RIP Dear Lister



It was a beautiful summer’s day and we were enjoying a cocktail atop Gin and Tonic hill, the spot in our garden where we levelled the top of a small mound, placed a garden bench and trimmed a few tree branches to enhance our view.   We did this in 2017 and since that time, I’ve planted primroses and daffodil bulbs, letting this particular bit of garden do its own thing.  Roger had made a curve of stone steps up to the top, creating a grander approach to our perch, perfect for watching the dogs play and reflecting on the day.


Late afternoon, our farmer neighbour was cutting and bailing the meadow across the valley.  The sun was warm on our faces and there was a rich smell of meadow grass in the air.  Millie and Brock were running around in a mad game of chase and wrestle.  The rules known only to them.  The inside jokes of siblings.  In the background was the hum of insects singing and our old lister generator chugging along.


I was home for a few weeks from my travel back and forth to the USA during the summer of 2018 when my Dad had fallen ill.  Roger and I were enjoying the warmth of the late afternoon when suddenly a loud bang came from the direction of the generator.   Roger ran off to investigate and after about 20 minutes returned looking miserable.  “Is the generator okay?” I ask with a hopeful tone.  “No.  It’s fucked.”  That summed it up rather neatly.


Our workhorse, the 30 year old Lister 4-stroke generator

With the heat of the day, the plastic fan on the alternator had snapped.  As we were to learn shortly after our emergency call to the generator experts, this fan was the one part in the Lister’s entire assembly which could not be replaced.  Our Lister, a work horse for over 30 years, having been maintained, repaired and loved, had configured itself for the role of standby and used parts stock-list.   No longer would it power Crockern.  Instead it would become part of the world parts provider.  Reincarnation.


Before we could come to terms with this sad and costly fact, we had to address the immediate situation:  Our remaining power left to run Crockern was stored in our batteries until we could sort this.  We had about 36 hours.


Thankfully, our call to the generator experts managed an emergency back-up generator to arrive the following morning, suppling us with electricity until we could replace the Lister with something rebuilt or new.


If only it were that simple:

The temporary generator arrived on wheels and we moved it into the barn.  The temporary generator needed to be started manually every day to maintain a supply of electricity.  We did not directly link it to our fuel storage.   Roger now regularly needed to siphon fuel from our tanks, lugging 20 litres canisters across the yard to sustain the backup generator.   Making matters worse, this loaner generator had been poorly maintained by the previous set of desperate people, and now required frequent fuel filter changes.  Another task.  We could manage this, except we were heading to the USA for a long planned family wedding and visit with friends.


Enter Mark, Yvonne and Lorenzo who had arranged to stay at Crockern while we were away.  Their planned holiday  – no doubt filled with thoughts of long walks, pub lunches, and lazy afternoons —  now had a tethering.  Each day, they must manually start the generator.  They must keep it fuelled.  They must change filters.  Welcome to your holiday!  And in the only way friends can save you, they did.  Without complaint, they attacked this situation making it part of their holiday adventures.  They are no strangers to Crockern, helping in the past to plaster ceilings or lay concrete.   But, shouldn’t we be here to lead the charge?  Thankfully, Mark and Yvonne are troopers.  We felt at ease leaving them with this situation.


Meanwhile, Roger and I toured the North East of the USA vising friends and family.  We stopped by the Baseball Hall of Fame.  We ate lobster in Maine.  We enjoyed my nephew’s wedding.   Ten days of fun and relaxation, a much needed break from the drama of my Dad’s illness.   But, shortly after  Roger and I touched down at Heathrow, I turned on my phone  to receive a text from my sister.  Our Dad had died.


I quickly returned to the USA to join my sister Carol as we emptied our Dad’s house, planned the funeral, and dealt with a host of challenges created by his wife.  Roger remained at Crockern for the next two weeks keeping the generator situation alive.  Before flying to join me for Dad’s funeral, Roger supervised the arrival of our new snazzy generator.  We went large:  a new 12 KVA Kohler generator.  It is quiet.  It handles the weather, which is good because we need to address the roof above it.  Mostly, it works.


My Dad and our Lister both died in the summer of 2018.  An essential part in each of them gave up, unable to be repaired.  Our new generator is fantastic but we miss our Lister’s hearty chugging sounds filling the air.  So too, we miss Dad, but the memories fill our hearts.




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!

I’m dreaming of ….

Recently, Roger and I find we awake in the morning with a greater number of aches and pains.  Feeling this way, one would hope for a slower start to the day, a chance to lounge in bed with a cup of coffee, read the news, and spend an extra hour contemplating the day ahead.  Alas, not here at Crockern where everything is a small-demand requiring our attention.

Lets begin with Millie.  She starts her puppy day with joy and excitement, and no end of energy.  Boundless.  Bouncing.  Filled with fun.  Everything is a curiosity and a possible game.  She was recently described as “high drive” by a woman who trains dogs for agility.  At first, this seemed like a good thing, but what I’ve come to discover is that it may perhaps be code for disobedient.  She’s smart and can see the end point, so elects to skip all the middle bits.  She’s like the smart kid in geometry class who knows “one does not equal zero” so why bother with all those steps in the geometric proof to demonstrate that fact?

Meanwhile, Sam, her patient elder, is struggling with the hard wood floors and getting his balance.  His mornings involve some sliding about as I fly out of bed to lend a hand and help him to his feet and out the door.  Shortly thereafter, we three head down the track.  What once took 15 minutes is an easy 30 minutes as Sam stops to take the scent of an animal which passed that spot in the night.  As he inhales deeply, Millie charges off the hill, out of the gorse, with her toy proudly dangling from her mouth before knocking into Sam to see why he isn’t chasing the same toy.  “Why Sam?  Why?”

At this time of the year, the sky is dark as we set out for this first walk of the day.  Still, the birds begin to awaken and there are a few songs to be heard across the moors.  After our walk, the dogs and I fill the bird feeders, let out the chickens, and bring in some firewood.  As we enter the kitchen, Roger is there with his coffee and catching up on the news.  I love the days when I get to be home all day without a work appointment, chore, or social engagement.  We all lounge in front of the wood burner, reading and contemplating our next walk.

Our house projects have been somewhat stalled of late.  No particular reason other than we had a need to take some time off from them.  Of course, just as we were settling into that idea, our water tank developed a huge bulge.  If it is not obvious, this is not a good thing.  A bulge, like any blister on a toe, will eventually burst.   And in the house — specifically under the stairs — that would leave us with a nice little mess.

And so, despite our desire to take some time off, we were facing a problem.  They say, “Every cloud has a silver lining.”  What they don’t say is “every hot water tank has …”  No, they don’t say that and that is because it would be stupid.  Our hot water tank is made of copper, which corrodes over time, especially where the water is more acidic as it is here on Dartmoor.

When Crockern was first built, there was no internal plumbing.  The river likely played a vital role for all the water needs of residents some time ago.  As modern conveniences changed the way people lived, so too the water system at Crockern evolved.  Over time, the system here came to resemble something designed by Heath Robinson, one of those ridiculously complicated machines constructed to accomplish something terribly simple.  Here’s how it worked:  Our water would come from the spring about 100 metres north of the house and enter a tank outside.  Water from this tank would be pumped into the house and up into the loft into an overflow tank.  This tank permitted gravity to then send water, under pressure, to the taps, showers, and toilets.  That same bit of gravity, fed water to the hot water tank which was heated with redirected heat from the Aga.  Of course, when we put in the new boiler a few years ago, which had the ability to heat water, but we elected to delay connecting it to the entire house.

Nearly a year ago, in one of our exploratory whims, we removed a false wall in the kitchen to reveal all manner of pipes.  We lived with these, thinking “one day, we’ll clear all that up and change up the water system.”  That day arrived when the hot water tank developed a noticeable rounded swelling on what should have been a smooth surface.

We called the plumber and got an estimate.  We called another plumber, received a nicer estimate and scheduled him to come out and begin the work.  What should have taken one day, unfortunately took two days, but he managed to disconnect the hot water tank and remove it.  Next, he hooked up our water system to the boiler which heats the water when we require it, rather than all the time.  After he left, Roger removed the redundant overflow tank while balancing on a ladder over the stairs.  He also removed all the silly pipes which were hiding behind the false wall and were now no longer needed.  The thrilling part is that the pump works less frequently and our water pressure is better.  A few weeks later, we back-filled the AGA and as a result are burning less fuel.

So why didn’t we do this earlier?   We are free of extra pipes and an inefficient way to heat water.  We’ve gained closet space.  We have greater water pressure.  The truth is, there are a lot of projects and this one could wait.  The copper water tank was working.   And as the Laws of Renovation declare:  Each project results in an equal  and opposite amount of additional projects which are always unanticipated despite enormous preparation and planning.

In short, we’ve learned with this old house, there is never a project which can begin and end all in the same month.  Now that we’ve changed up the water system, awaiting us in the new year are the following:

  1. Repoint the wall that was previously hidden.
  2. Build shelves in the closet under the stairs which previously housed the hot water tank.
  3. Remember to install a light INSIDE the closet so we can see what is on those new shelves.
  4. Purchase a new whizzy pump (the current one sometimes — usually around 11 p.m. at night — stops working and requires one of us (okay, Roger) to head outside and give it a good whack! — and put it under the stairs, along with a ph regulator for the water.

Four steps!  Four manageable and easy steps.  Really?  What project can end in four more steps?

None.  Nadda.  Zilch.  That wall in the kitchen, which needs to be repointed, is one part of a wall in the kitchen.  We still have paint to remove from another wall, and repair blown plaster on two other walls.  The beams need to be sanded and shelves under the counter tops to be built.  These are a few projects for the kitchen, but not all.  With our newly modernized water system, we can permit ourselves to renovate the small bathroom, which still has carpeting on the wall as a nod toward insulation and no insulation in the roof.  In the office, there is a radiator I’d like to move, floors to sand, some walls to paint, and another wall to repair.  We can’t do any of this until we address the flashing on the chimneys outside.  Oh yes, the list goes on and on.

Four more steps?  In our dreams.

Make Room For Millie

It’s no small matter to ready a home for the arrival of a new puppy.  We’ve brushed up on basic training information, readied dog crates, and set about removing chewing temptations such as shoes and wires.  We’re not looking forward to sleepless nights, but remain hopeful for quick house training.  Fingers crossed.

We’ve had it easy with Sam.  He came to us as a rescue dog with a few issues, but he has never damaged anything inside the house.  Suffice it to say, we’ve been spoiled.  With all the projects at Crockern, we’ve kept working on the kitchen at the bottom of the list as it seemed too disruptive.  Besides, two people and an old dog could live with our kitchen layout for years and not be all that fussed.  Sadly, the design of our kitchen did not lend itself to the arrival of a puppy.

Kitchens with fixed cabinets can be hard to rearrange without incurring significant disruption.  With our free standing cupboards, a design change is theoretically simple, but the required logistics to make a change are on par with landing on the moon.  To simply move this there, that needs to go there, and in order to do that, this will have to be emptied in order to move this there, and on it goes.  More than once, we’ve walked away, mulling over possible solutions.

Our first step was to empty the shelves under a fixed countertop and remove 50% of the shelves to make room for the washing machine.  Excellent plan if only the space below were bigger or the washing machine smaller.  But, the slim margin we were dealing with meant Roger had to completely dis-assemble the counter and its frame.  A day later when he finished, we squeezed the washing machine into its new location.  Feeling pleased with ourselves, we stood back and noticed a small leak.  Smugness was quickly replaced by panic!   Taking a few deep breaths, Roger climbed behind the washing machine and made some awkward adjustments to the plumbing.  We were back in business.

Or were we?  The kitchen table was buried beneath the items which were once stored under the counter.  And we hadn’t begun to move furniture.  I pride myself in being able to organise, but this situation was quickly testing our patience and skills.  We looked at everything from those shelves and around the kitchen and began to hatch a plan.

For the next phase, we must:

  1. Empty the refrigerator;
  2. Move the shoes, coats, and basket of hats, scarves and gloves;
  3. Empty the dresser next to the shoes;
  4. Move the dresser;
  5. Put the refrigerator where the dresser once sat, but occupying the space where the shoes where previously thrown; and then,
  6. Return items to the refrigerator.

Sounds simple enough, but everything in the dresser needed to be cleaned before being returned. The dresser needed a new location, so the cabinet holding all of our booze and cookbooks had to be emptied and moved too.  Rapidly we were running out of places to set all of our stuff!

Hours later, and nearly everything in its place, there remained one piece of furniture.  Our largest dresser, the very one we picked up at an auction when we first moved to Dartmoor.  We didn’t really need to move it, did we?  It looked good where it was and also was hiding all manner of ugly paint work.  But it was in the place which was perfect for the dog crate.  Considering the level of disruption we had sifted through, why stop now?  Because, if we moved this dresser, we could remove the paint from this wall.

Spices, canned and dried food, cups, and glasses had to come out of the dresser and moved out of the kitchen.  Having become an old hand at removing paint from stone walls, Roger began to apply peel away paint remover to this ugly wall which we had now exposed.   Removing this paint was not purely an aesthetic decision.  It was holding in moisture and we had a gross little problem that was only going to get worse until we let those stones have a chance to breathe again.

The paint on this wall was trickier than the previous stone wall we cleaned as it was oil based and did not want to come off in nice little flakes.  Instead, it clung on in a gummy, gooey sort of way.  Roger spent a day picking at it.  By the end of that day, he hung plastic sheeting to protect the kitchen, put on his waterproofs, and got the jet sprayer.  Yes, once again, we were using a power washer INSIDE the house to remove the final bits of paint.

What a mess!

After several hours of cleaning, we moved this last dresser into its new location and returned the contents.  We found homes for our boots and a good location for the crate.  We did all of this in five days.  Five days to transform a bit of the kitchen.  It feels bigger and brighter and the damp on the wall is already diminishing.  We still have big projects in this room:  blown plaster to repair, another wall covered in that tricky paint, and some significant plumbing to change, but for now, the small steps we took have made a big difference.

When we have deadlines like friends coming over for dinner or visiting for a few days we manage to complete projects swiftly.  Bring home a puppy and we throw it into another gear, shifting from idea to action.  Perhaps I’ll suggest a party sometime soon and we’ll see what we get done.  For now, we welcome Millie!


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.


If It Ain’t Baroque…..

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

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

Part of the wall awaiting paint removal.

Part of the wall awaiting paint removal.


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

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

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

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

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

What to do next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Blessed are the List Makers

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

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

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

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

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

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

List twitching alert!

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

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

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

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


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


The paint problem.


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

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.

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.”