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

December Landscaping

December started with two weeks of surprisingly gorgeous weather. The snow on the peaks melted and we had warm sunshine. We spent a few days pointing inside downstairs and filled in the holes left by the beams. Then since Dave was working again, I got excited to do an outside job that I’d been thinking about for a while.

At the back of the veg garden, the stone wall below the public path was tumbled down. It was taking up valuable planting space, was annoying to get around and mostly just covered in brambles and nettles which invaded on my vegetable beds. I set to work dismantling it and putting all the rocks up on the path. Then the three of us did some digging and moving some really big rocks out the way. After that it was ready to start rebuilding again. I really enjoyed putting it all together. Omar helped out some afternoons and within a week we had about ten meters of wall rebuilt.

Below the new wall, I decided to put up another wall to make a raised bed, since it was so much fun and there were lots of rocks left over. It looks great, I’m very proud of myself. My favourite feature is the little planting bed on the top of the wall, which is going to be adorable filled with flowers. Now I just have to wait until spring to plant my seeds!

Before

After

In early December we had our third permaculture community workday, now known as the Permaculture Roundup. This time we were on home turf at Tarje and Signe’s place digging a big old hole in the ground for a duck pond. Two swales got dug out too and loads of people came and went throughout the day, which was great. The pond still has a lot of work to be done on it before it can be filled up, but it’s off to a good start.

Dave and I have been enjoying our Sundays off taking walks around the local area. One week we went along the riverside path which is the old mining railway route. Another day we took a forest trail to get to the next village in the valley and have lunch with Omar’s sister. It’s great exploring new places right on your own doorstep.

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Sunset on the trail home

The lovely weather has caused a few of my winter seeds to germinate early thinking it’s already spring! I don’t think those ones will survive the winter but we’ll see. Otherwise, the garden is looking good for December. The greenhouse is still giving peppers, chillies, tomatoes, loads of physalis and the occasional late melon trying to ripen. And outside, I’ve got rapini, lettuce and stir-fry greens. The garlic I planted last month is up and my onions are looking winter-ready.

Mid December was chilly, windy and rainy. We spent a long weekend indoors with Dave working, me reading and studying. I’ve been busting my brain trying to find the best way for us to rebuild the suspended floor. We’ve also been looking after little Charlie who has been spayed. She recovered well and was soon back to her bouncy self.

Finally it stopped raining and I decided I’d better make a little more progress on the house before the year is done. Omar and I started preparing for the raising of the doorway height. Then the next day Dave and I were discussing plans again and the project went on hold a little longer due to further (albeit important) indecision.

With the house project grounded again, I turned my attention back to the great outdoors. Omar and I started landscaping the part of the field below the greenhouse. This eventually is going to be the large new veggie patch, but initially I want to use it for plant propagation whilst I prepare to make the food forest. We’re going to need so many cover crops, bushes and trees that it makes sense to have somewhere big to grow them all.

In only a few days work, we made three terraced beds. The soil in that area was better than expected but the level still needs building up, so we spent another few days adding all the compost and debris we could find. We had piles of brambles which we added then we topped it all off with dry grass that we raked out of the field.

For Christmas we went to see Richard and Suzanne and some of their family. It was a lovely few days of eating, drinking and talking to excess. Then Dave spent a hung over day travelling to the UK to see family and I headed back home where a beautiful sunny forecast was waiting for me to think of more jobs to do.

Now I’m home alone since the Danes are away in Denmark and Dave is in the UK. The weather is spectacular though so I’m having a lovely time. I’m taking long morning walks, enjoying relaxing in the sun and doing some outdoor jobs. It feels like a lovely holiday.

-Anna

November stresses

After all that snow, Vidi saw one more day of sunshine before it was time for her to go home. To make the most of it, we headed to the climbing wall with Tarje and had a great time enjoying the rock, the views and the sunshine. It was beautiful. The next morning we waved goodbye and good luck to our last volunteer of 2018. Thank you Vidi for all your help and your eternally cheery demeanour!

A few days of wind and rain followed and we enjoyed vegging out for a bit. The post-snow chaos was still not over. There were broken trees everywhere! The local council was working through its backlog of jobs for weeks. The worst of it got tidied by villagers for firewood but there are still plenty of impassable paths.

We’ve been doing our bit too, clearing paths and chopping up fallen branches and trees, accumulating a decent pile of firewood in the process.

Following the destruction of the tent, we had a very cluttered house and no space to work in. Tarje and Signe kindly offered up a space in the bottom of their house which we have filled with stuff we don’t need at the moment. That gave us space to get to work removing one of the feed troughs from the ground floor. We broke up the breeze blocks, took them out to the rubble pile, cut out the rebar that was sticking out the ground then removed the wooden beam. That gave us space to do the pointing on the side wall. And with that wall done, we put up some shelving and got the tools organised. It’s so good to be able to find things again!

After that we turned our attention to removing the second feed trough. That went fairly swiftly since we already had our technique down. After removing the upper beam, we were left with a rather large hole in the back wall, which Dave spent a few days filling in bit by bit to let the mortar dry in between.

Having removed the second feed trough, the bulging wall was a lot more noticeable than it had been when it was in the background. We looked at it worriedly and scratched out heads. Dave talked about trying to rebuild it. I had a bit of an internal meltdown. I’d already been feeling stressed and weighed down by the scale of the tasks ahead of us and this extra unknown, potentially disastrous task was too much to handle. I called a professional to come and look at it and waited out the stress until he could come out and offer his opinion.

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The bulging wall is looming

My Mum and Dad came to visit us for a few days. It was the first time they’d seen the new roof, let alone everything else that has happened since then! It was great to realise how much progress we’ve made in the year since they were here last. We had a great time chatting and planning. And they got stuck in for a day oiling wood, shifting piles of tiles and pollarding trees. It was so lovely to see them and show them what we’re up to, and of course they had lots of useful advice for us too.

We helped Tarje and Signe install their new roof window. Tarje had already prepared the space for it to go in so we just spent a few hours getting it in its place. It looks great! They’ve made a surprising amount of progress for parents of two and it’s always exciting to see the latest developments in their house and garden.

Our own garden has been receiving a little bit of attention here and there when I don’t feel like working on the house. Parsnips and beetroots have been harvested and put into storage buckets. Peppers and tomatoes have still been producing in the greenhouse. Garlic, onions and leeks have been planted and empty beds mulched and covered until spring.

I’ve also sowed some forest garden seeds that need to experience cold winter temperatures before germinating in spring. Some tree species like Italian alder and Mulberry and lots of berry bushes like Juneberry and Oregon Grape. We’ll see if anything pops up next year!

Good news came on Tuesday when the professional wall guy came to look at the house. He said lots of things that made lots of sense and overall made me very happy indeed. We won’t be rebuilding any walls and we have a plan to damp-proof the whole house. That won’t happen until next summer since the machines can’t get in across the wet field. But in the meantime we have a whole upstairs to build, so that’s fine. We have our plan and we can carry on at usual levels of stress – phew!

Meanwhile, Dave made a great discovery. He noticed one of the corner roof tiles was cracked, which is hopefully the reason for the leak we spotted a while back. He used the grinder to cut out the old one and put a new one in on some cement. Another stress ticked off the list.

We spent a few days moving all the bricks and wood off the balcony and onto the old tent platform. Then Dave put a tarp roof over everything to keep it dry. Now we’re busy with the last of the downstairs pointing. After that we plan to make the front doorway higher so we don’t have to duck to get inside any more. Let’s hope the weather in December is nice to us so that we can get on with it.

-Anna

Good Autumn progress

After getting so little done in September, it’s been all go in October! Autumn is in full swing. Fallen leaves are starting to carpet the paths, the days start late and finish early and we’ve had a mixture of gorgeous warm sunshine, and very wet and windy days. I love this time of year. It’s beautiful working weather, big green dragonflies are humming around the garden, the forests are full of nuts and blackberries and it’s harvest time in the vegetable garden. We’ve even eaten ripe melons out of the greenhouse for the first time, which is a delight.

After I finished the cladding in the house at the beginning of the month, Omar and I repointed the other side of the front of the house, which took about a week all together. Then we tidied up the house ready for the floor removal. I also found time to do some tidying and harvesting in the garden in between all the chipping and pugging. After that, Dave finished work – hurray! And back with all hands on deck, we’ve been making good progress.

Two friends from London came to visit for five days on a working holiday. We know Tim and Carol from volunteer workdays in London, so we knew their working holiday would mean business. No sooner had they turned up than they were pulling up floorboards and tidying out the downstairs of the house to get the scaffolding in. In three days work, we had all the floorboards and joists out and the downstairs almost empty. All our tools and things got moved into the tent until there’s a new floor down.

We also pollarded a tree that’s too close to the house ready for removal and got quite a lot of the nails out of the old floorboards. And after all that, there was even time to go out for a walk in the woods, eat a traditional Asturian lunch and head up to the viewpoint on the mountain above us to enjoy sitting in the autumn sunshine. We had a wonderful time and they’ve definitely left their mark on the progress of the project.

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A friend from Cantabria came to visit for an afternoon to check out the area as he’s looking for a place of his own. He helped out with some brambling and we enjoyed a bit of sunshine before the forecast rain set in and he headed home. We also found out that he found Dave’s wedding ring in the vegetable garden in Cantabria that we used to keep, which he now tends! Barely believable.

In early October we had our second community workday. This time Gerald and Noemi were having the ground floor of their house dug out in preparation for putting in gravel before putting the new floor on top to reduce damp. This was an interesting one for us because we’re planning to do the same thing in our house eventually. They had already been working on it for months with just one or two of them chipping out the floor, which is a bit of a thankless task. But on the workday, there was a good gang of us and we were able to finish lowering the level to the desired 50cm below floor level by the end of the day. We were picking and hammering the clay, shovelling it into wheelbarrows and taking it to be dumped onto a track and raked flat. It was crazy hard work but went well and afterwards we all headed down to a festival by the lake for cider and chilling.

We also had Dave’s parents to visit. They arrived to rain just like their last visit. But happily unlike last time, it didn’t rain for the entire duration of their trip! On the second day the sun came out and stuck around for the rest of their stay. Roger got to work pulling nails out of the wood that came out of the old floor. And him and Dave started taking out the feed troughs out of the downstairs of the house. I spent a few days weeding and tidying the garden, which was very therapeutic in the autumn sunshine after weeks of working on the house. We also enjoyed going up the mountain with them in the car and having a look around the city together before they flew home again.

We’ve been doing so much bramble removal and tidying. Omar has been around the paths with the strimmer and we’ve taken piles and piles of brambles out from around the vegetable garden and field boundaries. Things are looking a lot better and it was great to get them out before the end of autumn. The runners had already started rooting into the ground at the tips, but they were young enough to be able to pull out easily at the moment, so we were able to stop them spreading. The cut brambles have all been piled up along a boundary wall. The ones I put there last year have made beautiful compost which will be going on the garden to continue breaking down before the spring planting.

In late October, we had another volunteer turn up full of enthusiasm. Vidi arrived to clear blue skies and we spent some time looking around together and chatting in the sun. I knew the forecast was bad, so we also did some bad weather prep. We brought all the pumpkins in from the garden, put all my baby trees in the back of the greenhouse and put away anything that was hanging around outside. As the sun set, we headed in for dinner and awaited the bad weather.

The next day was cloudy but fine and we took the opportunity to do some outside jobs. We spent the morning clearing more brambles from the ruin and in the afternoon we did some work in the herb garden, making a nice little boundary wall around one of the beds. At the end of the day, it started to drizzle and by the time Dave and I went out for our evening walk with Charlie, it was windy and rainy.

The next morning, we woke to a dusting of snow and more starting to settle. It carried on all day and all night and all the next day until we had 60cm of snow on the ground, a power cut in the village, trees were cracked and broken, our shade sail was ripped to shreds and our tent lay in smithereens.

Thankfully Dave had been thoughtful enough to remove the wood chocks at the front of the greenhouse so that the snow could fall off, so at least that didn’t collapse. We cleared stuff out of the tent and back into the crowded downstairs of the house whilst it was still snowing. We dug out the car on the third day to go to town. And we enjoyed some time playing in the snow too. Then when it all started to melt, we dismantled the twisted tent and cleaned and dried the tattered awning. Vidi also started clearing the paths of branches and fallen trees.

It has been properly chaotic. Because it’s so early in the season for snow, the trees still had their leaves and were more susceptible to being weighed down and broken. Even the main road in the valley is covered in broken trees. The power cut initially affected the whole valley too but they started to being the main towns back online. When we’d been without power for four days, they installed a generator in the car park to supply us until they can fix the lines.

So for Halloween we decided to brave the snowy stomp to Tarje and Signe’s house with some friends to carve pumpkins, eat, drink and be scary. It was a great evening and a lovely way to welcome the start of November.

Anna