You are probably wondering why there were no pages for 2004 and 2005. The answer is that I was quite ill and spent most of my time confined to my apartment in Brussels (except for a quick journey to the USA for a friend's wedding).
I felt much better after that and signed up for a temping agency. They found me a few missions, one of which turned into a full-time position. Which continued and continued and continued. And I let it continue for several good reasons
So I kept it up until the end of March when my health could no longer take it, and then I resigned.
It took me a while to recover, and once I felt better, I went to the UK a couple of times, and picked up another van my batteries, a pile of cable, all the fittings, some scaffolding poles, my solar panels, tons of other stuff, and loads of ideas. And when the van was full of stuff, I set off for the farm.
As you see, I didn't get here too soon. I had to fight my way to the barn and the house, and I was half-expecting to find a couple of Japanese snipers in the undergrowth. I can see why the Chindits used to take 24 hours to travel a mile through the Burmese undergrowth in 1943 and 1944. I never did fight my way into the house or down to the orchard during my two weeks here.
That was because I had problems of another sort down there. In fact, rats had invaded the caravan during my absence and totally trashed it - which was devastating news. There were even the remains of a dead rat on the remains of my bed (so if you have a caravan for sale because I'm desperate). However, this shows you just how much better I was feeling because three years ago I was overwhelmed by the sight of three months growth of long grass. This year, I took one look at the inside of the caravan and made myself ready to sleep in the van. A couple of weeks in July in England doing just this had psyched myself up.
First thing I did was put the solar panel on the roof of the Luton Transit. I hadn't been able to bring the other 3 panels, or the heavy stuff for mounting the panels properly, so I reckoned that the roof of the Luton would be okay. after all, it does have rather an active history of involvement in renewable energy projects. Then I installed one of the batteries that I had bought off eBay in 2005, and a 600-watt inverter from Maplin's (but I didn't pay anything like that price for it), and it was "all systems go". I can't help thinking that if I had done just this a few years ago, things would have been so much easier down here.
The next major task was to clear up the mess that had accumulated over the last three years and check for damage - and that took the best part of three days around the barn alone. I didn't even try the house or the orchard - they can wait until October.
What with the enormous pile of American fittings I'd accumulated over the last couple of years, I changed over every socket in the barn, and every plug and cigarette lighter fitting was changed to American 3-pin standard. I even put a socket outside the barn in the area where I'm going to park a touring caravan. I also checked over much of the wiring that I'd done in the past, and replaced a great deal. I don't know what I could have been thinking of when I wired up the barn in the past.
At the DiY store on the Saturday, I noticed that they were selling marine 22mm chipboard sheets at 5 Euros 50 each. Now I hate chipboard - it really is the devil's invention, but I also had a leaking barn with a great deal of stuff in it that needed protection from the elements, and a floor that had just beams and no flooring. 40 sheets of this chipboard would give me an economical way of protecting everything for a few years until I can organise some real wood flooring. Fitting half of that took me the rest of the week as there was just so much moving round of stuff to do, as well as fixing other things that I came across.
When I finished, I put in a couple of pesto jar lights and a 12 volt power socket in place. The rest of the floor will have to wait until October.
All that remained from then on was to wire up all the batteries correctly, and fetch the solar panel inside. I then changed the oil in the Escort and headed back to Brussels.
So, ater all that, I must admit that it was glad to be back in the Auvergne. Even if I had to live in the van. In fact, the caravan wasn't the disaster it might appear. After all, when I bought the caravan in 1997, it was a short-term temporary thing that I'd bought in a hurry, an old thing with no heating and no hot water. I'd been half-heartedly thinking of changing it for a modern one but I'd always put it off. Now I'm going to have to do something. A nice lightweight modern touring caravan that I can use with an awning down on the farm, and tow off somewhere whenever I feel like a break.
And what had I learnt from my stay down there? Well, a 123 watt solar panel, a decent expensive proper battery and a 600 watt inverter transformed my life. I was able to use my laptop computer and hence the internet (even if it was at 4kbs), heavy-duty rechargeable tools (the 18 volt circular saw went through the 22mm chipboard like a knife through butter) and small electric hand tools. Probably the lot had cost me 700 Euros, or 800 dollars, or 450 quid. If I had done that in 1999, it would have run out at a high standard of electricity for just about 2 Euros per week. Instead, just look at all the messing about I've been doing over all this period, with all this time and money wasted. You live and learn.
October saw me back down there - but only for 17 days. This was because I have been elected to the University's Senate Reference Group, and I find myself having to deputise for the Student Association's Executive Committee member who seems to have lost interest. Hence a round of meetings in the UK starting in early November called me back well before I was ready.
I had come down here in the LDV, and that was problematic to say the least. The clutch cylinder detached itself from the clutch somewhere around Paris, so I drove most of the subsequent route without a clutch. Then, hoping to spend 5 minutes to find out why the van constantly cuts out with fuel-loss symptoms after about 120 miles, I found that the fuel pipe connection to the tank had broken off. This ended up being a full-day job and seeing as we had no replacement lying around, I had to invent something with an electric cable nipple and some water pipe off an old Citroen van that I had broken for spares. There's no fuel gauge now, but the van runs perfectly. So some good came out of it.
I was also obliged to drive my neighbour Claude down to Miramas (only about 600 miles round trip) to do a furniture removal for him. That took about 3 days of my time too. What with all of this, my 17 days down here ended up looking pretty thin. Well, not to worry, I suppose.
I didn't do anything like as much as I intended, and spent most of the first day clearing the new floor in the barn so I could pitch my tent. That was to be my home for while I was down there. It wouldn't get too cold by the time early November came around, and 17 days didn't seem to make it worthwhile to buy a garden shed to live in.
Next step was to build the battery box and put the batteries in it before the frost sets it, and to make some kind of inroads into the wiring system so that there were things that were actually properly connected. Propping a solar panel outside the barn at the back that gave me about 30 amp-hours of charge per day was a major improvement. It might sound a lot, but it's really only equivalent of getting 36 hours use from the battery of a small car. Nevertheless, it's a major leap from the days when I was relying on my 40-watt wind turbine (that was giving me about 1 amp-hour per normal day) and my two 12-watt solar panels.
When the inverter was properly installed and I could start to use low-wattage power tools (and thanks to Liz Ayers from the Open University Students' Association who gave me a new-old stock 400-watt bandsaw in exchange for a meal at the Senate Reference Group meeting), work proceeded rapidly, and I even had time to make a set of shutters for the upstairs window of the house to keep out the weather.
Claude was also talking about the idea of having some kind of mini-tractor kind of lawnmower thing for cutting the grass. I consequently produced the ride-on lawnmower that I'd bought in 2002 for "spares or repair". Claude's eyes lit up, and I towed it off up to his house so he can play with it over the winter. It wasn't doing anything in my barn anyway, so if he can get it working, I'll gladly cede a half-share in it. We also came to a similar kind of arrangement with the old rotavator that Laurence's father gave me in 1997.
This gave me much more room to move about and I was able to do something of a tidy-up and install another light. All in all, given the limited time I had available, I was quite impressed with the progress I had made. I can't wait for next year now.
See more photos from 2006 in the photo gallery.