LES GUIS - THE PHOTOS FROM 2007
As you can see, actually getting to the farm was somewhat ... er ... problematical, what with one thing and another. If you compare this photo with this one from last year you will see precisely what I mean. The conifers have gone totally berserk and the tree on the right-hand side of the track has grown even more.
This is going to call for a serious lumberjacking effort, I reckon. I shall have to sort all of this out.
Here's the same pic from the other angle - and it looks even worse, doesn't it? Especially when you compare it to how things were last year.
But first things first. There's talk that there might be some people coming to stay on the farm with me this summer so we need some kind of washing facility that's more user-friendly than the standpipe and ceramic sink unit thing that I had up until now.
I salvaged a sink from a scrap caravan a few years ago, so I built myself a quick sink unit to fit it. This looks much more professional now - especially once I put a worktop on it. Well - a sort-of worktop. In fact it was the cut-out from when I put the sink and draining board unit into my apartment from Brussels.
Another thing with having people round is that they need more facilities than I'm ever likely to need - like proper toilets and showers and so on. It was made failrly clear to me that something had to be arranged.
The best course of action is that if you need something making, you make it yourself. And so this is the framework for the sides of a fairly basic shower and toilet cubicle that I started to knock together.
It's relatively easy to knock together some kind of framework for a building such as this. It's even easier if you can scrounge some of the right equipment too.
If you look closely you can see that the corners of the frame are held together with angle clamps. These cost me €2:50 or $3:00 or £1:50 each and they are worth their weight in gold. They have holes in them - which means that you can make up a quick jig with a long piece of wood for some kind of uniform construction.
You can see the electric alligator saw and the electric drill too. The new solar panels and the 600 watt inverter moved my construction techniques onto a completely different plane.
So here's an almost completed beichstuhl. All it needs now is a roof, and a front where the "drop" is going to be. And then of course it needs to be sealed to stop pests getting in, and then varnishing.
The roof is going to have an insulated plasterer's trough filled with water and with a glass lid, so that the sun will heat the water and make it nice and warm. I'm going to fit a solar heat exchanger too if I can. Then there'll be a pull-cord shower head so that you can have a nice warm shower. If the water isn't warm enough, well you simply boil up a kettle and add the boiling water to the water in the plasterer's trough.
The framework has been clad with cheap tongue-and-grooving that I can pick up for next-to-nothing. It makes it all so much easier to do it with that. Then you can trim the excess off with the alligator saw. You can see that there are coach bolt heads in the corners of the framework. The idea is that it can be dismantled and moved about the farm as the fancy takes me.
And having built this, I reckon that if I used heavier duty timber for the frame, and a higher-quality tongue-and-grooving for the cladding, I could quite happily build myself a cabin from scratch.
So that was where I had got to by the time I had to return to Brussels to pick up Caliburn and to nip over to the UK for an Open University meeting or two. Notice the weather, by the way. This was how it was mostly all the time I was down here.
You might be wondering why there isn't a picture of the farm as it was on my arrival. Well, the answer is that it wasn't too different from this one from last year. However, a couple of hours with the brushcutter that I bought in the USA in 2002 has made a trememdous difference as you can see, and I can actually get into the house.
The pile of vegetation left of centre is a pile of nettle and bramble roots that I've systematically been pulling up every time I encounter them. This is the second pile too. There's already one lot gone up in smoke.
If you compare this pic with the one at the top, you can see that I've done quite a bit of deforestation. As well as trimming the conifers so that they no longer grew right across the road, at one stage I had a step ladder on the roof of the Escort and was standing on that cutting down the overhanging branches from the trees that you see on the right.
Well, I had to do something while it was pouring with rain, didn't I?
And here I am, back again. And with Caliburn too, as you can see in the photo above. For once the weather was sunny, so I managed a good shot of the track in which you can see all of the mowing that I'd been up to just prior to departing (was it really 5 weeks ago since I'd been gone?)
To the right of Caliburn you can see a collection of barrels and so on. This represents Paul's collection of used cooking oil that, seeing as he has abandoned diesel engines, he's donated to the cause. At least - that's what he said at the time. He went out two weeks later and bought a diesel Land Rover. I wonder if he wants his used oil back.
First thing to do though was to sort out some living accommodation. I was planning on being here for the foreseeable future and living in a tiny tent in the barn wasn't going to be anything like comfortable. I wanted to do something convenient and comfortable, and also fairly quick.
And so I built myself a camp out of the large tent, a pavillion thingy, and a sheet of plastic, as you can see.
And if there ever was a camp as camp as this one, I'd really like to see it.
In the tent I have a sun lounger thingy that I bought from the LIDL in Montlucon and two suitcases with my clean clothes in them. Then outside the tent I have some hardstanding consisting of two of the waterproof chipboard floor panels I'm flooring the barn with. There's an old door on a couple of trestles, and that's the kitchen worktop.
I think it looks superb, and it was definitely comfortable.
And after all of that, it was back to the beichstuhl. Here, I have a rubberised water container under a glass window, and with a temperature sender in the water.
It might only be showing 16.7 degrees right now in this photograph, but on several occasions it registered into the 40 degrees, and at least once a week until the end of September I could guarantee myself a hot shower with the water that came out of here. There's no problem with the theory around this idea, but then again I never thought that there would be.
The next stage in the proceedings was the solar heat exchanger. For this, I'd managed to salvage an aluminium heat exchanger out of a small air-conditioning unit, and I was planning to couple it up to a submersible 12-volt pump which would push the cold water through it in order to heat it up.
My initial plan was to have the pump connected to a solar panel so that the pump would only work when there was sun shining. But from that idea I went on to a more technically-refined idea. You can see in the plastic packet a simple bi-metallic strip switch. This switch is normally open (i.e. current cannot pass) but closes at 60 degrees Celsius. The idea is that the pump is wired up to the switch which is inside the heat exchanger, and once the heat in there hits the appropriate temperature, it switches the pump on which then pushes the cold water through the hot atmosphere and heats it up pretty quickly.
The next stage is to build a box to take it. This is a pretty deep box, and is filled for much of its depth with old scrap polystyrene I had lying around. On top of that is some tin plate that was formerly part of the side wall of a Renault Master, and at the sides is a strip of thick aluminium cut into the right lengths.
The joints between the metal base and the aluminium sides have been filled in with aluminium foil to make some kind of heat-absorbing and reflective seal.
In this photograph, you can see the heat switch positioned and wired in to the electric circuit.
And here we have the more-or-less finished article. As you can see, it's more-or-less glazed over, with just the wooden sealing strips blocking off some of the heat-absorbing glass surface.
The ratio of wood to glass is far too high like this, but it's only a test bed and I'm not unduly concerned. In the real model, the heat exchanger would be about 10 times as big, so the ratio will improve.
This was the set-up for hot water as at the end of September. The heat exchanger wasn't wired in, but water was being heated simply in the plasterer's trough, as I told you.
As for the heat exchanger, well I suppose I was too optimistic. So much so in fact that I thought at first that a wire had come off somewhere. When the pump did eventually kick in (in mid-August) I was taken completely by surprise. I reckon that in the period of mid-July (when the "system" was inaugurated) until the end of September, the pump fired up no more than 4 times.
But this has taught me an important lesson. And when I go down there again next week permanently, I'm going to take a couple more switches with me - at 40 degrees and 50 degrees. I'll set them inside the heat exchanger too with the 60 degree one, and wire up a 12-volt timer to each one. That should tell me which one works and for how long, to give me much more of an idea of the optimum setting.
Only question is - what can I use as an impromptu timer? Apparently car clocks don't work as they aren't always 12-volt, so I'm open to suggestions on this. E- if you have a good idea.
The next few photos show the development of the solar water tank.
This is the framework made out of good old 27x40 (inch by an inch and a half) timber struts. You can see that it's all mounted on what will become the roof of the beichstuhl, or toilet-cum-shower unit. Once again, all credit to the corner clamps for holding everything together, and to the battery-operated drills that take all the hard work out of screwing.
Here you can see the solar water tank box with the sides in place and screwed to the framework. These sides are made of 150mm (6") planking that can be picked up from anywhere. This is all going to pretty solid when it's finished.
It's painted in that old traditional standby of used engine oil. Pretty nasty stuff and totally carcinogenic, and I certainly hope so due to all the nasty things around here that make a living devouring anything wooden. I've seen some places round here that are so rotten that the only reason they are still standing upright is because the woodworm are all holding hands. This stuff isn't so good for you either, so make sure you wear gloves when you are painting with it and handling it afterwards.
Now that it's properly painted, I'm filling it full of polystyrene tiles and the like - anything that will make good insulation.
With each layer of polystyrene that goes in, I put the plasterer's trough inside it and cut out a hole to shape, to make sure it's a perfect fit inside. When it's done to its full height, I'll take the polystyrene out again, and cut the box for all the pipework that's going to be needed. Then I can put the polystyrene back in, and then the trough, and then connect up the pipework.
After that, all that remains will be to put it on the roof of the beichstuhl, fill it with water, and put the glass window on top.
Another job that had hung around here for a few years was dismantling an old caravan. It cost me £62 ($130) from eBay for the simple reason that it had an integral gas cooker in it - the type with the oven hobs and grill all together and so easy to take out - ideal for the kitchen on the farm. The chassis too would make a good trailer for hauling around long beams and items of plant.
You can see that it's rotten to the core, and wasn't going to take much to bring it down, so Liz, who had come down for a couple of days, set to work with a rather large axe and a crowbar.
After Liz returned home, I adopted an ... er ... more scientific approach and firstly took out the windows (always the best place to start when dismantling a caravan, and when I do the next one I'll take the edging seals out right at the beginning too) and then proceeded to strip out the hardboard lining. I reckon I'll try to take the aluminium off the outside too at a comparatively early stage next time.
Liz did ask me later why I described my approach as more scientific. I explained that it didn't involve an axe. And it didn't involve breaking a claw hammer either.
It wasn't too long, once all the strength had gone out of the structure, that one big push saw the entire thing collapse into one extremely untidy heap. One or two things were broken in the process, so I'll try to remember to remove the fragile items at an earlier stage too.
From here, it was really quite a simple matter to dismantle the rest of the bodywork and put everything into store. Tidying up afterwards was, however, something else. Anyone who knows me will understand that.
Here we have the finished product, and doesn't it just look so different? It's going to be ideal for moving the Allen Scythe (did I tell you about that?) around, and fetching long beams from the timber yard instead of trying to maul them up onto Caliburn's roofrack.
That's a single cylinder Hatz diesel engine on the trailer. I need to move it downstairs into the barn, as I intend to use it to power up the large compressor tank and one or two other tasks. I don't suppose too many of you have ever handled a single cylinder Hatz diesel engine, for if you had, you will understand why it's still on the trailer and not downstairs already. It's times like this that I wish I had some friends.
After all of this, we had a pause for tidying up the ground and the conifer hedge. One of the problems with me being absent for a couple of years is that the conifers have put all their strength in growing up and out, and not across like they were meant to, to make a nice thick hedge. They are going to need some training in this respect.
There's also a large sand heap there, and that was overrrun with weeds and ground alder, so that needed to be clear too. This is where I need to get access to put a scaffolding when I fix the roof of the barn.
The reverse angle shot gives you a much better idea of how tidy I have made the lane. Strictly speaking, it's the commune's job to do all of this, but they don't seem to be too interested.
You can see the Passat that I've rescued again, and the Honda Melody that I brought down from Brussels. The times I need just to nip into Pionsat to post a letter or something like that - mostly I try to multi-task but sometimes there's an emergency, and it's a waste of energy to go down there in Caliburn.
The view from further up the lane gives a good idea of the thinness of the hedge, but also a good idea of how tidy it's now looking now I've done some more work on it. Just look at the picture at the top of the page and you'll see exactly what I mean.
The place certainly has that air of a more-than-lived-in look now I've taken more of an effort to keep it tidy. I really wish that the hedge will bush out sideways though.
In keeping with the process of making a path all around the barn to put up the scaffolding, I started to clear away the rubble at the side of the barn. Except that the rubble isn't really rubble at all, but stones, bricks and tiles that is quite clearly the remains of a house, a house that looks like it's been pushed over in situ and knocked down into its own footprint.
This is good news for several differerent reasons.
i.... I was wondering where I was going to find all the stones that I need to build my house extension. Well, here's the answer.
ii... There's always the possibility that there are other things that were in the house when it was flattened. I'm all eager now to see what else there is.
iii.. Where there was a house there would have been a back wall. And I hope the back wall is there still up against the side of the hill. For this is where I'm going to build a carport to shelter the Minerva and the Cortina Estate, and an existing back wall is going to save me a great deal of work.
While I was at it, I wanted to continue to extend the drainage system. For the simple reason that there isn't one. You saw the sink unit above, well I laid a waste pipe along the wall of the barn so that it would drain outside, but it just turned everywhere into a quagmire. I took the opportunity to dig out a trench and lay a drainpipe down to the one by the garage door as you can see, and then I put the waste pipe in it.
It took forever to do it though, because there were just so many stones and rocks in the way. And the size of some of them had to be seen to be believed. So much so in fact that after removing all the rocks, laying the pipe and then backfilling with the remaining soil, there was a shortfall of soil. Now that is just unbelievable, but it gives you some idea of what it is that I'm working with.
For a couple of weeks in the summer, we had a huge skip parked up in the bottle bank in the village. There were all kinds of things dumped in there that were worth recovering, but pride of place had to go to a huge load of traditional Auvergnat windows, that someone had unceremoniously dumped. They didn't stay there long, as you can imagine.
A few of them are pretty rotten, some are okay, but four are absolutely perfect. And when I build my extension to the house where the lean-to fell down in 2002, then I'll have some authentic windows to use in the construction. I'm well-pleased with this little lot.
Saturday is always shopping day down in Montlucon, and it always involves a trip in Caliburn of course. And every time I go down there, I make the most of the journey and buy a roofrack full of wood. Wood is something that always comes in useful for whatever project I have in mind, so I can't have too much of it.
In addition, I'm planning to reroof the house and barn whenever the new covering might arrive, so I'm going to need quite a lot of it just for that alone - the laths, chevrons, soffits and so on. This is just one typical load out of the dozens that I've bought.
After only a few visits to the timber yard, I've amassed quite a collection of wood of various types and sizes. And just as well. There's quite a lot to do, for I have it in my mind to build myself a verandah on the concrete pad outside what will eventually be my kitchen. It's something I've always been thinking about, but now I'm down here more-or-less permanently, it's something that I need to organise.
And just look at the weather. You wouldn't believe it's August. But there's a stationary cloud on the mountain and it really is a miserable day. It's just like November.
It might have looked bad in the photograph above, but down on the ground it was even worse, as you can see. In fact, throughout all of the period from July to the end of October, the weather was bizarre. There would be a week of bright sunshine followed by a week of torrential rain.
The whole idea of living in the Monts de la Combraille is that it is the junction of three different climatic zones, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Continental, which, given the situation of the farm at almost 700 metres (2250 feet), should ordinarily produce a considerable variety of changeable weather. And this is always how it has been in the past and I've seen one or two of the most incredible storms. But it's not been like that this year.
And this is the reason for the sudden burst of energy with regard to the woodwork - the recycled plastic slates finally arrived. Rather too late to do anything with them this year - another year wasted - but at least they are here.
Now I'm impressed with the quality of the product and they are certainly going to do me a really good job on the farm. Anyone who hasn't seen them from any closer than a couple of feet needs some convincing that they aren't in fact slate. The story of the delivery is, however, another matter, and here isn't the place to recount it right now as it is a drama that is going to be first re-enacted on another stage elsewhere
But by the time the roofing slates finally made it down here, it was clear that my target of installing myself in the attic of the farm will be missed - and missed by a long way too.
Nevertheless, I was still determined to stay down there throughout a winter, but you only have to take a brief look at the circumstances under which I was living. This is the beginning of September. It isn't going to be possible to live like this much longer and so it was necessary to consider some alternative accommodation, more permanent and durable than the camp camp.
I had initially thought about another caravan. In fact someone did offer me a cheap two-berth, but never got back to me, and Paul and I were unable to locate a good one at the right price anywhere in the UK.
So with there not being very much alternative, it was necessary for me to cast my eye around the farm and see what I can find here for the winter.
The only part of the building that is solid enough and weatherproof enough (and then not by very much) is the room that will eventually be the kitchen. This will have to do so, in for a penny, in for a pound, I cracked on. There were tonnes of accumulated rubbish in here, so I put it all outside and hosed the kitchen down.
Stage two of this dramatic conversion was to paint absolutely everywhere I could with cheap, thick gooey white paint. The purpose of this was not to make it pretty (in any case, I totally hate white) but to bind the dust. Bare brick and bare stone seems to create a great deal of dust and I didn't want it falling everywhere.
To keep the draughts from the main house, I built a decorator's door - timber frame with a plastic sheet, anyone who has worked in industrial painting and decorating will have seen one of these before, and covered it with a huge heavy curtain which was formerly the door of a changing cubicle in a Greenwoods menswear shop in Crewe in the 1970s. Its twin brother is there on the right edge of the picture, covering the entrance door.
What, me, throw anything away ever? You must be joking.
The following Saturday, it was off to town again. And amongst the purchases was everything I needed to make a nice comfortable and cosy little room to live in throughout the winter.
There's tons of polystyrene insulation, plenty of floor-grade OSB panels, some hardboard for the ceiling, some 27x40 (inch by an inch and a half) battens, some demi-chevrons, some breathable plastic membrane and a heavy duty plastic sheet.
First stage was to lay the heavy duty plastic sheet on the floor and turn it up at the far end of the kitchen and fasten it to the roof beams. At the end of the room is a chimney, and if rainwater were to fall down there, I would want it to drop onto the floor, run underneath the plastic, and out of the front door.
Second stage was to lay the polystyrene insulation tiles on the floor, and put a demi-chevron in between each tile, in a way so that they would not impede the passage of any water that might run underneath the plastic (as it happens, in the couple of weeks that I have lived in there so far, there hasn't been a drop). The polystyrene tiles are 40mm thich (just over an inch and a half), and the demi-chevrons are 37x63 (inch and a half by two and a half inches) so having them lie on their sides is an almost-perfect fit.
Third stage was to run some battens up and across the end of the room, to keep the plastic taut and to hold up the OSB panels.
Fourth stage was to fill the roofing in between the beams with more insulation, cover the whole lot with the breathable plastic membrane that I then ran down inside the plastic sheet that had come up from the floor. This way, any water that came in from the roof would run down the back of the plastic sheet, down to the floor, and out of the front door.
I probably should also have mentioned that on the floor upstairs, I've laid a blue tarpaulin as a kind of front-line defence against rainwater
Fifth stage was to put up the OSB panelling at the back wall
sixth stage was to put up the hardboard ceiling. I've gone for "overlap" rather than "snug fit" in the interests of expediency on the grounds that it's all coming down later when I finally move into the attic. And the more whole the pieces, the more likely I'll be able to re-use them
Seventh stage was to lay the OSB flooring. You can't see in the photograph, but the door is actually flush with the concrete floor. So I had to describe an arc (well, it's like a curved line that radiates from a central point) on the floor, then cut down a jigsaw blade so it wouldn't bounce on the floor, and cut the arc away, so that the door can open inside the arc.
Actually this isn't such a bad idea, as it gives me a space to take off my (usually muddy) shoes and a place to leave them at night.
Final stage was to install an air vent at the back, one I salvaged from the caravan I scrapped. I was originally undecided about heating, but Stoke-on-Trent Freecycle came up with a Super Ser mobile gas heater that needed attention. So I picked it up, gave it the necessary attention, and I now use that.
However, these butane heaters give off loads of noxious gases, and I've made my room fairly draughtproof, so there needs to be some way of exhausting these gases. And the old chimney seemed to be the logical place for that. I was told to check very carefully the current - all about buying smoke candles and the like - but as soon as I cut the hole in the back, it sucked the plastic straight up the chimney and almost took the knife with it. No need for a smoke candle, I suppose.
Now if you look on the windowledge, you'll see the most marvellous stereo hi-fi system in the world. It's a stereo multi-band radio alarm clock and it plays a "consumer choice" of music. Not cassette, and not CD, but SD memory cards. No moving parts at all, so power consumption is minimal.
And when you think that the stereo in Caliburn plays SD memory cards, and I have an mp3 player that also plays SD memory cards, then this is definitely the way to go.
What persuaded me to spend my money on it though was when I opened up the box in the shop, and saw that the stereo had a DC socket and external mains adapter - a mains adapter that put out 12 volts. The price (£17.99; $40, €30) was a bonus - especially as it came from Curry's, a mainstream domestic appliance superstore chain in the UK. Bearing in mind the importance of music in my life, this has to be one of the most significant purchases I've made for down here.
Probably the most important discovery I made was that the finished room is almost exactly the same size as the load bed in Caliburn, and you know how comfortable I am living in there. This also means that there is just enough room for me to sleep widthways, and this brings the most important benefits in saving space.
The first thought was to make another set of supports for the hammock bed that I use in Caliburn, and reflection told me that this was probably the right way to go bearing in mind the temporary nature of the accommodation. But that notwithstanding, I made myself a rather substantial raised bed, with room underneath for storage.
There was an old foam mattress that I rescued from the caravan and upon which I slept in the back of the Escort when the self-deflating airbed deflated itself definitively. This is again millimetre-perfect, and makes for one of the most comfortable beds I've ever slept in in my life.
Next step in the "winter living" arrangements involved climbing up on the roof of the Luton Transit. And seeing as it was such a nice day, I couldn't resist taking a photograph of the view right across the valley from where I live.
This is probably just slightly south of east, and the sun rises over here in the morning. It really is a most spectacular view if the barn would move out of the way for a moment and the trees would wander off somewhere. You can also see the tail of the old 50-watt wind turbine.
I told you that I was waiting for the material for the roof of the barn to arrive. And you can see why in this photograph. It's totally expired and doesn't serve much in the way of useful purpose.
The plan originally was to rip it all off and cover it with a blue tarpaulin as a temporary measure, but I reckon that this wouldn't look aesthetically pleasing. So I've found a kind of metallic roof covering that has a profile just like slate or tiles which, from a distance, looks almost indistinguishable from the real thing (next time you're walking past a drive-in burger bar of a famous chain which shall not be mentioned on my website, have a look at the roof). This will make an ideal temporary replacement while I make a thorough survey of what is needed in the long term. Then I'll look for a more permanent solution using a more permanent type of material.
Since I improved my set-up here with the big solar panels, the big batteries and the 600-watt inverter (which I'm soon going to be changing for a much larger one), I've been on the lookout for low-wattage power tools that I can run to make my life easier.
So you can imagine my surprise bordering on disbelief when I saw in a French hypermarket a 650-watt circular saw. I've been crying out for a useable circular saw for ages, so I couldn't pass this up
Even though it pulls more power than the inverter provides, it's not presented a problem cutting hardboard and thin pine, which is what I mostly use. I wouldn't like to try it on oak and the like though, and I did manage to stall the inverter doing something with it. Which is probably a good thing - as it means that it isn't very likely to burn out the motor. It's certainly good enough for what I want it to do and doesn't do such a bad job for the money I paid.
Yes, the job that I had in mind that involved the Luton Transit and a circular saw was to make a framework to reposition the solar panels on the van's roof.
Previously they were just there lying discretely flat on the roof. And as it was mostly summer when I was there, with long days and a sun that wasn't far out of vertical at midday, it didn't make much difference. But in winter, it's another matter completely.
Because of the shorter days, you need as much sun as you can get, and so this includes inclining the panels perpendicular to the sun at the optimum point of contact to the sun on the shortest day of the year. Now I can get the sun at midday here, and at that time on the shortest day, the sun is over the Tropic of Capricorn, at a latitude of about 23 degrees south. Here on the farm, I'm at a latitude of aproximately 46 degrees north so I need to present my panels directly to the sun at solar midday at an angle of approximately 69 degrees to the horizontal.
Well, but how do you know when it's solar midday? Well, that's the easy bit. Forget whatever time it says on your clock - you need to be looking at Greenwich Mean Time - the time that the sun is directly over Greenwich in London in winter. No matter where in the world you live, you can easily find out which time zone you are in, and find out how many hours you need to add or subtract to arrive at midday according to Greenwich Mean Time in the place where you live.
Then you need to know the longitude
There are 360 degrees in a circle, and 24 hours in a day. And as the sun makes a complete circle every 24 hours, then it's advancing 15 degrees every hour, or one degree every 4 minutes. So having found out your longitude, you then work out how many hours and minutes after midday Greenwich Mean Time (if you live to the west of Greenwich) or before Greenwich Mean Time (if you live to the east of Greenwich).
The farm is approximately 3 degrees west of Greenwich, so my solar midday is at 12:12 Greenwich Mean Time. My good friend Rhys lives in South Carolina USA at approximately 81 degrees west, so his solar midday is at approximately 17:24 GMT. Another good friend Jackie lives in Cologne, Germany, which is roughly 6 degrees east of Greenwich, so her solar midday is at 11:36 GMT. Easy, hey?
And I bet you were so engrossed in all of that that you hadn't noticed the magnificent structure that I have made for the framework.
It's always been my long-term goal to build a verandah on the concrete pad I laid down in 2001 outside the kitchen. And as I'm now living in the kitchen, it seemed like a good idea to build the verandah this autumn as some kind of extension to my living quarters and provide a place to cook. Having draught-proofed the room as much as possible, I can imagine the mess that the steam from the cooking will create.
So here I go. Desperately trying to remember the joinery techniques that Harry Nuttall taught us back in the first year of Grammar School back in 1965-66. I wish I had paid more attention.
You can see that, having the brain of a duck you know, I've marked all of the pieces that I'm making so that I know what goes where. It wouldn't be the first time that I've ended up with a pile of pieces and a void in the brain.
Here's the first side. I've been learning as I go along and I have to say that it's come out really well, all things considered.
The idea is to make it in prefabricated sections like this, bolt and screw them together, and then clad them with something cheap and cheerful as a temporary measure. I reckon that with a system of struts I can pull it all into tension and it'll be as solid as a rock.
Somewhere in this tangled web that I'm weaving is the second side of the verandah - the side that is going to have the doorway. This is of course much more complicated hence the reason why I did the other one first - to give me something to practice on.
You can see the 400 watt scorpion saw that runs off the 600 watt inverter. This electrification of my life here thanks to the big solar panels and the inverter has moved my carpentry techniques onto quite another plane ... "groan" - ed
There are two sides to every story, and probably two sides to every storey too. So I'm glad that it's a single storey verandah, and I only have to build two sides. If the roof of the kitchen hadn't sloped so dramatically, I could have been tempted by a two-storey verandah, but that's of course another storey.
As it's over 40 years since I did any serious woodwork, you can imagine how impressed I am with this. What it's going to be like when it has any weight on it is quite something else and remains to be seen.
Halfway through the construction, I suddenly had a flash of inspiration and dashed off into the depths of the barn. Several years ago, I bought a mitre saw and frame, especially for cutting neat joints into timber in circumstances such as this. And fancy forgetting. They say that three things happen to you as you get older - firstly, it takes you all night to do what you used to be able to do all night - secondly, your memory starts to go - thirdly, ...er ....
But my construction techniches improved dramatically with this. The only problem is that there isn't a depth gauge. But no problem for a man of my calibre ... "small bore?" - ed. With a couple of rings with screws in that came from somewhere else I fashioned a pair of adjustible bump stops, as you can see.
Using the same construction techniques as for the sides, I set to to make the front of the verandah. And this came out really well too. I won't know for sure until it has some weight on it, but nevertheless, at least it looks the part as I'm sure you agree.
You'll notice again the marking on some of the struts. I haven't forgotten to keep on labelling them so that I can remember which bit goes where when I come to the assembly stage.
The next step was to drill the holes into the side of the wall for the screw fasteners that will hold the verandah sides in.
Having remembered from my problems assembling the beichstuhl, I remembered to line up the front pillars of the sides and the side pillars of the front and drill right through the lot in one go, before any assembly even began to take place. That way, the holes would be perfectly in line with no fuss and bother, and bolting the heavy front and sides together would be much easier - not like the struggle I had with the beichstuhl.
So why I didn't do this with the back strut of the side and drill the holes through into the wall before I assembled the side is totally beyond me. From here on, assembly is going to be by trial and error.
Here is the trial
And here is the error.
When I built the concrete pad, I put a slope on it to drain away the water from the front of the house. And I'm not sure why I forgot to take this into account when I built the sides of the verandah. And normally, whenever I build anything, the quality is such that it usually only meets where it touches so errors such as this have never been a problem. But now my construction techniques are improving dramatically, things like this are becoming important.
It's not an issue, for I can put a demi-chevron under the front and a sloping plank down the sides, but it's annoying that I've got so far that a small error like this has spoilt what otherwise would have been an excellent job.
The back wall of the verandah will be the outside wall of the house, so I need to put in some longitudinal beams, one at the height of the front to provide some lateral strength all around the structure, and another at apex height to support the roof timbers.
But the solar panel is going to have to go. It can't stay there where it is, and I wish I'd thought of that earlier when I was constructing the framework for the other two panels.
Once all the woodwork had been fabricated, then it was time for painting. I simply laid out everything on battens on the floor and did the whole lot- two coats each side - on a kind of production line basis.
And not with used engine oil either. This is going to be pretty-pretty construction. And the local LIDL (or was it ALDI?) was selling good quality wood treatment for £5.99, ($13, €7.99) for 5 litres, so this was definitely the thing to do here.
Before the assembly really took off, one task that needed to be done was to paint the outside of the wall that was going to be the back wall of the verandah. So armed with some mucho el cheapo crépi, I set to work. And the effect is quite pleasant, I have to say. Not my ideal choice of colour, but there wasn't much available in my price range, and it does rather set off the wood quite nicely.
But where has the solar panel gone?
"It's over there!"
"What? Behind the rabbit?"
It's actually on the roof of the Luton Transit with the other two. And if I had thought about that a few weeks ago, I could have made one framework for all three instead of one for two and one for the third, and not have to bother wondering which one of the constructions had the error in the calculations.
Not that it matters, of course. Once the barn roof is done (whenever that might be) to solar panels will be on a bracket on a pole at the southern end of the barn.
You may remember last year when I was positively ecstatic about 124 watts? So what do you say to 201 watts (and even more after I'd put the camera away, just like you would expect)? It just shows how much influence the correct siting of the solar panels can have on the efficiency of a charging system.
Even in October, I was now topping out the batteries, and that's before we get round to putting up one of the 500 watt wind turbines. The only solution to this is to buy more batteries to hold the extra charge.
Those of you with long memories or who have been intensely following my adventures will remember that I bought 4 solar panels from the USA. So where is the fourth?
Well, I also earlier in the year bought 6 more 100 amp-hour sealed gel batteries off eBay, and I've installed these in the house to take the load of the old caravan battery that was still struggling along. The only problem with this is that 2x12-watt solar panels will hardly cope with the voltage drop across the cables, such is the intensity of the current.
And what with cheap second-hand scaffolding being available at £10, ($23, €16) in Stoke on Trent and with Paul possessing a hydraulic scaffolding pole bender, then I bought a pole, had Paul bend it to the correct angle, stuck the fourth solar panel thereupon, grabbed hold of Guus and Claude, and the rest, as they say, is history. I'm the other side of the fence pulling on the cable, by the way.
You'll notice that I'm using a piece of cut-off scrap scaffolding and two kee-klamps to make a horizontal pivot bar, and another rotating kee-klamp to pivot around the horizontal bar into an upright position against the fence. Mounting solar panels and wind turbines can't get any easier than this, surely?
Yes, it's easy getting it up, but keeping it up is something else, as Kenneth Williams said to Hattie Jacques in Carry On Camping. And thats where a good screwing comes in handy. And if you ever want anything really, truly and permanently screwed up, then I'm well and truly your man.
So while Guus (in the yellow shirt - obviously a big fan of Caliburn) and Claude steadied the pole, I screwed it to the fence. And now there's a theoretical 123 watts of current circulating around the 6 batteries in the house. That should keep me in current in my little room for the winter. I'll say!
Meanwhile, back at the starship, you can see how nicely the verandah has all come together. The sloping and perpendicular roof beams gave it much more rigidity, and I could really feel it all go nicely into tension when I tightened up all of the bolts and screws that hold it together.
In fact, it all went so well together that I had a dramatic change of plan. The idea was for it to be cladded with anything cheap as a kind of vite fait, bien fait - "the quicker the better" type of construction. But it looks so good that I'm going to go for this and give it the permanent finish of tongue-and-grooving either side of the bottom half and filled in between with polystyrene, and glaze the upper half so I can also use it as an impromptu greenhouse.
I just wish now I'd been more careful and put the centre horizontal rail flush to the front, so the water wouldn't infiltrate down behind where I've cut in the vertical joints.
Most timber structures rot from the outside inwards. And that's particularly relevant when you have exposed ends of fibrous timber such as pine, that absorb the water like a sponge. And I have never seen any French construction that uses soffits, barge boards and fascia panels to protect the exposed timber edges.
So here's a first.
And when the rain starts to rot away the timber, which it will do after several years of exposure, it's a matter of a few hours to replace the barge boards and fascia panel (I haven't used any soffits) instead of dismantling the entire structure. I'm going for the long-term picture.
Once again, you can see the virtue of using speed clamps and corner clamps to temporarily hold everything together.
"So if it's going to be a permanent structure, how come you are using corrugated perspex on the roof?"
Simply because I have to change all the roofing slates on the house. And me being me, it's odds-on that I'll drop one.
And if an old slate falls on a glazed panel on the roof of the verandah, it will be "goodnight, Vienna". So until the roof on the house is replaced, then it's a perspex roof on the verandah.
Cutting perspex, especially corrugated perspex, is difficult. With an electric jigsaw, it's even worse as the vibrations can tear the sheets without any warning at all. The secret is to clamp all the sheets together with some heavy timber beams top and bottom, and both sides of the cutting mark, leaving just enough room to run the jigsaw up the gap in between.
There's some vibration when you start, and some more when you finish, but cutting it like this makes it a relatively simple job if you take your time and are careful.
So here's where I got to just before leaving for the University Senate meeting. You can even see the 12-volt flourescent strip light that I've installed for lighting.
There's plenty of overhang with the perspex roofing, to stop the water running over the edges and blowing back onto the sides.
I'm going to have a small vegetable garden at the front of the house where the camp camp is right now, so I'll be catching the rainwater off the roof and storing it in a tank for irrigation purposes. I'll just have to invent something to stop the water leaking out of the gun.
You can see that the verandah has some the kitchen units installed. They are actually old cupboards from when the Council of Ministers of the European Union had a major office removal (from Charlemagne to Justus Lipsius) and some items of furniture were badly damaged. They were destined for a skip, but employees were invited to select a couple of items that they liked as long as they had some means of removing them. I had a Passat estate, as you can see in the photos above, and furniture with smashed corners is luxury as far as I am concerned.
There's a large propane gas bottle that came with the scrap caravan, and an old electric coolbox until the verandah is walled in and I can rescue the 12-volt fridge (I haven't told you about that either, yet), but I'm sure that this is going to be surplus to requirements as the temperature starts to drop.
And now that I'm back, the immediate task is to deal with the cladding of the verandah before the bad weather really sets in.
Cutting tongue-and-grooving is easy, but cutting it correctly is not so easy. A chop saw is great for this, but you really need to have all of the lengths the same. And that calls for a jig. And if you don't have one, you can invent one, just like this.
With the chopsaw screwed to the base and the home-made end stop clamped down in position, you can cut your tongue-and-grooving to the same length each time. A refinement of this will be an old tape measure screwed to the base to measure the exact lengths.
And you can see what a nice job the tongue-and-grooving makes on the outside of the verandah. It's only cheap stuff but nevertheless it gives a lovely finish to the job so far.
There's not much point painting it right now. The weather is too cold and it will ruin the job. If there's a warm spell I'll thin some paint down with some white spirit and paint all of the fibrous ends with it. The white spirit will carry the pigment deep into the fibres and then evaporate leaving the pigment stopping the ingress of water.
Just a couple more photos before I finish for the year
You know that I moved in to the little room here back in September, and I posted a couple of pics of the room as it was. What you haven't seen is how the place has developed in the two months that I've been in here. So here you are.
A nice flourescent light, a cosy bed and a couple of shelves for books - what more could any man desire than this? Apart from the long-haird floosie of course. But there's nowhere to fit anyone else in here, which is a shame.
Well, what more could any man desire? We have a 12-volt desk light and a nice work surface made from an old IKEA door (the casualty sections in IKEA are amazing for bargains like this! I bought a nice pine plank for this as it happens, but I'm going to save it for something else now). There are also some plastic drawers that I bought from Brico Depot. They were only about €6, $8, £4, for a set of three, which is pretty cheap in anyone's language, so I bought all that I could get at that price.
The comfy office chair will have to wait though. There isn't the room for a decent one in here.
In other news, I've also been making some purchases to make my life here in the Auvergne much more comfortable. This year, I started on the 23rd January. I saw this in the bargain bucket of a local supermarket this morning when I was on my travels. It's an electric footwarmer.
Now my feet always suffer from the cold when I'm sitting around or sleeping in the van and I've tried endless remedies to improve things. When I saw this, at first I dismissed it as nothing in particular, even though it was only €14:50, or £9:00, or $17:00. But then I saw the power consumption. 40 watts.
"Now, that will run quite nicely for just about ever off a small inverter and 12-volt battery pack", thought I. No more woolly socks for me!
And talking of small inverters, it's amazing to see what sometimes turns up in the local cheapo shop when you're least expecting it. These turned up in a cheapo shop near to where Liz lives, and she nipped out and bought me two. About £13, or $25, or €20 each.
One is now permanently installed in Caliburn for charging up power tools and the like while I'm driving, and the other is for around the farm to use with a 12-volt battery pack for things like electric foot warmers.
I've been buying a few other things too just recently. When I was in Ilford in January, I came across a shop selling these for a few quid each. They are battery-operated pir lights. And not just battery-operated, but they also have a dc input (albeit 6 volts dc), as you can see if you look closely at the enlarged image (click on the thumbnail). I couldn't resist buying three of them for putting in strategic places around the farm.
And that's not all either. They take D-cell batteries, but forget that for a game of soldiers. Have you seen how much a set of rechargeables costs? That's where the 7-day Shop comes in handy. They are selling some handy little AA battery adapters, and seeing as how I'm all set up for rechargeable AA batteries, I ordered myself a few.
But another purchase soon changed all of that. At the Carrefourat Montlucon, they were clearing out some kind of pocket flourescent light that could either run off 4xAA batteries or off a transformer that fitted into a car cigarette lighter and which was included with the package. At €2, $3, £1:50, each, I had the lot. And forget about the lights - I now have a wonderful collection of 6-volt transformers wired into my 12-volt circuit. It's this kind of "adaptation" or "improvisation" that makes this place work.
Here's something else that Liz found, in a Pound Shop near Sunderland. Yes, some 12 volt mini floursecent lights. They aren't particularly bright, but they are bright enough for what I have in mind.
I might have mentioned that around the farm I have some solar lights that come on when it goes dark. I use them just for lighting up the salient features of the place so I don't trip over anything in the dark. The trouble with them though is that the batteries don't hold their charge for long enough, and they aren't particularly bright either.
Anyway, you probably remember from last year that I found in a supermarket a 12 volt pir controller and timer. The plan was to make some of my patent pesto lights and fit them with 5 watt halogen bulbs, but on reflection, I can use quite a few of these, light up almost everywhere, and leave them running all night. I'm sure that's a more practical solution.
Mooching around in a French hypermarket I came across these on sale. Now you can go to Maplins in the UK and buy exactly the same thing for £79:99 or $155 or €125. So when you see them on sale in your ordinary common-or-garden hypermarket at €55, well-under half price, you don't pass them by. Well, one of us didn't, anyway.
If you look closely, there isn't just the panel, but a whole host of adapter cables and plugs to fit most rechargeable appliances, plugs for the most popular makes of mobile phone, and a voltage converter (stepping down to 3, 6 and 9 volts) that in itself is worth its weight in gold.
The panel is currently charging the battery that will power the Ford Transit Luton and the Subaru, using the "crocodile clip" adapter.
You can keep up-to-date with my antics on a more-or-less daily basis by reading my blog
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