Getting Mud From A Stone

There is a popular walk up our track, towards Wistman’s Wood.  For the more enthusiastic hiker, another 20 minutes north of the Woods, through some boggy bits of land, sits a weir, marking the beginning of the Devonport Leat.   A leat is the regional name for an aqueduct and they have a significant history.  The first time I said the A-word here in the southwest, I was immediately and sternly corrected.  I’ve not made that mistake since.

If you look at a map of the area, the Devonport Leat follows a meandering route as it weaves its way across the moors, a bit like the path home charted after last call.  But unlike the drunkard, leat engineers made use of the natural contours of the land skillfully and carefully selecting the routes.  In medieval times, leats were constructed to provide power for mining.  Sir Francis Drake managed the construction of Drake’s Leat in 1591 and the Devonport Leat was built in the 1790s to carry fresh drinking water on a 28-mile course from the heights of Dartmoor to the expanding dockyards in what is now known as Plymouth.  Three rivers continue to feed this particular leat as it heads toward a water treatment plant and reservoir, still helping to supply water to Plymouth:  The West Dart, which borders our property, The Cowsic and the Blackabrook.

Devonport Leat

Devonport Leat

Once again, my thoughts are preoccupied with stone.  Specifically, Dartmoor Granite which was used to make the Devonport Leat and to build our house, including the kitchen floor.  When this house was built, there was no fashion-forward thinking going into what is now a trendy material for kitchen floors.  Today’s modern granite floor is smooth and flat and has any number of recommended sealants and cleaning solutions to keep it sparkling.  Not ours.  It’s historic.  It’s rustic.  It’s filthy.  Because this is an old, old, old kitchen floor, the flagstones were laid directly onto the soil.  We are still on the search to determine how old Crockern is, but we suspect that at one point in its history, the now kitchen was shared with livestock providing shelter for the farm animals who would in turn create extra heat in the house.  This floor has seen centuries of dirt and mud.

I hadn’t given any of this too much thought until I got it into my head to clean the stones.  You read that correctly: clean the stones.  Now I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place, because how to do it?  All those whizzy power brushes just can’t deal with the irregularities of our floor.  Cleaning solutions?  Not certain how our historic and unsealed stones would respond.  After hours of trolling the Internet I had learned next to nothing to guide this particular project along.   Even Martha Stewart and her team of DIY experts failed to provide “How To” suggestions, so I opted for my own solution and put together a mixture of water, mild dish soap and vinegar.  A strong brush, kneepads, rubber gloves, bowl of clean water for rinsing and several sponges comprised my list of tools.  To complete the process, I would surely require a little blood, sweat and tears, and not the jazz-rock band I hasten to add.

Cinderella scrubbing floors (found on Internet)

Cinderella scrubbing floors (found on Internet)

It’s crazy where the mind wanders when the body is engaged in tedious and repetitive hard labour.  I thought a good deal of Cinderella dreaming of attending the ball while she scrubbed the floors.  I mused over 17th century farmers and how they cleaned floors.   What did the Rubbles and Flintstones do?   Might a Victorian servant from a manor home show up and lend a hand?  Reflecting on Jack Black’s explanation of the History of Rock provided welcome distraction from my imaginings of the lives of prisoners and slaves.  So too did the idea that germinated long ago:  I always wanted to live in an old farmhouse and do farmhouse-y things.

Is scrubbing a granite floor of 200-plus years of dirt farmhouse-y?

When we came here, we were drawn by a place which would slow down our pace of life, commune with nature, focus on giving life back to an old place in great need of TLC, and pursue more creative outlets – such as writing a blog about how an American woman, an Englishman and their dog move to Dartmoor to live the dream.

Or instead, we could spend days hefting granite stones onto walls, making compost, shoveling shit, building a greenhouse, and kicking around endlessly how to approach the next big home improvement project:  The entire downstairs!  To look at our combined life and work experiences, there was no indication that this was to be our destiny, but here we are.

Being a chronic list maker and believer in “the small bite” approach to big projects, I gave myself 8 days to complete the floor cleaning by adhering to the following parameters:  three rows of stones a day (that’s about 4 stones per row), each approximately 18” x 36”; mornings spent on my hands and knees scrubbing stones; and, afternoons assisting Roger with finishing the greenhouse.

Wisely, I’ve also built in a day off from this project for a long walk.  Just about every time I’ve thought about taking a walk along this part of the leat, starting at its source, I’ve been waylaid by projects, swollen rivers, or an appealing adventure elsewhere.  As reward for days of floor scrubbing, we took our scheduled day off.  The sun was bright and the ground dry as Roger, Sam and I headed north of Wistman’s Woods to the weir and the beginning of the Devonport Leat.

Sluice Gate at beginning of Devonport Leat

Sluice Gate at beginning of Devonport Leat

Arriving at the weir, I was struck that gravity is the key thing with leats.  From source to destination, it’s all downhill.  They tend to start above a mill or reservoir, making use of a sluice gate to divert some of the water from a river or stream.  A weir often provides enough of a mini-reservoir for such diversions.  The leat then runs along the side of the valley.  Leat builders were very skilled because if the water ran too quickly it would flood, and if too slowly, it would stagnate.  The leat opposite our house has such a subtle gradient at times it appears as if the water is running up hill.   However, rather than marvel at the engineering tricks to build this leat, I was more taken with the clean and sparkling look of the huge granite stones comprising it.  As if by sorcery, they dazzled!

Leats are fascinating constructions with several practical features still in existence, for example, the “sheep leap” which comprises two slabs of granite projecting from opposite sides of the banks, not connected, but designed instead to provide a landing pad for the sheep as they jump across.  Evidently, these were also put in place to assist rabbits when leats ran past warrens.  Roger, Sam and I found them very useful, as they greatly reduced our likelihood of falling into the water.

The expertise of the men who surveyed the leats must not be underestimated.  Nor can the sheer determination to liberate a centuries-old kitchen floor from its dirt.  The engineers’ skill in finding the right contours and gradients was vital.   Likewise my “wax on wax off” circular approach with the brush worked a treat!  I’ve since finished the floor and don’t intend to revisit this activity for many years to come.  Happily, there are plenty more leats to explore on Dartmoor, instead.

Before and After of granite flagstone floor

Before and After of granite flagstone floor


26 comments on “Getting Mud From A Stone

  1. stravaigerjohn says:

    I know the places you write about so well. Lovely to hear of them.

  2. Very effective before and after shot of the floor there.

    It’s so nice to read/hear about the efforts people go to, to protect and conserve the features that already exist in the old house they’ve bought. I get frustrated when with people on property programmes buy a characterful old house and then promptly rip the heart out of it rather than working around the original features- I end up thinking ‘What was the point?’

    Hoping the weather is being good to you on Dartmoor 🙂

    • Thanks for the encouragement. That floor was hard work, but looks so much the better for the effort. Agree with you about working with the history that is in a building as much as possible.

  3. Nitty says:

    Work makes you free!!

  4. wisejourney says:

    Well done with the hard graft of bringing your granite back to life….

  5. kiwiskan says:

    Love this blog. Wish I’d been blogging when we were running a small-holding on the West Coast. I still have the stories but the photos would be a bit harder. Fascinating story about the leat. Good luck with the floor!

  6. loving your blogs Catherine….your yogic approach always shines through 🙂

  7. Sheila Shepheard says:

    Always knew you were an old scrubber! Good job on the floor. I’ll never complain about weilding the Vileda mop again.

    • That’s right, I’m an old scrubber — and evidently have not just freed the floor of centuries of dirt, but also you of your conflict with a mop. Perhaps I should apologize for that, though.

  8. May I suggest next time you get one of those small pushbrooms and use that? They work fantastic as suds up quite well!

  9. Jim says:

    Who knew about leats? They look pretty cool but obviously attract wild animals like wolves, coyotes and wild dogs. There is even one show in the first photo!

    Possibly constructing a mud room would help keep the tiles clean.

    • You noticed the wild animal in the bottom right of the photo, too. Yes, he crept in unnoticed until I selected the photo for the blog. Unbelievably, we do have a mud room of sorts, it is the entrance.

  10. says:

    Well done old scrubber! Oh I wish I’d thought of that one first. Xxx

    Sent from my HTC

  11. Carol Hynes Assmann says:

    Your floor reminds me of the solid maple kitchen cabinets that came with our current house. Fifty years of cigarette smoke & fried food resulted in cabinets that just seemed to “bleed” dirt as we cleaned & re-cleaned them day after day after day. What a HUGE sense of accomplishment after the job is completed though. Good work (on the floor & blog), Ms. Charlton!

    • You’re right about the “bleeding dirt” concept. I’m not OCD (yet) but I nearly became that trying to do this job. Happily, one task down and now about 500 more to go on this old house!

  12. ann dawney says:

    Once again I’m full of admiration for your hard work – on the floor – and for your wonderful literary interleaving of floor and leat! We’ve had our own spell of hard work here, with a change of lodgers, necessitating some updating….

    Hoping you have sunshine now!

  13. daseger says:

    Wow, looking forward to exploring your blog thoroughly after this post–and also looking for some historical cleaning recipes for you!

  14. […] Getting Mud From A Stone […]

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