mercredi 30 mai 2007

Mud, mud, glorious mud.

After the hottest, dryest April on record we must have had the wettest May. Lots of mud, especially with the pigs churning it up. The soil here is the stickiest of clays and clings to my boots (tools, gloves, clothes, etc.) in great dustbin lids of heavy gluup! Recommenced some of the barn rebuilding. Levelled the floor which is clay. Its like quicksand - you stick in it then it sucks you under. The wall rebuilding is benefitting however, as I'm only using stones and mud and though it's really sticky it much easier to squish between the stones when it's like 'plasticene'. It sets like concrete.

mardi 29 mai 2007

French Bureaucracy Update

The planner at the DDE refuses to write a letter, moreover she won't even give me a photocopy of the application marked 'sans opposition' depite me explaining my predicament - so the mayor won't write a letter. The notaire will just have to take my word for it or speak to the DDE himself. No wonder nothing ever gets done here. I blame Napoleon!

dimanche 27 mai 2007

Bracken eradication

My latest thoughts on 'organic' fern eradication:

At the moment I'm scything every few days - this seems to be resulting in more and more shoots (presumably the fern rhyzomes are desparately trying to put up some ferns). In early June (when I'm in England) no scything will happen and presumably there'll be a multitude of young ferns when I get back. I hope there are so many that the sugar stores in the rhyzomes will be exhausted by the volume of new growth. Mid-June I'll cut everything back to the ground. No doubt there be some regrowth so I'll follow the same procedure, generally cutting when the ferns are as high as possible but not yet in leaf. Perhaps early July and the end of July. I'll continue to use garlic which I suspect works a bit like a mild form of 'roundup' - the garlic juice descending via the cut stem and reacting with the rhyzome. If there are no leaves to replenish the sugar supplies in the rhyzomes and no ferns are allowed to reach maturity and spread spores, I reckon they have to die out...eventually.

samedi 26 mai 2007

French bureaucracy

A frustrating day! I went to the DDE to enquire about my declaration de travaux for the barn (planning permission). A note on the door explained that the office had moved to a secret location in St G. After half an hour of searching I found the undercover portacabin hidden behind the Chambre de Agriculture. The female planning officer was very helpful and fetched my dossier.

"Yes, there has been no objections in the two month period following your submission", she announced.
"So it is approved?", I asked.
"The DDE don't approve declaration de travaux", she explained, "but there had been no objections".
"So 'in effect' I have permission?"

I phoned the notaire to give him the good news that the sale could go ahead.

"Good, but I need a written confirmation of the approval from the Mairie before we can proceed", he replied.

I went to the Mairie and explained to the secretary that I had been to the DDE and there were no objections. She knew, she phoned them this morning. I explained that the notaire needed a letter - could she write me one? I saw a look of fear on her face. I rephrased the question.

"Could the Mayor write me a letter?"

The look didn't go away. The Mayor wasn't there and to answer the question she would have needed to have made a decision. In France there are only 4 groups of people who can make decisions.

"Is it important?" she asked (she knew it was). "I can only write you a letter if the DDE return your dossier to me stamped 'sans objection', which they've not done. Normally they do".
"Perhaps they've forgotten" I suggested, "Couldn't you telephone them now and remind them to send it to you?"

The look of fear was still there. In France only someone who is clearly your superior can ask you to do something (and of course their superior would have to have asked them and so on and so on) - I guessed she was out-ranked by the planner.

"Maybe" she proposed, "you should go to the DDE office in person and ask them to send it to me, it'll be quicker".

Unfortunately the DDE isn't open on Monday (it's the fourth bank holiday this month) so now it'll have to wait until Tuesday.

Who are the four groups of people able to make decisions in France?

1. Monsieur Le President.
2. Farmers - they answer to no-one, apparently a 2 year City and Guilds in Agriculture puts you above the law (I'm thinking of enrolling).
3. Lorry drivers - like farmers they answer to no-one.
4. Notaires - they seem to be able to grant you anything with a stroke of their pen.

vendredi 25 mai 2007


As the pigs get bigger they're getting more adept at destroying the pasture. So it's time to rest the new field and get them in fields 1 (now fenced) and 2 permanently. Unfortunately their ark is in the new field and I can't move it until the trees are sawn up (probably 1-2 months time if I opt for a local guy with a mobile sawmill - easier than using an Alaskan mill but I'll wait to see his price!).
A complex array of electric fences is the solution. Meantime the new pasture is already 18" high and needs to be cut. If we get enough dry weather I'll scythe it for hay. Long term I need some grazers - probably a few sheep. The pigs don't eat enough grass to keep it under control. Fields 2, 3 and 4 are slowly turning to grass - 3 and 4 need raking to expose the soil to the grass seeds which are now beginning to blow around. This technique seems to be working in field 2. It's all 'intelligent' guess work really.
The ferns continue to infest everything and I keep cutting them down (with a bit of garlic wiped on the scythe blade which I'm assured helps eradicate them). With a forth coming 10 day trip to the UK, at the current rates of growth, I'll return to a forest!


So far so good for the blue tits.

Also found a Nightingales' nest in the bank between fields 2 and 3 with three small chicks in it. I see the Nightingale dart out everytime I pass so thought there must be a nest there somewhere. Amazingly it's just 18 inches off the ground built on some tree roots

jeudi 24 mai 2007

Port de Materat

Yesterday a walk with Sandrine my neighbour. We had loosely planned Pic de Seron but Sandrine brought their young border Collie and there's a section of via ferrata (not suitable for dogs) so we changed to the Port de Materat (2217m on the spanish border). The path climbs through a succession of hanging valleys with tremendous high waterfalls and deep ravines everywhere you look. The waterfall at the head of the Valley Ossese (see 04 Feb 2007 blog post) is only the start. After 3-4 hours we reached the col and gazed into Spain as the storm clouds began arrive.

On the descent we decided to take a different path via the Cabane de Crusous and the Cabane de l'Arrech - clearly marked on the map but alas not on the ground after the Cabane de Crusous. By the time we reached the Cabane de l'Arrech it had completely disappeared and we tried to follow the map for the steep descent. At first we traversed too far north and were marooned on a high steep face. Re-tracing our steps we finally found the correct descent to the river. Here there was no way across. Perhaps at the end of the summer the river is low enough to boulder hop across or maybe there was once a bridge. Imagine the rapids in the film "River Wild" or "Deliverance" only a little smaller. After some initial abortive attempts to find a place to cross we decided there was only two ways out: either retrace our steps to beyond the Cabane Crusous and then follow our route of ascent back to the car (600m of pathless ascent and a long way), or try to find a way up the Ravine to a higher bridge. We plumped for the later but after maybe an hour of successively more difficult and precarious traverses high above the torrent below it was clear we were getting nowhere. In fact we risked ending up getting trapped on some crumbling ledge unable to reverse our ascent! Cautiously we managed to return to the crossing place. It was already 5.30 and we now had little opportunity but to attempt a crossing.
Sandrine managed to get across using submerged boulders and a fallen tree without being swept away (after a few hundred meters the river crashes over a 120m vertical cascade). I quickly followed but we still had to get the dog across. It tried to follow but was nearly swept away, just managing to hang onto a rock and then clawing its way back to safety (still on the other side of the river to us). There was no option I had to recross, then standing knee deep in the water braced against the fallen tree I managed to attach the dogs lead, then man handle her across. Wet, but glad to be finally across, an hour an half descent took us back to the car - a long 10 hour day!

Today the blue tits which have been nesting in the wall of the house finally left the nest - but only as far as the garden. The parents are still feeding them, but there are 3 or 4 baby birds in the undergrowth not yet able to fly. I hope they make it through the next few days without the neighbours cat getting them!

dimanche 20 mai 2007


Leon crazy for tea

Leon has been here for few days. On Friday we went for a walk 'cross country' through the woods (once fields) between my house and Pentussa, discovering lots of barns and collecting a 'chicken of woods' fungus which we had for supper. On Saturday it rained (so the planned walk was cancelled) so instead a trip to the market in St G, a bit of work at the new house, then at last fitting a radio in the car. Leon left this morning so after the sun and rain of the last few days it was time to scythe all the fields, dig another veg patch and plant leeks, brussels and carrots, thin out the onions and shallots and paint the final coat of paint on four of the six repaired windows.

I might just have time to plant some tomato plants I bought in the market before bed, in which case I can go for a walk in the mountains tomorrow - weather permitting.

lundi 14 mai 2007


So many flowers at the moment it's hard to keep up! Loads of orchids in the field opposite the house - here's one of my favourites the small flowered tongue orchid

dimanche 13 mai 2007

Port de Salau

Mont Rouch (Roig) from just below the Port.

Climbed up to the Port de Salau for a brief excursion in to Spain. Although it was very hot, a gale blew and towards the col I could hardly stand up. It's a long time since I was here last with Oliver (1994?) - then we descended in a storm after a long day walk from the Estagnous hut. A dozen or so new flowers were photographed for the collection.

samedi 12 mai 2007


The house

The barn

Been lovely and hot for the past week (in the low 30's) and I've been mostly rebuilding and glazing windows from the latest property project. Having sold the flat in Bath, I've bought a house and barn in a little hamlet not too far away from Quelebu. The structure is weathertight and sound but everything else needs doing - septic tank, plumbing, electricity, kitchen, bathroom and decoration. The price was unbelievable and too good to resist. The plan is to renovate it next year (mostly) and then rent it out.
Still no news on the planning permission, I think I'm going to have to do the chasing myself as the Mairie in Aleu have failed to do so for the past 3 weeks.
Have had a blocked ear and awful earache for a couple of days (which has driven me mad). So today I syringed it. Wow, I never knew my little ear canal could hold so much wax. Still a bit blocked (I think it's a bit inflammed) so hopefully tomorrow all will be back to normal.

jeudi 10 mai 2007

Hot, hot

Have had a couple of days out on the mountain bike, doing tours around Aleu.

Today was hot, even now at 7.30pm it's still 26 in the shade. Reglazed some windows, lit some fires in field no 1, fern patrol (they're growing 11" a day!), checked up on the planning permissions (should find out tomorrow).

Tomorrow should be cooler, perhaps a day in the mountains?

lundi 7 mai 2007


I found a wild columbine today, its the most amazing flower about the size of a daffodil but much prettier. In the morning a trip to St G to get the keys to latest addition to the property empire (more later).

In the afternoon I finished clearing field No 1. Some more bonfires to light, fencing to complete, then the pigs can get at it!

samedi 5 mai 2007

Xmas present

The christmas present was delivered today - it's a fishing game. Each piece has a point score to reflect the difficulty of catching it (though sometimes the score is arbitary) and there are bonus points for the largest catch. All in all it's a complex game and quite difficult. The kids loved it though there were several tantrums and walk-outs! I think the adults liked it more - Claude, John and Sandrine in the picture above. Nethertheless Natasha (the youngest) won both games.
After several days of heavy rain, today was dry and I took advantage of the cool weather to clear 80% of field No 1 - the last to be cleared. Onions, shallots and potatoes are now all up, only the maize to go. It'll soon be time to plant the remaining crops.

mercredi 2 mai 2007

Fresh snow

After the rain of the last few days (and this morning) there's plenty of fresh snow on the mountains (30cm at the Port d'Aula) and it even sleeted here early this morning. By the afternoon the sun was shining again.

The pigs got their first excursion into field No 2 (or at least a part of it). It took some bribery to move them - suddenly they're reluctant to 'escape'. Last years' acorns lying under the hedges soon had them feeling more enthusiastic.

The brambles have called in reinforcements in the shape of ferns. Having dug their massive carbohydrate packed roots out of the vegetable patch I know these boys mean business! They go from breaking the soil surface, to 16" high leafed plant, in about 72 hours. If you leave it this long they're already getting woody stems. Action has to be within 48 hours when they're oh so easy to de-head. So scything is very frequent at the moment, though most mornings it's just fern patrol.