I wish it would rain…..

Apologies for the late post this week – you can blame it on the weather; we are currently enjoying endless days of glorious sunshine, which is such a rare event that I’ve been making the most of it and spending all my time out in the garden. So the blog took a bit of a backseat this week.

I could well regret saying this, but I’m actually sitting here in Scotland wishing it would rain. Here. In the middle of sunny Scotland! It is close on a month since we last had any proper rain. There’s been a couple of misty mornings with just enough moisture in the air to fool the plants, but the promised thunder storms and lashings of rain seem to have passed us by.  So the sparrows are happily taking dust baths in my flower beds, and the only bit of grass that I claim is a cultivated lawn is looking like tumbleweed.

And I am getting nervous. For unlike most of the country, I can’t rant at the water companies if the water supply dries up. My water is from a private borehole. It is pumped up from 60 metres below ground level in my back field. People laughed when I said I was also putting in a 6,000 litre rainwater collection tank. Like I’m ever going to run out of water in Scotland. Well this could be the year I get the last laugh. Except that, having installed said tank, I’ve never quite got round to connecting it up. There are rainwater drains from all the gutters taking the rain into the tank. There is lots of complicated pipework in the house to divert the rainwater supplies to all the loos. But the two aren’t actually joined up yet…..

(Note to self – must call a plumber)

Such are the pros and cons of being (partially) self-sufficient. So I’ve instigated a self-imposed hose-pipe ban and started rationing my cups of tea.

Not that the lack of rain seems to have hindered the growth of the weeds in any way. They are continuing on their mission to turn my garden into a jungle and in places the nettles are now 6ft high. But at least if it isn’t raining I can get outside and do something about them.

The garden at the front of the house is now looking vaguely presentable.

7RfbzVzYRPyla1qJpcwPXg

So I decided to concentrate my efforts on the bit of land at the side of the garage.  Unfortunately, in the absence of any proper compost bins, I confess I have been using this area as a bit of a dumping ground for all the weeds I pulled out of the front garden, so it has become a bit of a compost heap. Still, it’s only about 6m x 4m, so should be manageable in a couple of days if I get a welly on.

Right. Famous last words.

I got started with my shovel, bucket (for collecting the weeds), sieve (for sifting the stones out of the soil), and cup of tea (to keep me going).

Within a couple of hours, the bucket had been replaced with a wheelbarrow and the sieve had been abandoned. Way too many weeds, and way too many rocks in the ground.

I revised my estimated time of completion from a couple of days to a couple of months. This wasn’t just an oversized compost heap; it was a builders scrap yard.

So far I’ve unearthed 6 steel security gates, about half a tonne of concrete, yards of barbed wire and fencing wire, some steel reinforcement mesh, a bag of concrete, a couple of bags of sand, several lengths of broken plastic drainage pipe and enough chocolate wrappers and coke bottles to start a sweet shop.

Oh, and discovered a long lost manhole.

IMG_0374

My neighbour suggested I get a mini-digger. That’s what he would do. Be finished in a day.

I do love it when people stand around offering helpful advice while watching you work!

Well, as anyone who’s followed this blog for a while will know, me and JCB’s don’t get on too well. In fact I have a 100% track record on trashing them. OK, I’ve only hired the one, but I’m not sure my nerves could stand the experience a second time. In any case, with all the bent and broken up steel I’m uncovering, I’m not sure it would be safe – I doubt a mini digger can shift a 6ft security fence panel that is tangled up with a mangled steel concrete reinforcement mesh. Not the way I drive it.

Bucket and spade it is…….

And of course, on top of all the builder’s garbage there’s the all weeds that I had piled up a couple of feet high which have now retaken root and started growing again…. The two brand new 500 litre compost bins are already full. More have been ordered!

My neighbour reckons I’ll be finished about August at the rate I’m going. I reckon he’s being optimistic.

J+XY3J2bQGi5umazoo3zRQ

Mr Incompetent Builder has a lot to answer for.

It’s just a couple of bits of plasterboard….

So I have a nice shiny island, complete with fully plumbed-in sink (eventually), working Aga, and ice-on-demand for the G&T. So barring a few more cabinets everything in the kitchen’s rosy, right?

Well that depends which way you look at it. The view to the Aga is looking good. But the other end of the room clearly needs a bit of work….

IMG_1763

It’s been one of my major procrastination projects, mainly because I haven’t figured out what to do with it.

I did managed to persuade my Dad to start the job a couple of years ago, while I was away on a jolly somewhere. Apparently there was a fair amount of procrastination and  head-scratching even then. And a bit of cursing when he discovered that the wood I’d bought would have been better used making wonky corkscrews.

I’d probably have attempted to use the wood and ended up with a slightly corkscrewed wall. But my Dad, when he does eventually get going, is a perfectionist, so he went out a bought some properly square timber. And proceeded to build a beautifully over-engineered work of art.

It looks like one of those squirrel’s intelligence tests. You know – where you stick a hazelnut in the middle of an assault course and watch to see if the squirrel can work out how to get through it.

But it did mean that I could at least board up some of the wall. And I have to hand it to my Dad – it’s the only genuinely straight wall in the whole house.

IMG_1680

It’s stayed like that for a year or so, until I finally decided that I could put it off no longer and I had to find a solution for the rest of it.

The problem is the large bunch of wires feeding through the wall from the cottage to the fuseboard at this end of the house.

fullsizeoutput_909

There’s not a lot of headroom as it is. I couldn’t build a false ceiling because the door wouldn’t open. I couldn’t build a false wall because the door wouldn’t open….

I looked at it. I thought about it. I made a cup of tea. I sorted out some random bits of wood from my hoarded collection of offcuts. I looked at it some more. And had another cup of tea.

I thought about drawing a proper plan, but I had another cup of tea instead. And finally decided that the best way to approach it was to build little sub-frames and randomly screw them to the wall – if I put enough bits of wood up, surely I’d be able to hide the wires eventually…

So there you have it. I’d like to see an intelligent squirrel get past that lot.

After all the hassle with the frame, I assumed the finishing off would be a doddle. Just a couple of bits of plasterboard, a lick of paint, a bit of flooring and a new door. Then feet up and a G&T. Jobs a good’un!

Well the plasterboard went on easily enough (though I shall gloss over my efforts at getting a nice smooth joint between the boards!).

Then for the flooring. And I’m a dab hand at wood floors, so that shouldn’t take long.

Yeah right. This is my barn remember. No straight walls (apart from the one my Dad built) and no level floors.

So the concrete floor that comes out of the cottage has a slight uphill slope. The concrete steps built up from the kitchen floor are perfectly level, but slightly lower than the cottage floor. It creates a kind of cliff-edge mountain range right in the middle of the floor. So when I tried to lay my flooring, I ended up with a wooden see-saw. And guess what? The door wouldn’t open!

I had another cup of tea while considering my options.

Option 1: Chisel the floor level: I tried. But it was the masonry equivalent of painting the Forth Bridge with a lip brush. I gave up.

Option 2: Put a thinner floor covering down: Well in that case I couldn’t use wood – even switching to engineered board instead of the solid wood I was using would only save a couple of millimetres. So it would have to be tiles. But large thin tiles laid over a mountain range? They’d crack the minute you stepped on them. You’d have to bed them down on so much adhesive they end up as thick as the wood. And the door wouldn’t open. So it would have to be small tiles. Really small tiles.

Well I admit I have been known to go a bit mosaic-mad on occasion, but that really wouldn’t look right here.

Anyway, I wanted to use wood to match the rest of the kitchen floor.

So it would have to be Option 3: Buy a smaller door: The door is already slightly shorter than the average. The doorway between the cottage and the main house passes under the valley between the two roofs, so the existing door is already ‘vertically challenged’. Anyone over 5’8″ has to duck. What’s another cm between friends?

I managed to find a door company that would make a bespoke oak door that would match the rest of the house. Amazingly without breaking the bank.

Add a bit of paint and a couple of wine posters and then open the gin.

 

IMG_0048

A definite improvement on the old view, don’t you think?

All I want for Christmas is….. an island!

The last time I blogged about my kitchen it was just before Christmas 2015, when I was attempting to install a fridge without squashing my mother. The fridge went in, but beyond that there was an Aga and a couple of rickety old workbenches rescued from the builders. All water related activities – other than what came out of the fridge were up in the freezing cold kitchen in the cottage.

There was plenty of ice on demand for the G&T, but otherwise cooking the Christmas dinner was a bit of a challenge….

IMG_1120

I decided that I would aim to have a properly functioning kitchen before the next turkey roasting session came around, so we entertained ourselves one day by planning the kitchen layout with a tape measure, lots of newspaper and sellotape.

Well how else do you decide how big your island should be?

I’d got my kitchen designer lined up already. When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping, or so they say. So whenever Mr Incompetent Builder had really hacked me off, I’d take my plans and go for a wander around some of the posh kitchen designer shops. If your house is big enough that your plans don’t fit on anything smaller than A0 size sheet of paper, and the plans show that there are two kitchens in the house, those designer chappies get really excited.

“Would Madam like a glass of wine………?”

Well nice as some of those designs were, I really didn’t really think I could justify spending more on the kitchen than I did on the house. But I did find a decent local designer who was more or less within budget – not quite up there with the name-dropping designers where you really do need to re-mortgage the house to pay for the kitchen, but still pricey enough that I decided to to do it by instalments.

Fortunately they were happy enough to work with me on that, so towards the end of 2016 I arranged for the central island – which would house sink and dishwasher – to be installed first. The logic being that not only would that provide a nice large work surface area – perfect for turkey carving – but would also mean that we no longer needed to traipse up to the arctic kitchen in the cottage every time we needed to do some washing up.

In October I had the final get together with the designers to go through all the last minute details and we set a date for the work to start in a couple of weeks. At which point I jumped back on a plane and headed back to India, fully expecting that the next time I arrived home, I’d have a fully functioning island.

Hmmm. Well have you ever tried managing a building project from 5,000 miles away? First I got an email complaining that they’d turned up but no-one was there to let them in. Clearly my message about where to find the key under the proverbial doormat hadn’t got through to the delivery team. Next I got a panicked phone call asking where to turn the water off because they’d unclamped a pipe without checking where the water supply came from….. (Apparently my Aga got quite a good wash).

Still, I finally got an email saying they were all finished. So how excited was I walking back into my kitchen 6 weeks later?

Spot the deliberate mistake.

Yep. No taps.

I really should learn to read the small print when I get the contractors in. In my naivety I thought when you were building an island that included fitting a sink and integrating a dishwasher, installation meant plumbing it all in. So it all worked. And was ready to use.

Apparently not.

It means making sure there are the rudiments of pipework and (disconnected) cables in place before you build all the cabinets over the top of them, putting the sink in before topping it off with your nice granite work surface (complete with tap holes) and hiding the dishwasher in its appropriate cabinet. And leaving the taps in their box under the sink. Without connecting anything up.

IMG_0811

It was 10 days before Christmas. So once again, whilst most normal people are down at B&Q buying last minute Xmas trees, fairy lights and singing reindeer, I was in the Plumbing aisle buying U-bends and plastic pipe. Bah humbug to you too.

But hey, I’m an expert at the plastic pipe plumbing malarkey. Can do it in my sleep. So a couple of hours and we’ll have it all fully functioning. No worries. Right?

Wrong.

  1. The cabinets were custom made and beautifully fitted. And solid. And immoveable. The plinth was removable to access under the cabinets. And there was a gap left at the back of the cupboards under the sink. Theoretically there was enough room to fit all the waste and water pipes. If you had arms like an orang utan and were a contortionist to boot.
  2. Well I’ve had a bit of practice at the contortionist plumbers game. But on this occasion I’d ended my stint in India in a hospital in Chennai suffering from pneumonia and pleurisy. When I was finally allowed back on a plane to come home, I was still dosed up to the eyeballs on painkillers and struggling to breathe. Having to lay on my back with my head in the cupboard under the sink was probably not the best way to recuperate. It hurt. A lot.
  3. I did, with much swearing, pain and probably a few tears and tantrums, manage to get the waste and plastic water supply pipes all connected up. Only to discover that one of they tap levers was faulty. And since the shop was now closed until after the festive holidays, there was no way of getting a replacement in time for Christmas.
  4. And finally? A power cable for the island had been run under the floor when I’d had it screeded. But kitchen installation hadn’t included a sparky. So there was no socket for the dishwasher.

So even after all my heroic efforts (- well I was seriously on the sick list), all I had for Christmas was a decent work surface, a sink that was plumbed in and usable, but without working taps, and a dishwasher that needed a very long extension lead. Still at least we didn’t have to wash up by hand any more!

 

IMG_0831

I promised myself it would be working by the next Christmas……

Guttered again….

Last time I blogged about fixing the gutters was after I’d spent a wet weekend outside up a ladder in the middle of Storm Abigail, carrying out some emergency repairs to sort out the mess created by a pair of contractors known as Bodgit & Fudgit. Needs must – the water was pouring down the inside of the cottage every time it rained.

At the time I just focussed on on the emergency repairs. There were other bits of guttering needing attention, but I decided they could wait for a bit of fair weather.

Two years later and they were still waiting to be fixed….

Hey, I’ve been busy with other things. And a bit of broken gutter in the garage doesn’t really cause any issues, does it?

Well actually it does. Given enough time water will erode anything. Add the extremely low temperatures we enjoy so often up in the frozen North, and the combination becomes lethal for brickwork. Over the years the saturated brickwork has been disintegrating.

It got to the point that I started to worry about the walls collapsing, so I got my helpful contractor to come out and do a bit of repair work. But that’s only going to be a short-term solution if I don’t actually fix the source of the problem.

So on a dry, sunny (but still rather cold) weekend earlier this year I decided it was time to  get repair the gutter at the front of the garage.

Problem number 1: It didn’t actually join up in the middle. Whoever fitted the new gutter to the house obviously didn’t see the need to connect it to the existing gutter on the garage. So rain water runs down the roof, between the gap and straight down the wall.

fullsizeoutput_908Well that one’s an easy fix. Take the stop ends off and and a new bit of gutter in the middle. Simple.

Except that a new length of gutter didn’t actually fit in the gap. So I had to take all the gutter down to shunt it along to make room for the new bit. Which involved a couple of screwdrivers, a couple of spanners, and eventually a sledgehammer to break through the rusted screws. Oh, and quite a lot of swearing.

Problem number 2: The gutter wasn’t actually broken, but a couple of the brackets holding it had bent out of shape, and for a number of years it has been propped up with a couple of random bits of wood.

IMG_0104

But I think I mentioned last week that I’m a bit of a hoarder and it just so happens that I have hoarded a few gutter brackets. (I knew they’d come in handy.) So all I had to do was attach a few spares to the rafters and problem solved.

Except the brackets weren’t long enough to reach the rafters. So a bit of creative thinking and a few extra bits of wood were required.

Problem number 3: The downpipe was broken.

IMG_0105

And not only broken, but firmly rusted into the wall. Not something a bog standard spanner is going to manage.

I measure my fear of tools on a scale of how much damage it could actually do if you accidentally drop it on your foot. An angle grinder ranks pretty high up the list, so I really don’t like using it. But when the sledge hammer just isn’t up to the job….

Fortunately once I’d cut through the brackets it was a fairly easy job to add a new bit of pipe. So now the rain will run off the roof, into the gutter, down the pipe and straight into the underground drains.

Well so I thought. But when I was back up the ladder putting a stopend on the gutter, I got a bit of a shock.

Some eject – and I can only assume it was Mr Incompetent Builder – had deliberately blocked up the top of the downpipe with a huge wodge of plastic. Why???? The whole point of a downpipe is that water runs down it – the clue’s in the name. I can only assume that because they couldn’t be bothered to fix the broken pipe, they tried to ensure the water would run out of the end of the gutter away from the wall. Except that the gutter didn’t extend out past the wall. So all this numpty achieved was to force the water to run all the way down the wall rather than just out the bottom of the broken pipe. Duh!

Just as well I needed to get up there to add the stopend. Otherwise I would never have known the pipe had been blocked off and would have spent ages wondering why my gutters constantly overflowed.

But finally, when all repairs were in place, time for a bit of a paint job. And here I salute the genius who invented Direct to Rust paint. Does exactly what it says on the tin – just paint straight over the rust and it all looks as good as new.

img_0438

I was having so much fun I got a bit carried away and painted all the steel work as well as the gutters 🙂

What to do with your leftover stairs…..

I am a hoarder. An excessive one. From all my various job relocations around the world I seemed to collect a lot of stuff. And with each subsequent removal that stuff got packed up and shipped on to the next destination – sometimes without me looking at it from one location to the next. It is 6 years since I came home from my last overseas contract in India and I still have boxes that haven’t been unpacked from that move. Clearly there is nothing important in any of them, so why don’t I just dump the lot in a skip? Well you never know do you? There might just be something really useful in one of the boxes, so I need to go through them all first. One day. When I have time…..

But those boxes are out of sight, and therefore largely out of mind, shoved away in a space under the stairs. (I have big plans for that space involving sliding bookcases and hidden doors. Like I say, one day, when I have time….)

However, I have a more day-do-day hoarders issue when it comes to bits of wood, wire, metal or anything else that could ostensibly be used in the building of the barn. I have that horrible habit of always thinking “This might be handy one day” so I keep even the smallest offcuts of wood or leftover plastic pipe from any job I’m working on. To be fair I have probably saved myself a fair few trips to the DIY merchants when in the middle of a project by being able to dig out a random bit of wood/metal/screw/bolt/washer/bit of pipe/bit of flooring etc.

IMG_1661

But the problem is that I’m not particularly organised about storing all these useful bits and pieces. When I’m feeling totally knackered at the end of building a wall or plumbing a loo or tiling a floor, I really am not in the mood to tidy everything up neatly behind me. I favour the ‘shut the door and pretend it’s not there’ style of organisation. So I tend to dump all my tools and leftovers in my indoor builders yard (a.k.a. the bedroom in the cottage) and head for the G&T. Unlike most professional workman, I don’t live by the mantra of ‘Thou shalt keep thy Workshop Tidy’. I just keep piling up the leftovers, happily clambering through the mess to retrieve my scattered tools.

Until eventually even I got to a point when I realised I was actually becoming a potential candidate for reality TV and Britain’s Biggest Hoarders.

At which point I decided it was time to clean out all the dross that I had collected and order in a skip.

It was during this mammoth clearing out exercise that I came across my ‘leftover stairs’.

A couple of blogs ago I wrote about the revamping of my stairs. The staircase is just under a metre in width. The ready-made oak stair treads and risers I bought to rebuild my stairs were 1.2m. So when I finished I was left with 26 ten-inch squares of oak – which were promptly added to the ever growing stack of ‘wood that might come in useful’ in my builders shed.

Of course, I’ve said it many times before, but I have the attention span of a kitten in a wool shop. So, being thoroughly bored with tidying stuff up, and rather than throw the wood away or add it to the log pile, I decided to get creative and make a table. Like you do.

My plan was very simple. Just drill a hole straight through the middle  of all the squares, insert a steel rod and twist the wood around to make a creative, quirky, original oak side table. In the words of that irritating meerkat – Simples.

So I went on line and ordered a set of 2ft long drill bits. Doesn’t every girl need one?

IMG_1674

Well actually no. Because the only way a 2ft long drill bit can be used is if you have some way of stopping it from going off course. Like a humungous bench press. Or similar. Sticking a 2ft drill bit into your hand held drill, climbing up a ladder over the stacked up 26 bits of wood you’ve strapped together and hoping you can keep the drill dead straight through the centre of the stack is more than wishful thinking, it’s Mission Impossible.

On to plan B:

Take my beautifully stacked wood apart and mark out and drill the centre of each one separately. Which took me a couple of hours instead of the couple of minutes I’d envisaged.

Then thread all my bits of wood onto a steel rod (I just happened to find one in my hoarded stuff). And add a bit of glue…..

IMG_1675

So there you have it. I haven’t yet decided whether to top it off with a square of glass. But it’s plenty big enough to hold my G&T, so I’m inclined to think “Why bother?”

In the meantime, the 2ft drill bit has been consigned to the pile of tools I will probably never use again in my life!

But for anyone who’s interested, I did go back and finish the tidying up the workshop job. Eventually!

 

It’s a long walk home….

Apologies to all for the no-show of the blog last week; I had a few internet issues – otherwise known as living in the remote backend of nowhere in the middle of Scotland! I did once read somewhere that you can get a better signal on Mars than you can in parts of the frozen North. Somehow I don’t find that hard to believe.

IMG_0399

Given how remote I am, it may surprise people to know that I don’t actually own a car. I got rid of my last one when I moved to Germany for a couple of years. And then Amsterdam. And then India. When I did finally come back to good old Blighty to live, I was London-based. Nobody in their right minds needs a car in a London. So I just got into the habit of hiring a car every weekend I was home. With hires numbering in the hundreds I’m on first name terms with most of the chaps at the car hire centre in Edinburgh airport so now when I pass through they just smile, wave and hand me an upgraded car key. No fuss. No bother. No queue. Works pretty well most of the time – and when it doesn’t, there’s always Twitter…..

BUT, and it is quite a big but, this is only really viable when you just need a car for a couple of days at a time, and not during high days and holidays, the Open, or the whole of August when the Festival is on. Because then you’re into ‘upping the mortgage’ territory for a couple of days hire. The rental companies call it Supply and Demand – I call it daylight robbery!

So when I recently found myself in the happy position of being able to spend a few weeks up at the barn, it left me with a bit of a problem. Hiring a car for a month? During a period that covered a couple of bank holidays? Maybe this is a good time to try a bit of an experiment. Can I survive without a car?

In theory it shouldn’t be that hard. Let’s face it – in this digital age pretty much everything is available as shop’n’drop. Even as ‘off-the-beaten-track’ as I am, most of the major supermarkets will deliver up the track – weather permitting and as long as someone is on hand to give directions from the field that SatNav stops in!

Couriers and delivery companies do hike up their prices the minute they see a Scottish postcode and I have come to the conclusion that you have to have failed geography O-level to design a website for a logistics/courier/delivery business.

  • “Free delivery to mainland UK” actually means “Free delivery to anywhere South of Edinburgh”
  • “Additional charges for delivery to Highlands & Islands” actually means “Additional charges for delivery to anywhere North of Edinburgh”

But as long as you’re willing to pay over the odds to get your goods, most delivery companies will make it up there eventually.

So as long as I can get to the barn, why would I need a car?

Well the first challenge is actually getting there. I am 5 miles from the nearest pint of milk, or the nearest pint of beer, or the nearest bus stop. So getting home from the airport by public transport is something of a expedition. An hour or so on a train to Perth. Another hour or so on a bus to Alyth. And then a very long walk over a few hills. Fortunately it was a (rare) sunny day….

 

Walking isn’t one of my preferred hobbies, so having made it over the glen I had no plans to go anywhere. Which is all well and good until you discover you urgently need to post a letter (nearest postbox 2 miles), or you’re running short of milk (nearest shop 5 miles). Fortunately we have a great sense of community up here. The postman offered to post my letter 🙂 And my neighbours, on discovering my car-free status, kept offering to take me to the shops.

So was the experiment successful? Is car-free life possible? Well sort of – with some tolerant neighbours and a willingness to walk. But I’m a fair-weather girl; I’m not sure I’d fancy the hike down to civilisation in the rain/wind/snow/cold that is the norm up here – even with these views as you walk.

Maybe it’s time to buy a car…..

Ugh – my conservatory is ginger…

My barn is collection of spaces that evolved over time, starting from the original bothy (about 200 years old) to which an aspiring shepherd/farmer/property developer added a bit, added a bit more, stuck a bit out to the side, put another roof over the space in the middle, etc….

All of which has created a pretty awesome living space, but which wasn’t without its share of architectural challenges. There was a small doorway from the bothy to the tractor shed. There was a garden fence in what is now the living room. The hayloft, which is now my dressing room, could only be accessed by a ladder. Ditto the kitchen.

My architect was some kind of creative genius to join everything together without losing the integrity of the original building. But a few changes were needed – so, to accommodate my (fairly modest) wish list of rooms and features, he decided to block up the original doorway from the bothy to the rest of the building and add a conservatory/walkway that would lead from the main house to the bothy bedrooms. This conservatory was to be the grand entrance to the house, described in the plans as a glass and oak structure that would enhance the existing stone structure. Grand Designs – here I come.

The conservatory was the final construction required to make the house wind and watertight, so after all the years of rain, wind, snow and all the best of the Scottish weather flooding through the house, when it was finally installed towards the end of 2009, it was definitely a mile-stone to celebrate.

At the time, I had just relocated to India, so I was project-managing from 5,000 miles away. But hey, I’d seen the plans, the contractor I’d sorted to put the thing up had confirmed the design with me. It was to be made out of meranti, as I couldn’t afford oak, but would be stained to match the rest of the windows. What could possibly go wrong? So when I got the email telling me my house was now fully watertight it was Tiger beers all round (well have you ever tasted Indian ‘champagne’). It had only taken 8 years to get my barn to wind and watertight!!

I should have known better.

I didn’t get to see the conservatory in all its real glory until a couple of months later. I was in for a bit of a shock.

Imagine going to the hairdressers to get your roots done, and when they take the towel off you discover you’re a full-on redhead.

Yep, that kind of shock! My conservatory was ginger.

It blended in with the rest of the house like a zebra at a Pride march.

Unfortunately there was nothing I could do about it. I hadn’t seen a sample of the paint in advance – logistically that had seemed like too much of a challenge from 5,000 miles away and anyway, how hard is it to match a paint to the existing windows???

Clearly this contractor was colour blind.

So I have been living with a ginger conservatory for 8 years, and have never really liked it from the moment it was installed.

To be fair when it was all finished inside it didn’t look too bad.

But it has never really fitted with the outside of the house. So when it came to building the other conservatory – the one that creates the entrance to the cottage, I made quite clear that I wanted to see the finished colour of the wood before any building work started.

Unfortunately there was a bit of an issue with getting conservatory #2 installed. My contractor had overstretched himself on the jobs front, and having taken a hefty deposit from me, spent the next 8 months coming up with all sorts of excuses for why he couldn’t get the job done. Fortunately he’s a fairly decent chap as contractors go, so when he did eventually get started, by way of apology he said he would build a green oak structure rather than the original meranti structure we had agreed, for the same price. Not bad as upgrades go.

But not entirely altruistic as it turns out. Ha! He’s not daft my contractor chappie – he specialises in green oak. And he knew full well that once I’d seen the finish of this conservatory, I wouldn’t be happy until I’d upgraded my ginger monstrosity at the front of the house.

Well it’s taken a while, but last year I finally decided to go ahead and upgrade the ginger stuff with a green oak frame.

However, this project needed careful planning on the timing front. I think I mentioned that the conservatory links the bedrooms in the original bothy and the main house. So taking it down leaves two gaping great holes in the sides of the house. There was absolutely no scope for an 8 month delay this time – or indeed any kind of delay; this was a very weather-dependent project. To take down the old conservatory, put up the new structure, glaze it and slate the roof, would take 2-3 days. So we needed at least 2 clear days of warm dry weather. In Scotland. Right – no challenge there then!

The frame was all built at the workshop and turned up on the driveway looking like a giant IKEA flatpack – all suitably numbered and minus any instructions.

The plan was for the team to come up as soon as we had a weather forecast giving 3 dry days. (In Scotland – only slightly better odds than winning the lottery.) They would take down the old structure, put up the new frame and board it up on day 1, and come back on day 2 to put the glazing and roof slates on.

For once the weather played ball. 3 dry days forecast so the boys turned up to do their stuff.

Part one of the plan worked pretty well. Though of course, the minute the old frame had been taken down, the skies started to cloud over and it looked like we were in for some proper Scottish weather.

IMG_1518

Fortunately rain held off long enough to get the new frame up and boarded. And by the end of day three I had a brand new conservatory – one that actually looked like it belonged to the house!

Stairs within stairs….

One of the (many) jobs on my infinite to-do list was ‘Finish the stairs’. It’s a job that had been on that list for quite a while because, as with so many things in the barn, it was never going to be a straightforward job, so as a professional procrastinator, I’ve been putting it off.

My original plan had been to carpet the stairs so I’d asked the builders just to put in a cheap softwood staircase. After all, no need for anything fancy if I’m just going to cover it with carpet.

So that’s what they did. A bog-standard straight flight of stairs. Can’t go far wrong with that can you?

IMG_1079

Well clearly that depends on your builder. Mine, as I might have mentioned once or twice, wasn’t the best in the business. Spot the problem…..

Yep – it doesn’t line up. Obviously he had a wonky tape measure. Or he didn’t take into account the additional height of the finished floor upstairs. Or maybe he just should have gone to Specsavers.  Whatever – it looks like the perfect trip hazard to me.

The top of the staircase touched just below the steel lintel. By the time you add the thickness of the wood floor and the underlay there was more than 3cm difference in height. Enough to give any conscientious health and safety officer nightmares.

I did briefly consider getting one of those ‘reducing thresholds’ that are specifically designed to cover the join between wood or tiles and carpet. An inch or so T-bar strip of wood, higher on one side, angled to accommodate the height differential. But they’re meant for between rooms and under doorways where you’re not likely to trip over them. I’m not sure I like the idea of a sloped bit of wood like that right at the top of the stairs – feels like an accident waiting to happen.

So I thought instead about just putting an extra bit of wood on the top stair just to level it. Then cover it in carpet so it was all nice and level with the wood flooring. Simples?

Maybe, but that then creates another problem – the top step would be a higher than all the others. Now I haven’t read the Building Regs on staircases in any detail, but I’m fairly sure that alongside the lengthy paragraphs about minimum treads, maximum risers and level steps there’s probably quite a bit on the need for even heights. Apparently our brains are wired for rhythm and uniformity. Having one step at a different height to all the rest makes us stumble.

(Put ’36th St station NY tripping staircase’ into YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. Lots of unsuspecting commuters falling over because one step in the subway staircase was a fraction of an inch higher than the rest – after that video went viral the powers that be in NYC sent in the repairmen.)

What I really needed was to find a way to raise the whole staircase by 3cm, preferably without all the mess, hassle and expense of taking the whole thing out and starting again. I tried my faithful fall back – Google it. However, if you type in ‘How to improve an uneven staircase’, all you’ll get back is a million decoration ideas for staircases, from the weird and the wacky to the elegant and the refined, but nothing that actually solves the fundamental problem – the difference in height.

Then I had an Archimedes-in-his-bath moment. Why not just build a staircase on top of the existing one? Inspired by a website selling stair treads and risers I figured that if I buy a load of decent oak stair parts I could just cover the existing one adding the necessary height at the same time. Posh oak stairs, no carpet, right height. Honestly – it’s not as mad as it sounds. So I ordered thirteen oak treads and matching risers.

One minor issue, even ordering the thickest treads possible, I still needed another 1cm to get the height exactly right on that problematic top step. But in true Blue Peter style, I just happened to have a whole lot of 1cm offcuts that came out of some balustrades parts I’d ordered. What could be simpler – stick a load of offcuts on the existing stairs and put the new treads on top of those.

Unfortunately – because nothing can ever be that easy in the barn – the risers that I’d ordered were still slightly too high to fit under the treads and would need to be cut down to size. For somebody who hates sawing wood, and who cannot saw in a straight line, the thought of sawing half inch off the long side of thirteen metre-long bits of oak was enough to relegate the ‘Finish the staircase’ task right back down to the bottom of the infamous Infinite List. In fact I nearly gave it all up as a bad job and had almost resorted to a tin of paint with a bit of that yellow and black tape to stick across the top step as a warning to would-be trippers.

Then I had another Eureka moment. (Must be something in the Scottish bath water.) Why not just rout a groove in the underside of the tread. Then the risers would just slot in to the treads, perfect height, no need for any sawing and with the added bonus that it would hold the whole thing together. Genius!

IMG_1089

Sorted. So now all I had to do was get out the glue, rout the other 12 treads and stick down a few offcuts of wood.

All it needs now is a bit of finishing off. Time to call in the man with the can – aka my Dad, the King of all things varnishable. An afternoon with a can of Danish oil and a lint-free cloth and there you have it – a beautiful oak stair case with no trip hazard!

One more thing crossed off the Infinite List…….

Gin and Jungle

Sticking with the outdoor theme this week, I’m picking up from where I left the last blog way back in August 2016, when I’d been working on the decking at the front of the house.

IMG_0493I finished that blog as follows:

“So no, it isn’t finished. But it is three-quarters done. The rest will just have to wait until the next time I’m home!”

Ha! Famous last words. That decking stood proud and tall – and distinctly unfinished – for another eight months. Not my fault of course. I had a couple of extended work trips in India, and it’s a bit far to commute from Chennai for the weekend just to finish a bit of decking – for some reason my boss didn’t see that as a justifiable expense.

And by the time I did finally make it home it was Winter. Nobody in their right minds works in the garden during the winter months in the frozen North. By the time my commuting had reduced to just the weekly red-eye to London and the North unfroze enough to venture outside, I’d turned my attentions to the long list of things that needed finishing indoors and didn’t really have any time for the garden.

Now you can say what you like about the Scottish weather, but the copious quantities of rainfall do mean that the minute temperatures event hint at better things, everything starts growing with a vengeance – particularly the weeds.

So with a relatively mild Winter (by our standards) in 2016, and a temperate Spring’17, as soon as we headed back into double-digit temperatures the garden did what uncared-for gardens normally do under these circumstances and went completely wild. So much so that as I parked up at the front one day I realised that from the relatively low vantage point sitting in the car I actually couldn’t see anything of the house apart from the roof. It was hidden by a jungle. I also realised that a couple of weeks later I was hosting a house-party that included a highly active 3-year-old who loves playing hide-and-seek. With the current state of the jungle, if she went to hide we could be seeking for days!

Time for some drastic action:

  1. Build a proper pathway
  2. Buy a strimmer

And picturing current state of the decking with its cliff-edge drop to the ground combined with aforementioned energetic 3-year-old:

3.  Finish decking

I considered DIY’ing the path and driveway. But knowing how hard my land is to dig, coupled with the fact I was still working away from home quite a lot, it seemed like a better plan to call in the cavalry. Fortunately my helpful contractor chappie had a few days free between jobs, so he brought up a digger and ordered in the gravel.

While the lads worked on the pathway I worked on the decking. Not actually too major a job since it had all been planned out and all materials bought eight months previously. It was just a case of getting out the hammer and chisel again to ‘dig’ a few more post holes.

Fortunately, with a bit of decent weather for a change, we managed to get all construction finished before the house party arrived. Path dug, decking built. Just needed to get the grass strimmed and the approach to the barn would actually look quite civilised for a change.

The measure of any good garden deck area is whether it’s an enjoyable place to sit and sip your G&T. Clearly I now had a pretty decent G&T standard deck at the front of the house. But it does have one major flaw – it only really gets the sun through to about 3pm.

Now I can drink G&T at any time of the day. Admittedly I don’t usually put it on my cornflakes, but only because I consider that a waste of good gin. I do, however, live by the philosophy that the sun is always over the yard arm somewhere in the world, so I can legitimately sit out on the front deck at midday with my glass of G,T,ice’n’a’slice. But I’m not a big fan of sitting outside shivering whilst knocking back the clear stuff. And in Scotland, when the sun disappears, the temperatures plummet –  none of those long balmy mediterranean nights up in the frozen North. We may have the light, but we don’t have the heat. Clearly I need an alternative Gin Deck that gets the evening sun.

The perfect solution is the area outside the kitchen & cottage, which already had an ‘almost finished’ decking. It was another one of those jobs that was rained off at 90% complete, and I never quite got back to it.

The answer? Well when you have a house-party, make sure you invite somebody who’s handy with a hammer and has a perfectionist’s eye. Not only did he finish off some of the gaps, he also took up some of the warped and wonky boards I’d put down and forced them back into straighter lines. Thank you Mr Handyman – you can come again.

Inspired by all this deck improvement activity, I decided to carry on the good work after the visitors had gone. Grand plans included creating a number of individual raised beds for planting my own kitchen garden. A touch of the good life – sitting on the deck late into a summer’s evening with the scent of home-grown herbs wafting around. You get the picture…..

So I now have outdoor Gin drinking space from early morning (just in case I do ever want to douse my cornflakes) right through to the late evening summer sun. All I need now is a solution for the midges…….

Clearing out the builders yard…

It’s that time of year again – Happy Easter!

It was this time of year, two years ago that the invaders from the South came to visit for the first time, and as I recall I was madly rushing about trying desperately to get the house habitable before they arrived.

This time, when half the pack came back for another visit, I had big plans to keep them occupied – let’s explore the garden…….

A long time ago, back in the dark days of building this place, I was shocked by an estimate from the builder that included an eye-waveringly high cost for removing rubbish from site. I challenged it, but he refused to budge saying that high costs of landfill needed to be covered. So in a misguided attempt to keep the costs down, I suggested to the builder that anything that was dug out of the barn during the build could be dumped on site. With a couple of acres of land available, there was plenty of room to lose the scrapings off the barn floor without impacting the landscape too much.

Unfortunately this was in the days of Mr Incompetent Builder. Rather than spread the floor scrapings out across a wide area, he dumped it by the digger load in the field next to the house. When the snow fell that Winter, it looked like I had an Olympic Standard ski jump in my garden!

Nor was that the worst of it. Mr I-B had also developed selective hearing when we discussed this. He decided that I’d agreed that all the building waste could be dumped or burned on site. In fact, using his initiative, he decided to turn my land into his own private landfill, bringing up the rubbish from other sites he was working on. I finally caught him out when I visited the site one day to find a fire smouldering with the detritus and packaging from a Worcester gas boiler, which I was fairly confident had nothing to do with my build. a) Because at the time my barn had no floors, doors, windows or much in the way of a roof so it seemed a bit premature to have installed a boiler, and b) because the barn is too remote to be able to get a gas supply!!

It turned into one of the many arguments I had with that particular builder and he eventually agreed to remove aforementioned rubbish. But did so rather unenthusiastically, and, as it turned out, rather inefficiently.

But now I had a willing team of helpers – even if they didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for….!

Inevitably as we wanted to work outside the temperatures plummeted and there were flurries of snow. Winter is refusing to give up this year. But hey, this is Scotland – if you let the weather get in the way of your plans, you’d never get anything done. So we braved the elements and got to work, clearing up the ‘builders yard’.

Starting out in the forest, where many years ago when the forest was first planted, the saplings had been cased in plastic and staked, presumably to keep them growing straight and to protect them from deer.

Forestry management hasn’t been top of my list of priorities in building the barn, so nothing has been done out there since I bought the place. The trees have grown (as they have a habit of doing) breaking out of their wrappers and leaving lots of broken plastic lying around on the forest floor.

Though I hadn’t actually realised quite how many there were.

The plan was to take everything down to the gate at the front of the property, and pile it up ready for dumping in a skip at some point.

But it’s a fair old trek down to that gate, and with all the tree casings piling up it would have taken us a whole day to carry them all down there. Fortunately my genius baby brother came up with a cunning plan for transportation.

Take one old security fence, pile on as many bits of plastic as possible, put another old steel security fence on top to keep them in place. A plastic sandwich.

Three trips. Job done!

Of course having transported them all to the gate we needed a way of keeping them there. These things are so lightweight that one puff of wind would scatter them all over the grounds again – which would kind of defeat the object.

Well a couple of bits of old rope solved that one.

Meanwhile outside the forest, the lack of enthusiasm in Mr Incompetent Builder’s tidying up soon became apparent.

Fencing wire, barbed wire, temporary site fencing panels, broken wheelbarrows, bricks, blocks, heat pump pipe, underground drainage pipe, aluminium sheeting, roofing lead, downpipes, gutters, you name it, we found it.

So there it is – two and a half acres and 16 years of builders on site……

Time to order that skip!