The JCB trundled up the dirt road on Tuesday morning, JJ driving, cheerfully bringing potential easy demolition.

His first job was shifting five loads of boulders and lovely old dressed stones to the entrance where my tractor broke down a few weeks ago (doing the same job).

The builders started early too, as the shade temperatures quickly rose from 28°C at 8am. Builders like the cheery sound of a cement mixer grinding round and sloshing its wet sand and cement sloppily between the two curved paddles inside the tub. Does it remind them of home?? João and Manel worked hard all day in full sun, easily five degrees hotter than the 39°C afternoon shade temperature. I struggled to work with them and had to go indoors to cool down every half hour.

Meanwhile JJ in his maquina trundled over to the well and set about pulling out a substantial willow tree which has regrown since being torn up five years ago – see “Clearing the Well” posted November 2007. This well is in a field and the top is level with the land; there was only a flimsy wire fence for safety around it. Two weeks ago I cleared the bracken and long straw surrounding it so we could see its edge.


Having removed the tree he brought five more loads of boulders to add to the pile I had accumulated in the previous year. He used the retro-digger (that’s the one on the back of the JCB) to carefully arrange the stones around the well, and suggested they would make a good start to raising its wall but plenty more would be required. The well is more than four metres across and its circumference over thirteen metres, so many tons of flat-faced boulders were needed.

He finished off by digging a thirty-metre trench for us, which will appear in another blog.

Wednesday 8am and the builders returned and headed straight out to the well. I followed with my front-loader on the tractor. All day we heaved boulders, brought more boulders, searched around for the lascas (flat stones) so useful in stone walling, the bigger the better. They built most of the new wall in one day, with no mortar.

On Thursday they arrived and set the cement mixer running to give a cheery working background. They mortared in the upper part of the wall and levelled it with the lascas.

On Friday we moved to the bottom of the quinta where we brought in its mains electricity supply, connecting via a meter inside a couple of boxes in a purpose-built regulation-height wall. João and Manel levelled the top of this wall with slim stones, faced it smoothly with mortar, and we put boulders on either side of it. They stuck onto this wall a panel of six tiles given to us by Jacinto the builder shortly after we bought the farm.

Now the Quinta da Serrinha is labelled. Five years after we took it on the quinta has a  safe useable well, aproper entrance and a nameplate. Wow !

Feb/March 2010

Ian’s departure coincided with the end of good weather; the temperature plummeted and snow arrived as we left the farm on Sunday. In this area it is unusual for snow to settle and we saw the rare sight of countless pruned olive trees plastered with snow as we crossed the mountains.

Clearly the builders could not work outdoors in snow and icy winds on Monday, and Tuesday was a public holiday, Carnaval.  We could relax for a week. However, our “down time” only lasted a short while because on that Friday afternoon Jacinto rang us to ask if we could come back as some decisions needed to be made. We went to bed early that night and started out at dawn the next day, arriving mid-morning on Saturday 20th.

We had a shock – the granite pillars were in place, and they were not what I’d expected. My intention was for rustic 20cm rough-faced square pillars but what I got was modern 30cm deeply chamfered, with 35cm square tops and bottoms, each weighing over half a ton. They had rolled them from the delivery lorry to the extension and lifted just the tops into place, finally levering in the bottoms. Smart! The scaffolding had gone, the roof of the extension was done, the interior of the barn was clear of Acro props and most of the boulders cleared out. They were removing the old patio and levelling it as a new internal floor. What height should the conservatory walls be? On Monday they would open a doorway between the former barn and the tiled half of the house and they needed to know exactly where it should it be.

As promised, on Monday the new doorway was hacked out, leaving Ian’s former abode covered in boulders and dust, with ample fresh air. Rain was being driven across the farm by a cold wind, and with five window holes in three walls, even indoors was cold and windy. Jacinto, who at some time in the past has run a restaurant, lit a fire in the hearth and by lunchtime had used it to cook BBQ beef (marinated in red wine overnight) for his men! They welcomed his attempt to make the place warm too, as they settled beside the blaze for a few minutes before working right through until six in the evening re-pointing the barn walls.

New walls were built in the next two days, to create a kitchen/living room, a bathroom and a large entrance hall. Mário dug out the debris ready for the arrival of the canalisador (electrician cum plumber). He arrived on Friday with two young men, and with Mário labouring they put in all the water pipes and boxes and channels ready to do the wiring on Monday.

And what of farming? The picture above shows the view of our waterlogged west vineyard from the overflowing storage tank beside our house. Rainfall in the last ten days of February was very high reaching a record nine inches (22cm). Over the last ten years the month’s average for February was 7cm so we’ve had three times the normal amount. I have not taken the tractor from its garage because the the tyres would leave deep tracks in the cereal fields, compacting the land. I have stripped out the irrigation from the veg garden ready to rotovate it, and am waiting for a dry spell now.

March. The rain caused the builders to realise that since the back of the house is interred a metre deep it would be wise to separate the earth from the stone wall with a thick plastic sheet and a drainage pipe. Once again JJ the JCB man was summoned. He arrived on the first dry day in three weeks which was sunny and spring-like, everyone on site whistling their own tune whilst the birds did the same.

He started to dig a trench for a gas pipe to connect the gas cylinders beside the barracão to the house. As he took out the third bucketful, the cement mixer stopped, the lights went out, the hammer drill stopped, all went silent. The builders had laid the electricity cable to the house only four inches deep, exactly where JJ was putting the gas pipe and he had cut the earth line and tripped out the power – oops!

JJ’s other excavations were a wide trench around the back and side of the house and a narrow trench for me to install a drainage pipe from the barracão gutter to a soakaway in some trees near to the house.  A good length of drainage tube was required so the next day we bought nine metres (30 feet) in Fundão. However it rained again and contrary to my hopes, the soil became very soggy, very quickly.

The tubing had to be laid and the hole covered over so I donned a “waterproof” (which I discovered was not) and got on with the job. My wellies had been stored in the barn and mice seem to like snacking on Dunlop boots so I had to wear my work boots. The mud in my trench was above ankle depth so I soon had wet feet in addition to a wet back. I looked for a rain hat but found only a cotton peaked cap. When I wore it right way round I was unable to see up to where the piles of earth were so I had to wear it back-to-front after the style of Eminem. It did not keep off the rain for long; my gloves quickly became sodden, then my trouser legs. I used my tractor to cover the tube with earth and had to keep getting on and off to check the tube was in place. The rain collects in the seat so when you sit down again, the cold rainwater soaks in and you get “tractor bum”, which is rather unpleasant.

Just as I finished at 4.30 in the low light and rain, the gas man arrived a day late. Full of energy he greeted us; Janet was definitely frosty and when he saw the moat that was his workplace he asked if I have any wellies. In my wet state I clearly had not. Janet reminded him that, had he arrived yesterday as he said he would, he would have worked in the sunshine. Nevertheless he vigorously drilled through the two-foot stone wall and got on with laying the pipe. Unperturbed by the electrical supply to the house looping over the gas pipe,  he brazed the new pipe to the connection (which he had left available a year ago), finished off in the house and drove away before dark, leaving me to close the trench with my puddle-seated tractor.

The gas line hung like a sad bridge over the moat whose purpose is to keep the house dry.  Three days later the rain cleared and two days after that, the plastic sheet and tubing were laid around half of the house. The old garage still occupies the other half of the plastic-clad wall and it is full of the builders’ materials. When we demolish it the job can be finished but for now there is much to do in the house.