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!


Over to Us!

It has seemed very quiet on the farm this past week or so without the to-ing and fro-ing’s of the workmen. Since starting the renovation at the beginning of the year they have been a big part of our daily routine. We’d had the weekends to ourselves and the odd day or two when the weather was too bad for them to work outdoors, but generally speaking they have been around and we have enjoyed watching our dream grow week by week.

The phrase “topping out” normally refers to the point in time when the final piece of the structure is installed on a building or perhaps when the roof has been completed. It is seen as a celebration and usually involves toasting the project with a glass or two of something nice. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the project has reached it’s completion, but signifies that the building has reached its full height. With this in mind, the roof of our barn and the longhouse is now complete and the barn is as tall now as it is ever going to be.

Not sure if it is the custom in Portugal to have a topping out ceremony when the builders have finished their part of the project, we would have nonetheless enjoyed doing this on their last day and were disappointed that the Covid restrictions had made this impossible. So, we’ve decided that we would like to have a bar-b-q and a bit of a gathering when restrictions allow, as a belated topping out, giving us the opportunity to celebrate the success of the build and to let the team know how much we appreciate their hard work.

It has certainly been a strange few months, socially distancing with only a wave or a “bom dia” as communication and not even being able to offer a friendly smile due to wearing our facemasks and we are looking forward to the times when some normality is re-instated.

With the Portuguese lockdown now eased, we took the opportunity to call by the Ecositana workshop with a couple of bottles of brandy for Antonio and Raphael and some beer for the workers. I think this went down well and both Antonio and Raphael were insistent that these should be drank together – so a Bar-B-Q it will be. Great minds think alike!

Since Simon first came to tinker with the buffalo, we haven’t managed to get it started again as it seemed to be stuck in gear, so he came back to have another go. This time he took the top off the gearbox and spent an hour or so stripping it down, cleaning it up and generally having a good look at it. For our part, we kept him well supplied with black coffee and biscuits and left him to do his stuff. Eventually, from where we were working outside of the annexe we could hear the deep snarl then growl as it once again kicked in to life.

We rushed up see what was happening and could see Simon out on the land walking alongside it. Mark didn’t want to let him go until we’d managed to start it for ourselves – it was quite a task to say the least. It’s a very old piece of machinery, and in UK terms probably an antique. It has no doubt been here for many many years so naturally it seemed right that we should do what we could to get it up running and back doing what it does best.

The modern day versions have some sort of electronic ignition to make things easier when stating up. This one has a rope fastened to a piece of timber that is wrapped round the front pulley wheel. To kick it into action, the rope needs to be wound around the wheel and yanked with some considerable force judging by Mark’s red face as he was starting it.

She is quite a temperamental old lady and doesn’t always want to co-operate. After several attempts, Mark did eventually get it started and was given some instructions from Simon on what does what and where and when – then he left us to get on with it. Getting it going does seem to be very technique sensitive but with a few gentle words and a bit of rough handling she was ready and willing.

The ground was hard and the ruts made by the crane in places were extremely deep. We knew we had our work cut out as there were two terraces to level, but we are keen to do as much on the land by ourselves and if nothing else we have the time and energy to give it our best shot.

The buffalo cut its way through the soil, dancing about whenever it reached one of the ruts. It appeared for all the world to resemble a scene of a world war 1 tank traversing the trenches. Mark was hanging on for dear life behind it, desperately trying to steer it in a straight line. I’m fairly certain that at times I saw both of his feet leave the ground at the same time as the buffalo dipped in and out of the deep trenches. Quite a sight to behold but great to see it doing its job.

Not wanting to damage the blades on any bricks and broken tiles left behind by the builders, I had the job of wheelbarrowing all the hardcore to the ever increasing mound that we find ourselves with. I smiled to think that back in December I needed “L” plates when using a wheelbarrow and now am quite confident manoeuvring it between terraces. I’m also confident pruning trees, cutting back the vines, driving the tractor and general manual labour. When cutting the grass around the plot in the ride-on tractor though I still need to learn to duck when passing under low branches on the fruit trees as I feel like I have been almost scalped a number of times now. I do wonder what other skills I’ll pick up over the coming years.

While I was clearing the way, Mark got on with rotavating, I definitely think he scored for the more strenuous of the jobs but it’s amazing what can be achieved with sheer grit and determination. We were keen to tidy our land and nothing was going to stop us.

We’ve often noticed a local couple passing by the farm on their Japanese Buffalo attached to a cart. As luck would have it, we inherited a cart with the sale of the farm and I am led to believe that once the rotavator blades have been disconnected, the cart can be attached to the main body of the buffalo and it can be used to transport soil, cuttings, rubble or even passengers.

There is a little wooden seat for the driver to sit on and there seems to be a lot of these being used in this way. We’ve even seen one parked up in Castelo Branco with a dining chair firmly fastened in the cart. Mark thinks he would be able to get our cart attached ok and has offered to take me and Wanda out for a test drive. To be honest, I’m a bit concerned that he seems to have visions of using it like a roman chariot or such like and for the moment at least, while he still needs a bit more practice I’m happy to stick to a more conventional way of getting around and use the car.

Levelling the land was tough going although we did manage to get both the two terraces 99% complete.  At one point the buffalo got stuck in a rut, spitting and spluttering as it sunk deeper into the waterlogged hole.  Several attempts later, after we had tried placing wooden chocks and bricks under the wheel to help it out, we resorted to BFI and the buffalo crawled out of the other side.  Deciding to give the boggy area a wide berth we carried on with the rest of the terrace.  8 hours later, with sore backs, aching arms and desperately in need of hot showers we stood back to admire our handiwork.  Not bad for a days work.  

The soil on the Quinta is very fine, with lots of sandy granite which means that it becomes very soft and difficult to walk on when rotavated without sinking in to it.  We were forecast to have some heavy showers so decided to leave it to settle, for the rain to compress it down and then to have another go once it had dried out. 

Getting back to the farm and in particular, the land,  there has been a lot to be getting on with.  As I’ve already mentioned,  we were due to have heavy wind and rains, so we were keen to do as much outside as we could.  We’ve adopted a kind of “indoor/outdoor” rule.  If it’s fine we’re out working on the land, if the weather is bad we’re working indoors. 

The early part of the week was extremely hot.  The factor 20 sun-cream came in really handy as did the bush hats – although I do think we need to have a wardrobe conversation before we get dressed in the morning!

When living back in the UK we knew that there would be a growth spurt in the garden once we’d had a bit of sunshine, but that is nothing compared to the scale here in Portugal. Our farm is so amazingly beautiful it almost feels as though we can see the leaves and fruit growing on the trees before our eyes.  

There are still number of trees and shrubs that were not really sure about – so they will be part of our learning curve for our first year – discovering what they are, when they flower and fruit, what we can use the produce for and how to prune and cut everything back.

We are fortunate to have Linda and Andy less than an hours drive away so often pick their brains and bounce our ideas off them and the little book Linda gave me about growing vegetables is proving extremely useful. They often donate plants, trees and shrubs to our little Quinta which they have dug up from their farm and so far these have taken really well to their new site.

Our recently planted fruit tree terrace is also becoming established – the nectarine, plum and cherry trees are all showing an abundance of green shoots and the little orange tree, although it does look a bit mottled has several white buds with the promise of blossom in the next week or so.

The Guava is holding it’s own and depending on the angle we are viewing it from gives the impression that it is perhaps developing new growth.  It’s difficult to say and maybe its something we are going to have to research a bit more.  I don’t think I’ve ever eaten Guava so perhaps will be able to try our home grown variety next year.

Elsewhere around the plot nature is waking up with beautiful fragrances all around.

The trees in the orange grove are now almost void of fruit although one of the trees at the end, with a slightly darker leaf to the others still has a few fruit remaining.  The new tree that we planted on the fruit terrace is supposed to be a late fruiter so we are hoping to be able to pick oranges for most of the year when this matures.  We will be harvesting the last of our oranges for juicing and eating later this week with the anticipation of a new crop around November time.  Nature is so divinely clever  –  it was almost as the last fruit fell that the orange blossom started to make an appearance – as my boss would say, it’s the circle of life!

The veggie plot is also doing well – with onions, swiss chard and broccoli added to it’s beds.  We’ve re-routed the grey water from the bathroom (where we also have the washing machine) into the veggie patch so it’s doing ok for irrigation.   Long term we will introduce a system that irrigates the whole of the plot through a pipe with little holes to create a bit of a sprinkler system, but for now we are managing as we are and using our waste water.

We’ve enjoyed taking the baton and starting the next phase of development the farm. It does feels very much “Over to us” now but we are loving every minute.

Work in Progress

As we can’t really work in the long house at the same time as the Ecositana team and the electrician, it was always the plan that we would focus on doing the land and legal stuff first.  So many things to be getting on with and so many things either part completed or not even started, so we’ve made an executive decision to get a few of these ticked off before beginning anything else.  

The build continues to edge forwards and each day seems tantalising closer to completing the first phase.  Some days there are quite an army of people working on site, led of course by Sargent Antonio keeping everyone on track.  On other days we are down to one, two, or even nobody here.

However, this being said, a lot of preparation is being done in the workshop at Lardosa which means that when things arrive at the farm it is almost fully constructed with often only the fitting and finishing touches needed. 

During the past week, the main aspect of the building work has been the flat roof and the balcony.  Two water resistant membranes have been laid ready to receive the framework and decking.  It took a while to source but late in the week we took delivery of the decking boards which will hopefully be fitted next.   Apparently there has been a bit of difficulty getting hold of them.

The railings arrived part-assembled and before too long these were sited and the balcony was really looking the part. The cladding on the downstairs lounge extension was given another application of staining and visually, this made such a difference seeming to link the upper and lower levels. For the first time when standing back and looking at the project as a whole, the barn extension seems to “belong” to the original part of the property.

Meanwhile, Jose, the electrician had turned his attention to the far end of the long house starting to lay the now familiar blue conduit. The electric fuse box is so old it is illegal, so while replacing this we are taking the opportunity to try and conceal it as much as possible within the wall so it is less obvious.  As Jose does not speak English and as Raphael is not always on site to translate, we’d given Jose diagrams to work from to simplify the language barrier as much as possible.  Although this concept works well, he’s also quick to make suggestions which we are grateful for such as outdoor lighting – something we hadn’t factored in at all at this stage.

On one of the days when the Ecositana army was present, we decided that we would drive in to Fundao to try and register with a doctor.  Our EU cards are valid until their expiry date, but we wanted to make sure that we had a health number and if we needed to see a GP, we we were on a system somewhere. 

We went armed with passports, residency certificates, nif numbers and certification documents that we downloaded from the Portuguese website directly after Brexit.  We  have still not been able to join Potuguese language lessons due to the pandemic and current lockdown so we struggled to explain what we wanted.  However, Google translate really came in to its own and with a little bit of typing into my phone we got there.  I love how the Google translate app enlarges the translated text to fill the screen when I turn my phone sideways – helps with social distancing no end. 

It was all a little bit muddled to start with and we were passed from one person to another, trotting dutifully behind several different people as we were escorted through various departments.  Eventually we saw a really lovely GP who spoke excellent English and after sorting us out with healthcare numbers, she explained how we could access medical attention should we need it and the process for ordering prescriptions.  She also very kindly provided us with a medical certificate which we will be able to take along to the IMT so that we can exchange our English driving licences for Portuguese ones – another thing that we have started the process for but not finished.   

On our way back from visiting the Centro Medico, we decided to call in at the garden centre to pick up some things we needed.  It’s one of those shops that you could spend hours browsing around – lots of interesting bits and bobs that you would not necessarily expect to find for sale there. 

For some reason, I love hardware stores and garden centres.  I think it may go back to my childhood memories when my Mum and Dad owned “Handyman’s Corner” in my home town of Withernsea.  It is a small seaside town on the east coast of England where back in the day everybody knew everybody else and we all looked out for each other. 

Being on the coast, every summer we had an influx of holidaymakers who would come and stay in the caravans.  My parents shop sold caravan offcuts, gardening tools and all sorts of DIY things that the visitors would come and buy from them.     

People often ask me if I miss anything in the UK and without any hesitation I answer “taking our dogs Dippy and Wanda for long walks on the beach”.  Sadly Dippy passed away shortly before we left for Portugal.  She is deeply missed and we know she would have loved living here as much as we do.

I enjoyed growing up in Withernsea with it’s outdoor swimming pool, the sand and the sea and spending long days playing outside.  I feel fortunate to have grown up when it was safe to go out first thing in the morning and come back at dusk without parents getting worried.

The garden centre in Fundao had a large and varied selection of trees.  It has always been our intention to populate the fallow terrace up from the orange grove with lots of different fruit trees.  While living in Portugal we’ve enjoyed sampling the different fruits that are not readily available in the UK, so decided to try our hand at growing some of these for ourselves so that friends and family visiting us can try them too.

We bought a small selection to start with : lemon, lime, cherry, plum, a late fruiting orange, a persimmon and a guava.  We’re still hopeful that our Cherimoya seeds will develop into strong little plants so didn’t buy one of these.  Linda and Andy have already bought us a nectarine tree so by the time we’d finished we had quite a few to be getting on with.

Reading up about the best place to plant fruit trees, they generally need plenty of sunshine and plenty of water to go with it.  We both agreed that our empty terrace with sunlight all day long and the nearby well would be the perfect spot.

As part of the inventory of the purchase we acquired with the farm a Japanese Buffalo. It has obviously been round the block (or a plot or two) in it’s time as rags were being used to cover perished rubber seals and as well as a cork being used for a replacement fuel cap, wires were holding the fuel tank in place.

Unfortunately this didn’t seem to work so through Linda and Andy we sourced the services of Simon, an ExPat who has been living here for about 10 years and who is a dab hand at all things mechanical. After a couple of hours he managed to get it going although there remained a problem with the gear box. We agreed that he would come back to have another look at it after he’d done a bit of research.

In the meantime were were able to use it to try and level the ground where the heavy crane had traversed. This was a picture to behold as due to the poor gear selection the machine was rather unwieldy and more often than not was dragging Mark along behind at speed instead of a controlled rotavation of the land. I tried not to laugh and really wish I’d video’d it.

Unfortunately after about an hour the machine stalled, was stuck in gear and remains for now unusable as we can’t restart it. We await Simon’s return for the next instalment.

Windy Wanda

The weather seems to have now done it’s worse and we have enjoyed some beautiful sunny days recently. This has been a plus all round – the builders have been able to work outside making great steps forward with the cladding and staining, the water filled trenches have started to dry up and we have continued our work on the land.

We’ve noticed just how much the nights are starting to draw out. When it gets dark, it is still as though a light has been switched off, but instead of this being about 5 o’clock we now have light until almost 7pm. The warmth on our backs and the bright sunny days lift our spirits giving us such a zest for life and for living and we enjoy being able to spend so much time outdoors.

Not all is as straight forward as it may seem though as we’ve have quite a few windy nights where the metal door to our bedsit has rattled and banged and the wind chime on the olive tree outside our annexe has definitely been chiming.

Now, we can usually sleep through such things, especially after long days toiling out on the farm, but Wanda isn’t at all happy with it. Our room is only 5 metres square, so as you can imagine, Wanda’s bed isn’t far from ours although to her it would seem that it is not close enough.

For several nights now Mark has been woken in the small hours with her head inches from his and her breath on his face. We’ve tried lots of things to try and settle her – putting a draught excluder up against the door, moving her bed next to ours, snuggling her down wrapped in a blanket all to no avail. The only thing that seems to offer any help at all is asking Alexa to play “calm” music for 30 minutes at bedtime. It’s definitely a dog’s life!

Clearing out the little brook that runs through the bottom terraces has been on our list of things to do for some time. The recent rains have made their way down the mountains and in to the wells and water mine. The increased water has washed away some large chunks of the bank as well as flushing debris along the brook, where the already overgrown edges caught the twigs, grass and sludge. One side of the well is already open so we could clearly see the water line rising, so much so that the ground around it for four or five metres was acting as a huge soakaway. It was extremely boggy and the only way to walk on that terrace was by wearing wellies. The grass seemed to love it though and grew to almost a foot high.

Extremely happy to see that not all the foliage around the edges of the brook were weeds, we found lots of mint, wildflowers, watercress and grasses that we wanted to keep. These were carefully gathered from in and around the brook and relocated on the sides of the terraces. We’re hoping that the mint in particular will take hold and spread along the bank, helping to knit it all together. The mint smelt wonderful and there are at least three or four different varieties that I spotted. We brought out Moroccan teapot and glasses with us from the UK and I’m looking forward to using this to serve our home grown mint tea.

But before then, so much work is needed to sort out the not so babbling brook. Mark spent the full day digging out the smelly stuff from the bottom and using it to fill in the little gulley in the orange grove. His challenge was to channel the water so that it flowed gently through the terraces and over into the land next door at a much slower pace. This way, we should be able to keep the brook flowing and use it’s precious water to irrigate our trees and vines.

To stem the flow of the brook Mark came up with the idea of damming it by using a series of blocks with a hole drilled through the middle so allowing the water to flow.  The blocks were then covered with soil and plants such as mint and watercress to make it look much more in keeping with the natural environment.  As part of the work in progress the blocks had to be frequently removed while their positions were adjusted, resulting in a sudden excessive flow of water down the brook.  This brought with it more smelly slurry and debris at such a force that frustratingly washed away some of our newly created dam.  Although it’s taking quite a bit of effort to regulate the flow,  we’re slowly getting there and we can see the brook starting to take shape.  

Half way through the digging near the well, we were startled when we noticed a long tailed creature dart up the bank and into one of the water irrigation pipes.  First thoughts were that Mr Rato had returned although we were surprised to see him out and about in daylight.  Waiting quietly for a while we saw it emerge back out of the pipe and we found that it was in fact not a rat, but a water vole.  A sweet looking creature, with a rounded face, currant eyes and a twitchy nose.  I remember reading as a child Kenneth Graeme’s “Wind in The Willows” where one of the leading characters, Ratty, was actually a water vole.  He is quite a cute little fellow and feeds mainly on grass, and other vegetation near the water, possibly why he has made his home near the mint and watercress. 

Sometime later, we found another co-habitant of our farm that wasn’t quite as pretty.  A Scolopendra Cingulata, aka the centipede that bites!


The one Mark found was approximately 3 inches long, and we found later that this was a baby as they can grow up to 8 inches.  It is often found under stones, rocks and fallen tree trunks where it rests during the day, only to come out at night-time to feed, but as we are doing a lot of digging and land clearing, we had obviously disturbed it.  These centipedes eat all manner of other insects and grubs but have also been know to tuck into small mice as well as eating each other.    Apparently, their main weapon against threat is their painful bite which although causes a nasty inflammatory reaction, is not supposed to be fatal to humans.  Not something we’re planning on putting to the test!  We’ve even heard that they can rear their back end up like a scorpion with their pincers ready to bite.  Would you believe that some people actually have these centipedes as pets?  Definitely not for us, we’ll stick with Windy Wanda thank you very much.  This fella was swiftly tossed over the fence.

So, an update on the progress of the build.  We are so pleased with how it is progressing.  We’d heard some disturbing stories relating to local building works and must say we are so happy with the professionalism, advice and attention to detail from Ecositana.  I’ve managed a number of building projects back in the UK so have a rough idea of the challenges and procedures that need to be in place, We were under no illusion that systems would be different in Portugal due to the locality, building materials, geology and the sheer heat of the sun.  I must say, Raphael has been an absolute star, going the extra mile sending us information and youtube videos as well as sharing his network links with us.  Fantastic company.

The electrician has now started doing his stuff. We’d provided him with a drawing showing where we wanted sockets, switches, lights and such like and he got stuck in. I’m sure he must have wondered why so many sockets were necessary but was polite enough not to pass comment. He too has also shown his expertise suggesting changes that would better suit the layout of the build. It’s sad really that because of Covid we can’t be on site as much as we would like while the work is being done. Maybe its a relief for the workmen, but we would like to be able to build a relationship with them and just communicate what a great job we think they are doing. Sometimes we do need to go and talk through things with Antonio or Raphael but even then it is difficult to express any real emotion as we can’t shake hands and our faces are covered with a mask so smiles go un-noticed.

Jose, our electrician has set to about his work laying a labyrinth of blue pipe conduit ready to accommodate our requirements for endless sockets and switches. The Ecositana team have moved on to the balcony area and have already completed laying the base to the balcony floor, ready for fixing the decking. Two layers of waterproofing membrane is now in place and we are looking forward to seeing the decking being introduced next week.

We’re still plodding on with sorting out our hidden treasures although Mark did a double take when he came across an old scythe – wondering if it was a relic from a bygone era or a calling card. Whichever, it has now been added on to his list of things to weld!!

Reap what you shall sow

Taking the proverb literally, we decided that this was the week our new veggie patch would be created. With all the land around the farm, anyone could be forgiven for thinking that we were spoilt for choice when choosing a suitable location for it. Not so, there are apparently lots of things to consider when creating a vegetable garden, including having the right tools for the job. Our one and only fork lost a prong early in the game, so the stack of jobs for Mark and his welder continue to build up.

Keen to grow as much as possible to meet own needs, and hopefully have some left over to give away,  we knew that the plot had to be in the right place.   Our seedlings are growing at some speed and it won’t be long before they need to be planted out, so we knew we had to crack on. 

Not wanting to make the same mistake as last year when we planted all our seeds at once, resulting in about 200 lettuces all being ready at the same time, we have staged the growth of seedlings and have another dozen or so packets waiting for their turn in the propagator once the first growth have been planted out.

Back to planning … there was so much to think about…  how big does it need to be? what was the soil like? will it get enough sun? will it get enough shade? would it be in the direct line of the wind coming down off the Gardunha’s? will it be easy to irrigate? is it accessible?  These were only a few of the things going round in our heads but eventually we agreed  … then changed our minds – twice before deciding on the perfect spot!

The first step was to mark out the shape of the garden with some red rope and metal rods.  Reading the sowing instructions on our packets of seeds it seems that we have to leave quite a lot of space in between the plants so we went big – Mark was unsure if it was a vegetable garden or an extension to the nearby N239. 

We spent the next two days digging up the grass and relocating it to in front of the annexe.  There was a bare compacted mud hollow between the two olive trees and we’d decided to build it up with our excavated soil and use some of the grass seed we had brought with us to try and create a tiny grassed area.  Not sure how successful we will be but we’re hoping with plenty of watering we will be able to keep it green during the summer months. 


We dug, we raked, we levelled and raked again and finally we were happy with the result. In the middle of our vegetable plot standing proudly is the old walking stick cabbage. I remember seeing this growing up through the long grass when we first came to look at the farm a couple of years ago. Since moving in we’ve redirected our grey water onto this terrace and the cabbage plant seems to love it. The waste water pipe is buried just under the soil leading from the bathroom (where the washing machine is) and comes out on the top of the bank near the cabbage. We didn’t realise just how much water is used doing the laundry and we will certainly be looking to make good use of the grey water in the long house. We’re learning bit by bit.

Our 2 compost bins we had in the UK hitched a ride on our removal van and with all the cutting back we had to do when we first arrived, were filled up within a day.  My impatience got the better of me and I ordered some compost accelerator tablets online.  Once delivered they were quickly put to good use and within three weeks the level in the bins had reduced by half the size.  I’m glad we decided to place them at the end of the terrace as there are hundred of tiny little flies in and around them.  Back to researching and we have been looking in to the sort of stuff we can compost.  Some of our trusty orange skins, Vegetable peelings, egg shells, grass cuttings, ash from the log burner to name a few.  It’s going to be a while before we can use it but maybe when we have finished harvesting our home grown stuff it might just be ready.

Way back when we first completed on the sale of the farm, we found that there was a little triangular patch of land opposite that also belonged to us.  It’s not very big but it does have several olive trees on it and a good supply of water which is always useful.  This little bonus also came with the task of clearing it.   The farmer who comes to see to his sheep has his land adjoining it and I’m sure that he must have been eyeing up the overgrowth and wondering when we were going to get around to doing something to sort it out.  Loading up the trusty ride-on tractor with the trailer full of gardening equipment, and with Wanda in tow, we headed over the road.  Wanda soon got herself settled down in the shade and despite the noise of the strimmer, lawn mowers and chain saw, slept soundly on her blanket.  In fact, there was one small patch that we had to leave until the very last as she was fast asleep and we didn’t like to disturb her.  We were quite pleased with the results of our labours and since it has been tidied up the farmer now seems to go out of his way to acknowledge us with a toot, a wave or a cheery Bom Dia.

During one of our regular video calls with Mark’s mum and dad, we were excited to show them how the land was coming along.  Ray is a really keen gardener and for years now has been growing bedding plants for us to put in our hanging baskets and borders – we’re going to miss them this year but have noticed some little marigolds growing so will think of his plants when enjoying them.

The last week has been another full on week with the build.  The hard work of the Ecositana team on the renovation of the long house has continued at pace.  All the barn extension has now been clad and the making good of the block wall beneath has been completed.  The RSJ has been fitted and the interconnecting wall from the living room extension into the old store has now been removed.  Work on the roof of the ground floor extension has also started. 

We still have our morning and evening strolls around the plot and love seeing the daily progress. We are particularly pleased with the roof tiles, they blend in so well and the finish is fabulous.  We can now see the views we will be able to enjoy from the balcony once the project has been completed.  It is going to be another busy week again this week with the electrician due on site and Ruivo, Carrega Barata coming to measure for the new windows.

To be continued …