Friday, 31 August 2007


Wood for the winter is an emotive subject around here. We had been warned early on that just because you live in an area which is surrounded by woodland, does not mean you can just take any fallen wood that you find. Oh no, you must first ask permission. But finding out the owner of the individual parcels of land is easier said than done. And people here are very protective of their 'land rights'. It has been that way for centuries. Anyway, we came unstuck a couple of weeks ago. The previous owners of our house had told us before they left that they had felled a tree just down the lane but had taken the bigger pieces of wood for the wood burner in their new house but we could take what was left. So we tootled down the lane and found loads of decent size scraps which would do us very nicely. We also discovered half of the fallen tree which they had obviously left and which was just begging to be logged. So we did just that - spent a very hot afternoon chain-sawing and hauling the resultant logs back up to the roadway, into the car and back to the house. Fantastic! A great start to our winter log pile! But oh no, we were wrong! The previous owners (who, incidentally, did not own the land which actually belonged to the bloke that THEY bought the property from!) turned up on the Saturday for a brief visit (still not sure what for) and we got a call from her that evening taking issue with the fact that we had taken the tree that they had spent days felling with a great deal of back-breaking effort
and that they wanted the wood that had resulted from it! Bear in mind that they now live a good hour away and we had not idea that they would be returning for it. Anyway, we were eventually accused of 'stealing' it which didn't go down to well. Andy managed to speak to her other half the next day and came to arrangement that we would leave half of the wood next door with Claudine, which was only reasonable seeing as he had spent hours chainsawing the tree trunk into logs. But all in all it was a very unpleasant episode. So anyway, we have spent this afternoon sorting out the bottom level of the barn and have finally removed the old manger structure which Andy has chainsawed into some reasonable logs for the woodshed. We have also chainsawed the big pile of pine pannelling which we removed from the attic and which will now make great kindling wood for the winter. I have also got more of the beams cleaned up in there ready for treating, hopefully over the weekend.

Still on the subject of winter and wood-burners, we have finally got somebody who may be able to get the door of our woodburning stove repaired. The glass panel broke when Andy was attempting to replace the heat resistant cord on the door back in July. A number of calls and answer-machine messages to a local 'artisan' who had been recommended to us have been left unanswered and I was beginning to despair of ever getting it fixed. But Gils, the boulanger from down at Espies came up trumps with another recommendation who came and fetched the door today (and had some very uncomplentary things to say about our neighbours up the road, incidentally!). Hopefully we should have the door back early next week in time for the cooler autumnal weather. That said, this house retains the warmth (but also keeps out the heat) amazingly well, probably because the ground floor is half built into the hillside. In the 30+degree heat, it is like walking into an air-conditioned room when you open the front door! Marvellous!

Tomorrow, hoping to get the bathroom wall painted white so that we can put the basin unit back and have a functioning bathroom again (at least the shower and the loo are unaffected!). Also hoping to either get out on the bikes or head up to the Col de Port from where we will head to the Pic d'Estibat and beyond to the Pic de la Journalade to reccy the route for what is apparently a very good ski de randonnee outing in the winter. The good weather has returned with temps in the low 20s and sunny skies, so we need to take advantage over the coming days :-)

Meanwhile, we leave you with a lovely summer's evening view from our front door!

Thursday, 30 August 2007

The new insulation arrives!

As part of our project to redo the attic, our 3 rolls of high tech 'isolation mince' arrived this afternoon! Woo-hoo! Ordered it last Friday and we had a quick call from the carrier this morning for directions to find Pissou and voilà - arrived tout de suite! More than can be said for Andy's skis that he ordered from Germany over 2 weeks ago and which, according to their online tracking system, have been on the van for delivery no less than 7 times since then! We have left our landline number and mobile number, have spoken to the depot in Toulouse but still no skis and no telephone call either! We know Pissou is a bit off the beaten track, but a simple phone call from the driver would have solved everything - appalling service and Andy is ready to puncture the delivery vehicle's tyres when it eventually arrives (promised tomorrow, apparently!). Update to follow!

So this afternoon I popped down to Foix (well, a 40 minute drive actually) to get 'stuff'. I actually failed to return with any of the items that I went for (bathroom tiles, fabric for curtains, wall lights for the bedroom - all impossibly hard to find!) but did locate a lovely little 'brocante' in Foix at which I found a 1910 chest of drawers and what looks like a wardrobe but is actually a cupboard with flexible shelving inside! And I even got some money off and delivery included, so billy bargain, I say! At last, it looks like we can get some of our clothing put away and out of sight. While I was out, Andy got the finishing coat of plaster put on the bathroom wall and much better it looks too :-)

Andy cooked pigeon for tea tonight, loosely based on a SW France recipe from one of his books - yummy it was too. The €3.90 bottle of 'Cecilia' red wine went down a treat with it too. The follow up bottle of €3.50 Cotes du Rhone Villages is not bad either!

Apart from all that, another front came over yesterday and the temperature plumetted from 30+ degrees down to 14 degrees today with overcast skies but fortunately no rain. Forecast for the next few days is clear and around 20 Deg C so plenty of scope for cycling, running, climbing or whatever. Can't wait to get out. Our neighbour, Claudine, is back here for a couple of weeks with her dog and Taff is chuffed to bits to have his playmate back! They are so funny together. He is keeping my feet warm under the desk as I type this :-)

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Back on the exercise track

It was still 30 something degrees yesterday, but what the hell, we have got to get used to doing active stuff in these temperatures, so we decided to head up 'the zig-zags', a footpath that I have had my eye on since we came out here. It is off the road which leads up to the Etang de Lers (20 minutes from the house) and would be a cracking route to run when temperatures have dropped a bit, because the first section is a gentle gradient up a rough but very runnable trackway, which eventually leads to the Cabane Rouge up on the top with fantastic views over towards the higher peaks of the Pyrenees. We sweated buckets just walking up to the cabane and Taff was greatful for the regular streams alongside the path from which he could drink. My fingers swelled up (again) which is probably a combination of dehydration/loss of tissue salts and the increased altitude (we were probably at around 1500m at the cabane). Something I need to keep an eye on. After a short break at the top, we followed the well-marked route walking/running as we contoured round the hillside and eventually arrived up at the Port de Lers where we encountered the cows! These animals have bells round their necks and roam free up on the top pastures. They freaked Taff out somewhat, even though he was on the lead by this point, but we made our way through the herd and picked up the footpath back down alongside the stream to the car, running what we could. It was a total outing of around 3 hrs. We hope to do more :-)

Climbing (well, almost!)
So the forecast for today was not brilliant, but after an initial small storm this morning, the sun came back out and so after lunch we decided to head off to explore a crag at Bedheilac, 14 miles/20 minutes from Pissou, up and over the Col de Port. It seemed to have some good low grade stuff, but after a very hot, very sweaty 25 minute walk up to the sector that we were interested in, we found it already occupied by some Frenchies! Doh! The weather was changing by this point with big black clouds rolling in, so we abandoned ship and made our way back to the car. But for people climbing the mid grades, there is tons to go at here. Lovely limestone and well-bolted. Definitely a place to revisit.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

More August progress

Well after a week of temperatures of around12 degrees C, rain and low cloud, the weather turned last weekend and temps jumped up to +30 Degrees again.

Mushroom season appears to be here! Our neighbour from up the road, Josette, disappeared down into the woodland opposite Pissou the other day and returned a couple of hours later with a basket full of girolles - of course, she wasn't going to tell us where she found them, so we headed off next day on our own little exploration, basket in hand, in the hope of returning with some scrummy shrooms. But after a good hour of climbing up some steep woodland slopes, we returned with nothing :-( The vibe we are getting from the locals is that we need to be a bit further round the hillside before we start heading in an upwards direction! So more exploring to be done yet. watch this space.

Renovation progress
At the weekend, I set about the task of cleaning up the old beams in the barn ready for them to be treated with the insect 'traitement' which will kill any little critters which may have made their home in the woodwork. It was very dusty, hot work as I brushed the beams down, removing layers of hay and dust and it isn't finished yet. Next, they need to be 'mopped' clean ready for the first application of 'traitement'. Then we can get some kind of flooring laid and start using the space. Still waiting for a call from British Tom about the roof. Hopefully we wil hear from him soon.

We finally got ourselves registered at the CPAM using our E106 forms which means we are now in the French healthcare system and many healthcare costs will be covered - hurrah! Some peace of mind there, anyway!
We also got the car insurance sorted out which proved rather more costly than we had expected. But while the car is still UK registered, we haven't got a choice. So our next step is going to be to get it registered over here so that we can benefit from the much more favourable rates that are out there.

Exercise-wise, we haven't done a great deal, although we did check out the climbing area around Auzat which has got some lovely little routes. It will be a good area for us to get the ropes back out and have a play. There is loads more harder and longer stuff in the area which we (and any visitors we may have!) can go at in the future. The CAFMA website contains loads of topos and access information for anybody who is interested. There is also a bit of bouldering up the Vicdessos Valley which looks interesting. The Escalade Ariege website has some topos.

In the meantime, we are already looking forward to winter and the first snows. We are in the process of getting ourselves kitted out with ski mountaineering stuff so that we can get up into the mountains to explore. This is the kind of thing that we have on the doorstep!;

Sunday, 19 August 2007

August progress

We returned from 2 weeks in the UK to find that the sprinkler system that we had set up to keep the plants watered while we were away had in fact worked, but possibly a bit too well, as the pots were all pretty much sodden! However, I blame the poor compost for the failure of the tomato plants to produce anything of any significance. We have got one solitary capsicum and a couple ot tomatoes and that is it. Hey ho, better luck next year.

The climate is very variable up here in the mountains, with hot, sticky days with temperatures over 30 degrees followed by a nighttime storm and temperatures next day some 15-20 degrees cooler! Quite bizarre, but quite pleasant at the same time - I love the day to day variety of the weather and the storms can be really spectacular with thunder bouncing off the surrounding hills (the dog isn't too keen!) and the most amazing lightning displays.

Renovation progress
We got back to find that the bathroom basin leaked from beneath the plug and ended up with water dripping down onto the bottom of the wooden unit. Further investigation revealed that the basin had not been properly attached to the surface and the only thing preventing it from leaking in the past was the damp wood that had swollen to fit around the bottom of the plug hole! While we had been away, the wood had dried out and shrunk away from the basin allowing water to escape. The need to sort out the basin has also thrown up a variety of other issues with the bathroom which we have decided to resolve at the same time. The unit on which the basin stands is too high and the basin sits too far from the front of the unit, so Andy has chopped off a few inches from its legs and a section from the back. We eventually want to put a glass door on the shower and the basin unit is currently too close to the shower to allow a door to open outwards so yes, you've guessed it, we are having to move the pipework for the taps and plumbing for the sink further to the right. So our bathroom currently looks like this

Our project over the coming week is to clean down the beams in the barn so that we can treat the timbers before laying some base flooring which will enable us to get access to and treat the
ceiling timbers and also view the roof from the underside. We need to get the roof watertight before autumn and winter arrive. That will also mean that we can use the first floor of the barn as a storage area and remove Andy's tools from the attic which is meant to be a guest bedroom! We will then be able to tackle the attic, removing the horrible pine pannelling which is currently up there, remove the old insulation, treat the roof timbers, put up some new, thinner 'foil' type insulation and then cover the ceiling between the beams with plasterboard, thereby making it all snug and cosy for when we have guests in the winter.

Exercise and fitness
After having no exercise whatsoever over the 2 weeks that we were in the UK, it was a bit of a shock to get back on the road bikes again! I also went out for a run of approx 10K with Pat, another English lady who lives just down the road with her husband Kevin. Although it was mainly through very pleasant woodland with nothing too steep, my legs and torso felt like they had done a mountain marathon next day! I partly blame it on the fact that I have been living in flipflops and sandals out here and have not worn shoes with my orthotics for quite some time, so my muscles have adapted accordingly, which is not good. All that good work done back in the UK has been undone :-( So I really need to get out running every week to build those muscles back up again.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

So here we are.....

29th May 2007 - arrived in the Ariege after a long journey down from Sheffield, having stopped near Ashford on the 27th, followed by a 6 hr drive next day from Boulogne down to near Chateauroux where we stayed with one of Stopover's hosts (thanks Kathy and Martin!) on the 28th. Got to the Notaire's office in St-Girons at the appointed time on the 29th to sign the final 'Acte de Vente' with the vendors only to be told by the notaire that they had a rather hefty tax bill to pay on the sale because they were UK tax residents, which they had not expected or accounted for! Aagh! Were they going to pull out? No, not permitted under French law - phew!

So we eventually signed, got the keys and arrived at Pissou (down a narrow, winding little road, 800m off the road which leads from the Col de Port to Massat) to wait for our removal van to turn up only to find that they had not yet moved everything out of the house - unbelievable! So we dumped their stuff where we could and then Mick from Milen Light Haulage ( turned up and professionally unloaded our clobber into the ground floor. Edel and Neil eventually turned up and cleared their stuff out of the house which was a relief until we found that they still had loads of stuff next door at Claudine's and in their other barn which they would collect over the coming weeks. Thought we would never get rid of them!

The weather for the first week was damp, cool and apparently very unseasonal. We had no cooker (the oven that we had brought with us required a certain amount of wiring in), no hob (the gas hob we had brought needed mounting in some kind of surface and a gas cylinder attaching), so we ended up cooking on top of the 'poele de bois' (wood burning stove) which actually produced some very nice meals! Andy eventually managed to sort the oven and hob and some even lovelier meals followed. The washing machine (ordered from a French white goods website eventually arrived and we went out to buy a separate fridge and freezer - we have been quite surprised at just what good deals we were able to get over here!

Things that have struck us most since we moved here;
1) the peace and quiet! We are woken in the morning by the sound of birds and we hear the raptors calling over the woodland across from us. No sound of neighbours, cars etc.....
2) the quality of the produce. Whether it is the amazing bread that we get from Gils, our boulanger just 2 mins down the Col at Espies, the superb quality meat.... and offcuts for the dog that we get from the fantastic butcher 5 minutes down the hill in Massat, the stalls of fresh fruit and veg at the market, the superb local cheeses that we can get from everywhere or the very drinkable wine that we can get from the little shop in the village for 2 euros a litre (take our water bottle down and fill up from the barrel!)......
3) the friendliness of the locals - such open, smiling people, full of warmth and welcome
4) the totally unspoilt nature of the area in which we live - some locals still make hay with a pitchfork and wheel wheelbarrow, goat and sheep herders still spend months at a time up on the hills with their herds.
5) the prospects for getting fit - the road bikes have finally had a dusting off and we are starting to tackle the cols! I have finally clicked with my roadie and am loving getting out on her. Apparently I look like a natural! In addition to the bike, my new Rossignol B2 bandit all mountain skis have arrived so I am already getting excited about the winter. There are also loads of possibilities for mountain running, there is climbing and bouldering just over the col at Tarascon and mountain biking possibilities are endless.

House renovation
So enough of the regional promotion thang, we also obviously have a house and a barn to renovate, which is proving, er, interesting! We (Andy) quickly realised that the wiring done by the previous owners was downright dangerous and that some immediate rewiring would be required. The first job was the first floor bedroom area, where Andy power-chiselled a channel in the thick stone walls into which lengths of conduit containing the socket and light wiring was then buried (see photo). This was a very dusty, noisy and disruptive but very necessary procedure. The previous owners had taken the easy route by running unconduited cable down corners of the room before building unsightly plasterboard coverings which totally spoilt the lines of this lovely old house. The process also involved ripping off the plasterboard which had been mounted on the very uneven stud wall which separates the bathroom from the bedroom and laying new conduited cable for the lights and power before putting new plasterboard up. Andy then had the fun task of using the wonderful French 'finishing' plaster which set rock hard even as he was mixing it! Oh what fun! A bit of googling threw up the hot tip of mixing the plaster with 'colle' which is used for joining plaster bricks and which results in a much slower-setting 'plaster'. Once we had finished with it the walls were flat, the cables hidden and, once painted white, the walls looked fantastic
Our first visitor!
Mid June, Jamie arrived to spend a few days with us - yay! Was just fantastic to see him, although his stay was somewhat marred by a nasty bacterial stomach bug that I had picked up (probably down to the horses/cows up at the Col de Port contaminating the 'etang' from which the water is fed down to us (untreated, I should add!). He was bowled over by the place and completely understood why I had chosen this area to be home... thank goodness, although I knew he would! We had a delivery of plasterboard while he was here (destined for the attic.... eventually) which he admirably moved up the tight staircase with Andy. We also had a fab afternoon down by the river between Ercé and Aulus in very hot temperatures where we tried to entice the dog in to swim - hah, as if! What a chicken! But it was fun :-)

I have to admit I was somewhat tearful when I saw him off at Carcassonne airport.....

Various other stuff
So it is now mid August, and I have finally got round to setting up this blog, so that friends and family can keep track of what we are doing out here. In the interim, my mate Hils and Paul Reeve paid a flying visit in June on their road bikes, midway through completing all 6 mountain sections of this year's Tour de France! After a brief 30 min stopover to see the house, stuff their faces with pain au chocolat, croissant, tea and coffee, they were off - was lovely to see Hils :-)

We delayed our visit back to the UK by a week when we heard that John and Helen Rushby were coming down our way to see the Tour de France towards the end of July. We had a very sociable 48 hrs when my mates (and b&b hosts) Iz and Nick Evans also popped up from Narbonne to stop the night and then watch the Tour come up the Col de Port in the morning. John and Helen had their camper van that night and we all partook of Andy's fab cuisine and copious amounts of wine before we realised that we had to get up in the morning to cycle up to the Col in time to see the Tour before midday. It was impressive seeing the race pass through and just a shame that the Tour news over the following days put a dampener on the event. Anyway, John and Helen stayed with us that evening which was lovely! Next day, it was fab to see them actually relax, chill out, read a book on the terrasse and soak up the tranquillity that is Pissou. Shame we had to be off ourselves early the following morning as we started our drive back to the UK.

So an uneventful but tiring 10 hr drive back up to Calais on Wednesday 25th July (not a peep out of the dog - what a fantastic traveller he has turned out to be!), a stopover with one of our hosts (thanks for the hospitality Bernadette) and an early ferry on the Thursday, before being greeted by dire weather as we returned to the UK - quelle surprise! Back in Sheff, it was a mad dash to get the house ready for lovely Aussie couple Kelly and Gareth but we made time to meet up with Ads and Rik, Trudi and Julian at the pub which was just lovely! But finally, after what was probably one of the most stressful periods of my life so far, we handed over the keys to our new tenants with some relief and then headed down to Dorset with a fully laden car where we celebrated mum's 70th birthday on style, to the accompaniment of Jazzbomb ( - thanks for a great evening Sam! Was fantastic to spend a wee bit of time (but not enough) with Jamie who was managing the blueberry harvest for my brother. Also wonderful to see my mum and sister again plus the various uncles and aunts who came to mum's bash.

But we finally had to leave and had a very good crossing from Poole to Cherbourg and another 10 hr drive on good roads (shame about the intermittent heavy downpours) back down to Pissou.