Once bitten, twice shy!!

Portugal is a country well used to forest fires but in 2017 it suffered a new type of fire that the WWF have classed as being a sixth-generation mega fire, clearly linked to global change. WWF’s report.

The fires were uncontrollable and were repeated again later that year in both Portugal and Spain. In fact, the fires are now so common that Portugal has introduced extra preventative measures to help manage the outbreaks.

The typical wildfire season traditionally runs from June right through into September although we have heard that at times when there has been low rainfall, there have also been fires in April showing just how the change in climate is actually extending the fire period.

With dried out forests, untended rural land and strong and often unpredictable winds to fan the flames, the resulting fires can take days to put out. It is very un-nerving when a fire comes close with it’s acrid smell, thick black smoke and being able to see the wind spread the flames across and down the mountainside. Very scary to say the least.

The majority of firefighters, the Corpos de Bombeiros exist in most communities are are made up of volunteer firemen who do an absolutely amazing job. Over the past few weeks we’ve seen the fire engines racing off on several occasions to tackle the reported outbreaks. However, due to the often very rocky terrain, it is not always possible to access fires by land and it becomes necessary to attempt to put them out from the air.

A couple of weeks ago, when Mark was working in the longhouse and I was tidying the veggie plot we suddenly smelt smoke. Looking up to the mountains we could see that there were trees alight about a mile and a half from our Quinta. The wind was very strong, possibly because we live in a basin, and although we couldn’t see any flames the smoke was certainly moving very quickly toward us.

Within minutes two helicopters carrying huge bags of water and two bright yellow water planes were on the scene. They flew back and forth to the nearby Barragem to refill with water and it took about an hour for the smoke to subside. Although it looked at though the fire was out, we learnt that due to the deep roots of eucalyptus trees, they can remain on fire for days threatening to reignite the nearby trees at any point.

The next day, on our trip to the fountain to collect our drinking water, we drove past dozens of charred trees and blackened vegetation on the mountain side and we could see first hand the extent of the damage from the fire and over the next couple of days it was reassuring to see the helicopters checking the area out. I’m not sure exactly what started this particular fire, but as I’ve already mentioned, all very scary stuff re-enforcing the need to keep rural land cleared and follow the fire prevention advice.

On average each year fires destroy around 110,000 hectares, mostly due to negligence and despite the laws and hefty fines relating to land clearing, the fires continue. We try very hard to keep our farm tidy and as much as possible free from combustible materials such as dried grass, cuttings and general rubbish. Up until May, we were allowed to have bonfires on the farm to burn our waste but from June, it has been considered too hot and too dry for fires.

Although we’d cleared as much as we could before the deadline, we do still have some vegetation such as suckers from the olive trees and the long rambling vines that we need to dispose of on a regular basis but don’t want to start creating a huge pile of waste.

Fortunately we were gifted a shredder in the UK which has come in really useful shredding weeds, brambles and cuttings. It is a fantastic bit of equipment that turns a decent size bonfire into a small pile of shredded stuff which can then be burnt once the fires are allowed again. We have also learnt that our neighbours, Julie and Dave have several goats who just happen to love eating vines and olive trees.

We try to arrange our pruning days for when they are at their farm and pop our bags of cuttings round to Billy and his pals who soon get stuck in helping themselves from the bags and from the back of the truck.

After a couple of weeks working hard in the longhouse and on the land, we decided to take a well earned day off and head up the Gardunhas for a picnic with the Handscombes. With the temperature almost reaching 40, we were glad of the aircon in the truck although the narrow roads and steep drops left Mark feeling more than a bit hot under the collar.

Turning off towards Alcongosta we wound our way up the narrow mountainside, along the even narrower roads, through a couple of villages and up on past several families gathering together with apparently the same idea of having a picnic. After about 15 minutes the narrow road turned into an even narrower track and we found we had left the cars and people far behind us. Eventually, we reached the top of the mountain and parked up. The spectacular 360 views and the feeling of complete peace and solitude were breath-taking.

We pulled up next to a watchtower and apart from one solitary person acting as an early warning system for the fires we were the only people around for miles. Conveniently, there was a granite table and benches for us to use for our picnic, although there was the option of putting a picnic table on the hand-gliding platform had we wanted to. Nobody did.

We spent a lovely couple of hours chilling, chatting and enjoying our day off but the next day it was back to work as usual.  We had let Jose the electrician know that we had boarded and painted the walls in the first part of the long house so he came back and spent a day connecting the sockets, switches and lights. 

There was still no sign of our floor tiles being delivered and we were told that there was a problem with the manufacturing so it could be weeks if not months before we could get the ones we had chosen.  We decided that the best thing would be to go back to the store and choose some different ones so one Saturday morning headed back to Tortosendo. 

There really is a vast selection to choose from with tiles to suit all tastes, styles and budgets.  However, we couldn’t find anything we liked so decided to have the same design throughout the first five rooms choosing a design that looked aged.  The longhouse is over 120 years old so we have tried to be sympathetic to its history.  There are plain and patterned tiles and the plan is that by carefully choosing the layout, the rooms will look similar, but not quite the same.  When it come to tiling the new build, we will contrast this by choosing a very modern design, but this is way down the line.

A week later our tiles were delivered by a very friendly and talkative delivery driver who didn’t speak a word of English.  Mark’s fundamental lack of Portuguese led to a very confused and disjointed conversation with finally some breakthrough when he recognised that our extension had been done by Ecositana.  We learnt that he lived in the next village but that was about all we learnt after approximately half an hour of conversation  –  once again highlighting the need for us to take Portuguese language lessons.

It took quite a few days for Mark to lay the bathroom tiles, mostly due to the uneven floor.  At one end of the room he used 3 millimetres of adhesive, whilst at the other end, to level everything up it was more like a centimetre.  What would be quite straightforward in a room with a level floor and straight walls became very complicated and time consuming.  However, with the bathroom floor complete and grouting done, the next room to tackle was the snug.  If we thought the bathroom was uneven, the snug was something else! 

The Snug floor slopes off in different directions, has a hump in the middle and an even larger slope into the next room.

We are learning  that unorthodox methods have to be applied to get the jobs done and only by adapting can we achieve the results we want.  This results in the whole process being more protracted but we get there in the end. 

While Mark was busy in the longhouse, I was busy out on the land.  I’m usually quite disciplined in packing everything away at the end of the day but on one particular occasion I’d left my gardening gloves out on the table.  I went to put them on the following day and woke up a rather angry spider which had decided to make its home in one of the fingers.  It let me know it wasn’t happy by delivering a nasty bite leaving two red bite marks. For about twenty minutes my finger was numb before getting pins and needles and finally returning to normal.

Fortunately, all my years of working at a dental practice and the training on managing sharps injuries held me in good stead and so no harm was done.  The big lesson of the day though was to be mindful where I leave my gloves and now when they are not in use, can be seen hung upside down on the washing line.

It’s a Dog’s Life!

With the temperatures in the late 30’s most days now, Wanda is finding it all a bit too hot. She loves her early morning and evening walks around the farm when it is much cooler – chasing her ball and catching up on all the sniffing she has to do, but during the day she is choosing to spend most of her time indoors out of the heat.  Despite having regular haircuts, she (and us), were finding that the temperature was quite uncomfortable at times.  We’d bought a table top fan when we were here during the summer of 2019 and although this does help a little bit, it is only really fanning around the already hot air.

After one particular hot and very restless night with hardly any sleep, we decided that we needed to buy an aircon unit.  But which one?  There are so many about these days.  As the portable ones can be moved around from room to room, with no need for a box on the outside wall, we decided to go for this type. 

Back in the UK, I had a portable aircon in my office at Castle Park Dental Care which was not only really effective, it had the added bonus of being able to heat as well as cool.  With the knowledge that Chris Branfield is the master of all things “research”,  I called the practice and asked for photos of my old unit along with the information label on the back. I wanted something to compare the ones in the shops to and with this in hand we set off for Castelo Branco with the dream of a cool and peaceful nights sleep.

The main issue seems to be noise – they can be quite noisy.  We want to be able to leave it running while we sleep, so needed to invest in one that is as quiet as possible. My old office aircon was 51 dB(A) and I could manage with that so anything around this mark we figured would be a good starting point. We hadn’t been looking very long when I spotted the exact same model as my old one on display in the store. Rushing over to it like a long lost friend, I quickly read over the stats to double check everything was still the same. It was. In fact, it was slightly quieter …… so 10 minutes later it was fastened securely on the back of our truck and we were on our way home to try it out.

It needed a hole making in the wall for the vent and a bit of making good before we were ready to give it a go. I set it at 16 degrees and let it do it’s stuff. The room was very hot so it had to work hard to get the temperature down, but before long it was lovely and cool. We can now sleep very well and although Wanda does still spend most of her days indoors, she is now as cool as a cucumber. It’s such a dogs life!!

We love eating outdoors and I think that one of the things we are enjoying the most is being able to decide that we are going to have a BBQ without having to check the weather forecast first.   It had been a while since we had caught up with the Hipwell’s and even longer since we had met up with Steve and Angela – so we decided we would get the charcoal out and invite them over for a lazy Sunday afternoon.   

Home grown salad with everything fresh from the veggie patch was a treat. I’ve never come across Sorrel before but I received a packet of sorrel seeds in a Christmas present and decided to give them a go. For anyone who hasn’t tasted sorrel (I hadn’t) it is a tangy herb, often used as a salad green with a slightly sour taste, a bit like lemon zest, and I found it a delicious “something special” to add to a bowl of salad. I’ve read that it can also be served with fish and rice and will certainly be experimenting with that.

There was also home grown minted potatoes and such a huge selection of different meats from the BBQ I’m surprised people didn’t get meat-sweats!!.  Desert was “double pud” home made strawberry cheesecake and cream (I can’t take the credit for growing the strawberries but they were especially bought in celebration of Wimbledon) and lemon sorbet with lemon shortbread. We’d been given some lemons on a recent visit to see our neighbours Dave and Julie and these were put to good use.

I’ve mentioned before the goody bag of pressies that Mark’s dad gives out at Christmas and though not knowing exactly when they will be used, being confident that at some point in time everything will come in handy.  This was one of those times.  There seemed to be a lot of irritating flies buzzing around and these little lacey net covers from out of my 2018 goody bag were just the thing for covering the food.  They popped out in the same way an umbrella does and were absolutely perfect for the job!! 

The pace of work on the longhouse has slowed down slightly as we’ve had to leave the farm to go into Fundao and Castelo Branco on a number of occasions – sometimes our working day was less than 4 hours. 

Marks initial apprehension of not skimming the walls and painting directly on to plasterboard was unfounded as he has done a great job painting and the walls look fabulous.  My daughter Amy, on one of our Facetime calls commented that they were actually starting to look like real rooms!   However, not skimming did have its downside as each joint and gap had to be filled and then sanded down by hand until it was smooth to remove all the bumps and excess material.  Only then,  could a priming coat be applied to the plasterboard before painting.  This was extremely time consuming but one of those jobs which had to be done properly without cutting corners.  Mark has commented several times how repetitive the whole process seems to be and that he feels he is doing the same job over and over.  

It really does look lovely though and I’m starting to daydream where I’m going to put the Christmas Tree !!

One of the trips off the farm was to visit the Ecositana workshop to meet up with Raphael and Laura.  We wanted to talk to them about internal doors and find out what options they can offer.  To our delight there were actually quite a lot to choose from so we took the catalogue home to decide what we wanted.  Raphael sent us a link to the different types of door handles we could have and after making our choice we returned back to the workshop a few days later.  We are always impressed by the attention to detail afforded by Ecositana, and the personal touch.  Antonio contacted the suppliers whilst we were still in the office and we are now looking forward to them coming and measuring up for our new doors.     

The new windows continue to be a bit of a no-show and with the pending Portuguese holiday season approaching, where it would seem that nobody works in August, we are bracing ourselves for a September installation at best.

While much of Portugal has access to mains water, we are in the 50% of rural Portugal that still uses water mines, bore holes or wells for drinking and irrigation.

Although the spring water from our mine has been tested, and considered safe to drink, we are still collecting our drinking water from the communal fountain in Alpedrinha, using the mine for washing and cooking. We do have tap water as Mark and Andy did a great job back in 2019 installing pipework and a pump from the mine up to the long house. The pressure is a little unreliable and the pump wouldn’t work if we had a power-cut so mains water would be the preferred choice. Mains water would also be filtered so kinder to our new boiler.

We realise our first 12 months on the farm is a year of learning and one of the things we need to know is how plentiful our water supply is. We have been to Aqualia to find out if it is possible to be connected to the municipal pipework. It is, but not without a considerable cost, so for now we need to be careful with the natural resources we already have and not waste any.

With the absence of mains water and no prospect of getting this in the foreseeable future, we need to take stock and make note of what we have at different times of the year.  We have two wells, a small pond which is heavily overgrown with trees, bushes, brambles and long grasses as well as a water mine with fresh spring water.  One of our wells bizarrely has a tree growing out of it, but then we are told that almost every well in Portugal has one! The open well and the water mine feed the little brook that runs across the bottom terraces and the flow of the water in the brook is always a good indication of how much water we have. 

We have 2 septic tanks for our sewage and have come up with a couple of ways of recycling our grey water. As in many Portuguese homes, our washing machine is in the bathroom, which as luck would have it is within 2 metres of our veggie plot. Mark has directed the waste water pipe on to the veggie plot and the cabbages and chard are definitely benefitting from it.

For now, the pond complete with its overgrowth will have to be a battle for next year although we can see that the water level has significantly dropped.

We found a large red tub which has previously been used for wine making and have relocated it to the terrace outside of the annexe. Each day we can be seen carrying our buckets of waste water from the bath, kitchen and cleaning across to the tub to save it for using later on. It will hold approximately 400 litres and we manage to fill in in 5 days. This water is used to irrigate the land – either the vegetable plot, the vines or the olive trees. We figured it’s not a massive amount, but we’re not ones for waste and every little drop helps. Having invested in a submersible pump and some irrigation sprinklers, we can leave it to get on with doing the watering while we get on with something else. 

We’ve had the inevitable wobbles and hiccups along the way which are usually managed by sitting down over a coffee (or a cerveja) and working out what we would do differently if we had the opportunity to go back and do it all again.  Our latest hiccups didn’t need a post-mortem…..   we need to get on with learning the Portuguese language “rapido”.

Our morning routine is pretty predictable – watering the veggie plot and trees, fetching the water from the long house for a bath, plot walk with Wanda, prepping the evening meal and a board meeting to plan our day while sat on the bench that Mark has made from recycled timber and tree trunks found on the farm.

We’ve picked up quite a few words in Portuguese along the way and the supermarkets generally have a picture on the packaging as a bit of a fail safe. On one of our recent shopping trips, seeing a picture of a chicken on the carton and recognising the word frango, we had spotted some very reasonably priced diced chicken which we had popped into our trolley.

One particular day was especially lovely and our extra early start had paid dividends as we were all done and dusted with our chores by 8.30am. We’d decided to have casserole and home grown vegetables for dinner so had made a trip up to the chest freezer in the long house to get the diced chicken out to defrost.

Tipping the frozen contents into a terracotta pot I added mushrooms, garlic, onions, peppers and spices, covered it with water and tinfoil and left it to thaw out while we got on with our day. Mark decided to do a bit more to the bridge and I worked on the veggie patch – weeding and harvesting the sweetcorn, courgettes and radishes.

By four o’clock we were tired, hot and hungry so I switched on the oven and started to clear away the gardening equipment and water the now very tidy vegetable plot.

There’s something about the smell of onions cooking that is so lovely and homely and we were both looking forward to dinner and chatting about out day. The vegetables were almost ready so I lifted out the casserole to do a taste check. Despite the lovely aroma it was horrible – all gristle and rubbery. I took a closer look and even though I was brought up in a butchers shop, I couldn’t recognise what I was looking at – such strange shapes now that it had been defrosted and not a bit like diced chicken.

Quite alarmed, I retrieved the packaging from the bin.  The picture was still a chicken, it still said Frango, but there was another word as well, Moelas, that I typed into my trusted google translate.  Moelas literally translated mean gizzards. 

I would definitely not recommend gizzard casserole for Sunday Dinner – we had crackers and cheese and resolved to sign up to the next Portuguese available language course that we saw advertised !!

The Bird’s Share!

The frustration with the skimming saga continued as the new product proved problematic to apply to the ceilings and it was almost unworkable at times.  Not sure whether the heat was a major factor but the challenge was such to the extent that the plastering rule book had to be thrown out of the window.  Mark, in a very unorthodox method, instead of fully coating the ceiling from beginning to end, found it had to be plastered in strips of approximately 3 feet wide trying to feather in all the seams as he went along to avoid cracking.  This appears to have been successful but the jury is out until it is fully dried.

Mark tells me that he has never sweated so much in all of his life and that attempting this while leaping up and down stepladders during a Portuguese summer is definitely a young mans game, not someone who is 58 years of age.

The bathroom was revisited once the filling of the joints had been completed to make some recesses in the wall.  Once the shower has been sited these will create a simple but effective way of creating space for shower gels and shampoos.  This was a relatively simple process removing some of the block wall and relining the openings with waterproof plasterboard, which in turn will then be tiled and grouted.

With the plaster-boarding, filling and skimming all done, it was time for us to head off and pick up some paint. 

We have brought a number of tins of matt white with us from the UK, courtesy of Mark’s sister, so we are pretty much stocked up in that quarter.  However, we have found out that it is usual to add a coat of primer to the plasterboard instead of skimming the walls as we have mentioned in our earlier blogs. 

We’re yet to ascertain whether there is anything special about this type of paint other that it being pretty expensive and  that it creates a base to put surface coats onto.   Mark got to work applying this to the walls in the cupboard and the hallway to try it out.  Initial impressions are that it does what it says it does on the tin, but the proof is in the pudding once the top coats have been applied.

Down on the veggie plot and around the farm we have been seeing the fruits of our labour (do please excuse the pun – I couldn’t resist!!). Our year of learning is certainly becoming just that and the land is teaching us new things every day. At times we feel quite humbled at how little we do actually know but at the same time we are really enjoying our lessons.

Time and time again we are in awe of nature and how it provides for our every need. This past year with the pandemic dictating almost every move we all make, we’ve definitely learnt that the most peaceful and rewarding times have been those spent outdoors working on our little quinta. We’ve also discovered that as we are learning to slow down from the busy and hectic life we had back in the UK, we now notice the plants and trees that we have on the plot and how they change throughout the different seasons. We were once too busy to heed the beauty of nature and are now seeing and enjoying even the very smallest change on a daily basis.

Keen to be the star pupil Mark is writing in his diary the developments on the land so that we know the different growth stages, when to expect a harvest and the best times for us to plan when to do our pruning and cutting back. We feel that this will be extremely helpful developing the farm over the coming years.

With the cherry season passed, on came the season for picking our purple figs. I’ve never seen figs so large and so scrumptious. Our morning walks around the farm have involved eating two or three figs for breakfast as we checked out the plot. We soon found that one of the greatest pleasures is to bite into a juicy fig fresh picked straight off the tree. It took a while for us to work out exactly when they were ready for eating as they often looked ripe before they actually were.

Our figs are ripe when they feel soft when pressed and when we start to see white cracks appear on the outside. They are absolutely delicious – full of sticky loveliness, a kind of cross between molasses and caramel. There were hundreds of them – and just like we were with the oranges, we didn’t want to waste any. Lots of experimenting in the kitchen has produced figgy crumble, sweet fig pie, fiery fig chutney, roasted fig and root vegetables and fig and feta parcels. The purple figs have finished now but we have plenty tucked away in the freezer to savour another day.

As it was with the cherries, the birds seem to be our partners in the harvest. The cherry and fig trees are way too tall so we can’t reach the topmost branches to pick the fruit. They are desperately in need of a haircut, but for now, we have more than enough to go round and we are happy for the birds to have their share.

On a well-balanced quinta the farmers, plants, trees, animals and birds are all connected with each other and we all have our own individual parts to play.

Since moving here in December we have had regular visits from the sheep belonging to the shepherd over the road.  They would climb up to bank and peep in through our fence to see what we were up to, constantly nibbling at the grass and in the process playing their part in keeping it all neat and tidy.  I think as they eyed up Wanda, they may well have though that she was a long lost cousin with her curly hair.

Early last week we noticed that the shepherd (we have affectionately given him the name “Shep”) arrived one morning with another man and a very large truck.  The sheep were rounded up into the truck and then taken away.  It was all very sad and I found that my mind was straying off to them throughout the day.  A couple of the larger ones used to wear bells around their necks which clanged as they grazed and the silence that followed in the wake of their absence was almost deafening. 

I know it’s the food chain and the circle of life and all that stuff but I could remember their lovely little faces and their nosiness.   A couple of days ago Shep and his truck was back again with a whole new flock complete with a couple of them wearing bells.  It’s good to see animals in the fields, roaming freely, happily grazing and looking quite content and settled.

When we first came to see the farm back in January 2019, the land was extremely overgrown and it was almost impossible to make out where one terrace started and another one finished. We did notice though a band of very dark green grass running through the lower terraces and on looking closer saw that it was a brook fed by the water mine and the open well. We loved the idea of having running water across the land and it was always our intention to make this into something special.

Mark has made a series of “locks” or “dams” to help regulate the flow along with a rustic bridge (although it is not quite finished on this photo) made from the reclaimed timbers removed from the old roof when Ecositana were here doing the construction work.

This means we can take the ride on tractor across the brook to cut the grass on the other side. Wanda has got really apt at jumping across it and we seem to be equally as apt at throwing Wanda’s balls smack into the middle of it.

It is really hot at the moment, around mid to late 30’s and most of the grass has turned brown. The brook is still feeding the grass and plants on its bank and we can still see the dark green band of lovely smelling mint along the full length. We are looking forward to working on this next year and making it into something more of a feature.

Our vision is to create a habitat which helps the birds, insects and wildlife to thrive.  We are all increasingly more aware about global warming and the destruction of ponds, hedgerows and pastures to make way for roads, houses and industrial buildings.  Although we do not expect to turn our quinta into a sanctuary for endangered species, we can do our bit in helping plants, birds and wildlife right outside our back door. We have little fieldmice, water voles, rabbits, various type of birds and insects all sharing our farm with us. Hopefully next year we will create a wildflower trail in our little wooded copse and encourage water-loving plants such as watercress, mint, lillies and marsh marigolds to grow along side our brook.

It’s the little things in our new life that we have come to value and appreciate. Our morning routine is pretty much set in stone with Mark still fetching the buckets of water, I set about watering the vegetables and trees and we both clean, sweep and mop our annexe and bathroom.

I think we both used to see this kind of stuff as a chore, or a hindrance to getting on with something we really wanted to do. Here on the farm we appreciate the simple things in life so much more – and this week our well-worn mop head was replaced with a brand new one. It made such a difference – like I said – it’s the little things!!

The Age of Aquarius!

My three weeks of Nanna heaven passed way too quickly.  I’d heard many times that being a grandparent was great because you could always pass the baby back.  The trouble was, I didn’t want to – we were having so much fun together! We went to the baby group and learnt baby massage and baby yoga, we went to the baby sensory group and learnt about using music and song in baby development, we went lots of times for a walk in the park and one day when we were having Nanna and Rupert tickles, he did his first giggle.  Priceless!! But all good things come to an end (for a short while at least) and with one last hug we said a tearful farewell.

Before setting off for home I’d decided to stock up on a few things we find difficult to buy in Portugal such as Bisto, anti-histamine tablets and a very large tub of my favourite Options white chocolate drink. I also took the opportunity to treat myself to a haircut and a bit of a pamper.  I didn’t think that I would be able get an appointment but after a long chat with Steve at “The Hairdressers” in Droitwich I went off to my appointment with the lovely Ella. She really had her work cut out as for the past 6 months I have been cutting Mark’s hair, Mark has been cutting my hair and we have both been cutting Wanda’s!

I’d forgotten just how lovely it felt to have a bit of a pamper and thoroughly enjoyed my head massage and re-style. I’ve never really been one for experimenting with hairdo’s but having decided that I would embrace my natural colour (which is definitely not blonde) I gave Ella a free reign. Delighted with the results, although unsure if I would ever be able to re-create this myself, I headed off with my little bag off hair product goodies! For anyone in the Droitwich area, I would definitely recommend https://www.thehairdressersdroitwich.co.uk/

The journey back to Portugal felt like a very long day. As well as having a repeat performance of getting all the paperwork, tests, checks and boarding pass sorted out, there was also a 3am start ready for my flight at 6am. Despite a 4 hour wait in Lisbon for my train, everything went like clockwork and by 4.30pm I was in the truck with Mark heading back to the farm and a very warm welcome from Wanda.

I was keen to have a good look round to see what had changed since I’d been in the UK. I was amazed at our veggie patch – it was as though everything had suddenly had a massive growth spurt and we had right in front of our little annex a bountiful supply of salad and vegetables all ready for the picking. There is something pretty special about stepping outside to pick your own dinner although it wasn’t only the produce that had been busy growing. It took two full days of weeding and trimming to get everything back in order.

The cherries, that at one time we were worried would not grow, were really big and juicy. While we were picking them from a tree on the top terrace, we were excited to see one of the “unknown” trees next to it had several tiny pears on it. I know I’ve said it before, but this first year really is one huge journey of discovery and appreciation of what we have.

Mark had made great progress in the longhouse although it had not been without it’s challenges. The old windows have now been removed and the openings made good ready to receive the next batch of windows, which we’re hoping won’t take quite as long to manufacture as the first batch did.

The metal batons are almost all done and the boarding out in the bathroom, bedroom and snug are completely finished. It’s not usual practice to skim over plasterboard in Portugal, and it seems that the normal way of doing things is to fill in the joints, sand everything back and then paint on top, something that Mark feels a bit apprehensive about at the moment as its totally alien to him working in this way. We’re learning to do things the Portuguese way, overcoming obstacles as we go along although the biggest problem that we are finding is that neither the walls nor the ceiling are in any way square. In fact, as can be seen in the photos above, the walls in some places are out by about 2 inches, even after some adjustments have been made so we have decided to accept that we have a quirky, rustic house that will always be out of alignment.

The ceilings are all very rough and uneven, so we’d invested in a bag of what we thought was skimming. It wasn’t. The large bucket full of stuff that Mark had mixed set within 5 minutes leaving us with a large block of “porcelain” in the bucket instead of on the ceiling. Back to Maxmat to buy a different product – which seems to do the job although still a bit tricky to apply.

While I was away in the UK, Mark had been experiencing a bit of bother with the boiler and more often than not had taken cold showers as there was no hot water.  The day after I returned, the boiler gave up the ghost, refusing to work at all.  

I like a gentle start to my day, not an icy cold one so a cold shower was not an option.  As we will hopefully be living up in the longhouse in a few weeks, which has just had a brand new boiler fitted, we didn’t want to invest in a new boiler for the annexe so we had to find another solution.

Mark filled four buckets of hot water from the longhouse and carried them two at a time to the annexe bathroom so that I could have a hot bath.  He was born under the sign of Aquarius (The water carrier) and at this moment in time I feel that there is some poetic irony in that as I watch him trundle back and forth with his buckets each day.

The weather has really turned up the temperature dial and having invested in a new outdoor thermometer have seen the mercury rise up in to the 90’s. I’ve had a go at tidying up the terrace alongside the annexe, getting rid of the bits of hardcore and cuttings that had been left there. The trees have been cut back, the banks have been weeded and we’ve even planted some flowers alongside the fence. An old garden table that we inherited has been jet-washed to within an inch of its life and we are now feeling ready to al fresco!

All Change!

For the past six months we have stuck rigidly to both the UK and Portuguese guidelines and restrictions.  Although this has meant that we have felt much safer and less anxious about the Coronavirus, it has not been without it’s downsides.

We have not been able to explore the local area, meet our neighbours, start language lessons or travel back to the UK to visit friends and family.  We both come from very close families and love spending time with them.  The biggest wrench for me was that my grandson, Rupert Peter, is 3 months old and I hadn’t met him.  I was definitely pining for nanna cuddles.    

Shortly after Easter, Portugal starting to ease up a little – we were able to shop for non-essential items, exercise and go for walks without the need to wear a facemask. We could also meet up with others outdoors.

Finally we were able to meet up with our closest neighbours, Dave and Julie for a beer and to pick their brains about their Portugal experience.  They originally hail from Goole, not too far from our home town in the UK and have been living here for several years now.  Their current  farm is about 15 minutes drive away but they are planning to move into the the farm adjoining ours very shortly. 

We arranged to meet up at one of the local bars in Vale de Prazares, deciding that as it was only a short distance from our farm we would walk there.  True to form we were late and the stroll turned into a bit of a yomp, at one point Dave and Julie passed us in their car, probably wondering if we had forgotten.  At least we didn’t get lost!

We spent a lovely afternoon sat outside in the sun and finding out a bit more about the area.   The local shops, bars and cafes have struggled massively during the pandemic so Mark and Dave both had an extra beer as their contribution to supporting the local economy. 

Every now and again the reality of the pandemic hits home and it seems so surreal that for over a year now we have been living in an every changing environment with new rules, new variants and constant debates about the best way to manage everything.  Back in the UK, working as the manager of a busy dental practice, the wearing of facemasks and excellent infection control was always part of my daily routine, but having this spill over into my home life as I said earlier, is surreal.   

By early May, the number of reported Coronavirus cases in Portugal was dropping rapidly and with this came news from the UK that Portugal was now on the green list. This meant that it was no longer a requirement to quarantine if travelling from Portugal to the UK which was exactly the news we had been waiting to hear. Within days we could see the obvious increase in air traffic as the contrails from the aeroplanes flying high above our little farm made an intricate patchwork of criss-crosses in the bright blue sky.

The travel update made me all the more anxious to visit the UK. Rupert was almost 3 months old and I so wanted to hold him while still a baby, just like I did his Mummy.

Unfortunately, the windows still hadn’t arrived so leaving the farm un-secured was not an option. With no date arranged for them to be fitted, we decided that I would spend a few weeks in the UK and that Mark would stay in Portugal looking after the farm and continuing with renovating the longhouse.

I received a very timely message offering me my first Covid vaccination the following week so we went off to Fundao and I received a shot of the Moderna. I must say that I was extremely impressed with the efficiency of the vaccination station. Everything was really well organised and seemed to run like clockwork. I was seen 5 minutes before my appointment time and after a short wait after the jab I was free to go. I’d heard different accounts of whether there were side effects or not – but I didn’t experience any at all. Mark received his Pfizer jab a number of days later and although his arm ached a bit it didn’t hinder him either.

Sorting out the travel arrangements for me to travel back to the UK was a nightmare but eventually we managed to navigate our way through the necessary tests, checks and paperwork and after a full day of travelling, I finally got to hold my grandson. Just looking into his little face made my heart almost burst with love and the stresses of the past 3 months faded away.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, Mark was very busy. The sun had certainly decided that this was its moment to shine and the temperature rose to somewhere in the high 90’s. On top of his normal day working on the longhouse, he had been left in sole charge of the propagator, veggie plot and tree watering as well as harvesting the cherries and he was finding that this was taking two hours out of his day. We really do need to sort out an irrigation system, ideally using our grey water, and we both agreed that we will look at setting something up as soon as I am back on the farm.

We have always said that our first year was going to be one learning about the land, the language and Portuguese way of life. The veggie plot has exploded into life and it is quite time consuming for Mark to keep on top of it, especially as I am not there to help. I’d decided to add ratafia strings to the beans and peas before I left, which was a good call as these have now changed from young seedlings into strong plants which have almost reached the top of the framework.

Our climbing peas are now around four feet high and their tendrils have entwined firmly around anything they’ve come into contact with. Our first crop is almost ready to harvest which is amazing when compared to our garden back in the UK as we only managed one crop a year. We planted the seedlings on both side of our bamboo framework to maximise the yield and although the articles I read advised creating a string trellis with 1 inch squares, I stuck to horizontal strings which seems to have worked really well. Hopefully the beans, carrots, potatoes and beetroot will follow suit and I will be able to make a Sunday roast, with home grown vegetables served with gravy made from the Bisto I’m bringing back from my travels.

I’ve mentioned in previous blogs that we are keen to try new food that we haven’t eaten before, but sometimes only the real McCoy will do – and Bisto is just one of those times.

Out of the blue, the day before I left for the UK, we received a call from Orlando to say that some of our windows were finally ready and the following day a team arrived to fit them.  The ground floor ones were fitted in no time at all as were the two smaller first floor windows but as the patio doors leading out on to the balcony were so large, it wasn’t possible to carry them up the stairs so one of the team was dispatched to collect scaffolding so that they could be lifted over the balcony. 

It has been a while coming without a doubt, but now they are in place we are really pleased with them.  We still have an issue regarding the fly screens as we don’t really want to have a solid bar across the centre of the glass.  It would appear we don’t really have an option due to the size of the window and we are told that the bar would help support and stabilise the screens.  We keep looking around in the hope that we will stumble across something different, and in the meantime will wait until we’ve explored all options before making a decision.

Our several rainy days followed by several hot and sunny days had given everything a growth spurt, so Mark decided he would spend a couple of days out on the land to try and get things ship-shape again.  He usually wears a face visor with ear defenders when strimming but this particular time he didn’t.  By the next morning his right ear appeared to be ten times its normal size and stuck out from his head at a right angle.  We had a bit of a difference of opinion – Mark was convinced it was sunburn, I was convinced that he had been bitten.  Either way, it didn’t really matter as the ear just kept on growing.  As it was a weekend we couldn’t really do anything about it so he doused himself up with anti-histamine tablets (albeit 4 years old) and I painted on some propolis.  He also took some ibuprofen as it was really quite painful and by the next day the swelling had started to subside.  Lessons learnt … sun-protection and replace out of date medication!  

For anyone unfamiliar with propolis, it is a fantastic little bottle of healing that should be part of every first aid box.  It can be bought online or from most health food stores.  I first came across it when working at Castle Park Dental Care.  My boss, Chris Branfield is always researching and looking in to the best way to look after his patients and has been using and recommending propolis for years.

It is made by bees by combining the sap on needle-leaved trees with beeswax and bee discharges to make a sticky greenish-brown product which the bees then use as a coating when building their hives. 

Using propolis as a medicine isn’t new – the Greeks used it to treat abscesses, Assyrians put it on wounds and tumors to fight infection and help the healing process and Egyptians used it to embalm mummies.  I put it on Mark’s ear!

Work on boarding the walls continued while I was away.  The internal walls were fitted with dot and dab plasterboard and more metal batons were fitted to the inside of the exernal walls before these too were insulated with rockwool and membrane before also being boarded. 

It was a bit time consuming doing the bathroom as Mark had to adjust all the plumbing that he had previously done in order to obtain the habitation licence in 2019.  It all needed moving to make room for the batoning and as we hadn’t factored in having a shower, more pipework had to be adjusted under the sink and extended. 

Working with materials that he isn’t used to or familiar with has been a learning curve.  Back in the UK the material of choice would be copper tubing with soldered fittings.  Here in Portugal the pipework is thick green plastic that is heated with a purpose made welder which heats and melts both the ends of the pipe and the fitting before then being pushed together.  When it has cooled, this forms a sealed joint.   

With the increase in the temperature we are keen to move out of the annexe as soon as possible as we remember living in it during August 2019. There is still such a lot to do in the longhouse.

The plan at the moment is to get at least three or four room ready to live in and then continue the renovations of the remainder of the longhouse. As we have not 100% decided on what we want, this is probably going to be a good call.

The end of an Era….

When we arrived in Portugal last December we drove our little Audi, packed to the roof with our belongings all the way from Withernsea to Vale de Prazares, and for the past five and a half months we have been driving it around the highways and byways of the Portuguese interior. 

However, in Portugal there is a time limit of 6 months before it is a requirement for it to be either be re-registered with Portuguese number plates or taken back to the UK.  

As we are no longer in the EU, it is not possible to sell it in Portugal without paying import tax and even though it is still driving really well, it would also be impossible to scrap it or sell it for parts as again import duty would be necessary.

Before we could let our trusty Audi go, we first needed to invest in a Portuguese vehicle.  With all the building and renovation works that we will be doing over the next year or so, we both agreed that our best option would be to buy a pick up truck.  To make things a little comfier for Wanda, and any passengers, we also agreed that we needed a five seater.  We enquired at a nearby garage that we have passed several times when driving into Fundao if they had any for sale.   They only had one pick-up available, which was over 20 years old at a cost of 12,000 euros so we decided to explore other options.

Our neighbours, Dave and Julie, have been living here a while now and Julie seems a whizz at all things online.  Within minutes of asking she had sent across a link to a dealer located about 40 minutes drive away from us.  Their website looked very promising and two days later we were on our way to check them out.

The dealers, Carina and Goncalves are based in a small town called Caria and they had quite a large selection of pick-up’s for us to look at……. although strangely enough every one of them was white.  It reminded me of Henry Ford being quoted as having said “you can have any colour you want as long as it is black”. 

There was one particular pick-up that really caught our eye although the investment was significantly more than we had expected. It was in an immaculate condition with low mileage – so after a coffee and a bit of deliberation we decided to go for it. I’m not sure how comfortable I will feel driving it though and to be honest it is that high off the ground I almost needed a step up.

The two men that looked after us, Pedro and Eduardo were wonderful. They spoke excellent English and it was quite clear that they took a lot of pride in delivering great customer care looking after all the documentation, insurance and tax. Our experience was top notch and we were extremely happy with the customer service we received. Would definitely recommend.


Unfortunately it was not viable for them to take our Audi in Part exchange so we decided to advertise it on a local Facebook group. We did have quite a few people enquiring about buying it and one person even wanting to swap it for a Kawasaki motor bike! We declined the swap and were surprised that it took less than a day to find it’s new owner. Having driven that car since it had only 150 miles on the clock I have come to know it really well and in many ways have an emotional connection with it. We’ve been all over the UK together and lately all over Portugal.

It’s sad in one way to be saying goodbye but on the other hand good to know that it is not the end of the road for her (do please excuse the pun) and that she will continue to drive on back in the UK.

I gave her one last clean out before driving her for the last time to hand her over to her new owner.

Work on the long house has been continuing day be day at a steady pace.  Once Mark had installed the pipework to carry the hot and cold water we were able to take delivery of a brand new boiler.  It was such an exciting day and with the introduction of running water we felt as though we had taken a massive step forwards. For the first time in it’s history, water can be accessed in the long house through a tap although the bath will need a bit of a clean before I’ll be having a soak in it!

Mark is now quite a dab hand at fixing the metal batons to the wall and I have eve been getting stuck in to fitting the insulation. However, the challenge now is not the technique, but the dynamics of the buildings.   As no two walls are the same size in any of the rooms the direction of the walls create a shape similar to a wedge of cheese, I found Mark more and more frequently referring to the long house as being rustic, quirky and with “a feature” especially when referring to the mis-shaped and mis-aligned walls. 

Even though we are still waiting for the windows to arrive and be fitted in the new part of the build, we are keen to create measurable openings for the next phase of windows so that Orlando can build the new windows for the long house.   As the original building was never interlinked, it had three separate doors so that each of the three dwellings could be accessed.  Since creating internal access to all rooms the first door is no longer needed and as part of the refurbishment we have decided to remove it and replace it with a window to create a small lounge which we refer to as the snug.

The process was somewhat protracted as Mark had to fit a concrete lintel above the new and extended opening of the window.  Due to him being over-cautious when cutting out the space for the lintel it took numerous attempts at siting it before it was finally in place.  We were both relieved to see it slot into position as it was so heavy he didn’t believe he would have been able to offer it up to the space any more.  It was a solid concrete beam which he was manhandling using a set of step ladders to rest it on at one end whilst lifting the other end in to the opening.  He then had to climb up the step ladders to offer it up at the other end.  All-in-all, quite a physical exercise and I don’t think I have ever seen him sweat so much.  Just glad he isn’t working in the middle of August.  

About a week later the door had to be removed and the gap widened as well as blocking up the lower half of the door opening.  The removal of the old metal door frame proved challenging as it was built around four metal spikes before being bricked in. It was extremely solidly fastened meaning that it had to be literally prised away from the brick work.  There was some collateral damage as some of the old block work came away in the process so this had to be made good.  On the plus side, this is the first occasion on this project that Mark has made use of the bricklaying course he did back in the UK.

Before moving to Portugal, I had never heard of a loquat never mind seen or tasted one. We arrived when our loquat trees had just finished flowering. There were a lot of dead flowers on the trees, many of the leaves were a bit weather beaten, the branches were overgrown and unruly and all four of our loquat trees looked, to say the least, very scruffy.

That being said, at the time we didn’t know what they were and we had already decided to give everything on our land the benefit of the doubt for the first year until we had got used to each other.

The loquat trees are quite tall with large, dark green leaves and over the past few months we have seen the fruit develop, first making an appearance as fuzzy little green balls, then as they grew turning a lighter shade of green, then yellow and finally a dark orange.

Not known for my patience I thought I would pick one when it was yellow to sample it. It was extremely tart and not at all pleasant, so I decided to turn to my trusty Google to find out a bit more about this strange tree and it’s fruit.

The loquat tree originated in China and can also be seen throughout Asia and many warmer countries. The fruit is about the same size as a plum and grows in little clusters and its texture is similar to a plum although very juicy. It’s taste is very difficult to describe as it is unlike anything I have ever eaten before, but perhaps could be compared to a cross between a gooseberry and a mango.

I learnt through google to leave them on the tree until they had turned almost orange and in doing this found the ripe fruit to be absolutely delicious – I always pick and eat three or four of them on our morning walk around the farm.

Wanting to make good use of everything our land provides for us I started to research how loquats can be eaten and found that there is a huge list to try out …. jams, chutney, pies, crumble, compote, ice-cream and of course fresh from the tree.

The downside with this fruit is that once picked it doesn’t take kindly to not being used – possible one reason why they can not be found for sale in supermarkets. So, determined to get the best out of my first attempt at jam making I picked and prepared the fruit and made my jam as quickly as possible – in fact from tree to jar it took less than two hours. As loquats are naturally high in pectin, all that is needed to make the jam is fruit, sugar and lemon juice. I also added a little bit of ground cinnamon to mine which worked really well. will definitely be trying more recipes using this little fruit.

The Dog Frog

It is so lovely and peaceful here on the farm and although two days are never the same, we seem to have naturally eased ourselves into a daily routine that suits the way we want to live.  Sunrise is now around six thirty and sets again at half past eight, so we have a lot more daylight hours to be getting on with things.   

Just as well really, as everything on the farm has suddenly burst into life and there is new growth everywhere we look.  The vines which a few weeks ago were only just starting to develop their tiny little green shoots – have now grown so much that they are reaching out for the nearby trees and within the next week undoubtedly they will be making contact. 

We can remember just how overgrown the land was when we first arrived, with tall grasses, an abundance of weeds wherever we looked and vines stretching themselves out along the terraces entwined in the trees and firmly attached to the wire fences.  It took some clearing to detangle everything but we managed to cut back every last one of the vines and for three months they lay quiet and dormant. 

At one point we wondered if we’d been too severe with our pruning and if they would ever bear fruit again!  We needn’t have worried as we can already see minute little bunches of grapes forming. With that comes the future challenge of making sure we put our grape harvest to good use – we have come across a whole load of wine making equipment in an out-building, so who knows, we may even try our hand at home made wine although with a bottle of wine costing about the same as a bar of chocolate we may have to do a time and motion study first!

The vines were not the only things growing as the grass was also in need of a good cut. The ride-on tractor that we brought with us from the UK has definitely proved to be a sound investment as I can get all the grass cut in a day. There’s approximately 4 acres and although some of the terraces are a bit tricky to manoeuvre around due to the steep banks and restricted access between the vines and trees. There is also the issue of the low branches which I am still continually bumping my head on even though Mark has set me up with a hard hat complete with a visor and ear defenders. I now need to make sure I actually wear them!

Unfortunately, part way into cutting the grass, our ride-on tractor developed a flat tyre.  As it was over the weekend with no chance of getting it repaired until the following week, there was nothing else to do but get out the petrol lawn mower.   With the reassurance that the fresh air and all the exercise pushing it up and down must be doing me good, I pressed on. 

The flap at the back of the mower had a sizeable hole which allowed the little stones to be projected through and before long I had cuts and little bruises all up my legs.  On a mission to find a use for as many of the things left on the farm, Mark found an old bit of plastic in one of the sheds and made a makeshift repair by screwing it into place over the broken flap on the mower.  This seemed to do the trick and two full days later I finally succeeded in getting it all cut.   Needless to say we headed off to Fundao the following week to buy a replacement shoe for our trusty steed. 

Mark’s dad is famous for the huge bag of various items that he buys for everyone at Christmas and we made sure we had packed the one’s we’d been given over the years. Some of the items are quite unique and anyone could be forgiven for wondering if they would ever be needed. But, we have found time and again that there is always that one time when nothing else will do the job and we find ourselves hunting to retrieve something.

This week, with the onset of the warmer days we were bothered by an increase in the number of flies around. As we don’t have fly screens in the annexe, the door had to remain closed and it soon became very hot inside. Mark remembered packing a magnetic fly screen that his dad had given us and as the annexe door frame is metal, it did the job perfectly.

It’s a simple but effective piece of kit with nine pairs of very strong magnets that keep the screen closed and flies out whilst still allowing us to walk through before clicking back together again behind us like a string of castanets. We almost want to burst into a little flamenco dance as we traverse back and forth. Wanda on the other hand was not quite so sure and it took her a while to work out that she could push her way through too.

While I was busy out on the land, Mark was extremely busy inside the long house. Parts of the house could possibly be over 100 years old so as you can image the walls and ceilings are desperately in need of some TLC and renovation. But before he could start anything we had to take delivery of the materials needed to do the job. We placed our order with Stedi in Castelo Branco and a couple of days later a lorry arrived loaded up with almost 70 sheets of plasterboard, rock wool insulation, 10 bags of dot and dab (plasterboard adhesive) and 5 bags of joint filler as well as a large amount of galvanised stud walling.

Bit by bit this all had to be carried into the store and once again I found that I was telling myself that all this exercise and fresh air must be doing me good. I didn’t realise just how heavy and unwieldy plasterboard is and it took over 3 hours to store in all away.

Our electrician has been back to finish off the first fix of the electrical installation so that we can get on with making good the walls.  To save time, and money,  Mark chased out in the walls and floor where the sockets and cables need to be laid so once Jose had finished laying the now familiar blue conduit, the plasterboard was soon being fixed into place. 

Due to the age of the house and the lack of any insulation or damp course, we have decided to use a number of different techniques.  The ceiling will be coated with pva and then skimmed and painted, the inside walls will be dry lined using dot and dab, the external walls will be rendered and painted on the outside and on the inside metal batons will be fixed to the walls and rockwool placed before fixing on the vapour barrier and plasterboard. 

The metal baton system is totally new to us, so Mark decided to stick with what he knows and dot and dab first.  The first day was a great success and he steamed ahead.  It was such a milestone for us as finally it feels as though we are inching forwards.  I’m not quite at the point where I’m deciding where the Christmas tree will go, but we’re getting there.

As part of the ongoing renovation work we needed to prepare the window openings ready to received the new windows.  The barn renovation already has granite sills but the long house still has all the old windows.  Once again with a little help from Raphael, we managed to source the remaining sills and arranged for these to be bespoke-made.  However, collecting the sills proved to be eventful.  Despite being given directions on how to get there, we once again had to rely on our Sat Nav and true to form, armed with two mobile phones, one with a low battery and the other with no battery charge, we arrived on a wing and a prayer. 

This quintessential stone masons yard, which appears to have stood still in time, was just the beginning of an eventful exercise due to our total lack of speaking Portuguese and the stonemasons total lack of English.  Entering the reception area Mark asked the lady sat behind the counter “fales Ingles?” to which she replied “Si, fales Ingles”.  Encouraged Mark explained, in English that we have come to collect our window sills to which she replied “Nao intendo” (I do not understand) gesturing for him to go and speak to the two men working outside.  Some verbal mis-communication later and we reached a stale mate, so once again we reverted back to our trusty translator Raphael and called him on the phone. Within 20 minutes the truck we had loaned from Linda and Andy was all loaded up with our sills and we were once again on our merry way.

The old windows need to be removed and the new sills fitted as soon as possible so that Orlando can come back and measure up for the new ones.  Given that the whole process from measuring to fitting can take two to three months, we are naturally keen to get cracking with this as soon as we can.

We try to have a turn around the terraces at the start and at the end of each day.  We’ve come to love these little walks where we reflect on how fortunate we are to be living in such a beautiful place.  When we first started our walks the area around the open well and all along the little brook was well overgrown and difficult to make out.  We found that as we neared the well, out from somewhere within the overgrowth there would be a series of plops as the resident frogs would hop into the water. 

The soil around the well was often boggy after there had been rain and although this meant that the grass grew really well, we couldn’t get anywhere near to cut it.  It took some time for both the brook and the well to be cleared and Mark has also introduced a pipe to direct the water away from the terrace and downstream.  This has made it much drier now and easily accessible by foot.  Wanda loves to stand at the edge of the well and peep in to see what is going on, although fortunately, despite being a Spanish Water Dog, she hasn’t ventured in for a swim …. Yet!  

At one point, when I was working in the veggie patch I was sure that I could here a dog barking and it seemed to be coming from the well.  As the veggie patch is on the terrace directly above,  hesitantly I went over to the edge and peered over into the water.  The barking was even louder but instead of seeing a dog in the water, there was an extremely large dark green frog which for all the world was indeed “barking”,  so henceforth it is now referred to as the dog frog.

On our daily walks the smaller frogs are still jumping into the well as we draw close to them.  Nowadays though, instead of random plop, plop, plop, plops, they seem to all jump in together with one larger unanimous movement, as if part of a synchronised swimming team trying to impress.


And the days grow longer ….

Portugal keeps exactly the same time as the UK (the only country on mainland Europe that does), changing from summer time to winter time.  The UK and Portugal have been very close for many centuries, in fact it is the oldest alliance in the world, so it is thought that this may explain why they choose to function in the same time zone.  As Portugal is on the same Meridan as GMT and they are almost the western-most point in mainland Europe, it also seems sensible from a solar time viewpoint.  Whatever the reason, our clocks were put forward one hour, we lost an hours sleep and gained an hour extra time to work on the farm.  

The seedlings were growing into strong and healthy little plants and there was a sense of urgency to get the veggie plot ready to receive them.  We’d turned over the soil some time ago and had been waiting for materials so that the fence could be constructed and the pathway laid.

We’d been given a recommendation by our neighbour for a builders merchant in Escarigo, so decided to pay them a visit and order the things we needed.  Famous for our poor navigation skills and not wanting to leave anything to chance, we entered the address into Google maps.  We set off driving along winding mountain roads and beautiful countryside, passing through several small villages on the way.  Eventually we were directed along a number of very small streets and were convinced that we had once again got ourselves lost as it seemed the most unlikely location for a builders yard.  Surprising enough though,  half way up a hill and in a residential area we reached our destination.  Donning our masks, we joined the socially distanced queue to wait our turn to be served.  We were soon greeted by a cheerful man called Sergio with a dry sense of humour.  His English was excellent which is always a big help so we were able to quickly place our order for delivery the next day.

The delivery driver did not speak any English and unfortunately due to the lack of language lessons our Portuguese remains extremely limited.  There was some deliberation where the delivery should be unloaded – the best Mark could offer was “Nao” (no) or “Aqui” (here).  Eventually after some frustrating lack of communication, the driver put it where he wanted anyway!  At the age of 58 unloading the 30 plus concrete kerb stones and 10 bags of cement by himself nearly finished Mark off and the only items not unloaded by hand were the sand and gravel!

On the plus side – we were given a free tutorial on how we should be pruning the vines, albeit it all in Portuguese.  The driver did seem very impressed with the farm and even more so when he saw the barn extension that Ecositana had built.  So much so that he got his phone out and made a little video.  

The veggie plot took time to create, I didn’t factor in needing to allow time for the concrete to set and digging trenches to place the kerb stones before then setting these in concrete as well.  I’d also forgotten just how much of a perfectionist Mark is and everything was perfectly measured and lined up.  Eventually, after 4 days it was complete – even though I do say it myself Mark had done a fantastic job (with a little bit of help).  First in were the sweetcorn, peas, beans, onions, kale and rocket.  Mark made a rather snazzy looking gate to keep out unwanted four legged visitors and I consulted Mark’s dad, Ray, about making some bug spray.  Linda gave me a book on growing vegetables which has a section on companion planting so I’m planning on introducing flowers in the patch as well.

We Love to go a wandering …..

The Portuguese government have taken reducing the risk of Covid extremely seriously with curfews, early closing of shops, not being able to travel through municipalities and stopping and fining people who are found to be flaunting the rules.

Obviously it is achieving the desired result, the R rate has dramatically reduced and with it came the news that some of the restrictions were being relaxed.  We are now able to move around freely, the non-essential shops have re-opened and we can sit outside cafes and bars to eat or have a drink.  We are also able to exercise and go for walks without having to wear a facemask as long as we are 2 metres away from anyone else.

We’ve really stuck to the rules 100%, not leaving the farm unless absolutely necessary, and although this has meant that we felt very safe, we’ve also felt very restricted. 

Taking the opportunity to sit outside in the sun while stopping off for a coffee in Castelo Branco

With the relaxing of the rules we took the opportunity to drive into Castelo Branco to find out our options for installing solar panels to heat our water and to order some much needed building supplies to renovate the long house. There are some very fancy solar systems on the market but as we’re not sure if the water on our farm is suitable we have arranged for a site visit.

Having been here for 5 months now, unfortunately we are yet to explore the area we call home. We haven’t been able to meet our neighbours, look around the nearby villages or familiarise ourselves with local places of interest. 

When working on the longhouse modifications in 2019,  Mark spent an enjoyable day with Linda, Andy, Amy and Adam at the river beach at Castelo Nova but hasn’t been there since.  I’m looking forward to when we can walk along the riverbank together, perhaps when we take a day out, or after a long day after we’ve been working on the farm. 

With the news of the lockdown easing, we both really liked the idea of going for a long walk, so set off one evening with Wanda at around 5.30pm.  We thought this would give us enough time to walk for a couple of hours and still be back before dark.  Anyone that knows me will know that I’ve got a bit of an aversion to doing an “about turn” when out on a walk and generally like to try and find a circular route. 

Checking with Google we found that we could turn right coming out of the farm heading towards the station and then walk up the hill through Corticada, on through Monte Leal and then cut across country down the mountain using a quiet lane to get back to the main road which would take us to our farm.  In theory, this should have taken around 2 hours and with sunset at 8.15pm we figured we had plenty of time.  We hoped that we would be able to catch a glimpse of our quinta from up high and see the nearby farms that were adjacent to our land.

We’d particularly chosen that route as it was a main road passing through small villages and past experience has seen that the back roads had a lot of dogs either loose in the farms or tied up on a chain.

We set off and for a while all was going to plan.  However, we quickly realised that Mark’s phone which we were using for navigation was very low on battery and I had decided not to take my phone with us.  With our poor senses of direction, this is when alarm bells should have started to ring as in the past even with the help of a navigational aid we have be known to frequently go wrong (those who know us well will remember Naples!).

However, intoxicated by the beauty of the landscape and the breath-taking views as we climbed higher along the mountain road, we forged on.  This was slightly marred by the large number of dogs that seemed quite agitated by our presence and their loud barking didn’t instil us with confidence for our safety.  The fences acting as a barrier between them and us was flimsy to say the least and although Wanda trotted along seemingly oblivious, we were glad when we had passed them.  We knew that once through Cortecada and Monte Leal we needed to turn right.  What could go possibly wrong?   

As time pressed on, un-beknown to me, Mark was thinking to himself  “I might not be wearing the moccasins of a North American Indian who learnt to track at aged 5, or be a budding Bear Grylls, but with those Gardunha mountains on our left hand side and with the sun behind us at this time of day, we are still heading away from Vale de Prazares and home”.

With the sun descending behind the mountain like a deflated helium balloon, he knew that time was becoming a concern and we stopped to review the situation.  Although I was keen to press on in the hope that our right turn was imminent, we agreed to do the “about turn”  that I so dislike.  This was no small decision as we knew that we would have to run the gauntlet of the dogs again, so with a sense of urgency in our stride we set off at some pace knowing that we had some considerable distance to cover before darkness was upon us.

As we were making our way back, a familiar small white van pulled up alongside us with a very smiley Antonio (Ecositana) and Jose (our electrician) inside.  Although we don’t understand Portuguese, it was clear to us that Antonio was gesturing with his arms as though running, that we needed to get a wiggle on.  After exchanging pleasantries, we marched on.

Needless to say, by the time we returned home we had been out for over three hours and it was dark.  Poor Wanda was hungry, as we were so after a very late dinner and stiff drink we slept well. 

Since then, we have re-traced our “evening stroll” in the car and discovered that we had journeyed 9.8 miles.  No wonder Wanda didn’t want to leave her bed for the next 2 days.


Auf Wiedersehen Pet

Before leaving the UK, as a birthday gift, I enrolled Mark on to a 4 week bricklaying course as we both thought this would come in extremely handy working on Project Portugal. The opportunity arose for Mark to put this into practice when Andy was building a wall around the raised flower bed. Happy to help out, Mark was also curious to find out how the Teluja bricks commonly used in Portugal compared to the standard UK bricks. The main thing was how much quicker the wall was erected du to the size of the telujas. In addition to the four week course Mark had also been watching back to back episodes of Auf Wiedersehen Pet and also found this quite inspirational and when things didn’t go quite to plan was often heard saying “Ahh Bollocks Man” (you had to be around in the 80’s to appreciate that one).

We’d been well fed again by Linda with a lovely lunch of chicken and ribs with lots of indian sides, so after a hard days graft (reference to Auf Wiedersehen Pet again) it was time for the lads to knock off and enjoy a couple of Cervejas (beers) while watching the Grand Prix. Weekends really don’t get any better than this!

April Showers – Portuguese style!

Well – we knew that the rains were coming and fortunately we’d had enough time to prepare for the downpours as down-poured it did! 

The barn refurbishment has been finished for some time and as we still haven’t had the windows fitted, there are three very large gaping holes where the windows should be.  With the insulation in place and the vapour barrier fitted we were naturally concerned about the driving rain getting into the upstairs bedroom and soaking it through.  We have rockwool as insulation and although this fits in to the space really well, if it gets wet it would sag down, creating a gap at the top and compromising its functionality.  

We needed to find a way of protecting it or at least making it as waterproof as we could.

In need of building supplies, for a number of things we wanted to do around the farm we headed off to see Sergio, our local building supplier.  Worried about the rains, we enquired about purchasing some tarpaulin and we were in luck – there was one left in stock so we snapped it up.  It didn’t really resonate with us just how big 12m x 8m was until we got it home and unwrapped it.   Perhaps this was the reason it was still on the shelf as not everyone has a five a side football pitch that needs covering!

But, with a Stanley knife and spirit level in hand, we managed to cut three large pieces and fastened these firmly in place to fill the gaps where the windows should be.  There was enough tarpaulin remaining to cover the Japanense buffalo and the tractor in the compound with still another two large pieces left over.  

For three days the rain came. Relentlessly. The land was saturated and fast flowing rivets of water streamed down the drive and across the terrace in front of the longhouse.  It waterfalled down the bank, washing parts of it away before flowing onto and flooding the  the veggie plot.  It was flowing that fast at one point we contemplated whether it was time to start building and ark instead. 

The recently planted beetroot and carrots were under water and the swiss chard squashed flat to the soil.  Indoors, our little bolthole was springing leaks.  I’d put some of Marks socks on the top of the fireplace to finish off drying and when we woke found that the the rain had come in,  run down the chimney breast and soaked his socks so much that they had to be wrung out.   Hung above the fireplace was an aerial view of the farm which we have inherited and we could see that this too had received a good soaking.

We had leaks elsewhere in the annexe roof as well and found that we were dancing around to dodge them.  With a quick feng shui of our furniture we were able to strategically place  buckets and bowls on the floor to catch the water and once the fire was lit, fortunately things started to dry out.

We called in at the Hipwell’s on the way home from taking Wanda for her routine check up at the vets and they too were having extreme weather – Hailstone!  Dashing the few metres from our car to their kitchen and we were soaked through.  The hailstones hit the tiles and pool with such a force they bounced back up about a foot into the air.  Portuguese April Showers!

It was lovely to catch up with Andy and Linda and as always we enjoyed sharing a delicious meal together – Boef Bourgignon Linda style. 

Mark and Andy spent a good while going over the options for insulating the inside walls.  The problem with our building is that the walls are very thin, made only of single block.  This means that they require insulating.  A traditional wooden batoning and plasterboard with insulation wouldn’t suffice as any moisture could travel through the batons. 

So the next option was for a metal batoning system.  However, due to this being substantially thicker that the wooden system, we would lose significant space within the inside rooms.

So the third option was thermally insulated plasterboard.  However, we discovered that the adhesive for these plasterboards could also allow moisture to travel through so the final decision was to have metal batoning on the exterior walls and dot and dab plasterboards on the interior walls.  Life is all about compromises!

We’d invested in some acrow props when we’d bought the tarpaulin so that Mark can start knocking the long house into shape ready for us to live in.  At the moment there is only a basic electricity supply, no running water and a lot of rearranging of windows, walls and a fireplace – so it is a long way from being habitable. 

Although we’ve been living in the annexe for 5 months now, it is definitely showing signs of failing and I’ve got a feeling it’s very much on borrowed time.

As well as the leaky roof, it is extremely hot in summer and even with a fan and an open window it was unbearably hot and difficult to sleep when we stayed here in August 2019.  We need to get the long house, or at least part of it, up and running as soon as possible.

It took a couple of day, but eventually the red brick fireplace was no more.  We found a bar inserted in the fireplace which seemed to be some sort of hanging rail for a cooking pot with it’s chain still attached.  We’ve put this to one side in our stash of treasures and plan to reinstate this in the outdoor kitchen when we get round to creating it.  

We now have a hole in the ceiling where the chimney used to be so Mark has made some shuttering so that we can board this up.  We have spoken with Raphael about obtaining a roof tile which will accommodate a flue for a log burner and as always Ecositana have come good and are sourcing one for us.

Popping in at Lidl to stock up on some basics, we wandered down the fruit and veg aisle to check out anything unfamiliar that we may want to try.  We spotted this specimen and with no  idea what it was, or what to do with it, popped it in our basket.

It was quite a heavy vegetable with no particular odour although it felt as though it had been dipped in wax.  Once again we’d omitted to make a note of it’s name, so messaged a couple of foodies in the family for a bit of direction.  My daughter Amy suggested that it might be an old carrot that has been found under the shop fittings, Adam was more helpful letting us know it was a cassava or also known as manihoc.

Once we had a name it was over to Google to find out what we could do with it. It is a edible tuberous root often made into flour, mashed or made into chips. It is high in carbohydrates (mainly starch) and is reported to be the third most important source of calories in the tropics, after rice and corn.

I found a number of different recipes, some sweet, some savoury, all of them stressing the need to thoroughly boil it to avoid cyanide poisoning! Needless to say this one got boiled to within an inch of it’s life. I decided to make manioc balls stuffed with cheese which are then fried like a dumpling.

Following the recipe, I cut off the peel and boiled it whole in a pan of salted water. Once cooked the stringy bit in the middle was removed and the manioc mashed. A bit tricky as I only had a fork. I mixed in some butter, parsley, salt and pepper and then moulded the mix into croquettes containing grated cheese and chopped sausage – it was too messy to make into balls.

My mixture made around 16 croquettes so some were frozen. I cooked some on a baking tray in the oven as a healthier option and also fried some. Usually I can find a healthier way to make something, but in this case the baked option failed miserably. The fried variety was a big hit and the frozen stash will definitely not be wasted.

Ironically, when we were watching the final of Masterchef, one of the contestants made cassava or manioc chips as part of her final challenge. Who knows what we are going to find on the shelves next time …. watch this space!