Feel The Burn

I was in town when Roger called me to tell me about the fire raging across the hill on the other side of the river.  His voice sounded concerned as he described hearing fire engines in the distance while watching how the strong winds were rapidly spreading the fire.  Alarmingly, there appeared to be nobody bearing fire shovels in sight to control this burn.  The fire was moving swiftly down the valley toward our fields, but if the wind had shifted, it was entirely possible embers from the fires could easily jump across the river and burn Wistman’s Woods.

Roger is not one to exaggerate so I quickly finished what I was doing and high tailed it back home.  It seemed better to have both of us home in case we had to do anything to keep the fire from coming too close.

Driving back to Crockern, I kept a sharp eye out for smoke filling the sky and saw none.  But when I rounded the corner to make my way up our track, there were four fire engines parked.  The closer I got to home, the more I could smell the charred remains of burnt gorse and grass and see the smoke drifting up from the scorched earth.  What had been green and golden when I left in the morning was now black and smouldering.  Several acres were burned, but by the time I arrived, the fire had been contained.

Controlled Burn.  Prescribed Burn.  Hazard Reduction Burning.  Backfire.  Anglo Saxons called it Swælan.   Locally, it’s known as Swaling and has been carried out for centuries.  Swaling is the annual burning of gorse and scrub in order to clear the ground of dead and overgrown vegetation, allowing new growth to flourish.  Those green shoots which grazing livestock love to eat, not the ones economists like to talk about on the news.

On open moorland, overgrown vegetation can restrict some public access and in dryer, warmer months can present significant risk for wild fires.  The farmers who graze on the common land are allowed to conduct controlled burning of moorland vegetation, in other words swale, to clear the ground encouraging new growth.

Between 1 November and 31 March it is permissible for the Commoners to do controlled burns and all signs pointed to this being a planned burn.  But we suspect it might not have been.  The local farmer for that patch of land said he was not swaling that day.  Honestly, no one in their right mind would have set out to swale because it was such a windy day.  Could it have been a casually tossed cigarette?  We see enough litter lying about that it wouldn’t have surprise us.  A few years ago, a fire damaged over 600 acres of moorland when strong winds fanned the flames.  The cause of that fire was unknown and took more than 100 firefighters to bring it under control.

As the sun was getting low on the horizon, the firefighters returned to their engines after a job well done.  The sheep in the fields carried on nibbling grass and the horses and chickens seemed unfazed.  The songbirds at the feeders were out in full force, possibly discussing just what the hell happened.  Roger and I sat down to do the same.  The fires were out, but all of us at Crockern were left with the view of a blackened hillside and air heavy with the smell of charred vegetation.

Before we had a chance to recover, we received a phone call from the farmer who grazes livestock on our side of the river and he was planning to swale up our side of the valley the next day.  I know it is a technique to manage the landscape and is legally done this time of the year, but looking upon the burned remains on the other side of the river, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad.

Around two in the afternoon, we saw the haze of smoke cloaking our usual view down the track.   We scanned the hillside to see the group of swalers assembled to oversee the burn.  After about ten minutes, the flames were licking over the tops of the yellow-flowering gorse bushes, marching forward across the hillside toward Crockern.  This is the very gorse which I had scratched my cornea on last year, and spent a good amount of time this winter cutting back to clear trenches.  Not certain I would have bothered with that miserable task if I knew this burn was going to happen.  Still, I was sorry to see the prickly gorse so easily go up in smoke.

With the air calm and a seasoned crew of swalers, Roger and I weren’t concerned about this fire, even as it made quick pace toward our house.  I took pictures and watched from the window, comfortable in the knowledge that this fire was under control.  Given the day before’s experience, I don’t wish to be too close to a fire outside of our trusty woodburner any time soon.

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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!

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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.

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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!

Kevin McCloud Would Be Proud, part two

Finishing the bathroom happened at nearly the same time that we finished the bedroom. In actual fact, the bedroom was mostly done, just waiting for the bathroom fixtures to be moved out of the center of it.

These projects took us three years. That’s right, three years. When we arrived, the south wall had streams of water running down it. We had to replace the roof and then wait to see if that made a difference. We also had some giant beams to replace, as the ones that were there were rotting from all the damp and no longer supporting the floor above. We did this in year one.

Then, we had to figure out just what to do with this room. All sorts of questions: How will stairs work? What sort of heating system should we consider in an effort to be green? For those of you who have followed the blog from its inception, I’ve written about these topics. Once we decided, it still took a long time. This we did in year two.

Year three had us ripping up the stinky and filthy carpet, which was the easy bit. Living with the dirt this construction project generated for nearly two years was more of a challenge. Over three years, we undertook the following projects in these two rooms (not in any particular order):

  • Replaced old rotten beams with new green oak beams
  • Installed a new boiler
  • Fitted Sovereign Membrane (as seen on a few episodes of Grand Designs!) to let the stone walls do their moisture thing, but not have it come into the house
  • Framed the walls in order to put in insulation. We insulated walls, floors and ceilings
  • Lay new Floors
  • Installed a new ceiling
  • Built a room (big ass closet!) for the boiler so it was no longer in the bedroom
  • Had stairs designed, built and installed
  • Installed a new window and slate sill (found at reclamation yard)
  • Painted walls and ceiling
  • Cleaned all manner of dirt and debris
  • Cleaned some more
  • And still some more
  • Moved furniture into the room and then ourselves
  • Took a few photos and here is the post of the before, during and after:
How it looked our first summer.  Notice the ceiling and the rotten beams being supported by the window.

How it looked our first summer. Notice the ceiling and the rotten beams being supported by the window.

 

Room emptied and ready to replace the old beams above.

Room emptied and ready to replace the old beams above.

 

Getting ready to remove old beams and install the new ones.

Getting ready to remove old beams and install the new ones.

 

Delivery of the new beams (summer of 2012).

Delivery of the new beams (summer of 2012).

 

Andy preparing the window.

Andy preparing the window.

 

Working on the new window.  First step is to take out the old, secure the lintel and integrate the damp proofing materials.

Working on the new window. First step is to take out the old, secure the lintel and integrate the damp proofing materials.

 

Let the work begin.  Old carpeting out.  New beams in.  Next is to frame walls, install stairs, and prepare for a 3 year adventure.

Let the work begin. Old carpeting out. New beams in. Next is to frame walls, install stairs, and prepare for a 3 year adventure.

 

It's just a mess!

It’s just a mess!

 

Insulation ready to go into walls, ceilings, floors.

Insulation ready to go into walls, ceilings, floors.

 

This was the way to get downstairs before we had the new ones built.

This was the way to get downstairs before we had the new ones built.

 

Old boiler.  One switch:  on or off.  No temperature settings.  The little red tank is resting on a box because it was previously hanging from the wall.  And all those pipes....well, this was in the corner of the whole room before we built it's big-ass closet!

Old boiler. One switch: on or off. No temperature settings. The little red tank is resting on a box because it was previously hanging from the wall. And all those pipes….well, this was in the corner of the whole room before we built it’s big-ass closet!

 

Framing and insulation being installed.

Framing and insulation being installed.

 

Plaster boards going into place.

Plaster boards going into place.

 

New stairs are in, plaster drying, floor insulation down.  Next step, lay the floors.

New stairs are in, plaster drying, floor insulation down. Next step, lay the floors.

 

New stairs and secret closet under the stairs.

New stairs, floors, and secret closet under the stairs.

 

Finished corner of the room.

Finished corner of the room.

 

View of the finished room on way to the bathroom.

View of the finished room on way to the bathroom.

 

Finished work.  Just need a door for the closet and maybe some art and furniture.  Hey, Rome wasn't built in a day.

Finished work. Just need a door for the closet and maybe some art and furniture. Hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

 

Now that the spring and summer is upon us, all our new projects are moving to the outdoors. True to my nature, I’ve started a list and it is long!

Kevin McCloud Would Be Proud, part one

We love watching Grand Designs. It’s a television addiction, in which we regularly partake. Each week Kevin McCloud, the host and our hero, takes the viewer on a home building journey, a Grand Design, born of grit and determination and sometimes, sheer lunacy.

As with any TV program, there are certainties:

  1. Everyone wants to be in his or her new build by Christmas.
  2. Everyone has a vision and a wildly underestimated sense of budget and timeline.
  3. It seems just for extra drama, the people building have no experience and take it all on by themselves usually after they’ve fired an architect or their builder has fled the scene.
  4. For good measure, the couple building their grand design – exhausted, stressed, broke, living in a leaky camper van, etc. – somehow end up pregnant. This part always seems implausible. Honestly, how do they have the energy to have sex after all that stress and work?

With our bathroom completed, I’d like to say to Mr. McCLoud, “I think you’d like what we’ve done.”

  1. We didn’t have an architect, but we had a part time builder for the stuff we couldn’t do and was clearly beyond our skill set;
  2. We avoided fixed deadlines (several Christmases came and went) and hence stress. We were not good television material, unless watching us contemplate with templates made with boxes just where the tub, sink and toilet would be located.
  3. We stuck to a tight budget.
  4. We sought green credentials in as much as we could, given that we live in an old stone building run on a generator.
  5. Nobody was fired or got pregnant during this project. That said, our builder friend and his partner are expecting a baby. Oh well.

Basically, we’d make for boring, boring television, but who cares? Here are a few pictures of before, during and after. It may have taken nearly three years to complete the downstairs, and there are still decisions about where to hang art work, but we’ve done it. Hey Kevin, have a look!

 

The bathroom when we moved into Crockern.  Damp carpeting on the floor, no insulation, damp walls, and that toilet wobbled....not a fun thing!

The bathroom when we moved into Crockern. Damp carpeting on the floor, no insulation, damp walls, and that toilet wobbled….not a fun thing!

 

The shower stopped working in our first few months of being at Crockern.  The end wall grew moss.  The entire room smelled and was cold.

The shower stopped working in our first few months of being at Crockern. The end wall grew moss. The entire room smelled and was cold.

 

For months, we had the bathroom fixtures in the bedroom, while we finished the plumbing work and installed the slate tiles.  We also raised the floor, put in damp proofing and insulation, and ran electricity for lighting.

For months, we had the bathroom fixtures in the bedroom, while we finished the plumbing work and installed the slate tiles. We also raised the floor, put in damp proofing and insulation, and ran electricity for lighting.

 

Building the raised floor.

Building the raised floor.

 

Slate tiles and plumbing complete, just awaiting the installation of the tub, sink, shower and toilet.

Slate tiles and plumbing complete, just awaiting the installation of the tub, sink, shower and toilet.

 

Heading into the finished project.  This is the door we refinished.  I found it at a salvage yard and it was under several layers of paint.

Heading into the finished project. This is the door we refinished. I found it at a salvage yard and it was under several layers of paint.

 

New sink and groovy mirror I found at a flea market.

New sink and groovy mirror I found at a flea market.

 

Ta Da!   A few things left to do:  hang towel rack and hang some art, but we did it!

Ta Da! A few things left to do: hang towel rack and some art, but we did it!

Next posting, the finished bedroom.

The Tenth Circle of Hell

I like to listen to Radio 4. When I lived in the States, I regularly listened and supported National Public Radio. I make no apologies and it is safe to say I enjoy talk radio, but of a certain type.   Recently on Radio 4, Melvyn Bragg and several scholarly guests were discussing Dante’s Inferno, that medieval journey through the nine circles of Hell told through poetic verse.

Home renovation feels a bit like this, just without visions of afterlife, severed heads, cruel punishments, and a cameo appearance from Satan. Not so far, at least.

The presenters on the radio were all quick to point out The Divine Comedy, with its three components of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, is more than a travelogue into the disturbing and horrific, and instead was a guide for spirituality during medieval times, hailing it is one of the greatest poems ever written. All I can say is while listening to this radio program, I wished to invite the Italian Dante Alighieri to transport his poetic self several centuries forward and join us at Crockern, where we have entered the not yet written Tenth Circle of Hell: Our final push to complete at least one room in the house. Perhaps he could squeeze another poetic winner with this old house as his inspiration?

Nearly seven months ago, we made the decision to remove the pine ceiling in the living room and layer in more insulation. We introduced mess and chaos and should have placed a sign above the door: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”. We did not and instead carried on and hung the replacement plasterboard. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years came and went, and all the while, we kept the door shut to any visiting friends or family. Shut, that is, until our friends Mark & Yvonne arrived in February. Mark and his plastering skills made the ceiling a work of art!

When it comes to home improvements, I like painting.  Not the prep work or the clean up, but the actual painting. I like the smell. I like the way it immediately changes a space. All things considered, it is a relatively inexpensive intervention that instantly gives a sense of completion to a room. Clean. Fresh. Finished.   That is, if there is nothing else to do like flooring, lighting, shelving, or installing stairs. Still, once the plaster was dry, I set about priming and painting the ceiling and walls.   It has been several years since I’ve held a paintbrush and known that satisfied feeling of having finished a room!  How quickly a freshly painted wall delivers the home decorator one step out of hell and closer to those Nine Celestial Spheres of Heaven. Just like Dante himself.

Occasionally prone to home-improvement-inertia, Roger and I set a deadline of April first to finish the living room. It was not lost on either of us that our deadline is April Fool’s Day. We’ve come close to meeting our self-imposed target, but had more than a few silly delays.

Take for example the stairs. Before we could do anything, the stairs had to be made. The previous ladder to the lower floor was removed. The hole in the floor measured. In January, we contracted a man to build us some stairs. We waited. We waited some more. We made the hole in the floor to the specified measurements to accommodate the stairs. On the scheduled day to begin installation, we had two inches of snow. For some, two inches of snow is a crippling amount. No experience driving in the stuff.  Better to just stay home. For others — I will put myself solidly in this camp — two inches of snow is chump change. It’s nothing. Man up! Get out there! Drive those stairs to Crockern and install them Buddy!

Nope, not our guy.   He made a decision that the snow was too much, leaving a phone message he would arrive to do the job the following week.

I returned his call and he began work the next day.

With snow on the ground, we busied ourselves and pulled up the carpet, sanded the floors, treated the floors for woodworm and finally stained them. Through all of this, we’ve attempted to live normal lives. Not easily done with the contents of our house strewn everywhere, covered in dust, and that much needed object – say a hammer – lost beneath all of the clutter.   Most recently, we slept with windows wide open to avoid the noxious fumes from the floor treatment, awaking to a hard frost and a chorus of bird song.

After two days of installation, the stairs are in place. They are lovely. With our deadline still looming on this room, floors, walls and ceilings ready, we made a mad dash to clean, clean, clean, and return all of our furniture back to its location. The room is looking nearly complete, enough that we can open the doors and welcome people into the space.

And those new stairs? Well, they lead down to what is our next, and possibly biggest, project: The Eleventh Circle of Hell. We have addressed the damp in this room, but we now need to build walls, add insulation, lay a floor, install a bathroom, fix new windows, and oh so much more.

Hey Dante, grab a paintbrush!

Before we begin our work.

Before we begin our work.

Another before photo.

Another before photo.

The room before.

The challenge ahead.

The "stairs" (many would call this a ladder) before we started this project.

The “stairs” (many would call this a ladder) before we started this project.

During.

Game on:  During.

Roger installing more insulation.

Roger installing more insulation.

The hole in the floor awaiting the new stairs.

The hole in the floor awaiting the new stairs.

Mark busy with plaster work.

Mark busy with plaster work.

The new stairs.  They are as done as they can be until we finish the downstairs floors and walls.

The new stairs. They are as done as they can be until we finish the downstairs floors and walls.

We did it!  The room is finished.

We did it! The room is finished.

 

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