RIP Dear Lister

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It was a beautiful summer’s day and we were enjoying a cocktail atop Gin and Tonic hill, the spot in our garden where we levelled the top of a small mound, placed a garden bench and trimmed a few tree branches to enhance our view.   We did this in 2017 and since that time, I’ve planted primroses and daffodil bulbs, letting this particular bit of garden do its own thing.  Roger had made a curve of stone steps up to the top, creating a grander approach to our perch, perfect for watching the dogs play and reflecting on the day.

 

Late afternoon, our farmer neighbour was cutting and bailing the meadow across the valley.  The sun was warm on our faces and there was a rich smell of meadow grass in the air.  Millie and Brock were running around in a mad game of chase and wrestle.  The rules known only to them.  The inside jokes of siblings.  In the background was the hum of insects singing and our old lister generator chugging along.

 

I was home for a few weeks from my travel back and forth to the USA during the summer of 2018 when my Dad had fallen ill.  Roger and I were enjoying the warmth of the late afternoon when suddenly a loud bang came from the direction of the generator.   Roger ran off to investigate and after about 20 minutes returned looking miserable.  “Is the generator okay?” I ask with a hopeful tone.  “No.  It’s fucked.”  That summed it up rather neatly.

Lister

Our workhorse, the 30 year old Lister 4-stroke generator

With the heat of the day, the plastic fan on the alternator had snapped.  As we were to learn shortly after our emergency call to the generator experts, this fan was the one part in the Lister’s entire assembly which could not be replaced.  Our Lister, a work horse for over 30 years, having been maintained, repaired and loved, had configured itself for the role of standby and used parts stock-list.   No longer would it power Crockern.  Instead it would become part of the world parts provider.  Reincarnation.

 

Before we could come to terms with this sad and costly fact, we had to address the immediate situation:  Our remaining power left to run Crockern was stored in our batteries until we could sort this.  We had about 36 hours.

 

Thankfully, our call to the generator experts managed an emergency back-up generator to arrive the following morning, suppling us with electricity until we could replace the Lister with something rebuilt or new.

 

If only it were that simple:

The temporary generator arrived on wheels and we moved it into the barn.  The temporary generator needed to be started manually every day to maintain a supply of electricity.  We did not directly link it to our fuel storage.   Roger now regularly needed to siphon fuel from our tanks, lugging 20 litres canisters across the yard to sustain the backup generator.   Making matters worse, this loaner generator had been poorly maintained by the previous set of desperate people, and now required frequent fuel filter changes.  Another task.  We could manage this, except we were heading to the USA for a long planned family wedding and visit with friends.

 

Enter Mark, Yvonne and Lorenzo who had arranged to stay at Crockern while we were away.  Their planned holiday  – no doubt filled with thoughts of long walks, pub lunches, and lazy afternoons —  now had a tethering.  Each day, they must manually start the generator.  They must keep it fuelled.  They must change filters.  Welcome to your holiday!  And in the only way friends can save you, they did.  Without complaint, they attacked this situation making it part of their holiday adventures.  They are no strangers to Crockern, helping in the past to plaster ceilings or lay concrete.   But, shouldn’t we be here to lead the charge?  Thankfully, Mark and Yvonne are troopers.  We felt at ease leaving them with this situation.

 

Meanwhile, Roger and I toured the North East of the USA vising friends and family.  We stopped by the Baseball Hall of Fame.  We ate lobster in Maine.  We enjoyed my nephew’s wedding.   Ten days of fun and relaxation, a much needed break from the drama of my Dad’s illness.   But, shortly after  Roger and I touched down at Heathrow, I turned on my phone  to receive a text from my sister.  Our Dad had died.

 

I quickly returned to the USA to join my sister Carol as we emptied our Dad’s house, planned the funeral, and dealt with a host of challenges created by his wife.  Roger remained at Crockern for the next two weeks keeping the generator situation alive.  Before flying to join me for Dad’s funeral, Roger supervised the arrival of our new snazzy generator.  We went large:  a new 12 KVA Kohler generator.  It is quiet.  It handles the weather, which is good because we need to address the roof above it.  Mostly, it works.

 

My Dad and our Lister both died in the summer of 2018.  An essential part in each of them gave up, unable to be repaired.  Our new generator is fantastic but we miss our Lister’s hearty chugging sounds filling the air.  So too, we miss Dad, but the memories fill our hearts.

 

 

 

A Brief Resolution

 

 

I’ve never been keen on making resolutions for the new year, largely because I have always broken them. Why set myself up for failing to get fitter, drink less, eat healthier, or fold my clothes like Marie Kondo?   I’m not alone.  It’s estimated over 80% of us who manage to make resolutions lose resolve by mid-February.   I get it. The very thought of a resolution nags “I must” or “I should”.  And if I don’t, I have failed, which is a lousy feeling.  It’s simply too much pressure.  What’s with all the hype if they so rarely work?

My resolution failings are in with the majority, but I wonder what percentage misses the mark within the first few hours of the new year?

Rather than making a list of resolutions, Roger and I have a slightly different tradition on the last night of the year.  We sit by the fire and explore the question:  “What are the areas we want to bring into focus in the new year?”  To do this, we each write on a piece of paper those things from the previous year we’d like to let go.  Sadness.  Anger.  Stress.  All the biggies which can get in the way of having fun.  We then burn the paper and with it, those burdens.  It may be a little new-agey to do this, but admittedly, it is very satisfying.  It’s symbolic and we both privately say goodbye to things that have been weighing us down.  We don’t discuss our regrets; we just burn them and then switch gears to forward thinking.

Next, we make a little list of a few items we’d like to do in the new year.  Again, these aren’t so much resolutions, but more guidelines.  We both agreed that we wanted to be more creative, tart up Crockern with specific projects, increase our travel, address fitness levels (okay, a little more exercise and less drinking come into this, which sounds perilously close to resolution territory), go to an Exeter Chiefs game, and try to go to the movies from time to time.  While we came up with these ideas independently, our 4-5 items where completely in synch with one another.  We’re off to a good start!

As we sat by the fire, discussing some of our plans for the new year, we both confessed that we wanted to be more patient about the things which make us nuts:   People driving up the track, climbing our stone walls, blocking our gate, or leaving poo bags in places  along the track that mean we either continue to look at them, or we have to clean them up.  It’s a big ask for both of us as our tolerance for what seems like completely oblivious behaviour on the part of the general public reached an all-time low last year.  Still, it’s not making us happy or stress free to focus on it, so we both agreed how we might go about “letting go”.

When I mentioned this intention to a friend, he quipped “I suspect it is easier for an addict to give up heroin than it is for any of us over a certain age to become more tolerant.”  Hmmmm.

Alas, he may have a valid point.  Day one of 2020.   It was a foggy holiday morning and we are enjoying a leisurely breakfast.  The morning air is chilly and there is a moody fog across the valley.   I’ve already built a fire and we are both looking forward to a long walk with the dogs after we finish a few chores.   It’s a lovely start to the new year and so far so good with our non-resolution resolutions.   Traditionally, on this day many people set out on a walk.  Eight-thirty a.m. and we could see we were in for a busy day on the footpath past our house.  Still, we were feeling positive about the new year ahead.

Suddenly, Roger flies out of his chair and shouts, “There’s a dog running in the yard!”

We are outside faster than imaginable.  Millie and Brock bark with excitement but are quickly stunned into silence when Roger roars, “NO!” at a black springer spaniel who had captured and killed our Wee-Cockerel Tommy.

We rescued Tommy several years ago.  He was a Bantam Cockerel, and about half the size of our hens.  Never once did he miss crowing his start of the day at 4:30 a.m.  Never once did he get up and about before 8:00 a.m., having woken everyone else.  When first introduced to our flock of hens, he stood his ground despite his size disadvantage.  A twenty-minute power struggle ensued between Tommy and the top hen.  After much chest thumping and chicken growling, the challenge ended.  Not clear who was the winner, but Tommy earned his wings and respect from the existing flock and us.  He was graced with black and iridescent green feathers, which upon first appearance rendered him rather drab – yet when the sunlight hit just so, he shone resplendently.  Always friendly toward us, the dogs, and our flock of hens, he never bullied, and was a sensitive little chap.   We always knew when we had a chicken who wasn’t feeling well as Tommy would not leave her side.  He was courteous and served his duty to his flock of hens with honour.  He also was fun to watch when he ran, swinging his feathered spurs left and right from under his body in a pirate like swagger. He has been a friend to all of us and to our hens and we’ll miss him terribly.

The encounter with the couple and their dog cut short our tolerance goal for the new year.     We had no patience for endless apologies.  We had no patience for explanations about how they were “unaware we had chickens,” their dog had “never done anything like this before,” and “we had no idea he could climb a fenced wall.”   No, we plummeted into resolution failure.  Our newly resolved patience as measured through limiting the use of colourful language was a fail.  We out Samuel L. Jackson-ed the man himself.

It’s true, eighty percent of people lose their resolve to making changes within the first six weeks of the year.  Some of us in less time than that.  Tommy the Wee Cockerel was murdered by our front door by an unsupervised dog who jumped our fence.  Roger and I failed with our first effort at improving our tolerance.  Given the circumstances, it was a big ask.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stoat Your Day Off Right

The other morning, I walked past Roger as he stood stock still and quiet in the back doorway.  His focused gaze clear.  Shhh.  Walk softly past.  I’m waiting to see something come out of that wall.

This particular wall is home to an abundance of life.  The rabbits who make quick get-aways when the dogs are outside.  Small birds making their nest homes among the narrow little cracks.  No doubt, the wall teams with bugs, worms, toads and loads of things we can’t easily see.   It must be an ongoing rave of tiny movements between the rocks and the mosses.  While Millie is chasing a ball, Brock is frequently sniffing parts of this wall, telling us there is a good deal more than meets the eye.  The plant life is spectacular.  Such a variety of mosses and lichen covering the rock surfaces it could easily impress a Japanese Zen gardener at Saihoji in Kyoto.

Crockern Farm Wall

It’s fair to say, Roger spots the majority of wildlife.  I may see it, but am often at a loss at identifying and naming. Roger sees, hears, and can identify the type of bird, animal and plant life easily.  It’s a skill I seek, but am most often off the mark.  Just when I think I can name the birds around Crockern, Roger will casually declare, “I just spotted a long-tailed blahdy-blah-blah”.  Lacking his skill set, who am I to question?

As Roger stood quietly in the doorway, his own wildlife hide, I crept up slowly to see what captured his attention.   He whispered coordinates of where to cast my view.   Just to the right of the Ash tree, down four stones and next to the tuft of ferns.  Do you see it?  There is a small, horizontal gap.   Watch that area.  This break in the wall, so easily unnoticed, suddenly was clear as day. The moss worn at the bottom of a decent sized opening.  Here is a faint, mini trail leading from the base of the hole out onto the yard.   Why hadn’t I taken notice before?  Millie and Brock frequently go sniffing about there. And while I chastised my untrained eyes, Roger pointed out the small movement in that particular void in the wall. I focused my attention and saw something.  A leaf caught in a clump of moss and fluttering in the breeze?  Then it happened again.  It was not a fluttering leaf, but a head busily poking in and out from the wall.  I too spied what Roger and the dogs already knew.  We have a Stoat!

Why this wall?  It seems a little close to the house.  Then again, we had a badger a few years ago burrowing about 30 feet from the front door. Unlike the badger or rabbit, a Stoat doesn’t dig its own burrow.  It’s opportunistic and will move throughout all the burrows and hideaways looking for prey. After it finds its prey, a Stoat will assume the home of the rodent it killed going so far as to decorate its new home with the skins and fur of said-dead-prey.  C-R-E-E-P-Y. That said, I suppose it is the ultimate in up-cycling.  With any number of stacks of logs, cracks in the walls, rock piles and the like, we’ve probably had a family of Stoats for some time.

Despite their approach to decorating their homes, they are adorable.  Those long and bendy bodies covered in a light brown fur on its back and a creamy white throat and belly.  Their tails tipped in black.  Cute they may be, this small little predator is just that, a predator. My thrill in spotting it was immediately offset with concern for our chickens.

Stoats are known for being well suited to hunting small rodents and rabbits. Bring it on little Stoat!  I just spent two days repairing the fourth of our six vegetable beds from rabbit damage.  Our local bunnies had burrowed up into the raised bed, despite a barrier beneath the soil.  I wouldn’t mind a small cull in this abundant population.

Our chickens are large hens, so should be okay with a Stoat moving into their neighbourhood.  And as long as there is an ample supply of rats, mice and other rodents, a stoat should be happy moving in and out of the wall’s hidden burrows.   Watching the activity at the bird feeders each morning, confirms a happy balance of supply and demand at Crockern.  Our chickens should be safely out of harm’s way.

One concern is stoats are known to eat eggs, but I’m not too worried about that since Brock occasionally does the same thing.  In Brock’s early puppy days, we witnessed him gingerly carrying an egg from the hens’ nest to the top of the hill.  Situating himself with a view, he would delicately position the egg between his paws .  Next, he would surgically make a small hole at the top of the egg, keeping the shell otherwise intact before slurp, slurp, slurping away at the raw egg.  Brock’s care in his thievery is impressive, as is his glossy coat.  Consequently, Roger and I check for eggs about ten times a day.  Brock and stoats be damned.

To encounter a Stoat before setting out on a journey is bad luck, or so goes the myth. As we stand in Roger’s make-shift observation spot, we both feel rather lucky to have spotted this Stoat and welcome yet another member to the diverse collective at Crockern.

Great Eggspectations

This ain’t no chick flick filled with love and romance, it’s a block-buster disaster at Crockern!  Our hens are not laying eggs.  They haven’t slowed production, they have stopped.  Even our new point-of-lay hens which I picked up about a month ago, haven’t produced a single egg.  In real terms:  No omelettes, no soft-boiled eggs, no cakes, no nothing.  Production is one big-fat-goose egg.

We have a mixed flock, not just breeds, but ages.  On average, each of our hens is capable of 250-300 eggs per year.  Our eldest hen, who is about 7 years old, may have slowed to one or two eggs a month, but she’s fed us well for over 5 years.  Our other 9 hens range in age from 7 months to 4 years.  On the low end of expected production, that is 3-5 eggs a day for a flock this size.  So where are the eggs?

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Over five years of keeping chickens, and we’ve never had this.  We have had broody hens, flighty hens, friendly hens and darn right angry hens.  We have nursed hens with coughs, bound eggs and uterine prolapse.  We have lost hens to natural causes and grisly fox, badger and dog attacks.   Our hens have laid soft eggs, weirdly shaped eggs, and the most beautiful, delicious eggs.  But we have never had weeks of no eggs.  Like any hard-boiled detective, I turn to our chicken library in search of plausible reasons for hens to stop laying.  Where is that book, bok, bok, booook?

The most common reason cited is diet.  But, we haven’t made any changes.   We are feeding the same pellets as in the past.  Our hens get plenty of bugs and worms as they free range all over the yard, including a drive-by feeding at the bird feeders.   And they have ample access to water.  For heaven sakes, we’re on Dartmoor!

We know three are busy moulting, but the others have all their feathers.  A quick examination shows all to have clear eyes, healthy coombs and behaving in chicken-y ways, indicating tip-top health.   None are sitting on the nest all day being broody.  In fact, none seem to be heading toward a nest at all.

Could it be daylight?  The experts say chickens need 14 -16 hours of natural daylight.  Okay, so in winter I appreciate the laying slows.  But this has been going on for months, beginning in the long days of summer.  We could put in some artificial light into their coop, but we won’t do that. The chickens love to roam all over the yard and I don’t want to force them into some sort of egg-laying drudgery with a light therapy box in the corner of the roost.  Being a chicken should be fun!

Two months ago, faced with a future of no eggs, I brought home six point-of-lay hens to up the egg game. When we introduced the new hens, we removed the electric fence since the rabbits had chewed through it.  The experts claim chickens love routine and a slight disruption can cause them to stop laying for a brief period. Do our hens really remember a month ago?  Two months ago?  How developed is a chicken’s memory?  Have our hens forgotten how to lay eggs?  Is this even possible?

Fed up with not having eggs, we hatched a plan and examined every inch of property.  We looked under fallen branches, up in the rafters of the barn, behind shrubs and even in the obvious nests boxes.  Searching high and low for eggs, we came up empty.  Ome-not-letting it slide and for two days, I spied on the chickens.  I watched their every move – worms eaten, dust baths taken, preening completed — to see if they have a hidden, special spot for a quiet bit of egg-laying.   Sadly, there are no secret nests filled with dozens of eggs, but their daily routines are poultry in motion.

I can hardly say I’ve cracked it, but when I mentioned to my friend Joanne that I thought they were on strike, she quipped, “Are they French?”  We are unaware of any problems with worker rights, hours or conditions, but we do seem to have la solidarité du poulet.

Roger and I are scrambling for an answer and it may be all in the timing:  Winter is coming; our point of lay hens may just not be ready yet; and, the old hens are on vacation.  If we were tougher, we’d be making chicken stew.  Instead, we’ll carry on providing food and shelter, keeping them safe from predators, looking for eggs in all areas of the yard, singing and chatting to them when we are out in the garden, and giving them a winter’s rest.  In the meantime, I’m keeping my sunny side up in hope we’ll have some eggs in the new year.

And, I’m Still Waiting for Mandy Patinkin!

Recently, Roger cleared a plot of land where our soakaway flows.  It was overgrown and to breathe new life into it, he spent days cutting, hauling and digging.  He uncovered over 40 stones, each weighing about 150 pounds or more.

We’ve been repairing a significant old wall near the generator, trying to prepare the area for the new roof we must build.  The wall here will not be load bearing, but it still needs to be sturdy.  Those 40 stones are coming in handy, but they aren’t next to this project.

And so, we’re back to moving rocks.  As such, I’m reposting a piece I wrote during our first summer at Crockern.

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In the 1993 movie, The Music of Chance (based on the Paul Auster book of the same title), Jim Nashe (Mandy Patinkin) is an ex-fireman who sets off with a sizeable inheritance to explore the US in his new red BMW.  He is free of debt and responsibilities.  On route, he meets Jack Pozzi (James Spader), a feckless down on his luck gambler.  Pozzi cunningly manipulates Nashe to enter a high stakes poker game against two eccentric and wealthy bachelors.

Unfortunately, the poker prowess of Nashe and Pozzi is not up to snuff and after running out of money and using his car as collateral, Nashe risks everything on a last blind turn of a card.  As luck would have it, he loses and the two become indebted to the cunning bachelors.  To pay off the debt, they are indentured into building a “wailing wall” in the meadow behind the bachelors’ mansion, a wall that nobody will ever see.  This wall is to be made of stones from the ruins of a fifteenth-century Irish castle, each weighing more than sixty pounds.  There are ten thousand stones.

Wall Building in The Music of Chance

Things to know about granite:

  1. It is widely distributed in the Earth’s crust.
  2. It is igneous, slowly solidifying from magma.
  3. It can contain minerals, like feldspar and quartz, so it is the Superman of stones and is stronger than steel.
  4. Granite is everywhere in Dartmoor, including our property walls and most of our house.

One thing that Dartmoor is not short of is dry stonewalls and there are hundreds of miles of walls across the moor.  Early farmers enclosed their land by building these sturdy walls.  In the 1700’s, a right of any ancient tenement holder (farm) was that upon succession of the farm, the son could enclose a further 8 acres of land.  These areas were called “newtakes”.   Someone had to build these enclosures and building a wall by piling stones 4 or 5 feet tall without mortar was an invaluable skill.

I will attest, it still is.

When we met Jim, a local stonewaller, he was repairing the wall along our track for the local farmer.  He and his apprentice took the section that had fallen during a storm last year, and in a days work in the pouring rain, recreated a beautiful wall.  We asked Jim to take a look at some of our walls that needed repair in order to keep the sheep out.  This talented man, who earns a living building stonewalls, suggested installing stock proof fencing.  The major breaches are in soggy bits of field, and to bring a “digger” to lift the heavy stones into place might result in the digger sinking into the ground.  Alternatively, he suggested we keep stacking the stones up as best we can.

Stone wall along track to Crockern Farm

Jim’s repaired wall

We aren’t that interested in posts and barbed wire, preferring the stonewalls, so we pushed Jim a little harder about how to build back these walls.  He said, “Each stone has a face….find the face and have them all looking out in the same direction.”

Okay, find the face.

Bloody hard when we are lifting a 400 pound stone!  Marital discord aside, Roger and I have been unable to locate a face.

Crockern Farm wall

An example of our handiwork

Stones for building walls are everywhere and if the sheep or erosion have knocked them off, they are often buried nearby the remaining wall.  Historically, a wall builder wouldn’t break or shape stones, and instead would build the walls with the materials nearby.  If needed, some stones would be carried across a distance by sleds or ponies.

In later years, many wall builders started using only the large stones and roughly squared them.  We have some examples of these in our walls.   We also have some stones that have fallen and are sitting nearby, mocking us.  Some are impossibly large and heavy and it is difficult to imagine how they were ever lifted into place.  Consider The Great Wall in China, Hadrian’s Wall on the Scottish Border, the Irishman’s Wall in Dartmoor, and the walls to our house and fields and the mind begins to boggle.

Crockern Farm Wall

Thankfully, this wall isn’t in need of repair. Look at the size of these stones.

More things to know about Granite:

  1. It can range in colour and its texture is determined by the rate of cooling.
  2. It makes a beautiful countertop.
  3. Curling stones have been made of granite since 1750 and weigh between 38 and 44 pounds.
  4. Granite is heavy.  A cubic foot of granite weighs 168 pounds, compared to the same volume of water, which weighs only 62 pounds.
  5. The lintel above the door to the entrance of the house is up 6 feet and is 4’9” x 2’ x 10” (yes, those are imperial standard measurements).  I now have a rough idea that this stone could weigh at least 1,330 pounds .
  6. People have worked with granite for thousands of years.

There was one noted wall builder in Dartmoor, John Bishop (1821-1892), who was one of the first to use the shaped and squared building method in his walls.  He tightly fitted large blocks of granite in such a way that very little daylight could be seen through the wall.  Controversial, I know, but the walls Roger and I have repaired allow for lots of daylight.  When asked how he lifted such heavy stones, John Bishop is alleged to have replied, “Aw, ‘tis surprisin’ what ee can do with a laiver or two.”

We’ve used crowbars, gravity, fulcrums, the “one, two, three, lift,” swearing, “third time is a charm,” determination, perseverance, smaller stones, the end-of-the-day-cocktail-motivator, and still our walls are just okay.  No faces in the final formation.  Nor are there any larger-than-life-squared-off-boulders-not-to-be-moved-for-another-1,000-years back in their place.  Yet, we remain undeterred.

In constructing the Wailing Wall, Pozzi begins to view the work as an infringement of human rights and nothing short of being a slave.  Taking a more philosophical approach, Nashe tries to see it as fifty days of exercise.

While hefting our stones into place, I’ve had this exercise thought.  Singing Bob Dylan in my head: “They’ll stone you when you’re trying to make a buck.  They’ll stone you and then they’ll say good luck.  But I would not feel so all alone, Everybody must get stoned.” and still unable to locate a rock’s face, I will let my mind drift to those fabled biceps and shoulders of Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2.   Those arms could be mine if I just lifted five more stones before calling it quits.

Granite on Dartmoor is not just about walls and houses.  The earliest surviving granite structures are the ritualistic and ceremonial monuments from over 4,000 years ago.  These include Neolithic stone rows, stone circles, burial chambered tombs and standing stones.   Some standing stones may have been simple boundary markers, but when aligned in rows, they may have ceremonial or astronomical purposes.  Today’s modern standing stone is most often the memorial to fallen veterans.  Both Nelson’s Column and the New London Bridge incorporate Dartmoor granite.

Drizzlecombe Complex Standing Stone, Dartmoor

Drizzlecombe Complex consists of megalithic stone rows, longstones, over 20 cairns and hut circles.

More than a few Dartmoor stories have been inspired by certain natural rock formations, often involving witches.  These are not from the Glenda the Good Witch category, as Dartmoor enchantresses are not to be crossed.  There is one such story about a coven of witches who sought revenge on a hunter.  Bowerman was out with his dogs hunting rabbits when he chased a hare through a gathering of witches practicing magic.  Incensed by the interruption, one witch transformed herself into a rare white hare and led Bowerman on another chase across the moors.  He continued to pursue the white hare until he collapsed from exhaustion before the other witches.  With their collective powers, they gave him a granite coat for warmth while he rested.  It is said that the hunter remains entombed in the stone formation known as “Bowerman’s Nose”.  Notably, these rocks have a face.

Bowerman’s Nose

The Music of Chance takes a darker turn before it concludes, but eventually Nashe completes enough work on the wall to pay off his debt.  When I’m not deluding myself about the merits of heavy lifting exercises, I find myself hoping he’ll drive up our bumpy track in that red BMW and lend a hand.

I Found My Thrill On Gin & Tonic Hill

To the back of our garden there is a small hill, an odd bump nestled in the corner of two very high stone walls.  The top of the hill spans approximately two square metres and is scaled via a two-metre high steep slope.  This little hill is covered in grass, nettles and a few wildflowers and virtually impossible to mow.  Also, a small Sycamore tree stands at the top.  Happily, each spring, a few Primroses poke through announcing the changing season, but there aren’t enough to declare this mound a gardening success.   I can’t believe this hill is a natural occurrence as the ground surrounding it is relatively flat.  Jutting out of the ground in the corner, it seems likely it once served as a dumping ground for broken bottles and other rubbish.  Or, perhaps it is where a pile of rocks was placed in anticipation of a future project.  Nature being what it is, the rocks and bottles have quickly over grown with grass and moss.

Whatever its origin, getting rid of this heap of dirt and rocks, with its tangle of tree roots, would require a good amount of digging and there is no certainty as to the gain from such effort. Applying my personal conservation of mass theory, any rock or bucket of dirt I manage to dig, will need to be relocated somewhere else.  I currently have no need to fill holes, or build walls, so for now we’ve left it.

But the idea of transforming this hill nagged.  When, our friend Hilary was visiting, she and I sat on two camping chairs atop of the hill.  It was lumpy and rocky, but the view was nice and the tree sheltered us from the sun that day.  As we sat sipping cocktails, her boys trimmed a few neighbouring tree branches to enhance our view up the valley.   It was at this moment the little hill became more than a hill.  It had purpose.  It had ‘project’ written all over it.  It would become Gin and Tonic Hill!  A fine place to repose in comfort – and to drink.

You won’t find this location on any OS map.  And few will ever know this little mound to be anything so fabulously whimsical.  In centuries to come, people will scratch their heads and wonder why on earth this hill was left behind.  Archaeologists may stumble upon it and think it perhaps an ancient burial mound.   Could my original theory explaining this hill as nothing more than a pile of rocks covered by grass was wrong?  Did previous Crockern residents from bygone times perhaps sip their end of the day cocktails here, too?

With a distinct goal now to hand, I set about clearing a few large rocks from the top.  Attempting to make a rocky hill “level” is a joke.  It can’t be easily done with huge lumps of granite stone hidden beneath the surface like icebergs, and tree roots jutting here and there.  “Never say never” I told myself and instead opted for “level enough” as my new goal.  Roger encouraged my madness by strimming the top every time we mowed the lawn.  Last summer, it became a good little place to sit on a blanket and enjoy the view.

But a few weeks ago, a similar madness took hold of Roger.  I found him outside studying our little hill.  About an hour later, he was digging and setting large stones into place.  Roger was constructing a fantastic, rocky, seven-steps-leading-up-to-the top-of-our-little-hill staircase.   Never one to do anything “good enough” Roger put the finishing touches on the project with a touch of inspiration.  He secured a bench.

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After stepping up the hill, I sit upon my new bench.  Roger arrives with G&Ts on offer and joins me.  We pause to take in the view across our field toward the river and the valley beyond.  The birds are chirping in the tree above.  The river is making those relaxing babbling noises that rivers do.   We clink our glasses and discuss our ideas for transforming our fields into wildflower meadows.

Cheers!

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On a Hot Tin Roof

Just over ten years ago, Roger and I tied the knot, performed our nuptials, embraced matrimony.  In other words, we married.  The tenth wedding anniversary is special, and appears to be celebrated with a gift of tin.  Why tin?  Tunafish comes in tin.  I absolutely do not want to receive, nor give, a can of tuna as a gift.  Are we certain it is tin and not gin?   But, keeping with tradition — and we are nothing if not adherents of certain traditions — we are embracing this tin thing.

We elected to celebrate our anniversary by booking a weekend in Cornwall with the dogs.  Cornwall has a rich history of tin mines dating back to the Bronze Age, so it seemed an appropriate choice for our get-away weekend.  Explorations of new villages and towns, walks along the coast with the dogs, and some yummy food awaited us.   Pack the car and let’s go!

Whoa!  Hold it right there.  Nope, rewind.  Can we really leave?  Wasn’t the generator recently playing up?  And if it doesn’t charge the batteries, all manner of disaster might befall us in the form of the boiler or water pumps not functioning.   For the dedicated reader of this blog, the answer is an easy “yes”.  Roger managed to get it mostly fixed, but we were still having problems with consistent voltage and the support team of batteries charging properly.  What this meant was that Roger continued to manually hand crank start the generator each day to charge the storage batteries.  This is no way to live and so we did have to call in our generator expert, Paul.  As it transpired, there was a problem with the AC diode…..blah, blah, blah…. I stopped paying attention and went to town to run a few errands.   While I was out, I received this text from Roger:

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Our weekend away was back on track and our generator was functioning as it hadn’t in years.  Happy Anniversary to us!  And now, a confession:  our hard working, thirty-plus-year old Lister lives in conditions which would raise alarm bells in the Geneva Convention for Generators.   The tin roof above is rusted and leaks.  The entire building needs some TLC as the stone walls need repair and reinforcing.  There are no supports for the rusty roof either, so it is a matter of time before the entire thing comes crashing down.   Standing within this falling down shed sits a temporary structure which Roger built during our first month of being at Crockern, bravely protecting the generator from the elements and the failing roof above.  It works, but it is most certainly not a forever solution.

When we arrived to Crockern, the generator was being rained upon and we could have repaired the roof then.  But the roof to the house was leaking, we had water running down a wall in what is now our bedroom, the boiler was either on or off, a fuse box lived below a copper water tank, and we had no insulation, so we had other fish to fry.  Faced with all this, our emergency, short term fix was Roger’s sturdy, moveable cover for the generator.  That was five years ago.

When I walk past this outbuilding, I can’t help but think of that famous line from the B-52s “Love Shack” a place where people of all shapes and sizes, stripes and colours head for a groovy good time. It’s Kookie’s Mad Pad filled with multifarious crowds of hipsters.  It’s state of mind.  But not at Crockern.  Our shack is just that, a shack.  Home to muck and mess, and a hard working generator.

With our bags packed and chicken care sorted, we were nearly ready to head out for our mini-vacay.   With the generator working splendidly we were departing with peace of mind.  I headed to town for my piano lesson.  Just as I was getting in the car to return home, I receive the following texts:

For about a year now, we’ve known we had to address this on-its-last-leg-water-pump.   We’ve been waiting as there is a larger project at hand regarding the water system in the house, and when the water tank got its bulge (Can’t remember?  See:  https://crockernfarm.wordpress.com/2016/12/11/old-stone-cottage-renovation/ ), we had to begin this project.  For the most part, the pump worked, but typically on a stormy night, just as we were brushing our teeth before heading to sleep, it would stop and we would have no water, whereby Roger, not I, would head outside into the wind and rain, making his way to the shed where the pump is located, giving  it a little tap, tap, tap.  Inconvenient, but in the triage of projects, not a high priority.  That is until the latest failure and death of the pump.  And Roger covered in shower gel and standing outside in his bathrobe.

As luck would have it, the plumber arrived within the hour and quickly replaced the pump.  As he left, he mentioned that we should consider a new shed for this set up.  Did we hear him correctly or was this our tin ear?  Another shed?  This is not part of the plans for the outbuildings.

We hadn’t yet set out and already this anniversary celebration was becoming an embarrassment of riches.  Tin roof riches.  We will be getting a tin roof for the shed.  Not just getting, but installing.  As quickly as the plumber left, we loaded the car and headed west to Cornwall where there was no tin in sight.  Instead, we settled into the B&B and ordered two glasses filled with gin & tonic.  Happy anniversary to us and don’t we know how to just do things in style.

Put, put, put, put, put, put, put, put

Lately, the mellow January sunshine is struggling to reveal itself from behind thick wintery clouds.  And just like this sun, Roger and I have been busy and lazy in equal measure.   In addition to our daily projects, both new and old, we’ve added a twice weekly trip to the local pool for swimming.  Aches and pains be damned!  The first time we went, I realised I will never be able to better my time or endurance from when I was a kid.  At that time of my life, I never wanted to leave the water, sometimes holding my breath as long as I could for the shear joy of it!  I would swim fast and hard, challenging myself to go further while racing a friend.  Times have changed, and now my goal is to elongate my stroke, measure my breathing, and finish the number of laps I’ve set out for myself within a reasonable amount of time.  Oh, and not drown.

In addition to fitness, swimming is helping to change up our routine and add some relaxation into our lives.  In light of recent events, this is a good thing.  We are off the grid for electricity.  Our generator, inverter and battery bank run all our essential electoral loads.  We store the energy from our generator into two large battery packs, which can keep our lights and the water pump working for 3-4 days if the generator fails.

Imagine our surprise while watching a movie, all of the electricity went out.  “Surely, that’s not a good thing.” I remarked to Roger.  Calmly and in complete agreement Roger said, “No it’s not.”    We sat in total darkness for a few moments, coming to grips with the absence of any electricity or the chug-chug-chug sound of our Lister generator.  Like swimmers barely making a wave, we were calm and elegant in our response.  Either that, or we were in a state of shock as this could spell curtains if we don’t have a functioning generator.  A slow sinking to the bottom.

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Our workhorse, the 30 year old Lister 4-stroke generator

Over the nearly five years at Crockern, we’ve become more sanguine about these sorts of challenges, and it’s not just because we’ve returned to the swimming pool.  We’ve grown used to unanticipated obstacles and adjusting our plans.  Living at Crockern has taught us both to be flexible, determined and patient.  We know we aren’t finished with our improvements and renovations.  And when we are, we will still be engaged with daily maintenance.  That’s just the deal of living in an old house.  This week, the weather turned decidedly colder on Dartmoor, but unlike our first winter, we aren’t cold and wet inside the house.  Our interventions of insulation, new roof and windows, and a new boiler have made a difference.  We’ve simplified electric and water systems and made our lives less stressful as a result.  With this healthy dose of perspective, the generator not turning over at 10 p.m. at night, in effect shutting everything down in the house, is just another problem to solve.

It’s cold outside and, except for the glow of the moon, completely dark.  Roger takes his head torch and heads out to investigate the generator.  I dash outside and bring in a few filled watering cans in case we need them for the toilets.  Next, I fumble around by the glow of the wood burner, locate candles and set about lighting a few.  Instantly, I’m struck that candle light is lovely, but not bright enough to read a book.  How did they do it in medieval times?  Cross stitching those tapestries must have been murder on the eyes.

I’m still deep in my thoughts comparing the frugal method of medieval rush lighting, tallow candles or the more exotic bees wax candles used by nobility, when Roger enters the house with a blast of cold air following.  He stretches his shoulder and washes the oil off his hands.  While I’m cozied up under a blanket and making a mental note to purchase more candles, Roger is down to a t-shirt and not feeling the cold as he has spent the past thirty minutes and a good deal of effort to manually crank over the generator. I can’t do this, as it requires a good amount of strength.   Perhaps after I double my number of laps at the pool, but at this stage, it is not a possibility.  Particularly in the dark.

With electricity back in order for the time being, I abandon my plans to make and stockpile my own rushes.  But, just in case, I leave the watering cans where they are for the time being.  The generator is happily chugging along to power up the batteries and we resume watching the movie.  Before we call it a night, I let the dogs out for their last constitutional.  We drift off to sleep, Sam and Millie chasing rabbits or eating butterflies, while Roger and I have equally busy brains calculating the cost and headaches as we consider replacing our generator.

And Hip Hip Hurrah for Roger!   He’s a hero!  Within no time the next day he has managed to determine the principle problem with the generator.   Our reliable old lister is still motoring along and instead the two small batteries, which are relatively new, have gone flat, probably because of the cold.  Then again, it may be the alternator, so we are still investigating.  Either way, we need to improve the space where the generator is housed.  The roof is falling down.  The walls need to be shored up.  And with that, we can always add some insulation which will benefit those fussy batteries.  The project list for this spring is growing longer, but is very clear.  We will continue our swimming, charging our own personal batteries, as we move forward on this rather large, and not so exciting, project.

It Feels Like Butterflies In My Stomach

“Millie sit.”  “Good sit.”  Poised on her back haunches, her head drops and ears flatten as she focuses on my every move.  If I twitch a finger, she begins to stand. “No, sit!”  “That’s a good girl.”  I stay still as an old oak, slowly moving my palm out in a stop position towards Millie and give the command,  “Wait.”  Her head tilts.  I say it again before throwing her beloved toy about twenty feet away.  As I begin to turn and take a step in the direction of the lifeless tug toy, she lifts her rear and I quickly must utter  “Eh, Eh, Millie SIT.”  “WAIT!”  I take a deep breath.  “Good wait.”  Millie tightens the coil of her body’s spring.  Moments later, I release her from her wait with an enthusiastic “Okay!”  And off she runs, full pelt towards her toy.

Every day our training regime includes work on sits and waits.  As often as not, Millie does not want to abide by these commands, viewing them as optional.   Naturally, I disagree.  “What’s the point?” our little teenage puppy must be musing.  She is a party girl who is simply on the move and wants to have fun.  She loves to bound across the ground, run through tunnels, jump over obstacles, and return as quickly as possible with her toy for a good game of chase or tug-of-war.

When her toy is not to mouth, she’s happy to follow after and catch leaves, snowballs, or Sam’s tail.  Anything that moves is fair play.  It isn’t possible to sweep the floor or rake leaves without Millie pouncing on the broom or rake. Fortunately, her chase impulse does not apply to birds, rabbits, sheep, horses or cattle.  We don’t know about cats.

As a gentleman dog, Sam is happy in his senior years to have a nice slow walk, preferably without hills, followed by a meal and a snooze by the fire.  Even as a younger dog, he was never one to pursue anything, except cats.  So imagine the surprise to all of us when Millie started spinning and twirling around the kitchen channeling her inner Stevie Nicks singing “Just like a white winged dove” as she followed the latest discovery, a butterfly.  “Ooh Baby, Ooh, said ooh.”

It’s January and cold outside, so what’s this butterfly doing inside?  During this time of year, we daily light the wood burner in the morning and cover the veg beds at night to keep the frost off the plants.  This is not the time of year for a butterfly.  While Small Tortoiseshells can turn up almost anywhere, from city centres to remote wildernesses, they do like it where nettles grow.  We have nettles in abundance, but not in the kitchen.  So hibernating in the barn, the wood pile, or one of the outbuildings makes sense.  But our kitchen?

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It’s too cold to implement our usual catch and release approach which we utilise regularly with moths, bees, butterflies, bats and birds which find their way inside during warmer months.  Sadly, we don’t have any flowering plants inside for this butterfly to find nectar.   It’s lifespan is significantly reduced by choosing our kitchen as its launchpad. To calm and distract Millie, the dogs and I head to sit by the fire while Roger places a small ramekin filled with sugared water and a ball of tissue paper near the window where the butterfly has settled.  The least we can do is feed it while it makes its home inside our house.

Armed with glasses of wine, Roger joins me and the dogs by the fire.  Sam has found a comfortable spot and drifts into a deep sleep, perhaps dreaming of his younger days when his back legs had him jumping over stiles.  But Thoroughly Modern Millie has sneaked out of the room unnoticed until we hear a gentle clinking of ceramic on stone.  Getting up to investigate we find Madam in the window, drinking the homemade nectar.

The Small Tortoiseshell may be one of the most common butterflies in the UK, but it is also the national butterfly of Denmark.  Sure, it is mischievous and disobedient of Millie to be in the window, but more shocking, and perhaps treasonous, is that she ate the butterfly!

I’m dreaming of ….

Recently, Roger and I find we awake in the morning with a greater number of aches and pains.  Feeling this way, one would hope for a slower start to the day, a chance to lounge in bed with a cup of coffee, read the news, and spend an extra hour contemplating the day ahead.  Alas, not here at Crockern where everything is a small-demand requiring our attention.

Lets begin with Millie.  She starts her puppy day with joy and excitement, and no end of energy.  Boundless.  Bouncing.  Filled with fun.  Everything is a curiosity and a possible game.  She was recently described as “high drive” by a woman who trains dogs for agility.  At first, this seemed like a good thing, but what I’ve come to discover is that it may perhaps be code for disobedient.  She’s smart and can see the end point, so elects to skip all the middle bits.  She’s like the smart kid in geometry class who knows “one does not equal zero” so why bother with all those steps in the geometric proof to demonstrate that fact?

Meanwhile, Sam, her patient elder, is struggling with the hard wood floors and getting his balance.  His mornings involve some sliding about as I fly out of bed to lend a hand and help him to his feet and out the door.  Shortly thereafter, we three head down the track.  What once took 15 minutes is an easy 30 minutes as Sam stops to take the scent of an animal which passed that spot in the night.  As he inhales deeply, Millie charges off the hill, out of the gorse, with her toy proudly dangling from her mouth before knocking into Sam to see why he isn’t chasing the same toy.  “Why Sam?  Why?”

At this time of the year, the sky is dark as we set out for this first walk of the day.  Still, the birds begin to awaken and there are a few songs to be heard across the moors.  After our walk, the dogs and I fill the bird feeders, let out the chickens, and bring in some firewood.  As we enter the kitchen, Roger is there with his coffee and catching up on the news.  I love the days when I get to be home all day without a work appointment, chore, or social engagement.  We all lounge in front of the wood burner, reading and contemplating our next walk.

Our house projects have been somewhat stalled of late.  No particular reason other than we had a need to take some time off from them.  Of course, just as we were settling into that idea, our water tank developed a huge bulge.  If it is not obvious, this is not a good thing.  A bulge, like any blister on a toe, will eventually burst.   And in the house — specifically under the stairs — that would leave us with a nice little mess.

And so, despite our desire to take some time off, we were facing a problem.  They say, “Every cloud has a silver lining.”  What they don’t say is “every hot water tank has …”  No, they don’t say that and that is because it would be stupid.  Our hot water tank is made of copper, which corrodes over time, especially where the water is more acidic as it is here on Dartmoor.

When Crockern was first built, there was no internal plumbing.  The river likely played a vital role for all the water needs of residents some time ago.  As modern conveniences changed the way people lived, so too the water system at Crockern evolved.  Over time, the system here came to resemble something designed by Heath Robinson, one of those ridiculously complicated machines constructed to accomplish something terribly simple.  Here’s how it worked:  Our water would come from the spring about 100 metres north of the house and enter a tank outside.  Water from this tank would be pumped into the house and up into the loft into an overflow tank.  This tank permitted gravity to then send water, under pressure, to the taps, showers, and toilets.  That same bit of gravity, fed water to the hot water tank which was heated with redirected heat from the Aga.  Of course, when we put in the new boiler a few years ago, which had the ability to heat water, but we elected to delay connecting it to the entire house.

Nearly a year ago, in one of our exploratory whims, we removed a false wall in the kitchen to reveal all manner of pipes.  We lived with these, thinking “one day, we’ll clear all that up and change up the water system.”  That day arrived when the hot water tank developed a noticeable rounded swelling on what should have been a smooth surface.

We called the plumber and got an estimate.  We called another plumber, received a nicer estimate and scheduled him to come out and begin the work.  What should have taken one day, unfortunately took two days, but he managed to disconnect the hot water tank and remove it.  Next, he hooked up our water system to the boiler which heats the water when we require it, rather than all the time.  After he left, Roger removed the redundant overflow tank while balancing on a ladder over the stairs.  He also removed all the silly pipes which were hiding behind the false wall and were now no longer needed.  The thrilling part is that the pump works less frequently and our water pressure is better.  A few weeks later, we back-filled the AGA and as a result are burning less fuel.

So why didn’t we do this earlier?   We are free of extra pipes and an inefficient way to heat water.  We’ve gained closet space.  We have greater water pressure.  The truth is, there are a lot of projects and this one could wait.  The copper water tank was working.   And as the Laws of Renovation declare:  Each project results in an equal  and opposite amount of additional projects which are always unanticipated despite enormous preparation and planning.

In short, we’ve learned with this old house, there is never a project which can begin and end all in the same month.  Now that we’ve changed up the water system, awaiting us in the new year are the following:

  1. Repoint the wall that was previously hidden.
  2. Build shelves in the closet under the stairs which previously housed the hot water tank.
  3. Remember to install a light INSIDE the closet so we can see what is on those new shelves.
  4. Purchase a new whizzy pump (the current one sometimes — usually around 11 p.m. at night — stops working and requires one of us (okay, Roger) to head outside and give it a good whack! — and put it under the stairs, along with a ph regulator for the water.

Four steps!  Four manageable and easy steps.  Really?  What project can end in four more steps?

None.  Nadda.  Zilch.  That wall in the kitchen, which needs to be repointed, is one part of a wall in the kitchen.  We still have paint to remove from another wall, and repair blown plaster on two other walls.  The beams need to be sanded and shelves under the counter tops to be built.  These are a few projects for the kitchen, but not all.  With our newly modernized water system, we can permit ourselves to renovate the small bathroom, which still has carpeting on the wall as a nod toward insulation and no insulation in the roof.  In the office, there is a radiator I’d like to move, floors to sand, some walls to paint, and another wall to repair.  We can’t do any of this until we address the flashing on the chimneys outside.  Oh yes, the list goes on and on.

Four more steps?  In our dreams.