One of the priorities that had to be sorted before we could move to the new house was safe accommodation for the chickens. We were very fortunate that nothing invaded Camp Chicken at Fuente Amarga, but we decided to make something secure and comfortable to be their permanent new home.
I had grandiose plans for a Gaudi-esque chicken palace for them. It was to be built on piers, so that they had shade underneath it, and somewhere I could tuck their feed in wet weather. One end would be closed off to store supplies for them. It was all quite clear in my mind.
Of course, when it came down to it, the place I had planned to build it was not ready to be built on, and for one reason and another, the footings were built (in my absence) on a slope, so the under storey was half the size I had expected. I also found that the builder’s merchant did not have the size of terracotta planks I intended to use, so the dimensions had to change a little. Other than that, everything started spiffingly!
The palace went together quite quickly, built of the light, honeycomb-style bricks that are readily available in all sorts of sizes. I had no block cutter, and they will not split easily, so rocks and bits of debris filled in any gaps. I felt very authentically rustic as I slapped mortar in to cover the imperfections in my brickwork.
One of the old roost beams from the barn was ideal for perches, and the length was just right to make four, two at either end. A recycled double window became the door, and more terracotta planks made the roof. Two toilet seats were set at jaunty angles in one wall to give easy access to the nest boxes. Bricking around them was not easy, and achieving a smooth rendered finish so that nobody’s hands get caught was surprisingly fiddly, but eventually they were bedded in nicely. The chicken palace was basically a shoebox on stilts, but that was fine: the mosaic extravaganza I was collecting bits to make would soften the lines.
It occurred to me that I would need to think again about storage for chicken supplies, and I soon cooked up a plan for a round tower at one end, complete with pointy conical roof and a weathercock on the top.
Jose Manuel and the team were clearly bemused by my efforts, so I tried to do most of my experimenting while they were not there to see me struggling. It turned out easier to build the tower with a D-shaped footprint, and although it lead to fun and games with the geometry of the roof, it should make fitting a door easier. I have saved a fabulous old door from the barn, which I hope to hang using the same system of sockets into which the top and bottom of one side of the door fit. Making a curved wall from rectangular blocks was slightly problematic, but rocks and cement plugged the gaps, creating a knobbly, built-out-of-rocks effect, which pleased me enormously. I built in a small arched window, in which I plan to put a rather pretty disembodied china head and shoulders that was among the rubbish upstairs when we bought the house. She should, I hope, look like the Princess in the Tower, and add a little bit of magic to the garden for any visiting children.
Having built the basic structure, I decided to leave the finishing until we had done more urgent things around the house. Making a secure run for the chooks was more important than whimsical decorative elements.
The men folk did a grand job of setting in the posts and concreting a footing around the perimeter to keep out foxes or more domestic predators. We knew that Min is a Spanish terrier breed, and that she would be an excellent ratter, given half a chance, but we had not realised how strong her hunting instinct is until we got chickens. Poppy and Ted are fairly interested in them, but Min yaps and digs and leaps at the fence long after the others have gone to play chase or do other important dog stuff.
We covered the whole run in chain link and finer mesh, so that we would not be feeding the local bird population, and brought the ladies and the Dood over to their new home. They soon settled into their new quarters, and the make-shift days of Camp Chicken were forgotten as we no longer had to duck and contort around ropes, bamboo canes, fire-guards and breeze blocks to feed and look after them.
I decided to try to make a chicken wire and concrete roof for the tower on the ground, and then lift it into place. The experiment was not a success, and I was glad I had waited until there were no builders around!
Inspired by the construction of our house roof – beams, canes, tiles and cement – I decided it might be better to make a wigwam of canes, weave finer twigs between them, lift the lightweight frame onto the tower, and then cement over the top. This plan was modified to a wigwam of canes with fine irrigation pipe woven to hold it roughly together on the ground, lifted and fixed into place. It was not elegant or good-looking, but it seemed to be secure.
Matthew came over for Christmas, and between us we covered the cone with weld mesh and chicken wire, and stuffed cardboard behind it, ready to stop the cement render falling through the holes. The ground below was very uneven, and it was hard to find a safe place to stand the ladder, so the tower has been left to be finished when access is safer.
For now, the Chicken Palace stands proudly in the middle of the garden, glorious in its ramshackle madness. The chickens are happy in their new surroundings, and Guillermo the carpenter tells me that he loves what I have done. He obviously appreciates the wackiness, even if most of the locals see it as just more evidence that foreigners can be a very strange lot indeed.