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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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…..

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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!

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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!

The girl in the hard hat is back!

Apologies if you been missing the weekly dose of chaos and crazy builder antics. It came as something of a shock to discover that I haven’t posted anything in 18 months. Truth is, my work-life-balance got decidedly out of kilter and my life was all work, via airports, hotels and dodgy BA breakfasts.

Now that jet-set contract has come to an end, I’m finally back in the country and able to spend some quality time at the barn. Admittedly I’m also having to spend a disproportionate amount of time chasing up unresponsive recruitment agents at the moment. But whilst waiting for the elusive phone calls, I’ve decided there’s no harm in enjoying a bit of me-time and picking up the pen again.  I even keep trying to persuade myself that now’s the perfect time to start writing that bestseller – but given how hard I find it to get 1500 words out once a week, I’m probably deluding myself on that one….. (PS. Anybody who knows of any jobs going for an accountant with a side-line in blogging and plumbing – do feel free to get in touch…)

Anyway, I’ve decided it’s time to start up the blog again – but where to start? Well the obvious place, and being terribly British about it, is with the recent weather. I know, everybody now has proud horror stories of ‘hardships in the snow’. But let’s face it, I’m 900ft up a hill in the middle of Scotland. I bet I can outdo most of those stories…

Being as remote as I am, and a fair few feet above sea-level, I inevitably get a bit of snow in Winter. Whenever the weatherman glibly announces that “there’ll be showers in Scotland, possibly turning wintry on higher ground” – yep, that means me. But most years it’s not really much of an issue.

This latest weather front was a whole different animal – a proper beast you might say. What was a few inches of snow in London (paralysing the entire city and bringing the country to a standstill) was a few feet of the stuff up at the barn…

The track up to the house was impassable. Until the farmer got up there with tractor and snow plough, we were cut off from the world. The snow drifted up on all four sides of the house and all seven doors into the property were blocked. Short of climbing out of a window, I was trapped indoors!

Fortuitously, the day before this lot arrived I had had a bit of a mad shopping/cooking frenzy and stocked up the freezer, the wine rack and the gin store. Since I couldn’t get out, might as well just kick back and enjoy the view!

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That worked for about two days. Unfortunately, snow wasn’t the only problem. Temperatures plummeted (right down to -18ºC according to my neighbour). So it hardly came as a surprise when I woke up on day 3 of our snowy adventures to find there was not a drop of water to be had in any of the bathrooms in the lower part of the house. Frozen pipes!

At first I assumed the water supply into the house had frozen. I have had issues in the past with the pipe freezing outside in the pump house. But when I checked in the kitchen, the cold tap was flowing freely. On the plus side, that meant the outside pipes hadn’t yet frozen. Which also meant the bathroom in the cottage was still functioning. OK, I rarely go in there these days, so there’s several inches of dust, no heating and the mice have been having a ball (they’d even eaten most of the soap?!) – but there’s also a flushing loo and an electric shower. What more can a snowed-in girl ask for?

Well on the down side, somewhere inside the main part of the house it was cold enough for the pipes to have frozen, and I had know idea where. I was supposed to be heading back down South as soon I could actually dig my way out to Edinburgh, and I started to panic that there would be burst pipes and exploded joints somewhere inside the walls of the house when it all thawed out and I’d come back up a week later to find the entire house turned into an indoor swimming pool.

Still, it would be a while before I made it down the road, so all I had to do was to locate and thaw the guilty pipe before I left home. I decided it couldn’t be in the roof space above the living room as, fairly recently, in an attempt to speed up/retain the hot water flow to the kitchen, I’d been up in the loft wrapping another whole roll of insulation around all the water pipes I could find.

So the weak point had to be further down the house behind the upstairs bathroom wall. Before the pipes drop down to the roof space of the bothy and into the boiler room, they are effectively running along an external wall. And given the drafts that blow through the ungrouted, unsealed (and generally unfinished) tiling in that bathroom, chances are it had got cold enough behind the wall to freeze any exposed pipes.

Only one way to find out. I took out the access panel behind the loo and stuck my head in to take a look. It was blowing an arctic gale! Daylight was visible under the eaves on the East wall – a nice big gap perfectly aligned to the incoming wind from Siberia.

So I grabbed a large wodge of insulation and stuffed it into the gap. It didn’t seem to make much difference. So I decided I needed to plug all the way round the edge where the roof and wall meet.

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Minor problem – there’s not a whole lot of space back there. I think ‘contortionist plumbers’ were mentioned in that particular blog. I could barely fit myself in there, never mind a ladder.

And the apex of the roof that I need to reach was about 10ft at it’s highest point. Time to think outside the box.

Cue one extendable paint roller, one extendable feather duster, a roll of insulation and a reasonable amount of swearing.

  • Unravel insulation so it can be continuously fed into the gap behind the wall
  • Manoeuvre self, paint roller and feather duster into gap with insulation
  • Hook insulation over end of paint roller
  • Extend paint roller as far as it will go, without insulation falling off
  • Extend feather duster as far as it will go and use to push insulation into gap between wall and roof boards
  • When insulation falls off, swear loudly and restart from step 3.

Imagine using giant chopsticks while pinioned against a wall in a space less than a foot wide with an arctic gale freezing your extremities. You get the picture. I’ve never been good with chopsticks; I always ask for a fork in the Chinese!

Anyway, I shoved as in much insulation as possible. It still felt pretty cold in there to me, so all I could do is wait to see if it would thaw. But hey, I still had one working bathroom and an electric shower. Why worry?

Er, well, not for long. Next morning there was no water coming into the house at all. The pipes in the pump house had finally given up the fight against the Beast from the East. Now there was no alternative but to brave the elements and try to get some heat out there.

The only trouble was, I couldn’t actually get any doors open.

So that’ll be me climbing out of the window then. With an extension lead in one hand and a hot air blower in the other…..

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….wading through a couple of feet of snow.

To dig the shed door out of a drift….

Fortunately I’ve had a bit of practice at thawing out the pump house. Stick a decent hot air heater in there and after about an hour the water is usually running free again.

While I was out I decided to dig out a couple of the doors so I could escape the house like a normal person instead of climbing out of the windows.

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But I don’t know why I bothered – by the following morning it had all drifted back again.

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So I gave up on the doors and had a bit of fun instead!

So that’s it. My saga of the Beast from the East. Hopefully that’s the last of the Winter!

Next week I promise I’ll get back to where I left off, and give some real updates on the ongoing saga that is the building of my barn….

Decking out the garden…

Apologies to anyone who has been missing the regular fix of my barn building woes. Truth is, just as I’ve got to the happy state of being able to relax in front of the fire with a glass of wine without feeling too guilty about the ‘snagging list’, my job has taken me off to foreign climes. I’ve been stuck out in India for a few weeks. On the plus side, it’s a lot warmer than Scotland, and when I look at some of the wonky fittings, careless finishes and dodgy wiring that is endemic in India, it makes me feel slightly better about my marginally-less-than-completely-straight-walls! On the downside, it’s 5000 miles away from home, and even by my standards that feels a bit too far to commute just to get on with a bit of DIY….

So that’s why it’s been a couple of months since the last post.

When I finally managed to escape for a couple of weeks holiday I suppose I should really have headed straight up to the frozen North to make the most of my time off at the barn. Instead I took myself off to Italy to a pole camp for a week.

A fantastic week with some fantastic people. But also 4 hours of training a day. Every day for a week. By the time I got back up to Scotland my bruises had bruises, and my muscles were on strike. So I planned for a peaceful week in the remote middle of nowhere with aforementioned log fire and glass or two of wine.

I’d forgotten that last time I was home I’d decided to start work on the garden in front of the house, so had ordered a load of decking.

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And due to a minor misunderstanding about where exactly Scotland was, it hadn’t been delivered until the day after I left the country. So it has been sitting in the garage soaking up the Scottish weather for nearly a month. Just waiting for me to come home….

So much for a lazy week.

Still, it’s not like I haven’t tackled a bit of decking before. I’m a pro at this stuff, right? It won’t take more than a day, will it? Especially as this time I actually measured it properly, so the deck boards were the exact length I needed. No cutting required.

So. How hard can it be? Lay out the timber. Make the frame. Dig the holes. Fix frame to posts. Drop it into the holes. Throw in a bit of Postfix. Screw deck boards in place. Have a G&T. Job done!

Of course, this is my barn. I should know by now that nothing ever goes to plan…..

First challenge: Well I decided to build the frame in one piece. Much quicker that way. But the eminent voice of common sense (aka My Mum) stepped in as I was laying it all out, and pointed out that it would be far too heavy to lift as one piece. She was right of course, but that didn’t stop me arguing, muttering and grumbling about the fact that would mean I’d have to cut up some of the timbers to size. Which brings me on to challenge number two…

I hate sawing wood; I cannot for the life of me saw in a straight line (probably because I haven’t got the patience to mark it properly all round) and I get bored witless after about five minutes. That’s why I invested in a bench saw. Unfortunately the timber for the posts was too big to fit under the blade, so handsawing was the only option.

Luckily expert help was at hand. AKA My Dad. He may claim to be the self-acknowledged avoider of all things DIY, but he cuts a much better straight line than I do, so he got the job of chief master woodcutter for the week.

Challenge number 3: The local farmer once told me he’d considered buying the barn but decided not to in the end because it had no foundations and it was built on ‘rotten rock’.  At the time I’d not taken much notice, but turns out he was right. I’d forgotten that I don’t get to dig holes in garden. I mostly have to chisel them. So the process of creating 24 holes involved quite a lot of cursing, throwing of hammer/chisel/shovel/trowel, declarations of how much I hate my barn, etc. And of course took a whole lot longer than I had planned for.

Challenge number four? Well the weather of course. Nobody can blog about anything that happens in Scotland in Summer without mentioning ‘rain’ at least once. Although the forecasts kept insisting we were all set for a sunny days, somehow it didn’t quite work out that way. Rain kept interrupting play.

And the final challenge? Well I hadn’t really appreciated how much the land slopes away. If I keep the decking straight, by the time I get to the far corner, anybody stepping off the end would risks breaking their neck, or at the very least falling over and spilling their G&T. And since I’d rather not be sued by my guest in the future, I decided to change the layout a bit and create a split-level deck. A whole lot more work!

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!

It’s just a bit of wallpaper…

The smallest bedroom in the house – which OK, I admit, by the standards of the average British house is still a good size double – might have fantastic views out of its one window, but it is North facing, so tends to be a bit on the dark side.

I’ve painted it purple (hey, I’m a girl remember), in a shade that when used elsewhere in the house actually looked quite light, but in this room seems quite cold and gloomy.

So I decided it was time to lighten it up a bit. A bit of Wallpaper. How hard can that be?

And of course, thanks to those countless DIY/home interiors programmes on the telly, the concept of the ‘feature wall’ has become quite trendy. So up and down the land there are hundreds and hundreds of DIY sheds, decorating shops and interior design outlets selling the stuff in reams. Which clearly means they think it is not beyond the wit of common man to do something with it.

You see them in their multitudes on the Spring Bank Holiday, the handy home DIYers loading up with a trolley full of rolls of paper, paste, buckets and brushes. And a bit of mad manic glint in their eyes….

It’s not actually something I’ve ever tried. But hey, surely any idiot can slap some paste on a roll of paper and stick it onto the wall. I’m the girl in the hard hat; I’ve tackled more challenging tasks than that.

In any case, I’ve got the T-shirt remember….

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What can possibly go wrong? Well I do recall going to a friends house once where she showed off her newly decorated living room…..The wallpaper had more bubbles than a chocolate aero. Though admittedly she did confess that she and her partner had a bottle of wine or two before they started…. there is clearly a message in there somewhere – alcohol and wallpapering aren’t a good combination.

So in the interests of doing the thing properly I put aside my bottle of wine and went out and bought myself a handy little ‘Wallpapering kit’ that had all the necessary tools – large paste brush, large pair of scissors, sharp blade for trimming the edges, and a plumb line. A bucket of ready mix wallpaper paste and we’re all set.

IMG_1697Now if it hadn’t been included in my handy DIY kit, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with the plumb line. I mean it’s surely not that hard to tell how straight something is by eye, right? Well maybe not in most normal houses. Most weekend DIYers are probably heading home from B&Q to a house with nice straight flat walls. You can probably just align the edge of the paper to the edge of the wall. Whereas me? Well this is the barn that doesn’t have any straight walls. Even from this angle in a photo, it is blatantly obvious that my walls are not straight. In this case, there is about a 2cm difference from top to bottom. So there you go. Useful tip number 1 – use a plumb line.

Now I’ve got my straight lines sorted I’m all set. Of course, I could probably have made my life a whole lot easier if I’d moved the furniture out of the room before attempting to hang wallpaper. But that was the weekend I had driven up overnight, unpacked a carload of stuff, and had to head back down the road to catch a plane to India. I didn’t have time to be moving furniture around as well.

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No problem. I’ll just work around it…

So now I’m all ready, time to start. Roll out a length of paper. Splodge a load of paste on it and stick it on the wall. Job done. But as I was opening the bucket of paste, a few words on the side of the container caught my eye. “Leave to soak….” What do you mean “leave to soak”? Leave what to soak? It’s paper. It will go all soggy if you soak it.

I read it properly.

Apply paste liberally to back of paper. Leave to soak into the paper for 5-8 minutes or in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Failure to do so may result in air pockets forming behind the paper as the paste dries”

So there you go. Useful tip number 2 – read the instructions…

Though I was right in one respect. When the paper has soaked up all the paste, it does become quite soggy and harder to handle as it tears quite easily. Strip number one went up OK.

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Strip number two was a bit more problematic – there was a double socket to get around. So what’s the proper way to deal with this? Turn off the power, remove the socket, paper over the box and then cut it out? Or cut a hole in the paper before putting it on the wall?

I went for the latter option. By some amazing coincidence, the edge of the next strip of paper aligned to the edge of the socket. So I actually only had to find the right starting point and then cut 3 sides out of the edge of the paper.

Which was all fine, until I actually came to hang it. Soggy paper tears quite easily. So although I’d managed to cut my hole out in the right place, as I was manipulating the paper into place, it tore slightly on one corner of the cutout. A few choice swear words were uttered. Don’t have time to cut another strip and do all that cutting out nonsense a gain. So I just manoeuvred it back into place and sort of brushed it together to hide the join. If anyone really wants to spend their time on their hands and knees trying to find the join, well hey, have fun.

 

After that, well hey – I’ve got the hang of this now!