Bits, Bobs, Odds & Sods

I have a Masters degree in ‘The Art of Procrastination and Daydreaming”. (Well I would have, if there were such a thing.)

Which means when I’ve decided on what the next job is to tackle in the barn, I spend hours staring at it – working through in my head all the steps involved, how long they will take, what it will look like when I’ve finished, imagining how chuffed I’ll feel when it’s done. (Actually, given that I’m in no way a professional builder there’s also quite a lot of protracted head-scratching…) You get the idea – I am a professional time-waster.

Unfortunately, I also have the attention span of a 2-year old. Which means after I’ve wasted precious hours staring at the job to be done, when I do finally get cracking, going at it with great gusto, I then very quickly get bored and wish I’d never started.

In my defence I will point out that given the exaggerated proportions of the barn, most jobs I undertake are a bit bigger than the average self-builder will have to tackle. Anybody would get bored with the repetitiveness of some of these jobs.

So whilst it was really exciting when I got to put the first slate on the roof:

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It was the 10,699 remaining that became a bit tedious….

(Hence the glowering looks in my profile picture!)

It was a similar story with the internal wall building. Putting up the first stud wall that created the first proper room in the house was thrilling. But after a few more, when it felt like I was rebuilding a forest, the excitement wore off a bit.

Ditto the plasterboarding…. And the floor slating….. And the painting…. And I don’t even want to think about the 18,000 little mosaic squares on the floors and walls of my bathroom…

What it all means is that I’m actually not great at finishing things off. (For anyone who knows what Belbin is, I am never going to be the Completer/Finisher in the team!) I get to the point where I’ve just had enough of whatever endless task I’m doing, and I just want to move on to something new. I promise myself ‘I can finish that off later….’

As a result I have lots of little bits & pieces of jobs that haven’t quite been finished off. For example

  • There are about half a dozen slates that need to be cut to size to completely finish off the flooring
  • There are a few bits of plasterboard that need cutting to size to finish off the walls
  • There are a couple of little corner edges that need to be finished on the stair trims I built
  • There are a few tiles that need cutting to size and putting up in the bathrooms
  • & lots more…..

I used to make lists. But they were either so long I’d just sit there and get depressed about so much to do in so little time. Or I’d cheat and cross things of because “well it’s nearly finished, it will be next weekend, so I can just cross it off the list now because then I’ll feel like I’ve achieved something….”

So here’s the deal. This blog so far is being written as I sit waiting for my flight home on a Friday night. Let’s see whether the pressure of having to confess the extent of my laziness over the weekend does anything to get me working! I promise to show some before and after pictures of what I actually can get done when I put my mind to it. Until Sunday then……………..

Decking out the garden….

So far, other than the the blog about keeping the cows out, I haven’t mentioned much about my outside space. Having so much to focus on inside, I’ve been taking a bit of a ‘head in sand’ approach to the outside – if I pretend it doesn’t exist, maybe it will sort itself out. With the inevitable result that I now have 2½ acres of total wilderness, mostly consisting of 6ft high weeds, nettles and thistles. A haven for all that wildlife I mentioned in my last blog!

But with the second conservatory finally installed, (the saga of which which requires a whole blog to itself), I decided I would make the effort to tidy up the little square of ground that sits outside the kitchen and the cottage.

It’s South-West facing, and a lovely sun-trap in the evenings. So, my plan was to build a decking, with some strategically placed raised herb beds at either end; the perfect place to sit out in the long summer evenings with a G&T, the scents of mint, rosemary, thyme, wafting around in the breeze – (though obviously, this being Scotland, still well wrapped up in jumpers, scarves and gloves and being eaten alive by midges). You get the idea…

So I found a website where you just put your garden measurements in and it works out everything you need. And duly placed my order for 16m² of decking. For once there were no delivery issues, so it was all there waiting to be built the following weekend. Excellent. An afternoon’s work and it’ll be G&T all round!

Well how hard can it be? I mean, I’m probably showing my age here, but I watched that ‘Groundforce’ programme on telly in the 90’s. That chap Tommy could apparently knock up a garden decking area in a couple of hours.

Huh. He’s either a builder genius, or that was TV trickery. Or, more likely, he had a whole team of willing workers to call upon.

As with everything else at the barn, building my decking was never going to be that straight-forward.

Problem number 1: Size matters

Well to be honest, this one was entirely self-inflicted. What’s that DIY mantra – “Measure twice, cut once”.

Right. Well I did measure, more than twice. But kept forgetting to write the measurements down. Or wrote them down on random scraps of paper that I couldn’t find later. Or wrote them down in a very vague way that didn’t really take account of where the fence and the gate were….

So I had to redesign the whole thing after all the supplies had been delivered.

Two areas of decking of 3.6m x 2.4m and 3m x 2.4m became two areas of decking of 3m x 1.8m and 4.8m x 2.4m with an overlapping step. Lots more work involved than originally intended!

Problem number 2: rotten rock

I recall a conversation with the local farmer in the early days of the build. He told me he’d considered buying the place himself, but had decided against it because “it’s all built on rotten rock”. Not having a clue what he was talking about I just nodded, smiled and agreed in a vague non-committing way.

I found out what he meant the first time I tried to dig a hole in the ground to put my fence posts up – I don’t dig holes in my ground. I have to chisel them.

I needed 26 post holes for my decking. It took forever to dig/chisel them out.

If I was lucky, I could get down about 20cm before I hit rock. Sometimes boulders or bits of rock small enough to dig out; sometimes large areas of soft rock that could be broken up with a chisel. But occasionally a large piece of granite too hard to break and too big to dig out. Which meant starting all over again and moving the hole, or making an executive decision that it was deep enough to safely secure the post.

(A word to the wise here – don’t try this at the end of a long day, when you’re tired, cold, damp and the light is failing. You will inevitably miss the chisel and bring a 4lb club hammer down on your hands; I didn’t actually break my finger, but it was unusable for a few days!)

Problem number 3: building on a hill

The other major problem I had (which I bet Tommy never did) was trying to construct the frame halfway up a hill single-handedly. In an ideal world you should construct the frame on flat ground so you can keep it all nice and square as you build. But just like inside the barn, there is nothing flat or even about my land, so my frame was twisting about in every direction as I tried to put it together.

At times it felt like I was wrestling with a giant wooden octopus

I also made the mistake of constructing the frame before I dug the holes. With the result that I ended up have to saw one or two of the legs off to accommodate the ‘impossible to move rocks’ in the bottom of some of the holes.

Fortunately, once it was all concreted in place, it was all nice and square and so the rest was relatively easy. The decking planks I’d ordered were pre-cut to the correct length, so even with all my last  minute redesigning, there wasn’t too much cutting involved.

Now all I need is a bit of summer and a G&T. Oh, and some way of keeping the midges at bay…

Waging war on the wildlife…..

I should probably attach a health warning to this blog. Something along the lines of “all animal lovers and squeamish people, read no further….”

For anyone who hasn’t worked it out yet, I live in the country; halfway up a hill, in the middle of remote nowhere, surrounded by the beautiful countryside of Scotland.

On the plus side, I wake up every morning to views like this:

On the downside, Waitrose won’t deliver, there is absolutely zero chance of ever getting a broadband speed above 0.000001 MB/s, in Winter I can be cut off for days at a time, and the nearest pub/bus stop/pint of milk is a 5-mile cross-country hike away.

And I get invaded by every species of wildlife imaginable.

Now for all you city dwellers whose idea of wildlife is urban foxes raiding the dustbins, I’m guessing when I put a few pictures like this up:

(taken  from my bedroom window one morning when I woke up and caught him looking in) you’re all thinking “How cute!”

Well maybe. But however cute they look, deer are a menace if you’re trying to cultivate a garden. Ditto all the fluffy little rabbits, who’ve built themselves a multi-floored des-res around the heating manifold in the back garden (- though they’re in for a shock when it finally gets backfilled next week!) They’ll treat your lovely expensive new plants as their own gourmet dining experience.

To be perfectly honest, given the state of most of my land, overgrown as it is with 6ft high weeds, Bambi and Thumper are not my greatest concern at the moment.

My bigger ‘wildlife’ problem is actually indoors, not outdoors. MICE. Eeek! The house is overrun with them, an unpleasant but inevitable consequence of living in an old building surrounded by farmland.

They get absolutely everywhere, but they do seem to have a few favourite places. For some reason, the top step leading into the music room is the choice spot for a nightly Meeting of the Mice. It also appears to be the mouse public lavatory.

To be honest, I could (almost) live with clearing up the mouse poo if that was the only issue. But mice will chew through anything and everything. They even managed to get inside my heat pump and chew through all the wiring, causing hundreds of pounds of damage. So war has been declared.

IMG_0898My first attempts at introducing a ‘mouse-free zone’ was with an electronic rat trap. Stick a bit of chocolate on the metal plate, switch it on and wait. Mouse goes in, a flash and a bang, and mouse is dead – hopefully without feeling anything. In the morning, all you have to do is tip dead mouse out onto the compost heap.

It did work quite well. Right up until the time some other kind of wildlife got into the house one night, found a dead mouse in the trap and decided to eat half of it. I don’t know what kind of predator the visitor was, but I suspect a stoat or a weasel – and how it got into the house, I have no idea. But since then, the mice have been a bit wary of the trap – maybe there’s a lingering smell of dead roasted mouse that is putting them off. I should probably clean it out, but to be honest, even with the Marigolds on, I don’t really relish the idea of scraping the barbecued mouse innards from the inside of the trap.

In any case, one mouse at a time is a bit slow going. Rather than invest in another dozen or so electronic traps, I decided to try an alternative – which was to put down poison.

Mice don’t like poison. Though to be fair, neither do I.

I mean, conceptually it feels wrong: Mouse eats poison and dies is fine. But then neighbour’s cat eats dead poisoned mouse and gets sick. Or mouse dies outside somewhere and his decomposing corpse releases all the poison into the ground for some other innocent, unsuspecting wildlife to eat…

I also had nightmares of hundreds of mice feasting on the poison I put down, and taking a carry-out back to their nests to continue the party. Only to die there, becoming hundreds of tiny mouse skeletons piled high in the metre-thick stone walls (well I did warn you – this is not a blog for the squeamish).

But poison is effective, and let’s be honest, the little b*ggers cause too much damage to ignore; they have to go.

So I quashed all thoughts of the hypothetical horror scenarios above and liberally scattered my trays of poison in the boiler room. And the evidence of mouse activity started to disappear. The poison worked.

It was all going so well, until the day I found Mickey – the mouse so sick that he couldn’t run away. He just lay there, curled up in a little ball by the water tank, watching me. Looking at the poor trembling little creature made me feel like a mass murderer (which I suppose, technically, I was). I haven’t been able to put poison down ever since.

But I do still need to get rid of the pesky blighters – I’m not so soft-hearted that I want to put up with continually cleaning up the mouse poo they obligingly leave all over the house. I just had to find a less gruesome alternative than poison to solve my little furry problem.

As ever, in a situation like this, the internet is a girl’s best friend, so I googled “Mice – prevention of…”

Some of the bright ideas Google came up with:

Block up all the mouse holes.

Really? What genius thought that one up? At a guess I’d say someone who has never lived in an old building where the walls are made out of stone, rubble, cracks and gaps. I mean yes, it’s the most obvious logical answer, but trying to fill all the holes in my walls would be like trying to fill a sieve with water.

IMG_0852I’ve had a shot at it – armed with a job lot of expanding foam, I’ve attacked some of the more obvious holes that I knew were being used.

One of the favourite entrance places was through a gap between the ceiling plasterboard and the beam, where they would come in and run up and down the wall (leaving a lovely trail of evidence behind them.)

Not any more!

But unfortunately, blocking every single hole in the building isn’t possible. So what else can I try?

Mice don’t like tinfoil.

Apparently it hurts their teeth. (I have some sympathy – don’t you remember, as a kid, accidentally chewing a bit of your KitKat wrapper??) So the suggestion was fill all mouse holes with foil and wrap all pipes and wires in the stuff.

I have two objections to this idea:

  1. There are hundreds of holes in my walls. Do I really want little tufts of tinfoil sticking out all over the place?? Hardly the kind of trendy interior design look I’m after.
  2. Given the size of the house, I have oodles of pipes and wires. I would have to buy up every bit of tinfoil in a 10-mile radius, creating a severe local shortage – and in the run up to Christmas turkey time, I’m sure that wouldn’t make me popular.

Any other brilliant ideas Google?

Mice don’t like peppermint oil

The jury’s out on whether this one works. I did try it. Peppermint oil drops on cotton wool, strategically placed around the mouse lavatory. To be fair, there was no sign of mice for a few days, but I’m not sure whether it was the pink cotton wool balls or the peppermint that scared them off. And they were soon back. I’d try spraying a stronger solution of the stuff, but I’m not really convinced I want to live in a house that permanently smells like a Trebor mint factory.

And then I came across this little gem:

An ultrasonic, electromagnetic, ionising super gadget.

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Apparently it makes the environment so uncomfortable for rodents that they’ll pack up their bags and move out, 100% guaranteed or your money back…

I plugged it in, switched it on, and stood back to see what would happen. It was instantaneous. The walls came alive; the mice went mad. There was a frenzy of scrabbling as they tried to escape the ultrasonic waves and electromagnetic vibrations.

But a few days later, the mouse lavatory appeared to be back in use. It may be that the stone walls are creating mouse protection barriers, so I’ve been moving the super gadget around to different sockets in different rooms – trying the attack from all angles. I may yet be asking for a refund…..

In truth I think the best solution is to get myself a cat. And maybe when my job no longer involves so much time away from home I will. But there’s a risk in that strategy – who can stop at just one? As I become the mad hermit cat lady on the hill…..

The Aga, the crowbar and the car jack….

My Aga joined the household a couple of years ago. It arrived in pieces, and took a couple of engineers the whole morning to assemble.

They seemed a bit bemused by the fact that they were putting a brand new Aga into what was, effectively,image a building site – the kitchen was still bare concrete floor, unfinished plasterboard walls and random pipework sticking up out of the floor…..

Still, they set it all up, warned me that it might smoke a bit, and left.

Smoke a bit??? It’s emissions for the next 6 hours were worse than a VW diesel engine. In a panic, I phoned the ’emergency’ number the engineer had left. And got through to a lovely chap who calmly explained that when a brand new Aga is heated up for the first time, it burns off all the oil used in putting it together, so the smoke that I could see pouring out of the roasting oven was perfectly normal.

I really wasn’t convinced. So much so that I phoned the ’emergency’ number again about an hour later. “Are you sure this is normal and it’s not going to spontaneously combust and burn the house down?” His very patient tones suggested I am not the first neurotic new Aga owner to ask this kind of idiot question.

And even when all the smoke started to clear and the dreadful smell of burning oil started to disappear, I remained a bit of an emotional wreck – madly excited by the fact I now owned a trendy purple Aga, and absolutely terrified by the thought of actually having to cook on it.

With all that excitement to distract me, is it any wonder that I didn’t notice the minor flaw in the way it had been installed? In fact it took me about 6 months to notice that my Aga was not sitting square on its plinth. To be fair, it may not have been the engineers. It may have been the builders who came in a few days after the engineers had left, to finish putting in the housing for the vent through the stone walls. Either way, I didn’t notice.

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I probably should have phoned the Aga shop to point out the error – but to be honest it would have been a bit embarrassing trying to explain that the reason I hadn’t noticed it was because I was too busy dancing round my kitchen like a lunatic.

So I ignored it; if I don’t look at it, it will go away. And anyway, it was only half an inch out, so who would ever notice?

So the Aga sat slightly skewed on its base for the next couple of years. Until now – when I am finally getting round to putting the final flooring down in the house. And I have realised that the wonky plinth is going to cause a problem, not just in trying to lay the floor, but also when I finally get round to building the kitchen cabinets around the Aga.

I phoned the Aga service people to use if they could help and they agreed to send an engineer out. Since I couldn’t be at home on the date suggested I asked my neighbour if he’d be around to let the engineer in. He came up with a better idea:

“Can’t we move it ourselves? I’ve moved a Rayburn before and the Aga isn’t much bigger. I’m sure it can’t be that hard”

Here we go again – where have I heard words like that before?? Nonetheless, we arranged that we would give it a go at the weekend.

So how do you move half a ton of Aga. Apparently all you need are a few lengths of decking, some random offcuts of wood, a 4ft crowbar and a carjack. Oh, and a couple of very obliging neighbours!

They turned up on Sunday afternoon, and there followed a lengthy discussion about how to move half a ton of Aga without damaging it. It was decided that if the plinth could be wedged in place on one corner, and a few bits of wood strategically placed to protect the cooker’s enamel, the crowbar could be applied to ease the Aga  back into line on its plinth.

But the only safe way to wedge the plinth was against the concrete steps at the other end of the kitchen – 7 metres away. I ‘deconstructed’ the decking I had been building to provide a few lengths of wood. Operation Move the Aga duly began.

So far so good. Aga aligned to plinth. Now we just needed to straighten the whole set up back against the wall. It was decided that if we put a few more bits of wood down to wedge the other corner a then got a car-jack and turned it on its side…..

There was a lengthy man-debate about the merits of a scissor jack versus a hydraulic jack. I just stood back and let them get on with it – after all, I’m just a girl, I have enough hassle trying to convince people I’m capable of impersonating a builder, I’m not going to pretend to be a mechanic as well! 

The scissor jack won. Part 2 of Operation Move the Aga was carried out.

Hats off to the chaps – the Aga is now straight on its plinth and is square to the walls. (Well, as square as anything can be in this house!)

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Only problem is, I’ve now got no excuses left for not getting on with putting the kitchen floor down….

There’s a coffin in my hearth….

One thing I always dreamed of having in any house I built was an open fire. There’s something quite appealing, (and dare I say romantic,) about the idea of being curled up in front of a roaring fire, while outside the Scottish weather dumps 3ft of snow on the doorstep.

But of course the downside of installing that lovely big open fire is that you have to build a chimney. In itself, the installation of a chimney in the barn wouldn’t have been a major trauma (by the standards of my build that is!) Given that at one point in time half the roof had been taken off and a large part of the outside wall had collapsed, constructing a chimney in the middle of the living room wouldn’t have created much additional disruption to the general state of ongoing chaos.

No – the real problem with installing a chimney in your house is that it is nothing more nor less than a bloody great hole through the roof – providing the perfect conduit to let in all that lovely (cold) Scottish weather. Not the most efficient thing to do in these days of airtight, super-insulated buildings….

But my inner pyromaniac was not entirely willing to give up on the idea of a fire in the house. So I came to the obvious compromise with my architect – let’s install a woodburning stove. And I left him to design the appropriate hearth…

I think I might have mentioned before that my architect’s ‘vision’ has occasionally been on the creative side. So it hardly came as any surprise that the design he came back with for the hearth wasn’t the usual bog-standard rectangular block on the floor, walled in for the purposes of fire-proofing.

Nope. My hearth is a weird fancy shape, raised above floor level, that comes complete with its own ‘peeking Tom’ window through to the corridor behind, and is topped out with my own private viewing platform – the glass-walled, glass-roofed snug up in my ME space.

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Well who needs ordinary?

It all sounded great when the architect explained it to me.

And it looks perfectly innocent on paper.

Unfortunately, when construction actually commenced and it started to take shape, one of the brickies was moved to ask:

“Why are we building a coffin in the living room?”

And you have to admit, you can see where he’s coming from….

But the surrounding walls went up, and the ‘room over the fireplace’ was built, though not without a few issues along the way.

Bear in mind that this was all in the days when Mr Incompetent Builder was still on the scene. For some incomprehensible reason he decided there was no good reason why the wall on the ground floor should line up with the wall of the glass snug above. (I suspect it was built on one of the many days when his tape-measure had gone on strike.)

He grumbled quite a lot when I said it had to be taken down and rebuilt.

But even when it was corrected, even with the surrounding walls, the peek-a-boo window and the glass room above, it has to be said, the whole thing does still vaguely resemble a coffin.

So the name has stuck. The fireplace is now ‘the coffin’. Mind you, in one respect the name is appropriate; I over-ordered on the cement for slating the floor and had about 15 bags of the stuff to dispose of. But for some reason the council objects to bags of cement in the wheelie bin. So what better place to bury the evidence?

I dumped 12 bags into one end of the fireplace, poured a load of cement over the top and put a layer of slates down. Unfortunately I’d added a bit too much water to the cement, so some of my slates started to drown – resulting in a very uneven surface. But hey, since that part of the hearth is the log store and my cunning plan is to keep it well-stocked, who will ever know what lies beneath?

And the other end of the coffin was also used as a burial ground – but this time for a load of leftover concrete blocks and bricks. That part of the hearth has to take the weight of the stove, so I made sure it was one solid mass of block-work, topped with a solid layer of brick. (Trust me; I’m not Mr Incompetent builder!)

So a few coats of paint (thanks Mum!), and some well stacked logs (thanks Mum!), and we’re all set to go.

All I need now is the fire….