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.

Moving in . . .   May/June 2009

. . . to the apartment.

One takes it for granted that a dwelling will have windows and doors, but when you are having a “new build” they are one of the jobs which have to be arranged. We chose sliding windows and hinged shutters in white aluminium as it is the most resistant to changes in humidity and temperature; we learned that wood is susceptible to contraction and scorching, and uPVC to warping from the heat.

our kitchen assembled at the carpenter's

In the UK, if you want a new kitchen, you go to IKEA or a DiY store. However, ready made kitchen units are a rarity in central Portugal, so we visited two carpenters’ workshops last November whilst we were on the olive harvest runs around the lagars. It turns out that a bespoke kitchen costs little more than an MFI installation.

Granite is used for worktops here rather than laminates because the humidity drops so low that we are told there is a risk of delamination. Both our carpenter and the builders recommended the same stonemason opposite Gonçalo’s tractor shop in Fundão. We went to look at samples and concluded that most granite has black granules in it and looks dark. We wanted a light colour and decided on a rock from India.

two slabs of the worktop

The huge block is imported via Spain where it is cut to a “manageable” 3x2x1 metres hunk, weighing around forty tons. Our man then cuts it into 3cm slabs for making gravestones, tombs and worktops. On his way over to fit our worktops he rang to ask if we have a tape measure – not inspiring confidence after our difficulties with builders making the foundations of the barracão ! Nevertheless when he fitted them they were absolutely right – well done to him!

I constructed pine beds to match the wall-mounted headboard that José made for us, in the same chevron style as the pine panelling on the ceiling. They fit together to make one king-size bed which seems huge in the bedroom. The mattresses were delivered by the salesman from the supermarket; he sells and delivers.

The rural electric supply is of low power, typically only 15amps per house; in England the supply is 45-80 amps. To have a thirty amp supply the standing charge and cost per unit is higher. For any more than a 30Amp supply we would have to have a three-phase supply, like an English farm or factory unit. Because an electric immersion would use about twelve amps, we heat our hot water with an instant gas heater. The gas is delivered in three-foot-high cylinders and are housed in a little lean-to at the back of the barracão. We have a system that detects when a cylinder is empty, and switches to the second cylinder automatically. We just ring the gas man who brings a new one and swaps them over.  We can now cook and eat, take a shower and sleep, all in comfort!

. . . to the farm.

We bought twenty five grafted vines (Toureiga Nacional variety) in early May, which is late to be planting. The guy on the market said that the twelve-inch-long roots needed trimming, so we asked him to do it for us. He cut off all but two inches! Apparently this stimulates them to seng out new roots in abundance. Needless to say, a few days after planting them, they looked pretty dead. Two weeks of hot sun was unhelpful to them and with diligent watering they may survive.  However only thirteen have grown new leaves.

We were in the UK in April (ploughing time) and, as the land was too hard to plough in early May, I only rotavated one field near to the house and scattered maize and sunflower seeds in it, burying them with the scarifier. We hoped for some unseasonal rain to soften the ground, leaving it moist enough for the seeds and a planned green mulch of black-eyed beans to germinate. Surprisingly, in mid May, it rained for three days so I was able to plough a additional half an acre of neglected rocky land. This was the first time I’d really farmed and, trying to sit in the tractor at 20° slope with one wheel in the furrow, it felt as though the tractor would overturn at any moment if it encountered another big rock buried in the way.

Once ploughed, the field had to be rotovated before JJ could demonstrate how to scatter beans as a crop. Well under half a bucket was needed, really only enough for a French family’s Sunday cassoulet. He said the soil was too dry for germination so I should go over the whole area twice with the rotovator to bring up any moisture. This is a very dusty job, with the tractor and its driver embedded in a slow-moving dust cloud, ending with the driver matching the soil, parched and brown. Consequently, taking a shower in the barracão is an absolute pleasure . . . as are several pints of iced shandy! After the planting we have had rain on three consecutive Sundays and all seems to be growing as it should.

. . . to the garden. I rotavated the veg garden (12’x80’) for the second time ready to start planting, having studied drip-tape irrigation on the internet before buying all the components.  It took over twenty hours to choose, buy and assemble the automatic control (27 joints, each needing over a metre of ptfe tape) and distribution system. It took a further twenty hours digging in full sun (30-36°C in the shade) to connect and bury 110 metres of drip tape to water our veg patch.

burying the perforated tubes

Fundão is an agricultural town with very few tourists. It has a huge Monday market where the locals sell their produce and buy seeds and plants. You can buy a walnut tree, a chainsaw, clothes, shoes, a box of live ducklings, a chicken feeder, a beaten copper still (used to make aguardente or moonshine) a mattress, fruit, veg, sheep’s cheese, cooked food,  . . .

In May we intended to buy seedling tomatoes, sweet peppers and aubergines, all of which grow in the open.  In early June we established that the irrigation system worked properly in automatic mode which is important because we leave the quinta for several days whilst we return to the villa and do our emails etc. Then we went crazy buying plantlets on the next three Mondays.

Aubergine flowers with marigolds,  bean and tomato plants,   and lettuces with vines.

We spent many hours putting in: 18 tomato plants, 5 cucumber, 5 courgette, 10 aubergine, over 100 onions, 10 bean, 5 broccoli, 6 Brussels sprouts, 20 sweet peppers, 5 chilli, 5 spinach, lots of lettuce, 2 dozen carrots, 2 dozen beetroots, 2 dozen caulis (rabbits have eaten most of these), 6 white and 12 red cabbages, 12 melon, 5 pumpkin, and 12 oca (an Inca crop, rather like a high-protein potato). The sweet corn, Jerusalem artichokes, peas and bean seeds failed to germinate because we sowed them far too late.

To support the climbers, I cut down some of the jungle bordering the orchard at the villa. Beside the stream which borders our land we have loads of bamboos growing at a rate of about three metres a year. Ours were all between four and six metres high before trimming them to get the straightest canes. Next year they will be younger and straighter (ie more useful).

Looking north along the veg garden, barracão on far right.

Looking to the south.

So now we have a real chance of achieving another goal; becoming more self sufficient in vegetables. The garden looks set to do well !

Having lined two of the three boreholes, the next stage was to raise the water to the surface, and bring it to a place where it is useful. One borehole would supply the house itself, and the other borehole would fill the south charca (storage pond) nearer to the house for later use in irrigation. It also has connections to the spring, to the orange orchard/vineyard, and to the tank near the house. We had two estimates for the project of bringing power and water to the house, and decided on a flexible system in which both boreholes can supply domestic water, and the lower (irrigation) borehole is pumped by a solar photovoltaic system. This means that on sunny days when water is most needed, the sun would pump it out of the ground.

Paulo the engineer and I got on well together, and he quickly understood what was needed.  In April 08, as soon as the weather was dry they started work on the 4feet-deep trench linking the lower furo (borehole) and the electric connection board to the house over 200 metres away.

On the satellite photo the red line denotes the limits of our land, green lines are the perimeter of olive grove (olival) areas, and orange is a vineyard with orange trees.  The dark yellow line is for electricity, and blue for the water pipe.

At the same time he put a mains electricity water-pump into the domestic borehole, and linked both lines in the garage via an H- system. This should allow us to choose either of the boreholes to supply the house.  Every day, he brought a big bag of bread rolls, some beers and meat to barbecue; Janet made salad and I cooked the sausages and steaks for lunch, which we all ate together on the patio in the sunshine.

On the second day of work (Friday), they arrived before 8am and asked if they could use my tractor to fill in the trench and level the ground as the tubing was laid. They clearly enjoyed working for us, carrying on into the dark, and finishing at 9pm – so much for the week-end starting on Friday lunchtime!

Lowering the pump, its water-level sensors and electrical supply line into the 100metres deep well.

They worked all day Saturday and two hours on Sunday morning too. In return for the loan of my tractor, they wired lights and a power point into the house. The end of an era; until now, lighting was by candles, storm lamp and an Aladdin No23 paraffin lamp -a luxury to read by, but so much work . . .

View northwards to the house, all the tubes buried and trench filled.

By Tuesday the guys had connected both the water and electrical systems, and we now have our own granite-filtered water from the house furo, supplied to a tap in the garage. The granite house has no plumbing so we have to go to the garage for water, which is an improvement on trailing into the village with two ten-litre containers and filling them at the village hand pump.  At this stage (May08) the lower furo still has no pump.