Join  Marian Thornley every week as she shares the ups, downs and sideways of her move to Céret in the Pyrénées-Orientales – and the good, the  bad and the hilarious times to follow!

The straw bale house

On the odd occasions that we rented the whole of Mas Pallagourdi out to holidaymakers, hubby and I retreated to the yurt in our little woodland.

This was a lovely place to be in mid-summer as the oaks afforded plentiful shade, we fell asleep to the sound of owls hooting and woke to a chorus of birdsong and light filtering through the canvas. Next to the yurt we had a very basic kitchen area, a shower which hubby had attached to solar mats for hot water, and a compost toilet (OK, a hole in the ground). It was idyllic, apart from when there were mid-summer thunderstorms, and during these times we would sit rather miserably in the yurt, listening to the rain pounding against the roof. 

ceret diaries

One summer hubby decided to resurrect an old plan. Before moving to France he’d volunteered with the Footprint project on the banks of Lake Windermere. This is a National Trust property built out of straw bales, with a shingle roof. Since that time hubby had harboured desires to build his own straw bale building.

One summer, while I relaxed in the shade and read a book I noticed hubby walking past carrying tree trunks. These were put into the ground to form a circle.

Gradually the framework of a small building started to take shape. The roof was to be self-supporting, he told me. Hubby studied instructions on the internet and found suitable poles from the woodland (unfortunately one of these was cracked but hubby didn’t let a small matter like that put him off).

straw bale houseroundhouse roof

To start with there was a central pole supporting the roof and once all the struts were in place the idea was that someone brave and with confidence in hubby’s technical abilities would remove the central support. That person wasn’t me and as there was nobody else around, it would have to be him. This didn’t seem such a good idea given that hubby had used up all his nine lives already, but did that stop him? Er, no.

As the central pole was removed, the roof shifted into position and the struts locked themselves into place. So far so good. Now it was time to fill in the walls with bales of straw. This is not actually the correct way to build a straw bale house but sometimes a little bit of improvisation is called for. Hubby explained that he needed the roof to be in place so that the straw bales could be kept dry. He then told me I had to go to Gamm Vert and order 100 bales of straw. 

The very friendly guy behind the counter wasn’t at all fazed by this strange request and I told him we would be coming at weekly intervals to take 25 bales at a time. Hubby had calculated that we could just about get 25 bales on the back of the pickup.

straw bale housestraw bale house

According to Jo, we already had a reputation for being ‘marginaux’ or maybe even worse. Mad, perhaps. Our neighbours were treated to the sight of the Mas-Pallagourdi-mobile, piled high with bales of straw, swaying gently as we drove carefully around the roundabouts in Ceret and up the hill.

We both thought we were going to tip over the edge and into Dave Corrance’s garden at one point but eventually 100 bales of hay were deposited at the top of our wood. Now we had the problem of getting them down to where the wooden framework was waiting. 

Hubby had thought about this and had set up a pulley system. The idea was that he would attach the bales at the top of the slope and I would be standing at the bottom, ready to pull them towards the designated spot. It wasn’t perfect, as the bales bounced against the ground half way down and I had to pull vigorously to get them to where hubby wanted them. But soon 100 bales had whizzed past the yurt and were stacked up ready to be put into the wooden skeleton and at long last I was able to go back to reading my book.

straw bale housestraw bale house

After the bales were in place a natural plaster was applied to the walls and floor. Then hubby had to work out how he was going to lift an extremely heavy roll of rubber onto the roof. 

After a lot of sweating and cursing from yours truly we managed to push the roll up a kind of staircase made out of hay bales and onto the roof. Hubby spread it about and the roof was at last water-tight.  But while the architect was walking around on the roof the cracked pole broke, so the central pole had to go back in situ after all. 

Luckily for us (but less so for them), Arthur and Jo had paid a small fortune to a very unscrupulous door and window company, and their front door was going spare. Voila! The straw bale house had a roof, two windows and a door. Top that, Bilbo Baggins!


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