The realities of living off-grid in winter. January 8th 2021

A frosty leaf
A pot of cheerful violas by the front door

Hello and welcome to the first blog of 2021.

Normally the new year is a time of hope and looking forward, but reading the news headlines from the UK leaves me saddened and deeply concerned. The virus seems to have taken hold and it is awful to watch the video clips of hospitals and staff at breaking point, especially when we are so far away from family and friends.

Thankfully, things are not so bad -yet – in France. We are so isolated here that there are days on end when we see no-one, probably the best way to be. We take it one day, one week at a time. Nature, as ever, helps us through. I’ve attached some pictures later on of frosty leaves, transformed into frozen works of art. They are beautiful but they also remind me that solace can always be found in the small things. I think we shall all get fed up of saying that before too much longer! But it is true.

Winter has finally arrived down here in the Pyrenées-Atlantique region of France and I thought I would share with you some of the realities of off-grid living once the weather turns cold and wet.

Whilst the mountains themselves are now buried deep under heavy snow-fall, we have so far not had any snow here, although in the last few days the temperatures have plummeted to around minus four at night and stayed close to freezing all day. Before that we were treated to some strong winds and very wet weather.

Frosty mornings

Weather doesn’t affect us only when we’re outside, it affects us inside as well, particularly as we live inside a wooden cabin. After our many years living in Wales we had become used to old stone cottages, with the walls at least two feet thick. These stalwart buildings kept the natural world at bay, acting as a buffer between us and the elements, with the exception of the wind, which always found its way through the nooks and crannies. Our log cabin, whilst a solid and sturdy structure, has walls that are less than six inches thick and, in my more whimsical moments, I like to imagine that living inside it is, in some ways, akin to living inside a tree, part of nature, not apart from nature. As a result, my senses are becoming more finely attuned to what is happening outside. I hear more, see more, feel more.

Our Greek ancestors struggled to understand the forces of nature. Their answer was to deify the elements of wind and fire, of thunder and lightening, creating stories around these gods that would explain what seemed otherwise to be too random, too powerful and too fearsomely destructive to be simply nature. The Winds were known as Anemoi and there were four of them, sons of the dawn goddess, one for the north, another for the south, the east and the west. Our prevailing winds in the Pyrenées-Atlantique come from the west, from the god Zephyrus, reputed to be the most benevolent of the four brothers, and often associated with gentle, nurturing winds. Often, but not always.

The last week of December blew in some atrocious weather, trapping us indoors while gusts of over 70 kilometres per hour rampaged through the high tree tops around us. Even in this modern age, with all the knowledge that science has bestowed upon us, it wouldn’t take too much of a leap of imagination to believe that this wind was a living entity and, if so, he was surely in a foul temper as he stormed his way along the valley, bellowing and crashing his way through the woods, sending all of us lesser creatures scuttling for cover. From inside our wooden shelter we gazed uneasily up at the ceiling as branches from the ash tree above us were ripped free, landing on the roof with heavy, tile-breaking clunks and thuds. We breathed a sigh of relief as the gusts lessened and then disappeared, almost as if the storm had never been, the silence still and absolute. Until the next gust came through.

The rain made almost as much noise as the wind. It sounded like a million tiny darts pinging off the tiles, metallic, melodic. It gushed from the gutters, blocked by the last remnants of the autumn leaves, a flume of water splashing down onto the soil which quickly turned into a mud sludge. It dripped from the branches above us, from the moss on the edge of the tiles, from the metal fascia boards, so that it sounded as if we were caught up in the midst of a symphony of raindrops. So often I thought I would open the front door and find that overnight we had become an island, sitting in the middle of a giant puddle.

This sudden dose of proper winter weather came as a shock. We had been lulled in to a false sense of security by sunny days that never seemed to end, with a balmy 17 degrees just a few days before Christmas. There had certainly been the odd rainy day, but that was easily forgotten once the blue skies returned. Now we found ourselves in a prolonged spell of grey, wet and wild weather, which proved to be much more of a test for our off-grid life.

This little oak is still hanging on to its leaves.

The torrential downpours found all the weak spots, and there were many of them, in the shed and loo. We covered what we could with tarpaulins and resolved to magic up some money from our now-empty pot for renovation work and make the roof a new priority when the weather got better. The wind, as well as the rain, gusted in through the open slats in the loo shed, meaning that we ran to the loo, did what needed to be done at top speed, and then ran back out again. Hugging my coat around me, splashing through puddles back to the front door, I had a flashback to a life when we had loos that were indoors, not just one of them but two, and marvelled at how far away that all seemed right now. Even more surprising was the fact that I didn’t really mind running to and from the loo. It just seemed a normal part of life.

Thankfully the roof of the cabin itself kept the rain out this time round. After that rainy night back in October, when we were besieged by leaks, Michael spent a couple of days clearing out the moss from under tiles, replacing battens and patching up weak spots and it seemed to have solved the problem.

Our pond, now full and iced over

There was absolutely no chance of doing any hand-washing and expecting it to dry in our leaky shed or above the fire in this weather, certainly not without a mangle. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we were going to have to make a trip to a launderette unless the weather turned back in our favour.

As the stormy weather finally blew itself out, the temperatures dropped, so that we woke to frosty mornings with sub zero temperatures. At times like this the wood-burner becomes your best friend and the value of properly dried wood shines through. There were times when the fire was throwing out so much heat that we sat there in t-shirts, other times when we didn’t get the mix quite right and would end up huddling around the fire like two old biddies. Wood-burners are fey contraptions, not always easy to control, and if they’re feeling contrary it can be an all or nothing affair. Even so, once the room had time to warm up, the temperature hovered around  nineteen to twenty degrees Celsius, and we were comfortable with that.

Choisya behind the cabin – I could look at it for hours.

I had wondered whether we would get cold overnight when the temperature dropped to freezing, but my fears were ungrounded. The bed is less than six feet from the wood-burner, which prevented the bedding from becoming damp or cold and, with the help of a range of extra blankets, we slept very well. The wood-burner was always out by the morning so this was our coldest point of the day. I would stick my head out from under the covers and test the feel of the air on my cheeks. Minus two degrees outside felt different to plus five or six degrees, the chill against my skin more pronounced. It became a morning ritual, a game to see how my skin-test compared to the thermometer. The interior temperature that we woke up to ranged from eight degrees for a very cold night, up to a more typical eleven degrees if the temperature outside had not fallen below freezing.

No idea what this is. I almost trod on it !

Michael has always woken up before me, whatever the time of year, a happy coincidence at this point in our lives as it meant he would get the fire going and the kettle on, while I stayed warm and cosy under the covers.

Getting dressed on the coldest mornings is not the quickest of procedures; thermals, t-shirt, first thin fleece, second thicker fleece, topped off by my new Christmas present, a warm Guernsey cape, quite often both of us wearing a hat for the first hour until the fire warmed the cabin up. It was a stark contrast to the long summer months, when it would take just seconds to throw on a t-shirt and shorts. Again, to my surprise, I didn’t mind these cold mornings. They made me feel alive. And maybe I’m toughening up a little bit, and there is satisfaction in that as well.

Even grass becomes suddenly so much more interesting.

Despite the fact that I am turning into a tough backwoods homesteader -ha- I am already longing for the spring! And I suspect if we have too many weeks of grey and wet weather, I shall be wishing we could get in the van and head over the border to Spain for a few weeks, which had always been part of our plans until Covid came along. Not for this year though.

For our video this week we decided we needed a day out or we might go a little crazy. We headed off to the charming rural town of Marciac. It’s famous for its annual jazz festival, but at this time of year it is a sleepy, quiet place. It was market day when we visited but many stall-holders take some extra time off in January so it was even quieter than usual. As the market was half empty I decided to take you on a tour of the church instead. I hope you enjoy it and see you next week.

Take care of yourselves.

M-J

11 thoughts on “The realities of living off-grid in winter. January 8th 2021

  1. Entertaining as always. We could certainly share your experiences with the wood burner. Either all … or occasionally nothing. Do hope you will be ok in your isolation. This new mutation doesn’t sound good. Take care stay safe.

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    1. Hi Lloyd. The new mutation isn’t too widespread here in France yet, but the expectation is that it will hit us over the coming weeks. Something to look forward to! But we couldn’t be in a better place. Take care. MJ

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  2. It made me feel really chilled just reading about the cold inside the shack! It reminded me of how, as children, we used to keep our clothes down the bed with us so they were warmer to put on in the morning!! Lovely frosty pictures, we do need to look more carefully at nature like that. Keep warm and safe.

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  3. Wow, you have had it frosty, but ever so pretty, and ….. better than the wet! Things are pretty rough in the UK but I believe that if everyone obeys the rules, we should all get by. Bring on the vaccinations I say.
    Love your photos, nature is absolutely beautiful. Stay “warm” safe and well both. Thinking of you. xx

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  4. You clearly put a lot of thought and effort into this blog. Wonderful photographs, wonderful video, wonderful and easy to read prose, but above all you give us a reflection of what really is important, especially at this time. Please stay safe – both of you

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