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October, 2005:

Ragondin

Ragondin are coypu which the french originally bred for their fur. When the fur trade went into decline, the french in their wisdom, let these animals free. They are now considered a pest, much like the mink in the UK. They damage crops, river banks and also damage the edges of lakes and ponds.

We saw one close up, dead at the side of the road, and another running up the lane, near our house. They are about the size of a beagle but stocky with a bare tail. Our neighbour who has a large fishing lake, frequently traps them.

We have had one coming into our potager and helping itself to our cabbages. So far it has only eaten 2 cabbages and a few hydrangea cuttings. Our friendly farmer informs us that there are still plenty of these pests around.

Deconstruction II

Removing the remnants of the morning room chimney.

Chimney Roof

For reasons that aren’t quite clear to us, the morning room (small at just 4mx4m) had in a previous life had two wood-burning stoves in it!

It must have been like a furnace in there.

Anyway, the incursion of one chimney foundation into the room was ugly and worse still it totally blocked the ‘entrance’ to the upper/rear grenier above.

At some point in the future I’d quite like a study/music room up there so it had to go.

So, say hello to Mr SDS-drill!.

The chimney came down fairly easily as it was made of pre-cast flue blocks.

The upper floor chimney had been removed through the roof at some time prior and the roof slates repaired.

The foundations for it though were altogether much tougher as they’d been cast in on top of a brick partition wall downstairs and were full of steel reinforcing bars.

Anyway, with a bit of persuasion it all came down.

chimney morningSlight downside of this was a minor injury I picked up from a graze on my wrist from the collapsing-from-the-roof concrete that I managed to pick up an unfortunate staph infection from.

Application of antibiotic creme soon fixed that and I’ve yet to get round to fixing the small hole left in the ceiling!

Rodents II

One day, a few days before Adrian’s parents were due, I was reading in the kitchen when I heard a crunching noise. On further investigation, I found a mouse sat under the electric hob, eating a crisp. I tried to catch it in a long box, which has worked over the years, but to no avail.

Over the next few nights it still managed to evade my attempts to catch it. We discovered that it was coming into the kitchen via a tiny hole by the electric socket. We decided that we wouldn’t block this hole as we didn’t want mice going elsewhere in the house (as if this would stop them!). Eventually we caught it the night before our visitors.

Anyway during their visit another mouse appeared in the kitchen so we decided to buy some traps. A total of 6 mice in one day, of various sizes, appeared in the kitchen, arriving through their own doorway by the electric socket. The trap, set with peanut butter, made short work of them all. After Adrian’s parents had returned back to the UK, we decided to leave the traps near the hole in the wall. So far it has caught numerous mice, voles and shrews.

Deconstruction I

Arch

Dominating the entrance hall of the house was a fiercely out-of-place, 1970’s yellow brick arch.

Its main purpose in life was to look ugly, block out light from the hallway and to impede your passageway through the house whilst carrying objects that mandated that you scuff your knuckles on it.

Solution? Say Hello to Mr SDS-drill!

Now, drilling out an overhead brick arch requires a little TLC, take the wrong bit out at the wrong time and you’ve got a bit of a disaster on your hands. Also, I was keen to maintain the underlying floor tiling intact and not break anything too obvious. It all went well with only one minor hole in the plasterboard that was soon patched up and gave me my first lesson in plastering.

Oh dear. It’s harder than it looks and my miserable plastering attempts look like they need some serious fixing. I’ll have to break out my old 1/3 sheet sander and that means one thing.. DUST, lots of DUST!

Dig for Victory IV

Dig for Victory IV
An impromptu bit of garden remodeling… as almost something of an afterthought we got our man-with-a-digger to demolish a couple lifeless mounds of soil that were really oddly placed adjacent to the patio. I suspect that they were originally just dumped in the area adjacent to the paved area.

Fire, Fire, Fire!

I think the very first job I ever undertook here was knocking in the fireplace in the main lounge. The original fab mantelpiece and granite surround, had been bricked in some particularly heinous 1970’s style burnt yellow bricks. In the down time between putting in the offer on the house and the legal work being completed it was looming large in my mind that this wrong needed putting right.

As it transpires our initial attempts at lighting a fire proved disastrous and the only way we could ever get the thing going properly without a 7ft pall of thick black smoke descending from the chimney was to… leave the doors and windows open! This was a setback and rather defeated the object of having the fire lit in the first place.

Through the spring that followed, all our visitors used the Lounge as a bedroom and heroically put up with the nippy winter temperatures… it was clear that we had to do something come the winter time

Now, in France there are plenty of ‘inserts’ or ‘foyer’ fireplaces for sale… these are things that you build into an existing chimney or create a new internal fireplace & flue. We’d seen a few around and with winter coming decided that we’d buy one and see how we got on with it. Well. I picked one up and we decided.. as a temporary measure to stick it into the lounge and see how it comes along.

These things have awesome specifications. It’s basically a firebox, made from cast-iron plates with a glass door. It’s an immense thing weighing in at 125kg making it a major hernia-inducing manoeuver to move it. It has a nominal heat output of 14Kw – toasty!

Wood, used as a fuel is (I guess, if you plant more trees!) close to carbon neutral and is by far the cheapest option for heating your home. In France – even with the vast majority of electricity generation being nuclear – there is extensive support for other ‘green’ energy initiatives and the insert we bought was a government approved fireplace that burns particularly efficiently and was awarded the ‘flamme vert’ certification. A bonus – you are entitled to reclaim 40% of the capital equipment price for the installation of the fire as a tax credit. Don’t pay tax? No problem, they’ll mail you the cheque as a refund! Splendid stuff and in my eyes a great example of how tax incentives help develop a mindset that supports sustainability.

Another big bonus for us is that the former owner ran a small coppice for raising his own firewood and we inherited a barn-full with a good four years worth of ‘free’ wood.

Fire

So, the insert is trucked into the fireplace and a fresh stainless steel flue is installed 4M up inside the chimney breast, a few moments later we have flames!

A couple of months into the winter and the fire is proving to be a “can’t believe we’ve never bought one before” type purchase.

The heat output is tremendous and it only took a few days to realise that it was the perfect vessel for..

Baked jacket potatoes
Slow-roasting pork
Casseroles
Baking English muffins
all manner of soups..

Basically the top surface makes for a reasonable cooker.. I’ve a healthy collection of cast-iron cookware so it means that the winter has seen lots of slow-roasts and all manner of tasty casserole & soups. The fire that’s kept us from freezing has also worked out as an impromptu wood burning aga so it’s also fed us well. Excellent stuff!

Dig for Victory III

One of the last remaining major eyesores that we had to deal with all summer long was looking out on the tragic waste dump that the former owner had created. Over the year we estimated that we’d pulled over 2000 bottles from it and taken them to be recycled and what was left was generally the remains of about 30 years worth of household waste. The mound that had been created was a good 7 meters long, three meters wide and a meter and a half high in places. It was clear that we were looking at years of effort to shift this. Joan had worked for two months or so just doing the smallest amount of clearance work alongside one portion of the hedge. So, time to call in the big guns and we hired a man+digger and paid for 3 trailer loads (at thirteen tons each!) of garbage to be taken away.

victoryiii

26 tons of new topsoil later and the area was grassed over and came through just before the first frost. It’s a major improvement and really opens up the side of the house.

Interesting discoveries in the Junk? Several jawbones, complete with teeth, a 1700’s cast iron boiling kettle weighing in at at least 40kg and an ack-ack shell. It’s clear this place has a *lot* of history!

Dad’s birthday bash, River Cafe pork and a great conflagration

Mum & Dad had flown in the evening before and in my wisdom I decided it’d be a bit of a jolly jape to do something a little unusual for Dad’s Birthday. It was high time we actually set to and finally used the mighty four-a-pain in anger.

The local supermarket have a rather good boucherie section and I managed to pick up a giant 8.9Kg shoulder of pork. I had often salivated over a great recipe in the original River Cafe cookbook, but never having the option of cooking such a massive piece of meat in the cooling embers of a woodburning oven, I’d often thought I was missing out. So here’s how the day went.

  • 05:30hrs. The inside of the oven was still littered with bits and pieces of junk and needed a proper bed of tiles laying down as a place to sit the roasting tray.
  • 06:00hrs. I had managed to climb inside it, finish the cleaning job I’d started six months earlier and had the thing prepped for lighting.
  • 06:15hrs. Two wheelbarrow loads of split oak logs inside the oven, one on either side. A few slightly uncomfortable panic moments with a firelighter, as one pile gets going and is well alight the other one finally catches and I get out just in time with my hair thankfully not-alight.
  • 07:30hrs. Oak has been topped up a couple of times and this baby is alight! Dad stirs and arrives to survey the japery that is underway. I am filthy from the cleaning and smoke but we can both sit back and admire the rather spectacular blaze that is underway. Staring into the raging furnace and all the bricks are starting to come up to temperature a bit now. Keep feeding the blaze with log after log and it’s all rather impressive.
  • 07:50hrs. Go outside to grab more wood and notice a significantly troublesome amount of smoke emanating from the roof of the woodburning oven. This I decide is not good.
  • 07:55hrs. I’d like to say that I am unflappable in a crisis situation and that even when a curve-ball is thrown at me I deal with it in a cool, calm and collected resolve. I could say that but then I’d be hopelessly lying.
  • 08:00hrs. Up a ladder, pulling off roof tiles from the top of the four-a-pain, checking that no actual structural timbers are alight. They are not. This is good. The thought did cross my mind that instead of a lovely and novel birthday bash for my dad, we’d all be sat round in the ashen embers of my lovely French farmhouse with not much of a birthday party mood on as we waved the pompiers goodbye.
  • 08:03hrs. Have ascertained that the unplanned combustion is coming from the three-inch thick layer of dried pine needles that have been sat on the roof for probably the last 30 years. I knew these needed cleaning off… but it never occured to me that the external temperature would get to the point where they would spontaneously combust.
  • 08:30 hrs. Having been hosing down the roof and clearing each gully out with a rake I think the risk of disaster has passed. Breathe a small sigh of relief as the day is saved! Yay.
  • 09:00hrs. Quickly jump in the shower and get on with the cooking! The pork shoulder needs to be scored and a dry-rub marinade of crushed fennel seed, chilli, salt, pepper and lemon rind is made up. The whole joint gets treated and then into the oven it goes. It looks magnificent. Quite possibly the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen going into an oven, and what an oven. The heat is fierce right now and that’s just what is needed, the radiant heat from inside the brick oven soon gets the skin a cracklin and buckling and puffing up. Magic and quite impossible to achieve in a domestic oven I’m sure.

dadspork

And that’s it, nothing to do now other than bung a log on every hour or so and baste with olive oil/lemon juice and turn the meat every once in a while.

And twelve hours later. We’re done.

The other half of the deal was a fridge full of belgian beers.

I seem to remember that we started these at some point in the early evening.

So, it was a splendid day.

Nice birthday treat for my dad, some good food, some good beers and just a little bit of nearly-burning-down-the-house frisson.

edit: Just found this picture – not sure why it never made the blog before

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