The Panic That Strikes When Your Toilet Refuses to Flush

When Amanda turned on the kitchen tap to fill the kettle at 10:30 at night, and all that issued from it was a splutter and air, it had all the hallmarks of one of those Galician sagas that would run and run.

Our first port of call to check the status of any of our services like electricity, Internet or water are our nearest neighbours, a lovely family who live about three hundred metres away and who moved here from Madrid about three years ago to escape the ‘crisis’. ‘Have you got water’ we asked, mainly to ascertain whether is was a problem with our property, or something more general in the village. ‘No, we’ll sort it tomorrow’ came the response.

So we did the British thing, had a cup of tea from the bottled water in the fridge, and went to bed, using the water in the cistern for a single flush. The neighbours didn’t seem to concerned so neither were we, it would all be sorted in the morning.

The morning came and our taps were still only running with fresh air. We messaged the neighbours again but as it was before 11am, there was no answer, our neighbours don’t get up very early. When we did eventually make contact they said that they had still no water so they had switched over from municipal town water to their own private well, which goes a long way to explaining why they weren’t too worried the previous evening!

We, however, don’t have a private well. We have plenty of unharnessed springs which spew water onto the land in the winter and even create boggy areas in the height of summer, but nothing that we could get to the house with any ease.

We don’t pay any water rates here, not a penny, which obviously has a big financial upside. The downside is that if you pay nothing for your water then you can’t have any expectation of continuity of service.

In our naivety we went down to the local council and explained the predicament, focussing on the lack of a functioning water closet, and the guy who answers the general enquiries did well to mask his snigger. ‘It’s not our responsibility’ he said ‘it’s a village thing’. He did, however, give us the number of the Clerk of Works, who confirmed the situation, but graciously said he’d send someone to have a look.

Since we bought the house back in 2010 almost all of our neighbours have been telling us that we have town water, and not to worry as it never runs out. Well, in our first year of occupation, it had run out… and now we couldn’t flush the loo, or take a shower, or fill the kettle, or water the allotment, or wash our clothes, or run the dishwasher.

Our neighbours were all fine, they’d switched on their wells, they had water, and flushing toilets, and clean clothes, and washed plates, and coffee!

While in town we bumped into Carlos, another neighbour from the village who I’ve written about on numerous previous occasions, and when we mentioned the water he grew a big grin. ‘I warned you’ he said, for he had done so a couple of summers previous hence us checking with the other neighbours, all of whom said not to worry. ‘There won’t be any water until November’ he added.

At this point I had all on to stop a full scale Amanda meltdown. I dragged her into the car with soothing words and talk of chocolate and we went to see the neighbours from Madrid. They showed off their well, even switching on the hosepipe to water the plants as a demonstration. I was livid, they were watering their plants and I couldn’t even flush the bog, but I tried hard to mask my fury.

It turned out that our ‘town water’ is actually a large deposit (around 50,000 litres) about half a kilometre up the road from us with a pipe running out of it which then feeds about 25 properties in two villages. Oscar had a key and I accompanied him to take a look at the deposit.


It was almost empty, just 10cm in the bottom of a 2.5m deep indoor swimming pool, and the water that was in there was just trickling into the pipe and down to the village. The spring entering the deposit seemed to be in full flow so we went to the source, about another five kilometres into the hills, to ensure that there was no blockage at the source.

The diagnosis was that there was plenty of water entering the deposit, but that we were using it faster than it could replenish, and then the finger pointing started!

It appears that we live in the middle of a community of water abusers, people who leave taps, and troughs, and irrigation system running and using up all the free water that normal folk, such as Amanda and I, should be using to flush their toilets.

On returning home I tried the tap again and we had water. Not a lot, and not flowing with any great pressure, but nevertheless water. I quickly flushed the loo.

After getting a deposit key cut I visited the little concrete bunker up the hill several times over the next few days and in the space of half a week it filled to the full 2.5 metres and then started running into the overflow and thence into a small stream outside.

Whoever was the main abuser/s had either seen the error of their ways, or much more likely when they realised that the town water had run off, they had switched over to their own private well which they were now happily using to water their livestock, or irrigate their tomatoes.

I am keeping an eye on the levels and now I have a key I’m prepared to use it, and woe betide anyone I find misusing my toilet flush water.

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My New Favourite Builder

I’ve got a new favourite builder.

After everyone else has left site he is still here, working solo, and trying to set the world record for the largest free standing stone built chimney. He wears a floppy hat by morning but switches for a large brimmed ladies straw hat when he gets back from lunch at two, when the afternoon and the sun is at its strongest. He spends all his time complaining that he is too hot, and makes no allowance for my lack of Spanish by speaking at machine-gun pace enabling me to catch about one word in every ten.

When the others were here they called him ‘Stoner’ not because he is a pot smoking hippie, but because he is their stone walling expert. I explained to Angel, the foreman, that ‘Stoner’ had some unsavoury connotations but that just increased the labourers hilarity and made them use it at every opportunity.

Yesterday morning Stoner decided that he needed to make the chimney another half a metre taller and sent me to a local builders merchants (with which I was not familiar) to buy a piece of stainless steel tube of 20cm diameter and 50cm length. I checked I’d got fifty euros in my wallet and programmed the satnav on the Spanish phone and set off.

A 5km journey turned into a 20km journey as the useless navigation system took me past the suppliers, unnoticed, and up into the hills and villages before bringing me back to the merchants some twenty-five minutes later. The shop was deserted save for a lady of advanced years who finished making her cup of coffee in the back kitchen before coming out to see why I was interrupting her morning of magazine reading.

I explained what I wanted and she said that they had one. Then she disappeared off deep into the bowels of the cellars for long enough to make me seriously consider calling the emergency services and have me racking my brains to try and think of how I would explain the predicament to the 112 operator.

When she returned she didn’t have the right thing, it was 40cm long, so I asked whether they actually had one of 50cm. She said yes and disappear again, this time returning with the correct item. I told her it was what I wanted and asked the price.

imageShe eventually found the price list and after another five minutes studying a single page of figures she told me that it was going to cost me €125. I was somewhat aghast and told her that I thought it expensive but she just shrugged. Knowing I only had a fifty in my wallet I set off to walk to the bank to raid the cash machine, and returned to reluctantly hand over a kings ransom for a bit of stainless steel tubing.

When I got back home, an hour or more after leaving, Stoner asked if I’d been to Madrid, as it would have been easier for him to walk to the merchants and pick it up himself.

In my defence I told him that it was very expensive and in my limited Spanish that I had been forced to ‘visit a bank, with a gun’ to enable me to pay for it. He thought that highly amusing so I followed up by telling him that Amanda and I would be surviving on bread and water for the rest of the year. He spent the rest of the day repeating ‘visit a bank with a gun’ and ‘just bread and water’, and chuckling to himself.

Now that is where I thought that the story would end, with one of the most expensive pieces of stainless steel in the world, but this morning there was a final twist.

On returning to his shop last night the owner was in discussion with his eighty-six year old mother who asked how much she should have charged for my stainless tube. When he enquired what she’d actually charged and she told him, he held his head in his hands before asking who she had ‘fleeced’.

When she told him she didn’t know me he was distraught, and retired to the pub to drown his embarrassment where he bumped into….Stoner.

He told Stoner the story of what had happened and said he’d no idea who I was, but Stoner knew and regaled him with stories of the one-hour long five minute errand, the bank robbery, and our diet of bread and water.

This morning the red-faced shop-keeper turned up on our doorstep bearing €100, a humble apology, and a detailed explanation.

So that’s why Stoner is currently my favourite builder.

Posted in Barn Renovation | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

What a Difference a Week Makes

I had spent the last six months diligently working on the bread oven house. Occasionally with the much welcomed help of Amanda, but more often on my own with just my iPhone playing music in my back pocket, or perhaps listening to the latest ‘wittertainment’ BBC Five Live movie reviews podcasts.

Over that six months I/we have; stripped out loads of vegetation from both inside and around the building, carted away tonnes of rubble and old slate, rebuilt the collapsed front wall, re-inforced the rear wall with concrete and steel bars, demolished and reconstructed the side walls, and finally pointed all the walls with a nice sand coloured mortar.

It has been a labour of love through the cold winter mornings and the stifling summer heat and after six months all I really had to show for my toils was a shell, an outline, four almost vertical walls.

Then, in the space of just one week, my builder and his men have transformed it back into a building with a gorgeous new slate roof and three new (old) beams.

There is still a lot of work for me to do including; lowering the floor inside, installing a door and window, pointing the inside walls that will remain exposed stone, and eventually laying a floor and building an internal wall across the back of the building with tanking to allow the spring that emerges from the cliff face in wet weather to drain harmlessly away.

Below you can see a before and after photo of the front of the bread oven, the side that we can see from our barn, and the side where we will eventually enter with our big bowl of dough ready to magically turn it into bread.



Here is the roof as seen from the roadside, now much more safe than a dangerous three metre drop through some ivy to serious injury.


The neighbours have all been to visit, as is the Galician way, and all love it. Our neighbours who herald from Madrid have a bit of ‘horno envy’ and Nati wants me to get it working as quickly as possible so that she can get baking.

It’s the first time, almost in living memory, that this building has been roofed. I haven’t found a single person, or at least one that I understand, that can remember previoulsy seeing it with a roof.

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Out With The Old, and In With The New (Old)

We must be paying our builder Facundo too much, either that or he’s won the lottery without telling us, or perhaps someone else is paying him too much (but I doubt it). I know this because after four years of driving around in a little silver Fiat van he’s gone and bought himself a big truck (grúa as they are known here) with a massive yellow crane.

He arrived in it on Friday, struggling to get up the hill to the barn, in a newly painted (blue and yellow) second hand truck laden down with a new (old) central beam, two new (old) perimeter beams, and about twenty new (really new this time) intermediate beams, all for the bread oven house. His new truck boasts a shiny six metre crane, it’s all about the length with these things, and as he only picked it up on the Thursday he was still far from an expert in deploying it, or come to it, driving it.

He used just a fraction of his available length to offload the beams, transferring some of the new truck paint onto our new (old) beam, giving me another job to sand it off prior to treating and staining.

Facundo is getting used to us and our weird British ways. He now knows that we like old and gnarled and irregular and shun the new and shiny and straight so beloved by Spanish renovators. He was very proud that he’d salvaged (which I hope isn’t a euphemism for stole) a marvellous beam from another old house which is being renovated, and which was surplus to requirements. It had been roughly sanded with an angle grinder and it looks fantastic and will form a great rustic centrepiece in the soon to be roofed bread oven house.

Up until a year after we’d bought the property we’d not been in the bread oven. It was dilapidated, overgrown, and the only way in was through a door which was wedged firmly shut by the roof collapse behind it.

About three years ago I broke in and spent several weeks digging out the waist deep detritus to expose a glorious and complete bread oven and decided to make it ‘my’ project to get it back working.

Since then the weeds had re-established themselves, there had been a big collapse of the wall and cliff that form the back wall, and one of the front walls collapsed on us not long after we moved out here. I’ve spend the last six months cleaning, re-enforcing the rear wall with two tonnes of structural steel and concrete, rebuilding the collapsed walls (front and back) and pointing the whole thing with sandy coloured mortar.


We now need to get it finished so that we can store tools and equipment in it and empty the big house in readiness for its re-roofing in the Autumn so we asked our builder Facundo for a quote, and put in the correct license application. So on Friday the rotten old beam was removed and the new (old) one lifted in to place signalling the start of the works.

I’ll add some photos and updates over the coming days as it takes shape.

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Finding What Two Acres Of Grass Is Really Worth

The barter economy is alive and well and living in Galicia…and it is possible for you to get involved in it totally by accident.

After we’d bought the house we were initially exposed to this the oldest of trading types when we agreed to allow Carlos to keep his donkey on our land, grow potatoes, and for a few month each summer, keep his pig in our big house. Until of course it was time to cut its throat and turn it into sausages.

In exchange he used to strim the grass and weeds around the buildings and make of point of telling us that he had done so whenever we visited. Having used a corded Black & Decker twenty quid special back in our postage stamp garden in the UK, I was never terribly impressed at his claims and always thought he was looking for some kind of financial recompense, which he never got.

Now I’ve been forced into my own strimming, with four hours of sweaty face-guarded toil required to reach the lowest standard of ‘that’ll do, I need a beer’, I’ve come to realise that what he was doing was quite a service and perhaps is was a bit tight for me not to have shoved him the odd fifty euros as a little thank you.

And it was grass which unwittingly got us in to our current barter situation.

Earlier in the spring, just as our two acres were turning into a jungle and I was beginning to rue asking Carlos to remove his donkey, a neighbour from the next village stopped and asked whether I would be prepared to allow him to bring his machinery down and cut our grass and take it away for him to feed his animals.

My initial Yorkshiremans concern was that he was going to charge me, but after I got Amanda to clarify the situation with him, it turned out that it wouldn’t cost us a penny. What a result, we get our grass cut and taken away and I don’t have to lift a finger, or burn a litre of two-stroke in the process.

Alberto and his wife have now made about ten journeys with a ride-on mower, and an ancient tractor with trailer, and taken away heap after heap of freshly mown and dried grass and we couldn’t be happier as the land looks much tidier and is no longer a fire risk.

But then the ‘trade’ side kicked in, most unexpectedly, and most unnecessarily.

So far we’ve had two boxes of potatoes, a box of onions and three dozen eggs, all deposited on our doorstep as a thank you for our hay. Hay which we didn’t want anyway.


Now I’ve lost track of UK prices for potatoes, onions and eggs, but I’m guessing that overall that would be a good twenty to thirty quids worth.

Now this is where I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but in the bartering scheme of things I think that potatoes, onions and eggs must be fairly low down as they are pretty ubiquitous. Today’s twelve eggs join the two dozen already in the fridge that we’ve been given by other various neighbours (and it would be very rude to refuse). The box of potatoes is now sat in an outhouse ready to be consumed as we wade though a daily diet of Spanish Omelette and egg  and chips, but also bear in mind we’ve got a field full of our own bloody potatoes and onions, all ready for harvest.

Why can’t barter involve a neighbours excess of diamonds….or gold?

Posted in Food & Drink, Local Life | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments