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….

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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.

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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!

 

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

Can you feel a draught around here…..?

My first Christmas at the barn. Well what can I say? On the plus side, the Aga cooks a wicked Christmas dinner, and my snazzy new freezer providing ‘crushed-ice-on-demand’ made whipping up a Flat White Martini far too easy.

On the down side, my super efficient, eco-friendly heating system decided to start playing up on Christmas Eve. Having finally rectified all the cowboy installation issues earlier this year, it has been working like a dream for the last six months. Sods law it decides to break down on Christmas Eve…

It had cut out when we arrived, and had obviously been off a while as the house was stone cold. I turned it back on, topped up the pressure in the tank, and assumed it would eventually warm up again.

But the next morning the house was still feeling far too cold; the system had cut out again overnight – this time on a high pressure warning.  I tried the good old ‘turn it off and turn it back on again’ ruse. It kicked into life – and died an hour later. I coaxed, I cursed, I swore. No response. Every time I turned it back on, it revved up making a noise like Concorde taking off and 30 seconds later the high pressure warning light kicked in and shut it all down.

The problem with having something like a ground source heat pump instead of a bog-standard gas boiler, is that it is not a mainstream technology. If your gas boiler breaks down, you can just phone British Gas; you’d probably need to mortgage your house to pay the call-out charge on Christmas day, but theoretically it would be possible. But the Renewables industry is unregulated, and as such 90% of firms seem to be cowboys who are clueless about the systems they sell. Finding someone local in an emergency isn’t easy (Read my earlier blog on the joys I had fitting my system if you don’t believe me!).

I am very fortunate in having found a heating engineer who knows my system inside out and back to front. And he doesn’t believe in the bells and whistles and ‘nice-to-have-but-not-really-necessary’stuff that can really rack the costs up. In short, a reliable and honest heat pump engineer – in the Renewable Energy industry that’s like, well, needles and haystacks come to mind ……

Unfortunately he lives a hundred or so miles and a ferry ride away on an island off the West Coast of Scotland. I couldn’t quite bring myself to ring him on Christmas Day.

I waited until the day after Boxing Day and then, feeling very guilty, sent a “Merry Christmas, Happy New Year. P.S. the heatpump’s packed up” text. He phoned me back within the hour. After a lengthy discussion he decided there were two issues: 1) the valve that switches the system between heating and hot water wasn’t working, and 2) there’s air in the system. Not much I could do about the first point, other than turn the hot water off. Fortunately the shower in the cottage is electric, so we did have one working hot shower. It could have been worse.

And I did manage to bleed some of the air out of the heating pipes, which meant the system would work for about 8 hours at a time before shutting itself off. Unfortunately it takes about that long for the building to start to feel warm. So it wasn’t just the G&T’s that were feeling a bit icy over the festive period – we spent most of Christmas wrapped up under duvets!

It’s at times like this, when the outside temperature has dropped and a gale is blowing outside, that you really start to notice how draughty your house is….

These days, building regulations for new builds insist that houses are built as hermetically sealed airtight boxes, to the extent that things like trickle vents have to be manually added, so a little bit of air can circulate without having to open the windows – otherwise people living in brand new houses would probably all suffocate.

Not the case in a barn conversion. As I think I’ve mentioned, the mice (and in places the rain) don’t seem to have any trouble finding their way into the building – so you can imagine what the draughts are like.

As a sort of open plan room with a ceiling up to 5 metres high, my main living room isn’t the easiest space to heat. And with no underfloor heating working, it isn’t helped when the howling gales outside are finding their way in through the ill-fitting door, around all the window frames and under the window cills.

My Dad armed himself with a roll of masking tape and went work, essentially taping us up inside the house.

While I set to work in the music room, where it felt like the Bora wind from Siberia was coming down from the roof.

I found an old duvet, and started putting it to better use…..

It certainly did the trick. But I’m not sure that the view from outside, where the inside of an old duvet shoved up between the window and the roof space is visible, is really the kind of look I’m aiming for.

I think one of my New Year’s resolutions will have to include finding some more permanent draught proofing solutions. That and getting the heatpump properly serviced….!

Cutting down a Christmas tree

In the 14 years that I’ve owned the place, I’ve never spent Christmas day at the barn before; I’ve abandoned my nearest and dearest at the crack of dawn on Boxing Day and driven the 500 or so miles ‘up the road’; I’ve even had a couple of norman-no-mates New Year’s Eves up there too, putting up plasterboard while everyone else is letting off the party poppers and guzzling the champagne.

But never Christmas Day. So this year is a first. And it will be a first in a couple of ways:

  1. I’m going to have to cook a Christmas dinner on the Aga
  2. I’m going to have to put some Christmas decorations up

Well for the first point, at least now I’ve got my nice shiny new fridge freezer installed, so I’ve been able to do the necessary Christmas food shop and make sure I’ve got a turkey in. And I’ve got good old Mary B’s Christmas bible for how to cook it on the Aga. So what could possible go wrong? (And let’s face it, if all else fails, at least there’s plenty of ice on demand for the G&T!)

So that just leaves the decorations – starting with a Christmas tree.

Somewhere in the 196 boxes that were brought back on a shipment from India, there is an artificial tree. But a) I’m not entirely sure where it is now, and b) with my nice big high ceilings I want something a bit more impressive.

Well that shouldn’t be a problem. About half an acre of my land is covered in Christmas trees. Nothing simpler – all I need is an axe…. How hard can that be?

Well in the 14 years I’ve owned the place, I have to confess I’ve never been in to my forest. But there’s bound to be a tree in there somewhere that would look a whole lot better for a bit of tinsel and a few fairy lights.

So I’d tentatively picked out a couple of trees I could see from inside the house, put my wellies on, and gone out to explore. Hmmm…

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The first one I’d identified:

It looked like it might do , until I got up close – it was actually about 25ft tall. Clearly my whole spatial awareness thing doesn’t work on fir trees – from inside the house, to me it had only looked about 10ft tall.

I know I’ve got high ceilings, but somehow I don’t think that’s going to work.

 

So I explored a couple more options: These ones don’t look quite so tall.

But I thought there were three trees here; in fact there were only two – both about 10ft wide – I might get it in the doors, but I could see it doing a bit of damage to the piano if I tried dragging it through the music room, so that’s not going to work either…

In the whole half acre, they were all either too tall, too wide or looked too bedraggled to survive being cut down and dragged indoors for a couple of weeks.

So I’ll have to fall back on the artificial one. I eventually hunted it down in the cupboard under the stairs in the library, fortunately together with a large box of tinsels.

At 6’6″ it’s a respectable height in the average house. It just looks a little bit lost in a room where the ceilings are 5 metres high!

Well that’s it. Decorating the tree is the last bit of DIY for this year – time to hang up the hard hat for the festive period.

Here’s hoping you all have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. See you all in 2016!