PROJECT MOLLY MALONE
Quote of the day: What’s the worst part of being a dinosaur with diarrhoea?
It’s over ten years since we arrived here in South West France. Certainly, it seems to have flown by. Much has happened. Some truly awful, but mostly very good indeed. It has been a generally happy move for us despite the fact the house is ‘under construction’ still.
I don’t think Simon or I expected to be cracking on with so many designs or complete garden overhauls as we have done in the last seven years. The house was meant to be the priority but needs must and all that.
One project in particular was a fantastic opportunity and ultimately very rewarding. When I first visited for a very brief on site chat with the owners, it was clear it had recently been an absolute mud bath. Mostly dried out by this time, there was an enormous earth moving machine running over every scrap of the place, compacting soil to such a degree that I have never seen before or since.
The paths had already been laid out, although my heart sank seeing this. No thought had been given to their edging. From experience I knew it wouldn’t be long before the grass and weeds started to engulf the pathways.
A fine looking layer of topsoil had been imported at great cost, spread and compacted down by the machinery. ‘What lies beneath?’ I wondered.
We were destined to find out.
The clients commissioned me to draw up a set of plans to make the place feel more cohesive, enhance it visually, and take away some of the fear that several visitors had experienced when stumbling back to each one of the three houses on site during the wee small hours. More on that another time maybe?
Plans duly presented and approved, the clients decided to proceed with several planting schemes in the first instance, to go ahead in late spring.
This gave us a decent amount of time to prepare for the work to be done. Everything was ordered, a digger organised, labour arranged.
It all seemed to be going so well…
Our ‘hired help’, a keen man enlisted specifically as heavy duty manual labour, dropped out only a couple of days before we were due to start, leaving a void that needed to be filled.
It was not one of my happiest moments. Guess who had to fill it? Categorically and emphatically not a pink job but there was no alternative at such short notice.
Our ‘un-hired help’ had been ex-military, in his 40’s, fit and strong, and not that keen obviously. I was nearer 60 than 50, female and although pretty fit relatively speaking, I was certainly not the most suitable candidate for the job. To add to the mix, in true reality TV fashion, we were on a race against time as we had to be back in the UK for my mother’s 100th birthday celebrations seven days later.
Kindly, the owners had made a house available on site for us as the chateau was two hours away, which was an enormous help. On the first evening it was a bit like being on holiday, as the house was infinitely better equipped than our poor old place.
The chateau ‘garden’ was enormous. Acres of it, set on a hillside overlooking the northern Dordogne countryside - rolling woodland and fields. With a real live castle from the Middle Ages in it too. Saying it was gardening on a grand scale is underplaying it.
To give you some kind of example of the scale of this project, we were expecting a tree delivery which included a large handful of seven pencil cypresses, each of which of them being over seven metres in height.
The trees arrived on the afternoon of the first full day. A full articulated truck load. It was hot. Shorts and T shirts were the order of the day. Simon had spent the morning starting to dig planting holes.
Holes in landscaping are a way of life. Digging them is hard work and a bore.
Huge holes needed to be dug, particularly for the ten 250 year old olive trees, some of whose root balls measured well over a metre wide. A digger was the only way forward. Me and diggers are about as complimentary as silk and sandpaper. That was definitely a blue job.
There was also a large number of mature wisteria plants, more than 150 lavenders, perennials and six semi-mature flowering cherry trees. Everything was unloaded a couple of hundred metres away and then brought on site.
After the truck was sent on its way, Simon continued to dig out the tree planting holes, and enormous boulders began to reveal themselves. These were what was lying beneath the infernal imported top soil. The only way to get them down to the ‘stone pile’ was by wheelbarrow as we didn’t have the mechanical- or man-power to do anything else. Lifting them into the barrow with the digger bucket, some of these stones were so huge, one of them would literally completely fill the barrow.
Wheeling them down to the bottom of the hill required an enormous effort. Even getting them out onto the growing pile was a major feat all by myself. Then there was the walk back up to the top of the hill. Yes, the barrow was empty, but this went on from 07h30 in the morning until 21h00 at night, when the light started to go. I lost count of the hundreds of times I wheeled that squeaking fucking barrow down the hill and back up again. Molly Malone had nothing on me.
Is it any wonder I have back problems?
Once holes were dug, for nearly two days afterwards, Simon relentlessly broke through the boulders with a tool we call Peter Piercer - a strong metal bar - and other assorted boring tools, to install the post-less tree anchoring systems and start installing the wisteria archways. By the end of the second morning, he was crazed. Demented even. I’m not sure he has ever been the same since. He was 100% determined to get the anchoring systems in place, boulders or no.
Fair play, he did it too. His shoulders were completely buggered and he had ‘white finger’ for weeks afterwards.
As he was enduring his own personal hell, I was still wheeling that fucking barrow, manually clearing the hundreds, nay thousands of bloody stones that were emerging from beneath the beautiful overcoat of ‘that’ thin layer of topsoil. Squeak, fucking squeak.
Bowels seem to be an ongoing and recurring theme throughout my life.
Two days in, I started to feel a bit odd. A bit light headed and more than a little loose in the back bottom department. Sweating profusely but freezing, gasping for water and diving into the house every couple of barrow loads for a ‘number two comfort break’ and a huge glass of water, I was still wheeling my sodding squeaky wheelbarrow up and down that bloody hill.
Had we been closer to the sea, I may have been tempted to start singing ‘Cockles and mussels’.
Plus it was hot for May. I, however, was still either in a coat or jumper, as Simon roasted, either in the digger cab or making holes to set the archways into. He was going to get the trees in before we had to leave for my mother’s birthday, if it was the last thing he did.
On the fourth day, the building Project Manager turned up.
He made it perfectly clear he didn‘t like me. I guess as we were not his contractors but independent, he wasn’t getting a % cut from our invoices.
Something he said though, eventually struck a chord.
It took a while. In fairness, I was ill and tired.
The building team were responsible for getting water to a point where we could then run the automated irrigation systems from it. One of them had, with the perfect timing that happens when one is pressed for time, cut through one of the two supply pipes with a jackhammer, as you do.
So there was no water to the main irrigation fixing point, or indeed anywhere to half of the site. That half of the site happened to be the half requiring irrigation.
In the midst of organising plumbers to repair and reinstate the water the PM mentioned to Simon and I about the plan to go onto ‘village water’ in the future. This is mains water as we would know it in the UK. He proceeded to tell us that the water going to the houses was not tested and currently could be considered contaminated.
We still had water in the house we were staying in.
Repairing the water supply for the irrigation was going to take 48 hours. The reality TV mode meant that only if it was restored before we left for the UK would my desperately parched trees and plants get water before or while I was away. They were in desperate need of water even then as they had been in transit for several days and had been sitting waiting for plumbers to connect up since they had arrived on site.
If it didn’t happen, I was going to have to stump up for a lot of dead plants, unless the builders would accept responsibility. My arse, they would!
Plus it was hot, very hot.
I was dehydrated, dog tired, feeling like dog shit and in no mood to let my dog-gone beautiful trees die.
Something the PM had said about water…
The penny finally dropped.
As I had been desperately trying to keep myself hydrated by drinking plenty of water, it looked very likely that I had picked up some kind of bug and was unknowingly perpetuating things by keeping on drinking from the kitchen tap.
Contaminated water, although Simon said he felt fine.
First stop then, if I could hold ‘it’ together long enough, was a very speedy visit to the local town to procure 24 large bottles of clean and pure mineral water.
During the next day I started to feel incrementally better but was getting more and more stressed about there being no available water for the plants. By now, the trees were all planted but we couldn’t water them in.
The predicted 23 degrees that had turned into 32 degrees centigrade in the shade, was forecast to be so for the following ten days.
Simon had installed the basic irrigation systems but could not test it. He had also started to put in place the three wisteria arches I was helping construct, but he was meeting with our old friends The Boulders again.
This whole job was taking far longer than we had scheduled. Everything.
Out came the barrow again. Squeak.
At least I was feeling better.
Levels were proving a problem with the slope and Simon’s shoulders and wrists were battered and bruised by the intensity of constant ramming impact they were enduring.
Tension was building.
Another day dawned.
We were due to fly to the UK the following day.
I was going to have to walk off site with no water supply to the enormous and hugely expensive trees we had planted, only two of the three archways installed, no wisteria planted, lavender and borders planted but no water available for them either.
There was no option but by mid afternoon, I had to call my customers and tell them. Expectation management.
As I dialled the number Simon raced up to me saying the water had been connected. The relief was palpable. I nearly cried.
We were still way off being finished but as I explained the setbacks and proposed temporary fixes to the customer, Simon began to furiously test the irrigation systems.
As the wisteria could not be planted before we left, between us we rigged up a temporary system under the shade of the enormous ash tree.
Of course, it didn’t go smoothly and everything took ages, Simon eventually bodging a ‘complete system irrigation override’ by torchlight.
Eventually, after packing up and clearing the site, and the house too, packing up tools, packing the truck and trailer, finding that the loaded trailer had a puncture was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
It was after midnight and on went the very noisy compressor, hoping it would give us enough tyre pressure to get us home. The neighbours must have loved us!
Driving through the gates, by this time it was 01h30 in the morning, of the day we were to leave for my mother’s 100th.
Finally rolling in at 03h30 - we had to leave for the airport by noon - the truck and trailer first had to be unloaded and tools secured.
Tired? You could say.
Upon our return to site with bated breath five days later, it was such a huge relief to see the temporary systems had worked and everything looked happy. The archway was then completed, wisteria duly planted, the irrigation systems tweaked.
Happily, everything looked very much ok.
Driving away for what we thought was the final time was an immense relief. Albeit temporary.
Did someone mention 0.75 kilometre of granite sett path edging that needed laying retrospectively? Not then, but they did a few months later. That’s only 7,500 setts then!
Or the bespoke stainless steel plant supports on the houses?
As I originally said, a truly great job. One to be proud of.