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.

***********

 

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.

Advertisements

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:

img_2029

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.

Lister

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.

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.

Make Room For Millie

It’s no small matter to ready a home for the arrival of a new puppy.  We’ve brushed up on basic training information, readied dog crates, and set about removing chewing temptations such as shoes and wires.  We’re not looking forward to sleepless nights, but remain hopeful for quick house training.  Fingers crossed.

We’ve had it easy with Sam.  He came to us as a rescue dog with a few issues, but he has never damaged anything inside the house.  Suffice it to say, we’ve been spoiled.  With all the projects at Crockern, we’ve kept working on the kitchen at the bottom of the list as it seemed too disruptive.  Besides, two people and an old dog could live with our kitchen layout for years and not be all that fussed.  Sadly, the design of our kitchen did not lend itself to the arrival of a puppy.

Kitchens with fixed cabinets can be hard to rearrange without incurring significant disruption.  With our free standing cupboards, a design change is theoretically simple, but the required logistics to make a change are on par with landing on the moon.  To simply move this there, that needs to go there, and in order to do that, this will have to be emptied in order to move this there, and on it goes.  More than once, we’ve walked away, mulling over possible solutions.

Our first step was to empty the shelves under a fixed countertop and remove 50% of the shelves to make room for the washing machine.  Excellent plan if only the space below were bigger or the washing machine smaller.  But, the slim margin we were dealing with meant Roger had to completely dis-assemble the counter and its frame.  A day later when he finished, we squeezed the washing machine into its new location.  Feeling pleased with ourselves, we stood back and noticed a small leak.  Smugness was quickly replaced by panic!   Taking a few deep breaths, Roger climbed behind the washing machine and made some awkward adjustments to the plumbing.  We were back in business.

Or were we?  The kitchen table was buried beneath the items which were once stored under the counter.  And we hadn’t begun to move furniture.  I pride myself in being able to organise, but this situation was quickly testing our patience and skills.  We looked at everything from those shelves and around the kitchen and began to hatch a plan.

For the next phase, we must:

  1. Empty the refrigerator;
  2. Move the shoes, coats, and basket of hats, scarves and gloves;
  3. Empty the dresser next to the shoes;
  4. Move the dresser;
  5. Put the refrigerator where the dresser once sat, but occupying the space where the shoes where previously thrown; and then,
  6. Return items to the refrigerator.

Sounds simple enough, but everything in the dresser needed to be cleaned before being returned. The dresser needed a new location, so the cabinet holding all of our booze and cookbooks had to be emptied and moved too.  Rapidly we were running out of places to set all of our stuff!

Hours later, and nearly everything in its place, there remained one piece of furniture.  Our largest dresser, the very one we picked up at an auction when we first moved to Dartmoor.  We didn’t really need to move it, did we?  It looked good where it was and also was hiding all manner of ugly paint work.  But it was in the place which was perfect for the dog crate.  Considering the level of disruption we had sifted through, why stop now?  Because, if we moved this dresser, we could remove the paint from this wall.

Spices, canned and dried food, cups, and glasses had to come out of the dresser and moved out of the kitchen.  Having become an old hand at removing paint from stone walls, Roger began to apply peel away paint remover to this ugly wall which we had now exposed.   Removing this paint was not purely an aesthetic decision.  It was holding in moisture and we had a gross little problem that was only going to get worse until we let those stones have a chance to breathe again.

The paint on this wall was trickier than the previous stone wall we cleaned as it was oil based and did not want to come off in nice little flakes.  Instead, it clung on in a gummy, gooey sort of way.  Roger spent a day picking at it.  By the end of that day, he hung plastic sheeting to protect the kitchen, put on his waterproofs, and got the jet sprayer.  Yes, once again, we were using a power washer INSIDE the house to remove the final bits of paint.

What a mess!

After several hours of cleaning, we moved this last dresser into its new location and returned the contents.  We found homes for our boots and a good location for the crate.  We did all of this in five days.  Five days to transform a bit of the kitchen.  It feels bigger and brighter and the damp on the wall is already diminishing.  We still have big projects in this room:  blown plaster to repair, another wall covered in that tricky paint, and some significant plumbing to change, but for now, the small steps we took have made a big difference.

When we have deadlines like friends coming over for dinner or visiting for a few days we manage to complete projects swiftly.  Bring home a puppy and we throw it into another gear, shifting from idea to action.  Perhaps I’ll suggest a party sometime soon and we’ll see what we get done.  For now, we welcome Millie!

 

Step by Step

In each room where we’ve completed a major renovation, there remain a few minor projects to complete before we can say we are 100% done.  Mostly little things like placing a small piece of trim or securing an electrical fixture.  Sometimes, there remains something more involved such as replacing a window or finishing a ceiling.  These require one last giant push from us and of course, there are lots of other things to do, including enjoying what we’ve done and contemplating next steps.

In one such instance, while we were sitting by the fire in our most recently finished project (not withstanding there remains a window to replace, a ceiling to hang and two electric outlets to secure), we decided to refinish the stairs.   To add to it, we had an extra deadline as in three days our friend Yvonne and her son were coming to visit.  With a self-imposed completion date looming and a new project to address, we got busy.

We don’t have any idea when these stairs were installed, or their origin, but they do not appear to be original to the house.  There are different rises between the treads and a turn, which taken too quickly while wearing socks, can land you right on your backside.  This is actually preferable to slamming your knee into the granite wall which runs along side the stairs.  Despite the potential bruising hazards, they are perfectly serviceable.

They had been painted a dingy chocolate brown, which was looking tired and pretty banged up.  The dark colour robbed the stairwell of all light, predictably making it a gloomy area even with a window at the top landing.  We considered our options for some time before diving in on this project.  We wanted the paint off, but what was the wood going to look like underneath?  If the stairs looked worse, then we needed to consider how we might paint them.  Neither of us were too keen about using paint stripper for these steps as they are in regular daily uses.  We could treat every other step which would be fine for going up, but the coming down seemed a dangerous proposition.  How about the left side then right side?  And, how do we prevent Sam from following us up the stairs each time one of us ascends them?   After our recent exploits in getting all the paint off the stone walls, we were both fed up with the smell of the low-odour, paint stripping option and so wanted an alternative.

Well, something was afoot and before I knew it, Roger had his belt sander on the first step to see how easy it was to remove the paint.  Meanwhile, I searched the internet and discovered there are far too many pictures of what people have done with their steps.  Without exercising discipline, I could easily just look at all of them and never turn my attention to another rung on the ladder of our home renovations.  Spoiler alert:  I’m now about to take a step too far and contribute to the plethora of stair photos available to eager home-improvers and Pinterest enthusiasts.  Onwards and upwards!

P1030552

The first step reveals potential for some beautiful wood underneath the dingy paint.

The rabbit hole of Internet stairs photos was almost immediately shut to me as Roger made quick work on two steps and they looked fantastic.  We knew what we had to do:  Sand the steps and then use stripper in the corners.  It took Roger about 90 minutes and the steps were mostly cleared of paint.  After a quick clear up of dust, I came along with my trusty old paintbrush, the environmentally friendly paint remover and applied the goopy stuff to all the corners.  After twenty-four hours, the residual paint came up easily with a scraper and a bit of water.

 

A day later, we were able to return to the project.  The stairs needed time to dry before Roger could sand and smooth all the wood.  He also gave a light sanding to the toe-kick bits.  Once done, I came along with some light-coloured paint, addressing the trim and toe-kicks.  Roger then treated the treads with some tough matt finish product called Osmo (this stuff is amazing!) and the job is done.  Our one project that doesn’t have anything left to do on it.

 

 

When Yvonne and Lorenzo arrived, we showed them the stairs before heading out for a long walk to return and relax by the fire, enjoying the company of good friends.  Now, as I walk up the stairs to the studio, I feel really pleased with the beauty of the wood beneath my feet.  And I look at the room where we work and I feel ready to get going on this project too.  Of course, what we need to do in here will wait until we get the plumber out to do a water tank switch over and move a couple of radiators before we repair a wall, refinish the floors, paint the walls, and replace a window.  One step at a time.

 

Our Farmhouse Education

Roger’s done it!  After several weeks and a lot of hard graft, he’s managed to remove the paint from the stone wall in the fireplace room and it looks fantastic.   Not only were the painted stones unattractive, but the weather shield paint which had been used was holding in moisture, creating damp on the wall.  Before returning the wooden floor boards, we had to let the stones dry.   We repaired the supports under the floor, laid a damp proof membrane and added some insulation.  The room is not quite completed — the ceiling still needs to be addressed and there is a window which needs replacing  — but it has been transformed.

When Roger and I began to tackle the restoration project at Crockern, we knew we were taking on a project with unknown dimensions.  Since we weren’t raising children, we agreed we could instead nurture and care for an old house.  And like those who swell with pride when their children do something terrific, our completed projects give us enormous pleasure and satisfaction.  And I suppose, like parents of teenagers, we see the host of projects looming ahead as unpredictable, sometimes difficult and always an unknown challenge.  Naturally through the process we’ve learned a thing or two and it seems high time to pause and share.

  1. Live with the house and the space before making big decisions and do not rush into major projects.  We received this advice from a friend before we moved to Crockern and boy oh boy, was he right!   Early days necessitated some immediate decisions — a new roof and the replacement of a couple of supporting beams  — but it’s crazy how many times we’ve changed our ideas as we’ve lived with the house through the seasons.
  2. Embrace the stories and history of the house.  We don’t have to strip every room back to expose original details.  In fact, if we did we’d probably have cows, sheep, goats and chickens living in the kitchen!  This house has evolved over time at the hands of many residents and we want to honour that history where we can.  We have had to undo a few “fixes” from the past while at the same time installing a few modern interventions in order to make the house more energy efficient.
  3. Do research, and then do some more research.  And if you think that’s enough, do even more research.  Questions I’ve never considered in previous houses loom large here:  How to remove paint from walls?  How to treat wood so it continues to breathe in a damp climate?  How to do dry stone walling?  How to build a plinth for an oil tank?  What are the local building materials and which ones hold up in this climate?  How to address drafts or damp without creating a bigger problem.  What vegetables and plants can we grow on Dartmoor?  How to live with a generator?  How do we maintain our spring so our water is clean?
  4. Accept that it is unreasonable to expect every room in the house to be constantly warm and dry.  Back in the day, living in a stone farmhouse was a hard-life.  Weather on Dartmoor can be wild, wet and windy.  When the winter storms raged these past few months, there was nothing more wonderful than keeping cozy by the wood burner.  Thank goodness the paint is off the walls and the floors are back in position!
  5. Be prepared to compromise.   Some things which would be ideal in a modern house are simply not suited for a traditional farmhouse.  That said, I want to find a way to hide the electrical wires which currently run across beams.
  6. Definitely do not attempt to do everything at once.  Our time, expertise and budget have limits, and it’s simply more manageable to renovate one area at a time.  It has taken us time to learn new skills and to find tradesmen we work with well.  Of course, addressing one room at a time has an added benefit:  when we are fed up with the mess or hit the inevitable snag, we can simply retire to another room and avoid the headache for a few days.   When renovating, rushing into any decision or action can be costly, but more, the end product is just that and you gotta live with it.
  7. There are times when I may covet luxurious interiors with all their modern and easy conveniences but anything too contemporary, glitzy, let alone square and level, would just not be in keeping with this old house.  These traditional farmhouses were the homes for centuries to hardworking families and their animals.  We need to strike a balance between the practicality-tradition of using whatever materials were to hand and aesthetics.  While being too precious might ultimately make the house too clinical we also don’t want to use what fell off a truck and utter, “That’ll do”.   We aren’t afraid to use modern fittings, but if we can repair it and it looks pleasing, that might be the better solution.  Sometimes, an honest visible repair is just the ticket.
  8. While it is important for us to make and stick to a budget; sometimes, it is important to accept that we love this place and that may mean spending money which may never come back to us.  WAIT!  I’m a tightwad, did I just write that?  But here’s the thing, over the years many of us have spent loads on cars with full knowledge that they depreciate in value every time we drive them.  It’s important to see our home as something more than just an investment.
  9. Accept that we’re in it for the long haul and approach this old house as if we are its guardians.  In Crockern’s 200 (or so) year history, our time living here is just a short event.   When we started this project we set out on a 5-10 year schedule and after 4 years, we’re about half way done with the house.  The outbuildings loom large and will change the overall time frame to something looking like 10-15 years in total.  The thing is, if we rush it we won’t discover what needs to be done.  This sort of renovation and living may not be for everyone but we love it and want to take time to enjoy our home, too.
  10. And last, DO NOT FORGET to put a light on the inside of the closet under the stairs when we eventually move the hot water tank.  It’s damned frustrating to not be able to see in there.

As Crockern continues to teach us how to proceed with renovations and restorations, it continues to teach us a lot about ourselves.  We experience our need to laugh and relax as well as have a good old argument and get filthy dirty on a project in equal measure.  As I sit by the fire writing, Sam is by my side napping, and Roger is heading back out to the barn to get some wood.  There is a small part of the floor which needs patching before we can finish off the trim.  We’ve nearly finished stripping the old paint and sanding some stairs revealing some beautifully aged pine full of knots and burls.  There is a window to replace and how we will finish the ceiling in this room remains a mystery.  That said, we like what we’ve done so far and the truth is we’re not really in any rush.

P1030543

The fireplace room with a paint free wall and newly sanded floors.

P1030551

The floorboards were transformed with a light sanding.