All The Leaves Are Brown

Crockern Farm

After an extended and beautiful summer, autumn has arrived. Crisp leaves now carpet the ground. A damp air freshens and awakens. And a lower angle of light on the horizon casts longer shadows. On early dawn walks with Sam, I spy spider webs glistening on the gorse bushes and glimpse my exhaled breath as we walk down the track. If there is a mist – and now there is almost always a morning mist – and if the sun is just right, the bushes on the hillside glisten and sparkle. With the end of October near we will soon enter the winter months, making staying indoors much more tempting, especially if it is as wet and windy as last year.

This season brings the arrival of chillier weather, and with it, more of the critters from outside join us inside: spiders who spin intricate webs in a moment; the long eared bat; moths and a few late season butterflies; and our chickens. These are a curious clutch of hens and if the door is left open a jar, they march in single filed to see what might be on offer.

With its cooler air and changing colours, autumn always fills me with memories of apple bobbing, raking leaves, pumpkin carving and, of course, Halloween adventures. Halloween is a once a year opportunity to get dressed in scary clothing, hang up paper bats and skeleton decorations and cover the front door with fake spider webs, carve pumpkins and eat vast quantities of mini-chocolate bars. Who doesn’t enjoy that?

It is disappointing to accept, but once again I do not think we will get any trick or treaters up our long track. All the same, I’ve purchased candy, as I will not be caught short-handed should the bell ring. And imagine if our doorbell did ring!   How would that brave soul — or, boooooooh undead being — behave if we didn’t have a bowl full of mini chocolate bars to offer as treats? Halloween is not just about trick or treaters, it is the very night when lost souls roam and haunt! What if a coven of witches on their way to celebrate the night of the dead at one of the ancient stone circles on the moors knocked on our door in hopes of receiving a bite size Snickers Bar? Well, I for one refuse to disappoint!

Pumpkins ready for carving.

Pumpkins ready for carving.

Autumn is also a time of finishing up all those outdoor chores before winter arrives. As the plants die back to conserve their energy for a spring bloom, so too, Roger and I have turned our attentions to readying for winter.   Most recently, Roger has been repairing the shelves under the kitchen counter – a truly awful project – whilst I’ve stacked more firewood, cleaned the greenhouse, raked the fallen leaves, cleared the drains, given the lawn one last mow, turned and bagged compost, weeded, laid mulch, and straightened the barn. “It’s preposterous, I’m cutting shapes which have never been invented before!” said Roger as he walked past carrying a new shelf to replace the rotten ones under the counters.  And watching him contort himself underneath the kitchen counter, home to spiders and decades of accumulated dust, to solve the puzzle of these shelves has me realizing how easy my chores have been.

Except for one. I’ve just finished planting over 350 bulbs. How is it that bulbs seem so few when you buy them and oh-so-many when bent over planting them? I can only hope when spring arrives I appreciate the number and avoid my usual mistake of thinking, “Hey, we need more bulbs for next year!” Across from our barn is a collection of mature trees – Ash, Rowan, Oak, Sycamore, Beech, and Laburnum — under which there are now more clumps of bulbs. These snowdrops, bluebells and daffodils with their delicate yet proud stalks holding flowers will declare, in the fullness of time, spring is on its way.   They will be our hopeful signs that winter is not forever.

But we aren’t there yet. Soon, we will spend more time by the fire and less outside. As the nights draw in and our wood burner provides daily comfort, we will turn our attentions back to finishing the downstairs. We got stalled.  The summer was just so nice. No, it was glorious! That, and the demands on our time were extensive. Work, travel, and the real test to any relationship, selecting plumbing taps, had us running to play catch up. Yet, we’ve endured. The fixtures are all here and the plumber arrives this week. We’ve framed and wired the new bathroom and with that, we can hopefully complete the downstairs before the year’s end.

This week, however, we will carve our pumpkin, enjoy the visit from our friends, and wait for the knock on the door from those lost souls!

The colours of autumn.

The colours of autumn.

I Heart Compost

In the cooler months, steam visibly rises off the heap.  Each day, the pile on the right grows with new additions, while the pile on the left seems to transform into a dark, rich, and crumbly material.  There’s no smell.  There are, however, bugs swarming about, the sight of which even in the cold depths of winter, provides an anticipation on a par with hearing the coffee grinder on an early Sunday morning, knowing that I do not need to get out of bed to walk Sam – Roger’s already done it.  This week’s clear blue skies, warm, soft breezes, and the determination of the snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils all announcing spring, my low level of anticipation is ramping up into something approaching giddiness.  Yes, it’s happened again and I am completely obsessed with our compost, my steaming pile of pride and joy.

I’m clearly not alone in this world with my affection for this decayed organic material as books could easily line several shelves on the topic:  Easy Composting; The Humanure Handbook; Compost This Book; and, Let It Rot! are among the many.  I am curious about the Diary of a Compost Hotline Worker, but haven’t had the local bookshop order it for me.

When we moved to Crockern two years ago, we set about clearing an area of nettles and stones, building up some wind breaks and constructing seven raised beds.  We built our compost bins, erected a greenhouse and armed ourselves with determination to grow in an exposed, windy, cold, and wet environment.   Over the seasons, we have had successes and failures leading to a more focused list of what we intend to grow this summer.  Our winter beds are miraculously still providing lettuces, chard and spinach.  We are feeling proud and I affectionately know our lovely compost has something to do with it.

I suppose, making compost is considered to be complex and may cause a level of anxiety among some, but all you need to do is provide the right ingredients and let nature get busy.  Simply dump some green waste and then brown waste in equal amounts, give it air, moisture and time and voila, rich loamy stuff for the garden!

Where we live we don’t need to worry about adding water to our compost lasagna, but we do need to consider air.  Twice a month, I stir with a pitchfork the layers of mass, giving them a good mix then cover the pile with some old carpet and a tarp.  After a few months, the compost is beautifully decayed and I transfer it into bags to continue its transformation for a few more months.  All in all, I can create around half a ton of compost every six months.

I don’t know how my love affair began.  Unquestionably, composting is an act of frugality, which has some obvious appeal.   There is also the environmental feel-good factor of using organic material that would otherwise be entombed in a bio-indestructible plastic rubbish bag perched somewhere in a landfill.  Around 40 percent of the average dustbin contents are suitable for home composting.   But like all love affairs, there is something magical and enchanting at play.  To observe in a matter of months a pile of melon rinds, apple cores and other leftovers from our kitchen and garden, along with cardboard or waste from the chicken coop become a super rich decomposed material containing lots of humus, carbon and nitrogen is pure delight.  I’m busy making black gold and I love it!

Two of our hens are assisting with the composting efforts.

Two of our hens are assisting with the composting efforts.

While one pecks bugs and adds poop, the other is off to assess the progress and quality of the black gold in the left bin.

While one pecks bugs and adds poop, the other is off to assess the progress and quality of the black gold in the left bin.

There are little areas of chaos that characterize the circus we call our vegetable garden.  The chickens enjoy their role as supervisors, determining the right balance of worms in the bed.  “Cluck, too many, this one must be eaten!”  The rabbits visit but so far remain deterred by the netting over the beds.  The slugs and snails nibble.  And the rain hammers down on our plants, stripping the beds of vital nutrients and adding to the challenge we like to call “satisfying fun”.   At the base of it all, is our home grown compost.

Early spring is always a mad scramble with the garden.  This past week, I’ve turned our future fertilizer, bagged some of the well-rotted stuff for further decaying, and emptied tons of the fresh and ready material onto the garden beds awaiting our spring plantings.  We have started to chit out seed potatoes for planting mid to late April.  Tomato seedlings are now started.   I am excited to see the budding on the blueberry bushes and am anxiously awaiting the asparagus spears to show themselves.  The rhubarb is already about 4 inches above ground!

Despite the trouncing this watery-winter gave us, we know warmer days are around the corner.  Some mornings, as I pad out to my compost pile with the plastic kitchen pail chuck-full of potato peels, apple cores, and coffee grounds, I think about the bounty our veg garden will provide.    We are enjoying the longer days and the reverie of birdcall aware the return of our summer migrants like Swallows and House Martins is near.  As I tip the contents of the pail onto the heap, my heart swells knowing a rind is a terrible thing to waste.

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One Potato, Two Potato, Three Potato, Four!

“What I say is that, if a man really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow.”   A.A. Milne

Children huddled in a circle, with their fists like little potatoes presented, the caller goes round, tapping each little hand on its top with her own balled up hand, “One potato, two potato, three potato, four.  Five potato, six potato, seven potato, more.  And you are not it, you dirty old dishrag, you!”  A playground chant, French Fries served up at the local swimming pool’s food stand in summer, and a silly toy are among some of my fondest early memories of the world’s fourth-largest food crop.  This starchy, tuberous plant from the nightshade family, is rich in history, nutrition and is currently leading the way, with Rocket close on its heals, in the Vibrant & Vigorous Growth category of our vegetable garden.

And like that repeated, rhythmic phrase from youthful games of tag, one can’t help but regard with fondness, the potato in all of its glory:

One Potato:  Dan Quayle, former US Veep (serving 1989-1993), conducted a most famous blunder when he attempted to correct a 12-year old student’s spelling of “potato” to “potatoe”.  Oops (e).

Two Potato:  There are over 5,000 varieties of potato worldwide and about 3,000 are found in the Andes alone.  We’ve planted 5 different varieties:  Orla, Maris Peer, Charlotte, Teluca, and Pink Fir.  This last one stands out for being as tasty as they come, and I can’t wait to eat them!

When considering the history of the world through the potato, Ireland comes to mind; Blight, the fungus-like plant disease, resulted in crop failures leading to the Great Irish Famine in 1845 and a huge population decrease through death and Diaspora.  But, over four centuries ago, potatoes were introduced from the Andes region to the rest of the world and since then have become a significant part of much of the world’s cuisine.  Which brings us,

Three Potato:  The versatility or the potato is enormous.  Consider all the ways you can eat it, with or without its skin:  Fried, mashed, boiled, baked, twice-baked, steamed, roasted, scalloped, diced, sliced, grated, pancaked, or, made into a salad.  Potatoes can be served hot or cold; with butter, cream, mayo, ketchup, or mustard; and, seasoned with salt, pepper, your imagination, or with nothing at all.  Potatoes appear prominently in stews, savoury pies, and traditional Latin American, Asian, Indian and Eastern and Western European cuisines.  Without them, how could the old Brit favourite, fish and chips exist?  Or, that Russian favourite, Vodka?

The many uses of potatoes doesn’t stop there.  They can be used as food for animals.  Place a pile of boiled potato skins on the ground and our chickens go Cuckoo-Crazy as they feast upon this delicacy.  The starch from potatoes is used as a thickener in the food industry.  And more recently I learned in an article in the Times of India, soaking a cotton ball in the juice of a grated, raw potato and applying it on your eyes may reduce the appearance of dark circles under the eyes.  Personally, I think taking a nap may do the trick (

Four:  Sometimes it is just fun and games and Mr. Potato Head hit the American toy market in 1952 and with his attachable ears, eyes and nose to make a face on a giant plastic potato.  Imagine the brainstorming meeting on Mad Men, when Don Draper decides to target children for the first time ever with a Mr. Potato Head television ad campaign.

Mr. Potato Head

Mr. Potato Head

Five Potato:  There seems to be some debate as to how and when potatoes arrived in Britain.  Sir Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, or someone else who traveled the seas may have brought them to these shores.  Did those Spanish Conquistadors introduce them to all of Europe after their invasion of the Inca Empire?  No matter the precise history, the spud has been grown for centuries in Britain and more to the point, Dartmoor.

As it turns out, we live very close to Dartmoor potato history.   It’s true, it would be a stretch to consider our location to be central, but back in the day (1765 plus or minus a few years), at the end of our track there was a vibrant potato market.   Ironically, this site was probably chosen because of its easy accessibility on what remains the only usable road across Dartmoor.

Still today there are remnants on some old Dartmoor farms of “potato caves” which were chambers dug into soft, porous rock, used to store potatoes over winter.  We don’t have one, probably because anyone growing potatoes at Crockern could have easily taken them to market.  Still, was this a missed opportunity?  Couldn’t these caves have been used to store illicit rotgut distilling equipment?

Six Potato:  In 2010, the United Nations estimated that world production of potatoes was over 324 million tones.  Humans eat two thirds of this global production and the rest is fed to animals or used as starch.  Roughly translated, the average person’s diet in the first decade of the 21st century included about 33 kg of potato.  It is a cheap and plentiful crop that can grow in a wide variety of climates and as such, the UN declared 2008 the International Year of the Potato, calling it a “hidden treasure.”  Take that Rocket!

Seven Potato:  Not only a staple in many diets, the potato has sprouted into our language, too.  The TV addict is known as a Couch Potato.  When wanting to be free of something or someone, we Drop it like a Hot Potato.  If it is insignificant, we may call it Small Potatoes.  And if we are going back to basics, we will Stick to the Meat and Potatoes.  If you want a good laugh, just imagine us dancing The Mashed Potato.

More!:  We’ve done it.  We’ve harvested the first of our potatoes.  We planted 50 seed spuds, ten of 5 different types.  The first-early variety, Orla, was looking ready, and so we dug some up as a test and they were small, but delicious!

While I have worried about our cooler climate, increased rain fall, and the wind, which comes from all directions and sometimes with such force that our plants don’t seem to stand a chance, we have early success with our gardening:  The Potato.  This nutritious tuber has shown us that you can grow vegetables in the middle of Dartmoor and we are growing the little spud that could.  As long as it is cool and moist (we have both those things!) then Bob’s Your Uncle.

Potato Plants

Our potato plants at Crockern Farm

Let the Good Times Grow

I’ve got a case of the winter blues watching spring battling it out with Ole Man Winter, as there seems no end to the onslaught of bitter cold.   The icy winds roll through unimpeded and every venture outside puts us in the teeth of an arctic blast, yet we carry on with our gardening efforts.

That’s gardening, not farming.   Sure, the place we live is called Crockern Farm, but that dates back to by-gone days when there was more land attached to these buildings and the people living in them knew something about farming by grazing livestock and growing their produce somewhere else.  The land here is exposed, soggy, and rock-filled with poor soil.  Even with our raised beds, our high elevation results in more rainfall, wind and cold weather than other parts of the country, making for a growing season of less than 175 days.   In short, we’re up against it.

Crockern Farm

This sort of weather can make growing vegetables challenging.

I like farmers and romantically think if I had been born some twenty years later, I might have become one.  Though, likely not.   I grew up in Ohio, surrounded by farming communities and in my early adult years, couldn’t wait to leave for the lights of the big city.  In the 1980s, you got your degree and went to work on Wall Street, or in my case, some underpaid-but-feel-good option of public service.  Living in an urban setting, I planted window boxes, longing for a bigger patch of land.

Thirty years later, and I’m glad to consider myself a gardener.  Farmers have to be serious and work very hard for food growing success, employing tried-and-tested-grow-it-in-proven-ways.  I don’t.  Roger and I can experiment with all sorts of unusual things like trying to grow corn on the cob in Dartmoor!   To earn a living, farmers must grow enough to feed hundreds of people.    Unlike us, they can’t be seat-of-the-pants about their crops.  We can spend hours browsing the catalogues looking at heritage seed options and when the time comes, scatter said seeds on our well-tended soil and hope for the best.  Since we are just growing enough for ourselves, we can be casual in our approach and smile with joy when it works, briefly frown when it doesn’t, and record our progress in our little black gardening book.

When we moved to Crockern less than a year ago, we set about clearing an area of nettles and stones, building up some wind breaks and constructing four raised beds.  We built our compost bins and armed with determination to grow something in an exposed, windy, cold, and wet environment, we planted a winter vegetable bed in September.  We had successes — mostly the lettuces — and a few failures:  Tatsoi and Turnips were sacrificed to the slugs, and the Kales, Cabbages and Spring Onions made a slow and somewhat shy appearance, nearly ready for harvest, when in a single afternoon they were destroyed by the chickens.  Disaster!

Crockern Farm

Success! Lettuces from our winter garden.

It’s these sorts of notations that separate our efforts from those of farmers.  Losing crops to chickens having dust baths?  Really?  That’s the stuff of amateurs.  In other words, us.

I do not wish to imply that gardeners are not skilled, knowledgeable, and very capable.  It’s just currently we are on a steep learning curve.  As a devotee of Gardener’s Question Time on Radio 4, and those delightfully named Brit celeb gardeners, Bob Flowerdew and Pippa Greenwood, I listen in hopes of inspiration and insight, but alas, they never address growing vegetables in the middle of Dartmoor.  That leaves us with a bowlful of trial and error, seasoned with a healthy sense of humour as our strategy.  Roger and I may be a bit haphazard, casual, and mildly frustrated by mistakes and oversights, but now know a farmer would never have let those chickens anywhere near vegetable beds.


Before you say Potato, and I say Potato, we are busy getting ready for our spring plantings.  We stand strong in the face of weather, chickens and slugs.  We have started to chit out seed potatoes for planting mid to late April.  Our tomato seedlings are underway.  And, we’ve put fresh compost on the garden beds.   This is a busy time, even if the garden looks somewhat destroyed.  Layered up in multiple fleeces, hat, and gloves, Roger and I set about to repair and create the infrastructure:  Little and often we work to maintain the stonewalls; we regularly turn the compost and collect manure; we’ve recently built a new raised bed for the asparagus crowns we will soon plant; the discovered stone path is complete; fencing, gates and drains are all repaired; and, when the ground isn’t frozen, we’re pulling up the nettles to prevent them taking over.

Crockern Farm

Bundled up for our current spring temperatures.

Looming large on our to-do list is the building of our greenhouse. When we had it delivered as a flat pack kit in October, we understood we could put it up in a weekend.  Nearly six months later, we’re ready for growing and finally have the foundation and the frame complete.  We need to install the toughened glass, but the weather once again turned cold and wet, delaying our progress.  It is invigorating to be outside in a light drizzle at about 10 C, but rain, snow, sleet, hail and stiff winds just drive us indoors to sit by the fire, read, write, and sip a gin and tonic.   In other words, the stuff of gardeners, not farmers.  As soon as the temperatures rise preventing our fingers falling off as we hold glass in place, we’ll complete this project.  In the meantime, being indoors means we can fuss with seeds and hope the ground will warm up sometime soon.

Crockern Farm

Roger readying the greenhouse

Crockern Farm

Chitting those spuds.

Crockern Farm

Seedlings coming along.

Despite the trouncing this extended-winter is giving us, we know warmer days are around the corner.  If we do more now, our early spring will be free of a mad scramble and we can enjoy the reverie of birdcall and with it the return of summer migrants like Swallows and House Martins.  If farming is for those who make their living growing food, Roger and I are content to be gardeners whose efforts yield enough to feed us.

We are delighted  — and relieved — that while we are working through the challenges of growing in this climate, we can still support the local farmers at markets in town.  Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Chug-a-Lug, Mr. Slug

Many of our indoor projects are on hold until the roofers appear to do repairs.  It’s been a wet summer here, so their schedule has been delayed.  The weather, however, hasn’t dampened our ardour; indeed we’ve been busy outside.   The potholes on the track are filled; we’ve taken down broken bits of the shed, replaced two gates, and done our best to secure the chicken coop against unwelcome guests.  We’ve also constructed two compost bins; one is full of decomposing matter and will be ready to place on the garden in the early spring.  The other is half full and just beginning to breakdown.  For now, it is the current dumping ground for all of the cuttings, clippings, biodegradable kitchen waste, and remments of the weekly chicken coop cleaning.

We’ve also finished building and preparing our raised vegetable beds and are ready to plant out our autumn garden.

Raised Beds

Raised beds now ready for planting

In planning our vegetable patch, we’ve read all the advice for success, which is clear:  consider the location of the beds, the quality of the soil and monitor for pests.  Full sun and protection from wind are critical.  We have the full sun (when it isn’t cloudy or raining), but not much protection from the wind.  Dartmoor soil tends to be slightly acidic, so we ordered a pH test kit.  Roger and Thomas, our young assistant who was visiting with his Mom, went about the task of testing our soil.   The results are that it is about 6.  Not ideal, but we aren’t in bad shape as most vegetables like a pH of 6.5.

Soil Ph Testing

Roger and Thomas in the laboratory

Our last step toward garden success is to put our attentions to controlling one of the sneakiest and most determined of all threats:  Slugs.  The slugs we have been seeing this summer are not featherweight chumps.  They are about 5 inches long and the size of mice.  Our plants are at risk from these beastly gastropod molluscs, and we haven’t even started.


I once asked an expert at a Royal Horticultural Society information booth, “So, what’s the best way to control slugs?”  Answer:  “I admire slugs and think they are amazing creatures.”  Notably, this response did not answer my question, but did provide me enough information to know that I was not going to get anything beyond, “learn to live with them.”

Sunday found us outside working in the garden planting rhubarb, raspberries and a blueberry bush, when a group of men happened past carrying a keg of beer.  Odd we thought as we live a half-mile up a track with nothing but wilderness beyond.  Odder still, they were soon followed by another group of men, then a group of women, then one man with a keg on his back, and yet another group, all carrying kegs of beer.  We asked one group what was going on and they told us it was a challenge walk.  Interesting challenge!

Drink, drink, drink, drink.

Drank, drank, drank, drank.

Drunk last night.

Drunk the night before.

Gonna get drunk tonight like I’ve never been drunk before.

My Dad taught me, along with a few of my friends, this drinking song.  It is an unusual composition to teach ten year olds, but it is a catchy tune with fun lyrics.  But I digress.

Slugs are slimy, supposedly inedible, and destroy gardens.  Evidently, they are good at consuming dead vegetable matter, but they don’t stop there. They enthusiastically eat through anything that is leafy, flowering, or beginning to grow in a vegetable garden.  And, I’m not alone in the hatred of the slug.  Read any gardening website and it’s filled with comments from people at their wits end as they battle against the slug.  They are also filled with endless tips of how to stop them in their slimy tracks.

I won’t deny that I do like the slug pellet.  There is nothing politically correct or organic about them, but they work.  Sadly, they are poisonous and can cause problems for pets, wildlife, birds and beetles.  Our chickens like to scratch in the garden bed, and we’re concerned that they might enjoy a pellet or two as their last supper.

We’ve tried copper rings, ground up eggshells and gone out on the nighttime slug hunts.  This is when, at dusk, the keen gardener is expected to lift leaves, pick up the slugs, and put them into a sealed container to feed to the birds and chickens the next morning.  The one and only time I tried this, I picked off over 25 slugs and still haven’t recovered from the experience.

One thing I won’t try is to eat them.

I am a fan of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, but draw the line at trying any of his slug recipes offered in one episode of River Cottage.  You can stuff them with herbs and spices, batter them and even add chili and garlic, Hugh, but a slug is still what you’ve got.

I wonder, is Hugh onto something, perhaps?  There is a story on Dartmoor about the ruins of a farmhouse from the 1700s known locally as Snaily House.  The story has it that the last inhabitants regularly enjoyed a tasty snack of bottled, salted slugs along with a few garden vegetables as their main sustenance.  The local farmers believed the plump inhabitants of this farm could only be surviving by stealing their sheep.  Imagine the community surprise upon discovering the true culinary delights within that home.

No, I still say we aren’t meant to eat slugs.  Case and point:  recently a young man in Sydney dared to do so and spent time in an Intensive Care Unit.   Maybe it was because the slug was raw or because it was just a slug.  But is it a coincidence that Slugulus Eructo is the charm in Harry Potter that causes someone to belch out slugs and their associated slime for about ten minutes?  I think not.

Cuz when I’m drunk, I’m as happy as can be.

Cuz I am a member of the Soused family.

Now the Soused family is the best family, that every came over from Old Germany.

With that childhood drinking song in my head and visions of hikers carrying kegs of beer, I reveal here our primary slug control approach:  the slug pub.  It’s simple: slugs love beer.  Like Homer Simpson, they are attracted by the smell of most yeasty liquids.   By placing a partly beer-filled jam jar into the ground, it is like turning on the neon open sign at the local pub.  Slugs can’t help themselves.  With luck they go for a pre-dinner drink and drown before setting out to munch on the garden.  The marinated slugs can make a nice breakfast for chickens and birds the next morning.  Let them eat the rascals.

“Giving up alcohol is cruel,” Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, once said. “One of the cruelest and most deceitful things you can do to your body. I’ve taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me. It’s a great gift of the gods.”

Singing Glorious!


One keg of beer for the four of us.

And glory be to god that there are no more of us,

Cuz one of us could drink it all alone!


As we move ahead, we’re hoping to win the battle against the slugs.  We will continue to encourage birds, frogs and toads and hope that they will feast on any and all slugs they find.  And, we’re hoping that the Bo-Jo’s of our garden come out to party, singing all the way!

Water Water Everywhere

Everybody is talking about the weather, but no one does anything about it. – Mark Twain

I’ve never known a man to rust by being out in the rain. – Martin, our plumber

England this summer kicked off with a hosepipe ban due to drought.  A ban that was immediately followed by six steady weeks of rain.  While parts of the world suffered dry, hot conditions, we were quickly becoming a swamp.  A chilly one at that.

Dartmoor has a temperate climate that is usually wetter and milder when compared to other locations of the same elevation in England.   The rainfall tends to be associated with Atlantic depressions.  As we’ve barely had two days in a row without rain this summer, the Atlantic may be due for some Prozac.

It’s not just the outside that is damp, but our old stone farmhouse is suffering in a few places, too.   It is important to note that damp in an old stone house is common.  We know we need to replace the roof, and have lined up our team.  In about three weeks, we carefully remove the slate tiles (as we will put them back on the roof with reclaimed tiles to replace broken/missing ones) and take the roof down to the rafters.  Here, we will install breathable lining and insulation; put in place proper lead flashing, new fascia boards and guttering; and, return the slate tiles.  Roger frequently says of the current guttering, “It’s very Heath Robinson.”  And we have a few examples of temporary fixes that used whatever was to hand.

Heath Robinson Drawing

There is the internal plumbing:

Crazy plumbing

Some of the plumbing works

There is the fuse box BELOW the water tank:

Crazy plumbing

My biggest concern is that our hot water tank is made of copper rather than stainless and due to a silly bit of engineering, the electric fuse box currently sits underneath this tank. With acidic water, a copper tank may last only 8-10 years. We have an electrician coming out to move that fuse box.

There is the wire holding the roof onto this shed:

Home Renovation

This wire is helping to keep the shed roof in place.

An old house necessarily has an evolution to it.  Centuries ago, people living on the moors would have had open windows; thatched roofs with large overhang, livestock living in the house for warmth, and the buildings would have been able to breath and the damp less contained.  Any moisture coming through the stones would leave through the stones, taking the easiest path.  In other words, not all that damp inside.

Over time, some of these paths have been altered as the way we live has changed.  Some of the efforts to keep water out have instead encouraged it to stay in the stones:  concrete rather than lime mortar, non-breathable weather shield exterior paint, and the modern desire to live in a warm and draft free home.

The problem isn’t pervasive, but a few spots cause concern.   To address this, we’ve wire brushed the interior stones to rid them of any moss and moved furniture away from the walls so the stones can breath.  On the outside, we’ve cleared neglected trenches around the house to improve the drainage away from the house.  Once dug and cleared of grass and nettles, the trenches are back-filled with several tons of pebbles.  This technique is known as making French Drains, we affectionately think of it as making Achy Back.  We’ve met with a stonemason who has confirmed our efforts and is providing us a tutorial on replacing the concrete mortar with a lime mortar.  And, we’ve scheduled the roofers.


Some of the newly cleared trenches.

The water we do want in the house comes from a natural spring.  Our spring is about 100 metres from the house and is gravity fed to a tank in a leaky shed outside.  From here, the water is pumped back into the house.

People have been drinking this water for centuries and it tastes wonderful.   We know ours is slightly acidic, which poses a challenge for the copper pipes and tank that transport the water throughout the house, but we recently had it tested for other bacteria.  When I took the water samples to a testing centre in Exeter, an eccentric mad scientist at the door of a dilapidated house met me.  It took a long time to locate this place as the directions were out of date,  “It’s across the road from the bus stop and there are cream pillars with red numbers painted on them.”  Truth:  Overgrown hedges covered any pillars and red paint had long since worn away.  Finding this place in a timely way was critical, as the water samples must be dropped off within a few hours from collection.  I imagined a similar sense of urgency experienced by men dropping off sperm samples.

Our water test results show that we have safe water in regards to bacteria and other unwanted bits; we just need to address the acidity.  In order to do this, we will install a UV filter and PH adjuster to the tank but not before we have the roof and flashing repaired on the shed.  Roger and I also must empty the storage tank, lay a stable floor (the tank currently rests on old tires), and insulate the space so that in winter, the water doesn’t freeze.

Water Tank

Water tank resting on tire.

It is a curious thing to have no water in a place that is known for its wet conditions and yet one day our tank was dry and not so much a drip off of the taps.  A quick inspection of our spring indicated that it was running well.  We needed to remedy the situation and so called in the experts…they came the next day.

Our waterman used a pump to reverse the water flow and push whatever was in the pipe back to the source.  Roger dug out reeds and other plant life that were growing around the stream, repaired the cover and cleared the filter.  After a bit, the water was bubbling again.  It appears that we had silt or an air block that caused the flow from the stream to just stop.  Once resolved, we had to keep the water running for about an hour to flush out any sediment in the pipes.

Crockern Farm

Roger liberating the stream.

When the water was running clearly, we turn off the taps only to discover that the entire downstairs was flooded!  One of the pipes had stopped draining into the soak-away and instead was filling the house.  From no water to flooding in less than 3 hours!

With each intervention there is an equal and opposite intervention.  This is the third law of renovation physics.  – Roger

The next day, Roger and I started to clear the offending soak away.  We removed reeds, lifted boulders, and dug a trench.  Once we saw that the water was flowing freely, we filled the trench with gravel and sand, placed the boulders strategically to prevent the pipes getting damaged and returned the reeds for water flow through the roots.  Having never built a soak away before, we were learning as we went.  So far so good.

Crockern Farm

Our completed soak-away.

We had a rare break from the rain, and this day of labor was hot and sunny.  After we completed our soak away restoration, we took our tired, muddy, and sweaty selves down to the river and climbed in for a swim.   It was fantastic to sit in the river surrounded by the wilderness and the relaxing sounds of the birds, water and breeze.

West Dart River Dartmoor

The West Dart River and our wading pool.

Returning inside and filled with a sense that all was well with the world; I noticed a bit of water on the kitchen floor.  Why this puddle?  Turns out, it was a small stream inside as one of the copper pipes was leaking.   We phoned Martin.