Category Archives: Property

ONE YEAR’S HARD LABOUR

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I meant to post ‘one year on’ pictures eight months ago, but didn’t.  It turns out it’s time-consuming, this farming, bricklaying, basic rural living stuff, especially when funded in part by time-consuming journalism, and you have a social life, and an alternating real deep need to sit around with a glass of wine and a book. So these – finally – are vintage shots of a very unfinished restoration job as it was in June 2015. Yes, relax friends: we do now have a toilet, and the black sackcloth spiderwebs are mostly down.
The other reason for putting it off is that I couldn’t find anything that conveyed the sweat, tears, hours, injury, blasphemy and sacks of cash shoved into the house hole. Nothing with a VOILA! Changing Rooms reveal.
Looking at the pictures – much like looking at the wall, or the ceiling, or the paving, or the drainpipe, or the garage which could be a bedroom, or the kitchen (medieval) and the actual farm in its entirety has me hyperventilating, and reaching simultaneously for a brown paper bag and the To Do ledger. I look at 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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Restoring a Farm: The Befores

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We moved in a year ago. There have been times since when I have wondered what exactly I was doing, whether electing to buy a barely accessible semi-ruined farmhouse in the middle of a country I didn’t know, was a mistake. The idea had been to find something cheap – and that didn’t happen, and to knock it into shape fast while carrying on with the day job – and that didn’t happen either. I completely overlooked the ‘farm’ element, even though the clue was there in ‘farmhouse’, and the fact that farms need farmers. And on a more superficial level I didn’t realise I’d get calloused hands, resigned to handling dead rodents and live snakes and barely wear anything decent again. I’m debating whether to post After pictures because we’re not at After. However, sometimes now I can look around a room without reaching for the To Do list, and just admire the light moving on thick plastered walls.
Just the basic cleaning took two of us a month (maybe two months); hosing, disinfecting and clearing the floors of rubble with a shovel, wearing rubber boots, rubber gloves and face masks. For a month more the bathroom, fashioned from a partridge shed, had no doors or windows or bath or shower. We still have no kitchen, or no modern kitchen with oven or hob; I thought it would be interesting to learn to cook in traditional Andalus style i.e. on iron tripods or esteves over wood in a hearth and then couldn’t be bothered with the whole effort of renovation and so cook over wood is what we do. Or eat salads.  With hindsight etc.
Anyway over the course of the months, things emerged – the kitchen’s flagstone floors, the old wood of the double doors, and a slew of interesting problems – pipes which led somewhere, pipes that led nowhere, nesting swallows, nesting sparrows, leaky flues. I learnt many useful things: the standard height of doors, shower heads, shower taps, the standard height of sinks, standard width of irrigation pipes, how to mix concrete, the various merits of decalcification units, the power output of well pumps, the sand to concrete ratio of grout, the standard dimensions of roof timbers, the relative merits of aluminium and iron, the three stages of plastering, how to lay traditional tiles, brick-laying, standard glass thickness, the fact that replacing glass panes is not my thing, and the Spanish vocabulary for all the tools and hardware associated with the above.

Restoration Period

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Now Paco & Ivan the joker are working with us on the house, things are moving at a cracking pace. Indeed, I have discovered it’s best not to say, ‘maybe we could have a window here . . . ‘, and then drive into the village to get supplies – although the floor to ceiling window on the second floor is, well, dramatic. The pipes have been laid in the bathroom (I think). We finally found a bath. Or rather, a bath in a shop in Jérez – there are baths in every field, and horses drinking out of them. But they can’t fit the windows and door until I provide them; I can’t begin to get them until I know what size they need to be, and Paco and Ivan, waving their mallets, are insistent they can be any size. Even then, with a Peugeot 206 GTI and no doors around these parts, it’s not straightforward. We redouble the efforts to find a suitable door in the classified ads after finding odd paw marks in the mud of the house, and a snake slithering around the newly installed toilet. The first goes in, along with a chandelier for morale. I’ve now put the first 8 coats over the old walls. At least, the parts I can reach. White obviously – white paint’s a good business to be in round here.

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Housework

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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 it’s thick-walled central core as much as clean it, add a bathroom, turn the second floor grain store into a bedroom, rewire. The kitchen’s a bit basic. It involves a lot of complicated decisions, but mainly, right now mucking out so we can move in at the end of the month. So it is that my days are spent at the desk editing a major hotel project, and every evening 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. Turns out there’s an old red tiled floor underneath the packed mud. Every evening ends with a wash and manzanilla at the venta. Lucky them.

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Keys to the Farm

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We bought the farm in Cådiz, and celebrated at the local venta with €1 wines, beer, and a plate of jamón. We’re all exhausted; they’ve got farms to get back to, and we’re the lucky owners of a lot of olive trees, and a renovation project that should take us 10 years to complete. I don’t know anything about renovation, but it can’t be that hard . . .

Tense Negotiations

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The farm was 40% over the absolute maximum budget pencilled in for the perfect property requiring zero work but, as Manolo said, what was the harm in meeting the owners again, so we rolled up to negotiate.  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. I like notes. I’m actually a REALLY GOOD negotiator with notes – negotiating access to panda breeding labs in China and the FARC in Colombia, and being a stickler in big media acquisitions – but everyone has to SIT DOWN and TAKE TURNS. There was the sound of trailing exhaust pipes and chassis being dragged over rocks as more cars summited the track, and more people arrived to join in the discussion – or various discussions. With more dogs – mainly dobermans. 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.

Dave, whose Spanish is rudimentary, was gazing dreamily out of the window, (bikes, probably) and oblivious to the fact the conversation had finally shifted from asparagus to business, making it difficult to confer.  The vaguest chance that we could make a deal was floating off on a wispy cloud of yada yada, and it was pretty much all my fault, coming at it a) with very small amounts of money, and b) like a dippy loser in a rom-com.  And I really wanted the farm. Yes . . . a ramshackle, ancient place with no kitchen and dubious electrics . . . 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 we’re comfortable with in return for the brothers fixing the collapsing road bridge and turning the room that’s currently full of partridges into a bathroom? 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.

‘How did that go?’ said Dave as we got back in the car.

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