Keeping it local, keeping us warm.

photo (1)It’s been a busy time at the cottage. The Winter storms have passed and we have emerged unscathed, daffodils have burst through surviving the strong winds and renegade sheep.

Our new bathroom suite was delivered in the middle of Storm Henry. The delivery lorry slipping on the mud and the offloaded pallet swayed menacingly until we unloaded it, item by item, carrying each piece down from the gate to the house. Then the bath, filled with smaller items, sat in our kitchen for 2 months. Maybe it was more. I’m not sure, I got used to it being there. It was finally moved into the bathroom 2 nights ago. After the old, crumbling mortar had been removed and new mortar had been swept on to the stones by hand. After the walls were painted. After the new ceiling was put up. After the partition wall had been rebuilt. Work happens slowly here, fitted in between meals and laundry. Inbetween nappy changes and during naps. In between and during the endless questions, requests, squabbles. We plod along, and slowly but eventually things get ticked off the list. Suddenly the room looks different. Almost finished. Almost, but not quite. The bath may be in situ, but it isn’t yet plumbed in.

Aside from the bathroom, the 2 new fires have been installed. Thankfully, they were installed for us and we could stand around with steaming mugs of coffee (well, I did.) and watch when first, the new woodburner for the kitchen inglenook went in without problem and then the second, tiny woodburner for the snug took 2 days to install.

Our kitchen inglenook is a giant stone masterpiece of ancient engineering. It’s high enough that,  at 5’9″, I can stand up in it. It’s the wow factor to anyone coming in through the front door and I haven’t even finished painting in it yet. Our snug fireplace on the other hand is tiny at just over 3ft high and not quite 2ft wide. For years it lay hidden behind 4″ of concrete that had been applied to ‘smooth’ out the wall. We’re not even sure the previous inhabitants knew it was there.  When we were buying the cottage and had arranged to meet a conservation officer here, we had been assured that the chimney on the gable end was a false one, ‘purely aesthetical’. I didn’t believe him. This is an ancient vernacular home, visual aesthetics weren’t at the forefront of the mind of those who built it. Turned out he was wrong.

The snug is the smallest room in the cottage besides the bathroom. It’s about 7’X10′ and it contains our tv, sofa and our old oak coffer that hides our dvds and cds. So the tiny fireplace is in perfect proportion and it took us a long time to find a tiny fire to fit. Then we found the Chilli Penguin guys. This company make their fires in Nefyn, on the Llyn Peninsula, just half an hour away from us. Now, I’ll admit, they aren’t the cheapest, but you get what you pay for when it comes to fires. we found their Chilli Billie fire was the right size for the snug.

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Chiili Bille; it goes like a rocket!

I was a bit concerned it was only a 2.5/3kw fire. We’d previously had a cheap 4kw one and virtually had to sit on it to feel the heat. But I needn’t have worried, the snug easily reaches temperatures of 38c (100f) and we have to retreat into the kitchen.

 

It’s not much cooler in the kitchen. The 8kw ’88’ Penguin has replaced our cheaper 10kw Viki and kicks out about 4 times more heat! We love the big window that lets us watch the flames dance about and the little oven above will keep us fed in the event of a powercut.

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The ’88’. Powerful and understated.

The added bonus is that each fire comes with a Penguin motif. Who doesn’t love penguins? We certainly love ours and I doubt the cottage has ever been so warm!

Of course, it will be even warmer when we’ve finished putting insulation and ceilings up. All our ceilings (with the exception of the snug that sits below the crog loft) reach up the the apex of the roof. The kitchen and one bedroom feature A-frames and there are beams in every room. Some look older than others. We thought about what we wanted for a very long time. The obvious option is to go with plaster board and have it skimmed. Giving a perfectly smooth finish. Which is fine in houses where ‘perfectly smooth’ wouldn’t look out of place. Eventually we decided wood planks would look nice. Rustic, warm and we could do it ourselves.

We could have bought pre prepared packs from a nationwide DIY store but it would have cost over £5,000 to do all the ceilings. We looked at products at the local builders merchant and the price came down to £2,000. Then we went to the local sawmill. We told them what we wanted and they gave us a price of just over £800. We had to wait a few weeks longer as our ceiling planks were still trees at that point. But they cut the Spruce, milled it and delivered it for less than a 5th of the prepacked stuff. Sure, that probably comes from a sustainable forest somewhere in Europe, but ours has come from a sustainable forestry just 15 miles away.

Something that I did decide to spend on was new duvets for all of us. I couldn’t decide between staying with synthetic ones or going for goose down. During my online search I stumbled across the concept of wool duvets. This was a whole new thing to me (although it turned out my sister had discovered them a while ago). I investigated a bit further and baulked at the cost of them. I don’t mind paying for quality but I don’t want to have to remortgage. I was just about to give up on the idea when I found Baavet and their ‘Bargain Box’. Wool duvets don’t have tog rating instead it goes on the weight of fleece per metre. Some of the duvets were a bit underweight (eg, a winter duvet being slightly underweight but not as light as a summer one), some just had a mark on it that wouldn’t be seen under a duvet cover. When they arrived I had the smug warm feeling of having found a bargain quality product that was produced and made in my own county!

It pays to stay local, not just financially. It makes you feel warm as well 😉

 

 

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Morus y Gwynt….

Morus y Gwynt ac Ifan y glaw,

Daflodd fy nghap i ganol y baw!”

Morus the wind and Ifan the rain blew my cap into the middle of the dirt….This couplet has been recited to young children in Wales for generations. Naming the notorious winter weather isn’t new here. But now the trend for naming storms has reached the UK and storm Desmond was the latest.

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A moment of clarity….Wales. Home. The calm before the storm.

Wreaking havoc in places like Cumbria, where the towns of Keswick and Carlisle are now dealing with the aftermath of flooding, farms are struggling to manage livestock and businesses as their land and stock lies submerged. And it’s happening time, after time, after time…

People are losing posessions, irreplacable belongings but more importantly, they are losing the sense of security that a home brings. Knowing that shutting the door on the weather isn’t always going to guarantee safety anymore. Farmers are losing animals that they have raised, cared for, invested in, they are losing feed stock leaving them unable to provide for the animals that were able to reach safety, they are losing money when they have no produce to sell on. And it happens so quickly, a few hours of a passing storm and when the storms blows itself out, it takes a lot of security and certainty with it.

Communities rally round. Doors are opened and beds are offered to those who can’t go home. Spare clothes, toys for the kids, hot mugs of tea, shoulders to cry on. Neighbouring farms open their barns to animals who can’t make it home, share their stock to feed a neighbours flock, lend machinery, spend time helping the farmer who needs to rebuild fences, clear out barns, replant his crop.

It’s the same the world over. Humans come together and help each other out when it’s them versus Nature. Risking lives to save lives. Because in the grip of Nature’s force, all we can do is cling to each other and hope it will pass quickly, hope that there will be something left to rebuild.

As a nation, the British are obssessed with weather. We are known for it. We complain when it’s too hot, too cold, too wet, too windy. We use it as a topic to break the ice in social situations. Because we never really know what’s coming in from the Atlantic. Or Siberia. Or the Sahara. Now we’re naming it as if it won’t make it seem quite so alien. ‘Oh, that? That’s just Desmond hammering at the door and ripping the roof off.’

We escaped unscathed. I think, in no small part, due to the small trench I dug a few hours after Desmond arrived. When we were still on course to build an extension there were groundworks done at the back of the cottage. On the one hand, it held rainwater and surface water draining from the higher field behind us and created a rather impressive lake. On the other hand it held that water away from our indoor floor level long enough for me to realise that a problem might be looming, long enough for me to dig a trench deep enough to drain the excess water away from the cottage. So we didn’t flood, because I had learned from experience when, back in 2012, we did.

Just two weeks after moving in, with a 2 year old and 4 month old we experienced more rain in 12 hours than we would have in a month. And while I was stood in the kitchen that afternoon, I saw the movement out of the corner of my eye. That trickle, that became a stream, that covered half the kitchen floor before it reached the front door and found a way out. But by then it had already covered the bathroom and the boys bedroom. The water levels outside had ‘breached’ our floor level. Once it had drained enough surplus though half the cottage, it stopped. I ran outside and could see, just by the volume of rain, by the waterfall that had appeared from the field behind and by the lake that was filling quickly, that it was going to happen again. And this time it was going to come in through the back door as well, which meant the lounge was going to flood. I lifted the baby, sleeping in his rocking chair, and placed him on the kitchen table, I ran into the lounge and threw every item on the floor onto the chairs and sofa. I scooped up the toddler and waited. What else could I do? And the water came in. Silently. Contaminating the home, not with sewage, but with anger and despair. At 1,000ft up a mountain with the nearest water source in the field below us, we never imagined we would be at risk of flood.

The second time round wasn’t as much fun for the toddler who had splashed through the first lot. He was frightened and as more water came in I began to wonder just jow long it would last, how deep would this actually get? I’ve never been a fan of Robbie Williams but when his song ‘Candy’ came on the radio we began to dance. I danced around the sleeping baby on the kitchen table, with the toddler on my hip and water around my ankles. I wondered, what the hell had we done?

Later, C , who had been stuck at work with their own crisis to deal with, was told that many women would have packed up and taken the kids elsewhere. We were lucky, we lost nothing. The damage was more psychological than anything. So when the rain falls heavily and for a long time, I will go around the back of the cottage and just check.  And if it starts to look like a small lake, I make sure the kids are safe and see where I need to dig. A storm drain is high on our list of priorities.

Morus can howl as hard as he likes, and Ifan can pour an ocean, but we will do what we have to protect our cottage and it’s precious residents. And I hope the people of Cumbria feel that in amongst the things they lost, they didn’t lose their sense of home.

Tears for the coffee table….

It snowed at the cottage. Winter was ushered in with a damp whimper. No glorious blanket for Nature, just the depressing wet snow that dissolves on contact with the ground. Our eldest, energized with every last fibre of being 5, raced around. Chasing the flurry, trying in vain to catch a snowflake only to watch in dismay as his efforts turned to water in his palm. I know how he feels.

C took the boys out for a few hours. Our baby daughter slept soundly in the middle of our bed. Stripped of its bedding she dozed on a blanket, under blankets, surrounded by boxes of books. She was safe and unaware of the calamity of our lives at present. Four years ago, our eldest did much the same, napping in a travel cot surrounded by rubble as we stripped the damp rotten fabric of the cottage back to its bones. How has it come to be that we are back here again?

Back then, our priority was to get the cottage habitable. It had been empty for a few years at that point and, although loved by its previous inhabitant, neglected for many decades. It seemed it was the layers of wallpaper that held up the crumbling plaster and had also acted as a form of ineffective insulation. The fireplace, a grate complete with bread oven and likely to have been the original one installed back in the mid 19th century was so damaged from the rainwater which trickled down the chimney that even the conservation officer declared it beyond saving. It disintergrated despite attempts to remove it with care. It had been the sole fire at the cottage. I lit it once. Smoke billowed out from all corners of the chimney and, alarmingly, from distant areas of the roof.

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The first fire for many years and smoke finds its way out of everywhere! (2011)

We replaced plumbing and put in a temporary bathroom. We installed a new multi-fuel range and in blind romanticism declared it to also be our cooker. And cook on it I did. For 3 years. Sometimes it cooked a roast in half an hour, sometimes it took an hour to make a bacon sandwich. The novelty wore off pretty quickly but having, foolishly, not asked the elctrician to install a cooker point I had no choice but to persevere. And I got pretty good at it too.

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This has been my cooker for 3 years. This kid only knows most cookers have buttons and switches because of his Grandmothers. (2012)

We have tried to be comfortable for the last 3 years. It’s been a challenge. At times it has been bitterly cold (the doors don’t fit well). At times it has been magnificent. As grown ups we were always aware that we needed at some point to finish it.

That time has come.

So we have temporarily relocated. And every day we sort the kids out and pack them into the car and make the 20 miles journey to the cottage. We light the fire as we have always done. We move stuff around, take stuff apart, measure. Measure again.

Only that day, when it snowed without really snowing. When our boys were out and our daughter was sleeping, I dismantled the coffee table. We don’t have space to store it and we were never planning to keep it. It was a second hand, temporary piece that the boys used as their dining table, their painting table, their base for a railway, road, building blocks, a launch pad to the sofa. At that moment it was just a piece of excess, cheap furniture and using the only screwdriver I could find, I took it apart and left it by the fire to be burned. It was a minor, 10 minute job.

My eldest cried when he walked in. More than cried, it became a full blown meltdown. He didn’t want to change the coffee table for a big table. He didn’t want to have more space. He didn’t want anything to change. He didn’t want his home to change and, by the way, incase I missed the message, he wanted to come back home. NOW.

I tried to assure him that we didn’t want our home to change either. It was why we had drastically scaled down the amount of work we were planning to do. But something things needed to be fixed, finished and replaced to make it a proper home. ‘But this is our home!’

And I guess I saw it then. He knows where our old house is but I doubt he remembers anything of our life there. Not now. This cottage, to him, has always been home. No matter how unfinished, how draughty, cluttered, cramped and patched up it is. It’s his home. It’s where he lives, with his family. Where he has his toys and books, where he plays and sleeps. Where he knows he is safe. It’s his territory and he knows it well. My destruction of the coffee table was a change too far for him at that particular moment. He feared that the work we were doing would create a place unfamiliar to him. So our mission now, is to get the work done, get it finished and still preserve the home that he has come to know and we have all come to love.

I’m not sure what the conservation officer will have to say about that.