Let them eat bread!

For Roger’s birthday a few years ago, I gave him the gift that keeps giving:  an all day class on bread making.  Early one March morning, he headed off to an artisanal bakery to return that evening armed with an apron, recipes, a half dozen loaves of Roger-made-bread, and unbridled enthusiasm.  This last bit was essential as bread baking at home is very different from a commercial kitchen.  In the beginning, through trial and error, Roger turned out a few loaves that I affectionately referred to as “doorstops”.   A harsh assessment, perhaps, but true.  With time, he developed his signature bread that we all love.

We being Sam, the chickens and us.

When I head outside to do any of my daily chores, the chickens will come running pell-mell to see what’s on offer.  When it is a slice of Roger’s bread, they forget all their shyness and manners and start jumping up to take bread out of my hand.  They fight for it in ways that would make bargain shoppers at a clearance sale proud.  And in the midst of this feeding frenzy sits one proud dog suppressing his instincts to edge out the hens and gobble up the bread.  He waits, watches, and then takes a big helping torn off for him when the chickens aren’t looking.

It’s funny that Sam and I should conspire to keep his bread eating from the chickens.  Will they care?  Will they remember?  Will it make them feel badly?  Or, does Sam enjoy getting one over the chickens?

Sam sizing up his best options for getting some bread.

Sam sizing up his best options for getting some bread.

Sam's strategy of looking away to secure a bite or two of bread.

Sam’s strategy of looking away to secure a bite or two of bread.

This race for treats does not extend equally to worms.  Unlike the chickens, Sam shows no interest.  Recently, I created a scene of pure carnage when I decided to unearth an old stone walkway, delighting the chickens with newly found treasures.  This path was covered with grass, mud and years of neglect.  I can’t say what prompted me to start pulling up the muddy turfs, but once I got started, I could hardly stop.  Obsession and single mindedness had something to do with it, but there was also a joy observing the crazy behaviours of chickens on a worm-eating frenzy.

Meanwhile, Roger created his own overwhelmingly messy scene when he took down one of the ceilings in the house.  He removed awful painted interlocking pine planks, revealing sparse, inadequate and highly flammable sheets of polystyrene.   Polystyrene was a popular insulation from 40 years ago, but anyone who has packed a picnic lunch into a chill box made of this stuff, knows that the coolness has left the scene within hours.  When used to insulate a roof, it is incomparable to what’s available now.  The part of the roof above this ceiling did not need repair, leaving this insulation replacement to be done from the inside up toward the exterior slates.  As I was making a muddy mess cooking up a worm feast for the chickens, Roger was yanking down the last marginal barrier we had to the slates in preparation of installing something far more effective.

The polystyrene has been removed.

The polystyrene has been removed.

Insulation is not unfamiliar to me.  When I was in the ninth grade, I competed in the State of Ohio Science Fair with my project on Conduction, Convection and Radiation of Heat comparing different insulation materials.  My Dad built a small doghouse for me to conduct my experiments.  While this structure was awkward to carry to the science fair, it was a wonderful contraption with an interchangeable front panel allowing me to insert the different materials:  wood, fiberglass, glass, and polystyrene.   Using a fairly imprecise thermometer, a heat lamp and a timer, I measured the changes in temperature inside of this insulated doghouse, to compare the efficacy of the various materials.

At the tender age of fourteen, that science experiment was an equal mix of excitement and humility.  I thought I knew my stuff until I encountered several brainy kids who really did know their stuff.  It pains me to confess it in writing, but I was seriously outclassed in the State capital.   The ability of some of these kids to test their null hypothesis exceeded even the most logical, intuitive and cunning skills of Encyclopedia Brown or Nancy Drew to solve nefarious crimes. And, I was surrounded by these people!  After First Prize was awarded to the kid who did some sort of study of molecular structures, I have never forgotten the word “polymers”.    Some lessons are learned during big events.   I sat in the bleachers next to my Mother, feeling somewhat glum while looking at my “Thanks for Participating in the Ohio State Science Fair” certificate, and I privately committed, from that day forward, to pay more attention in all of my classes.  During the acceptance speech delivered that afternoon, I learned from the Fair’s anointed winner that polystyrene was a polymer.  How did I miss that in my own research?  What I did know – and secretly hoped that the newly exalted one had missed in her research – was that this lightweight and widely used foam had some degree of insulation powers.  If I hadn’t learned it at the tender age of 14, I have learned it living (and wearing many layers) in this old stone house:  it may work, but it isn’t great.

Sanding the exposed beams.

Sanding the exposed beams.

The finished beam.

The finished beam.

This is the walk I found.

This is the stone walk I found.

As we weigh all the options as to which heating system will be our best choice for economic, environmental and maintenance considerations, we are still charging ahead with increased insulation and draft elimination.  What use is a nifty new boiler if we don’t address these issues?   Insulation in a house is as basic as bread in a diet and, while good, no one can live on it alone.  The chickens need to both feed and forage for the ultimate in health and happiness.  Ours raid the bird feeders, scratch for worms, bugs, seeds, grit and they eat the layers pellets that we provide.   They also like a mixture of shredded carrots, cucumbers and Greek yoghurt.  If we aren’t careful, they would eat the Polystyrene.   But these chickens have picked up a thing or two from Sam:   There will be some bread coming for them each afternoon and it is definitely worth the wait!

The winning loaf!

The winning loaf!

I’m Waiting for Mandy Patinkin

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.

Water Water Everywhere

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

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

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

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

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

Heath Robinson Drawing

There is the internal plumbing:

Crazy plumbing

Some of the plumbing works

There is the fuse box BELOW the water tank:

Crazy plumbing

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

There is the wire holding the roof onto this shed:

Home Renovation

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

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

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

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

Drains

Some of the newly cleared trenches.

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

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

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

Water Tank

Water tank resting on tire.

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

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

Crockern Farm

Roger liberating the stream.

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

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

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

Crockern Farm

Our completed soak-away.

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

West Dart River Dartmoor

The West Dart River and our wading pool.

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