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Worst floods in living memory

23 Oct

As some of you may have read, the department of the Aude has been hit by the worst floods in living memory. Our commune, along with 125 others in the Aude, has been officially recognised as being a zone of natural catastrophe.

Fortunately our dwelling has not been affected but our organic garden has been wiped out. The disaster figures are staggering:

    14 people are dead with scores more in hospital
    6,000 people without homes
    Over 10,000 tonnes of household possessions to be removed and scrapped
    Many bridges need rebuilding or replacing
    The total damage to possessions and infrastructure is estimated at €300 million.
    Over 6,000 vehicles to be scrapped

All this happened within an area about 30km diameter of where we live.

Here are some photos of our damage.


The mysterious hole


We have lots of wood now!


There is one of the decking pallets under this lot!


Where to start?


We cannot access this area yet

We are now taking stock of what’s happened. Sadly the beehives were swept away along with the colony of bees that Trish had been nurturing for the last two years. One of the four goldfish seem to have jumped ship. The new watering system has lost only the pump, amazingly. We think we can find three of the nine pallets that made up the garden terrace, but the frame of the marquee that covered it has gone. The reed bed system seems to be intact although the lower filter is almost entirely covered with debris.

This is what the garden looked like before the flood:


Hard work when it’s hot

19 Jul

Since April Trish and I have been working with groups of lovely people here at the Old Tannery. As you probably know, from previous newsletters or via postings on Facebook,  we are building a reed based sewage treatment system. Here is a shot of it, nearly completed:

IMG_0082 Now we are busy planting. There are eight different types of plant required. In the first bed, which is divided in two, we are planting 220 reeds. The second bed, which is set into the ground, will contain seven different types of plant. All are designed to treat the sewage in an environmentally friendly way, discharging just clear water into the river.

IMG_0090 Here is Trish busy with the planting. For those of you familiar with gardening in the UK’s modest climate, it is hard to imagine what it is like to work out in the open when the temperature is 40C in the shade! It’s really hot and soon saps your energy. Rehydration is really important. But the plants can’t wait for a cool day otherwise they’ll die. So all credit to Trish for her hard work out there!

So now the job is nearly completed. The designer of the system is visiting us next week, to inspect what we’ve done. If he agrees, then we call in the local authority who should give us the necessary approval for the work.

It’s a great feeling to know that from now on all our waste water and sewage will be properly treated. And even more satisfying knowing that most of the work was carried out by volunteers.

Many hands make light work

19 Feb

I was thinking today about the many people who have stayed here as volunteers. Some stayed for a couple of weeks and many have been able to donate much longer periods of time to the project here. And some have come looking for a new lifestyle and have wanted to test out living in a different way. All have been special in their individual ways.

So thank you to the volunteers who have worked here over the last two years:

Hugues, Sally, Siobhan ,Joseph T , Anna Lena, Andries, Emanuel, Sven, Sarah, Insa, Florina ,Ioana (Jo), Daniel, Pavel, Dorothea, Megan ,Victor, Clemens, Hannes, Aidan, Ilkka, Kasia, Olena, Ellie, Richard, Robert, Kevin, Luis, Nadir, Nicolas, Katherine, Sarah, Simon, Daniel, Alberto, Alberto, Marie, Massai, Sean, Dylan, Michael, Hannah, Nicholas ,Manuela, Christine.

Here are some photos of the volunteer team in action:

We can always do with more help. There is much that remains to be done. So if you know a person (over the age of 18) who would like to spend a minimum of two weeks in the glorious south of France, then send them this link:

If you want to know more about how we work with volunteers then see this blog post.

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Here are some of the tasks that need doing:

Raise funds for turbine project
Repair bridge outside rear door to 2nd floor of factory
Clear debris from 3rd, 4th and 5th floors of factory
Rebuild wall by rear of 2nd floor of factory
Repair retaining wall of old track to factory
Fit carpet for training room
Clean all carpets
Make and install sound partition for 1st floor sliding door
Cut 6 bamboo roots from by the river to develop into plants
Empty one composting toilet storage bin
Fix leak in Little House roof
Fix leak in Big House roof
Improve Little House terrace
Improve reception area
Clear up debris from parking area outside factory
Move wardrobe from top floor of old house to first floor factory
Decorate sink in corridor factory second floor
Sort two garages of various personal stuff
Supply and fit door from staircase on 2nd floor
Clearing track of leaves
Strim turning area and move rocks
Wooden steps from 2nd floor – smooth off, rub down and varnish
Replace broken or missing glass panes on river side of 1st and 2nd floors
Remove grass cuttings from 3rd floor terrace
Lay wooden boards on 2nd floor
Fix window by wooden steps on 2nd floor

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!

We have had a lovely summer

4 Sep
The swimming pool at Montolieu

The swimming pool at Montolieu

Well the summers is nearly over but we have had a lovely time over here. The weather was very good this year, although May was a bit rainy. However June and July were splendid – hot, long sunny days with temperatures averaging 30°C. Then it dropped a tad in August, making life that much more bearable. We have been wearing shorts and tee shirts all summer!

The local open-air swimming pool has been much in demand. It’s only open in July and August but when things got too hot, we took to having meetings in the middle of the pool!

The chickens got a new home
The new hen house

The new hen house

Finally we decided that the chicken house built by volunteers two years ago was not fit for purpose. It leaked and was beginning to fall apart, and rats and mice were trying to muscle in as well! So we went on-line and found a French company that supplied wooden, ecological chicken houses that were delivered flat for us to assemble. Here is the result!

They appear to be quite happy with the new arrangement, although for a few days they tried to return to the old one at the end of the day. That stopped when we demolished the old one! It must be working as we started to collect three eggs a day again.

Nettles and yet another bone

Nettles and yet another bone

For Nettles it’s been a lovely time. She has had literally hundreds of people to play with her. She’s been out for long walks and runs. Here she is enjoying a bone.

As we are about to travel back to the UK for a holiday, she has an appointment with the vet who will give her a health check, an injection against worms and he will sign her off as fit to travel. This jas to be done between five days and24 hours before the channel crossing. This year we have decided to go on the overnight ferry from Caen/Ouistreham to Portsmouth thus avoiding any possible delays at Calais due to the refugee crisis unfolding there.

New volunteer website

We have produced a new website for people interested in volunteering here. Please do have a look.

It’s quite warm out here

22 Jul

After a rainy Spring, we now have a heatwave. Since the beginning of June the temperature has been between 25 and 38 C during the day. We’ve had no rain for weeks now and the river alongside our place has very little water flowing in it. 

So far, my veg plot has survived.  

 Here is some of the produce.  

 On another note, I’ve completed my transfer to France by gaining my Carte Vitale or health card. With this I can access the French health system. I had my first blood test here. A bit different from the UK system. My doctor (the charming Dr Pigois) gave me a prescription which I took to the laboratory in Carcasdonne- no appointment required. Very well equipped and no wait. They took my blood and two days later the results were in my hands (along with an invoice for the proportion that’s not covered by the health card).  This is interesting as people know how much their healthcare costs. In my case €75 for a full blood test. The state paid 70% and I paid the rest. We are in the process of getting a Mutuelle (top up insurance) which will pay the rest on future.   

 Then I applied for and received my French driving licence. It comes with 12 points on it! 
 The penalty points system here is the opposite of the UK system. You lose points and when you get down to zero you get an automatic ban. 

My next bureaucratic  project is to register our trailer because here in France they need to be registered separately! Wish me luck!

Then I’m off to investigate composting toilets! 


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.