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

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Whole house smells of vinegar today. Why? Because my beautiful pine doors, fresh from their dipping and stripping, have now had a week to dry out and must be brushed down with a 50/50 mixture of water and malt vinegar. Winter has made a comeback up here in the mountains, with a chill nor'-westerly and handfuls of refreshing sleet in your face, so brushing the doors up in the open air is not an option. That's why the place smells like the back of a Harry Ramsden's, which just adds to the general feeling of chaos and living on a building site that you get when working on the house that you are also living in. Getting me down, I don't mind telling you, what with the freezing weather as well.

Old Slate fireplace, lovely but battered
But I did have a coup today. For months I've been looking at restoring the fireplace in my living room, which I use every day, but which has cracked and missing tiles surrounding it. Matching these tiles has seemed an impossible job, leaving me having to replace all of them (a shame, since the other fireplaces in the house all have the same tiles. We'd be looking at a tile mismatch! - and I've been told  in no uncertain terms that features and colours should 'flow' through a house, and should not be a clashing of shades...)

Today I happened to come across an architectural salvage yard by the coast. That title probably makes it a bit grander than it is. Tucked behind an old WW2 airfield and a caravan park on the salt flats, hard to find in the meandering lanes that go down to the sea, it is a glorious pile of every kind of curio and resource:  tiles, slates, pub signs, scrap cars, deckchairs, old farm machinery, every kind of  toilet and bathroom fixture, hospital lamps, school clocks - and fireplaces, rusty metal ones leaning up against the wall outside, sniffed at (and probably piddled over) by the two Alsatians that have the run of the place.

I saw the tiles from across the yard, my eye drawn straight to them, fixed in the surround of one of the less rusty steel fireplaces - an exact match! I had to buy the whole fire surround and lug the bloody thing home so I could start prising the tiles out of it, of course, but I'm chuffed. Another tiny triumph of renovation! And believe me that's as good as it gets, some days.

Matching tiles, still set in the metal fire surround

Something about the salvage place - they always  have an air of sadness, of unwanted treasures piled up, ripped from their former glory at the centre of some respectable concern and now living out their last days trying to catch some restoration man's eye - made me think of the Cleveland Wrecking Yard, Richard Brautigan's lovely fantasy in his novel 'Trout Fishing In America'.  The Cleveland Wrecking Yard is a scrapyard which sells natural landscapes : you can buy lengths of a trout stream, stacked up at the back of the yard, and each length comes with clear water, waving fronds of river weed and fat brown speckled fish waiting to be caught. Nothing so charming as that in the Llandwrog salvage yard of course, although you do have the sound of the ocean, whispering to itself a field or two away.

I've written elsewhere about Richard Brautigan, the great counter-culture San Francisco writer who eventually took his own life. He had a strange other worldly take on reality (another of his books has '186,000 endings per second') and I am always rather sad to think of his suicide. He said of himself, '"All of us have a place in history. Mine is clouds.'

I suppose this is not something that would normally appear in an account of an eco-conversion or whatever  you want to call this blog. But then I'm just going along writing about what interests me, as any regulars are probably aware by now, and anyway - it takes my mind off the smell of vinegar!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Back to the struggle

Back to the struggle of renovation, after the flights of fancy and the family history of some of the previous posts. I am going to add some photos today of some of these 'features' that I keep mentioning, and the restoration that I'm carrying out on them.

Number one is the doors. It's funny how you get accustomed to doors, the demarcating line between cooking, sitting, showering, sleeping;  between porch and landing and hall; those solid blockers of draughts.  For the  past five days I've had all these artificial barriers removed. I've been living in an open plan New York Loft type environment where the uses of the rooms have blurred and shifted and I've found myself sitting on the edge of the bath to eat, wandering into the bedroom with a frying pan in hand while I talk on the phone, or sleeping in front of the fire on a mattress, fresh from surfing the net to look at Farrow and Ball paints. 

But my own doors are back from their dippin' an' strippin' and while I thought they would come up lovely, as they say, the finish that Complete PaintStripping  of Chester have got is out of this world. The doors (the photos should illustrate this) were old, battered pine, covered  in layer after layer of shiny gloss paint and with their handles and door furniture coated in the same stuff. On return they are all soft, glowing natural wood, still very slightly damp after the stripping process. Even the Victorian glass and  the metal handles are now sparkling and polished. Thanks to Steve for a great job, and  Simon for his very careful courier service!

Glass panelled door, pre treatment
I've also been cleaning the remnants of some ancient black paint from the slate surrounds of the dining room fireplace - see picture - and also made a start on the built in range in the kitchen. This is very rusty inside and I'm not going to attempt to make it useable, but I will be tarting it up to bring out the vintage character - and make it a 'feature'! Pictures of that too.

I've just found that  you can view the photos at a larger size if you click on them, btw.
Short and  sweet this time as I'm boshing it hard, as my brother Toby used to say. It's typical cool damp Snowdonia weather outside, slate coloured skies and drizzle, so I've got all lights blazing, vintage  jazz on the stereo, and of course a cup of tea on the hour every hour...    Will

After dipping
Slate panel with varnish remover brushed on

Chatanette original kitchen range

Door furniture stripped back to the metal

Doors back, beautifully soft and glowing!

While the eco-renovation is going on - and I promise to bring this blog back to the actual project from the personal regions where it has wandered, very soon! - I am no less determined to update the decor in this house, which is a quirky mixture of Victorian features, faded 1930s wallpaper, faded 1980s furniture and unfortunately non-fading Magnolia paint. To this end I've been looking at Farrow and Ball paint swatches and talking about 'feature walls' and thinking (though many will laugh hollowly at this) minimalist. My image of the house-to-be has sometimes needed to be brought into sharper focus, and I'm being deeply aided in this part of the project by a good friend, one whom I feel I should now credit, though she must remain anonymous.

Some friends you value for their support, their positiveness, their backing you to the hilt even when you're in the wrong. This is not one of those friends. This person has the sharpest of eyes and the unflinching honesty of a dues-paid journalist. She is someone who absolutely speaks her mind, refers to herself as a harridan, although her true nature is warm and caring, and has a voice which, usually musical and pleasant, is - when she wants it to be - like the crack of a tiny whip, or so she would like to think.

On any given question of decor she will always, always call it like it is, tell you what you are doing wrong and why, and as if this is not irritating enough, she backs it up with a mass of knowledge about interior design and colour, an unerring feel for bringing out the best in a house, and the most excruciating good taste. When she tells you not to use 'Antique White' type gloss paint on old battered woodwork, because it will show the imperfections in the wood, you find out for yourself that she is right. If she suggests that the same off-white shade will look dirty next to a pure white wall, you step back, brush in hand, and have to agree. When she cracks that tiny whip, making you you throw out a rickety old kitchen table (which you'd kind of grown accustomed to) because it will introduce space and beauty into your life, you have to listen, and if  you don't, well, you've only yourself to blame.

Her own Georgian house is a clean, minimalist marvel of restoration, space, peace and utility, brilliantly conceived, skilfully executed; to every room she will add the one sure, confident touch of colour or texture which makes it it both homelike and beautiful. (Estate agents have been known to visibly salivate when asked to sell her previous properties.) I should also say that when my friend's talents are engaged she is unfailingly supportive and helpful, sympathetic and generous; and that her own green-eyed beauty perfectly complements the environment she has created.

So it is my good friend, this small potent weather system in human form that I now honour here. It is her advice and mentoring that are behind my own experiments in decor, and needless to say any mistakes that remain are entirely my own.

Will ;0)

Friday, February 24, 2012


All my internal doors went off today, to a place near Chester to be dipped 'n' stripped,  so I'm preparing the wooden frames for painting while I can get a proper unimpeded brush to them. I hate prepping - the noise of the sander, the boredom of scouring out every bit of old  gloss paint,  the fine white dust that gets everywhere, even into your eyelashes, so that you end up looking ninety before your time, to say nothing of breathing in the crap. I don't want to think about it, let alone do it, so to take a break from all that I want to write something about an absolutely unique part of  this house, the Quarrymen's Library.

My great-grandmother's two brothers lived in the village of Bontnewydd, just down the road, and worked in Dinorwig, one of the huge slate quarries that provided most of the work for the people of this part of Wales, back in the late 19th Century. 

The old way of dividing work up in the quarries was called the 'bargain' system, where a group of quarrymen would negotiate with the (usually English) foreman for the right to work a particular seam. If the seam yielded no useable slate, they got no money at all  (in fact I'm pretty sure they used to have to pay the foreman anyway, whatever money they made,  for the right to work the slate). One summer day in 1886, Owen and William Pritchard bargained for a place to try their luck and went to work on it. What happened next was described in the Welsh language newspaper of the time, the Herald Cymraeg : the rock upon which the two brothers were working became detached from the side of the hill and fell some hundreds of feet to the bottom of the shaft. Witnesses saw the two workmen crouching on the piece of rock as it fell, seemingly frozen in those attitudes, after which their crushed bodies had to be recovered from underneath several tons of rock. They were pronounced dead at the scene of the tragedy.

   I know a little of my family history. Owen and William had a younger sister, Mary Pritchard, my great grandmother, who had become Mary Williams through marriage the previous year. Their parents lived on a farm just outside Bontnewydd called Maesmyrddin (Merlin's Field, in English): their mother was called  Margaret. It is easy to imagine on that day in 1886 some quarry officials, or perhaps some workmates of the two brothers, climbing down from a horse-drawn cart in the unaccustomed middle of the day in the farmyard; Margaret coming to the door with a greeting on her lips; turning white on seeing the expressions on their faces; framing the questions, Which one? How bad? - and the answers : Both. Dead. Margaret died within a year, although her husband lived on into the new century, and all the family have of these two young men (who died childless) is their library.

   Another big part of life in this area was the religious revival that happened at the end of the nineteenth century - the fiery Welsh oratory, the Temperance (abstaining from the demon liquor), the huge open air Methodist meetings, the chapels built in every remote and sparsely populated valley in North Wales. Owen and William must have been part of this, for they spent what I guess was a great part of their earnings on volumes of sermons, in Welsh, from famous visiting or local preachers. They paid to have these books bound in black or brown leather with their initials in gilt lettering on the spine. So as I sit writing this, in what is itself an old quarryman's cottage, I look across the room and see an old oak bookcase full of sermons and religious tracts, written in a language which I cannot understand; a language  more and more incomprehensible even to the local people here, as the old written Welsh recedes into time and becomes a matter for scholars and historians.

   The tragedy, the religious fervour have all faded into history, the two brothers are in a grave in an overgrown churchyard down the road, and the Dinorwig Quarry closed in 1969.  But the books are still here, in their original bookcase in the corner of my living room, which I call the parlour. The faded gilt lettering on their spines is  lit up, sometimes, by the setting sun in this west-facing room, and I think, Owen and William, may you rest in peace.


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Personal - this house 

I want to write something a little more personal about this house, which has been in the family since 1951. My grandmother grew up in this part of North Wales, which was and remains very Welsh-speaking. She walked the three miles into Caernarfon every day to go to school (in one of the medieval towers of the town walls). She left the area in about 1915 to get married to my grandfather, Thomas James, a West Walian whose own father was lost on the Welsh ghost ship Resolven. She spent her married life in Cardiff but never forgot her roots, and when she received a small inheritance, as a widow, she bought this cottage for £500 and her sons and daughter, my mum, used it as a holiday home. Generations of kids came up to stay with our family and roamed all over North Wales, to Llanddwyn Island, the magical valley of Cwm Pennant, up to Snowdon and the Eagle Tower in Caernarfon Castle. Later on my brother Toby, who died in 2010, lived in the house with some Oxford hippies, who soon went home, and some goats, who ended up in someone's freezer.  Among the visitors to this cottage have been writers like Peter Levi, the theatre director Peter Cheeseman, artists and musicians like Victor Neep and James Bridgen and more recently friend and photographer Chris Clunn and travel writer Jane Lovatt, and lots of locals and of course friends for the weekends. It's pretty basic, and a challenge in the winter, but this house has always been well-loved by almost everyone who's come through the door.

 I've already posted about the lack of much renovation on the place. So I'm upgrading, but keeping the 'features' (a private joke. Everything you don't like, or anything that sticks out a mile that you can't get rid of is 'A Feature' - comes from when I was renovating a much bigger house down the road in Maentwrog, Gwynedd. Mind you the 'features' in this cottage really are nice). I just like the idea of a place with slate fireplaces, wooden Victorian cupboards and sparrows nesting under the eaves ... and solar panels, green technology and wireless broadband, Snowdonia calling the world!

Forgot to mention the outside toilet  - it has the best view of any bog I know, but will post about it another time


Comedy Interlude with the Air Source Heat Pump Guy

Well, the Air Source Heat Pump guy came to do a survey of the house. This man did not fill me with confidence about his knowledge of ASHPs or anything else. To begin with, he had a such a thick Glaswegian accent that I struggled to understand most of what he said : and when I did understand it, everything he uttered gave me the impression that he knew, or seemed to know, nothing about air source heat pumps.
 This was the first live human being I had encountered who was supposed to know about this technology, and  I was keen to ask him a few questions. When I produced my list of qs he said, Aye, fine, goo aheed, while continuing to measure walls for radiators.
What do you say about the noise of the pumps? I opened.
Wha? Noo wan's ivva seed naything aboot that. Hasnae come up.
But there are plenty of things on the Inter -
Aye weel, AH've nivva haird of it.
So you wouldn't know the output in decibels of one of these pumps? (I'd been primed with this question by a website that specified an acceptable db output for an air pump.)
He looked startled, particularly for a so-called expert. Poot Mitoobeesha into the anterneet, it'll come up, and he made for the stairs, to have a look at my old immersion heater (he said).

I abandoned my next question, which was staggeringly technical, something about the new inverted air source heat pumps being quieter than the older models. Something told me there was little point. We carried on in this vein for a little while,me asking questions, him either denying all knowledge or saying something which might have been good advice but was completely incomprehensible.He told me which walls the rads would be going on, then he handed some forms with multiple checklists and asked me to sign them in advance, so he could then fill them later as he was running a bit leet. I declined this offer, and instead asked him for a card so I could get his office number, which no one had been able to give me so far. I had seen an 0141 Glasgow number come up on my phone when they originally made the appointment, and this was the one I wanted - BT give me inclusive calls to the old landlines, but mobiles they burn you for, and I don't get much of a signal up here on my own mobile (thanks, Voda!) 

He immediately looked hunted and furtive. Ah hovnae gort a card. Aye the number's on the van. I followed him out to his van, watching while entered the office number, which he couldn't give me, into his mobile. He asked the gerrls in th orfus for the contact details and started to spell out a mobile number.

Can't I just have the landline, I asked. They rang me on it a day or two ago.

He eyed me with fear and loathing, then spoke again into his mobile, asking them for the information. He began to repeat an 0871 number, peak rate, to me.

Look mate, I said. Your office called me on an 0141 number the other day. Can you ask them for that? After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing we decided that this was a good idea and the gerrls made with the number. He then drove off ten yards down the road, decided that this was far enough, and stopped, no doubt to fill in my forms without me breathing down his neck.

Despite this bizarrely unconvincing encounter I am still leaning towards heat pumps, because of the cost (see my technical post) compared to getting fuel oil heating. I've also just heard a horror story about solid fuel stove heating, tales of lukewarm water, of choosing between heat and hot water in the depths of winter, and condensation building up in flues, dripping down in a rusty black puddle onto the Axminster. So air source a-go go, then? I need to do some googling : I need to git orn th anterneet!


Monday, February 13, 2012



Of all the technologies I am looking at to heat this house, the Air Source Heat Pump (ASHP)  is the most intriguing somehow. As far as I can gather it works on the same principle as a fridge or a freezer, in very simple terms a heat exchanger bringing in warmer air from the outside, compressing it into hot water, and passing this heat into standard radiators. It runs on electricity, so there is an environmental impact, although my plan is to offset this with solar panels to generate some of the power (you may well scoff at this if you're familiar with North Wales weather).  Disadvantages? You have to install the pump somewhere on or near the house, and it does have a visual and more importantly a noise impact. Descriptions of the noise vary according to who you talk to. I've seen internet forums where people say the noise output of these units is quite high, describing it as similar to a washing machine on spin cycle; others say it is no noisier than a fridge.

Other problems I have heard about include the fact that they can act up in very cold weather if they're not sited properly, using electricity to defrost themselves instead of heating me.
I'm having a visit from an engineer / surveyor from the contractor who would be installing the  ASHP in a day or  two and I'll post about this!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What's my house like? 

It's a modest 2 storey, stone and rubble construction cottage built in about 1895 - 1900. It has local Welsh slates on the roof, and a lot of slate mantelpieces and fireplace surrounds, plus the red and black quarry tiles on some of the floors. The windows are single glazed ones that look like sash windows, although they are top opening casement since the old sashes were replaced twenty or so years ago. It sits in its own plot of land and has a great view westwards to Anglesey and the sunsets over the Irish Sea (on a very clear day you can see the Wicklow Mountains, about 90 miles away, although that's quite rare). It's about 800 feet up, and  more  or less west / east oriented, which means it gets sunshine for a good part of the day. Assuming it's sunny! The weather up here, with prevailing south-westerly winds and lots of rain coming across from Ireland, is 'interesting' to say the least! High winds for much of the time, not much frost or snow, occasional thick hill fog or sea mist creeping up the hill, fairly high rainfall, and the occasional still, sunny, warm day when it is a tranquil paradise.

It's been in my family since 1951, although I've only been living here for three or four years. As it was used as a holiday home in the 1960s and 1970s, it escaped the wave of modernisation that swept over most of the neighbouring houses of a similar age : rooms knocked through, fireplaces taken out, original floors ripped up and all the rest of it. A mixed blessing! It means that the original slate surrounds and mantelpieces are still in place, the rooms have not been touched, there are still built in cupboards with what may be Victorian wood and glass in the parlour; there is a (non-working)  range built into a recess in the kitchen that may be from the 1930s or even older. (I'll photograph all the nice features in the near  future.) But of course no central heating, only an old immersion heater for hot water, and the house loses heat through the stone walls (which are cold to the touch on the inside) as well as through gaps in the doors and the single glazing. It's the sort of house that has 'character', as people say, meaning it's interesting but not  the easiest place to live in...

Friday, February 3, 2012

I'm living in a Victorian cottage in Snowdonia

 - with just coal fires for heating, and the coldest weekend for at least a year is coming up. Behind the house the hills are topped with white, and there's a freezing east wind blowing, promising snow overnight or tomorrow. At the moment I'm barricaded into the one room, the parlour, which is a box of heat thanks to a constantly-tended coal fire. When I go out of this room, into the kitchen say, the temperature drops a good (or a bad) 10 degrees.

The place is really more or less how it would have been in 1900, apart from an indoor bathroom and toilet installed in the 1990s, and broadband and phone of course. But a change  is on the way! My plan is to leapfrog into the 21st Century and turn my house into an Eco-home, with solar panels to generate electricity, air source pumps to power central heating, and cladding on the outside of the solid stone walls to keep all the warmth in. The trick is going to accomplish all this while keeping the period character of the house, with its original fireplaces and kitchen range, its quarry tiled floors and exposed beams. (I'm not sure about keeping the Belfast sink in the kitchen though. Even if it does have antique taps.)

I'm doing this partly to make my house more liveable in, as you might expect, but I've chosen the 'greenest' forms of heating and power out of an interest in sustainability and a wish to have a lower carbon footprint. I'm not a green evangelist, but it would be good to feel I'm living a bit more in tune with the planet. End of pompous statement!

I'm going to blog this whole process, and photograph it, so follow along with me if you're interested in someone transforming an old house into one for the new Century. I'll include some technical / DIY type stuff, but not to excess : it's going to be more about the ups and downs of it all ...wish me luck...