The joys of summer

Ex-teacher Paul McKay left London to live a self-sufficient existence in the Monchique hills with his partner Martyn. He keeps an assortment of animals and grows a variety of crops in an eco-friendly way – all on a limited income. Read his diary as he gets to grips with rural life. This month:

Sunday May 30

Last week, while trudging down the side of our mountain to take food to the goats, I had a fall! Notice the grammar of the sentence: I didn’t fall over, I had a fall. The wording, I feel, clears me of any blame, I am merely a victim in the whole affair. Anyone that has visited us here will know that every time we venture onto the terraces in front of the house, we take our lives into our own hands. The drop is about one metre in every two, and the surface varies from mud to scree slope, depending upon the time of year and recent weather conditions. Martyn, who complains (relentlessly) of arthritic pains, finds the free fall method pretty jarring on the knees, so we have decided that enough is enough. Finally, after 15 years, we will do something about it.

Monday May 31

Went into Monchique to order the sand and cement. Everything was closed; an unforeseen bank holiday. Not the most promising of starts…

Tuesday June 1

Sand and cement ordered. New to this carry-on, we decided to ask about ratios, mixes etc. in the shop. The lady serving didn’t have a clue and we found it quite difficult to envisage a cubic metre of sand and how that measured up against 500 kilos of cement. At one point, hoping to phone for assistance, she asked us who our stonemason was. “Me,” I replied proudly. This went down like a lead balloon, so we simply ordered blindly and hoped for the best. She confirmed that delivery would take place some time this year.

Wednesday June 2

Sand and cement delivered! I was out, so Martyn supervised delivery. The lorry was carefully positioned so that the sand could be tipped in the spot we had prepared, where it was least inconvenient and best situated to minimise our workload. The driver asked Martyn to confirm this is where he wanted it, then returned to the cab to tip up the back. With hindsight, Martyn does recall the driver having a faintly confused look. The engines roared and out came the sand, not from the back of the truck as Martyn had been expecting, but from the side. Seven cabbages, four rose bushes and a few dozen geraniums were completely buried. The pole that holds up the washing line cannot be shifted. All is going well then.

SaturdayJune 12

Unable to write anything for the last 10 days, as I’m suffering from cement fatigue. We have been constantly mixing, carrying and laying for days. Early morning (6.30am) has been the best time to work, although by 7.30am it had already reached 29 Celsius! When not cementing, every moment is taken up with trying to get clean, or recovering from all the exertion. Finally, I can now see through the haze of cement dust that hangs over the house that the steps are a great success. The sheer luxury of walking up and down, without having to adopt bizarre angles to avoid slipping, is an absolute joy. We collected lots of rocks and stones to place in the steps and they do look quite good.

Friday June 18

We returned from Monchique this afternoon, stopping off to collect our mail from the house where it is delivered a little higher up the mountain from us. As we arrived, we noticed a small fire a little further along the road and went to investigate. The fire was not being attended by anyone and was already becoming dangerous. The next 10 minutes were a nightmare of phoning the bombeiros, ferrying elderly people out of danger and attempting to do what we could using dodgy low pressure hose pipes with an annoying tendency to kink. Within five minutes the fire had spread some 10 metres along the road and down the valley, engulfing trees, bushes and shrubs. The bombeiros arrived very quickly and within 40 minutes had the fire under control. In that time, it had covered about an acre and come dangerously close to houses. The cause of the fire was almost undoubtedly a cigarette thrown from a car. I can think of nothing else that would have started a fire so suddenly at the edge of a road.

Sunday June 20

The birth rate here has peaked in the last week with numerous chicks hatched out in the incubator. We finally have Rhode Island red chicks, a breed that is supposed to be excellent for free-range foraging, good layers, good sized table birds and with a tendency to go broody. We have also hatched two other breeds, Brahmas and Jersey giants, two of each, both very big breeds of chicken. We are keeping our fingers crossed for a hen and a cockerel of each breed. Two of last year’s offspring have also gone broody, the most amazing of which was a young black bantam hen.

A few weeks ago, I noticed she was missing. We had a good look around and decided she must have made a light supper for the escalavara (mongoose). Nothing of the kind, this morning she returned making a great deal of clucking, to be let back into the run with the other chickens. Alongside her were four little chicks looking quite exhausted from their long walk. All are doing well.

Tuesday June 29

In the winter I long for sunshine. Now, I am longing for some cool nights, a little breeze in the day and just a little more humidity. Temperatures in the shade have been reaching 36 degrees, regularly, without cooling much below 25 in the evenings. The vegetables are becoming very thirsty and in predictable fashion, our irrigation pipes have begun playing up. Taps clog, hoses trickle, joins burst, all with monotonous regularity. This would be less inconvenient, had we been a little more sensible when positioning our vegetable patch.

A defunct pipe on the veg patch involves a climb of about 100 metres, checking the pipe en route for trickling leaks or major explosions. If that reveals nothing, we then have to wade through a blackberry jungle to the spring and tank, to check that the tubes have not mysteriously leapt out of the water again. This all has to be done in sweltering sunshine with the assistance of two billion biting insects, all eager to get involved in the event. Once all the pipes are organised appropriately, 15 minutes of sucking and blowing pipes begin. When one swallows a mouthful of lukewarm water, alive with frog spawn and mosquito larvae, one knows the siphon has begun again, bringing the water down to where it is needed.

This little episode has repeated itself three times during the last week, resulting in me still watering tired looking vegetables at 10pm. Next year we intend to build a water tank just above the vegetable terraces, but then again, we have been intending to do that for at least 10 years.