Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Last Post

A picture's worth a thousand words, they say - with this in mind I've put together a few photos of the house now done, and a few of the renovation work as it was going on (for hardcore DIY types only). This link will take you there.

The house is pretty much finished, and it's been 'christened' - friends have come to stay and also my brother and sister-in-law and my niece, Nell. My work here is done! Someone close to me called the house my Sistine Chapel, which made me laugh. At least Michelangelo eventually finished his project.

The last six months have been a mainly solitary, personal journey, and not always an easy one. I've had to keep faith in my vision of things as they could be, even in the deepest darkest moments, in the strange half light before the dawn of the newly renovated house. The aspirations I had, back in January, regarding making this an eco-house have only partly been realized. The idea of solar panels and 'greener' energy fell by the wayside, I'm afraid, but it's given me a better idea of what is possible in those areas. I've mused on developing more 'real' eco-awareness in a previous post (so don't worry, I'm not going to revisit those thoughts). And it's nice to have a bit of carpet and a few mod cons, in this rainy corner of the island.

The real lessons in undertaking something like this, of course, lie in what they tell you about yourself. In that respect, I actually feel OK about it all. I've had great help from all sorts of people, friends and family, government agencies and decorating gurus, even down to the welder in his toolshed in Caernarfon who made a canopy for my fireplace (and only charged me a few treats for the puppies that run round his yard, chewing anything not made of metal and dodging the sparks from his blowtorch). For these things, much gratitude.

But I also think I've shown some determination, a willingness to learn and try new stuff, a certain sullen resourcefulness. I've not been afraid to f--- up, or to break a nail or two. My life's changed a bit now, I'm working like a regular person and just living day to day, enjoying the house and what's left of this summer, and taking it from there.

Two quotes to end on. One from Neil Ansell, who wrote a brilliant book about living alone for five years in a remote (much remoter than my) Welsh cottage:

'Solitude embraced is the opposite of loneliness.'

The other's from my brother Toby, whose spirit is still very much in this house (and lots of other places). He said once, when someone asked him what he was doing in North Wales: 'Just living. That seems to take up most of my time.'


Thursday, May 10, 2012


Rain Man

Back from the Greek island of Chios and the crazy Rocket Battle which I wrote about and filmed here. Today is a classic North Wales day of wind and rain, one of those days when you can't see further than the end wall. The stream in the garden is swollen by the rain and roaring like the Orinoco, the trees are swaying, and you can't go outside for more than a minute without being soaked by the fine drizzle that seems to come at you horizontally. Good day for decorating!
 A map of some island somewhere...?
The picture shows what might be a problem with one of the external walls. When I began rollering over the magnolia in the main bedroom, huge flakes of the existing paint came off, leaving bare plaster (years old, not new.) I've applied (for diy minded readers) a layer of PVA to waterproof and prepare the surface for another coat.

I've also been sanding and oiling the door of the second bedroom, which was made from reclaimed boards about fifteen years ago when a concrete floor went down on top of the new damp course. It's a real rough job, gaps in the planking, crudely sawn cross timbers, and rusty reused floorboard nails - the old flathead ones - and it's beautiful. I love the idea of reusing those old bits of wood that generations have walked on, even if it's a bit of a 'feature'... Reclamation every time!
Photo not taken today

I'm taking stock of where I am with the restoration project, and especially the eco aspects of it all. Since the external insulation was cancelled I've had a rethink about the heating. Air Source is not really appropriate now, it needs the outside cladding to be properly efficient and in any case I have always had reservations about the noise (and the overly large radiators that these systems need). Solid fuel seems unreliable, and I've heard bad things about it - stoves going out while you are at work during the day, and being forced to choose between heating and hot water in the winter. Electric storage heaters, even the modern ones, don't really do it for me either.

Reluctantly I've opted for oil-fired central heating, with a condensing boiler, and I'm hoping to get double-glazed windows on the three walls that don't yet have it. In any case I'll carry on having a coal fire in the living room, and I'll use the heating as sparingly as possible (not difficult when fuel oil is the price it is).

Maybe that's really the key to the whole eco-thing. Only use what you need, have your house as insulated as possible, kill all draughts, and cut down on your consumption. I'm most sorry about the loss (through changes in Government policy) about not getting solar panels to generate electricity. Mind you, looking at the grey wall of drizzle outside, I'm not sure just how much generating there would have been...

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Winter's Last Hurrah

Winter's last hurrah

I've been thinking of the coincidence that it's 100 years since the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank, and it's this same Centenary year that I may have solved the mystery of the Welsh ghost ship Resolven, whose Captain was my great-grandfather. The Resolven also seems to have hit an iceberg in the same waters in 1884 and in 2012 I tracked down the original account of this maritime disaster ... I've written about it here.
View from my living room
 on Wednesday morning

Dinner, if you can wait. Click on pics
to see larger size...
Meanwhile, back in the hills, I woke up on Wednesday morning more or less back in the 19th Century myself.
The electricity was off, so no Internet, no Today Programme, no cup of tea, no hot water, and there was a blizzard in full spate outside, northerly winds blowing snow into feet-high drifts against the door and windows. My car was under the snow, waiting for me to dig it out. I later heard that some villagers further up the hill were actually trapped in their houses by the weight of the drifts and had to climb out of side windows, or be rescued by neighbours with shovels.
Unable to go anywhere, I lit a coal fire, sent some texts (just to stay connected) and put an old cast iron pan full of rice on the grate to gently boil something for dinner. (It took 2 and a half hours and a lot of stirring to cook the rice through.) Taken by surprise by the blizzard I'd managed to run out of bread and also candles, apart from some tea lights left over from a dinner party, so I was mighty relieved when the electricity came back on. I had a cup of tea, checked my emails,  dug the car out and headed down to Tesco. Two fields down the hill, hidden from me by the mist, there was not a flake of snow.

Much progress on the house, and I'll let the following pictures speak for themselves. I'm off to see the Easter Rocket War on the Greek Island of Chios and spend some time in Turkey, so I'm glad I've got most of the decorating finished.

Bathroom. The feature wall colour is called 'Light Rain.'
No comment on that.
Bedroom with stripped fireplace and cottagey woodwork

Dining Room

Pine doors after dipping to remove old gloss paint

Living room - door frame still to do!
Kitchen - a work in progress

Parlour (living room) with fire lit

Stripping old gloss paint on kitchen shelves - that's one
job that I haven't finished


Monday, April 2, 2012

The Sparrow Tweet

Sparrow pooing with relief at nest reprieve
Very short post this. If you read my piece about the sparrows, you'll know that I was concerned about their nests being destroyed when the 'thermal blanket' of insulation was fixed to the outside walls. Fear not, animal lovers! As of today the external cladding has been cancelled due to Government cuts - the Energy Saving Trust sent me a letter, which would have been the first I had received of any description about this eco-scheme, but it apparently went astray (eaten by sparrows?). So reprieve for the birds, and back to the drawing board for me. Looks like double glazing will be the best way to go.

Perhaps I should have tweeted this?

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Creatures and Features 2

I am troubled. Not by the lack of a single letter or any kind of documentation from the Energy Saving Trust, who are running this scheme for upgrading Wales's housing stock to an enviromental standard - although I do sometimes wake in the small hours, the smell of fresh paint tickling my nostrils, and wonder if this whole eco-thing was a dream and I've painted the feature walls for nothing. No, I'm troubled by sparrows.

 Every spring since I've been in this house I've watched these birds making their nests under the roof eaves at the gable end. Sparrows aren't territorial with each other and like to nest almost communally, so every few inches where the top of the stone and rubble wall meets the woodwork - the soffits that sit underneath the slates - you will see a bird darting in and out of the nest, to be met with a raucous twittering from the young ones within. 
One of my sparrows, perching just
outside the nest under the fascia board

 Although I've never gone under the eaves for a very close look, they must be nesting in small gaps in the stonework, which they've lined with tiny twigs, moss, bits of grass and probably wisps of sheep's wool they've found hanging on barbed wire fences. It's  great entertainment, as long as you're not sitting too close to the wall,  to watch them pop out of these holes and whir across the garden, hopping low over the hedges to avoid birds of prey, tweeting ferociously and usually voiding their bowels as they go (that's why you sit away from the wall). They're using existing gaps in the old stone walls and not causing any damage as far as I can tell, and they don't get into the house itself, so I've just enjoyed the fact that where I live is also home to a number of harmless and comical little birds, living in the spaces that we humans leave.
My sparrows don't look as
grumpy as this one

But all this activity will soon be destroyed. When the new external insulation is fitted, the panels and the render finish will go right up to the top of the walls, butting up to the soffits, and eliminating the gaps where the sparrows nest. This will happen at a disastrous time of year for them, too, just as their first broods are born and feeding. So this spring I've had mixed feelings at seeing the sparrow colonies taking shape again, and seeing the birds flitting in and out of their traditional nests.

 I actually risked the ridicule of the insulation surveyor by asking him if they could leave a gap at the top of the wall : to his credit he did understand ('some of the lads are animal lovers,' he said) but told me that to leave gaps would make the guarantee on the work invalid and that the National Energy Saving Trust (NEST! I've just made that connection) wouldn't allow them to do that. I felt the irony of this : making my home environmentally friendly and at the same time destroying the nests of a species already under pressure from loss of habitat and other things.

 But some research on the RSPB website has given me new hope. First, in my ignorance I just assumed that sparrows would produce one brood a year, when I now learn they usually produce three or four. So if I can get some alternative accommodation for them, there may yet be a new generation or two of these funny, ballsy little birds this summer. Second, the website is full of advice on making access points under the roof for birds to nest in. The spaces at the top of the walls will still be there, only hidden, so if I can make some holes for them to fly in and out of they may well carry on nesting there.  I've already had the suggestion made to me of putting up nesting boxes, too, and I see that sparrow boxes are actually communal affairs with several 'doors' allowing several families to use them. So, even if one brood of chicks doesn't make it, the sparrows may nest again this year, and I'll still be able to sit in the garden and watch them flitter and chatter in and out of my roof timbers.
One way to leave a gap for a nest entry point

The upshot of all this is that, if you were to observe my house on the evening that the insulation company have packed up and gone you might see me, up a ladder, cutting holes in the soffits to make a gap big enough for a sparrow or two to fly in through. Maybe I'll even find a bit of wool on a fence somewhere and donate it to the nests : all in the name of insulation, of course.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Creatures and Features 1

Just been writing something on my other blog, about the Ghost Ship Resolven, which I did more research on while I was away.

Back now though, and not just one but two feature walls done! First was the dining room, the wall facing the window painted in an off-white Bone China colour from B&Q Heritage paints. The second has just been finished : the living room wall facing the fireplace painted in a mixture of Farrow and Ball colours giving a slightly creamy dove grey colour - bliss! But what the hell is a feature wall?

Simply put, a surface that stands out, whether by colour or texture (wallpaper) or through having a fireplace or something similar to mark it out from surrounding blanknesses. It's a simple and less expensive way of creating a feeling of colour and interest than fancying up a whole room : you notice the FW before you register that the rest of the walls are plain, even white, and by then the subconscious has done its job and  you are impressed, or at least feeling whatever the decorator wants you to feel, peaceful, serene, calmed -  or possibly shaken to the core by the contrasts around you.

RSPB Glaslyn Osprey ProjectMy ignorance on this subject was nearly total before beginning this renovation. Since my decorating guru friend - instructed me in the black arts of feature walling, though, I've talked to people in London pubs, in Hereford and Oxford, in Snowdonia, and everyone has nodded sagely when  - against all the expectations of those who know me - I begin to expound on the FW question. Except in Snowdonia, where I live. Here, I am met with blank faces, like the blankness of a non-feature wall,  and the conversation shifts quickly to other topics.

Meanwhile, outside the paint-fragranced box in which I spend so much time, spring has come to the hills. Today a balmy wind was blowing from the south-west and I spotted a couple of buzzards climbing on a warm air thermal, circling hundreds of feet over the village. Yesterday I went with some friends down to the Glaslyn Osprey project, where there was great excitement because the two birds who have nested and raised chicks here over the past few years had just returned to begin the process again. The day before, the adult male had caught a huge trout, which he proceeded to sit in a tree and eat, taking four hours over it. The next day, according to the RSPB people on site,  the two spent 'getting to know each other' again, raising hopes that there will be some more osprey chicks this year.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


The dining room -  the breakfast room we have always called it - is redecorated, the slate and the tiles cleaned and looking lovely. The rest of the house is taking shape but this is the first room to be  finished. The other rooms been given a basic coat of white, ready to receive the next colour scheme. There'll be a wait now for the heating and insulation to go in.

Spring has come to the mountains, with new lambs and slightly warmer rain, sunshine, and yesterday, a strange fog that came up from the sea, a real pea-souper. Never a dull moment with the weather up here.

Dining Room - only the floor left to clean up!

It's been six straight weeks for me on the brushes, so I'm off down south tomorrow for a well-earned week away and some editorial work. I'm also going to the National Archives to find out more about my ancestor's ghost ship which I write about elsewhere...

Will x