April showers

It’s a lovely spring. The flowers are out, the grass is growing, the forest has almost completely greened up. We have a pair of redstarts raising a brood in our house. The lizards, slow worms and myriad of insects having been making their presence known – two male Iberian Emerald Lizards had a fight right at my feet as I was raking grass clippings! Lockdown continues.

We’ve spent much of our time on the land – planting, sowing, weeding, doing minor earthworks. Dave has been working on his drains. We want to channel the water to prevent giant puddles but have places where it is stored and can be used to water the land. So he’s been putting ditches in along the terraces and adjusting them after the rains. I’ve been planting water-loving plants like comfrey, mint and hyssop alongside them.

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One of the channels in the making

We have done a fair bit of weeding, although there is always more where that came from! We went around the field taking out brambles and nettles. Having done this once or twice a year since we arrived, it only took a half day this time. Progress indeed. The other areas around the garden and stone walls are a bit more tricky but still nothing like they have been in the past. I’ve been picking away at the weeding in the vegetable garden. Dave scythed around some of the beds.

Lots of mulch has gone onto the barren field. Piles of branches and cut grass have been spread across the terraces and banks to provide shade, moisture, shelter and nutrients. It makes such a difference – the cover crops come up better, there are loads more insects about and the idea is that the twigs will rot down and start to make some soil too. In the places that were sowed in September, the mustards and oil seed rape are head hight and the nitrogen fixers are making a beautiful carpet underneath them. They are all buzzing and scurrying with lovely insects. There is hope for the forest garden!

I’ve been planting out more of my nursery plants; shrubs, trees, nitrogen fixers and berry bushes have made it out into the field to fend for themselves. There is honey locust (nitrogen fixing firewood tree), wild service trees (fruit tree), black mulberry, white mulberry, sea buckthorn (berry bush and wind break), Oregon grape (berry), golden currant, Japanese wineberry, rhubarb and asparagus, to name a few of the plants I have managed to start from seed over the last few years. And this year my small leaved limes have just started to come up, 20 months after sowing!

The herb beds I sowed two summers ago are filling out really nicely. We’ve had our first strawberries of the year and the pea shoots are going mad. There are a few spring onions but other than that, it’s a bit sparse in the ‘hungry gap’ at the moment. We have been making our way through the array of home made sauces, chutneys, relishes and jams that I made last year. I’ve been making batches of sauerkraut and we just put on our first elderflower champagne of the year to ferment. I hope it works! Nothing says spring like sipping elderflower champagne amongst the wildflowers.

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Two-tone sauerkraut

We went out one day to forage some little plants from the free nursery of the woodland caminos. By the late summer they have all been cut back to clear the paths, so rather than stealing from the woods, we have been rescuing plants from the strimmer! We found wild cherry, willow, sloe, oak, sweet chestnut, small leaved lime, elderflower, broom, wild rose, lemon balm and hazel. We are very pleased with our bucket of refugees and have added them to our borders and hedges for windbreaks, future food and wildlife habitat. I also found a honeysuckle growing on one of our stone walls, which was a nice surprise since the ones I sowed failed to germinate.

The nursery has filled up again. Never takes long! I’m starting lots of stuff for the veggie garden as well as some herbs for the field. My peas have gone out into the beds but most are waiting for better weather. The slugs are quite prolific at the moment with all the rain!

Leona has been growing like a weed too. She’s five months old now and it’s amazing how much she changed over the course of the month. She’s holding herself up quite well, so we have started baby-led weaning, which mostly involves her smearing various fruits all over herself in between licks, which she is delighted by. And we’re learning to carry her on our backs, which is a great development because we can get more stuff done that way.

We have also started Elimination Communication (EC) – reading her cues and putting her on the potty to reduce cloth nappy washes. I’d heard of it a while ago and was curious about it, but we only got around to it when she was 4 months old. And now we wish we’d started sooner! I can only describe it with an analogy – imagine growing up in a place where it was normal to formula feed babies on a standard schedule. Then you heard about people in a far-away land who breastfeed on demand and you think… Hmm… That sounds like a lot of work. And how do they know when their babies are hungry? But maybe if I learn how to do it and it works out well for us, it could be less expensive, less time consuming and involve less washing. Maybe I’ll give it a try. So we did and now we’re hooked, so that’s another thing that I’m so thankful to our lovely neighbours for letting us know it existed.

We have had to make a few more trips to the hospital this month. I noticed that the vision in my bad eye was significantly worse and emailed my neurologist to ask if she was concerned about it, since it didn’t fit my diagnosis. She must have been lacking patients due to lockdown because she was very keen to get me in immediately for a barrage of further testing. I got admitted for a morning and about ten people stood around the bed whilst she performed a lumbar puncture, a nurse took loads of vials of blood and I spent an hour an a half in the MRI machine! Between each test I had to pop out of the hospital to feed Leona in the carpark where Dave was trying to keep the wolf from the door. It was a pretty stressful day for everyone. Then I got a five day headache from the lumbar puncture, which was annoying. We still haven’t got a diagnosis but I think the options are being narrowed down. She has ruled out Lyme’s disease, MS, tumours and a whole host of conditions I’ve never heard of. It is looking like an auto immune condition but since we don’t know which one, I don’t know whether it will be treatable, manageable, curable or not. I haven’t been thinking about it too much, surprisingly, since there’s not much point in speculating. But it has made us think a bit more pressingly about our priorities and we would both love to hurry up and live in our house at some point… So we’ve been doing some thinking on that front. Watch this space (but don’t hold your breath!)

Overall I feel life is treating us exceptionally well at the moment. The lockdown is taking its toll on a lot of people, so there’s a tinge of guilt to us enjoying it, but I think it’s important to count our blessings. Neither of us are working, we’re just busy on our land with our lovely Leona and Charlie for company, living the dream. Or as Dan would say “Living in a dream, more like!”. It sure does feel like it right now.

-Anna

Life on Lockdown

These certainly are testing times we’re living in. And it’s all a bit surreal spending this time in our middle-of-nowhere village.

When we got back home, we had two weeks of normality. Dave wasn’t back at work yet. We hadn’t started on the house yet. We were just enjoying being back, spending time with Leona, planting the food forest and taking walks in the sunshine. It was glorious.

Then the corona virus shit really hit the fan in Spain. We’d actually just spent the day out with friends, having decided we’d been back long enough to be sure we hadn’t brought the virus with us! It was a beautiful sunny day and we sat out enjoying the weather and each other’s company. When we got home that evening and put the telly on, the president was making an address about the State of Emergency and what it meant. That brought the reality of the situation home and we started lockdown along with everyone else.

The oil price tanked and Dave hasn’t had any work come his way yet, but we can manage for the time being so at the moment the enforced break is nice.

Life in the village has not been drastically dissimilar than normal. People go out to check on the animals, tend their veggie gardens, feed their chickens, collect firewood. But nobody is taking strolls through the village any more, there are no casual chats in the street. And if you go down into the valley for supplies, there are police patrolling to make sure everyone is playing by the rules. To buy food, you have to wait in line to go in the small shop one at a time. The bars are shut and nobody is walking around like usual.  Precautions have to be taken seriously here. The population is quite elderly and a lot of people have worked in the mines and have lung conditions.

We are feeling even luckier than usual to live out here rather than in a city. Going out to sow vegetable seeds, water the garden and walk the dog have been sanity-saving activities for me.

The veggie garden and food forest seem more important than ever. I’m on a desperate mission to get something to grow in the field before summer. The clay goes from waterlogged to hard-packed without a hospitable middle ground for seeds to germinate and survive, so I’ve been sowing seeds and covering them with whatever mulch I can find in a bid to provide them with vaguely suitable habitat. Some are starting to come up now but I know there’s a seriously long way to go from baked clay to spongy forest floor. Still, got to start somewhere!

We have planted out a load of my little trees and bushes that I grew from seed almost two years ago. They look so small and insignificant in the field, so exposed to the burning sun and cold wind. It seems impossible at the moment that they could ever make an impact, but we’ll just see what works out. I have sowed another batch of seeds for trees, bushes and herbs that will be ready next year.

As the month comes to an end and we face probably the whole of April on lockdown too, I’m relieved that things are feeling good right now in our little corner of the world. We are very lucky to be able to enjoy making the most of the lockdown. Leona and Charlie keep us entertained and we’ve enjoyed lots of reading, cooking and chilling out.

-Anna

The travelling four

I can barely believe we spent the whole of February in the UK! We spent time in London catching up with friends, went to CentreParcs with Dave’s side of the family for his Mum’s 70th, spent a long weekend in Edinburgh for Faye and Iain’s wedding, had a few days in Aberdeen with my parents and stayed at a few stop-offs in between with various family members. It was a fantastic trip and even more special spending time with the family now that we have an additional member for everyone to meet.

This whole trip was planned around my sister’s wedding, so really we have her and Iain to thank for our holiday! It was a beautiful occasion and one of those rare days when you get to catch up with all kinds of wonderful people you don’t get to see often enough.

We had originally planned to go to Berlin at the start of March for me to get a treatment that might improve the blindness in my left eye. But mid February we decided we would save that for another time. Time, money and energy are all at a premium and we’d rather be spending it at the house and on Leona. So we booked our ferry home on the last day of February.

The crossing back was worse than the journey out. Poor Charlie was exhausted having stood up scared on her bed the entire way and braved one wee in almost 30 hours! But we all survived and made it home.

It feels so good to be back. I was a smidge worried before we left that my need to be around family since having Leona would be stronger than my need to be in this beautiful place where we have decided to build our lives. But as much as I’d love for us to be able to see each other more often, I’m very pleased to say that Asturias and the lifestyle we can afford here still have their pull. I am excited to get back to our project and try to inch our way towards a completed house.

-Anna

January travels

We set off on the 19th to catch the ferry from Santander. It was a rough start to the crossing – Charlie was terrified, Dave and I were throwing up and Leona slept better than ever!

Since arriving on Terra firma in the UK, we’ve been to see my cousin and her baby, I’ve attended my sister’s hen do between feeds, we have visited my aunt and uncle, and we’ve met all of Dave’s side of the family. It’s been great so far. Travelling with Charlie and Leona has been easier than I expected. Dave has been keeping on top of the laundry like a champ in all the different places we’re staying. And so far everything has gone relatively smoothly. We did have one trip to A&E but thankfully it was for me, not Leona!

We went to the skate park with nephew Casey. I was very keen to have a go on a bmx. I’d never tried it before and it seemed a bit scary, but I hate it that it always seems to be that Mum ends up standing on the sidelines with the kids whilst Dad gets to try all the fun activities. So I fed Leona, handed her to Dave and got out there. An 8 year old kid took me under her wing and showed me how to ride in and out of the bowl, which I did successfully and was very proud of myself! Then I did a very successful faceplant and got myself glued back together in A&E. I suppose I’m a little bit proud of it.

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Now it’s the first of February and we’re in brexit Britain! I hope they will let us leave again at the end of our trip.

-Anna

Happy new year

The first few weeks as new parents was a haze of laundry, feeds, nappy changes and little walks in the woods. It wasn’t stressful because we had no other responsibilities, so we just enjoyed getting into the rhythm of it and spending time with our little munchkin.

Over Christmas we spent two weeks at an airbnb with my family. Friends JC and Neal came over for a few days too. It was lovely to spend time together and the weather was glorious.

The year is at its end and it’s time to reflect on 2019. At the start of the year we were taking out the old wooden floor beams. We put in a whole new floor, did loads of pointing, grew a load of food, had the drain put in around the house, terraced the field, framed out the front wall, finished the new window, added front doors and brought a new little person into our family. Dave has worked a fair bit but now he’s on unpaid leave until March, which is great. We’re going to be taking a trip around the UK to spend the cold, wet and snowy winter months with family and friends before heading back to carry on with the house in spring.

Happy new year everyone!

-Anna

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