The Environment

I hardly ever talk about the environment these days, so people who don’t know me probably think I don’t care or I don’t realise how important it is.

If they’d met me over thirty years ago they’d have seen that I still believed that it was possible to “do something”. I was the “pain in the bum” telling people to switch off lights, get rid of their cars, grow food, buy organic or local food, keep chickens, use solar power…

I was then – I still am – passionate about simple living. I think somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten than it’s really wonderful enjoying what we’ve been given rather than inventing more and more complicated and expensive ways of finding new highs that more and more people can’t share.

I wanted to do a post for Blog Action Day in the hope that some sort of miracle can happen if only we just start behaving ourselves and think about the greedy things we do to to the earth and to each other and talk about what we’re going to do.

For me the real issue now is how we humans are going to manage without the cheap energy we got used to during the “oil age” and how we will come to terms with our continuing lack of energy resouces for an infrastructure of production and distribution of goods that we rely so heavily on to live “normal” lives.

In the last few years it’s become very fashionable to talk about “saving the planet”, but the planet will get by very well indeed without us.

It’s freezing here, so we lit the fire yesterday

This fire heats the kitchen, and the magic caldron heats the hot water and two radiators

…not just a “summer evening let’s get rid of all the rubbish fire”, but a real fire with wood because it was really chilly and damp. We’ve been in and out a lot to give the goats hay, to tie up fallen plants, and to check the new drainage system and it’s nice to come in and dry off in front of a cosy fire.

I love this fireplace, it’s really comfortable and cheering. Fabrice made the chimney above very narrow with an amazing amount of rocks and reinforced concrete above to act as a heat sink, then the chimney twists off centre to reduce the speed of the flow of hot smoke and trap more heat in the firebricks to warm the airing cupboard upstairs. The house stays warm for a long time after the fire has gone out.

Making Confit de Canard for sterilising in Kilner or Parfait jars which will keep for up to a yearThe caldron is a kind of back boiler full of water which forms part of a closed system leading to the hot water storage tank situated in a little drying room behind the fireplace. The pipes wind round inside the tank and the heat exchanger heats the mains water without mixing with it, the pipes also heat the two radiators upstairs when they’re switched on. The system’s connected to our solar panels which heat the water in the summer on the same circuit.

The fire stays in all night if we cover it over with ashes before we go to bed. In the morning we clear the ashes away add a bit of wood and it lights well every time. We use it a lot for slow cooking and it gives a lovely wood smoke flavour to the food.

Drying out Ceps in theri basket in front of the fireWe also use our fire for barbeques, for drying out mushrooms, wellies and socks and it’s enough to heat our 168m² house in Spring and Autumn. When the temperatures really drop, we light the woodburner.

There are more details of our renewable energy systems in THIS link.

Summer is upon us, and it’s taken me ages to find the time to blog.

These courgettes are for Peggy our sow.We’ve had non-stop guests, made more hay, had lots of farm visits from families, associations and lots of gate sales for people buying wool and knitted things which inevitably turn into walkabouts to see the animals.

We had one young couple who stayed for just over two weeks. They were really keen to learn as much as they could and when they arrived, the first thing they asked to do was looking after our chickens, letting them out in the mornings, cleaning and filling the water and feed containers, collecting the eggs and closing the chicken shed up in the evenings. They soon discovered out that looking after chickens is easy and a lot of fun. They found out about chickens’ needs and preferences, what to do when they start going broody, about illnesses and parasites, about the effects of the weather, keeping them and the henhouse clean, what to do about introducing new stock, how to prevent them from eating each other’s eggs, laying in each other’s nests and loads of other things about poultry which you can learn by just observing them and asking questions. It was great for us too to leave that job to somebody else and have a bit of a lie in for a change !

Another regular job they did was gathering the courgettes and French beans, keeping the little tasty ones for the table and giving the bigger ones to Peggy our sow, or to the goats – a nice job which we to did together in the early evening as we checked the livestock to make sure they were all there, and that everything was as it should be.

They were very interested in learning about organic gardening and of course the best time to do that is in early spring, because there isn’t much work to do in Summer apart from sowing a few more beans, transplanting lettuce or putting in a few more rows of carrots. So, we spent most of the time just looking and talking about what was happening, tying in plants, digging up a couple of rows of new potatoes, gathering vegetables ready for the table and preparing and sterilising anything with enough of a yeild to make it worthwhile.

Pots of Rhubarb sterilised and ready for putting away in the cave.The rhubarb was ready to pull, so we took about 8 kilos and a few stems of Angelica and spent a morning sterilising about 30 jars for storing, which means I can make rhubarb crumbles for pudding throughout the year. We use exactly the same technique for bottling fruit, veg and meat in Kilner or Le Parfait jars as the one described in THIS article.

I’ve since gathered the last of the rhubarb, more green beans and peppers and added to another few dozen pots to the cave – so we won’t starve this winter!

Jon and Holly were thrown in at the deep end with the tagging and vet visit – where their help was invaluable, but we didn’t want them to think that keeping goats and sheep was always so stressful. So when it rained, we did a lot of inside work with the animals, relaxing and playing with them, clipping toenails and cleaning teeth, checking the new tags were OK and generally giving them a lookover.

Suzie our Saanen/Alpine cross was called upon to teach our guests how to milk a goat. Although she hasn’t kidded for two years, she’s still very milky and loves the attention she gets when we’re teaching people. She helps people who are nervous by standing well and letting her milk down. This is a short video of Jon’s second attempt at milking a goat. He’s getting milk out – but his technique needs refining.


Once the rain stopped, we took the opportunty to add more mulch from the goat shed to the garden which will help preserve the moisture and reduce the amount of watering we’ll have to do once the really hot weather hits us. Although there’s been a lot of rain this spring, the earth is still very dry. Water is becoming more and more of a problem here in the Dordogne, and we want to dig a well near our new house.

We’ve dowsed the area ourselves and we’ve had two experienced friends dowse who’ve helped us choose the best site. While we were talking one evening about the house and our ideas for storing, finding and saving water, our guests had a shot at dowsing themselves.

I show people how to dowse with some copper rods which were made for me by a friend. They are very responsive and the effect when you can feel them moving is quite dramatic.
They’d never used dowsing rods before and John lost interest when he got no immediate results, but Holly soon got the hang of using the copper rods and refined her technique with a hazel twig and within an hour, she’d located the exact spot where we plan to dig the well!

Dowsing for water with a Hazel stickFabrice used the digger to level the space and we spent the rest of the morning dowsing around it in more detail.Once we’ve finished using the area as a storage space for the stones which for the house and the roof is on, we’ll start digging the well – taking a chance that this ancient way of looking for water will work for us.

Watch this space for more details.

We’re very fortunate here to have some wonderful mushroom woods and after the rain there’s usually something nice to be found. So we went out foraging and got a nice little haul of very late Girolles. (Spring Chanterelles.) Apart from Morels, these are one of our tastiest early mushrooms and there were more than enough to provide us with a decent lunch.

One of the other things we had to do when Jon and Holly were here was to fix the water heating solar panels. We had disconnected them when we were working around the area with the digger and they were covered with weeds.

Jon and Fabrice cleared around them and when we opened the stopcock to fill them up, they leaked. (Never be tempted to buy cheap copper piping in France.) So we fixed them one more time, which will have to do for this summer until we install our new vacuum system.

We’re running out of south-facing roof space and these panels are not very efficient. So, we intend to replace the pipework and use them as demonstration panels for visitors. We also spent time discussing the layout and design of our solar and wind systems and living with renewable energy. I’ll be very interested to find out if Jon does eventually put in a small system of his own…

Towards the end of their stay, Holly asked to learn to knit on a machine. After a bit of struggle, she produced a great big mohair and silk scarf to take home to impress her family, who strangely enough, run a knitwear business!

Collection of limescale from the inside of a water heater we used to make a meat smoker

Pretty aren’t they?

The whole of the inside of the electric water heater had a build-up of at least a centimetre thick, in some areas there were three to four centimetres so the volume of water heated must have been reduced by about a third !

Fitting a solar panel to a shed roof for an electric fence unit.

Yesterday evening after dark, we watched in disbelief as Peggy, our 250 kilo sow wandered along the back terrace, grunting and snuffling around the edges of the walls – right next to all my seedlings and plants!

She was looking for snails, her favourite delicacy. So we picked up a dozen or so really juicy ones, and with them and a few cobs of corn, tempted her to return to her quarters. We then had a look around her park to see how she got out. It seems that the battery for the electric fence has been working overtime and had become discharged because there’s lots of grass and weeds touching the wire. She’d simply pushed the wire up, dug under and lifted the fence – complete with fenceposts – an easy job for a huge sow in this very wet weather.

We normally charge the battery regularly with the house solar panels, but we’ve been busy and I’ve been lazy about making sure the battery is charged. So, we decided to fit a solar panel to charge the battery in situ. You can buy complete electric fencing units complete with a solar panel, but they’re expensive and this was urgent, so we used a panel which we use for demonstrating them to visitors. It’s 40watts, and a bit too powerful for charging a 45ah battery but it will save me humphing batteries and later, I can either buy a smaller panel and re-connect that, or use the excess power to charge another battery for lights and music in our little caravan.
Equipment for fitting a solar panel
We strimmed under the wire in the three parks and I started preparing the equipment for putting a solar panel on the roof of the chicken shed to charge the electric fence battery.

Fabrice did the fitting on the roof, screwing in the bolts with me holding the nuts in place below, then he left me to get on with the wiring. Fabrice drilling holes for the solar panels

Wiring up the solar controllerFortunately, we had a small controller which we used for our first windgenerator which limits the charge to the battery and stops it being completely discharged so that it lasts much longer.

Wiring the controller up is a simple job as long as all the terminals are marked, and as the one I used has been lying in a box for about 12 years, all I can say is that I’m very pleased I tabbed and marked all the wires because the wiring system is a bit like a car radio and the black, orange, blue and red wires can all become very confusing !
Connecting the solar controller to the battery I then connected the controller to the battery (which was reading 9.5 volts before and 12.8 with help from the panel) then connected the energiser from the fence unit to the battery, then the earth from the energiser to a metal pole stuck deeply into the ground in a handy damp spot under the roof where the rain falls (To ensure a good earth for the pole), then connected the positive wire to the existing fence wires. Everything done, I tested the fencing and it’s working.

So despite the overcast sky, the solar panel is powering the electric fencing and charging the battery, and Miss Peggy is contained and can’t go off wandering into the night.

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The foundations for the Russian stove (poele de masse) and the uprights are done

The weather’s been great.

We’ve been getting on with the extension and I’m doing my best to tackle the garden between major jobs;

We’ve done the foundations for the stove and shuttered and poured the uprights for the supporting walls for the upper two bedrooms.

The stove will go between the two uprights in the photograph.

We’ve coated the bottom of the walls a fine cement mix then with bitumen up to ground level to keep out the damp. The drainage pipes are in place too and we’ll connect them up tomorrow.

Winter solstice light in the kitchen.

Winter solstice light in our home made kitchenThe light in the house has been amazing over the past few weeks with the winter sun coming right in and bathing the floors with colour and warmth.

The winter solstice (The day this photo on the left was taken.) was a real treat to see just how much heat and comfort can be had from the sun inside a house on a very cold day.

The new cover on the terrace is working just as I planned, Fabrice cut the Acacia tree at the back of the house right back to let in more light, I’m so pleased we didn’t destroy it when we were digging out the site. It gives a lot of shade in summer and it smells lovely when it’s in flower.

The angle of the shaded part and the clear covering are doing what they’re designed to do – allow the sun into the house to warm the floor and furniture in winter and keep it out in the summer.

Building the terrace for optimum solar gain in winterThe photo below shows how passive solar works. After the wonderful sunny spell, we’ve had some much-needed rain. So, for the past week or so, we’ve been planning the extension.

We’ve designed the back kitchen, which I’ll use to dye my wool and where we can cook the pigs’ and dogs’ food and we’ve made a few decisions about seating and working areas. We’ve changed two windows (We’ll change the plans once we’ve chosen the windows) and completed the design for the layout of water, heating and staircases.

We’re still working out how to get the maximum of natural light into the extension. The solar orientation isn’t as good as the original part of the house. We need a lot of light for working with the yarn and it’s so cheerful when the house is light and warm in the middle of winter.

Starting to build our house.

This blog was born only a few weeks ago, but we’ve been building our house for seven years and one day I’ll get together all the photos, notes, drawings and ideas that we had while we were building and put them on a website. …One day.

The ideas for the house at Sourrou began about 14 years ago when Fabrice and I were living in the cabin and negotiating buying the land here. I’ve always been interested and involved in building and renovation and one of the Open University courses I did to develop that interest was Design: Processes and Products. (T263) The course content was invaluable in structuring my ideas about the “Perfect House”.

Fabrice is a qualified stonemason and like me, is fascinated by sacred architecture, building techniques and the harmony in nature of buildings and objects. So although we come from different worlds our ideas merge and our skills are complementary.

Straw bale wall in the sheep shedMy original idea was to build the house in straw. When I broke that news to Fabrice, I was surprised when he said “Great!” and showed me his sheep shed where a straw bale wall had been built more than 30 years before by his grandfather – unrendered and still in good condition.

So eventually, the difficult and very stressful negotiations for the land right next to the cabin (How lucky is that!) came to a close. We got the CU and the Mayor got his hectare with the springs on it (but that’s another story…) We then applied for planning permission for the house which would be in straw, off-grid, built for solar gain, using basic geometric principles, with materials sourced from our land or nearby and as energy efficient as possible.

That all sounds pretty sensible to me, but I suppose my appearance and the way I have of rabbiting on about things that I find fascinating give the impression that I’m a bit of a hippy and the original flowery plans which I drew up (Complete with French spelling mistakes!) didn’t go down at all well with the Mayor or the local planning department.

Getting planning permission took almost 2 years of refusals, reapplying, waiting for results, redoing the drawings, and referring again and again to my “bible” at that time from the collection Concevoir et Construire : Les plans de votre Maison.

Finally, planning permission was granted and we started work.

There are some photographs of the building process in this link:
Construction of the first phase of our house at Sourrou

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