Category Archives: Houses


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The ‘one year on’ post is eight months old.  It’s time-consuming, this farming, bricklaying, rural living stuff, especially when funded by a life of other work and my real deep need to sit around with a glass of wine and a book. These then are vintage pictures of a still nowhere near finished restoration job circa June 2015. Yes, friends, I do now have a toilet, and the black felt curtains of spiderwebs are mostly down, but there is much to do and much that could be done, just not by me.
The other reason for putting it off is that I failed to find anything that conveyed the sweat, tears, hours, injury, blasphemy, fear, doubt, self-satisfaction and poverty the work entailed.
Looking at these in the same way that I look at the wall or the ceiling or the wiring or the fencing or the garage which could be a bedroom or the ‘kitchen’ which could be a kitchen has me hyperventilating and scrawling illegible To Do lists on the back of bills and receipts. Sometimes I stand in the bathroom, fashioned out of a derelict shed stuffed full of partridges, and all I think is that the shower glass needs cleaning (which of course it does).

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The farm is one of five carved out for the sons of a local landowner a hundred or so years ago. No-one remembers what its name is, or when it was last lived in, although it has most recently been used for storing partridges, and as an easy-come, easy-go roost for swallows and house martins (and much more). The long barn with its elaborate tiled floor was used for hay; and the great fireplace played its bit in the annual matanza – or pig killing, the highlight of the farming year.
At least the walls and roof are sound, and it has plenty of water in its own well. There are many decaying Andalucian farmhouses and cortijos in the fields around here, and they’ll never be replaced. Growing olives and raising goats keeps things ticking over, but don’t cover the cost of major structural repairs. Some people stay put and let the place crumble around them; more – as happened here, many decades ago – retreat to the nearest village, get the benefit of heating and a social life, and use the old farmhouse for storing tractors, camping out in the summer, or cooking lunch (as demonstrated above by Fernando’s cousin, Fernando, who I found rustling up a revuelto of eggs and the wild thistle).
I don’t want to change its thick-walled central core as much as clean it, add a bathroom, turn the second floor grain store into a bedroom, rewire. The kitchen is basic. There are a lot of complicated decisions ahead, but right now the priority is mucking out so I can move in at the end of the month. So it is that my days are spent editing and evenings until the light fades, in a mask and rubber gloves removing dark webs as thick as tweed, carrying buckets of water from the outdoor tap, and scrubbing walls and floors with fizzing Salfumant agua fuerte. I find an old red tiled floor underneath the packed mud. Once it’s too dark to see the walls, I reward myself with a wash and glass of manzanilla at the bar. It’s a kind of living.

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Tense Negotiations

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The farm was 40% over the absolute maximum budget pencilled in for a perfect property requiring zero work but, as Manolo said, what was the harm in meeting the owners again, so negotiations were scheduled. I told everyone I loved the place, thought the price was very reasonable, agreed there was a lot of land, commiserated with the three brothers for having to sell, took a picture of some yellow flowers, and then went off to look for the puppy.

More people were milling about than I’d imagined, most of them owners of a sort, and the animals were distracting. The darker donkey got my notes which I’d left on the car seat between its teeth. The sound of trailing exhaust pipes and chassis being dragged over rocks indicated more people were arriving to join in the discussion – or various discussions. Everyone brought dogs. As it got dark we moved inside and nine people talked at once over the barking, and birds (I think they were birds) crossed back and forth.

The conversation had finally shifted from asparagus to business. I felt at a disadvantage having a very small amount of money and no relatives on my team. Not wanting to lose, I felt certain I really wanted the farm. Yes . . . a ramshackle, ancient place with no kitchen, mains electricity or water . . . Oh I’d die without it. I shot my hand up. What about staggered payments spread over a year, a vastly reduced price but still higher than wise and a deal whereby the builder brothers of the selling team would repair the collapsing road bridge and turn a lean-to currently full of partridges into a bathroom straightaway? It was a yes. We agreed a moving in date (May 2nd), and all kissed each other as I wondered exactly what I’d done there.


But Lo . . . The Perfect Farm

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Ah yes, he giveth and he taketh away. Shortly after discovering a house I hadn’t really wanted had been sold, I began thinking of nothing else, berating myself for the lengthy whiteboard sessions in which I weighed up the pros and cons in pens of different colours instead of  driving into town and handing over the money. I imagined a life in the house, a life that included freshly squeezed orange juice on the terrace, a little sketching, tiling in oversized man shirts and felt wistful.
Anyway, then I had a call saying there was a farm for sale, not too far away: small, habitable, with papers and electricity, and cheap. I went over the mountain and down a bumpy track to see it, and it was perfect: a ramshackle gem. If we bought it, said the farmer, he’d throw in a puppy. Ah well . . . that’s a yes!
Then a price was named that was €50,000 over the maximum, I took some photographs of donkeys and we all drove back in silence.

Where to begin?

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I think it started with a picture of a derelict farmhouse in Almeria. What was standing was standing in a landscape that seemed to be made up of bits of rock and dust that had fallen off it. It was remote, and came with what looked like a quarry dotted with prickly pears and views of cardboard-coloured dusty mountains. It was available for a very reasonable £22,000. I could imagine myself sitting on the shaded deck of the minimalist pod I’d have erected beside it, sketching eagles while visiting friends, keen to work with their hands, rebuilt the walls of the old place. Then we’d all drink wine and eat olives and splash about in the infinity pool. Except there wasn’t any water.

The property, one of hundreds in a similarly parlous state, wasn’t far to the east of the Tabernas Desert, Europe’s only semi-desert; a place that manages to be too hot (peaking on a regular basis just short of 50C) and too cold (substantially below freezing on winter nights) but still rather compelling. The landscape goes on and on, mesmerically repetitive, gouged by rivers that haven’t run for quite some time, and the only things moving on a still day are birds of prey, riding the thermals in a rich blue sky, and their shadows. It’s the kind of place you can imagine being staked out to music by Ennio Morricone. Sergio Leone must have thought so too; An American wild west outpost was created in Tabernas for A Fistful of Dollars, and the spaghetti western was born (although the ‘pork chop western’ would be more gastronomically correct). You can visit the Mini-Hollywood set. It’s been used a zillion times. Look out for it in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, For a Few Dollars More, and The Magnificent Seven, as well as  great shots of the surrounding desert in Lawrence of Arabia,  Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and most recently, the Ridley Scott epic, Exodus, slated for a December 2014 release (in which Christian Bale fresh from his success as a 70s sleazeball in American Hustle plays Moses). So, an interesting area but impractical for someone who likes a long shower.

Thanks to a chain of completely random events, I am starting my meandering quest for a somewheresville in not only the wettest part of Andalucia, but the most expensive inland area, in the province of Cádiz, south of Seville in Andalucia’s southwest. It is a spectacularly beautiful area of lakes and mountains and white villages draped over the shoulders of a crag. I don’t know anyone for a thousand miles but the people I have met have been amusing and friendly and equally interested in living their lives rooted in the land as they have for generations, though not without the luxuries of good food, good wine, good company, peace and comfort. This is one of the most difficult areas in which to find an affordable country house. The culture is traditional and the land is protected which means I am unlikely to find a suitable plot for a minimalist, modernist pod either. But still, I’ll try.



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Interview in The Bone House, Texas

Excerpt from a video interview with Dan Phillips, founder of the Phoenix Commotion at the Bone House, Huntsville Texas. I’ve posted an intro to Dan’s work here.

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