THE FOLKS WHO WOULD LIVE ON THE HILL (reprise)

The story of the building of our home in southern Spain – in pictures

We’re often asked by people we meet, and who are familiar with our life story, if we watch the TV show, Grand Designs (on the UK’s Channel 4). For the uninitiated, in 1993 Dido and I together with a small team of local builders and on a limited budget built a house on a rugged hilltop in the south of Spain. Grand Designs is a program which follows people – often young-to-middle aged couples (as we then were in 93) – as they undertake unusual and ambitious house-building projects similar to our own, with much of the drama emanating from all the trials and tribulations of the process. Invariably dreams turn into nightmares and then finally – though not always – the original dreams are more or less attained. And perhaps because there was so much pain, mental and physical, during our building experience my answer to the question is that I rarely watch the program. The few times I have it usually culminates in me experiencing a mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially when the subject suckers – I mean subject couples – go through their own darker moments and mini-disasters.

Nevertheless, at the risk of sounding clichéd, for us, as with most of the Grand Design people, it all worked out in the end and we now have an extraordinary house and home. The question of whether or not it was worth it, and if, given the choice we would do it all again is something of a moot point. Certainly, we wouldn’t do it the same way again. We wouldn’t restore an existing ruin and tie it into a new additional structure – a process that doubled both the time and cost of the project, and necessitated Dido and I becoming labourers on our own build to speed things up and to save costs. No, if we did it again, we’d do what the locals here do – bulldoze the site into a flat platform and build a completely new structure.

This is something of a second instalment to an earlier post called Walking over Almonds and some of the background, including what the original semi-ruined cottage looked like can be found there. Suffice to say here that with one or two expedient modifications from the original plans the build took around six months, beginning in the summer of 1993, and used up every penny we had (although at least we didn’t go into debt). Our architect was the gifted – Bartlett trained – Seattle-based Mark Travers (who we paid with one of my huge oil canvases of the Atacama). Between the three of us (with some help from a structural engineer friend of Mark’s) we came up with a well-built house exactly suited to our needs and passions, and, for a contemporary Andalusian dwelling, unusually sympathetic to its immediate environment.

This is an unavoidably larger post than usual, though I hope there is much of interest here, for those who know us as well as for those who do not, and perhaps even one or two useful pointers for those thinking of embarking upon a similar project…

Our hilltop property was only accessible by a goat track so the first thing we had to do was get a JCB to cut us a drive. For some reason, our beautiful Maremma Sheepdog Aura liked taking naps underneath it and getting covered in grease…
Said driveway…
The first priority was to build our main water tank. Until it was completed we had to schlep over to the local spring three or four times a day to provide the builders with water for cement etc. It took several weeks to finish. Here is the tank progressing. With all its steel it was the most expensive element of the build…
Here’s the JCB just about to demolish the old pigsty…
The water tank and bodega were excavated beneath the east side of the old cottage. They would eventually become the ground story of the east side addition, comprising our bedroom and library. That’s me inspecting the completed water tank. With its 38,000 litre capacity (designed to capture rain water from the roof and terraces) its completion represented significant progress…
It didn’t take long for us to realise that to stay on time and on budget we would have to get involved physically in the building. This was my “first day” and I’m using a pickaxe to make a pipe channel for the 5,000 litre grey water tank…
Here’s Dido cleaning hundreds of roof tiles reclaimed from the old house. The finished roof eventually comprised 1 in 3 old tiles and looked all the better for it…
One of dozens of truck deliveries…
Baldomero (our foreman), Paco and Pepe eating their lunch and taking shelter from a sharp north wind by one of Dido’s dry stone redoubts…
Two thirds of the house beginning to take shape – looking across the main room (the restored old cottage) towards the library and main bedroom…
A beer break – Dido up an almond tree, as usual…
We had to remove the old wooden roof of the original cottage then rebuild the tops of half-meter thick walls. Much of the resulting rubble was reused as aggregate in various parts of the new construction. However, this entire process was hugely time consuming. Mark and his engineer buddy (who had also worked on the Seattle Space Needle) came up with this trussed roof solution for preserving the old walls and making sure they could tolerate the weight of the new steel and concrete roof. The rods were meant to be temporary, but we liked them and kept them. Dido is standing in our front door…
The east addition roof taking shape…
We loved seeing the tiles go over the screed – real progress at last (one in three tiles was from the original house). Incidentally, Dido was on hoist duty, and we later estimated that she winched up more than 2,500 buckets of cement and mortar all told during the roof construction…
The trussed roof allowed us to have very high ceilings without the need for supporting walls or pillars. This is the restored main room. The original cottage was a warren of four tiny rooms…
Fortunately the library was sufficiently finished for us to move into it by the autumn. The stove in the background (christened Dalek) was a reclaimed BBQ and it doubled up as our oven…
These gesso’d book shelves looked great, but during the wet winter months they absorbed moisture like a bath sponge, ruining hundreds of our books into the bargain. You live and learn I guess…
Aura loved lying on the cool sand, much to the annoyance of the builders trying to finish our floors…
Our kitchen was constructed entirely from local materials including a fine wood-burning stove from Asturias, only cost us about £450 with labour!!
The south aspect taking shape, with the “original cottage” section and old casemate wall already rendered, while Dido works on her drystone redoubt
The east addition nearing completion. Here one can see how the library and bedroom form an upper story above the bodega and water tank. The little window is our en suite bathroom…
This is how the main room looks today…
And the bar and kitchen…
And the library, now with modular wooden shelving…
And our bedroom…
And finally, our emerging garden,
about five years ago. Welcome to Finca Carmel!

Gibraltar’s Very Little Italy

We’ve been to Gibraltar several times over the past two years and each time we seem to discover something new. For such a small territory it’s surprising how many little secrets it manages to keep from the general tourist and day tripper, who’s itinerary seems restricted to a cable car ride to the top of the Rock, finished off with a pint at the pub and a plate of fish and chips. Not that there’s anything wrong with these activities, which do at least ensure the preservation of hidden gems like Rosia and Catalan Bay for the lucky few.

Our discovery of Catalan Bay was particularly accidental, as we had to arrange a last minute trip to Gibraltar, and the only room available was at the Caleta Hotel, on the relatively remote (remote only in a Gibraltarian sense), sparsely populated, eastern side of the Rock. But while the the bay on which the hotel sits may be named for Catalonia, the seaside hamlet along which it resides is far more reminiscent of a Sorento on the Italian Riviera – albeit, in microcosm.

Moreover, with the Caleta Hotel being Italian owned, with an Italian head chef, this tiny enclave has a feel and an atmosphere all of its own.

I would recommend the hotel as a decent place to stay (comfortable rooms and a bar and restaurant with a stunning, maritime outlook), but it’s to be torn down in January, with a Hilton rising up in its place. Nevertheless, for those visiting Gibraltar for more than a day or so, Catalan Bay is a charming place to visit.

Despite the overcast skies, I think these photos offer something of the peaceful, secluded atmosphere of the place.

DRAWING LIGHT AND SHADE…

and the dramatic potential of the humble pencil…

My recent post on line drawing was so well received that I thought I would follow it up with this look at a set of my more studied drawings from 1996.

The images here will be familiar to some, as they form the basis of one of my most successful and enduring themes, which I returned to many times over the course of decade or more. It all started with a casual photo-shoot on the sunny south terrace of our Spanish home, when my wife Dido (the blonde lady in these pictures) and Lynne, an old ballet pal of hers, performed a variety of impromptu poses for my camera. Mostly, they involved dance (see this related post), but they also acted these three, far more contemplative vignettes.

Unlike line drawing sketches, these take account of light and shade as much as form, giving them a more obvious dramatic content. But, as with line sketching, often, what is left undrawn, is as important to the feel of the picture as what is drawn. In the case of these works, it was my intention that the whiteness of the untouched paper in contrast to the painstakingly executed figures, and the shadows they contain and cast, would accentuate the feeling of the harsh Spanish sun, saturating the tender friendship of the two girls.

All in all, I think they succeed pretty well, and for me at least, remain precious moments captured in lead.

Dido and Lynne 1 – 1996 – pencil on paper
Dido and Lynne 2 – 1996 – pencil on paper
Dido and Lynne 3 – 1996 – pencil on paper

STARTING OUR 28th YEAR AT FINCA CARMEL

WIshing all my friends, viewers and followers a happy 2020

The single most impressive feature of our lives since we purchased our mountain finca (smallholding) in southern Spain, and becoming part-time farmers in 1993, is how it dramatically increased our awareness of the passing seasons. A perception intensified by having planted the best part of a thousand trees, and then watched as they gradually transformed our immediate environment.

While there are many sobering aspects to the passing of the years, we have found both solace and joy through the metamorphosis of our humble hilltop. Hopefully, it will continue past a good few new years yet!

The house and finca in the summer of 1995, two years after our move to the Axarquia region of Andalusia, and 18 months after completion of the house. Some of our new trees can just be made out, such as the young cypresses lining the edge the drive. At this point, the farm comprised primarily the existing north vineyard (to the lower left of the house) and almond trees. We relied totally on solar energy and rain water, collected in a large tank constructed beneath the house…
…and this is virtually the identical scene taken this Boxing Day in the winter of 2019. The north vineyard is still there, and some of the almond trees, plus the cypresses are now 25 years older – and taller. However, in 2004 we were finally attached to mains electricity (and the Internet) allowing us to set up a remote control irrigation system and thus plant orchards (mostly olive, citrus and avocado) and a garden of sorts, and to surround ourselves with tall trees.

DOG DAYS 8 – “THE LAST ALMOND”

I’ve saved the most prosaic of my 1994 “Dog Days” comic strips for last. Prosaic in the sense that this is an experience, that to one degree or another almost everyone viewing this site will have gone through themselves – that infuriating feeling of the last, biggest, juiciest fruit being just out of reach. Perhaps, the only difference with almond trees though, from say apple, cherry or even blackberry picking, is that one does not customarily shake and whack the b’Jesus out of the host plant to acquire every last fruit. Professional farmers even have specially designed, automated tree-shaking machines for doing the job.

However, down here at least in the Axarquia region of Andalusia almond trees are not irrigated during the drought season, and while this ensures the almonds have a richer more intense flavour, it also makes the trees highly resinous, thus causing many of the nuts to cling stubbornly to the branches.

Basically, the work is hot, sticky, scratchy, itchy, back-breaking and in the past, financially unrewarding. So, about six years after I made this comic we replaced our main almond orchard with a vineyard, the planting of which was also back-breaking, but with the promise of greater fulfillment – through the act of wine-making – and a hugely greater income. But, as our luck would have it, the market for traditional Malaga wines collapsed about the time I planted our last vine, with the almond price (due to the fruit’s recent elevation to “super-food” status) rising exponentially in the last ten years.

Still, at least we have enough Malaga wine for six lifetimes…

DOG DAYS 7 – “DIDO’S STRONG SWIM”

The parable contained here is obvious; that a love of long distance, wild-water swimming and extreme myopia are a dangerous combination.

Those of you who know my wife Dido will be aware that this combination exists strongly within her person and the strip below tells the tale of what once nearly happened because of it. Just a couple of things to point out; firstly, the actual swim happened at La Serena on the Pacific coast of Chile, and not on a cold winter’s day in the UK – my point at the time (I made these comics in 1994) was to highlight Dido’s love of freezing conditions. She was one of those strange people who used to break the ice of the Serpentine Lake in London’s Hyde Park on New Year’s Day, and once, she even managed to shock a load of hardy Swedes by going for an inter-Island swim near Stockholm, in mid-winter. And secondly (and also obviously), she didn’t actually crash into the oil tanker (let alone sink it), but merely swam far too close to it, causing a crew-member to warn her away using a megaphone.

Aura and I spent many a terrifying hour, just as depicted in the strip, staring out to sea, waiting for Dido to return, which thank goodness, she always did, eventually, though often landing up a mile or so up the coast because of currents and her appalling eyesight.

These days, with the mellowing of age, and out of compassion for me, she only swims “laterally” so that I can keep an eye on her at all times…

DOG DAYS 5 – “SHORT-BACK-AND-BOOBS”

This is almost totally true except for the fact that the lady cutting my hair had two girlfriends in the salon with her and for much of the time my head was compressed by three sets of boobs rather than just merely one as they passed the time of day over my poor noggin!

The “salon” was situated in our local pueblo blanco, where, back in the 90’s “men were men” and never entered – let alone got their hair cut in such a “feminine” establishment. Thus, the hairdresser’s surprise and thrill at getting her hands on a head like mine was extreme.

Fortunately, Dido took pity on me and immediately raced me down to our local town on the coast for a remedial styling…

DOG DAYS 4 – MICHELIN MAREMMA

This episode also occurred during our 1993 move trip down to Spain in a 2 Michelin Star establishment in the French Pyrenees. There are just two “slight” exaggerations in this strip: Firstly; we didn’t really exchange places with Aura – as much as wanted to, and secondly; all the chef actually gave to Aura was merely a plate of duck carpaccio followed by sauteed calves liver in butter. There’s also one priceless thing which I failed to get across in this strip, and that was the horrified expressions of the mostly American patrons at the neighbouring tables!

And a PS: Aura really did often eat reclining, true to her ancient Roman heritage…

DOG DAYS 3 – A DOG IN THE ROOM

This is the first in the series where I stretched the truth somewhat, insomuch as the last box is a slight exaggeration – in reality, Dido merely manhandled the hotel manager out of the room. This happened on our drive down through Spain on the journey when we actually moved here – in the early summer of 1993. The most amazing element of the episode was how passive Aura remained throughout the contretemps – which was fortunate for all concerned!

DOG DAYS 2 – PHONE CALL AT BAR ANGEL’S

As with the previous episode, this too actually happened as described and at the location depicted. Bar Angel is one of a handful of bars and restaurants located in our local mountain peublo blanco (white village), and in the days before mobile phones had taken on here in Andalusia provided one of the few pay-phones in the area…