Tempus Fugit


Some projects are harder than others.  It’s not just the materials needed, mess generated, or muscles overused.  More often, it is the collision of details which creates a seemingly impossible cause and effect situation.  A typical planning conversation between the two of us:  “If we move this, then we will need to move that.”  “Okay, but if we move that over there and then, oh wait, what about those wires?’  “Hang on, that will need to be moved over here before we do any of this work.”  “Haven’t we already made this decision?” “Is that a pipe running there?”  “Can we finish this in a few weeks before our friends are due for a visit?” Spoiler alert:  We’ve started another project.

When we moved to Crockern, our very first project was to install a wood burner.  It was a necessary undertaking as the chimney was open to the sky, inviting in the rain and cold, and letting out heat.  The room was chilly, damp and smelled of wet ash.  This improvement proved essential and for years we’ve had a cosy sitting area throughout the winter months.

Roll on a few years and several other projects, we returned to further improve this sitting area:  sanding the floors, removing the paint from the stone walls and scrubbing the dark soot off of the other stones around the  fireplace.  Repairing stairs, painting walls and ceilings nearby, changing the lighting, and taking the time to regularly enjoy the area.  But we aren’t finished.  There remains a window in desperate need of replacing as the frame is now rotten.  And above, there is the unaddressed wooden ceiling.

This ceiling is held up by some lovely beams which we’ve long wanted to sand to reveal the beauty of the wood.  There once were horrible particle boards hidding about 50% of the beams, but we ripped that out ages ago.  In doing so, we discovered how big the next step would become and stopped, learning to live with it as it was.  Somewhat. Neither of us liked the look or feel of the ceiling in this state.  Friends would say how they liked its “rustic” look, but that’s easy to say when you aren’t living with it and thinking about the full potential.



We spent an age deciding the next steps.   The confounding challenge is currently the ceiling sitting above the beams, is nothing more than the floor boards of the room above.  We didn’t want to install plaster board between the beams since they are wonky, bent and old.  The look would be sloppy and the plaster would quickly develop cracks.  The current set up allows for dirt to fall through from the floor boards above.

An additional inspiration for doing all this work is that we need a solid, insulated and straight wall to hang a clock.  As so many walls in the house are stone or roughly angled, our options for hanging the clock are few.  There is, however, a perfect  spot in the room above where we sit by the fire for this clock.  Too bad the wall is not finished, or rather, framing hasn’t begun.  And here is that nasty cause and effect.  We can’t frame the wall until the floor below has been sanded.  Can’t sand that floor unless we lift up the floor boards and address the beams below.  Because once that wall is built, we can no longer address the floor.  Every project begets more projects.  It’s positively biblical!

My Dad collected clocks and when he died, I brought one of his wall clocks from the USA to Crockern. It’s an old Viennese Wall Clock from the late 1800s.  Currently, it is being repaired.  I’m not certain when my Dad gave up his daily tinkering on all his clocks, but this one was an early casualty.  I found someone to repair the clock and someone else to restore the case.  I am looking forward to hearing the familiar ticking of a clock.  Growing up, our house was filled with clocks, noisily keeping time and occasionally chiming in unison on the hour.  While I can’t wait, neither can the project which will end in a wall to hang the clock. We’ve got about  4 weeks.



And yet time waits for no one.  While we’ve made our list, purchased our materials, and set about our plans we’ve had a few hiccups since starting this project.  I went to visit friends one recent morning.  During my short stay, a tree came down across their track, stranding me there until Roger could pick me up in a nearby car park.  A few days later, as we were making real progress (1/3 of the floor boards lifted and the beams sanded), Roger stepped on a 6 inch nail. He spent a night with his bandaged foot elevated.  The next morning he received a tetanus shot.

It matters little that we covered furniture, created dog barriers, numbered the boards, and were moving at a pace.  Sometimes, life – or trees and nails  — get in the way and slows us down.  Still, time’s ticking!

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.

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!


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.


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


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.


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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I’m Likin’ the Lichen

Autumnal day on Dartmoor with view toward Wistman's Wood.

Autumnal day on Dartmoor with view toward Wistman’s Wood.

The season has announced its arrival; autumn is here, with winter’s cold and damp nipping at its heels.  Gone are the House Martins and Swallows, but returning to the birdfeeders are the Yellowhammers and Nuthatches.  Colour and sound have been shifting, slowly and gradually, with the long grasses, ferns and reeds in the fields surrendering to buff, brown, and reddish tones, which now dominate the landscape.  However, when you pause and examine closely, surprise stains of colour are found in small locations upon trees, walls, and stones in endless varieties of lichen.

There are over 30,000 species of lichen worldwide, and in a recent woodland survey in East Dartmoor, 115 were identified.  They grow on rocks, trees or soil sometimes in a nearly imperceptible crust-like layer.  Alternatively, they can be bushy and trailing like ZZ-Top beards, hanging from trees.    I especially like the bright orange seen on rooftops across the British countryside, a reminder of the health of our environment since they are sensitive to air pollution.  A general rule of thumb is the smaller the variety of lichens in an area, the more polluted it is.

Lichen growing on a rock in a stone fence.

Lichen growing on a rock in a stone wall.

Some lichen has found a home on this old wood post.

Some lichen has found a home on this old wood post.

In the past few weeks, autumn showed itself confidently providing cooler mornings with misty, low hanging clouds before the sun burns its way through.  Small clusters of mushrooms dotted about, and the tell tale mushroom hunters on the hill, walking slowly, bags hanging off the shoulder and eyes looking downward, provide additional evidence of the seasonal change.  I lack fungal expertise, so prudently take a pass at this bit of foraging.  Instead, I enjoy observing those out and about, as there seems to be a lot of twirling, spinning, and dancing on the landscape.  I suspect some of the found fungi might be hallucinogenic.

We’ve made seasonal shifts, too.  I’ve pulled out all my fleeces and can see my breath in the dawn light when I walk Sam.  My morning chores now include bringing wood in from the barn and building a fire in the wood burner.  I watch the birds at the feeders knowing that they have short lives and must make it through the winter if they are to hatch their broods in the spring.  This time of year brings about an awareness of the impermanence of life, as often on a walk, Sam and I will come across the skeletal remains of a dead sheep or fox.   Again, lichens come to mind as they remind us of a greater permanence, growing so slowly that they have been used to confirm ancient woodlands after an historic clearance.

Because these grey, green, silver green, mustard yellow, ochre, or rust growth on every possible stone and wood surface live at a different time scale to the brief one of our resident birds, or indeed, us, I sometimes wonder if the lichen I’m looking at were here 100 years ago and bore witness to previous residents at Crockern.

More varieties of lichen on a rock in the stone wall.

More varieties of lichen on a rock in the stone wall.

All sorts going on here on this footpath sign.

All sorts going on here on this footpath sign.

Found this on a walk just this week.

Found this on a walk just this week.

Since we first set eyes upon Crockern, Roger and I have been very curious about the history of our house.  When was it built?  Who lived here?  Were they cold?  Almost daily we receive a “fact” from someone walking past:  “I heard a witch once lived here.”  “In the 1970’s it was a hippy commune.”  “Oh, I used to go to parties there.”  “My mother grew up at Crockern and bathed in the river.”  “It was originally built by the man who managed the rabbit warrens.”   Witches.  Farmers.  Children.  Wood Workers.  A Potter.  On and on goes the list of past residents based on, from what we can surmise, mostly hearsay.  If only the lichen could speak!

Not knowing where the truth lies, we decided to begin our slow search to uncover some history by looking at the local records one afternoon.   We weren’t certain what we’d find, but hoping to perhaps learn when the house was originally constructed.  No such luck on that front.  But, we did uncover the arc of a life of one very distinct past resident:  Mr. Mortimer.

On 2 November 1885, J. Stanley Mortimer bid at auction on Lot #2, Crockern Farm, which was comprised of the house, outbuildings and 228 acres.   In the early 40’s, the war department requisitioned 115 acres of his farm.  He died in the mid 1940’s.  But not before he contributed to a fat folder of correspondence.

These file notes indicated that Mr. Mortimer owed money and frequently had to retrieve his livestock, which had wandered off to pastures beyond his land.  In particular, he did not enjoy his track being used as a footpath toward Wistman’s Wood.  During Mr. Mortimer’s time at Crockern, there was no footpath designation along the track up to the house, so he considered all those walking along it as trespassers.  After his death, the distinction was made and now appears as such on Ordnance Survey Maps.

We enjoy the walkers who come past, and delight in their explorations around the area.  Not so with Mr. Mortimer.  Each walker was just another intrusion and a cause of his troubles:  Gates left open, livestock disturbed by walkers, and his privacy routinely invaded.   While we enjoy the walkers, we do feel frustration when someone drives up the track in hopes of getting closer to the Woods, comes calling to offer us religious salvation, or when we pick up the litter left behind by recent visitors to the park.  (https://crockernfarm.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/dartmoor-walking/)

Mr. Mortimer lived in Crockern for over 50 years, during which time he came to be characterized as one of the most eccentric individuals in Dartmoor.  His farming methods were considered “hopeless.”   In 1905, he was reported to have obstructed visitors’ access to Wistman’s Wood and went so far as to charge tolls.  Laughable and yet, inspired!  If we had a pound coin for every foot walking past, we’d be millionaires, seeing a far better return than the sale of our chicken eggs.  J. Stanley Mortimer truly ruffled feathers and in one official letter a complainant wrote, “He threatened Mrs. Dwyer with stoning, has used bad language and is extorting money under threats!”

Surely, trying to eek out a farm living on Dartmoor was hard enough; did he need to suffer the slings and arrows of his neighbours?  Then again, they had to suffer him throwing stones at them.

As we move through this change of season, hunkering down earlier in the evening and following frost reports to protect our winter veg garden.  We’ve raked the leaves and the last of the grass for the compost, and the wood store is impressive and ready to heat the house and the hot tub.  We watch as the vegetation retreats, revealing different wildlife, and with that, we let the chickens out later in the morning and put them away earlier at night.  The birds change.  The days grow shorter.  But the lichen slowly carries on, noting our contributions to Crockern.

This rust and tumeric coloured lichen is growing on the side of our house.

This rust and tumeric coloured lichen is growing on the side of our house.

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.”


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.”