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Ecologically Speaking

31 Jan

For many years before we left the UK, I was keen to protect the environment and belonged to several organisations such as WWF for Nature, National Trust, Woodland Trust and the local Wildlife Trust to name a few. I also saved and reused paper and envelopes and won a gold award for Gardening for Wildlife. Here we live in the middle of the countryside in an environment which once was hostile to the local wildlife. As an old tannery it must have polluted the river and the ground around it. But it did give a large number of the villagers a job, although it sounds like it was a very hard job, dirty wet and cold and involved the use of many chemicals. 

Since Louise bought this site over twenty years ago it has slowly been cleaned up and redeveloped into a peaceful haven in which to live close to nature. However there is still much to do. We are still removing a lot of debris from the old tannery and planning to get the water turbine working again to generate electricity for the site and install a method of dealing with our sewage. Another idea is to get the old water filter and tower working again to provide grey water to use for toilets and cleaning. We hope to achieve this using a ram pump which does not need any electricity to work. It works by the pressure of the water itself. These are large and expensive projects and will have to wait until funds and help becomes available. 

There is a lot we are doing and can do in smaller ways to help protect the environment. In the gardens (which is an area close to my heart) we use a no dig technique to prepare the ground for growing vegetables. We collect cardboard and put it down on the areas we want clearing of weeds and cover it with manure.  Nature then works it’s wonders and the insects amalgamate the manure within the soil. Only a small amount of weeding is then required as by not digging the soil we don’t disturb the weed seeds embedded in there and many stay dormant. 

  

 The manure comes from our local organic sheep and cow farmers. We cover all the beds with the straw and wood shavings collected from the chicken house (prefertilised) and sow clover as a fertiser which when we hoe the beds is taken down into the soil. This is done in the winter months and by spring the beds are ready for planting in. It saves our backs too!  The wood shavings are free from our local carpenter as we save him from having to burn the excess he produces. 

We have also built and installed three composting toilets 

  which also use sawdust or wood shavings from the carpenter. When they are full we empty the contents into larger bins up in the woods where it is allowed to decompose for six months to a year before using it on the gardens. All our food waste is put into the compost bins in the garden and used when planting begins. I also use a Bokashi system for breaking down all food waste before putting it on the compost heap. We also try to reuse as much as we can and where possible use old wood for building steps or shelves or even garden seats. We have also made some steps and planters out of old tyres  

 which we found in the old factory. As we are surrounded by woods I would also like to make our own wood chips for mulching the gardens to help retain the moisture in the soil as is is very dry here for most of the year. But I haven’t worked out the most cost effective way of doing this yet. 

Inside and on the buildings we use Eco products for cleaning and have insulated the apartments with eco friendly insulation and built the new apartments as ‘passive homes’. This means that they need the minimum of heating as the sun heats them during the day and being well insulated they retain the heat. They have been built within the concrete frame of the factory so there was no demolition of the outside walls and the exterior looks unchanged (except where we have repainted and improved the buildings). For cleaning we mostly use white vinegar and bicarbonate of soda and black soap which is very effective for most things. Cleaning windows is a bit of an issue here as we have three floors and on the training floor alone there are over 250 panes of glass on the outside walls of the factory. And because we have six garages under the ground floor, each floor in effect becomes one level higher and is almost twice the height of a normal house! We still haven’t managed to find a solution to cleaning the outside of these windows yet. 

We don’t use tumble driers as they use a lot of electricity but we do use dishwashers, as if filled are economical with water and electricity. We try to ensure washing machines are only used when full and we don’t use tap water for the gardens if possible. When boiling water we don’t fill the kettle unless we need all the water and on the odd occasion we hand wash dishes we use that water for watering the garden. We are now replacing all our light bulbs with new LED bulbs which use less electricity and last longer. 

We had a discussion about buying old or new furniture and clothes and the conclusion we came to was that some people need to buy new products to keep people in work but give them away to charities so that they can help others and provide cheaper products for those on a budget or keen on saving the planet. We also discussed whether it is better to buy recycled toilet and kitchen rolls or to buy paper produced from sustainable sources. The conclusion was that it is better to buy sustainably produced products as the recycling process is not always as ecological. 

We still have a lot more to do here so if you would like to come and see what we are doing you would be most welcome. See our website.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Eco Living

20 Mar

We have now been living at the Peace Factory in Montieu for just over two years where we are helping to set up an eco community. During the last two years we have achieved a lot but have a lot more to do. As well as organising to utilise the village council’s recycling service we have been producing our own compost with a large composter in the veg garden, which was made by two volunteers out of old pallets.

 I also use a Bokashi system in our kitchen which allows us to compost all food waste, including cooked food and bones. (what is Bokashi?) Also in the veg garden we use organic compost produced by the community tip which we buy by the trailer load. It cost just 10 Euros for 1.25 cubic metres. We also get organic manure for the same price from a farmer up the Black mountain who rears cows and sheep organically.  

Then to finish off the soil preparation in the winter we allow the chickens to roam all around the garden where they help to dig up the weeds, spread the compost and add to it with their own poo. 



Using a no-dig technique we are able to prepare the vegtable beds using a layer of cardboard covered by a few inches of manure or compost which is then taken down into the soil by worms and insects which helps to make the ground more usable for vegtables. 

We don’t do anything to the ground between the veg beds leaving it to grass, except cutting it. The ground is very uneven and slopes down from the house towards the other end. So to utilise the water more efficiently I prepare the beds across the garden so that the water flows through each bed instead of through the paths in between them. All the perennial vegetables are planted at the opposite end to the house as they require less attention and tend to grow taller and cause more shade. The veg which is used more frequently is planted nearest the house but not where the chickens can dig them up. We hope to become self-sufficient in veg but we are not there  yet. 

We use branches and sticks as well as bamboo (growing next to the river) for constructing wigwhams for growing peas etc. The chicken house is also positioned closer to the house as it needs to be visited  everyday to collect the eggs. (It is also produced from recycled wood on site and made by volunteers, together with a garden seat made out of pallets and logs.) Then we use a rotation system for the veg beds each year to ensure the correct nurtients are maintained in the soil. Some veg utilise more nitrogen whereas others replenish the nitrogen in the soil. We do not use any sprays or chemicals in the veg garden. Even the chickens are fed on organic food. However we do use wood shavings from the local carpenter for bedding for the chickens and for use in our three composting toilets. We have constructed these toilets to help to reduce water use and produce compost at the same time. 

There is one in the main veg garden, one outside the little house and one inside the ground floor of the factory. When used correctly they do not smell or attract flies. They are clean and will produce usable compost after it is left in a sealed container for six months to a year. I will not use the compost from these on the veg garden but will use it on the flower gardens. The difficulty is getting it from one end of the site to the other. At the moment there is a large container full in the woods behind the little house and I will want to use it one the terraces at the other end of the factory on three different levels. No I cannot use a wheelbarrow even to collect it from the current position! We will find an efficient way of doing this. 

Any other unwanted products like clothes and electrical goods are taken to Emhaus for recycling and all wood is stored for future use, whether for making things or for burning. Leaves will be collected in black sacks, holes put in them and left for six months to be used as leaf moud as a dressing on certain plants which like to grow in an ericaceous compost. We leave a small section of garden each year to nettles (not our dog) so that we can collect the leaves and produce our own fertiliser for growing some veg such as tomotoes. We also like to grow some comfrey for the same purpose or for medicinal use (it is good for sprains). Some of our volunteers have also produced nettle soup (which tastes very nice and is nutritious) but no one has demonstrated nettle tea to me yet. 

For cleaning we try to use eco friendly products like vinegar and bicarb of soda which are sold in many shops near us, as well as eco friendly washing powder and dishwasher powder. We do not use these machines until we have a full load reducing the use of both water and power. We do not have a tumble dryer as this is not eco friendly and during the summer it only takes a couple of hours to dry our washing in the sunshine. 

We are still working on generating our own electricity using the water turbine  but this requires finance which we do not yet have available. 

We are able to get the water from the river to the turbine but we need to purchase and fit an alternator before connecting to the factory. Naturally we turn off the radiators and lights in the rooms we are not using to reduce the amount of energy used. We also need to be able to collect rainwater with guttering and closed water butts for use on the terraces. 

The next stage for the gardens is planting all the veg I have seeded in the greenhouse and sowing some direct in April and clearing some of the terraces for seating areas with flowers and herbs. Volunteers will also be needed to help clear the next floor of the factory in preparation for building a new training room and finishing off the second floor communal areas. 

Health Care in France

9 Sep

It has taken me over 18 months to suss this out as I have not needed to use the system so far, however other people have so I am now able to explain the system available to us out here. In emergency dial 112 and ask for Samu unless it is a motor accident when you ask for the Gendarmerie.

The first thing we had to do was apply for a Carte Vitale which enables us to use the health care on the government tab. This requires several visits with appropriate documents to the Caisse Primaire d’Assurance Maladie (CPAM) office in Carcassonne. It is necessary to go more than once due to the beaurocratic processes used which can be interpreted differently by different administrators! It took nearly 6 months for my card to come through. This acts as an identity card for health care.

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I used my card first when I visited the optician. This meant that I only had to pay €15 for the full tests by an ophthalmologist (Dr) including for glaucoma. Then I was reimbursed about two weeks later. Unfortunately opticians are few and far between in France and in the rural communities you have to wait about 3 months for an appointment. On completion of the test I was given a prescription for new lenses to take to any optician, as they are found in separate shops and not affiliated with the ophthalmologist. However the cost of glasses is very high.

Because I am registered I now receive free mammograms and bowel cancer tests. They send out a reminder for you to make an appointment at a hospital or clinic of your choice. I only had to wait one or two weeks for these. I received my results of the bowel cancer test one week after the test was sent off in the post! All clear. I received my X-rays for the mammogram complete with report two weeks later. Again all clear. The patient keeps their own records and X-rays here rather than the hospital, so it is your own fault if they are lost.

One of the volunteers had an accident and injured his foot so we took him to A&E. He went to reception with his insurance papers and was seen immediately by the nurse. He only had to wait a few minutes before being taken through for X-ray but it was about 3 hours later that he came out with X-rays, prescription for medication and crutches as he had broken a bone in his foot. So we took him straight to a pharmacy to get them. He had to pay for some of his medication as he chooses not to have a Carte Vitale but he claims it back from his insurers.

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When Richard visits our GP he has to pay €25 in cash to the doctor
and for any medications but he can claim this back from the UK.

Here is a video explaining how the emergency services work in France (just in case you need them when visiting us)!

Life in France

31 Mar

Am I the first Temple-Heald to vote in a French election?

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These are my voting papers.

After registering to vote in January, we had a visit from the deputy Mayor two weeks ago who came to deliver our voting cards and a list of candidates for us to chose from. This was one of two lists produced which we had to chose our council from. We are allowed to chose a total of 15 people from both lists combined as they are not separated into political parties. So off we went to the village hall to place our votes.

Walking into the village we were greeted by most people in the traditional way by a nod and a ‘bonjour Monsieur damme’. A few stopped us to ask about Nettles. They certainly are dog lovers here!

In the hall we had to cross off the names on each list of the people who we did NOT want to vote for. Then we placed both lists into an envelope and took it with our voting cards and passports to the table where our names were checked against the electoral register and asked to place our envelope into the box. We then had to sign the voters list while the receiving officer said Voté. This was our second vote as the first vote which we made last weekend did not provide a clear win for some of the candidates. So the list this week was whittled down to ten people to chose five from. This meant that ten people were chosen the first week by majority votes and the remaining five had to be voted on again this weekend. Now that all fifteen people have been chosen they will elect the village Mayor who will be in post for the next five years.

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One Year On

12 Feb

It doesn’t seem like we have been here for one full year! We have achieved so much in this time. With the help of around 30 volunteers throughout the year we have: built a garden bench, a henhouse, a compost station, a set of concrete steps, rebuilt the volunteers terrace. Given the front garden a make over and prepared it for planting all our vegetables for this year. Many are being grown from seed in our greenhouse. !

20140211-224834.jpgWe have also cleared the area next to the river to begin the turbine project.

20140211-225218.jpgWhen the weather has been bad we have been able to get the inside of the factory cleaned, including 16 large windows, each consisting of 15 small panes of glass, 175 in all. The terraces have also been cleared ready for flower gardens.

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We have also bought most of the furniture we need for our apartment we just need to repaint the walls and sit back and enjoy it

Life in a community in SW France

2 Aug

Living in a community can be interesting, challenging and very rewarding. We have started an Eco community here at the Peace Factory which at present consists of Louise, her brother Richard and sister-in-law Trish and a French couple, Sylvain and Alexa. There are others who are planning to join the community and who stay with us from time to time. Irmtraud who is a German medical doctor is having a new apartment built on the second floor as is Shona who is an educational psychologist currently living in Scotland.

The property we are living in is owned by Louise and is located in Montolieu in the foothills of the Black Mountain in the Languedoc region. It is an old tannery which went out of business and consists of several buildings and gardens, woodland, a river and hillsides. It is situated in a gorge just outside the village of Montolieu which is called the book village as it has many old book shops. In order to maintain the property it has been necessary to utilise the support of volunteers who come from all over the world to experience life here and help to build a small community. There are two main buildings which are lived in presently, the large factory and the little house (as we call it). There is also the big house which does not have any running water or permanent electricity, as the house was wrecked a few years ago (while there was no-one living here for a few months) and electricity and water pipes stolen for their financial value. Then there are a few other factory buildings some of which need to be demolished and others refurbished.

The large factory is being converted into eco apartments which are not quite complete yet. They are built within the concrete frame of the factory in sustainable wood and each one is insulated with an Eco based product which theoretically ensures that they require no heating inside. They will be heated by the heat generated by the people living in them. Within the old factory buildings is a turbine and old generator which will be commissioned to generate electricity from the river for heating a part of the factory. We are also looking at installing solar panels on the roof of the factory. We have a ram pump which may be used to raise water from the river for flushing the toilets. We have also installed a hose extending from up river down to the garden for watering the vegetables. There are two composting toilets situated outside for use when working outside the main buildings.

To qualify to live in our community we all have similar values such as a belief in ecology, peace and living sustainably. We have sought recycling boxes from the mayor’s office which are collected once a week from the end of the track near the village. We also have a communal garden in which we are growing organic vegetables and some flowers such as original stock roses which are chosen specifically for their fragrance.

Coming soon …. Health care in France

Many hands make light work

24 May

Come lunchtime, everyone pitches in to prepare the meal. This is our kitchen; full of volunteers!

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Volunteering

10 Feb

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Had our first volunteer here this week. His name is Jeff from Belgium. He built our greenhouse for us after preparing the ground for it. Just needs the door and windows putting in before I can start planting seeds for transplanting into the garden. I just need tons of manure now as the soil is very sandy.

Preparation for letting

6 Jan

So that we can ask the tenant to keep the house in the state they found it, I have been working in the garden. We collected 10 bags of horse manure from our friends Frances & Martin using our new trailer yesterday. Today I have been pruning the bushes and trees. I bought a pocket chain saw recently and tried it out on the apple trees today. It was amazingly easy to use. Normally it would have taken me hours to saw just one branch but I managed to saw about 6 branches off in about one hour. I realised I had allowed the apple and fig trees to grow too tall so that you cannot pick the fruit so I have pruned very drastically this year and hope that they recover well. When I have finished we will be able transport all the debris in the trailer to the local tip.

I am also having to paint one bedroom as it has not been decorated for over 25 years. The problem is that it’s the room we are sleeping in and the bed is one that folds up into a cupboard fixed to the wall. Therefore if we are going to remove the bed before letting, we will need to take down the bed to paint the wall. But then we won’t have anywhere to sleep!

We are currently working out the logistics of dismantling and transporting the garden office to France. So far Richard has done a great job pulling a team together to help us. No doubt you’ll hear more about that next week.

Almost there

16 Dec

There has been so much to organise moving to another country, least of all working out what we are doing with our house. Having tried to sell it for 4 months with no success, we decided to let it instead. We have found a letting agent who provides a full service and has already found five people interested in renting.

Meanwhile I have been working towards retiring from St John Ambulance and have at last got an agreement which allows me to leave before Christmas. Only 5 working days to go! Having sorted out how I will receive my pension in France I am now working on getting a Carte Vitale to allow us to get free health care in France. We are planning to move permanently in late January. Nettles already has her passport and we have registered her on an international website so that if she was to get lost and found she could be repatriated with us.

The Smart car has already been taken to the Peace Factory for Louise to use as her car died and we are going to share cars and bikes within the community. We are buying a Fiat Tempra with a trailer (second hand from Hugh Hayward) which will also go into the car pool. We will take this down with us laden with the remainder of our goods and chattels in January.

With the help of our friend Sue Whibley, who has lent us an electric frying pan, we have been able to cook the food we had in the freezer in our much depleted kitchen. My new found friend and neighbour Ann has offered to cook any large items like a roast joint or chicken for us and wash our bed linen and dry it for us as we no longer have any white goods in the house. We have such wonderful friends. Thank you all.