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.

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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.

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

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The floorboards were transformed with a light sanding.

 

If It Ain’t Baroque…..

Roger and I are continuing to work on removing paint from two internal granite stonewalls.  I should amend that statement:  We are continuing to explore ways in which to remove paint from these walls.  This is no easy task and has introduced delays to all other aspects of this renovation project.

The floorboards are sanded and ready to be installed into place, but are sitting in the barn. The ceiling, wiring and lighting are all on hold. We can do nothing more until we get the paint from the walls. Then, we will be able to power ahead with finishing this room and beginning the next.  We are now all too familiar with how one little snag can hold up our projects for weeks, if not months.

Part of the wall awaiting paint removal.

Part of the wall awaiting paint removal.

 

What the walls want to do if we don't get rid of the paint.

What the walls want to do if we don’t get rid of the paint.

Painting granite stones is a decision that should not be approached lightly as its removal is no simple matter. We have tried scrapers, sandpaper, wire brushes attached to either our hands or to drills and all to little effect. I read about Soda Blasting, which is a dry and environmentally friendly approach to clearing the walls using baking soda crystals moving at 600 miles per hour. Sounds great and hours of YouTube viewing told us that we could build our own blasting gun, buy baking soda in huge tubs, and we would have success. More viewing indicated success was the domain of gear-heads who wish to remove gunk from vintage car parts. Our internal, bumpy, porous granite wall requires another solution.

While we both work hard, it’s safe to say, our general approach to projects plays to our strengths. I like the planning, dreaming, and logistics. Roger is the researcher. Sam likes walks. I could fill these posts with Roger’s efforts which not only save us money, but help us to accomplish projects without having to re-do them. Sure, we stumble sometimes, but mostly, we make progress in small, but fairly precise steps.

Not discouraged, more investigation indicated we could purchase equipment to do our own “blasting”, but being on a generator made this a troublesome proposition. A steep, downward slope of money-spending, mess-making, and no-guarantee of success awaited.

What to do next?

We invited someone out to have a look. “Oh yes, I can do that. Sure, we bring our own generator. Yep, we’ll build a containment wall to minimize the mess. No, you can’t do it with soda, you’d need to use….” And it was at this point that I checked out seeing nothing but huge costs and huge mess. Still, it was an option.

Returning home from a day of working at the local cheese shop, I found Roger in the corner of the room wearing a headlamp, rain gear and rubber gloves, examining the wall.   When I asked what he was doing, he replied, “I’ve been conducting a bit of an experiment today. Here, let me show you.”

Roger had placed on the wall two test patches of a peel away paint stripper known to remove paint from stones. One patch used a non-toxic paste, which was covered with the peel away paper. The other spot had a caustic paste. I didn’t like the idea of this one, as we are looking to remove paint from about 20 square metres of wall. That’s a lot of potential skin damage.

While I listened to Roger’s explanation of the pros and cons of these two paint strippers, I noticed another patch on the wall uncovered by peel away paper. In this area, Roger had put porridge.

I love porridge. It sets the day off to a good start. Low calorie and high in protein, this superfood may be the key to living longer according to a study by Harvard University. Who knew, it could also strip paint from walls? As I stood there looking at the three patches, I wondered if my stomach lining was being affected having had the cooked oats earlier in the day.

“How would porridge work?” I wondered aloud. “Not certain, but it seemed cheap and easy and worth a try.” was Roger’s reply. I retorted “My brother told me that serpentine is what you use to get paint off a boa constrictor.” and then went off to do my own bit of research where I stumbled upon not just a single comment, but an entire thread of reviews espousing the brilliance of gruel as a paint stripper. Get this helpful little tid-bit:

“Yes, I’ve used porridge and it’s very effective. If you ‘cook’ it to the correct consistency it sticks to anything! I use the ‘value’ brand of supermarket… .It’s not really necessary to use warm porridge but I feel it’s more likely to act better on the paint….Once you’ve spread it over the plaster, cover it with cut-open carrier bags to retain the moisture and leave it for 2 or 3 days then pick it off….I wouldn’t leave it on much longer though as mould can develop with a corresponding pong.”

Three patches. Top left is the caustic stuff. Top right is the non-toxic and worked well. The little brown blotch at the bottom is porridge.

Three patches. Top left is the caustic stuff. Top right is the non-toxic and worked well. The little brown blotch at the bottom is porridge.

 

One of the walls without paint. Looks great and so this is our goal.

One of the walls without paint. Looks great and so this is our goal.

Having given it a try, we can report porridge may work on plaster or wood, but not on granite. Happily, we had some success with the test patch of the non-caustic stripper, so we’ve ordered enough to do one of our two walls. It arrives in a couple of days and that will be one of our projects as we move toward the holidays.

I’ll need to get my letter to Santa ready soon and see if he can send some elves to help!

Blessed are the List Makers

As I have confessed many times before, I like lists.  Correction:  I adore them.

I’m not alone, either.  TopTenz provides top ten lists ranging from the bizarre to the mundane.  Paul Simon gave us possible ways to exit a failing relationship in “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” (okay, in total he only provided 5).   And, there is now the popular Bucket List.   Long or short, lists simplify and organise.  They scratch an itch or tick a box.  And list making is good for the brain, helping us cope in an age of information overload.  Let’s face it, without lists we would feel muddled and purposeless.  Am I overstating it?  I think not.  To anyone who makes lists, there is a joy in crossing off completed tasks, overturning stones, packing suitcases, shopping for groceries, etc. etc.

Unlike a millennium ago when some lists were chiselled into stone, Roger and I opted for a three-page Excel spreadsheet of projects at Crockern.  Some items were all encompassing representing seven or eight steps in a single line.  Avoiding a fine level of detail permitted us to avoid the weight of a seemingly unending list of things to do.  Sanity preserved.  Enthusiasm easily ignited.  And our master project list remains a three pager, growing and contracting with each new renovation hurdle.

One of our first projects at Crockern was to install a wood burner and since accomplishing that undertaking, we left refinishing the wooden floor in that same room for a later date.  Despite the seeming ease of the project, the floor would have been trampled upon as we worked on other projects in further reaches of the house, so it was tabled for four years.  This is part of the wisdom behind list making:  Don’t do something to have to re-do it later.

With the back part of the house now completed, we’re investigating the centre of the house.  With all there is to do in this area of the house, we’ve turned our attention to the simple and inexpensive:  Project Floor Refinishing.  In October, I was in the US for a week and before I left, Roger and I examined this particular floor, which Roger felt like tackling in my absence.  Before heading for the airport, we moved furniture and looked at a few spots along the skirting board that were rotten.

Closer examination revealed the skirting board was “attached” with concrete along the interior stonewalls.  Never a great idea.  Over decades, moisture from the outside wicked through the stones and onto the wood.  Whole sections of floorboards were damaged.  After moving furniture, Roger and I pulled up the skirting board and removed each floorboard to assess the next steps.

List twitching alert!

As I was leaving Roger with floorboards to mend and concrete to chip off the walls, I said, “You know, we should really pull the ceiling down and repair that while the floors are up.”  It is in precisely this manner, with such casually tossed sentences, that our projects grow from manageable weekend efforts to full on disruptions that roll into months, giving birth to new project lists.

My own list making is well practiced and instinctive, kicking in whenever my mind becomes too crowded.  Since short-term working memory can only hold around seven items, lists are essential aides and this project is a good example.  Armed with a fresh piece of paper and a pen, I quickly write a title at the top of the page.  Then I underline it for emphasis.  Following are bulleted items that must be considered and acted upon.  For those of us possessing a certain disposition, this is a productive use of paper, pen and twenty minutes.  It is a soothing, no cost and anxiety-reducing step that prepares me for the project ahead.  Hanging on the refrigerator, a list becomes a reminder of what we need to do.  I will admit, too, sometimes I add an item, which has already been done, just in order to enhance the sense of accomplishment.  I am certain I am not alone in this behaviour.

With the finished floorboards in the barn (yes, this step was added to the list after it was done) and the ceiling pulled down (this step, too, was added ATF), we are pondering our best approach to replace the ceiling.  Naturally, a new ceiling gives us the opportunity to address lighting in this part of the house.  The removed floor also allows us tend to a much needed extra electrical outlet.  But before we can get started, there is a granite wall to address.  It was painted at some point in its history with exterior weather shield paint on the inside and outside.  Arguably, a way to use up left over paint.  Unfortunately, in the long run, this sort of paint traps moisture and creates some damp issues.  I suspect the painting culprit did not make a list or anticipate how challenging this paint removal would be on the inside of a house.

Getting the paint off the wall has now become a research project with a host of challenges.  To the list adverse, this particular hiccup may seem tragic, but to those of us who are ready to off-load all the ideas bouncing around inside our heads, making way for clarity of the next steps, I say hand over a pen, fresh paper and let me record the first item:  “Make List”.

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Floor boards up and the base is level and dry. Whew!

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The paint problem.

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This wall is about 12 square metres of painted stone and an endless list of options about our next step.

The Saga Continues

They say there are two certainties in life: Death and Taxes. But I believe there is a third, potentially only affecting a few: Projects at Crockern.

In July, Roger and I had elected to take a break from our long list of renovations and instead focus on the delights of summer. We planned to spend August visiting with friends, tending to the garden, catching up on books, exploring new walks and generally, enjoying our lives before heading into the next big phase of things. Out of necessity, we took on one project, which was to replace the oil tank I wrote about in the AGA Saga.

Oil tanks aren’t complicated and getting a new one in place shouldn’t be either. There are simple steps to follow. You order a tank, it gets delivered, and a professional comes out and hooks the whole thing up, right? But, as we were embracing our time off, these seemingly simple procedures took an unexpected turn.

 

Step one: Order new tank and arrange delivery:

When the stop cock was repaired, it was a short term fix resulting in a mad rush to source a new tank and have it delivered as the then plumber was available the following week to switch to the new tank.

We scrambled to find a double skinned oil tank that could be delivered in 24 hours and lined up a friend to help us move it into place. Despite meticulous organization and detailed instructions on our location and the access restrictions up to the house, we received a phone call advising that our new oil tank was sitting upon an 18 wheeler-semi (in the UK this massive vehicle is known as an articulated lorry…..whatever).   Suffice it to say, it is not possible for a vehicle this size to make it up our track, let alone turn around, so our new tank was delayed by an extra day.

Frantic phone calls ensued, and several days later the tank arrived on a smaller truck with the greatest of ease and the charge for 24-hour express delivery was waived. Our pretty new tank was sitting in place and awaiting its hook up.

 

Step two: Plumber comes out to do the tank switch:

The new tank is in place and the plumber mentioned in step one never showed the following week as arranged. Nor, did he appear the week after, or, the week after that. There were no returned messages either.   Embracing our relaxed summer, we only partially shook the bushes on this, until it was clear we needed a new plumber for this job.

 

Step two, section A: Find a new plumber to come out to do the tank switch:

I called one plumber. I called another. I called a third. I awaited returned messages. I called again. I finally landed on someone who scheduled a time to come out. Meanwhile, to properly lay the new oil cabling, Roger dug oddly shaped trenches that had to circumnavigate granite stones, the size of small cars, hidden below ground.

Transferring oil from the old tank to a temporary tank.

Transferring oil from the old tank to a temporary tank.

 

Channels for the new pipes.

Channels for the new pipes.

 

Steps three – seven: Drain the old tank into a temporary holding tank; Disconnect old tank and hook up new tank; Transfer the transferred oil from the holding tank into the new tank; Test to see that everything (boiler and AGA work):

The new plumbers showed up on time, commenced work, and by mid-day, the transfer of oil from the old tank to the new, along with new connections were complete. The pipes were encased in protective insulation and laid into the snaky channels. The boiler worked and we waited for the AGA to light. As this takes time, we said goodbye to the plumbers.

 

Step Eight: Celebrate:

Nope.

 

Skip celebratory step and add new steps, as the AGA didn’t light:

After a quick phone call the chief plumber and his apprentice showed up to assess. This felt serious. And it was. The new tank, 1/3 of the way filled with oil and another 1500 litres scheduled for delivery was not high enough for the effects of gravity required by the AGA. Despite our meticulous measurements, we were up against another phase of this seemingly endless project. Now we had to build a plinth.

As Roger and I absorbed this news, our brains were spinning. Roger was scheduled to take a trip to Scotland and was contemplating canceling his travel plans. Meanwhile, I was thinking of how we are going to get this done before my brother arrives for a two-week visit. It is one thing to eat tuna fish sandwiches for dinner every night during a project; it is another thing to serve them to visitors. It feels depressing.

The technical drawings for the raised platform.

The technical drawings for the raised platform.

 

Now we have three tanks. The temporary holding tank, sitting empty. The old tank, moved and once again holding oil. The new tank (right) awaiting its move and fill.

Now we have three tanks. The temporary holding tank, sitting empty. The old tank, moved and once again holding oil. The new tank (right) awaiting its move and fill.

 

While Roger and my cousins were sipping whisky and trying on kilts, I did what I do best and planned. I got the schematics for this plinth, went to the building yard and scheduled delivery of the necessary materials. I also scheduled the plumber to return in order to empty the new tank into a holding tank and help move the new tank so that Roger and I, along with our dear friend and neighbour, can build two pillars with concrete lintels to rest the new tank. I’ve borrowed a cement mixer and mostly lined up friends to help lift the tank into its new elevated position, forever reminding us of its power to keep our AGA happy and dictate our activities. When all this is complete, I’ll schedule the plumber again to move the oil from the temporary tank to the new tank in time for the delayed delivery of oil.

Our oil is having a traveling adventure of its own and we’ve only discovered one new walk. Increasingly, I am convinced if I had a pound coin for every time I’ve said, “I’m waiting for the plumber.” I could probably finance this project.

The new platform for the new tank. A temple to oil.

The new platform for the new tank. A temple to oil.

And The Wind Whispers Wabi-Sabi

Many years ago, I was in a pottery studio making a series of bowls.  The instructor, a talented man who creates incredible large vases, took one look at a bowl I was making and remarked, “In Japan, there is a philosophy known as wabi-sabi which finds beauty in all things that are imperfect.”

Hmmmmm.

I was convinced at that moment I was being given a gentle and indirect message suggesting my pottery wheel creation was not up to snuff.  Perhaps that was the case, as the bowl was a bit wonky.  Then again, if I listened closely, really closely, to his words, “beauty in all things that are imperfect,” I might be onto something new.   There is a lot to be said for this design concept and its celebration of imperfection.  Since that morning, and now living in this old farmhouse, Roger and I have discovered that wabi-sabi is not only an idea worth embracing, but we have no other choice but to willingly and enthusiastically group all our restoration interventions as a type of wabi-sabi.

Let me be specific about our next, and rather large, project that will likely feature wabi-sabi in spades.  We have a spacious room with an en-suite bathroom in the lower floor of the house, which was once an old barn.  When we moved in, we used this room as a guest room.  It was not a great space, but that didn’t stop us from putting visiting friends and family there during our first few months.  Although cold and damp it was also very charming, and some might say cozy if you piled on enough blankets.  The thing is, you could see its potential!   This visible capacity to become a fabulous room would reveal itself after we sorted out the wobbly toilet, which had never been seated into the floor properly, the leaky skylights and the running streams of water down the southern wall.  The room’s potential grew for those with sharp eyes who could see beyond the above rotting beams.  But everyone, including the less observant, could extol the room’s full potential if we would only get rid of the carpeting, which held all manner of damp and dirt creating a musty, slightly wet smell.

A classic example of pipework and neglected stone walls.

A classic example of pipework and neglected stone walls.

Old Rotting Beam from too much damp

Old Rotting Beam from too much damp

The current stairs, also known as a ladder.

The current stairs, also known as a ladder.

Look at the state of this old boiler and pipes.

Look at the state of this old boiler and pipes.

Great shower....if it worked.

Great shower….if it worked.

Thankfully, our roof repair addressed the water running down the wall and we replaced those leaky skylights.  In the past year, this wall has dried out.

While the roof project was underway, we replaced the rotting beams with locally sourced 10-inch, green oak beams.  They may be a little over engineered, but the floor sitting above is now going nowhere!  As the wood ages, it is beginning to dry and crack (think Wabi-Sabi, again) in the most beautiful way.  Each beam weighs nearly a ton, and Roger and two other men hoisted them into place.  My job?  As we used a car jack to lift up the beams, I had to place the shunts underneath to maintain the height.  Four people, three beams, two days to put them into place.

Ceiling propped up before removing old, rotting beams.

Ceiling propped up before removing old, rotting beams.

Delivery of the new Green Oak beams.  This was last year!

Delivery of the new Green Oak beams. This was last year!

Look how this oak beam is drying!  Fabulous example of wabi-sabi!  Next step, light sanding.

Look how this oak beam is drying! Fabulous example of wabi-sabi! Next step, light sanding.

Then we encountered something of a hiccup.  During all this activity, the shower was broken — and there is a long story about how this could not be easily fixed, something to do with electricity and a few other unanticipated challenges.  Between the useless shower, wobbly toilet and filth from installing the new beams, the room became unusable.  On top of its previous odour, the carpet was now filled with mud, muck, concrete, rocks, sand, sawdust, spilt tea, and all manner of other unidentifiable things that weren’t worthy of being vacuumed.  While there were no longer rivers of water falling down the walls, the stones needed time to carry on drying.   We did what anyone would do faced with these sorts of challenges:  we stopped dead in our tracks and turned our attention to other things.  That was a year ago.

Despite it all, you could still see this room’s potential.  Honestly, how could you miss it?

Distracted and actively avoiding this demanding project, we allowed the damp carpeting to stay far too long.  One afternoon I could stand it no longer and ripped it all out.  I cut it into manageable sizes, rolled them up, shoved them into the car, and headed to the tip.  That carpeting is now gone, gone, gone, and not at all missed.  Some things are not wabi-sabi; they are just god-awful.

This gesture propelled us back into action and we made our list of projects, suppliers, and tradesmen to assist and are now ready to get started.  Here’s what work awaits:  Install new central heating system and boiler; address the two walls which suffered decades of damp and neglect; insulate, insulate, insulate; lay new wood floor; install stairs to replace the ladder which currently provides access to the room; install new windows; design and install a new bathroom; neaten up pipe work and provide more than one electrical outlet and a pull cord light; and build a wall to create two closets and hide the boiler.

In considering all the things we need to address in this next project, I am comforted by at least three parallels between modern Western design and the ancient Japanese philosophy:  1) Imperfection; 2) Impermanence; and, 3) Aged.  Tick, tick and Tick!  Before, I was worried about how we would ever tackle the downstairs that needed EVERYTHING done to it.  Now, I am comforted, nay energized, with the knowledge that we are part of a design trend.  Not just any trend, we are in really great company.

Just a quick look at renovation books and magazines for ideas and inspiration and I find all sorts of wabi-sabi:  Ray and Charles Eames; Shaker simplicity; Shiho Kanzaki; Herman Miller; Danish Modern furniture; George Nakashima; Distressed furniture; Up-cycling; and the humble Amish Barn.  For us, a shiny, perfectly smooth surface that looks like it has never been used is not very interesting.   We like the natural shapes and colours of wood, the rough and sparkle of granite and we draw inspiration from the dramatic environment surrounding us.  Slate grey, misty cloud white, moss green, oak brown and occasionally blue or yellow are the dominant colours.  Oak, granite, and pine are the major materials.

Like the classic A-line dress, we are hoping for a timeless beauty and something that hints at its surroundings.  We need to be realistic though, so will add some insulation, make the windows a little bigger, and with the additional radiators and whizzy new boiler, add some heat!  In the end, we are aiming for an indigenous design that embodies simplicity and imperfect beauty.  That’s the goal at least.

As I read more about wabi-sabi, I soon discovered a design movement known as Slow Design.  Evidently, the Slow Design manifesto urges designers to “satisfy real needs rather than transient fashionable or market-driven needs by creating moments to savour and enjoy with the human senses.”  Whatever.  This manifesto seems a bit namby-pamby, but it contains the word slow and we like that.  With all notions of deadlines and perfection fully removed from our efforts to improve the downstairs, we are ready to set about this huge project.  Hurrah!

It’s a privilege to live in a house with so much history, surrounded by amazing countryside.  As such, we accept a number of imperfections and seek instead to celebrate their beauty. Mostly, we have realized the renovation and restoration solutions of a house like this only come after living softly within its walls as it needs time to let us know the best way forward.  Crockern Farmhouse just whispered, “Wabi-Sabi, baby.”

One Finger and Three Chicken Butts

There are times when we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place, facing a difficult choice amid two unsatisfactory options.   Then, there are those times when we find our finger, specifically my left index finger, between a rock and another rock.  Ouch!

The injured finger.

The injured finger.

Nearly two weeks ago, Roger and I were once again, hefting, lifting and returning heavy granite stones to one of the stonewalls.  This section failed earlier in the spring with large rocks giving way and making a nice trespass for the sheep in and out of the field.  On the day of the injury, the sun was shining brightly and we were filled with pride after hours of successful rock placement and wall repair.  Nearing the end of our efforts, we heave-hoed one last, and rather large, rock onto the wall.  It went into place all right, but did so before I could get my hand out of the way.

“Ouch!  Fuck!” began my colourful expletives, rapidly growing technicolourful.   I will not deny it, the pain was incredible and to match it came an outpouring of expletives that put me in a league with the burliest of truck drivers.

A quick trip to the local hospital and a few X-rays later, I was relieved and happy to learn nothing was broken.  For three days, I wore a splint and changed bandaging before the follow-up appointment that confirmed I also had not experienced tendon damage.  While my finger remains swollen, tender and unable to bend fully, I am keeping my fingers crossed (well, as many as possible) that all will be back to normal soon.

There is never a good time for an injury, but August has been especially tough as we’ve been busy.   Many friends and family have come by for visits, which keep us on our hosting toes.  We’ve readied the downstairs for our big renovation push and the garden is kicking out a good deal of produce, some of which we share with the birds, butterflies and slugs who get there first.   In August, we also made a quick trip East to pick our cherry tree.

Fortunately, our cherry picking adventure happened before my Oh-Roger-can-you-do-this?-My-finger-won’t-bend injury.  We rent a cherry tree on an orchard.  How this works is we pay a small annual fee and the knowledgeable farmers net, prune, manage and write a monthly newsletter filled with updates about our tree.  When the cherries are ready, we arrive with our boxes and commence harvesting.  We have just the one tree, and this year came home with nearly 18 kilograms of cherries.  Having pitted our cherries, we set about creating the following:

Twenty jars of jam,

Six jars of pickled cherries,

Three kilo’s pitted and frozen for future use,

Nightly bowls of cherries as a snack,

Various cherry desserts,

Gift bags of cherries to friends;

And last, but by no means least, cherry liquor, which will be ready in the New Year.

Cherry Tree

Our Cherries are ripe for the picking!

Hours of pitting should have put us off cherries, but oddly we find ourselves wishing we had two trees!  It must be divine intervention that there is a waiting list to rent trees.

It is just this sort of thinking, “If some is good, more is better.” that has landed us with more rescued chickens.  This month, our flock has grown from four chickens to ten.  The original plan was to go to the rescue centre and collect four more hens, but when we arrived, I with my bandaged finger, they with their bald, featherless little bodies, I couldn’t stop myself.  “If you need us to take more, say six, we can do that.”  No discussion with Roger.   No consideration as to whether we really needed six more chickens.  Just pure impulse, and a desire to save more chickens, had me gather more.  Into the crate in the back of the car the six went and onto my lap leapt Sam, he having no interest in riding in the back of the car with six scrawny new chickens.  Thankfully, Roger was in complete agreement that a couple more chickens would only add to the fun.

This new cluster of hens is feistier from the last group we rescued.  They are ex-free range, yet despite their right to roam during their working months, they are surprisingly short on feathers.

Rescued Chickens

One of the six newly rescued Hens. In another month, she’ll have all her feathers.

There is a trick to introducing new chickens into an established flock.  Most literature on the subject recommends a minimum two-week separation between the old and new flocks.   Due to our set up, we squeaked by with a week.  We would have preferred a shorter period still, but the establishment of pecking order was so dramatic, we were prepared to give it more time.  The top hen from our original flock was not having any of this rescue nonsense.  Clearly, she had forgotten her own humble roots as a working girl.  Her squawking, strutting and yes, chest thumping with the self appointed leader of the new flock was something else.  “Bwaaaak!  Bwak! Bwak! Bwak!!!!”  Chest thump.  Head peck.  Jump on top of one another.  Wings flapping.  More squawking.  The risk of serious injury was increasing as the two were engaged in their girl fight until Roger and I intervened.  These sorts of squabbles reveal how mean hens can be to one another if they don’t have space.

Within a week, the chickens reached détente and became one flock.  The thing that may have sealed the pecking order battle was recognizing the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  Early in their integration process, we had the new flock out in the grass in a portable run.   These six were safely caged.  Meanwhile, the original four were freely roaming, pecking, scratching, sunning and doing chicken-y things in the yard.   Suddenly, a huge ruckus of upset chicken sounds filled the air as a dog ran rampant through the yard attacking our hens!  This dog was out of control from its owner when it jumped our gate, chased our chickens and attacked three of the four.

Feathers littered our garden giving us the certain thought we would find four dead chickens.  Roger and I spent about twenty minutes searching.   We located one, unharmed sitting on a nest.  The other terrorized three were hiding between rocks and hard places, with nothing but their now featherless butts visible.  They were all alive, but now looking a lot more like the newly adopted chickens that all witnessed the dog attack.

For the next several days, we tended to the wounds.  With my own injured finger bandaged, we placed the chickens into warm water, washed their bottoms and applied antiseptic cream.  After the dog’s violent attempt to catch and kill our hens, all the chickens seemed to conclude that they were in it together and the pecking order was established with ease: Roger and I are here to keep them safe; they just have to get along.