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……

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!

 

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….

Addicted to the fire…

So this is it. My last weekend before the Invaders from the South arrive. I arrived up at the barn with a list as long my arm of all the things that need finishing off and with all good intentions to get up at the crack of dawn to get started. It’s going to be a weekend of ‘finishing things off’. Much like the ‘Bits, Bobs, Odds & Sods’ blog, there’s a myriad of little things that need sorting. And some bigger things too…

Well I did get up nice and early – but you know me and my ability to be distracted. The thing is, the lads had been up in the week and put the final bit of flue out through the roof. The fire was, in theory, now fully functioning. So I had to test it, didn’t I? It would have been rude not to…

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I sat there with my cup of tea watching the fire burn. And when it had all died away, I lit it again. No, I’m not a pyromaniac. Honest! But when you light a stove for the first time, you’re supposed to start with a very small fire – just a handful of kindling. And when it has gone out and the stove has cooled down, you do the same again.

Having successfully wasted an hour or so, I finally stopped playing with fire, and went to Dundee. So much for being stood outside the doors of B&Q waiting for them to open at 7am. And after B&Q, I headed round to Topps Tiles to collect the half a dozen tiles I needed to completely finish the bathroom. Only to find that they only had half my order – even though I’d phoned the day before and they’d assured me it was all in.

Cue much sarcastic muttering about incompetence and a promise that I would be getting active on twitter just as soon as I could find a WiFi signal. Clearly that didn’t put the fear of God into them, since they knew full well that the chances of finding a WiFi signal whilst driving around Scotland are right up there with the proverbial needle and haystack. (But wipe that smirk off your face boys – when I get back to London I will write that review…. and blog it…. and tweet it….)

All in all bit of a wasted trip.

And of course the holiday season has started. All the world’s happy campers have attached caravan to car and are now wending their merry way around Scotland. Or that’s how it seemed to me on my very slow drive home. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve nothing against caravans. I’m sure it’s a lovely way to visit Scotland. But if you could try and avoid the A93, the A94 and the B954 between Alyth and Dundee, I’d be eternally grateful.

It was just on 11 when I got home, and so far I’d achieved the square root of nothing on my list.

So I had a cup of tea and lit another fire. (Believe me – it’s addictive…)

Hey ho. There’s still the rest of the day to get busy in. Or so I thought. I’d just donned all my work gear and had gone to work attacking the tap in the bathroom, when the piano tuner turned up. I’d forgotten I’d arranged for him to come this weekend.

I don’t have a doorbell; people bang on the glass for a bit and then just open the door and shout. He was obviously too polite. Quite what he thought when I opened the door – a mad woman in a mouse-eaten jumper and cement/paint/grout/sealant covered trousers, wielding a large spanner in one hand and a hammer in the other – I don’t know. But at least he didn’t run away.

In fact he spent the next hour or so pulling my beautiful boudoir grand piano to bits. I felt obliged to stick around and make him a cup of tea and then listen as he tried to explain C19th damper mechanisms to me.

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But after about two hours, having more or less dismantled the entire piano, he decided that he didn’t really have the right kind of glue to fix a broken hammer shank, and rather than botch the job, he would take it away, make a new one and come back on Easter Monday to finish. So he reassembled the piano and left, without having tuned it.

It was now the middle of the afternoon and I had done absolutely nothing on my list. Clearly this is a day destined to be wasted.

So I lit another little fire. (Hey, this isn’t for my sake – I have to temper the new stove. That’s all. I can give this up any time I like…..)

By about 3 in the afternoon I realised that if I didn’t tear myself away from the stove, nothing would get done this weekend. So I went back the tap I’d been working on when Mr Piano Tuner arrived.

And finished fixing it. And then moved on to the shower – just a a dozen or so mosaic tiles to finish. And a bit of grouting.  And then seal the corners. And a couple of wall tiles to finish. And seal around the bottom of the bath….

And finally I think I can declare this bathroom, if not quite finished, at least ready for the Invaders!

But there’s no rest for the wicked, and I still have a long list to get through. Next stop, the bathroom upstairs. Remember my bathroom floor – the one with 8,000 mosaic squares that I put down individually? Well I have a confession. In spite of the pictures that made it all look finished, in fact, after completing the main part of the design, my ‘attention-span -of -a-hyperactive-kitten’ thing got in the way. I got bored, moved on, and never quite got round to finishing it.

So, this weekend, last chance before the Invaders from the South arrive, I finally finished the mosaic floor.

And there were half a dozen or so wall tiles to finish off:

And that just leaves a whole lot of grouting.

At which point I realised I could have made my trip to Dundee in the morning a whole lot more useful if I’d remembered to by some more grout. But I didn’t. Oops.

Still, at least there was enough to finish inside the shower, so at least it will be usable.

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Have I achieved everything I wanted to before the IFTS arrive. No, not really. But is the house habitable and working – well enough for what I need, yes!

Just for the stove fitter!

To any of my blog followers who are reading this because they got an email notification and are wondering why I’ve started posting ‘out of hours’, well actually this isn’t really for you. I decided that the easiest way to share a load of multi-megabyte photographs without exploding my outbox was to dump them on here.

So sorry – but this is just lots of dull photographs, intended to illustrate the madness of my roof design to the lovely chap who’s designing the flue for my woodburner. Normal service will resume again on Sunday!!

Julian – for your info:

  1. The fireplace – as it was being built

2. The fireplace finished

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3. The loft space

 

4. The measurements (shown as if standing at the opposite end to the picture above)

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5. The roof angle

Based on my O’level maths trigonometry

140 ÷ 200 = 0.7

Tan-¹ (0.7) = 34.99°

(and yes, there was a spirit level under the set square!)

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6. The challenge!

There is a supporting beam, just beyond the point where the flue will need to come through the wall of the snug into the loft space, that cannot be cut/moved/tampered with… (or at least not without involving an engineer and a huge amount of money…)

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I think there is sufficient clearance space but there is also a noggin at the top of the plasterboard of the wall of the snug that needs to be taken into account

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The light fitting will be moved, that’s not a problem. But I think that although the measurement of that piece of plasterboard is just over 40cm, the maximum height that the flue pipe can come through, in order to be clear of all obstacles is about 30cm

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Hope all this helps!

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!

Completely floored!

Walls all painted (apart from the bits I couldn’t reach), so what next? Time to think about flooring, and with underfloor heating through the majority of the ground floor, some form of stone was the obvious choice.

I decided to use slate, partly because I liked the variation of colour available, partly because, with somewhere in the region of 250 square metres to buy, it was among the cheaper options for natural stone; though prices and (as it turned out) quality do vary hugely. I love shopping, but trawling through endless internet sites in search of the perfect slate (at the perfect price) did become a bit soul-destroying. Eventually I found what I wanted and got it ordered. It arrived bright and early on a Monday morning; 4 pallets of slate, a pallet of tile cement and 2 half pallets of bathroom wall tiles. All delivered by one man and his van.

He wasn’t a happy bunny. With an order of this size he was expecting a few beefy builders to be around to help. Muttering under his breath about reading the delivery instructions, which apparently stated “there must be an able-bodied person on site to assist with the unloading”, he opened up the back of the van. Clearly, as a girl I can’t possibly be considered able-bodied. But I jumped up into the back of the van to help anyway.

Each pallet of slates contained 52 boxes, each weighing 24kg – time for a bit of weightlifting practise. To be honest, even weighing in at over a tonne, the pallets aren’t hard to move with a manual pallet truck IF you’re on a level surface and moving them to another level surface. Ha! My site would never make anything that easy. The land slopes away from the building at the front, and is anything but flat.

The first pallet, being close to the tail lift came out fairly easily, and when it was lowered to the ground, we managed to drag it most of the way off the tail, and Mr Happy Van Man drove the vehicle forward. Number two came out pretty much the same way. But by the time we got to the last couple of pallets, the van was clearly parked on the slope, and the two of us were hauling on the pallet truck trying to drag a tonne weight of slate uphill in the back of the van. At one point a pallet was getting caught in a piece of wood on the floor, so helpful Happy Chappy went to move it, letting go of his side of the pallet truck – leaving me arm-wrestling with a tonne-weight trolley load of slates. I lost. And ended up on my bum being dragged into the back of the van by a runaway pallet. More bruises in unmentionable places!

It took us nearly an hour to offload everything, and as the van drove away, with Mr Happy Van Man clearly cursing the day Scotland ever came into existence, the collective weight of the delivery left sitting in my garden was about 5500 kg – and it now all needed shifting into the house. It was about 11am; I was already exhausted, and so far hadn’t managed to get a single slate into the house, never mind actually putting anything down on the floors.

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But no rest for the wicked; the skies suggested rain was imminent (August in Scotland- what else is there?) so at the very least I needed to get the bags of cement indoors.

Ever optimistic, I’d had visions of getting at least one room slated that weekend. Instead I spent all weekend trying out for the world body building championships – at least that’s what it felt like – 5 tonnes lifted and shifted in one weekend. Why do I bother with gym fees?

But by the following weekend, my muscles had recovered (just), and my enthusiasm had returned (more or less). Time to actually start the flooring.

One minor drawback – because nothing should ever be simple with my house – was that some time between the plasterboarding and the painting, 2 shipping container loads of stuff had arrived back from India. (I went out with only half a container full – clearly indulged in a bit too much shopping out there!) So now I was stuck with 198 boxes getting in the way of putting slates on the floor. And when I say ‘boxes’ I mean anything from boxes of crockery to creatively cardboard-enshrined furniture. In other words, not particularly easy stuff to shunt around while your bucket of cement is going off…

The other ‘minor’ drawback I had was to do with evenness (or not) of the concrete subfloor. In places this is intentional; my architect had decided that it would be a super trendy idea if the main corridor was a continuous slope rather than putting in any boring old steps.  Unfortunately, where the concrete should have been flat it was, in places, doing imitations of a mini-Himalayan mountain range.

I think I mentioned earlier, the slate I bought was at the cheaper end of the spectrum. It was supposed to be calibrated to within 3mm, but in fact the thickness of the slates varied from 4mm (which broke as soon as you looked at it) to 15mm – in some cases from one edge to the other of a single slate. Just as well I changed my mind on using slate on the kitchen floor – it meant I had enough spare to cover all the broken and unusable ones. (But if you’re planning a slate floor yourself, take heed – you get what you pay for; cheap slates are a bit of a false economy.)

That said, in my case, the unevenness of the slates proved a bit of a blessing in disguise. I could use them to offset the unevenness in the floor. Though that did mean that laying my slates turned into something like a giant game of Tetris!

I thought it would take me a few weekends; it actually took 6 months. And I never want to see another bucket of tile cement in my life!

Bit of a paint job…..

It’s amazing what a bit of plasterboard can do. Suddenly I had rooms that felt like they might one day be habitable. So now I get to think about the exciting stuff. Paint, colour, tiles, curtains….. Well almost. One step at a time.  I’d opted not to plaster skim the boards –  partly on the basis of time and expense, but actually because I couldn’t face the hassle of finding a reliable plasterer.

As long as plasterboard is decently jointed, the board gives an acceptable surface finish ( well isn’t that the point of it??)  Okay, it’s not quite that super smooth, sharp, shiny finish you’ll find in an ultra modern posh pad in the city, but let’s face it, there is nothing super smooth and shiny about the barn, so why be different with the walls.  But  I did decide to put a decent basecoat on before I got down to the pretty stuff. I mean, one extra coat – couldn’t take that long, could it?

So I sat down to work out how much paint I needed to buy. And promptly fell off my chair.  If my calculations were correct, the combined paint area of the ceiling and wall was almost 1000 m² – 25 buckets of basecoat. I think I know how those guys painting the Forth Bridge feel… Yet another job I wrongly assumed I could get finished in a weekend!

But area of wall/ceiling to be painted was actually the least of my problems. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but some of my rooms have very high ceilings. My main living room is almost 5 metres high. The music room is even higher, because it’s vaulted.

When I started my paint job I had a bog-standard 6-rung stepladder. I found myself standing on the very top rung, with a paint roller on an extendable pole, that was in turn attached to a long bit of wood, trying to paint that living room ceiling. Painting the forth bridge would have been quicker. I went out a bought a bigger ladder – the largest I could get was a 12-rung beastie. With a height of 3.7m it got me closer to the ceiling, but I still needed the roller on an extendable pole.

Did I mention the vaulted ceiling? The only way to reach that, even with my extendable pole fully extended was slightly problematic:
(Don’t try this at home…)

And a roller won’t actually get right into the angle of the ceiling. So I also had a paint brush on a very very long stick.

And there’s worse. My architect decided it would be really trendy to have a sloping corridor through the middle of the house, rather than putting steps in. A sloping concrete floor, a ladder, a 5m high ceiling and a tin of paint is not a good combination. And before any smug genius out there suggests I should have just hired a scaffold tower, well they don’t work on sloping floors either!

I have (not so) fond memories of standing on the very top rung of an extension ladder, extended beyond the recommended safety point, leaning practically vertical against the wall, paintbrush in one hand, tin of paint in the other. Precarious is a good word to use here. It’s probably just as well I don’t have any pictures to share of those particular ladder tricks – I would probably be put forward as a potential trainee candidate for the Darwin awards!

Though it does have to said, a basecoat of paint made another huge difference to the appearance of the building.

But the thought of having to do it all again with at least two coats of colour was a depressing thought. Somehow, ‘decorating’ had lost some of its appeal! Fortunately, the colour seemed to go on a lot quicker than the basecoat. And completely changed ‘the look’ again. It’s almost starting to look like a normal house!

But I have a confession. To this day there remains a small but very awkward part of the living room ceiling that has defied even my acrobatics to reach with a paintbrush. I think I shall have to leave it as a talking point, see if anyone notices and just call it contemporary art.

Getting plastered….

Anybody who has been following my blog will know by now that I have been building my barn on the basis of two guiding mantras:

  1. If I’ve read it in a book of course I’ll be able to do it
  2. How hard can it be?

And on the whole that thinking has served me pretty well; the slates have stayed on the roof for years in spite of the best efforts of Scotland’s gale force winds, the internal stud walls are still standing, and the cows have not yet managed to breach my defences.

Seriously, I consider myself an honorary builder. If ever the stress and the lunacy of being an accountant in the big smoke becomes too much, maybe I should consider a change of career.

But I confess there is one trade that I have not mastered, and if I’m honest, I doubt I ever will.

When I moved out of the caravan into the cottage of the house, it was a concrete shell. Desperate to introduce a few creature comforts, I decided that I would have a go at plastering. Since I would be lining the place with plasterboard, it was just a case of applying a skim coat. Well how hard can that be? Mix up a bucket of plaster, spread it over the wall and smooth it off to that perfect plastered finish…..

Well the first challenge was just trying to put the plasterboard up. Fairly straightforward getting it fixed to the walls, but have you ever tried to manhandle a 1200 x 2400 sheet of plasterboard on to a ceiling on your own? With nothing more than a stepladder and a couple of acrow props? The air turned blue. Very quickly.

Having boarded it out, things went from bad to worse. In theory it’s just tape joints, apply plaster skim, and smooth over. It’s all in the wrist action I’m told.

Clearly my wrist action needs practice – I spent an entire afternoon with a circular sander trying to smooth out the Himalayan mountain range effect my plastering attempts had created. My neighbours had been on the point of calling the fire brigade when they saw the huge clouds of white smoke billowing from the open windows. Until they saw me emerge from the building looking like the survivor of an explosion in a flour factory. They realised the ‘smoke’ was in fact just plaster dust.
And the walls? Well the politest word I can think of is ‘rustic’…..

The depressing thing was that it had taken me a couple of weekends to complete (badly) just one small room in the cottage. The thought of tackling the rest of building, with its ceilings that are, in places, 5m high, was more than I could cope with. The average house probably takes about 120-150 sheets of plasterboard. In the end, the whole barn took about 400 boards. I’d put up about 20 in the one room I’d done. It would take me a decade to complete the place on my own.

Time for an executive decision. Since I was in any case about to jump on a plane back to India for a couple of years, I decided to hand the job over. Having finally found a tradesman I could trust, I left him to turn the air blue as he wrestled with the job of boarding the vaulted ceiling 5 metres up in the music room.

And I promised myself I would never touch plastering again.

But what a difference it made as the boards went up. Suddenly whole rooms started to emerge from the building site. It would soon be time for the exciting stuff to start. Must go and get a paint chart…..