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!