They say that moving house is one of the most stressful life events, which is not surprising really considering how much there is to think about, organise and do; it can be completely exhausting, both physically and mentally. Thankfully, the house buying and selling system in France (and Spain) is more straightforward than the UK in as much as the commitment from both parties comes very early on in the process; this means the worries about being ‘gazumped’ or ‘gazundered’, losing a purchase or sale or chains collapsing are removed which helps to relieve much of the usual uncertainty and anxiety. Nevertheless, it’s always a relief to get through to the other side and into the next phase; for us, that’s a case of adjusting to the change from a home that was comfortable, organised, warm and familiar to one that is currently not really any of the above!
Part of the problem for us is the piecemeal way in which we are moving. We don’t have a lot of stuff, but much of it is still in Spain and we’re already at a point where we’re missing some key items such as the long ladder, the tractor, the basket of seeds (how did I ever not think to squeeze that into the last load?), various essential tools for house and garden and our favourite recipe books. It was certainly an interesting activity prioritising what could come when packing a very limited space: stepladder or wheelbarrow? propagator or sewing machine? food processor or stockpot . . ? One of the biggies was whose bike to bring – there was only room for one on the trailer – and here I have to say Roger was a perfect gentleman and loaded my Trusty Rusty Purple Peril without a second thought. Well, that makes me very happy and I definitely need to make sure I bring him some special thank you patisserie back from my forays into town!
Although we are in need of a few things we haven’t brought, it’s also shown that even with our simple lifestyle, there’s a lot of things we can manage without or which, long term, it makes sense to change or replace. It will be a while until we’re all sorted out but in the meantime I’ve always felt that if there is a fire in the hearth, bread in the oven, a kettle singing on the hob and washing blowing on the line, then we are a long way towards being home.
The biggest issue for us so far has been warmth. It goes without saying that after so many blissfully mild, sun-drenched Asturian winters, returning to northern Europe at the coldest time of year has been a bit of a shock to the system. Of course, we’ve spent most of our lives in this sort of climate so it’s not as if we’re not familiar with the need for coats, hats, gloves and warm boots – we’re just seriously out of the habit! The woodstove is great but it’s struggling to do anything well and is incredibly inefficient given the amount of logs it’s devouring. We’ve discovered several issues with it and need to give some serious thought as to how to revamp the heating system before next winter; luckily, we already have several options in mind.
We have photos of the house pre-renovation, complete with a tin roof! Certainly, whoever did the work here made a fabulous job; the quality of crafstmanship and materials is superb, and everything has been beautifully finished – which begs the question, why oh why wasn’t any insulation put in under the smart new slate roof? It’s no secret that good insulation is key to warmth and energy efficiency so it seems completely nonsensical not to have bothered. The answer, I suspect, may well lie in those glossy country lifestyle magazines whose staged photos tend to suggest that for rural dwellers, true happiness comes from having exposed beams rather than reduced energy bills or even (perish the thought) being warm. Well, that’s most definitely not true: we’re not hothouse flowers, but with the upstairs ceilings reaching right up to the ridge, it feels like we’re living in – and trying to heat – a cathedral.
The irony is these aren’t even beautiful oak beams seasoned over centuries and notched with rune-like carpenters’ marks but modern pine purlins and rafters that have been stained black for effect. It’s bloomin’ freezing upstairs (apart from the toasty bathroom which has been – wait for it – insulated) and conversely, must be stifling in summer when the Mayenne sunshine strikes the dark slates. Sorry, but they have to go in the name of warmth, economy, efficiency and generally saving the planet. So, having said we really, really, really didn’t want to be doing any serious renovation work this time, here we are spending our week putting a ceiling in our bedroom. I’ve been painting wooden panels of sustainably-grown Gascon maritime pine; the house is full of their sweet resinious scent, so reminiscent of the miles of plantations we have driven through many times between Bordeaux and Bayonne. Meanwhile, Roger has been doing the fiddly carpentry stuff and investigating the band saw which he found in the barn; it needed sharpening and the switch is broken, but he managed to fix it enough to help cut timber for the joists.
It’s a slow process but with half the ceiling done, there is already a definite feeling of change; with a lower ceiling, the room has taken on a cosier air and the white panelling has lifted the light level. We are packing 200 millimetres of insulation into every nook and cranny behind the boards and it’s incredible how quickly the ambient temperature is rising and the noise of rain and wind is being reduced. We’d both far rather be outside, but hopefully before too long the promise of a frosty night to follow those colourful sunsets won’t be quite so daunting!
As paint needs time to dry between coats (well, that’s my excuse, anyway), I have been able to spend some time outside making a start on a vegetable garden; the temperature has been occasionally bracing but it’s been lovely to boost my vitamin D levels and burn off some winter calories in the sunshine. The main veg patch that we have planned is going to take a lot of work and preparation so we decided it was worth investigating a couple of patches which have been previously cultivated, even if only to use them as temporary stop-gaps this year. Neither is in an ideal position, as when the trees are in leaf, they will be quite shady but since it’s toughies like parsnips and broad beans that will be planted in them initially, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. One of them had been fenced with a makeshift arrangement of chicken wire and rotten poles so first job was to have all that out.
Eventually, I’d like the garden to be managed on a low/no dig basis, feeding the soil from top down with minimal disturbance and using annual weeds as a mulch. However, despite having been planted last year, the soil was netted with couch grass roots, buttercups and celandines, so a proper dig to clear those was definitely called for. It feels like ages since I spent time preparing beds like this; I love the physical activity but I must admit I’m missing the little border fork I prefer to use!
The good news is that, despite the season, the soil – a rich sandy loam typical of the area – is beautifully friable. It will benefit in the future from good feeds of manure, compost, comfrey mulches and green manure cover but for now I’ve bought an organic all-purpose fertiliser to rake in (aarrgh, where’s the rake????) and give it a boost. I’ve been very thrilled to find a healthy worm population and I’m not the only one, it seems; a fat little robin has been my constant companion, watching proceedings with bright beady eyes and willing me to go in for a tea break so it can inspect my handiwork more closely. Go and find the fat balls, you rascal – we need all the worms we can get!
The second patch is in what was described to us as being a ‘secret garden’ since it has hedges on three sides. It’s a bit of a strange one, to be honest, but I don’t have time to be picky. There’s a huge rosemary growing in it and also some rhubarb which I was very delighted to find (Roger wasn’t!); despite being a large crown, it was a very miserable looking specimen as its growth was being constrained by a low square chimney pot that had been crammed over it and something had been munching away at its leaves.
It has perked up considerably since being liberated and with a good feed of muck and a lot of love, I’m hopeful for some delicious pickings in the future . . . and yes, I am happy to eat it all myself!
One of the things I’ve always wanted to do – ever since our children were small, in fact – is to create a garden space based on the idea of a maze; not the hiding kind with high hedges, but areas of planting chosen to appeal to all the senses between a spiral or labrynthine path that can be used for games of chase or simply to wind round into the centre. Some kind of seat for quiet contemplation or a gardener’s coffee break in the middle would be essential. These days, they tend to be called mandala gardens and I have actually already designed one as part of my permaculture course (which has currently been put on hold for obvious reasons) so I’m beginning to think that, as soon as it’s no longer needed for vegetables, this might be the perfect location to finally get on and do it. Mmm, I’m already seeing all those bright bursts of floral gorgeousness in my mind’s eye. . .
In the meantime, though, it’s all about food. It seems very strange for us not to be able to wander out and pick our dinner, growing our own food is so central to our lifestyle. That said, I’m quite enjoying the novelty of tucking into bought seasonal veg we haven’t eaten for a while: plump bitter chicons of endive, nutty cauliflowers, earthy red cabbage and the long, flavoursome carrots that come coated in sandy Breton soil. The local weekly market has a fantastic fruit and veg stall which will keep us supplied until our own harvests start; I can take reusable bags to fill which I’m very happy about although the ride home with several kilos of food on my back makes for a pretty good workout – don’t think I’ll be buying any big sacks of spuds! If nothing else, there are a few herbs scattered about the property which we are using in the kitchen, including a beautiful bay tree with the most fragrant leaves we’ve ever come across and of course, it goes without saying, we managed to squeeze some Asturian squash into our moving loads to keep us ticking over.
I’m truly enjoying the chance to be outside, to plunge my hands into the earth and start that all important process of bonding with this place, of learning who and what was here before us and finding my own niche in such a beautiful space. The wildlife is atonishing: red squirrels in abundance, hares a-plenty, a nonchalent fox which mooches through the garden without a care in the world and roe deer everywhere we turn. Roger opened the door to go out for a run shortly after sunrise a few days ago and surprised a posse of seven wild boar who were just across the lane; I’d forgotten how hefty they are here, their Asturian cousins being dainty fairies in comparison. Wonderful though this is, I’m not sure it bodes well for happy gardening so we are already planning a good fence and hedges around the main vegetable patch. My temporary feeding station is alive with constant bird traffic; it’s lovely to watch, especially as more and more species move in each day – the arrival of a female reed bunting was very exciting. The rest of the garden is teeming with birds, too, and straightening up for a mid-dig stretch I stood captivated by a firecrest busy in the hedge, nothing more than a tiny puff of feathers and so close I could have touched it, swiftly followed by a plump treecreeper shimmying up a cherry tree and meeting me at eye level.
I love these priceless moments completely immersed in the natural world, they are treasure indeed. There are flowers, too, sweet harbingers of spring; the hedge bottoms are filled with drifts of snowdrops and the glossy leaves of a scrambling periwinkle flaunting dainty mauve flowers. There are masses of daffies to follow, their spears of buds fattening with each day that passes. This is the magic of a new garden, watching to see the secrets unfold as we travel through the first year together.
If I had to choose one plant that defines this area (apart from cherry trees at certain times of the year) then it would be mistletoe, that weird and wonderful hemiparasite so traditionally linked with the Christmas season yet in reality something of a pest if it weakens the host trees. It grows in abundance in local apple orchards but I think it is most significant in the tall poplars, where the huge lime green globes, seemingly skewered by skeletal branches, form a winter silhouette of striking contrasts.
There is only one plant in our garden; it’s a relatively small affair and yet the berries suggest it has been there for five or six years. Magical, mythical or a menace? I suppose it depends on your point of view, but since for me it captures so well the essence of this rolling landscape with its wide tracts of woodlands and myriad ponds, then I’m glad it’s here. I’m glad we’re here, too. New home, new horizons – our journey has well and truly begun. 🥰