RIP Dear Lister

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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.

Lister

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.

 

 

 

And, I’m Still Waiting for Mandy Patinkin!

Recently, Roger cleared a plot of land where our soakaway flows.  It was overgrown and to breathe new life into it, he spent days cutting, hauling and digging.  He uncovered over 40 stones, each weighing about 150 pounds or more.

We’ve been repairing a significant old wall near the generator, trying to prepare the area for the new roof we must build.  The wall here will not be load bearing, but it still needs to be sturdy.  Those 40 stones are coming in handy, but they aren’t next to this project.

And so, we’re back to moving rocks.  As such, I’m reposting a piece I wrote during our first summer at Crockern.

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In the 1993 movie, The Music of Chance (based on the Paul Auster book of the same title), Jim Nashe (Mandy Patinkin) is an ex-fireman who sets off with a sizeable inheritance to explore the US in his new red BMW.  He is free of debt and responsibilities.  On route, he meets Jack Pozzi (James Spader), a feckless down on his luck gambler.  Pozzi cunningly manipulates Nashe to enter a high stakes poker game against two eccentric and wealthy bachelors.

Unfortunately, the poker prowess of Nashe and Pozzi is not up to snuff and after running out of money and using his car as collateral, Nashe risks everything on a last blind turn of a card.  As luck would have it, he loses and the two become indebted to the cunning bachelors.  To pay off the debt, they are indentured into building a “wailing wall” in the meadow behind the bachelors’ mansion, a wall that nobody will ever see.  This wall is to be made of stones from the ruins of a fifteenth-century Irish castle, each weighing more than sixty pounds.  There are ten thousand stones.

Wall Building in The Music of Chance

Things to know about granite:

  1. It is widely distributed in the Earth’s crust.
  2. It is igneous, slowly solidifying from magma.
  3. It can contain minerals, like feldspar and quartz, so it is the Superman of stones and is stronger than steel.
  4. Granite is everywhere in Dartmoor, including our property walls and most of our house.

One thing that Dartmoor is not short of is dry stonewalls and there are hundreds of miles of walls across the moor.  Early farmers enclosed their land by building these sturdy walls.  In the 1700’s, a right of any ancient tenement holder (farm) was that upon succession of the farm, the son could enclose a further 8 acres of land.  These areas were called “newtakes”.   Someone had to build these enclosures and building a wall by piling stones 4 or 5 feet tall without mortar was an invaluable skill.

I will attest, it still is.

When we met Jim, a local stonewaller, he was repairing the wall along our track for the local farmer.  He and his apprentice took the section that had fallen during a storm last year, and in a days work in the pouring rain, recreated a beautiful wall.  We asked Jim to take a look at some of our walls that needed repair in order to keep the sheep out.  This talented man, who earns a living building stonewalls, suggested installing stock proof fencing.  The major breaches are in soggy bits of field, and to bring a “digger” to lift the heavy stones into place might result in the digger sinking into the ground.  Alternatively, he suggested we keep stacking the stones up as best we can.

Stone wall along track to Crockern Farm

Jim’s repaired wall

We aren’t that interested in posts and barbed wire, preferring the stonewalls, so we pushed Jim a little harder about how to build back these walls.  He said, “Each stone has a face….find the face and have them all looking out in the same direction.”

Okay, find the face.

Bloody hard when we are lifting a 400 pound stone!  Marital discord aside, Roger and I have been unable to locate a face.

Crockern Farm wall

An example of our handiwork

Stones for building walls are everywhere and if the sheep or erosion have knocked them off, they are often buried nearby the remaining wall.  Historically, a wall builder wouldn’t break or shape stones, and instead would build the walls with the materials nearby.  If needed, some stones would be carried across a distance by sleds or ponies.

In later years, many wall builders started using only the large stones and roughly squared them.  We have some examples of these in our walls.   We also have some stones that have fallen and are sitting nearby, mocking us.  Some are impossibly large and heavy and it is difficult to imagine how they were ever lifted into place.  Consider The Great Wall in China, Hadrian’s Wall on the Scottish Border, the Irishman’s Wall in Dartmoor, and the walls to our house and fields and the mind begins to boggle.

Crockern Farm Wall

Thankfully, this wall isn’t in need of repair. Look at the size of these stones.

More things to know about Granite:

  1. It can range in colour and its texture is determined by the rate of cooling.
  2. It makes a beautiful countertop.
  3. Curling stones have been made of granite since 1750 and weigh between 38 and 44 pounds.
  4. Granite is heavy.  A cubic foot of granite weighs 168 pounds, compared to the same volume of water, which weighs only 62 pounds.
  5. The lintel above the door to the entrance of the house is up 6 feet and is 4’9” x 2’ x 10” (yes, those are imperial standard measurements).  I now have a rough idea that this stone could weigh at least 1,330 pounds .
  6. People have worked with granite for thousands of years.

There was one noted wall builder in Dartmoor, John Bishop (1821-1892), who was one of the first to use the shaped and squared building method in his walls.  He tightly fitted large blocks of granite in such a way that very little daylight could be seen through the wall.  Controversial, I know, but the walls Roger and I have repaired allow for lots of daylight.  When asked how he lifted such heavy stones, John Bishop is alleged to have replied, “Aw, ‘tis surprisin’ what ee can do with a laiver or two.”

We’ve used crowbars, gravity, fulcrums, the “one, two, three, lift,” swearing, “third time is a charm,” determination, perseverance, smaller stones, the end-of-the-day-cocktail-motivator, and still our walls are just okay.  No faces in the final formation.  Nor are there any larger-than-life-squared-off-boulders-not-to-be-moved-for-another-1,000-years back in their place.  Yet, we remain undeterred.

In constructing the Wailing Wall, Pozzi begins to view the work as an infringement of human rights and nothing short of being a slave.  Taking a more philosophical approach, Nashe tries to see it as fifty days of exercise.

While hefting our stones into place, I’ve had this exercise thought.  Singing Bob Dylan in my head: “They’ll stone you when you’re trying to make a buck.  They’ll stone you and then they’ll say good luck.  But I would not feel so all alone, Everybody must get stoned.” and still unable to locate a rock’s face, I will let my mind drift to those fabled biceps and shoulders of Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2.   Those arms could be mine if I just lifted five more stones before calling it quits.

Granite on Dartmoor is not just about walls and houses.  The earliest surviving granite structures are the ritualistic and ceremonial monuments from over 4,000 years ago.  These include Neolithic stone rows, stone circles, burial chambered tombs and standing stones.   Some standing stones may have been simple boundary markers, but when aligned in rows, they may have ceremonial or astronomical purposes.  Today’s modern standing stone is most often the memorial to fallen veterans.  Both Nelson’s Column and the New London Bridge incorporate Dartmoor granite.

Drizzlecombe Complex Standing Stone, Dartmoor

Drizzlecombe Complex consists of megalithic stone rows, longstones, over 20 cairns and hut circles.

More than a few Dartmoor stories have been inspired by certain natural rock formations, often involving witches.  These are not from the Glenda the Good Witch category, as Dartmoor enchantresses are not to be crossed.  There is one such story about a coven of witches who sought revenge on a hunter.  Bowerman was out with his dogs hunting rabbits when he chased a hare through a gathering of witches practicing magic.  Incensed by the interruption, one witch transformed herself into a rare white hare and led Bowerman on another chase across the moors.  He continued to pursue the white hare until he collapsed from exhaustion before the other witches.  With their collective powers, they gave him a granite coat for warmth while he rested.  It is said that the hunter remains entombed in the stone formation known as “Bowerman’s Nose”.  Notably, these rocks have a face.

Bowerman’s Nose

The Music of Chance takes a darker turn before it concludes, but eventually Nashe completes enough work on the wall to pay off his debt.  When I’m not deluding myself about the merits of heavy lifting exercises, I find myself hoping he’ll drive up our bumpy track in that red BMW and lend a hand.

Hey Santa!

Santa Claus (A.K.A., Kris Kringle, Papa Noel, and Father Christmas),  Santa’s Grotto, near Reindeerland,  North Pole,  Somewhere in the middle of the Arctic

Dear Santa Claus,

What a year, eh?  What happened to it?

In all of the hullabaloo, I believe I may have neglected to send you my annual note last year, for which I am terribly sorry.  Rest assured, despite this oversight, Roger and I are thinking of you and hope you, Mrs. Claus, the Elves and all the Reindeer are happy, healthy and ready for your upcoming big night of global gift giving. What a job you have!

While you have been busy getting ready to travel the globe, spreading your usual good cheer (I think you have a rather large task ahead this year), we’ve had our own busy schedule.  Lots of work demands which took me away from Crockern nearly every month.  I did travel to some terrific places like Ireland, the USA, Paris and Brussels, which made it fun.

Lots of friends and family visited us from near and far, which was a treat.  We traveled to Wales and managed several weekends away to visit friends throughout the UK.  We even spent a week on a canal boat winding through the country-side.  Have you ever done anything like that Santa?  I highly recommend it.

When home, we set about our usual projects and a hearty thank you is also in order for helping us with a good year for our garden.  After making needed improvements to the raised beds to keep the rabbits out, we enjoyed a terrific crop of lettuces, potatoes, tomatoes, chard, spinach, kale, cabbages, beets, strawberries, blueberries, rhubarb, asparagus and onions. Even now in the midst of winter, the garden is providing us with winter vegetables. If you wouldn’t mind, could you send our thanks to Mother Nature when you see her at the New Year? The weather this summer was great for the garden and we would love to put in our request for another splendid summer for 2017. Along with the garden, we had so many opportunities for BBQs and evenings in the hot tub.

I don’t have much for “the list” this year.  I could use some time to rest and reflect on this past year and focus on my intentions for 2017.  I am planning to use the holidays for precisely this activity.  For Roger, I’m wondering if we might not consider some head protection.  There was that concussion he suffered while laying a fence this summer.  But, after seeing Roger knock his head more than once on a low door frame or beam in the house, our friend Miriam suggested he could use a “house helmet”.  Old stone farmhouses are not easy places for someone his height and I’m wondering if your elves might have some suggestions.  I know they are short, but I’m guessing they may hit their heads on the underside of a work table from time to time.

The chickens have had a good year and in preparation for the holiday season, are taking several weeks off from egg laying.  The one Roger nursed back to health is happily scratching for worms with her mates as I write this.  All six of our hens have recently finished moulting, so we are anticipating their winter break is soon coming to a close and we’ll be back into having too many eggs.  If that happens when you are flying past, we’ll make you an omelette or a soft boiled egg.

We think you’ll enjoy a few improvements since your last visit.  We finished the floors and walls by the wood-burner, making that room cozy as can be.  We still have to work on the ceiling, but we’re not in a particular rush.  Of course, if you or the elves are looking for a short working holiday, let us know and we’ll move the furniture out of that space and you can help sand the beams.  You’ll like the staircase we refinished and now that the water system is up to date, you may have some thoughts about whether we carry on with the work in the kitchen, finish the office, or start the small bathroom next.

When you arrive please be aware Sam is moving slowly and can’t hear as well these days, so you may need to bend down to give him a little scratch behind the ear.  When you do, be warned that Millie will thrust her chew toy into your hands and insist on a game of tug.  She’s not met any reindeer yet, but likes meeting other dogs.  She’s shown no interest in the Dartmoor ponies, sheep and cattle she’s encountered, so we’re guessing your team of eight reindeer plus Rudolph will be a welcome set of friends.  Warn your team, she does enjoy a good game of chase!

Bit of a non-sequitur Santa, but can you vote?  I received my British citizenship this spring, and with my new dual citizenship, had the right to vote in both the UK referendum and the USA presidential election.   You have such an unusual address, it’s unclear where you cast a vote.  And, does your system of democracy involve electoral colleges?

We are excited for the holiday season. The tree is up, decorated and ready for your arrival.  We hope you’ll have some time to visit when you come to Dartmoor.  With all of its history and adventures, the projects and quirks, the visiting critters and various challenges, the coziness and the beauty, both inside and out, Crockern continues to captivate and enchant us.   As you’ve always told me Santa, with the right attitude, each day can be filled with wonderful adventure and discovery.  Boy oh boy, do we have that here.

Safe travels Santa. I hope the weather will be clear and bright for you as you take your sleigh across Dartmoor.  Maybe there will be one of those super moons to guide you!

With love and warm wishes for a healthy and happy holiday season to you, Mrs. Claus, all the elves and reindeer,

Catherine

Crockern Farm,

Pretty much in the middle of Dartmoor, UK

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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.

It’s a Dog’s House

It’s well known that dogs are good, no great, for our mental and physical well being.  But can they benefit our home?  Sam seems to think so.  He loves bursting out the front door for a walk, sniffing all the goings-on outside and then returning for a treat, some water and a nap in front of the AGA.  Lucky boy.

As he gets older, slower, deafer and mellower, we’ve started thinking about getting a puppy.  WAIT!  WHAT?  For the past 30 years, I’ve only rescued adult dogs.  Scratch, Al, Jack and then Sam.  Scratch was actually a puppy when I rescued him from the pound, and he was a bundle of joy and hard work.  I swore then, “no more puppies.”  Somehow, Crockern tells me to ignore this broad brush stroke rule and start talking puppies.

“What kind of puppy would you want Roger, if we were to get a puppy?” begins my campaign about a year ago.  “Do you think Sam would like a puppy?”  “I wonder if a puppy would help Sam as he gets older?”

Roger, having never had a puppy joins in on my explorations.  While I dove right into websites and kennel club forums, Roger was happy to listen to all of my updates.  The pros and cons of crate training.  The 100 most popular names for dogs.  The top 10 smartest breeds.  Discovering the difference between intelligence and obedience.  Hours of you-tube videos on teaching your dog how to run agility courses, or play dead, or fetch your slippers.  I moved past the hard graft of training a puppy and right into the big payoff.

Roger brings me right back to earth with a concern:  “Will a puppy chew our furniture?”

If we were gone all day long, that might be a concern.  But one of us is usually home and Sam currently spends almost no time without one or both of us, so that would enable us to keep all our furniture safe I assured Roger.

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Having had dogs, we both know how they can leave their mark on the interior of our home.  Dirty paw prints, drifts of shredded hair under the furniture and in corners, and shaking muddy water across the room on a rainy day.   Roger and I may take care to remove our boots, but Sam doesn’t share this thinking.  He couldn’t care less about avoiding puddles or squelchy bogs before racing back inside the house.  Sometimes, Sam gets so excited for a walk he steps in his water bowl, spilling its contents all over the kitchen floor.   And lets be honest, what dog barfs in the loo or outside?  No, any carpet will do.   But who cares?

The truths are clear. Dogs are terrifically opinion-free.  While Roger and I may spend hours deciding and then working on a ceiling, or a wall, or even the type of tap for the bathroom sink, Sam is blissful in his lack of concern.  He could care less if we lived in home laid out by interior designers or a shack in the outback.  As long as he is loved, fed, walked, and loved some more, he’s happy.

Besides, who else is going to greet us at the front door, tail wagging and gazing lovingly up at us as we potter around the house.  Dogs!  Who else makes us laugh with their ways of getting us to do their bidding (really Sam?  Do you see how hard it’s raining?  You really want to go for a walk?) or chase bunnies in their dreams?  No one except a dog, that’s who.

And since nothing completes a home like a smelly, shedding, daft but delightful dog, we’ll be picking up a puppy in June.  Watch this space.

Step by Step

In each room where we’ve completed a major renovation, there remain a few minor projects to complete before we can say we are 100% done.  Mostly little things like placing a small piece of trim or securing an electrical fixture.  Sometimes, there remains something more involved such as replacing a window or finishing a ceiling.  These require one last giant push from us and of course, there are lots of other things to do, including enjoying what we’ve done and contemplating next steps.

In one such instance, while we were sitting by the fire in our most recently finished project (not withstanding there remains a window to replace, a ceiling to hang and two electric outlets to secure), we decided to refinish the stairs.   To add to it, we had an extra deadline as in three days our friend Yvonne and her son were coming to visit.  With a self-imposed completion date looming and a new project to address, we got busy.

We don’t have any idea when these stairs were installed, or their origin, but they do not appear to be original to the house.  There are different rises between the treads and a turn, which taken too quickly while wearing socks, can land you right on your backside.  This is actually preferable to slamming your knee into the granite wall which runs along side the stairs.  Despite the potential bruising hazards, they are perfectly serviceable.

They had been painted a dingy chocolate brown, which was looking tired and pretty banged up.  The dark colour robbed the stairwell of all light, predictably making it a gloomy area even with a window at the top landing.  We considered our options for some time before diving in on this project.  We wanted the paint off, but what was the wood going to look like underneath?  If the stairs looked worse, then we needed to consider how we might paint them.  Neither of us were too keen about using paint stripper for these steps as they are in regular daily uses.  We could treat every other step which would be fine for going up, but the coming down seemed a dangerous proposition.  How about the left side then right side?  And, how do we prevent Sam from following us up the stairs each time one of us ascends them?   After our recent exploits in getting all the paint off the stone walls, we were both fed up with the smell of the low-odour, paint stripping option and so wanted an alternative.

Well, something was afoot and before I knew it, Roger had his belt sander on the first step to see how easy it was to remove the paint.  Meanwhile, I searched the internet and discovered there are far too many pictures of what people have done with their steps.  Without exercising discipline, I could easily just look at all of them and never turn my attention to another rung on the ladder of our home renovations.  Spoiler alert:  I’m now about to take a step too far and contribute to the plethora of stair photos available to eager home-improvers and Pinterest enthusiasts.  Onwards and upwards!

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The first step reveals potential for some beautiful wood underneath the dingy paint.

The rabbit hole of Internet stairs photos was almost immediately shut to me as Roger made quick work on two steps and they looked fantastic.  We knew what we had to do:  Sand the steps and then use stripper in the corners.  It took Roger about 90 minutes and the steps were mostly cleared of paint.  After a quick clear up of dust, I came along with my trusty old paintbrush, the environmentally friendly paint remover and applied the goopy stuff to all the corners.  After twenty-four hours, the residual paint came up easily with a scraper and a bit of water.

 

A day later, we were able to return to the project.  The stairs needed time to dry before Roger could sand and smooth all the wood.  He also gave a light sanding to the toe-kick bits.  Once done, I came along with some light-coloured paint, addressing the trim and toe-kicks.  Roger then treated the treads with some tough matt finish product called Osmo (this stuff is amazing!) and the job is done.  Our one project that doesn’t have anything left to do on it.

 

 

When Yvonne and Lorenzo arrived, we showed them the stairs before heading out for a long walk to return and relax by the fire, enjoying the company of good friends.  Now, as I walk up the stairs to the studio, I feel really pleased with the beauty of the wood beneath my feet.  And I look at the room where we work and I feel ready to get going on this project too.  Of course, what we need to do in here will wait until we get the plumber out to do a water tank switch over and move a couple of radiators before we repair a wall, refinish the floors, paint the walls, and replace a window.  One step at a time.

 

Our Farmhouse Education

Roger’s done it!  After several weeks and a lot of hard graft, he’s managed to remove the paint from the stone wall in the fireplace room and it looks fantastic.   Not only were the painted stones unattractive, but the weather shield paint which had been used was holding in moisture, creating damp on the wall.  Before returning the wooden floor boards, we had to let the stones dry.   We repaired the supports under the floor, laid a damp proof membrane and added some insulation.  The room is not quite completed — the ceiling still needs to be addressed and there is a window which needs replacing  — but it has been transformed.

When Roger and I began to tackle the restoration project at Crockern, we knew we were taking on a project with unknown dimensions.  Since we weren’t raising children, we agreed we could instead nurture and care for an old house.  And like those who swell with pride when their children do something terrific, our completed projects give us enormous pleasure and satisfaction.  And I suppose, like parents of teenagers, we see the host of projects looming ahead as unpredictable, sometimes difficult and always an unknown challenge.  Naturally through the process we’ve learned a thing or two and it seems high time to pause and share.

  1. Live with the house and the space before making big decisions and do not rush into major projects.  We received this advice from a friend before we moved to Crockern and boy oh boy, was he right!   Early days necessitated some immediate decisions — a new roof and the replacement of a couple of supporting beams  — but it’s crazy how many times we’ve changed our ideas as we’ve lived with the house through the seasons.
  2. Embrace the stories and history of the house.  We don’t have to strip every room back to expose original details.  In fact, if we did we’d probably have cows, sheep, goats and chickens living in the kitchen!  This house has evolved over time at the hands of many residents and we want to honour that history where we can.  We have had to undo a few “fixes” from the past while at the same time installing a few modern interventions in order to make the house more energy efficient.
  3. Do research, and then do some more research.  And if you think that’s enough, do even more research.  Questions I’ve never considered in previous houses loom large here:  How to remove paint from walls?  How to treat wood so it continues to breathe in a damp climate?  How to do dry stone walling?  How to build a plinth for an oil tank?  What are the local building materials and which ones hold up in this climate?  How to address drafts or damp without creating a bigger problem.  What vegetables and plants can we grow on Dartmoor?  How to live with a generator?  How do we maintain our spring so our water is clean?
  4. Accept that it is unreasonable to expect every room in the house to be constantly warm and dry.  Back in the day, living in a stone farmhouse was a hard-life.  Weather on Dartmoor can be wild, wet and windy.  When the winter storms raged these past few months, there was nothing more wonderful than keeping cozy by the wood burner.  Thank goodness the paint is off the walls and the floors are back in position!
  5. Be prepared to compromise.   Some things which would be ideal in a modern house are simply not suited for a traditional farmhouse.  That said, I want to find a way to hide the electrical wires which currently run across beams.
  6. Definitely do not attempt to do everything at once.  Our time, expertise and budget have limits, and it’s simply more manageable to renovate one area at a time.  It has taken us time to learn new skills and to find tradesmen we work with well.  Of course, addressing one room at a time has an added benefit:  when we are fed up with the mess or hit the inevitable snag, we can simply retire to another room and avoid the headache for a few days.   When renovating, rushing into any decision or action can be costly, but more, the end product is just that and you gotta live with it.
  7. There are times when I may covet luxurious interiors with all their modern and easy conveniences but anything too contemporary, glitzy, let alone square and level, would just not be in keeping with this old house.  These traditional farmhouses were the homes for centuries to hardworking families and their animals.  We need to strike a balance between the practicality-tradition of using whatever materials were to hand and aesthetics.  While being too precious might ultimately make the house too clinical we also don’t want to use what fell off a truck and utter, “That’ll do”.   We aren’t afraid to use modern fittings, but if we can repair it and it looks pleasing, that might be the better solution.  Sometimes, an honest visible repair is just the ticket.
  8. While it is important for us to make and stick to a budget; sometimes, it is important to accept that we love this place and that may mean spending money which may never come back to us.  WAIT!  I’m a tightwad, did I just write that?  But here’s the thing, over the years many of us have spent loads on cars with full knowledge that they depreciate in value every time we drive them.  It’s important to see our home as something more than just an investment.
  9. Accept that we’re in it for the long haul and approach this old house as if we are its guardians.  In Crockern’s 200 (or so) year history, our time living here is just a short event.   When we started this project we set out on a 5-10 year schedule and after 4 years, we’re about half way done with the house.  The outbuildings loom large and will change the overall time frame to something looking like 10-15 years in total.  The thing is, if we rush it we won’t discover what needs to be done.  This sort of renovation and living may not be for everyone but we love it and want to take time to enjoy our home, too.
  10. And last, DO NOT FORGET to put a light on the inside of the closet under the stairs when we eventually move the hot water tank.  It’s damned frustrating to not be able to see in there.

As Crockern continues to teach us how to proceed with renovations and restorations, it continues to teach us a lot about ourselves.  We experience our need to laugh and relax as well as have a good old argument and get filthy dirty on a project in equal measure.  As I sit by the fire writing, Sam is by my side napping, and Roger is heading back out to the barn to get some wood.  There is a small part of the floor which needs patching before we can finish off the trim.  We’ve nearly finished stripping the old paint and sanding some stairs revealing some beautifully aged pine full of knots and burls.  There is a window to replace and how we will finish the ceiling in this room remains a mystery.  That said, we like what we’ve done so far and the truth is we’re not really in any rush.

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

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The floorboards were transformed with a light sanding.

 

In The Trenches

Sometimes, my body simply can’t move and I am incapable of lifting even my little finger.   Naps call to me when a reviving cup of coffee seems inadequate.  These moments of pure exhaustion usually stem from a day of physically demanding projects.   Lately though, my desire to slouch onto the sofa with a good book and a blanket is the result of enduring the tyranny of relentless rain, hail and wind these past weeks.  I’ve had enough.

In December, a beautiful autumn gave way to weeks of heavy rains and strong winds, taking much of the country hostage.  Floods and economic damage have affected thousands.  For the two of us, the consequences of all this wet weather have been relatively minor.  We have a chimney leak, indicating some flashing which needs attention, our winter vegetable garden is not growing, but it isn’t dying either, and our track is developing a number of pot holes.  The river is torrential and raging.  The yard is saturated making each step a potential slip and fall. The chickens haven’t had a good day out in weeks.  Sam’s walks, when not abbreviated, have tested the limits of our waterproof outerwear.   And my hiking boots leak.  Still, life goes on.

The first morning walk with Sam down the track includes a routine assessment of potholes.  Filling potholes is a regular spring activity and the quicker we stop them becoming craters, the better.   Left to grow,  larger potholes need a packing of bricks, which we hammer down before covering with road planings.  Heading into December, I was feeling smug about how fine the track was looking, even flirting with the idea that spring 2016 might mean a “miss” on track maintenance.   But this winter’s rains have undone our past summer’s efforts.  More than a few potholes have emerged.  Big, bold, deep, and growing each time anyone drives up the track.  With the ground so heavily saturated, the rainwater runs off the hillside and across the track, taking all the gravel with it and giving way not just to potholes, but to a relatively new aspect of Crockern maintenance:  clearing ditches.

As no one expected the war to last as long as it did, the first trenches in WWI were made quickly and often filled with water and subsequently collapsed.  Our trenches — ditches really — are designed to direct the water off the hills and into holes which run under the track.  In the distant past, some wise soul constructed this series of ditches, but years of neglect has left them overgrown, filled with grass, silt and low growing gorse branches.  In some areas, the network of sheep paths has flattened the lip of the ditch letting water run over the ditch’s banks.  With my shovel and clippers to hand, I’ve set about a wet, wintry madness of clearing this overgrowth so the water can resume its historic flow when it rains heavily.

This is not a quick job.  According to the British trench guidelines, it took nearly six hours for 450 men to construct 250 metres of trench.  The layout of the trenches was generally about two metres deep and two metres wide.  Our ditch is about 20 x 20 centimetres.   Considering the smaller size, I suppose it shouldn’t take too long for one woman, one shovel and a pair of garden shears to clear the overgrowth.

But, there are many reasons why this job is not quickly accomplished:

  1. It is futile to dig when it is pouring down with rain or the wind is too blowy.  I fall over more.  My hair is in my face and I can’t see.  I rapidly get fed up.
  2. There are only so many hours in a day the body and mind can do this sort of work.  I suspect prisoners and slaves made to smash rocks or build pyramids would agree.
  3. After about 2 hours, I’m happy to see I’ve accomplished about 30 feet of clearing.   I arch my back and stretch my shoulders only to see the remaining 2,000 feet left to clear.  My heart sinks and it takes time to recover motivation.
  4. Last year when I started this project, I scratched my cornea on a gorse bush.  I close my eyes half the time I’m doing this job now, which does slow things down considerably.
  5. The house is warm and dry.  My book is good.  The sofa is comfy.

While I’ve been outside covered in mud and rain, Roger has made incredible progress on removing the paint from the interior granite stones using a non-toxic paste and a lot of hard graft.  This is no easy undertaking either, as he must first apply the paste, then remove the softened paint with a scraper before using the power washer to get rid of the rest.  This clears the stones of paint while at the same time making a flooded mess inside the house, necessitating an hour or so of cleaning up.

While we toil away on our various projects, the rains continue.  Occasionally there is a brief interlude when thick cloud cover gives way to a watery sunlight.  The powerful winds die back and the birds return to our feeders.  When we eventually have a few days free of rain, the soggy, muddy, squidgy ground will once again find firmness.   For now, we alternate between ditch digging, paint stripping, drying wet clothing, and drying a wet dog before we answer the call of a book, a hot bath, a cold drink, a soft couch and the chance to drift off into a blissful sleep.

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A view from the trench as the clouds give way to a brief moment of blue sky.

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”.

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

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The paint problem.

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