Monday 25 February 2019

An extra pair of hands makes for great progress

This last week feels to have been something of a whirlwind - we've been basking in sunny temperatures reaching the low 20s, we've worked, we've entertained, and we've made great progress - somehow we've managed to fit in a bit of everything.

Spring is in arrival!

Our good friend Sarah came to visit us last week for a 4-night stay. The last time Sarah visited (on that occasion along with her little boy, Ollie, who on this occasion was busy learning how to ski in the French Alps) was almost 3 years ago, and looking back at the photographs from that visit made us realise how much has changed in that time - back then we hadn't even cleared the upper section of terraces, we were still battling with a car that only started when it decided it wanted to, the tractor didn't have a park, and we were just about to embark on our experience of keeping bees.

Laws of the universe seem to dictate that on the arrival day of someone's stay, everyone has a little too much to drink and eat, and as a consequence the first morning of their stay is a little bleary-eyed. And so it was that after collecting Sarah from the airport and doing a quick dash to stock up on supplies from the supermarket, we relaxed over a late lunch and a bottle of wine in the glorious sunshine. The weather was so spring-like that we continued sitting, chatting, and sipping, interrupting the afternoon only for a circuit of the woods with Reggie so that we could all say we'd stretched our legs, before heading indoors when the sun dipped down and the temperature dropped, to light the fire and begin round 2 (or was it merely a continuation of round 1?) of eating and drinking and catching up.

Despite the tired eyes the next morning, we rallied and headed into Pescia to treat Sarah to a tea (Sarah not being a coffee-drinker) and a pastry at our favourite coffee spot, before then heading out for a drive around the hills in the beautiful sunshine. As Sarah so aptly pointed out, we have become "Sunday drivers" - we aren't ashamed to admit that we enjoy taking an hour or two to drive around the countryside discovering new sights, and revelling in the fact that this is all on our doorstep. On this occasion we stopped and had a wander around the villages of Massa and Cozzile - as new to us as they were to our guest.

Once back at home, it was time for a spot of lunch before rolling up our sleeves and getting stuck in with some graft on the terraces. Sarah had very gamely said she was prepared to give us a hand while she was here, so we jumped at the chance to take her at her word. It's always such a blessing when our visitors are game to give us a helping hand as, really importantly, it means we don't have to put everything on hold for the time while they are here and we get the help of an extra pair of hands. We have some great friends!

The main job we wanted to press on with was the big fencing project which, for various reasons, has stalled on more than one occasion. We made great progress at the outset when our friends Steve and Kathryn did amazing work with us to get the project going, then stalled for many weeks as every time we wanted to go out and work on it there seemed to be hunters in the area and we didn't want to run the risk of Reggie running into them/their dogs. We then made another huge step forward when we had a community day with our friends David & Sarah, Donatella and Paul & Kathy back in January, but then the project stalled once again for various weather-related and other reasons. So it felt good to be getting back on track with things, and on Sunday afternoon, Stuart, Sarah and I worked to edge the fencing a little bit further up the hill. Unfortunately, we ran out of tension wire before the afternoon was over, so our fencing was cut short. Not to waste precious time and help though, we switched jobs, with Sarah and me doing some wood splitting and stacking while Stuart tinkered in his workshop.

An earth star.

We found a couple of these on the upper terraces.

Fencing progress continues...

...thanks to another pair of helping hands.

Sunday night was a little more restrained, meaning that on Monday morning, as Stuart headed off to do a day's plastering work in Pescia (after first having run into the village to procure some more tensioning wire), Sarah and I geared ourselves up for a full day on the fencing project. The morning was chilly - a shock after the previous couple of days' sunshine and high temperatures - so it took a little willpower (and a few jumpers) to get us out the door, but we did it, and were rewarded a few short hours later when the sun came round and the springlike temperatures returned.

We spent the whole day working on the fencing, managing to get it all the way to the top of the right-hand side of the terraces - a great achievement, and a huge step forward. I had a little office work to do later in the afternoon, but there was no stopping Sarah, who took it upon herself to move some more piles of wood, split and stack it all, as well as taking Reggie out for a walk.

Sarah and I made even more progress.

Top corner reached!

On Monday evening, we "treated" Sarah to the English Evening experience at the circolo. She was a great sport and got stuck into the conversation with our regulars Roberto and Vicki, while Paul & Kathy, who also came along to help this week, dedicated their time to speaking with a new attendee - Liliana (who is the mother of the two brothers who run the butcher in Pietrabuona, and the aunt of our friend/regular English Evening attendee Daniele's wife) who spent some years living in Chicago but who feels as if she only speaks and understands American and not English! With Daniele also having come along this week, and the ever-present Luca, it was a great evening.

It wouldn't have been fair to make Sarah work for the entirety of her stay with us, so on Tuesday the plan was for she and I to go into Lucca for a day's sightseeing. Having checked the train timetables, we hopped in the car with Stuart who duly delivered us at the station before starting his day's plastering in Pescia, and Sarah and I hopped on the next train to Lucca.

We spent a lovely morning walking the circuit of the historic city walls, before dropping down into the town, climbing the vertiginous Torre Guinigi, looking around the impressive San Michele church, admiring the Piazza Amfiteatro, having a spot of light lunch, and finally wandering back to the station.

Views from the Torre Guinigi.

On arriving back in Pescia we walked first to the central post office - where we waited an age just to buy a cardboard box - then on to Sue's house where Stuart was working and from where we picked up the car to drive home.

There was time for me to do a little office work when we got home while Sarah took Reggie for a walk, then sat in the sunshine for a bit. By the time Stuart got home we were all chomping at the bit to go out for the meal we had planned - at one of our favourite pizza restaurants in the nearby town of Borgo Buggiano.

Thankfully, the restaurant was open (and cooking pizzas) by 7pm, so we were first in and perusing the menu by 5 past. As usual, we had a delicious meal, and were stuffed by the time we left!

Wednesday was the last day of Sarah's stay with us. Stuart headed off to Pescia as usual, but this time only for a half-day's work. Meanwhile, Sarah and I took advantage of yet another gloriously sunny morning to walk the short distance down the hill into Pietrabuona to go to the post office to post a parcel. After that, we climbed the steep path up into the village, admired the views back across the valley to our house, before starting the walk back home. We were soon pulling our coats off on the way back, the sun beating on our backs.

Another glorious day and a sunny view of home.

All too soon it was time to take Sarah back to the airport - it felt as if it had been a short but absolutely packed visit, and great fun as well as an amazing help.

After the fun and activity of the early part of the week, Thursday and Friday were both spent eyes down, nose to the grindstone, working hard to make up time spent away from the office earlier in the week, while Stuart was still grafting away on the plastering job.

The weekend couldn't come soon enough for Stuart - and indeed such was the intensity of my work-days at the end of the week, I felt the same. I was prepared to have a quiet weekend, allowing time for Stuart to recoup a bit of energy after having done two solid weeks of very physical work. But, after our usual Saturday morning routine, we spent the afternoon back on the fencing project, this time getting it halfway across the top terrace.

Reggie, always keen to help.

The top section was relatively quick.

Nice bit of fencing.

Inspired and motivated by the progress we'd made on Saturday, on Sunday morning we came straight home after our morning coffee and went straight back to work on the terraces. By lunchtime Stuart had felled a tree (which he wanted to do before building any more of the fencing in case it at some point fell on it), we had cleared it all up (cut off the branches, raked them into a pile, cut the tree into large logs and left the large branches in a tidy pile), put the rest of the fence posts in for the top terrace and cleared all of the over-hanging bramble away from where we would need to work.

That tree needs to come down...

... and it's down.

After a quick stop for lunch we headed back up the terraces and, in the blazing sunshine (20C) we continued the fencing all the way across the top terrace and started on the downward leg of the other side of the terraces.

Reggie inspects the new fence.

Going down the other side we are using a different strategy, running the fence along a gulley up against a stone wall (which, in places needs a bit of re-building).

20C - who would have thought it was only February?

Top section completed and downward leg begun.

Very pleased with our progress!

By the end of the day we had made a good start at the downward leg of fencing and were feeling optimistic about moving it further on in the not too distant future. A very satisfying end to a very productive week.

Wednesday 13 February 2019

Edging towards spring?

Here in our part of the world we seem to slowly, slowly be thawing out and warming up. The days are getting milder (we even registered 21.7C in the sunshine one day last week!) and for the last couple of weeks the nights have more often been above freezing than below. Of course, we could yet have another cold snap (we reached -8C at night time last Feb), but it feels as if we are easing our way towards spring.

There is plenty of work to do at this time of year, and the prospect of the start of spring evokes both anticipation and dread in almost equal amounts. The dread comes from the nagging knowledge that as soon as Mother Nature gives the order to advance, everything will spring into action, with grass growing and needing cutting; weeds growing and needing, er, weeding; trees growing and needing pruning; tree prunings needing to be burned prior to the weather warming up enough to make bonfires dangerous (or forbidden); seedlings needing to be planted; the apartment needing to have its pre-season spruce-up, and so the list goes on.

As tempting as it would be to dedicate all our time and energy to trying to complete all our pre-spring tasks ahead of the onslaught, the rather tiresome but essential fact of the matter is that, like everyone, we need to earn money to pay our bills - we haven't retired to Italy, we're not sitting on a big pot of cash, and as much as the cost of living is cheaper here than in England, we do still have lots of outgoings (rather too many at times) - so for most of the last fortnight we have both downed tools (that is, downed tools on our own property) in order to dedicate appropriate time to earning those essential pennies. Stuart has done some work with David in Vellano and some plastering in Pescia, while I, of course, have sat at my computer doing desk work as usual. I've tried to make enough time to get outdoors for an hour or so each afternoon before the sun goes down though, as not only does it help us move things forward (albeit at a glacial pace), but it feels good for the soul to be in the outdoors and to be physically active, even if only for an hour or two.

So there's not a lot to report in this instalment - some progress on tidying up the wood storage area in the quarry by the gates, a little more firewood stacked on the pile for next winter (from which we may or may not need to "borrow" should we have a very cold snap in the next few weeks!), and Stuart has made great inroads into learning how to use some of the tools Dad has handed down to him (which were delivered safely all the way from the UK by our kind friends Paul & Kathy).

Hard to believe that earlier that morning there had been frost on the terraces.

The mercury hit 21.7C on one sunny day last week.

The beginnings of Project Mallet.

Work in progress.

More work in progress.

Almost there.


The beginnings of Project Rolling Pin.

Work in progress.

Rolling pin.

The beginnings of Project Grain Scoop.

Work in progress - grain scoop.
Craftsman at work.

Cooling down when the sun drops.

Reggie has been busy.


Firewood for future winters.

Wood chips done!

Monday 4 February 2019

Keeping pace with winter

This winter compared to last has been a stark contrast - last winter was a complete washout right up until mid-spring, meaning we got very little done at all.

So this year, if the weather is dry- which it has been, a lot - we're outside working. In fact, we find it impossible to do otherwise, as we know that if the weather does turn we'll be relegated indoors and all progress will grind to a halt - and the progress we make during winter is somewhat addictive.

We have been blessed with lots of blue skies and sunshine this winter.

Reflecting over a cappuccino down in town at the weekend about the progress that winter affords us, we realised that each winter (perhaps excluding last winter) our steps forward seem bigger - we go into each spring feeling and seeing the progress. Back in the early days we not only had to take some significant steps backwards but we ended up doing a lot of jobs more than once, either because things were living in temporary spots and needed moving and covering all over again or because other jobs cropped up that were more urgent and put everything else on hold. It's only really this winter that everything finally seems to have found its happy resting place, and that's really been largely as a result of putting shelving into the sheds in the Autumn and very recently sorting out the, well, I'm not sure quite what to call it these days - up until recently we've always referred to it as the 'tractor park', given that its primary purpose was to keep our precious mechanical donkey in the dry, but it's now one third storage, one third workshop and one third tractor shelter!

Reorganising the entire space of this shelter has afforded us with this three-part, three-purpose structure, the part of which I'm most excited about is the workshop in which soon I will be trying my hand at wood turning. This is thanks in no small part to Mike, Helen's Dad, who is donating his old lathe to us along with associated other wood-working tools, and to Paul and Kathy who have extremely kindly met up with Mike during their trip to England to take possession of the equipment and drive it all stuff back to Italy - without either part of this team I would be waiting quite some time yet before being able to turn my hand at wood turning!

So, going back to last weekend, Helen and I spent Saturday moving some small trees that I'd recently cut down in readiness for making way for the fence around the terraces. After lugging the trees down to the drive, small limbs were cut off and chipped and the large pieces were cut and split and stacked on the ever growing wood pile for next winter.

More firewood.

More wood chipping.

With the wood chippings we finally finished the flooring of the tractor's section of sheltering, meaning that during the following days I could occupy myself with sorting out the workshop area in readiness for the new tools and to make a start on my first attempt at carving what I optimistically hope will be a butter dish made from a lump of manna ash that fell down in the winds of 2015 and from which Paul cut a few logs from while he and Kathy were Reggie-sitting in the Autumn.

Sunday was a slightly less active affair because we were involved in a tasting event down at our local village circolo. Emanuele (manager of the circolo and organiser of the event) had asked if we would bring a little honey and oil down, fearing that some of the others he'd asked to do the same might not show up on the day. But as it was, everyone turned up and a nice little selection of local produce was on offer.

There was a new cooperative that farms down in Veneri a village just the other side of Pescia, producing wine, oil and various types of sheep's cheese.

Stefano the goat farmer from Medicina arrived with bags of his chestnut flour and a gas burner, and started turning out chestnut pancakes (necci) filled with his goats' ricotta. There were biscotti made by the Brasolin brothers who run the butchers in the village, Mara and Franco came with their honey and preserved olives, Danilo and Michela had a great display of fair trade produce, and then finally our own small offering of olive oil and honey, albeit honey given to us by way of land rent from Alain the bee man, rather than or own produce.

Our modest offering.

Despite all of this there was a very poor turn out by way of tasters - in fact it seemed that there was just one family from the village who came specifically for the produce and dutifully bought a bit of something from everyone there.

The disappointing turnout aside, it was a nice evening, it was great to chat to Mara, Franco, Danilo and Michi for the evening and feel in some small way part of the local community.

It was a fun evening and good to see our friends.

Monday it was back to work. Having decided to try and make something from wood (a material we have in abundance), I had been drowning myself in information since Christmas, and as such was feeling overwhelmed by it all.

What exactly do I decide to make? What I make determines what tools I need (of which there are many, and not cheap to acquire), the type of thing I make also dictates what wood I need to cut, when I need to do it, and how I need to store it and dry it to avoid it splitting. My head was spinning.

I finally decided that I just needed to start with something - anything - to see what it was I was missing or needed, and as such the butter dish came to mind, as it was something I could try carving by hand and had the tools for already. First, though, I was missing a chopping block to work on so project number one was exactly that.

Using one of the ash logs that Paul had cut in the autumn and three lengths of wood we had set aside for use as woodland steps I set about making a chopping block on which I could carve out the butter dish with my side axe.

Feeling very pleased with the new chopping block, I then went straight to work on the next project, first by cleaving the log in two, then cleaving it roughly to size before using the axe to get it to a shape and then using chisels to shave it to an almost finished form, at which point the sander came into play.

It became apparent from this process that without a 'shave/bowl horse' I couldn't use the draw knife, which would have been quicker and easier at a certain point. (At the reference of a bowl horse you've probably switched off, but I mention it to illustrate my point from earlier with regards struggling to decide what to make and what I might need to make it.)

As it stands I've yet to finish our butter dish and to get that far I had to make a chopping block and already I need to make a bowl horse before trying to do any more carving henceforth.

The beginnings of a butter dish.

Before the week was out I had come to realise that it wouldn't only be tools that might become an obstacle but the raw materials themselves. Here again I have to decide whether I want to use green wood or seasoned wood, each has its advantages and disadvantages. I'll refrain from boring you with the little I've learnt but some projects absolutely require seasoned wood, like chopping boards for example. 

Knowing that seasoning wood takes time, and not wanting to be stuck without some dry wood, led us onto a different project altogether: in the quarry at the end of the drive where we store our firewood there were a few lumps of seasoned acacia and chestnut. The problem, of course, was that they were right at the bottom of a very large pile of wood and there was only one way to get at them.

Now, for quite a while one of the items on our to-do list has been the job 'sort quarry storage' and it's been there for some time because I've puzzled over what exactly we need to do to 'sort' it.

While we had two large stacks of cut (but not split) wood, I came to realise we were essentially missing a third area to store wood that is cut and split, all ready for the wood burner except for a bit of drying.

Currently we had a stack of small diameter wood that would serve as kindling and a second stack of larger logs that will be used for the main wood burner in the house.

Up until now our process for firewood has been to start cutting and splitting as soon as we stop using the wood burner - sometime around mid-April, so we cut it and split it up in the quarry then move it down the drive in the tractor and stack it near the house into its shelter to finish drying out over summer until around mid October when we have need to burn again.

So far so good, and not a bad system at all, it's worked very well for the last two years (prior to which we were chasing our tails, having started without any wood stores whatsoever when we moved in - it's been a battle every winter to try and get ourselves that bit further ahead).

So the improvement we set to work on as the week progresses and during the weekend was to address this third storage area. That began by making a new second area on which to stack the big logs as we moved them to access the bits I wanted for carving - the idea then being once all that was moved we'd use this space to make a new are for the split wood. This means we not only have more space for storing more wood but that we no longer need to wait until April before working on firewood, not only will this give us firewood as dry as is possible but also space to in theory have three winter's worth of wood in storage.

Work begins on tidying the quarry.

Tree felled to use to create more storage.

A new pallet-based storage area.

Clouds gathering.

The last of the sunshine for a while.

The week that followed was forecast to be wet and getting more so as the week progressed, with a deluge promised by Friday.

So, what to do on a damp Monday? Rebuild the bed frame in the spare room I decided.

We had inherited said bed frame - it was made by the previous owners and in their typical manner, was less than optimal. It rarely bothered either Helen or myself but it annoyed me each time I made the bed for a guest. The frame being made as it was meant that there was a five-inch gap between the headboard and the mattress (more than enough space for the pillows to disappear into) and until now we had been plugging this gap with other pillows and a spare duvet. Today that was going to change!

It took most of the day, but reusing only wood from the original frame I managed to make a new one with a considerably smaller footprint by turning the frame timbers onto their side and finally threw away the old pillows we had used as 'stuffing' (although not before Reggie had got hold of one of them and removed the stuffing from the stuffing...).

Old bed frame, complete with pillow/duvet stuffing.

All-new bed frame with no need for surplus pillows.

Reggie removed the stuffing from the stuffing.

Our friend Dave ('Dave the chef') arrived the following day having found a small window in his schedule to pop across and see us - a bit of website redesign in exchange for him cooking dinner for us seemed like a great exchange and with the weather being as wet and chilly as it was, it was a good reason to be indoors for a couple of days.

A dusting of snow.

A cold toad pond.

The first snow to fall at the level of our house.

After a day's redesigning the website was looking rather nice (, as was the food we ate that evening, which included clams, squid and large fillets of perch - a real treat for us.

No sooner had Dave arrived than he was off again. On Thursday morning while the snow started to fall we fiddled with a bit more technology before he and I headed out for lunch on the way to the airport. I decided to try a restaurant we have passed on numerous occasions on the way towards Lucca but only just outside Pescia town.

Yet again outside appearances proved to be deceptive and this off roadside building opened up into a spacious cosy restaurant, owned as it turns out by a Roman who had in his past spent ten years in Tanzania opening up a pastry shop, ice cream shop and pizza place within a commercial centre.

The food was excellent, the house wine very nice indeed, and with plenty of fish and seafood on the menu, it will be somewhere to head back to with Helen someday.

So the week passed by in a bit of a blur, and as the deluge slowly gathered momentum on Friday I spent most of the day between the bathroom and my outdoor workshop, taking the bathroom door with me as I went.

On Thursday evening Helen had highlighted the fact that having no way of locking the bathroom door is a little less than ideal when there are guests in the house and asked if I could fit a simple lock. This was a job I've had in mind for some time but it was quite a way down on my list of priorities. Today, however, with plenty of wet stuff forecast and the luxury of a covered work space outside in which to work on cutting the door down, I spent the day traipsing through the house with wet feet (work normally reserved for Reggie).

Now some of you may be thinking "hang in a minute, why does the door need cutting up to fit a simple lock on the door?"

Yet again, I refer the reader to the style in which the previous owners did things here.

The bathroom door as we had it was fixed to the outside architrave. This I didn't mind in itself, as it allowed the door to open outwards, BUT the door then shut onto the architrave rather than fitting inside it or the door frame, leaving pretty much nowhere to fit a lock on the inside other than one that would bolt into the architrave itself. Indeed, this was how we inherited the door and it worked ok for a while until the poorly fitted architrave started coming away from the wall.

So, the simple job of cutting a lock meant that I had to remove the door, fit a new piece of door frame (as currently there was none down one side), remove all the architrave and re-cut it to fit the door frame properly (including rebating two pieces to compensate for the plastering that had been done), and cut the door down to fit inside the door frame - which meant dismantling the cottage-style door completely then rehanging it and staining it, before finally fitting a simple bolt on the inside.

A whole day lost to job I hadn't planned to do anytime soon, but having done the work, I've gained a little extra piece of calm in my mind as it's one more job that I don't have to look at daily.

By the time I had tidied and put tools away the rain was in full flow and it stayed like that until mid morning the following day.

Our rain gauge read that we'd had almost six centimetres of rain but knowing as we do that it often under reports a little I wouldn't be surprised if we had more like 10 centimetres, the noise of the Pescia River below and even our own little stream was almost deafening when we left for coffee Saturday morning and the small falls in Pietrabuona were doing their best to impersonate Niagra, it may be the heaviest we've seen it and probably a combination of not only rainfall but snow melt from further up the valley.

In contrast to the many days of blue sky and sunshine we've been enjoying, we've had a run of grey days.

A bit more snow.