When we moved to Dartmoor, I worried we might not see friends or family. We were too remote and the weather too crazy. It just wasn’t a sexy destination like New York or Paris. And yet, buy a house in Dartmoor and they will come.
Sometimes I feel like we are in an episode of Fawlty Towers, if for no other reason when we have guests we seem to have equal doses of misadventures. Thankfully Roger is no short-fused Basil Fawlty and I am not his “little nest of vipers” Sybil. To date, we have not had to hide a dead guest from other guests, nor deal with a missing pet rat.
We have had, however, a few hiccups usually happening when we have visitors. There was the time when the generator stopped. The time we had no water. The time we had no hot water. The time we had no water and the generator went out. And, of course, the time the soak away stopped soaking away. Trying to be the perfect hosts, we hid our worries and did our best to get things up and running quickly.
Happily, we now know a bit more of the quirks and needs of this old house and know how to roll with them. In a recent visit, our friend Eileen was about to take a shower when I noticed there wasn’t any water. “Eileen! Don’t get into the shower! No Water!” When I returned with buckets of water from outside and remarked, not for the first time with guests, “These buckets are for the toilet. Remember, if it’s brown flush it down and if it’s yellow just be mellow.” my solution was met with silence. Roger jumped into action, quickly checking a switch – the very one we never knew its purpose but decided during this particular visit to flip — and the water pump was back in action. We have since added a note: “Do not touch unless you don’t want water.”
Soon after we bought Crockern we began our long project of fixing it up. We read about damp and old stone cottages, look at paint colours, change light bulbs to become more eco-friendly, run to salvage yards for old doors and large chunks of slate for window sills, throw out wall-to-wall carpeting and find perfectly fine wood floors underneath. Recently, we’ve constructed out of cardboard a bathtub, toilet and sink to find the perfect location for each before we run the pipes in the bathroom. We’ve insulated, repaired the roof, sanded the floors, dug drains, repaired the track, replaced windows, built walls, built veg beds, moved stones, moved more stones and put in a lovely wood-burning stove.
Many, perhaps wiser, people would do some of these improvements while living elsewhere. Not us. Right in the middle of the renovations we are living our lives and hosting our summer visitors. We are catering to dietary requests, stocking up on plenty of wine, changing sheets and towels, and doing our best to keep things running smoothly. One thing I can say for our friends, particularly those who have returned again and again, is they have staying power for living in the chaos of old-stone-farmhouse-renovations.
Because chaos is everywhere in an old house and there is no end to the projects. Our friends are quick to console and help. Once, our brother-in-law spent an afternoon with Roger trying to get rid of an air-block in the water line. While the two men blew into hoses attached to the faucets, I pretended all was under control, and brought in buckets of water to set by the toilet (this was the first time I issued the above rhyme.)
Our first year was damp and cold. We layered-up in fleece, yet friends arriving from warmer climates would bravely shiver in lightweight frocks and sandals, until they could take it no more. Since our first summer, we’ve been down a shower when a friend broke the other; we’ve not yet fixed it (that bathroom is currently under renovation). And still, our guests return.
Lest I be misinterpreted, we have a great time with our visitors. They are our friends and family. Without them, we would eat basic meals and drink less wine. We would take fewer extended walks. We would have no one to tell our stories. Our e-mail and bills, and indeed this blog, would be up to date. We love the conversations and appreciate the magazines and books left behind. These visits force us to buy groceries, run the vacuum, clean the shower and toilet, set a deadline on renovation projects, mow the lawn, pull the weeds in the vegetable beds, dust for cobwebs, organize the barn so it looks like it is always organized, and even clean the inside of the car. Yes, our visitors inspire us to be better.
At the same time, our visiting friends cause us to see ourselves as they might see us: the people with the ancient generator and limited hot water supply, who struggle to cook a meal on an Aga which is months past being serviced. The people who wear the same clothes several days in a row, who sit in the window to talk on mobile phones (this is the only place we receive a signal) and heft large stones onto walls.
Is there an expectation for us to be perfect hosts? I hope not. We strive to remember who is on a diet, who has allergies, and may – say it ain’t so – be avoiding alcohol. But, we don’t iron pillowcases (our friend’s do this for their guests). We have a decent collection of games and books and never run out of food or drink, which is a good thing if the weather turns for the worse.
Friends may see the two of us projecting a relaxed calm, but really we are nervously paying attention to everything: Will the water stop? What if the only remaining shower breaks? Look at those weeds in the veg garden! Roger and I may have busy-brains about all that needs to happen – and how to effortlessly respond if something goes awry – but we want our visitors to feel at home. When our friends arrive, we all hug and immediately set about sharing stories and laughter. Those returning support us with encouraging words about how much we’ve accomplished, how hard we’ve worked. We love them all the more for this. With each visit, our friends and family help create a summer’s day: relaxed, easy where the old rules don’t apply, so, kick back and have fun.