Balcony doors and a baby

It’s been a mixed month, full of milestones and emotion!

Balcony doors

Our doors arrived at 10 o’clock at night at the end of October, having left the UK the day before. It had been raining and the driver wasn’t sure he’d be able to make it up the hill, which was a worry. We didn’t fancy carrying them all the way from the car park! But after a good run-up, he skidded his way up there and we unloaded them under the stars by the side of the field. Having been told by someone at the factory that one person could carry a door on their own, we were disappointed to learn they weigh 80kg each! Even Dave and Omar between them were having a hard time lifting them. But my little trolley came to the rescue and they rode them in over the muddy field one at a time and we finished at midnight.

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Bringing them in on the trolley

November arrived in good autumnal fashion. I went out with Charlie just before sunrise. The trees were boasting their end of season colours and the warm breeze was casting joyous bursts of leaves into the sky like confetti.

Over the next few weekends we set about installing the new doors. It took us a few hours just to get them from the downstairs of the house to the upstairs since they wouldn’t fit up the indoor steps and our outdoor steps have yet to be rebuilt since the earthworks. We took out a few panels of chipboard flooring and hoisted them up through the gap.

We got the top and bottom tracks installed nice and straight and level then mounted the doors in place. We had a few little hiccups here and there but went slow and steady and they’re getting there now. The house is starting to feel more house-like by the month!

Difficult diagnosis

My peaceful plans for November went out of the window at the start of the month when I got some less than ideal news about my health. Back in August I started getting a visual disturbance in my left eye. I thought it would be some pregnancy-related fluid build-up on the retina, but the ophthalmologist said my eyeball was fine. After being passed to a neurologist and having various tests in September and October, I finally got my diagnosis this month. It’s an unusual condition with the acronym NAIOM where the anatomical weakness of having a tightly packed optic nerve combines with some event causing a temporary lack of oxygen to the nerve and part of it dies, leading to blind spots in the field of vision (or complete blindness in some cases). People who have it in one eye are also at risk of getting it in the other eye. There is no known treatment or prevention. In my case they don’t know why it happened.

Whilst the neurologist was telling me this, I managed to keep it together and try and concentrate on what she was saying (nothing like hearing bad news from a medical professional in your third language). Once outside, I mourned the loss of my left eye and started feeling anxious about the right one. I had a few really bad days where I was obsessing about my good eye going wrong, and didn’t eat or sleep much. Then of course I started worrying about the baby being flooded with cortisol and deprived of nutrients! It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster.

What I can see with my left eye is relatively normal peripheral vision but with a mostly blind spot in the centre. So if I am reading for example and close my right eye, I can see the outline of the book or screen but the page appears blank. I can see my surroundings but anything I actually try to look at disappears – objects, faces, scenery. If the other eye developed the same problem, I’d be able to walk around with a stick but would be unable to read, drive, see people’s facial expressions or do intricate tasks that couldn’t be done by touch alone. If I met someone like that, I would assume that they could still live a happy, independent life, and I’m sure that I would under the circumstances. But nobody wants to lose capability and make their lives more difficult.

If we assume that I maintain my good eye as is and I can let the fear and anxiety subside, I can live a normal life as I am now. The blurring and distortion are annoying and my eyes get really tired, especially now that the days are shorter and I spend more time indoors with artificial lights, but I can generally get about just fine. So I’m working on shedding the anxiety that sits in the pit of my stomach and trying to get enough sleep.

Dave has been a great support, I really can’t fault how he’s dealing with this. I’ve been so lucky to have him be there for me whenever I’ve needed him (which has been a lot!). My Mum has been a blessing as always too and I think between us now we’re basically world NAION experts!

I had a week long treatment of steroids in week 37 of my pregnancy. The doctor was doubtful they would have any effect but thought it was worth a try. By the end of the week I was totally exhausted and had terrible fluid retention. I spent about a week recovery from that and as far as I can tell my eye remains the same.

Everything else

There were so many nice jobs I wanted to get done this month – rebuilding the retaining wall and steps up to the balcony, planting out the food forest, tending to the garden. But between the relentless rain, countless hospital visits and the last of the baby preparations, everything landscaping-related has pretty much ground to a halt. One night of extremely high winds finally saw an end of the greenhouse plastic. Every time there’s a storm it gets a bit more battered and it finally gave out by getting a great big tear along the front of the roof. We took the plastic off and the frame will just spend the winter as a skeleton.

We spent one afternoon trying to get the water off the terraces. The constant rain had filled up the dips, making a rather large pool on each terrace, creating its own spillways down the banks and in two places leaving land slumps where parts of the bank started to come down. Of course now it seems like this was a total inevitability and we should have had the digger driver put drainage channels in the back of each terrace – as was the original plan! But hey ho, now we have to manage it as best we can.

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Baby

With a few weeks to go until my due date, I did get some time to just relax and recover after all the chaos of hospital visits. Some friends threw a surprise happy baby party, which was wonderful. And I spent time cooking, walking Charlie and taking naps.

Six days before my due date I woke up with my first contraction at 6am. I was very excited! When Dave woke up at 8 we went for a walk together before breakfast. He then spent the day tying up loose ends at work whilst I cooked and napped my way through early labour. By 6pm the contractions were still pretty mild but coming every four minutes so we packed up and headed to hospital. It was nice and quiet arriving at 8pm and we had the maternity ward to ourselves. The midwife was wonderful and we had an uncomplicated and empowering birth, bringing Leona into the world at 11.15pm on November 27th.

I spent a few days high on adrenaline, marvelling at our little girl and not sleeping a wink. Dave was immediately adorably besotted. Then on the 30th November we went home to start the first day of the rest of our lives as a proper little family.

-Anna

Earthworks part 2

The tide of progress turned and we got a lot done this month, which I’m very glad about. The autumn weather we expect returned at the start of the month and it was glorious for a few weeks.

Permaculture Round-up

We had a group workday the first weekend of the month. Some friends bought a ruined mill that they want to restore, so we got together and everyone got in the river to dig out the silted channel. A few of us spent the day picking, washing and pressing apples for juice rather than digging. As always it was a delight to be at someone else’s project, in good company and eat good food. It took my mind off the stress of our house for the day and I felt much more relaxed afterwards, ready to tackle the earthworks once again.

Earthworks

Having allowed September to pass us by without finishing the earthworks, I knew it was vital we get finished in October. Last year it snowed before Halloween!

It was dry when we got back from the UK (obviously we missed a great weather window whilst we were away, but I won’t dwell on that) and although the forecast was slightly mixed, it was unlikely we were going to get more certainty by waiting any longer. So on the first Friday of the month I ordered the gravel for Monday. The owner of the neighbouring field, the digger owner, the digger driver, the tractor drivers and the gravel delivery company were all on board. Then the digger broke down and couldn’t get here for Monday. But after phoning around, we were all set for Tuesday morning instead. Phew.

The gravel got dropped off in the car park and all the drivers turned up in their machines to get to work. It was a glorious day and the ground was dry. Even though it was a bit slow for the tractors to reverse along the track and open the backs of the trailers to dump the gravel by the house, with three of them in convoy it was all done in three hours. What a relief!

The next job was to finish digging the trench around the problematic back corner of the house. The driver used the enormous jackhammer like before except this time we left a protective section of rock around the corner of the house, so things went a lot more smoothly. After four hours of hammering, scooping and checking the level, the trench was complete! Another big sigh of relief.

Once the trench was dug, there was preparation work to be done before the gravel could be poured – waterproof plastic had to be hung against the walls, boards had to be put in the trench to separate the gravel from the soil, and sheets of geotextile had to be cut to length and put in position to stop the soil from migrating into the gravel. It took all day to get finished – a lot more preparation work that we had imagined!

The next day we were all at the house at 8am getting started under a big LED work light. The pipe got laid in the trench and the first load of gravel went in! Once the level of the gravel came close to the height of the boards, soil got poured in the other side of the trench to the same level. Then the boards got pulled up and re-set and the whole thing repeated. It was pretty time consuming and by the end of the day we were all exhausted having filled about a third of the total trench.

We did two more long hard days of moving boards, pouring gravel and preparing the remaining sections of drain. After that, the house was safely back in the hill and we were all pleased to see two days of rain forecast so that we could have some time off to recover.

When the dry weather returned, things got moving again with the feeling like the end was in sight. The landscaping around the house got completed and I cut all the plastic and geotextile to ground level and we covered the textile in the remaining gravel. Drainage works completed!

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House back in the hill

Then all that remained were two long days for the digger driver doing finishing work in the field. We trenched in the communal water pipe and a ventilation pipe for our house. We moved the three big tree trunks to be chopped for firewood. And we placed the biggest of the rocks strategically around the field. Our favourite feature is the seating area by the natural swimming pool.

By the end we were very happy with everything. Of course now there is an enormous list of things to do! But we’ve got loads done with the digger and we are pleased with how it all turned out. The landscape around the house and across the whole field has been transformed. When the groundcover grows back it will be a thing of beauty upon which to grow our forest garden.

Finishing jobs

The night after the digger finished it started raining and barely stopped for a week straight! Good timing to have got it all done. We had a weekend off and got caught up on household chores and made some good food.

When we went up to the house, we were delighted to find that the downstairs was still dry! That amount of rain before the drainage works would have led to a very wet floor. We never made it down as far as the bottom of the footings with the outside drain, so didn’t necessarily expect the downstairs to stay dry. We’ll see how it holds up against the more serious rains over the winter.

Some of the paths needed a bit of tweaking to get the water to run down in the right place. Lots of rocks, firewood and debris needed tidying up. And the gravel around the house needed some rearranging. We also did a good tidy-up in the house and got rid of a load of rubbish. I sowed some cover crop seeds in the field but it remains to be seen whether it’s too late in the season for them to succeed.

I hope that we can get some trees planted next month.

Sleeping loft

We finally mounted the metal bracket for the last of the sleeping loft beams. It was a tricky, time-sensitive operation because we put quick-drying resin in the holes to hold the bar in place. But thankfully all went well and it seems good and sturdy. Now we’re ready for the blacksmith to come and weld the beams in place, but we need to seek out a generator to borrow first – the welding machine can draw a lot more power than our inverter can give out!

Patio Doors

Getting our glass doors for the front of the house has been stressful. Just putting the order together was a months-long process. In July we made sure the opening was correctly prepared and measured. Over August and September we were liaising with the manufacturer to find out everything we need to know, make decisions and get the order correct. And I found a company willing to transport them from the UK factory to us.

At the beginning of this month we finally got our order sent to the factory for production. They were collected for transport the other day and are on their way here right now! The driver is due to get here tonight, so we’ll be bringing them across the field in the dark. Fingers crossed that they arrive correct and in tact.

Harvests and preserves

I’ve been enjoying harvesting and preserving again this month whenever I’ve had time. The store of drying hazelnuts has become quite substantial. We’ve got lots of crumble-ready apple chunks in the freezer. There are crates of pickle, relish, gherkins, tinned tomatoes, chutney and jam in the attic. I’ve even tried my hand at some batches of apple cider vinegar as well as sauerkraut. Dave has been baking lovely bread every few days.

The last of the courgettes have been picked out the garden. The dried beans have been gathered and shelled for seed and food. The tomato harvest has continued gloriously even as the plants are dying down for the winter. The pumpkins ripened nicely in the sunshine and as the weather turned cold and the vines died down, I collected them under cover to finish curing. We have started eating the first of them and they are delicious.

As the nights draw in at the end of the month and the weather has been mixed. We’ve been lighting the fire, eating pumpkin soup and baking apple crumble. I’m very glad we have got the grunt work for the year done now that winter is closing in and I’m into my last month of pregnancy. On the whole I’ve felt great and have been fine to get on with life mostly as usual. But it will be nice to have a calmer November and enjoy the last of our quiet time alone. I’m looking forward to putting the garden to bed for the winter and getting as much of the post-digger works done as possible before we take a few months off the house project and make the terrifying, exciting, life-changing transition into life as parents.

-Anna

Waiting for a weather window

The dry weather forecast changed its mind and the rain started. The gravel had to be cancelled at the last minute. Autumn has arrived. The weeks went by with dodgy forecasts, thunderstorms, wind and rain. The blackberries are ripe and the woodland paths are littered with hazelnuts. We certainly haven’t done as much as we would have liked on the house this month.

We started getting on with the sleeping loft beams one weekend but amidst the madness of last month, I’d completely forgotten to get the hammer drill fixed and so when we went to use it, we got stopped in our tracks, which was frustrating and disappointing. Dave finished cementing the last hole in the back wall instead. I took the drill to the workshop and it was fixed and ready to go again by the end of the month.

I have definitely started finding manual work more taxing now that I’m 7 months pregnant, so I’ve slowed down considerably. There have been some admin tasks to do like chasing up our glass door order and doing research on the few baby items we need. So although I’ve been getting useful stuff done, it’s been pretty tedious.

We did spend a nice weekend on the top terrace of the future food forest. Sowed more cover crops and topped the ground with light mulch. The seeds are sprouting well with this mix of sun and rain. Dave also dug a huge trench that we filled with rotting logs, compost, soil and rhubarb crowns that I grew from seed this year. They’ve been offered a good chance, I hope they make it!

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Topping cover crop seeds with light mulch

The garden, although largely neglected, has been cropping away in the background. I harvested the most delicious sweetcorn either of us has ever tasted. I’d heard about being able to eat it raw but had never had the opportunity to try it before. Wonderful! And after three years of trying to get a crop, it was hard-earned. Tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes and physalis are ever present in the kitchen. I sorted my small annual batch of amaranth grains, which are beautiful. And I harvested my first coriander seeds for the spice cupboard. The pumpkins and beans in the garden are ripening well.

We’ve been out foraging and have now got stacks of hazelnuts drying in the attic. I used some windfall apples from the paths to start a batch of apple cider vinegar. I also spent some time making and preserving chutney, pickle and ketchup. This time of year is gloriously abundant.

At the end of September we went to the UK for Dan’s wedding, which was a happy occasion. The trip was a lovely break from everything here; we got to spend time with the rest of his family, my Mum and a few friends. The next time we go to the UK, there will be three of us!

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Dave and I with nephew Casey

Apart from the trip to Britain, the harvests and a few useful things here and there, I have to say it’s been a slightly depressing month. This is the first time since we’ve lived here that I’ve felt like I need a holiday. I think it’s because there’s no way to be around the house and feel chilled out right now. The field is like the surface of the moon, the house is precariously dug out, we’re helpless against the weather forecast and I’m just so tired – everything feels like hard work. But we’ve been doing this for long enough that I know these things come in waves. And after this ebb, we will have a swell of progress! Here’s hoping.

-Anna

Earthworks part 1

Well he didn’t turn up on the Thursday, but he did bring the machine in last thing on Friday and leave it here with the promise of starting on Monday. Sure enough, on Monday morning we walked around, chatted about what there was to do and he got going.

The field before digger works began

The first terrace at the top went really quick – he had it done in a day! Then he dug out the natural swimming pool in the back corner, a track to join the top terrace to the next one down, and started on the middle terrace on day 3. It took longer because he had to join the down-slope from the top terrace with the up-slope from the middle terrace. The lower terrace also took a while for the same reason. Then he had a track to make down to the house.

Terracing

Whilst all this was going on, I was also preparing for the French drain around the house. I calculated we needed around 30 tonnes of gravel to back-fill the trench! I could order 25 tonnes to be delivered to the village carpark for 350 euros. But a big pile of gravel half a mile down the hill wasn’t much use without some assistance. We organised that three of the village farmers would come along with their tractors and trailers and the digger driver would scoop up the gravel to load them up and they could make their way up to the field. It sounded like a decent plan and thankfully the neighbouring farmer was on board for us to cross his field with all the tractors, otherwise there would be no way to bring it in.

The next week he got started around the house. A lot of soil had to be moved with nowhere in the immediate vicinity to put it, so a dumper truck and driver arrived with him. They motored along digging and dumping soil, pulling out trees and slowly freeing the back of the house.

Dave and I were quite busy too. The water pipe got snagged by the digger, so we got that sorted out. And to prepare for him to bring the digger around the front of the house, we removed all the pipes, cables and the gate that were in the way. When he came down, he only just fitted, nudging and chipping a few rocks in the field wall to make it through! Once on the far side, he tore down the rock wall and steps, set aside all the rocks and set about digging. He made himself a soil slope with the material he dug out and drove straight up it using the bucket for purchase to stop the machine tipping over! I could hardly watch.

It was stressful watching the house get un-earthed. The walls below the ground aren’t of the same quality as the ones above. And with every scoop of earth that came out, the banks around the back got steeper and higher. When he made it to the deepest part of the trench at the back left corner, he found some quite hard bedrock. He started chipping it out with the 800kg hammer drill, which went quite well. But upon scooping out the loose material, caught the bucket on a huge piece of bedrock that formed part of the wall of the house! The rock came out of the wall and the whole corner of the house slumped down – some rocks fell out the back and cracks appeared all the way up the sides pretty much to the roof.

We spent an hour filling in the big hole left by the piece of bedrock and some of the smaller holes off to the side. But we agreed that it needed to be cemented before he carried on. So he clocked off early and I went to buy sacks of sand and cement.

French drain trench

That afternoon we had some volunteers arrive. It was hot and sunny but Kasper and Elise kindly got straight to work mixing cement and helping pug up the walls. The next three days we spent every morning mixing bucket after bucket and getting the gaps filled in. By the weekend it looked a lot better. It was so hot on Saturday that we went down to the river in the afternoon to cool off.

Then on Sunday it rained with more rain forecast for Monday when the gravel was due to arrive. I managed to get the gravel, digger driver and tractors postponed until later further notice whilst we wait for the fields to dry out.

The whole week was wet with the week after forecast to be wet too! So we started some other jobs. We started clearing one of the paths that has the potential to provide us with decent access on foot, but required three days of Omar working with the chainsaw and us dragging branches out to be even slightly passable. There’s still work to be done.

We also started installing the beams for the sleeping loft. We got the big beam set in  place one morning, perfectly straight and level of course! And much quicker now that I know how to do it effectively. And we got one of the small beams set in position too, which was great.

My seeds finally arrived in the post one day. We started putting some coconut matting on one of the terrace slopes and sowed cover crop seeds in the wet weather. It’s only a small area of the field that could be done at the moment since the digger still needs to come back, but the seeds came up nicely so it was a job well done. 

At the end of the month, Dave went off to the UK for his brother’s stag do, then I was away for a weekend with friends in Belgium and we had Dave’s sister and nephew here for a week as well. We went exploring in the woods and paddling in streams, and got a few little jobs done at the house. Kathleen helped me plant out some of the plants from my little nursery into the field, which was nice. I hope they do well! And we got the third and final metal beam in for the sleeping loft.

Finally we have a dry forecast next week to get the earthworks finished. We can’t wait to have the house safely back in the hillside.

-Anna

Summertime

There has been some good progress on the house this month, among a few distractions. But we’ve been progressing a variety of tasks, leaving a lot of unfinished ends.

Bench building

It was misty at the start of July. I really hate it when we’re in the clouds but since the rest of Spain was in the throes of a 40-degree heat wave at the time, I think on this occasion we lucked out. I made the most of the time by finishing my second balcony bench. I’m happy with how they turned out. They get a lot of use and gave me more confidence to work on my own.

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Pointing

Omar was chipping and pointing away on the outside wall in all weathers at the start of the month. That meant I was out brushing every morning to make it all look smart. By the time the summer weather hit and it was time for Omar to leave us for a few months to bring in hay for his cows, he had done as much as could be done on that wall. The idea was to get the majority of it pointed to help hold the rocks together when the house is dug out for the drainage work that needs doing. I’m happy that aim has been achieved and it can be drying and hardening before the digger arrives.

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Most of the side wall has been pointed

Sleeping loft

Having prepared three of the four beam holes for the sleeping loft last month, just the final spot needed to be sorted out. We wanted to place the beam right where there was a rather large rock in the wall. So instead of taking it out, I thought it would be a good idea to hang a bracket there. I went to see the blacksmith and ordered a bracket to measure. Then I set about making its mounting place nice and flat. Between the hammer drill, angle grinder and chisel, I managed to get a pretty neat finish. And below the big rock, I chipped out the assortment of small rocks and mortar and put in a single good rock with new mortar. That has been drying nicely but I have still yet to mount the bracket.

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Flat place to mount a bracket

I designed and built a little beam trolley with the idea of bringing the steel beams for the sleeping loft over the field more easily than we brought in the main floor beams. When they got dropped off, Dave and I started with the smallest one to practice with the cart and that went really well. So with the help of Tarje and Omar, the four of us got all three beams in the house in under two hours. Hurray for the beam trolley and three cheers for helpful neighbours!

The next day I sanded the loose rust off and painted them with primer. I had been hoping to get them fully painted and in position by the time we hosted our birthday party at the house, but that was not to be. The paint we ordered didn’t turn up in time and we had to get the longest beam out the way, so we hoisted it into position temporarily. It took hours. It was really awkward to get in place on account of only just being able to fit in.

It stayed resting in position whilst we got into party planning mode. We tidied up, I set up the barbeque and Dave wired us some lights and plug sockets. I also made a table, which was a fun opportunity to use my new birthday present. We had some friends over for food and drinks and had a wonderful time enjoying the house as a place to hang out rather than a place where lots still needs to be done.

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Birthday saw! (Great pressie Dave)

After the party we enjoyed a relaxed sunny Sunday before getting the beam back out for me to paint. It was just as annoying – if not more so! – to get out than it was to put in. And knowing we have to put it back again doesn’t help.

I have now finally started painting the buggers.

Front door

We thought we were ready to put our order in for the glass doors at the front of the house. It seemed like all we’d have to do would be to measure the space one weekend then place the order. However, the measuring showed that the floor was not exactly level, meaning the sliding doors wouldn’t operate properly. So up came the chipboard panels and we spent a weekend sanding and grinding at the high point on the floor. It still wouldn’t come perfectly level so we cut out the chipboard there with the aim of getting a piece of solid wood to go in the gap that can be sanded level. And so the door saga continues for another month.

Kitchen window

I have spent some time trying to get the old side window looking nice. This has been a challenge because it looked pretty awful. I spent a few days fixing up the stonework around the sides, then Dave cut the edges plumb with the grinder. We’re getting closer to ordering all our window frames but not there yet.

Earthworks

I bumped into the digger driver in the village at the weekend and he said “I’ve been meaning to call you. I can come and start terracing your field on Thursday.” I got a bit of panic because I wanted to be more prepared for the terracing operations – there’s a lot to think about! So I’ve spent a few days doing some prep work. After researching various terracing options, I have ordered coconut matting to stabilise the earth banks between terraces and I’ve sent off for 30kg of mixed cover crop seeds. I’ve also been planning the drainage solution for the back of the house because there’s a chance he can do that for us whilst he’s here. Now I’m feeling more prepared, I hope he actually turns up tomorrow!

The outdoors

For my birthday, I went camping with Ellie and Signe. We set up in the open pasture just above where the road peters out into a track at 1,200m altitude. The night drew in but it was about 15 degrees so we sat out chatting and drinking wine until we could see the stars around midnight, when we lay down to sleep. I put my roll mat and sleeping bag out on the grass and spent the night there. It was so still and calm, not a breath of wind, not the buzz of an insect until around 6:30am when it was light enough to walk around. I will say that I hardly slept, but it was totally worth it to lie under the stars all night.

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Sunrise picnic on my birthday

The garden is joyous at the moment. We’ve been eating the last of the mange-tout, the few beetroots that the mice didn’t eat, courgettes and greens. The pumpkins are starting to take over as always. This year I’ve organised them a lot better so they’re free to roam where I planted them. The sweetcorn is looking strong, aubergines are happy, cucumbers are climbing away and tomatoes are doing brilliantly. Our strawberry plants are putting on big tasty berries and we’ve been collecting cherries and plums from along the woodland trails.

Summer is well and truly here. Long, hot days, the village buzzing with holiday-makers, farmers working late to bring in the hay. The smell of cut grass and the sound of buzzing insects are ever present. The light is golden, the forest a rich green and the deep blue sky is dancing with swifts and house martins. When I leave the window open at night I hear the owl screeching and can look out to see its pale form swooping around the village in the moonlight. At this time of year, it feels like the summer is promising to stay forever.

-Anna

First steps towards a third floor

June started with a heat wave. Dave was away in the UK and I was just trying to keep myself and the plants alive until it passed. Then when I headed off to join Dave in the UK, a cold front swept in and there was snow a few hundred meters above us, night-time temperatures of 5 degrees and long, cold, rainy days. At least my plants didn’t need watering whilst I was away! Brrr.

We had a wonderful time in Britain. We saw my family for a weekend in Scotland and all went to a wedding together. I went to Aberdeen with my parents and reconnected with some old friends. And our one evening in London was spent feasting on oriental food and good chats with Jo.

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On returning to Spain we had a visit from Dave’s parents. We visited the local museum for the first time, trying to work out what all the old, hand-built, wooden machines were used for. The weather was lovely and we spent several days up at the house working and gardening and chatting.

Then we had a visit from Jacquie and Neal, who have their own place in Portugal with 7 hectares of land. Jacquie had last been to visit us two years ago so it was a relief to hear that she thought we’d made some progress since then. We enjoyed a wander around our place and spent the evening chatting away over a few beers.

As for progress on the house, there hasn’t been anything radical going on but slow and steady progress is being made. Omar has been chipping and pointing on the outer side wall of the house. I have been making box benches for the balcony that will eventually be an outdoor sofa. They’re made from old joists and floorboards and have been cladded with sweet chestnut planks from the local woodyard. They’re already getting good use for lunches and breaks.

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One bench is finished and boxed in. The seat is on a hinge to make a lid.

I talked to the local blacksmith who says he’d be happy to come and weld our metal beams together for the sleeping loft. That encouraged us to make a start on that project and Dave and I spent a whole weekend tidying out the house, removing rubbish, getting our stuff out of Tarje and Signe’s house and making space for it in our basement. With the house clear and tidy, the scaffolding went up to make a start on the holes in the walls.

The last weekend in June we did our definitive measurements to decide where the main beam was going to go. Then we started taking out rocks, putting in props and grinding out space for it.

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One of the prepared holes

There is a pair of wrens raising a brood in a hole in the wall inside our house. They’re coming and going all the time with beaks full of grubs and generally don’t seem to mind us working in there. At least our house is someone’s home already!

The garden is looking pretty great at the moment. I’m delighted with my tomato plants, which are big and healthy and are already sporting big clusters of flowers. This time last year, all had died from blight, and the year before had barely got going by the end of June, so it feels like a big achievement (although I partly have the weather to thank!). The herb beds are romping away nicely. And beans, brassicas, pumpkins, corn, amaranths and courgettes are all taking off, having endured the spells of hot and cold weather valiantly. I’ve strung up plaits of garlic, dried my harvested onions for use, and we’re getting good crops of kale, cauliflower, peas and mange-tout.

I saw a long black snake the other day when we picked up a scaffolding board and disturbed it keeping warm underneath. It slithered off and I looked it up to find out it was most likely Natrix natirx, a harmless grass snake. I’m always delighted to find out that the changed habitat we’re creating is providing homes for interesting creatures.

I’m happy with the way this month has gone. In spite of trips away and visitors here, we have inched our way forwards, ever closer to having a bedroom.

-Anna

Framing the front wall

May has been glorious. Long, sunny days and a night-time chill to remind you summer isn’t here quite yet. It’s the time of wildflowers and butterflies. Everything is growing like crazy and the forest has filled out into a dense green carpet.

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After all the good work that’s been going on the house, I was actually getting a bit behind on the garden! Unbelievable. The first week of May I spent weeding, sowing, planting out and collecting my first harvests. There are spring onions, rapini, radishes, lettuces, pea shoots and kale leaves. Lots of tasty stir-fries!

The beds that were already prepared are filling up quick, but I’m trying to keep it reigned in for a small garden again this year. There’s a lot of other stuff going on and I know it is better to keep it small and organised. I was certainly glad of it last summer when I had a limited space to water and weed, then less produce to deal with in the autumn.

We had another Permaculture Roundup, preparing a huge area of garden for Zoe, Roberto and Jorge. They grow an enormous amount of their own food and usually have enough to sell some in the summer too. It was a beautiful day doing some digging then hanging out for a long lunch out in the sunshine with friends and mountains all around.

Dave and I got around to putting in the last post in the front wall of the house. It took the best part of a day but went smoothly.

We spent a weekend getting the windowsill prepared for the lounge window. The edges had to be made nice by grinding some of the larger rocks. The base had to be made flat, the sides built up and the pointing finished all around.

Once prepared, we put in our order for a cut-to-measure piece of stone for the windowsill and another to go under the wood burning stove. I went to pick them up in the car – the big one just about squeezed in the boot! Then they got carried in with help from Omar, Tarje and Signe.

The big stone that will go under the stove has to wait for now, but Dave and I got to work putting the windowsill in one weekend. It went very well and looks great! Just missing the glass now.

There was a week of summer-like weather forecast, so I took a risk and sowed ALL of my summer veggies in the second week of May. Trays of sweetcorn, pumpkins, tomatoes, courgettes, runner beans, French beans, basil and amaranths all sat in the greenhouse hoping to come up before the clouds and rain returned. The risk paid off. Even though the subsequent week of cold rain slowed everything down, the only casualties were a few cucumber seedlings.

The bags of seeds that had been in the fridge came out for sowing. The golden currants and wintergreen barberry had already germinated in the fridge! Everything has been potted up and hopefully will start sprouting.

Dave and I spent a weekend finishing the top edge of the front wall of the house. This is where we’re going to install glass doors and windows. The big new beam that got put in when the roof was being re-done is very much not straight. So we cut two wedge shaped pieces to give the doors and windows square frames to be mounted into.

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Catharina came back for a long weekend. She’s still looking for land around here but between field trips she did some work on the house with me and Omar. We demolished the old window frame in the kitchen window and started rebuilding the rock surround. We also finally finished the rock steps in the garden.

On Sunday we had a lovely sunny hike up the mountain. And on Tuesday we went to see another piece of land that’s for sale. She’s seen a few different options now, I’ll be excited to find out whether she decides to go for any of them!

This month definitely hasn’t been as productive as the last few as far as the house goes. And suddenly June is here and the summer madness begins. Dave has just left for the UK and I’m heading out in a week too. It’s going to be a challenge to keep progress going on the house – especially with Dave working full time until September! Wish me luck.

-Anna

The whole floor is in!

Having not posted an update last month, there’s a lot of good progress to report on! Although we actually started March with a little holiday in the Picos de Europa for our third anniversary. We did some hikes, went sightseeing, ate in cafes and didn’t have to do any chores – it was glorious!

On the way back from the trip we went to the plant nursery and got some berry bushes. And Dave bought 40 little strawberry plants! When we got back home, we were digging, planting and enjoying the garden. The greenhouse is full of seed trays and potted young plants. I had a lot of seeds that have been overwintering to prepare themselves for germination, some of which are starting to come up.

The floor has progressing well. We finally decided what joists we wanted, put in the order and went down to the yard to cut some of them to length so that they’d fit in the delivery truck. They arrived at the field the next afternoon and we brought them all down to the house.

The front wall needed some work before the joists went on top of it. We spent a few days cleaning, pointing, building up and chipping out to get it to the right height to rest the joists on. Then we started cutting notches in the joists so they’d fit in the webbing of the beams.

We put 9mm strips of pine in the beam webbing so that the joists would fit in tightly. Then we went along placing the joists in one by one, making sure each one was in its rightful place before moving on to the next. The front section took the longest because one end of each joist had to be put on the wall with rocks and cement to the exact right height.

Building the section around the hole for the stairs was a little tricky. We put a double joist across to support another double that went into the wall at one end. The doubles had to be bolted together and the long one had to be mounted on a joist hanger.

We had a volunteer Catharina here for a few weeks. She’s very handy and has helped out a lot with the floor. I’ve also been helping her look for her own land which is exciting.

My friend Anne came to visit for a long weekend and we did a bit of work between walks, excursions and long catch-up chats. We fixed strips of wood back on the greenhouse so that the butterflies don’t get caught in the gap. And we stripped some old plaster from the balcony wall.

With the plaster was removed, we repointed the last big chunk of indoor wall space – what a relief! And we started putting chipboard down on the floor. We got about half way done by the end of the month.

At the start of April, we realised that the balcony joists needed resetting. Dave had done them with a spirit level originally (about 18 months ago) but now we’ve got the laser level we could see they were slightly out of line. It took quite a while to get them righted and it was a demoralising job, but it got finished in the end.

With that done, we ran some electric cables for future lights in the area below the balcony. Then we built up the front wall between the joists, encasing the lighting cables in place. All that allowed me to finish putting the chipboard flooring down across the whole space – hurray! It’s so good to have a floor again.

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I built some temporary stairs one afternoon. They leave something to be desired but will have to be replaced anyway once the downstairs floor gets lowered. It was a good experiment and I have ideas about how to improve them once they get rebuilt.

Dave has been working during the week but at the weekends we have been thinking, planning and doing some odd jobs. We got some joists above the balcony chopped to the correct length and some more cables run for the balcony lights. I’ve been busying away putting noggins in the downstairs ceiling. We want to plasterboard the ceiling eventually, so the wooden noggins are for the plasterboard to attach to. It’s hard work doing things overhead but I’m making good progress.

I also spent a day finishing the cladding on the area above the balcony. It’s nice getting little finishing touches done. Makes the place feel slightly more like a house and less like a building site with each one!

This weekend we had a visit from Dave’s brother Dan. We worked on the front wall of the house – starting the wooden frame for the patio doors and getting the section of brick wall built. Dan was brilliant and got lots done, even finding time to teach me some brick laying basics. Before his flight this afternoon he managed to get the brick wall plastered with lime render – what a hero! The render will dry almost white just like our pointing.

We also went on a bike ride and hiked up Peña Rueda, the 2160m peak that we can see from the balcony. It was a big walk but a glorious day!

The garden has changed a lot in the last months. It’s been a properly good spring with a mixture of sun, rain, wind and snow. My peas are romping away and I’ve got lots of baby brassicas out in the beds. Flowers are starting to bloom, bees are buzzing about and lizards are getting active. The tadpoles in our pond are growing up and everything is springing to life. I’m pleased to see that we still have breeding Iberian emerald lizards even after all the landscaping work we did. This pair has been hanging out below the strawberry bed when the sun is shining.

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Male and female Iberian emerald lizards enjoying the new beds (male at the back)

-Anna

Floor beams are in

The days are getting longer, the sun feels hotter, hazel catkins, primroses and violets are out, there is frog spawn in our tiny pond and buds are starting to form on the bare trees. The mountains are still capped with snow and the nights can be chilly, but there’s a promise hanging in the air that spring will come eventually. Hopefully earlier than last year, when it was still snowing in April!

It took us about a week to get the beams painted. Paint, dry, turn, repeat. We were up there when it was snowing too, which meant you could only do two hours before your fingers froze solid! By the time we were finishing the second coat, it was hot and sunny again.

Dave had some paid work to get on with and we still had to decide on a lifting mechanism, so I have been back out in the garden. My shorts and sun hat have been put to use already!

I went around the field in the sunshine removing new growth of brambles and nettles. Omar and I went to his stable to collect lots of sacks of fertiliser for the garden. We also pollarded selected ash trees that are too close to the house, turning the trunks into firewood and leaving the thin branches to be chipped (I would like to buy a chipper – keep working Dave!). We cleared debris off the roof and out of the gutters. We’ve fixed a gate to the field that came down in the snow. And put up some supports for peas because I’ve got several varieties starting to come up.

As well as tending to the veggie garden, I have spent some time preparing plants for the forest garden. I’ve sowed lots of seeds in trays outdoors that needed a period of winter cold before germinating. A few wild roses and some liquorice plants came up early, so they’re on the windowsill in the rental house waiting for spring. There are other seeds that needed a longer period of consistent cold, so those have been put into moist soil in bags in the fridge! Our house is turning into a plant nursery and I look forward to eventually getting around to making a proper greenhouse.

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A little Rugosa rose

I have also been dividing comfrey. Comfrey is a leafy ground cover, out-competing even the hardiest of weeds, keeping the soil moist and happy, the bees love the flowers and the leaves can be used to make fertiliser. I want lots of it in the forest garden eventually, but started off with one little cutting that Signe gave me when the first spring we were here and I shoved it in the ground, preoccupied with other things. It’s spent two years getting rather large and now that it’s died back for winter, the idea is to dig up the root, chop it into bits and stick each bit in the ground to get new plants. I thought I’d get a few little chunks off it to divide again in two more years, but in fact it was absolutely enormous! I got 30 cuttings off it and could easily have taken 10 more, but I’d already filled up a whole new bed with comfrey so I thought that would do for now. They had better work because I heard that the only time comfrey cuttings wouldn’t take was during a nuclear winter, so I’ll look a bit silly if I can’t grow it!

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A chunk of comfrey root

In mid-February we finally got to lifting the beams into place. We set up our new chain hoist and some slings on the ridge beam, having decided that it would be strong enough to hold the extra 200kg per beam. We met with Omar in the afternoon and got to work. It only took three hours in the end to get them all in their holes and went very well overall. You spend ages agonising over a job then it’s done, just like that!

Once in the oversized holes, the beams still had to be set in place. Of course we want them all perfectly level and parallel for easy floor construction and a nice flat floor. This was rather tricky!

Each beam in turn had to be hoisted or propped up, the level of the lower face calculated precisely and a flat, even surface of rocks and mortar constructed for it to sit on. Then it had to be lowered into place and hammered to the right height whilst making sure it is level and the correct distance from the front wall at both ends. It took two to three days per beam to get finished because layers of stone and mortar had to dry in between and it was just so damn fiddly.

Now all three beams have been set in place. We spent the last few days starting to fill in the holes around the beam ends. We’ve also done some more pointing in the upstairs and downstairs and have started to think in detail about how to attach the wooden joists to the steel beams. It’s been a busy month! But it’s been hot and sunny, we’ve got lots done and we’re in a good mood, cheered on by our progress. I just need to forget about how I’d originally planned to have the new floor in before Christmas…!

-Anna

New floor beams

I really enjoyed my two weeks home alone. With the floor held up by pending decisions, it was prime time to enjoy the sunshine and the garden. Omar and I continued our good landscaping work with a bench and another stone wall for a raised bed. The brick bench took a bit of work to get right but it’s turned out looking cool, plus it was a great way to use up some of the broken bricks. I bought a cherry tree and planted that next to my bench for pink blossoms and tasty cherries.

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New bench, raised bed and cherry tree

Then Omar and I did a bit of pointing on the house and had a go at removing the smallest of the old floor beams. It was quite a task taking the beam out since we couldn’t lift it between us, but we took our time and made a good job of it with some ropes and leverage.

I also spent some evenings making the rental house more homely with some house plants and home made decorations. It was lovely to spend the long evenings doing something creative and the rental place is feeling much nicer to hang out in now.

Dave got back in mid January and we had a volunteer Chris arrive too. All together that made four pairs of hands, so we took the opportunity to get to work getting the last two beams out of the old floor. We drilled the concrete out of the walls and then it was a case of trying to make as much space as possible around the end of each beam in an effort to get it out whilst cutting as little as possible off an end. It went quite well and we should be able to reuse two of the beams for the mezzanine level if we decide to do that.

The final beam was so heavy that the four of us could barely lift it between us. It had just started to rain as we took it out the window and the slippery paths meant that we had to abandon it at the closest available place next to the house. It carried on raining for four days straight. After all that gorgeous winter sun I suppose some proper winter was about due. We still went to work on the house, but had to do shorter stints because it’s cold working up there. In between, we chatted to Chris about our plans, got some good ideas and advice and did lots of cooking, eating, reading, planning and decision making.

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Let’s just leave this here

Making a decision about how to rebuild the floor has been painstaking. We’ve ended up coming full circle and are going to rebuild in the same style as the old floor, except that it will be level and bounce-free. Steel I-beams are going in where the wood beams came out, then glulam joists are going to run between them. It’s cheaper to use some steel and then thinner wood joists than to use wood that is thick enough to span the whole floor.

With the new plan in mind, we spent our time at the house working on the inside walls. Where the wood beams were removed, we extended the holes to make sure the new beams will sit at the right height. Then we measured the gap and put in our order for the steel beams.

We finished pointing the inside walls down to the level that the new floor will be. It only took a few days with the four of us doing it. And all the while it just kept raining. The inside of the house was soaked from the seeping water, drainage channels were spilling over and the paths became rivers. But we made good progress in spite of the weather. And then, having helped us get the beams out and finish the pointing, Chris headed off to another project further east.

With the new beams on the way, we asked around for some help getting them in across the field. In spite of the fact that it was muddy, heavy work, we managed to get some cheery volunteers! And luckily the skies cleared slightly so we didn’t have to work in the rain.

Jorge, Omar and Nik came along to lend their hands and the five of us got started on the first beam. At 200kg it was hard work getting it off the ground, never mind shuffling across the wet, uneven field with it. We carried it across the first field (with two or three breaks) since that belongs to someone else and we didn’t want to tear up the grass. When we crossed the boundary into our field, it was a relief to put it down and drag it with ropes the rest of the way – so much easier!

Thankfully, after the first one, some more volunteer hands arrived in the form of Marina and Rodrigo. Marina was carrying their baby, so she was designated photographer, but with the extra help from Rodrigo it was noticeably easier carrying the next one. All in, it only took two hours to carry all three to the house. It all went very safely and smoothly, the only disaster being Jorge losing his shoes in the mud!

Once the beams were hosed down and stored in the house, we headed down to the rental place for coffee, cake and a chat before everyone headed home. I was absolutely knackered by the end of it but we’re pleased with how it went and it feels good to be part of a community that helps each other out.

The next day Dave and I were feeling tired and sore but it was the last sunny day forecast for a while, so we headed up to start work on the beams. We had to brush off the mud, then scrub them clean of rust before applying the primer. Even though there were three of us working, it still took four hours to do all the sanding. At sunset we cleaned them with solvent and as the night drew in we got to painting them with primer. The primer finally ran out at 8pm with just one side of one beam left to paint and we tidied up and walked back across the field under the stars.

On Sunday the rain came back and we had a much needed day off with the exception of a quick trip to animal ER for Charlie. She had to get some bite wounds stapled together after a spat with another dog from the village. There’s always something to do!

The last few days have been spent doing more painting. Two coats of grey primer have been put on and Dave and I managed to find a paint we both like and we have started painting them. It will be a few more days before they’re ready to go in their final positions.

So there we are. Things are still going slowly but I feel like we’re getting into a better rhythm with the building work. We are better at discussing options and making decisions and have accepted the slow pace so we get less frustrated. And the further along we get, the more motivated we are. We can actually see that the house is starting to come together now (although we might be the only ones!) and that is spurring us on. I’ve got a good feeling about the rest of 2019.

-Anna