Treading lightly on the earth is very close to our hearts, as it is to many people who call Ariège-Pyrénées their home and indeed to the Ariège department itself. We think that living right in the middle of the Parc Naturel Régional gives us an extra special responsibility not only to minimise any negative impact on this beautiful and fragile environment, but also (and especially) to try and make a positive impact too. Our aim is not only to live sustainably ourselves, but to offer memorable holidays that don't cost the earth.
When you book a holiday in L'Atelier d'Artiste, you're effectively entering into a partnership with us to help maintain the whole farmstead - house, barns and land - in a sustainable way and to help improve it respectfully over the years to come. That probably sounds a bit odd, so let me explain what I mean.
Old farmsteads like this are an important part of the Ariège's patrimoine, or local heritage - in the UK it would almost certainly be listed. Maison Grillou is officially a lieu-dit, in French place-name terms the least populated and smaller than a hamlet. It was once a collection of stone buildings that formed living accommodation for at least two families and their animals, along with various associated barns, a pig-house, a building to collect water and many other small buildings. It probably dates back around 200 years, possibly more.
Until the 1960s it was a fairly self-sustaining farm and the land around was pastureland, grazed by sheep, goats and pigs; the habitable area of the building was tiny in comparison to that used for animals. When this kind of near-subsistence farming just became too hard, the farmers - then of retirement age anyway - moved on; trees took over the land and some of the original buildings fell down. Maison Grillou was luckier than other similar houses, which were left to abandon: it was 'saved' by an artist and his family from Paris, who renovated much of it, began the process of creating a garden, and lived happily here for 30 years with their daughters until in 2006 they felt it was time to move on and handed over custodianship to us. We continued, and continue each year, the process of restoration, as sustainably as we can. We spend most of the year in the old farmhouse next door to L'Atelier d'Artiste, where we live a simple life. We've never been motivated by financial profit - so we start from a different place entirely: we take a limited number of bookings each year (a maximum of 10 in 2019), and what you pay to come here on holiday gets ploughed right back into the stewardship of the house and grounds. And for that a huge thanks to you, our guests and partners.
L'Atelier d'Artiste's garden in 2007, when we arrived here ...
Spring 2009: removing tonnes of old cement waste ...
July 2009: terracing outside the front door ...
... and how it looks now.
HOW WE MANAGE THE HOUSE
In our restoration of the buildings we've favoured natural and ecological materials wherever it's been feasible: hemp and lime render, lime plaster, lime washes, natural paint made in-house using earth pigments from Roussillon, clay paint, paint made from Breton seaweed (yes, really!), reclaimed wood and furniture. In planning the redesign and renovation, we've kept the layout of the buildings very flexible so that they can be used by future owners as two separate dwellings as they are now, or as a large family house, or in myriad other ways.
On a day to day basis we do all the usual things: light bulbs are all low energy LED; taps and showers all have flow limiters; appliances are all rated A+ as a minimum; WCs have dual flush mechanisms; rainwater collectors provide water for irrigation.
We use biodegradable and environment-friendly cleaning materials. Some we make ourselves - we get through a lot of white vinegar and sodium bicarbonate!
Washing is line-dried. Hard towels are just a step too hair-shirt-y though, so guest towels are tumble-dried on a cool setting for 10 minutes to re-fluff them, otherwise the tumble drier is never used.
We re-use, compost and recycle (in that order of preference) and only then consign what remains to landfill. We try to buy as much as possible without packaging, especially food.
We're almost paper-free and do all our administration, including guest bookings, through the internet.
L'Atelier d'Artiste's bedroom, in 2007 ...
... and now, with hemp and lime render applied to the walls
HOW WE MANAGE THE GARDENS
We manage the land organically, and have created and continue to create a garden that is as natural as possible and that reflects and blends in to the woodland environment surrounding it. No manicured lawns, but natural grassland; some areas each year are left completely wild in order to attract and shelter the copious wildlife with which we share this place (the name of our house, Grillou, is a diminutive of 'grillon' the French word for 'cricket'. If you're here in June you'll understand why!).
We're slowly reclaiming some small areas of woodland at the edge of the gardens that have become overgrown and are discovering some extraordinary things - like a range of low rocks that were completely hidden that we call our 'little Pyrenees'! And we've created a picnic area that has lovely views on a previously lost mound at the foot of L'Atelier's garden.
The garden is a bird refuge, which was registered by the LPO (the French equivalent of the RSPB) 9 years ago. In the 12 years we've been here we've noted an extraordinary total of 85 species; the last few years or so have seen a definite increase and it looks as though our sustainable management is beginning to pay off. It's also a particularly rich area for butterflies and moths and we do what we can to promote and allow to flourish various host plants.
Although we've produced some vegetable crops over the years, it's been difficult and the work and resources needed have outweighed the results, largely because of heavy clay soil which has been neglected for many years and is now suffering from the rapidly changing climate that we're experiencing here. Although we keep a few areas of open ground for growing, we've recently moved over to mulched raised beds that we hope will tun out to be a more sustainable means of growing food crops.
We've made a conscious choice not to have a swimming pool here, in order not to disturb the peace, silence and natural beauty of the surroundings.
HOW WE INVOLVE OUR GUESTS
We include our green policies on our website (you're reading them!) and in our guest information.
Instead of filling folders and drawers with bits of paper produced by local tourism associations we provide you with a Chromebook, pre-loaded with links to local information and sites, markets, local food producers, restaurants and so on. Not only are we saving paper, we hope that we're encouraging you to use local services and discover local life.
We ask you to join in with our waste management practices. We provide separate containers for compost, recyclable and non-recyclable waste plus information about local recycling, and ask you to give us any plastic bags and glass jars so that we can re-use them.
We provide you with reusable shopping bags and encourage you to buy local and unpackaged food whenever you can.
We encourage you to drink tap water - which is perfectly good - as we do rather than buy bottled water.
In the guest information files we suggest practical ways you can conserve electricity and water without impacting on the enjoyment of your holiday.
Cleaning products supplied for you in the barn are all environment friendly, and paper products (loo rolls, kitchen rolls, tissues) are made from recycled paper.
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