As the woodshed becomes cottage

June 1, 2013 in Postings from the Mountain

The woodshed has been one of my big projects, one that has waited years in quest of a driving inspiration that occurs when the creative ideas crystalize into a master plan.

Historically, most of the hamlet consisted of three parallel rows of attached and huddled dwellings inter-stitched with stables and barns, for example our main house is constituted of four such units at the end of what was the first row. Peripheral to the huddled rows were separate small structures used for various purposes such as stables or haylofts.
The woodshed or “cabanon” as it is called in French, once built out on two levels of stables, is like Mayke’s studio, one of the  stand-alone buildings situated near the house. Both had the merit, courtesy of our predecessor Jean Gaspary, of receiving new protective if overgrown roofs that allay the erosion that slowly washes away the clay and lime mortar used to assemble fieldstone into walls; too often in the Provence these are let to erode leaving mounds of dissembled stone reverted to their natural state.
When we purchased the property the cabanon was blind, devoid of any opening save a full door, more a shutter than a proper one. All the other openings had been walled up at varying times in history, the ivy obfuscating much of the rest.


The Cabanon before rehabilitation in 2005

Before it lies a ten foot drop used as the the burn pit where fall and spring cuttings were burned and much more as it’s excavation will show. Unfortunately no artifacts were found that might have lifted the veil upon the mysterious past of this isolated hamlet, hidden in the Maures mountains, miles from everywhere with only its winding unpaved road as access. I continue to believe our hamlet must have been settled sometime around the fifteenth century by monks from the nearby Chartreuse de la Verne, a Carthusian monastery dating back to the twelfth century.

Chartreuse de la Verne

It was usual for monks to establish peripheral outposts on nearby arable land, unfortunately the history of this monastery is as elusive. Founded in 1170 over the site of an older presbytery, the La Verne Charter-house endured throughout its history ravaging fires, assaults and pillages which, beyond destruction of written and institutional history may have further contributed to the dissemination of its monks until the French Revolution, at which time the Charterhouse’s goods were sequestered and the monks were in eventually forced to abandon the monastery for good.
The living history of our hamlet can be traced to that period through persistent generations that have toiled the land and the written word. The main section of our house has an embedded foundry plate dated 1778, it was sealed into one of our fireplaces at that period of restoration, perhaps when it was elevated to raise silkworms in the tiled upper level now become attic. Then again one can only image an earlier history when contemplating the age of our chestnut trees, some at least several hundred years old.
Beyond the groves that provided critical starch and flour, a main staple for the times, where the slopes turn to hillside, there are remnants of a network of retaining walls holding irrigated garden plots stretching half way up and around the mountain circus, extending towards the vallon where the source of our stream, an artesian well of sorts, emerges from the ground. Beyond, as one reaches the crest of the mountain that protects us from the cold northerly winds, the ground bares to “garrigue” and lone pine, that phoenix out of the ground after the passage of forrest fires .
The winter view of our hamlet nestled below shows how protected we are from the North and westerly winds, exposed and moderated by the easterly sea entries that flow out of the Gulf of Genoa, into the Gulf of Saint Tropez and are flushed into our facade of the Maures mountain range .

a winter view of the hamlet from half way up the mountain

La Suyère has long been favored with bountiful water and a microclimate generated by its unique exposition, in winter warmer ascending air is pushed towards us from the from the gulf of Saint Tropez as the cold air collects at the bottom of the gulf on the plain of Cogolin, while in summer as the hot stifling heat lifts off that same plain it draws a cool breeze that drops off the mountain as the sun sets behind it.

I knew the cabanon become woodshed could be an idyllic setting under the tall green oak trees beside the torrent, the latter in spring and fall runs so loud conversation is severely limited but I dreamt of the shade provided on a hot summer day. The feeling of the cool breeze that flows down the vallon in quest of the elusive stream, it’s water also seeking relief from the scorching sun burrows underground three hundred yards upstream to reappear two hundred yards downstream a few feet from our well. I also knew it was a keystone to the master plan slowly crystalizing in my mind. Over the years at different impulsive yet undecided moments and careful to the structural integrity lost, I would take the hammer and cold chisel and knock out one of the patches, but looking into the cold darkness as it connives with the shade of the green oaks keeps its mystery, a vain effort for now. That elusive inspiration has yet to emerge with my one track mind focused elsewhere. With the main house and two outlying buildings occupying the north-east end of the hamlet we had first focused inwards in an effort to tame the overgrown spaces between. At the lower end of the rambling hill bordering the track that leads to the hamlet lies Mayke’s studio. First to be rehabilitated after previous lives as barn then garage, it is abutted to the twelve foot embankment Mayke calls the ramparts of our fortress. Once I opened a door to the adjacent rose garden it needed access through the rose garden back to the house, a meandering gentle climb up the hill with semblance to stretching out two flights of stairs. Locals would show off their four wheel drive prowess attempting to make way up the hill, sport and subsequent ruts I was decided to put a stop to.

Once up embankment or  the ground floor of the main house we meander further up and around to the back of the house that provides direct access to the second floor and main living area. Here we are open to the gardens and beyond the neighbor’s grove. From here the dogs would keep watch, attentive to the least sign of some intruding squirrel or worse, hoard of wild boar. Upon any calling the dogs scream out of the house, clawing their way towards the still ivy clad cabanon towards the groves; in their hopeful chase they create a dustbowl, lifting each time a cloud that would linger in the listless summer air and seep its way into the house.Landscape gardening was the priority of the time as we created retaining walls and stone pathways ending as a patio before the cabanon. After opening a passage to the rose garden from Mayke’ barn transformed into studio we needed to civilize the slope up from the rose garden on the other side of the house; steps of railroad ties cut into shorter half lengths, carved into the slope and bordered with rosemary bushes would link the rose garden back to the house. At last we could begin to focus outwards.

From the patio laid before the woodshed, looking out towards the chestnut grove I knew where I wanted to create the vegetable garden. The slope was beautiful but scarred by the carriage passage right of way, an up the mountain joyride which needed to be diverted. Its path was in the middle of the garden now clearly visualized in my mind. It would require a big landscaping job and then there was the question of access. In the summer months walking over the dry stream bed was not a problem but for a large part of the year confronting the raging torrent rushing towards the waterfall on the front side of the house is near impossible. A bridge would be so much better. After the forest fire of 2003 from which the hamlet had been protected as for centuries prior, the electric company decided to bury the cables underground from a mile before the hamlet, it was a logical approach as as we are not only the end of the road, but of civilization with little perspective of future growth needs. It was great effort cutting through the rock formations, perhaps so much they left behind a concrete pylon that disfigured the entrance to the hamlet. After years of falling on deaf ears I saw the opportunity to recycle its use. The tall pylon was already broken in its middle; foreseeing the need of four pieces I set about halving the halves.  My disk cutter refused to cut through the dense pre-stressed concrete but successive percussion drills did find a way in to break the structural integrity, the weight of my Mahindra tractor finished the job with the disk cutter finally reaching the reinforcing rods.

I selected two pieces for the longitudinal struts of the bridge, the largest hollow section to funnel rainwater in a gully over which I was rerouting the access to the mountain, the fourth would block the old path providing an abutment for a stone faced wall on one side and  filling of arable soil on the other. I began to landscape access to the future garden. With two concrete abutments anchoring each side of the torrent the two sections of electric pole, I adorned my carpenter hat and started building the
As I walked the beams linking the great divide of the torrents “rive gauche” hamlet to “rive droite” garden I mused at the childhood memories of workmen walking high up on girders as the steel frame of the Americana hotel was rising to New York’s skyline, it took courage and her dislike of getting wet but our dog Bastine soon learned her trick – don’t look just run. Step by step the beams are linked walkway secured. One more critical milestone accomplished.  Now on to the garden.
With the hamlet set within the slopes of a three sided mountain circus open to the east large arable plots are rare, least where I wanted the garden. Cutting into the hillside with the backhoe and then leveling off soon buried the remaining visible piece of pylon laid across the deep furrows left by four wheel vehicle friends and the uncontrolled runoff of rain coming down the mountain, that too needed to be addressed as over the years the topsoil had been washed away leaving a sandy laterite and clay based soil chestnut trees loved but few vegetable might appreciate. I knew from the outset I would need to bring in an under layer of compost and then topsoil for 110 square meters twenty five plus centimeters deep, thirty tons will do thank you!  None of the providers would, nor could for that matter, deliver the topsoil on site, the inaccessibility for their trucks to our splendid isolation will oblige compromise, they dumped their successive loads a mile and a half away in the only spot where they could turn around and flee.

All in a day’s work. With my neighbor Jean we found a smaller dump truck for rent that fit through the narrow carriageway and loaded thirty trips to the site of the future garden. It was quite a contrast to see the rich black topsoil in the yellow to red ochre setting of the grove, it looked right and I would anxiously await next spring to begin planting my garden. In the meantime it needs fencing against the hoards of wild boar only too happy to come investigate the new scent on the block in quest of something exotic. The posts would need to be set in concrete, the fence buried deep and for extra dissuasion from digging it up a string or two of barbed wire should do the trick, I hope. I also wanted to build two stone pillars to mark the entrance to the garden with a wooden gate. Friend and author Mike Tougias was spending the week with his daughter Kristin before heading onwards along the coast to Italy and Cinque Terra,  he readily volunteering to go up the mountain with me to pick the right flagstones and I was not about to refuse a few hours of arduous labor.

We took the tractor up and Mike was quickly rewarded by the astounding view of the entire gulf of Saint Tropez, deciding on the spot to walk up with Kristen the next morning. We rummaged through the harsh Mediterranean scrub land (a sad translation for the beautiful “garrigue”) seeking flagstones of the right size, aspect and color. As we brought a first load back I promised him a picture of the end result. The first year garden was not as bountiful as I had hoped, the tomatoes either shot for the moon or vegetated, counted the courgettes on one hand but the artichoke plants on the right were magnificent, and rare for a first year growth gave us three we let flower hanging them over the wood stove in Mayke’s studio to dry (wrong way to go as they lost their color)!  The next season would be better as I balance the PH, learn the water retention characteristics of the soil and finally, provide better sunlight by pruning the green and white oak trees towering over the plot.

The cabanon needed to become our summer kitchen and haven. The small patio built to contain the dustbowl was too small to leisurely enjoy the vantage point overlooking the torrent, groves and garden. Besides, until I can free the woodshed from its current function I am at a dead end. The thought of covering the burn pit to house the tractor had crossed my mind but not for long, it could live outside as the space could be better used as a new woodshed with enough space for our winter needs and room for the log splitter. Done, and what better than a deck to cover it all and admire the domain as Mayke has likened to describe it! As I begin to excavate the burn pit I realize its true depth, six, eight, ten perhaps twelve feet, I stop at a reasonable ten and fill in stone for better drainage. The good news is the containment wall of the burn pit turns out to be a good base for foundations on the other side. Laying an L form reinforced concrete beam the extended length of the wall then turned and burrowed into the abutment of hard maelos stone I provide stability  to raise three stone pillars designed to support the future deck and a foundation for the end wall. Another neighbor Daniel who lives on the westernmost end of the hamlet, frontier of the Maures wilderness, suggests I relieve him of a stone pile, it accumulated from the deliquescence of another unroofed cabanon; the rains had washed away the binders leaving me to pick and choose to meet form fit and function.

The pillars up, cement mixer stowed and carpenter’s hat back on I am back to woodworking. First the beam matrix and under layer of clear corrugated substrate to protect the woodpile, then the deck layer itself. Once the woodcutting season behind me with our winter warmth stowed  I will build the benches and finally the stairs as shortcut for lugging wood to the stoves in winter and accessing the bridge and garden for summer chores.

Now for the main course.

I reopened the top half of the walled up door to the southwest allowing light to lift the mysterious shadows that continued to swallow any notion of volume. Magically the cabanon lit up and we decided to leave part of the ceiling open as a light well to the ground floor as well as for a future circular staircase that will need to be un-obstructive. Its early spring now as I begin to contemplate the breadth of my plan, having a summer kitchen up and running this year to take full advantage of the new deck and view of grove and mountain beyond is a challenge with all my other occupations.

view of the lower grove from the future kitchen sink

From the height of my receding 5’10” or 1.70m I know the under beam clearance is insufficient, let alone to lay a concrete slab housing utilities, I procrastinated before the effort until Jean bangs his bald head on a crossbeam while visiting, any hope of getting away with avoiding excavation … Our close to eighty year old hamlet born doyenne remembers when the lower level was used to stable donkey and horse, when the path the to village ten kilometers away might be taken once a month. As stable floors were paved in a stone on edge “calade” I knew there was clearance to be gained, but how much?I started wiggling the first stone out of the highest point and was delighted to see it dug in a good twenty five centimeters, my hope of gaining thirty or a full foot and replacing it with a reinforced concrete slab covering my utilities of half or less that thickness was a go. After three days of prying loose and excavating I had moved enough stone out to reinforce the torrent embankment and provide Jean with enough flagstone to build the wall he had been contemplating in his garden. In my excavations I also finished taking apart the stall wall that appears to have delimited the horse and donkey’ vital space and a date mark : etched in the last brick to come out was the year the wall had been built and likely that of the cabanon’s last rehabilitation

before the structure was abandoned and walled up for its own protection. When our doyenne was still a child working the gardens on the mountainside she remembers the hamlet population having reached over one hundred occupying all three rows of attached dwellings, now we are five.

Cables, pipes, wire mesh intertwined I am ready for the day of challenge: mixing, pouring and leveling over two cubic meters of concrete. I started at eight in the morning, sixteen mixers later it was six and done. At last the cottage could begin to take shape.

In my next post I will describe the buildout yet to come of what we will call Le Pigeonnier or the pigeonhole.

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