Well, You Can Cry Me a River

Looking out the window at the West Dart River these past weeks reveals a river gone mad.  During the recent storms, it was consistently a fast moving, boiling, roaring, torrent of water.  On more than one occasion it breached its banks, taking part of our stonewall with it and I worried about the big trees on the opposite bank, which became temporary islands of wood as the river swelled with the rains.  These trees already have awkward leans to them, making it seem as if it is just a matter of time before they slide into a resting position on the hillside as I would onto the sofa.

And yet this same river on a warm day offers a place for wading or taking a cooling dip.  The waters gently babble past providing a refreshing tonic.  One summer day, we stood in the river drinking beers with our friend Hilary.  The cool river water gently washed past our legs as we shared stories and contemplated dinner.  Meanwhile, her sons Thomas and Charlie splashed about in the deeper water.  It was a wonderful afternoon and we have since claimed this patch of river our local watering hole, dubbing it Down By The River.

A gentle river.

A gentle river.

Same river view.  The river here is swollen and there is no land between the river and the wall.

Same river view. The river here is swollen and there is no land between the river and the wall.

Water is something we have in abundance on Dartmoor.   The high ground of Dartmoor forms a catchment area for many of Devon’s rivers.  The approximate total length of the 25 rivers on Dartmoor is over 130 miles and this does not include all the miles of leats and streams.   Some of these main rivers are steep and fast flowing and respond almost instantaneously to rainfall, growing faster, wider and wilder as ground saturation increases.  Just look out of our windows! In the last week of 2013 and into the first week of 2014, we have had a lot of rain.  In one 12-hour period of time, up to 40 millimeters of rainfall was reported over Dartmoor.   Our river had more than doubled in size.

The West Dart becomes a torrent.

The West Dart becomes a torrent.

Fortunately, a brief break in the rain allows the rivers to recede back to normal.  The elasticity of these flowing bodies of water is nothing less than spectacular.  In addition to my concern for the trees and our stonewall, we recently had to rescue three sheep who had become trapped between the swelling river and the stonewall.  They were nervously standing on a morsel of high ground, which was rapidly diminishing as the water rose.  Roger and I had no interest in spooking the sheep, nor did we have any intention of getting on the same side of the wall with them.  Imagine how easily we could have lost our footing and been taken under by the river.  As we plotted what to do, one of the sheep was starting to negotiate her cautious move along the stonewall.  The ground here is filled with reeds, holes, rocks and no end of ankle turning challenges.  But as she started to make her way north, the other two slowly followed.  Just before the river broke its banks, washing away the sheep’s high ground, the three made it to a wider patch of land.  They were safe and oblivious to the danger around them so resumed eating grass.  We went back inside.

Not everyone is so lucky.  We have heard numerous stories about people crossing these swollen and rapid moving rivers, only to be dragged under and drown.  And yet, that doesn’t stop the brave and adventurous souls who pitch up with their river kayaks and make their way from Two Bridges to Dartmeet where the West and East Dart Rivers meet to become The River Dart.

I love these rivers, not just their rapid rise and fall of water level, but that they provide a special habitat for some of Dartmoor’s wildlife.  Most of the plants along the banks are grasses, mosses and ferns, but in the summer watching dragonflies flit about is a delight.  Anglers routinely wade up the river in hopes of a catch of brown trout.  I admire their optimism and confidence, as the only trout we’ve spotted are around 6 inches long!

We have yet to spy dipper or kingfishers along our stretch of river, but we have seen many a heron wading along in search of those 6-inch brown trout!  What I long to see is the elusive Otter.  These endangered wildlife are reported to be making a comeback along Dartmoor Rivers (book recommendation:  Otter Country by Miriam Darlington).  Since Otters are nocturnal and secretive, seeing one would be magical.

The rivers of Dartmoor helped shape this landscape and once provided a source of power for industries such as tin mining and quarrying.   Today, they continue to provide for household uses, drinking water, and leisure activities.  And for the past 200 years, one of the uses of Dartmoor water has been in the distillation process of Plymouth Gin.

So Take Me To The River, drop me in the water and sign me up for a tour.  And that is just what we’ve done.  Next week, we are heading to the Plymouth distillery for a Gin Connoisseur’s tour.  I.  Can’t.  Wait.  For.  This.  Tour!

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Night Skies, Chickens, and The Coming Rain

I remain uncertain where the month of September has gone, but the end of summer is here.  The days are shorter, the dawn chorus of birdsong has faded and the leaves are turning colour and beginning to carpet the ground.  Each morning opens with a cool, bright and misty start.  But before I load up the wood burner, shifting where I spend time in the house, I find myself reflecting on the beauty of this recent summer.  When our niece, a photographer, was here in August she spent many hours capturing the night sky, the birds, and the changing weather.  What follows are some of Charlotte’s photos.

The sun setting over the ridge.

The sun setting over the ridge.

This looks like a Ghost Busters sky!

This looks like a Ghost Busters sky!

Swirling Night Sky

Dizzy and my head is spinning.

Misty morning

Misty morning

Yummy wet morning grass.

Yummy wet morning grass.

I'm so pretty, oh so pretty...

I’m so pretty, oh so pretty…

Let me give that some thought.

Let me give that some thought.

Are you talking to me?

Are you talking to me?

Like a bird on a fence.

Like a bird on a fence.

Keeping watch and feeling the rain.

Keeping watch and feeling the rain.

Here comes the rain.

Here comes the rain.

I'm outta here.

I’m outta here.

Rain on the reeds.

Rain on the reeds.

Mushroom in the grass.

Mushroom in the grass.

The end of the summer flowers.

The end of the summer flowers.

Rain drops on seed heads.

Rain drops on seed heads.

To see more of Charlotte’s work, check out her web site:   charlottelevyphotography.co.uk

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.

Drains

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.