The first 6 months

The end of June saw the culmination of 3 years work for The Knowledge Observatory in Cheshire UK and a whole new chapter beginning with The Knowledge Observatory  France. A variety of outside influences – the closure a of the Wigg Island Centre, the difficulties with sustainability with the contract with young people’s project and a truly abysmal year of weather  for astronomy, brought forward plans for us – Andrew and Sue Davies- to open a residential astronomy centre in the South of France.

We certainly piled on the pressure at the end of June by completing the programme of Life and Living skills with our group of young people on Thursday the 25th, launch of the booking pages for Astrofarm and  opening the North West Astronomy festival on Saturday the 28th! That left us 2 days to pack our final bits and pieces, including 3 dogs and 2 cats, into Astrovan ready for phase 2 Knowledge Observatory! A dream 5 years in planning finally became a reality as we set off for Confolens in the Charente on the 1st of July to start work on Astrofarm ready for opening in October. It was indeed a challenging  2 day trip due to the closure of the Port of Calais by a ferry workers strike which brought the motorways in Kent to a standstill. This was coupled with a European wide heatwave giving London the highest ever recorded temperatures on the day we drove down.

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However, the stresses began to melt away just as soon as we pulled up to Astrofarm on Thursday lunchtime, released us all from our 24 hour captivity and we opened up the doors and shutters to our forever home in France. There and then we decided to take the weekend off from working to recover both from the previous 6 months marathon work schedule, the final week in the UK and the gruelling trip down.

A quick shop to stock up on essentials at the supermarket, followed by dinner under the horsechestnut and a glass of wine  eased our transition into a French life.  As dusk fell we were delighted to become reacquainted with our resident hedgehog Harry, our owl and family of bats. The sky was crystal clear and even in early July we have 4 hours of complete darkness to enjoy the stars, summer constellations and the clear view of the Milkyway across the sky.

Next day we hit the ground and we spent a weekend clearing the very over grown gardens and making plans for the months ahead.

First job and main priority was to get the 8 bed accommodation and wet rooms for our B&B visitors completed and July saw us plastering, scrapping, knocking down, building up and gradually seeing the rooms take shape. We have discovered our real strengths in problem solving and flexible thinking as we hit challenge after challenge and unexpected problems.  Adaptability and resourcefulness is the key to renovating old properties! Guided by our excellent builder Luke and electrician Steve we have learnt so many skills, tips and best ways of doing things and feel proud of what we have achieved together in just a month.

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The heatwave and drought continued across South West France right through July,  we soon adopted the French way of working and living – up at 6.00 am work til 12 ish,  have a long lunch break, a snooze in the cool house and then start work again through the evening.

The best things about this month has been a visible lessening of stress, tension, frustration and anxiety in both of us, real pleasure in a daily lives and some serious weight loss! The animals absolutely adore the space and the fields and we love the wildlife, the birds, the town and our wonderful neighbours (jam, cakes, vegetables from the allotment and coffee all provided by Annie)!.

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We have discovered the pleasures of birdwatching and sitting quietly under the horse chestnut with our binoculars and identifying our local residents. We have built a water pool and feeding station and now enjoy daily visits from great tits, nuthatches, spotted fly catchers and redstarts to name a few and have a pair of goldfinches who have made their nest above our table and have produced 5 noisy babies.

July the 14th saw the Bastille Day celebrations (probably the biggest event in France) which fortunately for us coincided with Andrew’s birthday! He was delighted with an incredible firework display (his second favourite thing to photograph after the night sky) in our hometown. Indeed his photographs have been seen by thousands and the Mayor is so pleased with them that he will be using them on the official town website.

It hasn’t all been work as Andrew has spent many nights out photographing although has now been persuaded that unlike in the UK he doesn’t need to stay out every clear night just in case it is the last one for ages –  we have only had 2 cloudy nights in a whole month! He is really looking forward to developing his astro-photograhy with these incredible dark skies and has been really delighted with being able to see some of the southern constellations not visible from Northern UK !

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We have also enjoyed Friday nights out as the town hosts a free, outdoor, live musical event throughout the summer with music as varied as reggae, rockabilly and jazz! The summer also sees a Thursday evening market – very pleasant way of shopping followed by a beer sat out in the evening sun. It hasn’t been all plain sailing though as we didn’t get the planned  phone line installed and so no internet during our first month. This has been very very difficult and has delayed the launch of our website by 6 weeks and has made many communications very stressful as we battled with limited 3g  on the mobile and the local internet café.

All in all we love our new life here and can’t wait to share it with our visitors. The food, the locals, the countryside, the speed of life is exactly what we were hoping for and we are already better for it. We still can’t believe that we actually live here now although we do both feel that we have ‘come home’ after a very long, exhausting  trip away!

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Sue Davies
Sue is the glue that holds Astrofarm together! Her roles include (and not limited to) chief administrator, bookings and accommodation, web designer, publicity and marketing director, finance manager, communicator and project manager, Her brilliant organisational skills keep us in orbit. In fact if it isn't directly Astronomy then it is Sue! With a former career with disengaged young people, training and development and conference organisation followed by research in academia, she has a wealth of both people and practical skills and knowledge. Not an astronomer, Sue is happiest on the allotment, in the garden, walking the dogs or improving the visitor experience to Astrofarm.