the logs were split and loaded. Excellent exercise too.

At this point Philippe arrived and after unloading the trailer at Quelebu we returned to the ruin and I set to work on the four big ash trees which needed to come down. Each was about 100ft with 16”-18” diameter trunks. As all four grew almost from a single stem and they were situated with a 3 feet foot drop between the west and east sides of the trees they weren’t going to be easy.

The first was awkward to making the felling cut (the last cut that fells the tree) because the second was in the way – but I managed and down it came exactly where I wanted it.

The second had a slight lean but I thought it would go without having to adopt any special felling techniques. At the moment it fell the trunk split for about twenty feet up the tree. This is because of the tension in the timber being released on the upward side of the leaning tree. If the split occurs before the tree falls it can be very hazardous and as control of the falling tree is lost and the trunk can break at almost any height – this is called a ‘barber chair’ in the US.

The third also had a significant lean but I had to fell it slightly away from the direction of lean because of the telephone lines which were just within reach. There is a technique for felling heavy leaning trees to prevent ‘barber chairing’ whereby 2 sink cuts (the wedge shaped cuts that control the direction of fall) are made at 60 degrees to each other and the felling cut completes the equilateral triangle. Unfortunately, I’ve never done this before where the direction of lay needs to be controlled away from the lean. I couldn’t see how it would be possible to exercise any control with this technique so I decide to adopt the normal technique again – but with great caution as I now knew that the tree would ‘barber chair’. As I expected it split just as it fell and although this time the trunk snapped during the fall, about 10 feet up, all was well and it fell more or less where I wanted it a safe distance from the telephone lines.

We stopped for lunch.

The last tree seemed the most straightforward. There were now no other trees in the way and it was almost vertical. There was the slightest of leans towards the nearby ruin perhaps half a degree, if that, but the canopy appeared lob sided enough to easily counteract this. The sink cut was made (the wedge shaped cut that controls the direction the tree falls) and just as I finished the felling cut I heard the normal crack as the tree starts to fall. I removed the chain saw and retreated to the safe zone but just at that moment a freak gust of wind blew and rather than fall in the intended direction the wind blew the tree back the exact opposite way closing the felling cut and leaving the tree inclined in the wrong direction supported purely by the hinge (the bit of tree trunk left in place pivot the tree as it falls). Now here was an almighty problem. The tree was dangerous as it was - cut 90% of the way through - and there was no way I could think to bring it down with the chainsaw except in the direction it was now leaning but that would drop it onto the ruin (which isn’t very ruined at present but would be if the tree fell on it!!). The only solution would be to pull it over but had we enough rope? Philippe and I got all the rope we could find, tied it all together, lassoed the tree high up then tried to pull it over. Not a chance, the tree probably weighed 4 or 5 tonnes. We had another go, this time with the Suzuki pulling but the rope broke. Time for outside help.

Yves (Claude’s son) has a landrover with a winch on the front but he was out. Patrick had some more rope but not enough. John suggested we try Philippe at Biech (he was out and his wife could only lend us some more rope) or ‘Le Suisse’ at La Trape.

John hadn’t been there for a few years but we knew we were at the right place when the gate was guarded by two garden gnomes waving Swiss flags! ‘Le suisse’ looked how you would expect a Swiss woodsman to look (I’ll leave this to your imagination), which is fortunate as that is exactly what he is! After a few questions he agreed to help and fetched his cable and hand winch.

Back at the site he set up the winch about 20 feet away from the tree and exactly under where it should have fallen, then leaning against the tree (my heart was in my mouth at this point - surely it would topple over with him attached) he threw cable around it as high up as he could. Returning to the winch he took up the slack. I couldn’t believe he was going to pull the tree down on top of himself. A couple of ratchet clicks the tree gave out a ‘crack’ and visibly moved back into the position it was in when it was about to fall. Two more clicks and it started to fall as originally planned. Le Suisse watching the tree all the time moved quickly to the side and it crashed down beside him. Applause rang up from the now gathered crowd of neighbours and after much hand shaking and praise from me and it was time for L’apero at John’s house (cold beers all round).

First I returned to look at the stump of the tree and my cuts are absolutely ‘text book’ as I was taught on my course felling course – but there’s more to felling trees than any text book/course can teach you. Today I learnt a huge amount about tree felling. Tomorrow, thankfully the trees are much smaller!

samedi 19 août 2006

Pic Certescans

9 1/2 hours, 10 1/2 miles and 2150m of ascent (just shy of 7000ft) - Pic Certescans has one of the biggest height gains from the nearest point of access of any Pyrenean peak. I was above the clouds for most of the day and only saw one other person. The views were spectacular but the ascent wasn't particularly interesting. For much of the route there is no path, just hours of picking your way up and down vast boulder fields, only the final few hundred metres of narrow ridge made the day. Still, another of the Ariege 'giants' has been ascended, just Mont Roig to go then I'll start to climb some of the easier peaks with my hard earned fitness!!

vendredi 18 août 2006

Tree felling

After a trip to St G to get the last remaining bits and bobs for the shed plus food shopping, I felled the first of the big trees. Went like a dream, falling in a controlled manner right where I wanted it, despite a bit of lean and a lob sided canopy. The next few are more difficult but I'll do those next week.

In the afternoon I sorted all my tools - a bit anal I know, but finally having everything where I can find it is such a joy.

As it's been far too long since I went into the mountains tomorrow I'm planning on climbing Pic Certescan - a very long approach with a lot of height gain but a mountain I've never been up so I'm looking forward to it and the first R&R for a very long time!

jeudi 17 août 2006


The drive back from the UK with a trailer load of tools and furniture was pretty awful. Torrential rain all the way to Limoges and had to stop just short of Toulouse for a few hours sleep - 23 hour trip in all.

The shed is now watertight and secure and all my tools are at last out of the house, good to have some space. Just soil on the roof, insulation in the walls and electricity to install. On Tuesday night we had an enormous rain storm and there were quite a few leaks in the house. In fact the bathroom was a deluge and re-roofing it has now jumped to the top of the priority list!

Took a break from the shed works today to help my neighbours friend Philippe clear the land around the ruin he has bought between my house and Pinsou. I felled and logged numerous trees before a long lunch at Pinsou. Barely sratched the surface but have 3 trailer loads of logs and the wood pile is looking healthier. Some big trees to bring down tomorrow.

It's the Aleu fete this weekend and Claude once again will be making the introductions.

Al, thanks for the book on woodland permaculture - it's great.

mardi 8 août 2006

lundi 7 août 2006


Workshop now watertight, just the larch cladding to do - might get most of it done tomorrow before I leave for UK on wednesday. The loire executions continue, I am now up to 11 and they keep on coming - where from I don't know.

mercredi 2 août 2006

oh the speed of timber frame

Wood arrived on Monday afternoon, spent yesterday cutting it all to length etc to make akit of parts and today up it went. Needed a little help from my neighbours with lifting but the shed is rapidly taking shape. Larch cladding arrives tomorrow should all be watertight in few days time. Went over to John's last night for his birthday and sat around the fire chatting until late. Pier's brother is over from the US and it was good to meet after e-mailing each other re:property in the Ariege.

After 6 loire executions I had my first silent night - bliss!