The trials and tribulations of dragging a neglected nineteenth-century French farmhouse into the twenty-first century; preferably in an ecologically-sound manner, but first and foremost, as cheaply as possible!
Spring is definitely on its way; the peach tree buds are showing through in pink, and we have a profusion of wild violets around the garden. Mind you, we have not heard the cuckoo this year.
Unfortunately there has been another mortality; the peach tree near the reedbed seems to have died. No buds are in evidence, and when I made small cuts in the bark, none of the branches showed any green cambium at all. Ever since we arrived, this tree was not looking very happy; we obviously arrived too late to save it. Well, at least we can replace it with our newly-purchased gooseberry bushes.
I have now trimmed back the brambles from the fence-line next to the pond, so at least we are now able to go to the back of the pond without disturbing Mrs Duck, who is on the opposite side.
I happen to have four websites. And a week or so ago I received an email from Google. To paraphrase, they said: “You naughty website owner, you! We’ve noticed that three of your four websites are not optimized for mobile traffic. If you don’t comply, we will make sure that nobody – and we mean nobody – finds your sites. Which would be a Bad Thing for the Internet world. And for you, of course.”
Now the problem is that my largest site has over 2,000 pages. To update each of these pages manually would take me a year and a half. So I taught myself some php (a programming language) and have written a script which loads an old page, does the updates, saves the new page, then moves on to the next. I’ll still have to update approximately 100 pages manually though. Then I’ll need to update the next site. And the next. Because the La Darnoire website is fairly new, I used a responsive design right from day one, which means that this site is up to date as regards viewing it on a handheld device. So that’s the reason for the delay since my last post.
The latest batch of beer has been bottled, and LSS planted a row of peas in the garden. It’s a bit early but they should be fine. As the weather has warmed up slightly, the insects have started appearing again; so I thought it was high time to install something I purchased last year. It’s called a “Waspinator“. I bought four of them, and have hung three so far. They seem to be working – watch this space!
I also made some firelighters. This was real recycling in action! We had a few old candles – which we were never going to use anyway – and also a large packet of paraffin wax. The latter was used by the late MIL for her preserves. I had a large tin full of sawdust, gathered from under my radial arm saw. And when people purchase eggs, they generally give us a plastic bag full of cardboard egg-boxes. Now, we don’t need firelighters for the wood stoves (or the barbecue). Some crumpled paper and kindling do the trick. However, the brazier outside (which I sometimes use to make charcoal) is used to get rid of unwanted branches, punky wood, and that sort of thing. It’s not easy to light at all; and resorting to the use of accelerants like petrol is always interesting, but rarely has the desired effect. There’s normally a “WHOOOOF” followed by singed eyebrows and no flames at all; as the stuff residing in the brazier has usually become damp.
So I melted the wax on top of the stove in an old saucepan. The cavities in the egg-boxes were filled with sawdust, lightly pressed down. Once the wax had melted, it was carefully poured over the sawdust, then allowed to cool.
To use, simply cut off one of the individual egg-holders, and light one side of the wax-splashed cardboard with a match. It works very well, burning for around ten minutes – by which time the fire is well alight.
Apparently there was an eclipse of the sun on the 20th March. I say “apparently” because although the BBC Website was describing it in glowing terms like “Breathtaking”; “Witnessed by millions”; “Best solar eclipse in years” and all that sort of thing, we didn’t see it. It was very cloudy all day. I <think> it got a bit more gloomy during the time of the eclipse, but it wasn’t really all that noticeable. Well, one can always watch it on YouTube I suppose. Mind you, one thing did cheer me up a bit – my chainsaw chaps arrived. Now at least I have mitigated the risk of cutting my leg off.
On the 22nd – which was a Saturday – we went to a garden centre in a town nearby. As I have cut down two dead trees, I thought it would be a good idea to replace them with seedlings. Unfortunately the species I had in mind – Fraxinus excelsior – or “European ash” – was a bit of a problem. Although the garden centre had them in stock, they were all about five metres in height. The only trees they had of suitable size were fruit trees, which would not have been ideal for the intended planting location. So we bought two gooseberry bushes for the garden instead.
Sunday was the start of our fourth year here. Which is why you’ll notice the yellow star proudly displaying “Year 3!” on the right of the logo at the top of this page has disappeared. I decided not to replace it with a “Year 4” variety.
As far as the ducks are concerned, there are at least ten eggs in the nest; and Mrs. Duck is in residence. The two males visit daily. We think they may be brothers as there is no fighting between them. We’ve also seen another new species of bird in the garden; a European Serin.
LSS has now planted the first two rows of potatoes, and the greenhouse is being brought into use for germinating tomato seeds. Unfortunately it looks like our lemon tree has died; despite being in the greenhouse for the winter it was obviously just not suited to this climate.
And how about the tree which was felled? Well, with the arrival of my chainsaw chaps, I have now finished cutting it into sections. All the pieces have been brought back to the house with the tractor, and I have nearly finished splitting the sections into firewood.
Finally, I’ll end with something amusing. We’ve discovered the common name of a plant which grows everywhere in the garden; in fact it’s a bit of a pest. And having discovered what it is, we’ve started giving handfuls of it to the hens. They think it is the Best. Thing. Ever.
Yesterday evening Friend M came around for an aperitif, and ended up staying for dinner (fish and chips – and home brewed beer of course).
Now, some of you may have been wondering what has been happening with the barn renovation and bathroom construction. Simply put, not a lot. The reason for this is that it is still below 5° C at night, which is too cold for lime concrete to set properly. I suspect towards the end of March, operations to finish laying the floor in the barn will be able to re-commence. Then there’s also the little matter of planning permission; LSS is in the process of drawing up some architectural-type plans which will need to be submitted to the village Mairie. Whatever we do inside the building does not concern them; but we need to replace the large wooden barn door with glass-panelled sliding doors, and install three new windows.
Once planning permission has been received (and the way it works here is that you submit your application; and if you have not heard anything to the contrary within three months, that means permission has been granted) we can then make a trip to BricoDepot for the windows, bits of wood for the partition walls, and various other bits and pieces. And a new bath, of course. The world-famous old bathtub is still currently in use, but I’m a bit tired of folding my knees up to my chin; I’m 6’1″ (182cm) tall, and the bath is only 3’9″ (115cm) long. Easy to carry in and out of kitchen, but not exactly comfortable.
Today was the last hunting day of the season, with the quarry being wild boar and foxes. Needless to say, the hunters saw nothing here. M&O reported that they saw a boar at the aged FIL, but, as usual, missed it. By lunchtime they had finished the drive, so we were able to let the cat and hens out; they had all been complaining bitterly about their confinement. Not only do we not trust the hunters with regards to their species identification (“Oooh, a little wild boar!” Bang. “Oops. That was a cat.”) but their dogs are not exactly well-trained either. (“Woof! A pheasant!” Bite. “Oops. That was a hen.”)
Time for a progress report, I think. Spring is definitely on the way; the wagtails have returned. This week we also noticed some ducks swimming around in the pond – two males and one female. Earlier in the week I had checked the overflow pipe and removed a few leaves which were clogging it, so it is now draining nicely into the ditch. As you may have inferred, the pond is full! I took a stroll around it today, and found that Mrs Duck has constructed a nest containing four pale blue eggs. Hopefully she’ll be able to raise another brood this year.
Neighbour J called to say she had a couple of rabbit skins for us. Fortunately there is still some room in the freezer. As soon as the weather warms up a bit I’ll get started on tanning the next batch of pelts.
I’ve also finished pruning the apple and pear trees. At least they are all now accessible and one does not have to clamber through the brambles to get to them. Clearing around the trees was done with a rather vicious machine; the aged FIL has a Stihl FS100 petrol-powered strimmer. I had a spare circular saw blade which was exactly the right size. I joined the two together. Very effective!
Cutting up the felled tree is progressing slowly, and the wood shed is gradually filling up. Once the tree has been completely removed I will be able to repair the flattened fence. I’ll do it properly this time, by running wires between sturdy wooden fence-posts, and then attaching the chicken-wire fence to the wires. The aged FIL simply threaded metal re-bar through the chicken wire every meter or so, and regularly had to walk along the fence line hitching up the fencing where it had sagged.
The four new hens have now settled in and are already laying. As I work at cutting and splitting logs, I regularly find white grubs in the wood, so take these over to the chicken run. One of the older hens (we call her “Whitney” as she has a very strong voice!) has cottoned on to this, and she charges across whenever I approach the fence. The result is that she gets to eat nearly all of the grubs which I toss over. By the time the other hens arrive, they’re looking around in puzzlement: “Pork! Where’s ours?”
With the lovely sunny weather we’ve had for the past few days, the solar thermal panel on the roof has been working efficiently again. This has meant that we’ve only had to light the boiler stove in the evening to get a bit of warmth into the lounge (and top up the hot water from the solar-heated 56 degrees to a comfortable 63 degrees).
LSS has turned over the soil in the garden with the tiller, and pulled out the few remaining parsnips. There were definitely not enough this year to make any parsnip wine! Speaking of which, I must start another batch of beer soon; a simple pilsner lager this time.
The third woodshed is now entirely full. That’s the firewood for 2016 sorted out. Now I need to refill the middle shed which has just been emptied. It’s never-ending!
Today I also had to repair the pheasant feeder which we’ve been using to hold the chickens’ wheat. It belongs to the M&O (see abbreviations on the right) who originally used it to hold pheasant feed for a caged male bird. This was before we arrived here; they used to use the male to attract other birds, which would then be shot. The feeder was discovered under a pile of junk in the building which is now my workshop, and when we got our first hens we decided to use it to hold their wheat. Anyway, the base had rusted away, so using a piece of scrap aluminium I fabricated a new base and reinstalled it in their pen. It was as though they’d never seen wheat before. It was, quite obviously, the Best. Thing. Ever.
Spring is definitely on its way; we heard and saw the cranes returning. They caught a thermal updraught just over the house, so we watched them circle and gain height before they continued their journey north-east. I recall we saw a documentary on bird migration on the BBC some years ago; they had attached mini cameras to several birds. It seems that La Darnoire is right underneath one of the main migratory routes.
LSS’s video camera has arrived; and so has my new chainsaw helmet. To conform to that old adage “make hay whilst the sun shines” that’s what I did. As it was sunny, I was cutting and chopping wood all day. Approximately one third of the tree has now been processed. Unlike the aged FIL, who would cut down a healthy tree, and take just the larger portions of the trunk, we do try to use most of it. Even the smaller branches are cut up for use as kindling. (Note to self: must tie them together in small bundles – called faggots – for ease of use).
For this particular tree, the bark comes off fairly easily. It’s better to remove the bark when storing pieces of wood for firewood. There are two reasons for this: firstly the wood dries more quickly, and secondly there is less susceptibility to insects nesting under the bark. Some of this bark has been chopped up for mulch (and for use as a lining material under the hen roosts) by using the wood chipper. I also have a pile of it drying for future burning when making the next batch of charcoal. However, there is also a lot of unusable dead mistletoe and ivy. This has been piled in a row near where the tree was felled. It has two functions: it forms a barrier preventing the general public from accessing our field, and also provides a habitat for smaller wildlife like hedgehogs.
LSS fetched the four new hens. They obviously had to be put to bed as they did not know where they were supposed to sleep. However, I think we’ll have to name one of them “Houdini”. As usual, at dusk all the hens left their run and went into the chicken coop for a final peck at their food bowl before roosting. I closed the door to the coop once they had all gone in. As night fell, ten hens went up to their roost; but the four newcomers were still scratching around for things to eat.
When it got dark, I went to see whether they had roosted with the others. One of them was actually outside the coop. How she got out I have no idea; the fence is nearly 2 metres high. She was rather forlorn, and seemed glad to see me! Each of the newcomers was placed onto their roost, which was a new experience for them.
The steel mesh visor on my cheap-and-cheerful chainsaw helmet has rusted, and is getting difficult to see through. I had a look online for replacement visors, but this is one of those examples where the cost of a replacement visor is more than the price of a new helmet. Mad. So I’ve bought a branded helmet this time (Stihl) which has a nylon mesh visor. At least that won’t rust. And whilst I was shopping, I ordered a pair of ballistic nylon chaps. They’re not available in France or the UK – at least, not that I could find. Trousers, yes. But I want something I can wear on top of my overalls. So they’re on their way from the USA. Although I’m always very careful when using a chainsaw, it’s about time I got some leg protection, just in case.
Although it was still cloudy and a bit damp, the wind had died down. So conditions were finally suitable to fell the remaining dead aspen near the pond. LSS had never seen a tree felled before, and decided to film the process using my Nikon Coolpix camera. It’s not really suitable for video, but it did the job.
Unfortunately the tree had a heavy branch half-way up the trunk, which meant it was leaning slightly the wrong way. Despite adjusting the directional wedge cut, and back cut, the tree fell approximately 20 degrees off the line I had chosen, right on top of the garden fence. Not serious; the fence is only chicken wire (and had been installed by the aged FIL) so it can easily be un-flattened again. You can watch the video here: http://youtu.be/-l50xFI4g6k