A Stork Out

During the winter, one of my primary focal points is the wood burner.  Not just the heat it produces, but the hypnotic beauty of its dancing flames.  I am easily distracted while sitting in one of the chairs close to this stove.  Installing the wood burner was our very first project at Crockern, and since that time we have spent many fine hours enjoying it, both dogs curled at our feet.  I also proudly organise the store of wood in the barn, rotating our supply to season the latest arrival.  My wood store organisation paid off when Chimney Sweep Steve said, “You two should write a manual about how to use a wood burner.  This one is as if it is brand new.”  Like the Grinch’s small heart, mine too grew three times that day.

I won’t betray my love for our wood burner, but lately, I find my tendencies toward distraction are pulled in more than one direction.  I can no longer walk past the living room window without stopping to see what, if anything, is visiting the pond.  I’m like a hopeful teenager willing my crush to round the corner and catch my eye.  Each time I look out upon the pond, I enjoy the magic which tentatively creeps into the scene:  a sparkling glimmer upon the water as the sun pokes through the clouds; or perhaps, a rippling of waves as the wind whips up the valley.   Already, our new pond is attracting wildlife.  We have had the arrival of a pair of ducks swimming daily, and periodically making camp on the island.  I watched a Sparrowhawk preen its feathers on a nearby fence post, resting from a recent hunt nearby.


But most recently, I spotted Roger gingerly wading out into the pond.  Roger is tall and slender, and the pond is very muddy at its edges.  I waited in anticipation for his probable slip and splat into the mud.   But Roger didn’t fall, instead he came to a spot and stood motionless, gazing intently at the water.  “What is he doing?” I wondered.  Hunting?  Attempting to determine the various depths of water?  Considering where we will be placing trees and any other plant life?  Looking for the muddy archive of animal print trails passing near the pond?  Or, trying to see the pond from the same perspective as the Grey Heron, one of our first and most frequent pond visitors.

It’s no wonder we’ve spotted this elegant long-legged hunter waiting by the water’s edge for a fish nearly every day.  Across the river and in the stand of pines, lives a colony of Herons.   Herons nest socially and usually at least 25 metres above the ground.  I’ve walked in these woods and looked up but have never spotted a nest.  Over the years, we have delighted in watching Herons sail along the river’s path with their slow-flapping wings and long legs held out behind.  They look almost prehistoric in flight, and comical as they attempt to gain purchase on a flappy tree limb.  From my own perch,  it is easy to watch these magnificent birds fly in and out of the pines.  And if I can’t spot them, I can hear them making their loud and raucous selection of croaking sounds.  Impossible to miss.

Until they started visiting our pond, I did not appreciate the size of a Grey Heron.  Some of the adults can stand up to one metre in height, with a wing span of about two metres.  I’m only about 1.6 metres tall.  This makes it one of the largest birds we will spot at Crockern.

Herons are usually solitary hunters, standing silently and patiently with that beautiful pale grey plumage.  Because they are still for so long, I can take in the beauty of the broad black stripe extending from their eyes to the back of their white heads and necks.  I like the extra feathers drooping down their necks, too.   They are dead on trend for eye-liner styles and may be the unknowing inspiration for a drag queen or two.  Lady Heron performing tonight on RuPaul’s Drag Race!    These natural killer good looks are accented by their long and pointy yellow beaks, perfect for spiking their prey.  That could spell curtains for some of the other small wildlife to visit the pond.  Fish are not to be found in our pond.  How long will they wait until they realise this?  There are plenty of moles in the fields, so perhaps those will suffice.

Most recently, I was driving up the track and glanced down towards the pond.  I wasn’t expecting to see much more than the direction of the wind on its water and the mud patches all around the perimeter.  But standing stock-still, scattered almost equally around the edge like numbers on a clock face, was a siege of Grey Herons.   Six to be exact.  I phoned Roger from where I sat in the car.  “Roger, quickly get your camera and go to the living room window.  Do not let the dogs out.  Take pictures.  You’re not going to believe it.”

Perhaps, dear reader, you’ll be equally surprised by the photos.

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!

Feel The Burn

I was in town when Roger called me to tell me about the fire raging across the hill on the other side of the river.  His voice sounded concerned as he described hearing fire engines in the distance while watching how the strong winds were rapidly spreading the fire.  Alarmingly, there appeared to be nobody bearing fire shovels in sight to control this burn.  The fire was moving swiftly down the valley toward our fields, but if the wind had shifted, it was entirely possible embers from the fires could easily jump across the river and burn Wistman’s Woods.

Roger is not one to exaggerate so I quickly finished what I was doing and high tailed it back home.  It seemed better to have both of us home in case we had to do anything to keep the fire from coming too close.

Driving back to Crockern, I kept a sharp eye out for smoke filling the sky and saw none.  But when I rounded the corner to make my way up our track, there were four fire engines parked.  The closer I got to home, the more I could smell the charred remains of burnt gorse and grass and see the smoke drifting up from the scorched earth.  What had been green and golden when I left in the morning was now black and smouldering.  Several acres were burned, but by the time I arrived, the fire had been contained.

Controlled Burn.  Prescribed Burn.  Hazard Reduction Burning.  Backfire.  Anglo Saxons called it Swælan.   Locally, it’s known as Swaling and has been carried out for centuries.  Swaling is the annual burning of gorse and scrub in order to clear the ground of dead and overgrown vegetation, allowing new growth to flourish.  Those green shoots which grazing livestock love to eat, not the ones economists like to talk about on the news.

On open moorland, overgrown vegetation can restrict some public access and in dryer, warmer months can present significant risk for wild fires.  The farmers who graze on the common land are allowed to conduct controlled burning of moorland vegetation, in other words swale, to clear the ground encouraging new growth.

Between 1 November and 31 March it is permissible for the Commoners to do controlled burns and all signs pointed to this being a planned burn.  But we suspect it might not have been.  The local farmer for that patch of land said he was not swaling that day.  Honestly, no one in their right mind would have set out to swale because it was such a windy day.  Could it have been a casually tossed cigarette?  We see enough litter lying about that it wouldn’t have surprise us.  A few years ago, a fire damaged over 600 acres of moorland when strong winds fanned the flames.  The cause of that fire was unknown and took more than 100 firefighters to bring it under control.

As the sun was getting low on the horizon, the firefighters returned to their engines after a job well done.  The sheep in the fields carried on nibbling grass and the horses and chickens seemed unfazed.  The songbirds at the feeders were out in full force, possibly discussing just what the hell happened.  Roger and I sat down to do the same.  The fires were out, but all of us at Crockern were left with the view of a blackened hillside and air heavy with the smell of charred vegetation.

Before we had a chance to recover, we received a phone call from the farmer who grazes livestock on our side of the river and he was planning to swale up our side of the valley the next day.  I know it is a technique to manage the landscape and is legally done this time of the year, but looking upon the burned remains on the other side of the river, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad.

Around two in the afternoon, we saw the haze of smoke cloaking our usual view down the track.   We scanned the hillside to see the group of swalers assembled to oversee the burn.  After about ten minutes, the flames were licking over the tops of the yellow-flowering gorse bushes, marching forward across the hillside toward Crockern.  This is the very gorse which I had scratched my cornea on last year, and spent a good amount of time this winter cutting back to clear trenches.  Not certain I would have bothered with that miserable task if I knew this burn was going to happen.  Still, I was sorry to see the prickly gorse so easily go up in smoke.

With the air calm and a seasoned crew of swalers, Roger and I weren’t concerned about this fire, even as it made quick pace toward our house.  I took pictures and watched from the window, comfortable in the knowledge that this fire was under control.  Given the day before’s experience, I don’t wish to be too close to a fire outside of our trusty woodburner any time soon.

Falling into Autumn


Morning fog to start my day.

Crisp leaves are beginning to carpet the ground with browns, yellows, and the occasional tinge of burnt orange creating a tapestry of mulch. I adore walking through fallen leaves with their lightness and crunch, but I remain mindful that these same leaves must be cleared from the gutters and drains. When the wind comes from a particular direction, fallen leaves catch upon the electric fencing protecting our chickens, causing it to short out, rendering it ineffective and necessitating some fiddly removal of this fall foliage.

The return of autumn also brings with it morning mist covering the valley until the sun has a chance to burn through. Just out of bed, I put on my wellies and a light fleece over my P.J.’s and Sam and I head out for his first walk of the day. It is now early dawn, and in a few weeks, it will be dark at this hour, but the cool and damp air helps to freshen and awaken me.   With the earliest glimmer of light from the sky, the birds respond in elation to the coming day. For Sam, it’s the smells at this hour that seem to bring him joy, and they appear to be different from those on summer walks.  Rather than bouncing down the path, Sam begins his charge only to suddenly turn on a dime heading toward a stone, bush, or gap in the dry-stone wall. And there he remains, inhaling with renewed focus, the scents of a nocturnal animal that recently passed by this spot.

With the shortening of days, our encounters with wildlife will change. In the morning, I now see more rabbits and an occasional fox.  During autumn, I hope to catch a glimpse, or the sound, of the rutting behaviours of resident deer in the stand of pines across the valley. Meanwhile, Sam follows a sent between some flowering gorse bushes, and I wait for him – they say a dog taking in scents is similar to reading – and look closely to the gorse bushes. With the morning mist, the spider webs covering nearly every surface inch of these prickly bushes are revealed. I never see spiders out here — they seem to live among the nooks and crannies of our house – but the evidence of their webby-work is strong.

Covered with spider webs that are only seen when there is a mist in the air.

Covered with spider webs that are only seen when there is a mist in the air.

A few weeks ago, the last broods of Swallows were chirping in the nests scattered around Crockern. To enter the barn, was to receive a warning chorus before they flew out waiting for us to leave the space they’ve claimed as their own. But in the blink of an eye, the Swallows left and are now making their way back to parts of Africa for winter. With luck, those born this year will return here in spring to their birthplace, to build nests, roost under eaves of the house, inside the barn, chicken coop, and all the sheds, and just about anywhere which feels accessible and protected. They will return to dive-bomb about the house feasting on insects and singing their happy songs. But, as one migratory bird heads away for the cooler months, another arrives: The Fieldfares are starting to make an appearance flying about the gorse bushes and reeds.

One constant remains: the scene of endless activity at our bird feeders with the Sparrows, Tits, Robins, Finches, Nuthatches and Jackdaws taking it in turns to sustain themselves on the seeds we put out daily.   As soon as the sun is up, the collection of birds make an appearance at their “local”.

Chillier weather, shorter days, fewer eggs, a lower angle of the sun casting longer shadows, and our daily watch for coming frosts, necessitating a nightly covering of the vegetable beds with fleece, are some of the markers of the autumnal transition. Despite the winding down this time of the year represents, it also is a last big push before winter. In the coming weeks, we must ready our firewood for winter, clean the greenhouse of its last remnants of summer beauty, clear drains, rake leaves, mow the lawn one last time, turn and bag our compost, finish weeding, lay mulch, and straighten the barn. With this list of maintenance, should I consider planting more bulbs?

Last year, I planted 350 and thought that was plenty, until spring rolled around and I longed for even more snowdrops and daffodils to bravely announce a seasonal change. With the new oil tank in position and the Aga Saga chapter finally – and hopefully – closed, I’ve got more flowerbeds to construct. We will shift rocks, create drainage, fill the newly made beds with manure, compost and soil, and finally transfer plants. What an ideal location for more bulbs!

Autumn is a season of transition where our surrounding landscape and we switch from industry and activity to a quieter introspection. In a few weeks, we will begin to spend more time inside by the wood burner.  We may take on a few smaller projects inside the house: There are floors we hope to sand, and three more ceilings to repair, among the many projects. Of course, to do any of these will not be straightforward, it never is, as there will be wires and pipes to relocate, blown plaster to repair, and all manner of surprises to address. And, we will need to move furniture out of one room and into another before putting it back again. Then again, we may look more closely to an extended period of introspection.

Elementary, My Dear Plato

The day started like any other. Sam decided it was time for me to wake up and began to nudge my head and lick my nose until I stirred. I dressed and we set out for our customary break of day walk. On each these walks, Sam and I will take in the weather, smell the air, look to see the sun rise, listen to bird song and generally marvel at nature, returning to put out the feeders, bring in firewood and let the chickens out before heading back inside. Once inside, I’ll feed Sam, make coffee, turn on Radio 4 and make plans for the day.

It’s basic, reduced down to the bare essentials, and is often the time of the day when I have the clearest thoughts and ideas.

I wonder, did the ancient Greeks start their days with similar routines? Was it such a basic start to the day that gave rise to the inspiration of the four elements? I can’t help but wonder this, because at the end of this day-like-any-other-start-of-the-day, I got a dose of the four elements.

Around 450 BC, the ancient Greeks surmised that all matter was comprised of earth, water, air, fire or some combination. While these theories aren’t in play in modern science, they still contribute to our notion of the states of matter: solid (earth), liquid (water), gas (air) and plasma (fire).



We’ve had recent rains, but on the morning of my four elements discovery, the clouds had lifted and the temperature mild for the time of year. It seemed a good day to address the garden. It might only be January, but early spring is always a mad scramble and it is easier to get a start on things when and where we can.

For a few hours I pulled weeds, cleared spent plants, and harvested produce for dinner. I applied some of our compost onto the garden beds in preparation of our spring planting. To avoid loosing nutrients in the soil, I covered the newly topped and empty beds with cardboard which will break down, meanwhile, the compost underneath will settle into the beds, invite worms, and not get washed away with any of the winter rains.

Just as my work in the vegetable garden was nearing completion, the rain returned, prompting me to run inside and put on my waterproofs.



During the past few weeks, wet and wintry weather has been the norm making the long sunny days of our glorious summer and autumn a distant memory. But water is something we have already in abundance on Dartmoor.   There are over 130 miles of rivers, and this does not include all the miles of leats and streams. There is a river by our house and it, like so many others, responds almost instantaneously to rainfall, growing faster, wider and wilder as ground saturation increases.

Because of how wet it can be here, when it rains for days on end, it is essential to regularly clear the drains around the house of silt, leaves, mud, and stones. This keeps the water away from the house as it streams off the moors. Since it is now raining and the water is running off the hillside, I grab a shovel and bucket and begin to clear our channels.  An easy enough task, but one that left me covered head to toe in mud!



The rain had returned, so too the wind, and everything was being pulled and shoved to its bidding. Earlier when I had been in the garden, I observed a Kestrel (also aptly known as windhover) working the valley, making use of a gentle breeze to hunt its prey. But the wind and weather on Dartmoor can change like a rip tide at the oceans edge. It is now blowing hard through the forest on the opposite hillside, and howling eerily down the river valley. A quick look and all birds seemed to have headed for shelter, including our chickens.

When I’m dressed for it – or otherwise snuggled in bed under a nice duvet – I enjoy the winds that have helped to carve this landscape. Exposed trees are bent over, sometimes nearly folded in half, yielding to the prevailing southwesterly winds.   Who needs a compass?

As the wind whips up a storm, I secure the gates, check on the chickens, put away my garden tools, and hurry to finish a few more outdoor tasks.


Elements Combined

Much of the landscape surrounding Crockern was given shape by the powerful forces of wind and water working solo or in tandem over the centuries, moving large amounts of dirt, grit, and rock to tear down and build anew. I take up my shovel and Sam joins me as we make our way down the track to inspect how it is holding up: Any new potholes? Litter left behind from visitors? Any downed branches or missing stones in the walls? In the short time it takes me to do this, the air temperature drops significantly. The North wind packs a visceral bite and it is a challenge to walk back toward the house. Poor Sam is being blown sideways. And, the rain has been transformed into mean, hard, little pellets of ice smacking me in the face.

Hail, Fire and Brimstone!!!



After a tough morning battling with earth, wind, and water in their various manifestations.   I change out of my wet and muddy clothing while Roger lights the woodburner so I might warm my bones.   I cosy up into my favourite chair, my loyal dog Sam by my feet (not really, he’s taken the other chair, leaving Roger no where to sit), and I let the heat and light from the fire hypnotize me. As the storm rages outside, my mind drifts and jumps randomly:

  • If the Earth’s equatorial circumference is greater than its polar circumference, how does this shape compare to some of the eggs our chickens lay?
  • How can an inch of rain be equivalent to 15 inches of dry, powdery snow? Is this true?
  • Should we try to grow pumpkins this year?
  • My waterproof trousers have a leak in the knees and the previous repair is no longer working. It’s time to replace them.
  • Just how does Phillip Bailey from Earth, Wind and Fire hit those high falsetto notes in the song, September?
Here we are.  Two wet, wind blown and muddy souls.

Here we are. Two wet, wind blown and muddy souls.


Dear Santa

December, 2012

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

Dear Santa Claus,

When Roger and I met, as the arctic crow flies, we really weren’t that far from you.    Perhaps you think it rude we didn’t stop by for a cup of iced coffee and introduce ourselves, but honestly, it was early September, and that has got to be a busy time for you.  Do you really want uninvited visitors dropping by?

I know you get loads of letters this time of the year, but it has been nearly 40 years since I’ve written with any requests, so I’m hopeful that your administrative elf-team push this letter to the top of your in-box, giving you time to consider it.   Before I present “the list”, I want you to know we’ve been really good this year and, with aplomb, weathered lots of changes from the move.  Since arriving at Crockern, we’ve rescued sheep and hens, put in some vegetable beds and worked hard to make improvements on an old house in need of some TLC.   Secondly, we appreciate and admire all that you and Mrs. Claus accomplish year in and out to help make children happy.  If you think Roger and I merit, maybe you and the elves might work your Christmas magic to assist with some of our requests here at Crockern:

  1. Help the roofers finish.  They’ve been with us since September and frankly speaking, enough already.
  2. To help us make a decision on the heating system so that our 2013/14 winter will be warmer and cozier than this year.  I’m certain you have insight when it comes to “best practice”.
  3. Protection for our chickens from foxes, badgers, and inexplicable ill health so that they can keep providing those yummy eggs.  I know you have a busy holiday schedule, but if you have the time, perhaps you’ll join us for breakfast?  Roger makes a lovely poached egg.
  4. To encourage those sheep to stay off our stonewalls and out of our yard.  Can’t you send that Mandy Patankin guy along to help fix the walls?
  5. To remain on friendly terms with Old Crockern, God of Dartmoor.  We think we’re doing okay on this front, but it wouldn’t hurt for you to put in a few extra good words.
  6. How about some dog biscuits to give to his Wisht Hounds?  I’ve noticed Sam loves our postman who always has treats to give.
  7. A paten for my slug-prevention-soup.  It works as well as cheep beer in keeping the slugs away, and costs far less!
  8. A rock pick made of carbide steel.
  9. Despite what you might hear from older siblings and practical joking friends, we don’t want any rats, gnomes, lumps of coal, or Morris Dancers thank you very much.
  10. But, a Royal visit would be nice.  Of course, you and Mrs. Clause are always welcome and I think we would all have a good time should Their Royal Highnesses The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall fit a visit here into their schedules.
  11. An answer to a burning question about flying reindeer:  Do they rut and does that really sound like my friend Joann’s new door bell?

If you do decide to stop by, could you please land your sleigh on the new patch of roof?  It is now sturdy and I am a little concerned about the barn roof might be unsafe since we haven’t yet tackled that project.  If you elect to come down the chimney, please take care as we have the wood burner now, and the flue is smaller.  No offense, but the front door might be easier.

You might recall from your visits to Winding Trail in the 1960’s that there will be a snack waiting for you and your team of reindeer.  I think Oreos and beer are an odd combination, but my Dad always told me to leave the beer rather than milk.   We will leave some carrots and apples out for you to provide to the reindeer.

Safe travels Santa.  It can be wet and windy here in Dartmoor, so don’t forget to wear your waterproofs as you wouldn’t want that handsome red suit of yours to get damaged from precipitation.

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

p.s.  If you’re inclined, you can follow my blog by pressing the “follow” button.  I think it would be swell if you did!

Santa 1965

Here we are Santa in 1965!

It Isn’t Easy Being Green

Mark Twain is credited with saying, “climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.”  Volcanoes, the tilt of earth in relation to the sun, and the movement of continents have helped to change the earth’s climate dramatically over the last several billion years or so.   More recently, our own human activities such as burning coal, long-haul flights and driving our cars have added to the increase in greenhouse gases.  Scientists are still working to determine the extent of our human impact.

Globally, we’ve seen more hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and most recently, the devastation wrought by Sandy hitting the Eastern Seaboard of the US.  Hoboken, New Jersey, where I lived for over twenty years, was among one of the hard hit areas.  How we cope with energy alternatives and the capacity to sustain ourselves either off grid, or when the grid goes down during a disaster, is very much on my mind.

We’re not die-hard green fanatics, but in taking on this restoration project, we are hoping to create a sustainable home, or as close to one as we can get.   “Greening up” seems to be pretty easy on a new building, but a several-hundred-year-old-stone farmhouse presents challenges.  The house is drafty, poorly insulated and has an old and inefficient boiler to heat all the rooms bar the kitchen.

We are off the grid for electricity.   We have a generator, inverter and battery bank to run all our essential electrical loads.   We store the energy from our generator into two large battery packs, which could keep our lights and the water pump working for 3-4 days if the generator failed.  Our future plans include installing solar panels on the barn roof (also in need of repair) to top up the batteries, reducing the generator’s diesel consumption and extending the capacity to provide electricity.  We plan to invest in a newer generator that runs more efficiently and quietly, relegating our 30-year old (mostly) reliable Lister four-stroke to a much deserved understudy role.

Lister generator

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

When considering renewable energy systems, we’ve had to start thinking about what are the “essential loads”, in other words, becoming more aware of how certain materials and designs affect our energy use.  There is nothing better than being reliant on a diesel guzzling generator for electricity to prompt you to unplug appliances immediately upon charging and switch out the lighting to low-wattage LED lights.  We’ve dropped our demand for energy significantly with a couple of quick fixes.  For example, changing our lighting to LED bulbs in the kitchen dropped our power use from 400 to 36 watts!   We’ve changed how we cook to make the most use of the steady slow heat in the Aga and the installation of the wood burner added to our heating repertoire, making the central heating system less of a daily need.

To keep the house warm, we currently have three things working in combination:  The newly installed wood burner; the oil-fired Aga that heats the kitchen and our hot water; and, an old boiler that runs on heating oil.  It is estimated that about 60% of CO2 emissions from a home is from the boiler.    We try not to use it too often as it is not very efficient and suffers a limited design with just two settings:  “on” or “off”.  There is no timer, nor is there a temperature gauge.

Replacing this boiler provides a huge opportunity to embrace a more sustainable solution, but making such a choice is harder than I first thought.   We either look to finding a more efficient oil-fired boiler that gives us the flexibility to heat different sections of the house and hot water, or we look to greener alternatives to accomplish this same goal.   The wood burner has been on daily since October, and while it doesn’t heat the entire house (the layout of the house doesn’t permit that), it does make for some cozy and warm spaces.   What we’ve discovered is that we can keep the rooms that we are in during the day warm by burning the stove and not running the central heating system. That’s fine for us, but we’ll need to solve the central heating question for the comfort of visiting friends and family.

Roger and I have considered a ground source heat pump.  This method works with a mixture of water and antifreeze circulating around a loop of pipe buried outside the house.  When the liquid travels around the loop, it absorbs heat from the ground, which then gets used to heat radiators, under floor heating systems and even hot water.  This sounds great because the temperature beneath the surface of the ground is a constant all throughout the year.  Installing isn’t cheap, but our bigger problem is that the ground around the house must be suitable for digging a trench or borehole to install the ground loop.  We’ve tried digging down to plant a couple of blueberry bushes recently and hit stones (huge boulders to be precise) more times than not.  The bushes are now planted, but not in ideal locations.    So, we’re not certain how this would play out for installing a ground source heat pump.

We’ve looked into air source heat pumps as they are being touted as the next big thing since sliced bread (or solar, really).  They extract heat from the outside air in a similar way that a refrigerator extracts heat from within.  They can be used to provide heating and hot water.  The thing is they require electricity to operate, and for us, that means our diesel-fired generator gets more of a workout.  This option may work in partnership with those previously mentioned solar panels on the barn roof.

More recently, we’ve started reading about biomass systems, which burn wood pellets, chips or logs and can power central heating and provide hot water.    This may prove to be our way forward given the potential limitations presented with the other options.

Crockern Farm

A roof with a view

This week in Dartmoor, the weather turned decidedly colder, and every draft in the house has revealed itself.   We won’t have our new heating system in place any time soon as there is much to consider (both in the system we choose and in the architecture of the house) and we want to do it right.  Happily, we’re making progress — albeit slow — in other areas, namely the roof.   For the past 5 weeks, the roofers have been working in all sorts of lousy weather.   And never mind the leaks that necessitated the original repairs, our roof was seriously lacking insulation!  One day one of the roofers laughed and remarked, “It looks like someone installed this rockwall with a shot-gun.  There ain’t enough of it and it be full of holes.”    So the rockwall is now being replaced with thick layers of Celotex insulation.  On the inside, with the great help of our friend Mark and his 5 year-old son who were recently visiting, we’ve added additional insulation, insulating board and plasterboard.  Where previously there was nothing but loose tiles, cold air and rain, we now are getting water tight and snug!

Crockern Farm

Lorenzo hard at work

We have added weather-stripping inside the windows to reduce drafts.   Roger’s diligence has paid off and we are receiving a free installation of loft insulation, which will greatly help our bedroom and office area, for the parts of the house where we aren’t having the roof repaired.

Ultimately, we shall have to replace most of our windows.  They are, for the large part, single pane, poorly installed and in some instances the frames are rotten.   As much as 20% of heating energy is wasted through single-glazed windows.  With double-glazing, not only will we keep more of the heat in the house, we will also reduce the condensation build up that currently blocks some of our views.  For this winter, our attention is on the three obvious offenders:  the large single-pained-cracked-slipped-leaky-8-foot roof windows.  We’ll do the rest later as the weather improves.  But here we have encountered a serious delay.  Five weeks into the roof project, and we still don’t have any indication when these windows will arrive.  I’ve learned a thing or two watching just about every episode of Grand Designs and it is always the glass that delays the project.  So, our roof is off, the insulation and felting in place, and the windows aren’t here.  We’ve been told, “next week.”  Yes, I know how to translate that because it is universal:  “They aren’t ready yet”.

Crockern Farm Before

One of the offending windows as evidenced by the running water!

This may prove to be our coldest winter at Crockern as we are not fully up to date on all of our interventions.   I find myself drawn to sitting by the wood burner for longer stretches planning and researching our future projects.  Sitting on the small table next to me is my coffee or glass of wine (depending on the time of day), a couple of novels on the go, my lap top, my seed catalogues (this is the time of the year to start that planning!) and more and more resources to digest regarding making our home a little greener as we do these renovations.   We want to be prepared, not just warm and dry, but also with enough provisions that if we get snowed-in, we’ll be okay:  Batteries, candles, wind-up radio, solar battery chargers, etc.  We have plenty of wood, a river with water, different heat sources, and enough back up food and wine for about 10 days.  We’ve ordered in the oil and diesel, so we should be fine.  Should we get cut off, we’ll head down to the hotel at the end of the lane where it is always warm and the Jail Ale on tap is rather good.

To Russell, With Love

With each challenge here at Crockern, I am comforted by our small accomplishments.   We may still have sheep coming into the yard, but not all of it; and, 3 or 4 sheep is a far cry from the original 30 who were here before we started repairing the walls.  We’ve lined up a few professionals to assist on projects that are out of our skill set (roofs and electrics).  Our vegetable beds are nearly ready for winter planting.  We’re slowly making headway on upgrading our plumbing works.  The place feels comfortable, as if we’ve lived here for a long time.  And, in preparation for winter, we’ve installed a wood-burning stove and amassed an impressive store of wood.

That dynamic balance between accomplishment and challenge spans a lifetime.   When I was a girl, I wanted to give my oldest brother a terrific Christmas gift.  I spent what I remember as weeks cutting and stacking logs to give Russ a pile of wood for his fireplace.  I would find a fallen tree in the woods behind our house, saw it into the right size logs, lug them and neatly stack them into place.  I don’t think any of the logs were so thick they had to be split, but if they did, I’m certain my Dad helped along the way.

Paul Bunyan

I had given this gift considerable thought and part of the fun was how Russ would discover his present.  He’d open up a little wrapped box to find a clue inside which would lead him to the start of a string.  He would then have to follow the string through the house only to discover his amazing gift outside.  I spent weeks planning, cutting, stacking, and creating what seemed like a pretty respectable pile of wood.

One day when I returned from school, ready to do some hard work on that slow growing woodpile, I found that it was suddenly half its size.   Horror!

Here is where memory diverges between the two of us.   When I saw the woodpile was reduced significantly, I knew that Russ was pilfering it for his own use.  And who can blame him?  A pile of wood is not an obvious Christmas gift and what’s an armload or two, tossed into the back of the truck to take home?   He steadfastly denies taking the wood.   I say, the brother doth protest too much.

In the book, Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer writes, “As neuroscientists have begun to unravel some of the mysteries of what exactly a memory is, it’s become clear that the fading, mutating, and eventual disappearance of memories over time is a real physical phenomenon that happens in the brain at the cellular level.”

After almost 40 years, Russ and I still don’t possess the same memory regarding the mystery of the diminishing Christmas gift woodpile.  There are no witnesses to confirm either of our versions.  But, do the precise details really matter after all this time?    Regardless of how it happened, the pile was not gift worthy in size and Christmas was around the corner.  At this point in the tale, and faced with this situation, I believe Russ and I will both agree as to what happened next.  I resorted to classic pre-teen behaviour and broke down into tears.

Russ must have been put on alert with a call from parents because he arrived the next day, and without comment, proceeded to cut and stack a respectable pile of wood.  As we worked quietly side by side, I felt a sweet relief in his penance.  I also felt a certain smugness, knowing that he was unaware of cutting and stacking wood for his own gift.  Of course, having to suppress this kid sister’s indignation topped off with a desire to blab about the gift was nearly impossible.  To this day, I’m not certain who laboured harder:  Russ with his Paul Bunyan determination or me with my emotional mix of guilt-glee-must-keep-a-secret.  Either way, when gift opening time came along, Russ was a hero and acted surprised.  With any luck, he got 3 fires out of it, as the pile wasn’t really that big.

The fireplace here at Crockern when we first moved in was an open fire, with a flue straight up to the sky.  Rain, bird nests and other bits regularly fell down.  I don’t believe it had been swept in decades, so in addition to being a fire hazard, it was also dropping bits of vulcanized soot and ash.   When it rained, rainwater fell directly onto the fire grate.  When the wind blew, the smell of old smoke filled parts of the house.  And when a fire was lit, the heat went right up the chimney drawing behind it a nice draft through the house.  In short, it was a mess and we knew we had to change this right away.

Home Renovation

The original fireplace

For many people, the main reasons for installing a wood burner are that they provide a lot of warmth and look aesthetically pleasing, without the hassle, smell, soot or even risk of an open fire.  They facilitate that basic desire to feel warm and safe in our homes.  They are cheaper to run than conventional heating systems and they are considered pretty green since the wood is a sustainable fuel source.

For me, it’s not really about tree-hugging to gain eco-cred out in the world.  It’s much simpler.   I just feel lucky if I can live in a house with a fireplace.  The bonus of a wood-burner is that I can light it in the morning and then head out with the dog, returning to a nice warm fire.  Nothing beats that cozy feeling, especially when it is cold and wet outside.

To prepare for the wood-burner’s installation, we had to empty the fireplace of its wet wood, coal, soot, birds’ nests, and other unknown bits of debris.  The chimney was swept, releasing around 20 pounds of black crystallized gunk that was bagged up for removal.  Then there was the cleaning.  A day scrubbing with a wire brush and water eliminated years of soot and carbon transforming the granite stones on the wall and around the mantle.

Home Renovation

Getting ready for installation

Clearview Stove

The new wood-burner in place

So once again, I find myself amassing woodpiles for winter.  Not for my brother this time around, instead, I’m behaving a bit like a squirrel and getting ready for winter.  Once the wood-burner was in place, I ordered a double load (4 cubic metres) of wood.  After stacking it neatly in the barn, I began to worry that we didn’t have enough.  What if it snows a lot or is super cold this year?  So in the middle of August, I ordered a second double order, and spent an afternoon adding to our stash.  The three rows are neatly stacked, with air able to circulate around them.  The barn is dry and we went to the trouble to raise the wood up onto wooden pallets, to keep air coming in underneath.  All in all, I’m feeling stocked for winter.

Wood Pile

Wood delivered

Wood Pile

The final stack!

The stove is a work of beauty with a clear window, nice heat output, and no smell of smoke.  There is no longer a draft of cold air moving through the room, instead, a warm and steady glow after the fire is lit.  At the end of a long day, if it is at all cold outside, nothing beats sitting in front of it.

Roger kicks back

Once we get an electrical outlet in the room, we’ll even be able to read by the fire.  But, that’s a project for another day…..