Saturday 31 January 2015

From the rainforest to Narnia and back

Thankfully it was an altogether calmer and more peaceful night last night, and a good night's sleep was had by all. When I got up to see to the animals at just gone 7am, the air was still and cold. The terraces were all covered in frost and there were layers of ice on the various animals' bowls of water.

We were on a schedule this morning, as we had our weekly supermarket shopping appointment with Sue at 9am, so I cracked on with a super-fast exercise session (super-fast as in it was over quickly, not relating to the speed at which my legs moved, I hasten to add) then hurried back indoors for a shower and a bowl of cereal before we left the house at 8.50am.

It was a beautiful morning - bitterly cold, but with a brilliant blue sky and bright sunshine. We found Sue wrapped up warm waiting for us at the bottom of their hill, picked her up and headed for the usual double dose of supermarkets - Lidl followed by Esselunga. After that, and a quick detour to the chicken man for Sue to pick up some more chicken feed, we parked the car back at Sue's house before heading to the café around the corner for cappucinos all round and a lovely catch up. All being well, Chris and Sue will have their car back from the garage next week, and Sue will no longer be in need of our services to transport her and her shopping back home. However, certainly from our point of view, our weekly joint supermarket shopping expeditions have become something we look forward to and the social aspect certainly relieves the chore of its usual tedium and mundaneness. Maybe we'll make it a permanent weekly social date and continue to shop together even after the Panda is back on the road!

By the time we left the café after two rounds of coffee, the sky had turned from cloudless and blue to dark grey and foreboding - and as we headed up the valley after dropping Sue off, large spots of rain mixed with sleet started to fall on the windscreen.

We unloaded the car and, despite the fact that it was cold, wet and miserable outside, we decided to take Reggie straight out for a walk. We thought we would go up to the refuge track where at least there would be some tree cover to shelter us from the cold rain, so we got togged up in waterproofs and wellies and headed out.

As we drove up the valley toward the track, the ratio of rain to sleet/snow changed noticeably in favour of the sleet and snow, and by the time we parked the car at the side of the track, it was definitely snowing.

We zipped our coats up, unfurled an umbrella and set off up the track. As we walked, the snow started coming down thicker and faster, and we soon found ourselves in a winter wonderland - it was as if we had walked straight through a pair of magical wardrobe doors and into Narnia.

The aliens have landed!!!

This was only Reggie's second experience of snow, and it was his first real experience of being out in proper, thick falling snow. He loved romping around in it and had us in stitches as he repeatedly tried to catch the snowflakes in his mouth as they fell through the air.

We walked for about 15 minutes before realising that the snow was building up so quickly that we were in danger of getting stranded up there, so we did an about turn and returned to the car.

As we drove back down the track and back down the valley, the snow-to-rain ratio flipped back in favour of rain, and we arrived back at our house in cold, cold rain.

By the time we got home it was lunchtime, so we made some tuna sandwiches which we followed up with a nice hot cocoa with a dash of brandy to warm the cockles of our hearts, before lighting a fire and settling down to a cosy afternoon of indoor admin. Except that, by the time we had got computers booted up (and moved them to the warmth of the living room), we realised that the weather had done another 360 degree turn and once again the sky blue and the sun was shining brightly!

By this time it was nearing 4pm, and there wasn't enough daylight left to do any outdoor work of any significance, so we decided instead to put the admin tasks on hold and take Reggie outside for some 'walking to heel' training. He did brilliantly - clearly there's a long, long way to go for him yet, but for a first proper go at it he did really well, and of course we'll keep working on it.

After his schooling session, we decided to take him for a bit more of a walk around the woods - he hadn't had as long a walk as we had intended on the refuge track, thanks to the snow, so we thought it would be a good idea to get him to run off a bit more of his endless puppy energy.

We started off climbing the donkey track that goes up off the drive - from there we could see that the hills further up the valley had been treated to quite a dusting of snow.

After that, we went to the donkey track that descends from the drive near to the gate. We decided we would walk down this track and around through the woods to the terraces beneath the house (as we had done earlier in the week) - and while we were there we would measure the width of the 'raised bed terrace'. We'd earmarked this terrace, which seemed very wide, as a possible site for a polytunnel, so we wanted to find out exactly how wide a tunnel it could accommodate. Answer: the terrace is approx. 3m wide, so there would be plenty of room for a 2m wide polytunnel with a walkway beside it.

We also assessed the state of the terraces and considered our next plan of action - our intention is to dedicate the day to terrace clearing again tomorrow, as the weather is meant to be dry, so watch this space!

After that, we climbed back up the terraces and into the garden, put the geese to bed and headed inside to stoke the fire and settle down for the evening -just as the rain started again!

Friday 30 January 2015

Landslides and falling trees (or not).

'How did you sleep last night?' came the question from Stuart first thing this morning as I was peering, bleary-eyed into the mirror while brushing my teeth. Was he kidding?? 'Er... terribly, of course!!'. When we retired to bed last night, the rain was hammering down on the skylight outside our bedroom, and the rain continued hammering on the skylight all night long, along with wind gusting in the trees outside the bedroom window and the occasional clap of thunder thrown in for good measure. I lay awake most of the night fully expecting a tree to fall down onto the house or a huge landslide to send piles of rocks down onto the garden (as is the way my brain tends to work in the dead of night), or at the very least for all the noise to wake Reggie up, resulting in him barking the house down. I'm thankful to say that none of the above happened, despite my having forfeited several hours of my night's sleep to worry about them.

Stuart - who had also suffered a disturbed night's sleep, but who unlike me hadn't wasted his energy worrying about all manner of natural disasters - got up at the same time as me this morning so that, once I had taken Reggie out for his morning toilet trip, he could sit on the sofa with him and supervise him, leaving me to go and do my exercise without having to worry about Reggie or take him outside with me. I must admit that exercise wasn't top of my wishlist this morning - the rain had stopped by the time we got up, but the wind was still gusting and the sky was rather dark and foreboding. I was tempted to give it a miss today, but figured that, since it wasn't actually raining (or snowing), I didn't really have a good excuse. I therefore flung some kettlebells around for 40 minutes or so - and promptly felt pleased with myself for having put the effort in and glad that I hadn't wimped out.

I said earlier that none of the natural disasters I had imagined during the night had actually happened, but in fact, as I jogged up the drive this morning, I did come across a minor landslide: one large rock and a smaller one had been swept down the bank and rolled onto the drive. It was nothing major, but it shows just how much rain had come down.

After showering, I donned my office gear (2 jumpers, 2 pairs of socks + slippers, slanket, scarf, fingerless mittens...) and was treated to a bowl of hot porridge, along with a hot drink and a hot water bottle. It all felt lovely and cosy... for about 10 minutes!

This morning, Stuart joined me in the office to do some work on our website and some other computer-based projects he is tinkering with. He didn't feel the need for a blanket and hot water bottle, but he did concede to wearing a pair of fingerless gloves.

The pair of us worked through the morning, with Reggie keeping us company/causing trouble. I think the poor pup was bored today - usually at least one of us goes outside with him and is in and out of the house, so today he had a lot of pent up energy and spent his morning trying to steal and eat pieces of paper from my scrap paper pile, chewing at my slanket, chewing at the chairs, finding plastic bags to shred... and the list goes on.

Thankfully, lunch time eventually came around and we all had a break from the office for some sustenance and more hot drinks.

By the time we'd spent another couple of hours at our computers, the sky was blue and the sun was shining brightly - it could barely be any more different than the way things looked this morning! We therefore decided to make the most of the last hour of sunshine and take Reggie out to stretch his legs and run off some of his energy.

We drove down to the area next to the San Lorenzo hotel. As we drove down the road and through the village we realised just how much water had come down in the night. There had been a (small) mudslide at the side of the main road, there were torrents of water spurting out of banks that are usually dry, rivers of water running down the road, and the usually quite quiet river in the valley bottom was raging.

We decided today to walk in the opposite direction from our usual San Lorenzo walk - we turned towards the 'S. Caterina' part of the hotel complex and walked along the quiet road that leads to the back of a paper mill. At that point the road turned uphill - so we decided to follow it. We walked up and up the road, marvelling at the brand new perspective it was giving us on the valley below. Reggie enjoyed the new smells and sights, and we kept going until the road seemed to end in just three tracks, all of which looked like they led to people's houses.

At that point, we turned back and made our way back to the car and back home. As we reached home it was nearing 5pm, so we decided we would put the geese to bed before retiring indoors for the evening and getting the fire nice and toasty. Reggie decided he'd like to help with the geese herding, although to be honest, wasn't that much of a help:

On tonight's menu is Tuscan sausages and beans - a hearty warming meal to kick off our weekend.

Is the Panda dead?

Well, the beautiful winter weather we were treated to yesterday had certainly changed by the time this morning arrived: when I clambered out of bed I found Helen outside exercising in falling snow!

So the skies were grey, the temperature cold and everything was soggy. The temperature was clearly right in the crossover area between rain and snow as it was coming down as both when I peered out and the snow didn't stick around for long.

After a warming breakfast of porridge with the last of the golden syrup we brought over with us from the UK, I went out to do a little shopping while Helen booted up her computer.

I took Reggie with me simply to give Helen some peace and quiet. Our first stop was Frateschi, the builder's merchant. On our shopping list today was a gas bottle exchange, some new gate latches (the temporary ones we originally fitted - which were fashioned out of old door frame offcuts - are starting to fail under the harsh weather conditions) and some new fire rope (to patch up the gaps on the doors of the wood burner).

After having a rummage around in the ironmongery room with Paolo to find some latches, I walked away with seven of them (five for the gates we have already, and two for the gates I'm planning) and a full bottle of gas, but no fire rope (or adhesive for the rope). That meant that next, it was off to try Cecchi, the hardware store near the main square. After bursting in and interrupting a lively chat between staff and customers, I was told they didn't have the size of fire rope I required and suggested I tried the hardware shop on the Lucca road.

As the precipitation had subsided temporarily, I decided that a short walk for Reggie was in order (and I also had time to use up on my parking ticket!), so we walked along the river and looped back into town before the rain started again.

Now, we headed off down the Lucca road to the hardware store on the roundabout. I still don't know the name of this shop - which, in fact, goes for at least half of the shops we frequent. Indeed, not only does it seem like the Italians have little interest in websites, but they also don't bother so much with signage - which can make life quite tricky sometimes!

Anyway, after asking the woman in the shop (who I assume is Mr Grumpy(the owner)'s wife, and who is also grumpy) for some fire rope, she took me to a small display rack near the door and showed me a packet containing a tube of adhesive and 1.5m of rope. She didn't have any rope on its own, which meant that, in order to get the 7m of rope I needed, it was going to get expensive and I'd end up drowning in tubes of adhesive. So I left, parking it as plan B.

Before conceding defeat, it was time to clutch at straws, so we headed out to OBI in Montecatini, figuring that if they didn't have any, we would just have to see the winter out without it.

After being sent to ask the guys in the garden section of the shop, I was taken to another hidden rack, tucked away near a fire exit, that I would never have found by myself. There was a much better range this time and after having the same adhesive and rope combo pack foisted upon me, I told the assistant that I needed more than seven metres and therefore took the last three 2.5m packets from him along with a mastic tube of adhesive and left - the first time in a while that I've been happy to have spent some money in that place!

As soon as I walked into the house it was time to get started on gluing the new rope in place so that it would have time to dry before lighting a fire this evening - the instructions said it would start drying after ten minutes, but that it would be best to leave it for 24 hours. By this time it was 12.30pm, so I decided that four hours would have to suffice (a night without lighting a fire in weather like this was not an option!).

After a warming lunch of Tuscan bean soup (recipe here!), I went and fitted a couple of the new latches to the gates in between rain showers and whiled away the last of the day on the computer doing bits and pieces of admin before lighting the fire for the evening.

I had arranged to meet Chris at the Phillip's house at 3.45pm in order to tow their car into a garage in town. The poor guys have had a long saga, starting with a misplaced car key, that has now left their Fiat Panda with a broken central computer and a second-hand computer (purchased from a company that specialises in selling such items with the immobiliser code having been removed) that still doesn't work - so now it was time to hand the car over to the professionals.

We hooked up the cars with a tow rope, flicked on the hazard lights, planned a route which would involve only four turns, and set off at a leisurely 15kmph.

First turn negotiated successfully without the need to stop, we crossed the river and stopped at the lights before a left turn. The lights went green and I followed the car in front to turn left. So far so good, except that three old Italians decided they were going to use the small gap between the car in front and me to cross the road. This meant I had to break fairly suddenly - which was far from ideal as Chris, behind me, was now operating without power-assisted breaks. Fortunately, he saw it all happening and our bumpers were saved from an intimate meeting.

We trundled down through town, stopping again at traffic lights but this time without a turn to make immediately after the lights, it was a nice easy restart to head out of town. All was going fine again until a woman decided to dart across a crossing because there was nothing coming on her side and she clearly assumed that I would stop for her. This time though, there was not enough time for breaking while towing, so all I could do was wave apologetically and continue forwards. That didn't stop her trying to run across behind me - but fortunately she saw the rope and waited there in the middle of the road until Chris had also passed.

Turn number three was a piece of cake, and as we pulled to a stop at the final turn out of a T-junction I could see the garage opposite.

When the traffic cleared, I crept out of the junction but only got a metre or so before I felt a tug from the rear. I couldn't see what had happened when I looked back, but Chris was following now so we continued out and across the road into the garage. When Chris got out of the car he could barely contain his laughter - the reason for the tug was yet another person crossing the road. This guy had waited for me to pull out, and then ran (or tried to run) through the gap between us both. Unlike the woman on the crossing though, this chap didn't see the rope and tripped right over it - which was why Chris had applied the brakes briefly while trying to beep his horn (which wasn't working because of the fault with the car).

After so many incidents in such a short distance, I was glad we'd made it without any real drama.
We had a lengthy chat with the mechanic (Erik, who met us at the garage, helping with the translations) until we all seemed to understand each other and the situation, then I drove Chris and Erik back home, leaving the Panda with the mechanic. Back at the Phillips's I had a nice strong Italian-style coffee with Chris while we talked trees, wood cutting and bee keeping before I drove back up the valley home for dinner.

Wednesday 28 January 2015

Short and humpy

Yet again, another Wednesday (or hump-day) has come and gone, meaning we're over the hump and rolling steadily towards the weekend.

Today has been pretty short on news - it has been something of a routine day, if you like (or the closest thing to routine we've managed sine being here): I left Helen working in the office and took Reggie up to Lanciole with me for a day's pruning (told you it was a slow news day).

It was another chilly day (more ice breaking required this morning), and even in the bright sunshine, there was a cold breeze that kept the temperature feeling decidedly nippy.

When I arrived at the house in Lanciole, the first thing I decided to do (before taking my secateurs out of my pocket) was to go and sweep all the sweet chestnuts and leaves off the platform of the tree house as I figured there were definitely no more leaves left to fall now.

It wasn't long before Reggie decided he didn't want to be apart from me any longer and he negotiated the open tread steps (made from logs) to join me on the platform. While I swept, he had his first taste of sweet chestnuts. I'm not sure he was all that keen (they were way past their best by now), but maybe another taste this autumn will turn him.

On descending from the platform, I heard whimpering from above - I turned around to see a dog looking down at me from the top of the steps. He didn't look at all confident about getting down them. I barely had time to put the broom down and turn back before he decided he was going for it - not in a tentative fashion, more like a sprint. Not the best decision he's ever made, although he got two thirds of the way down before two of his legs went through the open parts of the treads, which was immediately followed by a face-plant into the soil at the bottom.

I'm not sure whether he was a bit sore or just embarrassed, but he came straight over to me and sat next to me for some comfort - although with his back turned to me. Other than that, and generous amounts of barking, the day was uneventful and I pruned until it was time for us to get back into the car again and go home to Helen.

After looking at the weather forecast and seeing that today's beautiful clear blue skies are due to turn into wet grey ones tomorrow, I decided it would be prudent to move the logs of oak cut yesterday on the terrace below the house up to the cover of the wood pile before they doubled in weight with rain water. Helen couldn't resist the chance of a second workout for the day so the pair of us spent an hour or so throwing heavy logs up the bank onto the lawn before wheel-barrowing it all to the wood pile.

We'd almost finished when we were interrupted by a set of headlights approaching from the darkness of the driveway. Unless we're expecting someone, it's very rare for anyone to drive to the house other than the postman, so this was a bit of a shock and I couldn't for the life of me work out who it could be. I took my gloves off as I approached the car, and Reggie let fly into a torrent of barks. When the driver's door opened, the cabin light illuminated the face of Antonio, the Stihl guy from up the valley! He was already returning the sharpened chain for my chainsaw - which he had told me yesterday would be ready next week. What an odd Italian he is for being ahead of schedule - an odd one, but a really nice one and I wished I could converse with him more fluently, as saying 'thanks' in as few Italian words as I have available just doesn't seem enough to reciprocate the kindness and helpfulness he's shown to us. Maybe one day we'll have him and his family round for lunch.

After I had paid Antonio and he'd introduced me to his sister, Graziana, in the passenger seat, he drove off into the darkness and we called it a day, taking some crates of wood back into the house for the evening's fire.

Tuesday 27 January 2015

A first felling before the chance of snow

The weather has turned colder again here over the last day or so (it was back to breaking ice on the geese's water bowl and pool this morning), and the forecast for the coming weekend has changed from clear skies to the possibility of snow. That was enough to propel me into action in the form of wood cutting today as over the last few weeks our wood pile has started to look decidedly sad.

So after breakfast I left Helen in the office (adorned in her new office attire - a slanket - sent by her friends last week) and went out into a very chilly morning, wearing a coat over my hoody for the second time this year. It was still only hovering around freezing outside - just was a touch warmer than when Helen was outside on the turbo trainer first thing.

I took a refuelled chainsaw along the drive in search of dead trees. I'd seen a couple a while back that I'd earmarked for felling for this year's burning should we run low, and today was the day they were coming down.

Now, I'd fully planned to get some training on chainsaw use before this moment arrived, but events had conspired against us (as they often seem to have done since arriving here), and the original plan to enrol on a course back in the UK to coincide with a return trip for Christmas just didn't happen - in the time between arriving here and Christmas we ended up not only with a pair of geese but a puppy as well, which ruled out a trip back to England.

So I found myself having now spent several hours using the chainsaw to cut logs to size with the aid of a saw horse, but not yet having felled anything. I've read two books on log fires, both of which touch on the art and inherent dangers of felling trees, and another book on coppice management that also covers felling, so I had plenty of theory behind me, but zero practice. It was thus with considerable caution that I clambered up the bank from the driveway into the wood armed with chainsaw, axe and walkie talkie, to search for my first victim.

The first and second candidates I had spotted proved to be too close to a power line to be sensible contenders for my first felling, so I climbed a bit higher and found a long-dead chestnut (three trunks worth) that was out of range of the power cable.

The three chestnut trunks in the middle of the photo were my target.
After surveying the tree, obstacles and possible problems, and deciding on my escape route, I took down the first of the smaller two trunks without any problem. I cut them into small logs ready for splitting and let gravity help with rolling them down the bank to the drive. Gravity proved to be a little over enthusiastic in this task though, and a couple of them continued on over the drive - almost without touching it - rolling off deep into the woods below. Lesson number one: logs love rolling down hills - much better to throw long trunks and cut them shorter later.

The third and much taller trunk was less easy. The wood around it was quite dense, so I could tell that this one wasn't going to fall far before tangling into one of its neighbours - no matter which way I dropped it, it was going to tangle with something, so I cut the wedge on the best place possible to drop it downhill towards the drive and hoped the weight of it would stop the branches high up catching the tree next to it... It didn't. I cut the felling cut into the back it and the trunk simply hopped off and stood there right next to the stump I had cut it from, upper branches hanging on for dear life to its old friend next door.

There was nothing else for it but to repeat the process - but now it was trickier: I needed to predict how this larger trunk was going to throw its weight around after I cut it a second time now that it was tangled. I figured it was either going to continue its fall or come right back the opposite way. It did the latter, but I made sure I was at the side of it when I made the cut, and it fell harmlessly to the ground - not without a rush of adrenaline though, quite serious work this tree felling and you don't need that explaining after you've had a go at it once.


After getting all the felled and chopped logs down to the drive and back to the house it was time to put the splitting axe to work, and by lunch time the wood pile was looking less sorry for itself. My latest additions to the wood pile included some beautifully seasoned chestnut wood - my moisture meter had the logs at a 15% reading, which is better than anything we've been burning so far, so I'm expecting some toasty fires in the not too distant future.

Sad wood pile.
Happy wood pile!

After lunch it was back to splitting - green wood this time in an effort to tidy up around wood pile number two and to add to next year's fire wood.

Helen emerged from the house at around 3pm to do a bit of outdoor work herself, so while she set to work on the lower terraces I started logging the remaining oak that was down there - and a nice pile of wood it made too.

As the sun dipped down behind the hills opposite at around 4.30pm, we called it a day - we were determined to get a hot fire going this evening, having left it too late to get it toasty last night. So we took Reggie out for a walk along the San Lorenzo track so that he could bark and growl at passing cars(!) then came home to put the geese to bed and light what will hopefully be a toasty fire!

Monday 26 January 2015

Another walkabout, another quarry.

After the weekend's exertions and discoveries, it was always going to be difficult to get up and into the swing of things today. And it was. When the alarm went off this morning my whole body seemed to sink deeper into the mattress in defiance - I allowed it a ten-minute reprieve (thanks to our four-legged friends all being quite patient this morning), before staggering out of bed. At first it was difficult even to bend down to pick my clothes up off the chair, but I knew that once I got going I would be fine. Sure enough, one doggy toilet trip to the garden and a visit to the geese later, I was feeling ready to get on the turbo trainer. It was tough to get going this morning, but I was pleased with myself for pushing on with it.

After that, and after a shower, it was time to sit down in the office and start my week's work. Meanwhile, Stuart was outside with Reggie and had worked out exactly how he had been escaping the confines of the patio and getting up onto the terraces. Rather than jumping the gate, it turned out that he had managed to find a tiny gap in the wire fence and squeeze himself through it - this meant it was a relatively easy fix, and Stuart got straight onto doing that. I fear that this may only be a temporary fix though, as it doesn't seem like it will be long before he really will be able to jump the gate – he can already get halfway across it if he takes a run up.

Once the fence had been further Reggie-proofed, Stuart joined me in the office for a morning's admin. Among other things he created a booking form for apartment guests who book with us directly, paid a tax bill, and set up a recipe page on our website. Yes, that's right, you can now find the recipe for three-bean dip on our website. There will be more recipes to follow...

Before long it was time for us to tuck into the aforementioned three-bean dip for our own lunch. We decided to dine al fresco today as the sun was shining brightly and there was not a cloud in the sky - it truly was a beautiful winter's day.

After lunch, we reluctantly traipsed back to our respective posts in the office, but after a further hour's work we both felt the need to get outside and stretch our legs - not to mention Reggie's.

On today's dog-walking agenda was simply a walk up and down the donkey tracks that lead off our drive. We decided to start with the one that leads downhill, starting just by the gates. Neither of us had been down this track for quite a while - I had explored it with Mum back in October, and we had been partway down it with our Kiwi helpers in November, but no further. Once again, we found that the landscape in January is very different from that of October/November, and with little to no leaf cover on the trees, all sorts of interesting tracks and features revealed themselves.

We found the old quarry that Mum and I had found back in October, as well as a very clearly defined track that leads from the quarry up to the drive (although the top part of it - the part that joins the drive - is too overgrown with brambles, even now, to pick out) - of course, that makes perfect sense as the people who quarried the stone would have wanted an easy way to access the quarry and get the stone out of it.

A little further on we found ourselves at the edge of the terraces beneath the house. We could clearly see at least two more that we have yet to touch - all very exciting stuff.

After we'd scrambled around the trees and clambered back up the donkey track to the drive, we were feeling quite puffed - we'd been exploring for about 45 minutes, so we decided that would be enough for Reggie's little legs today. He, of course, had had a wail of a time scurrying around the woods, sniffing at things in the piles of leaves, running up and down the banks impatiently while we cautiously picked our way over rocks and through prickly bramble tendrils.

When we got back to the house we both said how much we really wanted to get on with things right now - having seen the outline of the terraces, we're both really keen to get them cleared and can imagine how wonderful it would be to have free access around our land. The frustration of it all at the moment is, of course, that other things (such as having to earn money, having to fix fences, having to sort out oozing septic tanks and so on, not to mention the days when the weather is against us) get in the way - not only that, but in the backs of our minds we both know full well that, in another 6-8 weeks the landscape will have changed again and a lot of what we were able to pick out today will be hidden for another year by layer upon layer of thick undergrowth! We will get there eventually though.

We spent another hour or so at our desks (fighting the urge to go outside in the beautiful weather) before tending to the animals and the fire and settling down for the evening.