Gardening


While I’ve neglected to keep you up to date with progress on La Rectoria, the builders, plumbers and electricians have been anything but idle.  On the first and second floors all of the partitioning has been built delineating bathrooms, bedrooms, storage areas, living rooms and dining rooms.  We are now being harried to make decisions concerning light switches, stone plinths to support bathroom sinks, plaster finishes to walls and light fittings.  The pace of work has moved up a number of gears since the summer and changes in and around the house are occurring at perceptibly quicker pace.

Until today, I had not visited the house for a couple of weeks.  Thus I found the majority of the steel frames marking the windows in place, piping for heating trailing across the upper floor, radiators fixed to walls, mountings for sockets and switches in place.  Walls were awash with the pink graffiti of the plumber where he had indicated where the various installations are to be fitted.   So very quickly, the space for guests has been laid out and one can envisage with increasing clarity the final outcome.

Whilst all this has been going on, we have not been idle outside.  Three weeks ago friends joined us for a barbeque and assisted us in making a start in cutting down the bamboo.  In the three or so hours myself, Matts and John got to work and a considerable swathe was cut, stripped of its branches and disposed of.  The top half of much of the bamboo will be kept to provide canes for our planned hort/vegetable patch, whilst the considerably thicker bottom portions could be used for an array of alternative uses, decorative or structural.

As darkness fell comfort and solice were found by the fireside with barbequed meat, sausages and black pudding and then it was homebound, tired but contented after a good day’s work.

PS: HAVE A LOOK AT http://arquipindoles.blogspot.com/2010_12_01_archive.html

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So here we go again.  This isn’t a reference to the blog but to our second camping expedition to La Rectoria in the space of one month.   Camping doesn’t cause me any problems, relative peace and quiet, no TV, your day dictated by the number of daylight hours etc.  No, it’s trying to remember everything – clothes no problem; food for two days (with no fridge) O.K.; things to amuse kids – painting stuff, kids garden tools, football and more.  Garden tools and other ‘bits and bobs’….where does the list end?   Last time we did this I forgot the harness and visor for the stimmer with the result that I had to make an additional two hour, 150km trip to Cardedeu and  back.  It would be great to leave camping and gardening paraphernalia there but as yet there is nowhere to secure them.

Thus on Friday last we arrived with Silvestre’s youngest cousin to find Viçenc and Josep still on site…at 17.00.  I make this point as my recollection of Britain is building sites abandoned by 15.00 on Friday with all and sundry decamped to the pub.  With tent erected and makeshift kitchen and shower in place we set to getting ready for the job in hand for the next couple of days….’painting’ 500 terracotta ceiling tiles (rajoles) and tidying the garden a bit more.  Pere claimed one of his guys could perform the former task in about two hours.  More on that piece of hyperbole shortly.  We had taken our own homemade take-away with us for supper  – homemade pizza – and with that devoured we settled down for the night. 

Breakfast the next morning and the ‘best laid plans….’ – gadamit “no butter!”  So it was olive oil and marmalade on toast – kind of different.   Having moved approximately 200 tiles the previous evening to where they were to be painted, Goretti and I went to consider the job in hand.  Not so much painting as dipping.  Dipping rectangular ceiling tiles into a mix of chalk paste and water in such a way as to leave a terracotta diamond set against the white chalk background….each corner should be dipped for about 8 seconds…..giving 32 seconds plus time for cleaning the tile prior to dipping and then leaving them to dry.  Lucky to do one tile a minute.  500 in two hours….hats eaten and more!

I retreated to the garden to make slightly heavy weather of strimming the weeds in the main camp ground, but by lunchtime the weeds were felled, gathered up and piled to one side.  Meanwhile back at the tiles and four hours later 200 or so had been dipped and with some aplomb….The game strategy was hatched and after lunch a further 150 were dispatched, with me lending a hand and the two boys acting as labourers, collecting tiles for us to dip.  A Dickensian picture of a family at work. Tiring repetitive work, but highly satisfying, knowing that we were making a tangible contribution to a finish in the house, one that had been there prior to the restoration work.  Knackered we freshened up using the invaluable solar shower and sank to bed.

Too much coffee or perhaps it was the intermittent sound of gunfire (hunters pursuing porc senglar) but me and Goretti were wide awake at 02.00. Aching body, warm tent, coffee induced insomnia, sleep was not so sound or serene as the previous night.  Feeling closer to 60 than 50 I struggled upright on Sunday morning.  Sitting for breakfast I wondered if I would ever be able to leave the chair.  Returning to the previous days sweat saturated clothes I completed a further hour of garden action with the stimmer and finished by venting any spasms of pain or discomfort by felling bamboo plants tall and short. 

And so the final push with the tiles.  Running short of chalk paste we scrapped to 501 and then proceeded to do a ‘Sunset Boulevard’ thing dipping our hands in the paste and leaving our prints on a tile apiece.  Along with a few festive themed sponge painted ones we want these placed on the ceiling as our personal testament and commitment to this house which is increasingly becoming part of us and our family.

Before this week’s blurb, two brief apologises.  First, for not posting a blog last weekend; over hectic schedule with the family which was great.  Second, keep the blog focused.  Well, the occasional emotionally skewed rant a la football etc. should be excused.

Summer is here and it’s official.  In Catalunya it is trumpeted in by La Revetlla and Sant Joan on the 24 June.   La Revetlla takes place on the night of the 23rd.  Coca de Llardons is eaten, a flat catalan bread topped with lardons and pinenuts accompanied by a glass of cava.  Fireworks and bangers are set off and the evening has a real party atmosphere, more akin to New Year’s Eve.   All this used to be accompanied by bonfire – bonfires made of old furniture.  Sant Joan was what we British euphemistically call a spring clean.  A thorough top to bottom cleaning and clear out of the home.  It was time for renewal.  Old chairs, tables were tossed on the fire to be replaced by the new.   Now this symbolism has been lost, largely due to the wider risk of forest fires and the alternative provisions made for the disposal of household items.  Never mind, the sentiment is still there.

Sant Joan and the Catalan public holiday was on Thursday; the Spanish don’t move their public holidays to the nearest weekend, as a consequence people often take the Friday off work as well, which makes for a long weekend.  Me, I had no choice, no classes on the Friday.

So with car packed we left Cardedeu on Thursday afternoon and pitched our tent next to La Rectoria.  A makeshift kitchen was put together under the arches of the house and with a near to full moon that bathed the Vall d’Hostels in a silvery light we settled down for the night.  I was first awoken by the dawn chorus, a cacophony of bird song.  Then it was a couple of early bird ladies out for a morning walk.   And it was only just after 07.00 when I got up.  Cup of Earl Grey and armed with strimmer I set to work on the ‘feixa’, the raised ground to the west of the house.   My senses quickly focused on the smell rising from the carpet of cut vegetation, chamomile.  It was a lovely awakening to a beautifully sun soaked morning. 

The carril bici was soon conveying a steady stream of cyclists and walkers passed La Rectoria and if I had a euro for every one that passed during the day I guess I would have earned 100.  And so the feixa has been cleared of chamomile and more noxious weeds.    We will have to gen up on our botany.  The small patio adjacent to the church is sporting a colourful array of plants and flowering shrubs and trees and the family returned with wild flowers and grasses gathered on a summer walk to the Ermita de Santa Cecilia.  The start of another colourful season in La Garrotxa.

Who better to draw on today for a suitable metaphor than Noel Coward and his ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’.  For so it was today.  Better prepared for hot beating sun –  30°c in the shade – armed with strimmer, visor, wide brimmed peasant style fedora, factor 50 cream, bottles of iced water I set to like a mad thing cutting down knee high weeds, wild flowers and silvery velveteen cabbage type plants.  It was tough work and it would have been good to have done more but the sheer density of the grown and the occasional rasping grate of blade on stones prohibited more speed.   Able assistance was given by Goretti and her sister Judith raking up and removing the thick mat of material.  By about 2 O´clock and under  an unremitting sun it was time to ‘draw stumps’ and head for some shelter and shade for a well deserved lunch.

The roof has been removed this week, from what will be the dining room.   The tops of the exposed walls have been filled with a layer of  concrete.  This exercise will in due course be repeated right around the top perimeter of the external walls further strengthening them and thus the entire structure.  Many of the beams in this part of the house will have to be replaced as the exposed ends were rotten in the most part.  These will be replaced with new ones of Catalan ‘Roure’ (oak) instead of ‘Pi’ (pine) – less robust and tends to lose its shape etc.

For us the point of focus for the week has been what we call the service area – a small room in the basement which will be the ‘nerve centre’ for the majority of the services of the house – heating, electricity, water etc.  In short,  we are almost but not quite trying to get 2 or 3 quarts in the proverbial pint pot.  Yes, it all fits but my passion, namely ‘swing cats’ will not be performed here.  As this space provides direct access to the garden, it was hoped that it might afford the luxury of offering some room for garden related paraphernalia.  Now the answer is no, only welly boots and jackets.   The issue of the garden shed is beginning to crystallize.  By that I mean it is becoming more immediate.  The crystallization of the idea has never been that much of a problem for me and so far we have only been offered somewhat overdesigned solutions.    We need space for a lawn mower of some description, wheelbarrow, garden tools and other bits and bobs you wouldn’t expect to litter your house.  To one side of this is needed a simple lean-to for guests to secure their bikes.   Adjacent to this we envisage a small ‘hort’ (fruit and vegetable patch).  Here I would like to try and grow some of the stuff that is either difficult, expensive or downright impossible to get here – raspberries difficult (only seen occasionally at local markets and stupidly expensive; rhubarb impossible to get here although I have seen tinned stuff in Perpignan.  Blackcurrants are also on my radar.  We have been nurturing a horseradish plant in our garden here in  Cardedeu.  By rights, is should have landed up on some German’s plate as we bought it three years ago at a market in Aschaffenburg.  We flew it down here in ‘vegetable class’ – like most Ryan Air passengers and having encouraged it to produce roots by immersing it in water, duly planted it.  Now we have four or five horseradish roots which in time will find their way from our garden to your plate!

School day memories have come back over the last few days.  Tucked away in the corner of what is our store room in Cardedeu is an old wooden desk of the type we had at Lathallan all of 40 years ago.  At the front is the wooden furrow where pens and pencils rested and sitting in the right hand corner the one inch round hole where the china white ink well once rested.  Set three inches or so from the front are the hinges of the lid, which when lifted from the back of the desk opens to provide ample space for school books, paper etc.  We have now placed this desk in Silvestre’s bedroom, as functional as when it was first made 50 years or more ago.

Lifelong friendships were forged sitting at desks such as this and inspirational men taught us maths, history, science and more.  I can’t and won’t lay any claim to being a model student, but I was fortunate to share with my friends the pearls and inspiration that were presented us by the Headmaster, Mr Burton and his wife, Winnie.

Why this outpouring of nostalgia and what is the connection with La Rectoria?   Pere’s men have this week opened up the five bricked up arches in what will be the dining room for the house.  Since our first visit as prospective buyers three years ago the distribution of the house has all but been self evident.  The ‘basement’ was to be our home.  Many of the existing rooms with minor modifications are to be en-suite bedrooms and the old ‘economic kitchen’ with its open fire, the ‘snug’ whisky totting, post dinner salon.   Of all these rooms however, it has been the ‘dining room’ that has retained the greatest secret.  The five arched windows have been blocked up either with stone or perforated red bricks which allowed light to filter in but made any sense of what was beyond impossible.  This room latterly had been used as a classroom.  Painted a light duck egg blue, walls and slanted wooden beams.  The only suggestion of its final purpose is a blackboard painted on one wall.  Largely broken, but still bearing a few illegible scribbles.  Here a priest would have taught boys and girls from the local parish.  Reading, writing, maths and no doubt the word of God.  All in a little valley largely isolated from Spain, if not the outside world. 

The opening of the arches to the dining room totally transforms the experience on entering the house.  What was warm but dark it now radiant and bright as light now floods in.  I can’t say what the trigger was that brought about this cascade of sentimental memories.  Old wooden desks and ink wells have been a catalyst.  But light, vision and education do go hand in glove.

And what a difference a week makes.  Grey and rain ladden clouds have been replaced by blue skies, hazy horizons and light clouds of cotton wool.  Mud is now baked earth and in the relatively brief time I have lived in Catalunya I doubt I have seen the vegetation so green and lush.  My agricultural eyes pick up erroneous beauty.  Fields of wheat obscured by a blanket of red poppies.  Unproductive but pleasant to the eye.

Today we tested out our latest garden gadget to great effect.  A strimmer, brushcutter (in American parlance) or desbrozador, I am wary of such tools, for the simple reason that they are bloody dangerous.  But needs must, given that the garden is taking on the appearance of an unmanageable jungle.  Petrol mixed, visor fitted and harness attached and two or three hours later much of the ‘lawn’ has been laid flat.  Result!

Moves are now underway re-finalizing quotations for the kitchen – oven, canopy and extraction, dishwasher.  Bon profit!

Our visit to Sant Miquel this week was by way of a detour to the City of Girona.  A forty five minute drive up the AP7 motorway from Cardedeu to Girona, and then about another forty five minutes cross country to our house via Anglès, Amer and Les Planes d’Hostoles. The Catalans must be beginning to believe that the weather patterns common to Britain – rain, cloud and cool temperatures – are taking up permanent residence here.  The top of Montseny to the north of Cardedeu was carpeted in snow on Tuesday and much of Catalunya has been saturated this week.

So as we drove up the motorway the skies looked pretty ominous.  Low dark clouds hanging over the verdant green of the Pla de L’Estany.  Fields of newly sown corn, orchards of apples and pears and stands of poplar trees surrounding the grand masias all set against the hills and mountains to the west and north and the frontier with France. As we approached Girona the skies cleared and the stone flagged streets glistened with the recently departed rain.

Girona has a gem of a historic centre and one we have to get to know better.  The skyline of the old quarter “El Call” is dominated by the Cathedral from which runs a labyrinth of streets and alley ways down to the El Ter (The river Ter).  This part of the city yesterday played host to the annual ‘Temps de Flors’, flowers as art and artistic installation.  Public and private buildings and spaces are taken over for nine days by explosive floral creations. Patios are opened to sculptures of floral imagination which in turn bring smiles of delight.  Carpets of flowers cascading down the flights of stairs from the churches of Sant Marti and Sant Feliu. One needs no excuse to visit Girona, but ‘Temps de Flors’ would make it that much more memorable.

So we continued to La Rectoria.  The ground next to the house continues to look like a ploughed park, partly covered with earth and rubble.  Suddenly, however, with ample moisture and now with a modest increase in temperature, grasses and wild flowers have leapt upwards and the browns and greys of the surrounding wooded hillsides are now freshly green.

Now we have a damp proof membrane being installed in the basement.  On the uppermost floor preparations are nearly complete for the ‘compression layer` – concrete poured among and over mats of steel to strength the floor and house in general.  Word has it that the roof will be removed in June, to be replaced by something altogether more watertight and robust.

 

So what is there for ‘us’ to do at La Rectoria each time we pay a visit?  The most obvious thing now is to see how the past week’s work has progressed.  Given that we are now at the end of week four, Vicens the site foreman and his young colleague have not been hanging about.  Old plaster has been chipped from the walls on some ground floor rooms and the wall of main arch to the front has been broken through.  This has permitted a small Bob the Builder type digger access to the lower ground floor to remove about half a meter of soil and in the process reveal the depth of any pre existing foundations…..or not as may be the case.  Among other things the local building code requires some 2.40m of ceiling height, thus the need to remove so much soil.

So having nosed around to see what had been done, we set about our task for the day; some gardening.  Well hardly…a bit more like, ‘slash and burn’!   The majority of the ‘garden’ is what could loosely be called a lawn, a mix of grass, weeds and other things green.  To south and west this is bounded by a thickly wooded steep hillside.  To the east lies the house and small chapel and the pine tree (pineda) , which lends the house its name.  The northern edge of the lawn is marked by three or four hazel trees.  Here the land falls steeply away for five metres and is taken up in large part by some highly invasive BAMBOO.

Now I did have some prior knowledge as to what a nuisance bamboo can be.  But having bought this place we have discovered we have quite a job on our hands getting this little lot under control.  Much of it has grown to a height of four to six metres high.  So what? You might ask.  The bigger issue is that it has taken a liking to creeping beneath the soil and popping up three, four, five, six meters onto the lawn.  And boy does it feel at home.   Last summer we arrived after an absence of some four weeks to find new shoots standing a meter high in the grass!!  No need for triffids here.  I subsequently spent a sunstroke inducing afternoon trying to hack the stuff back.

The roots form a thick lattice across the garden, spreading like nebulous fingers beneath the soil.  I guess some mechanical solution might be needed in the longer term to break up the roots.  But for now we want to make a start in cutting back the main stand.  Thus the afternoon was spent gathering some old dead bamboo and burning it along with other garden waste. 

So can I make an appeal to any gardeners out there.  Is there a simple solution to bamboo management or is thermo nuclear warfare the only simple solution?  I would like to know your thoughts on the subject.  I await a reply from a well known tropical botanist in particular….

As a footnote I would like to add a wee thank you to Oscar, one of my English students who helped us on the way with our blog.  Take some time to visit his website www.enlamolchila.com.