Monday 26 October 2015

Beam me up, Scotty!

“You’ve missed a bit,” is a phrase that tends to incite violence from busy people who find themselves dealing with idle bystanders with nothing better to do than poke fun.
Take cleaners, for example. I have no doubt that many-a-mop has been wished where the sun doesn’t shine. And painters – those bristles must be difficult to pick from between the teeth of people who think they’re God’s gift to comedy.

But when it’s a nagging voice in the back of your head there’s little you can do other than tell it to get stuffed, which invariably fails miserably.
I had such a voice when I finished the Artex in the Living Room and Bedroom 1 - sorry to keep banging on about the bloody job. The voice kept telling me I had missed a bit, and it was only when I actually paid attention to it that I realised I had. I’d missed a bit.

There is an oriel window (a cantilevered bay window for those not up with the lingo) in the Living Room that I don’t think I’ve really mentioned much in this blog yet. The bay itself extends out from the front of The Lodge and sits on a very old and very thick externally-delaminating slab of sandstone with two fancy sandstone corbels underneath which stop it dropping off. The inside of the slab forms a large wide window sill that no doubt gets terribly cold in the winter. I’d had partial success in attempting to strip the three or four layers of white paint off this a few weeks back only to find that much of the inside area that was delaminating (flaking away in layers of flat shards where it meets the frame) had been bodged and filled with bathroom silicone, of all things.
The window itself comprises a total of 12 single-paned glass panels arranged in an old (but we’re fairly sure not original) three-sided wooden frame - the only one in the house (the rest are ugly double-glazed uPVC), with one side opening out towards the main road.
There is also a suspended ceiling inside the bay, the surface of which was covered in yet more Artex. More swirls of carcinogenic misery that I had missed in my delight at supposedly finishing the removal job a little while ago.

Artex on top of plasterboard on top
of original laths
When I came to remedy this glaring error last week I made a welcome discovery – the Artex was on top of gypsum plasterboard, and because we don’t want such useless material in the house I needed to get rid of it. Which I happily did. Down it came in the blink of an eye and two cups of coffee.
What I discovered in so doing was that the boards had been attached straight on to the original laths and the lime plaster surface of the original suspended ceiling had been removed, leaving only lumps of lime above the laths.

The naturally nosey among you will want to know what else was up there with it being an original ceiling and all, and I did too. I was hoping there would be more Georgian gutter brackets from the original single-storey cottage that The Lodge was eventually built-up from, for instance. Or maybe a forgotten fortune.
Alas it was only this: the dirtiest job of the renovation work to date. And lest we forget that I’ve pulled out years of accumulated filth from three formerly-covered-up fireplaces and we’ve de-lagged a loft.

I lay on the floor to take this
Have you SEEN our floor?
The first thing I found, before I even started removing the laths, was that they were nailed to quite a hefty chunk of timber which, on the inside Living Room face, had been patched over with more gypsum many years ago. Chipping this gypsum off revealed yet more laths which were nailed lengthways along what appeared to be a substantial beam.
I carefully started removing the laths that ran away from the beam at right angles towards the window frame where the suspended ceiling had been, hoping to be able to salvage some to repair a hole that I had sawn in the Living Room ceiling a few days earlier to widen a long ragged hole that was already there, only to discover that decade upon decade of moisture build-up above the ceiling had resulted in a manky carpet of green and black moss from one side to the other, and front to back, that was easily six inches deep at its shallowest.

Mmmmoss. Not even half of it.
On top of this was a thick layer of dust, dirt and cobwebs, on top of which was a layer of old lime and cement that had crumbled away from beneath the tiles. Above that lot, still attached to the underside of the bare tiled roof, were many sticks of long-dead wisteria that had once adorned the front of the building and 150 years of utter, utter filth clinging to attic-grade thick black cobweb sheets that could easily wrap up and suffocate an albatross. And among all that I discovered the delicate remains of three unfortunate mice - complete with long, fragile tails - that had squeaked their last many decades ago. One was even mummified.

And unsurprisingly, the lengthy clean-up job was grim. Very grim.

But once that was done I turned my attention to the beam the laths had been attached to, and started removing the horizontal ones covering the Living Room face of it.
This made up for all of the previous horribleness when, eventually, I uncovered what turned out to be a beautiful sturdy 6ft length of chunky oak above the bay window with a lovely shake down its centre where it has been ageing over at least 150 years and supporting the entire front wall of Bedroom 1. The stonework to either side of it hadn’t aged so well, unfortunately, and one end has been chocked with chunks of wood before it was all plastered up, but with a good clean-up and some TLC we’re going to turn it in to one of the room’s original features on display for ever more. Lovely.

The old oak beam was a welcome surprise and will make a
terrific feature, especially if we don't replace the ceiling
The rest of the bay’s ceiling is still open to discussion, but for the moment it seems that we may be leaving it uncovered and making a feature of that too, as the old timbers supporting the roof are still on show there. Some more TLC, a little insulation between the woodwork and a soft light or two may well see that come good in the end. 

The one fly in the ointment, however, is a single feature of the oak beam that we could do with sorting out before we finalise our plans.
When I pulled off the horizontal laths I discovered a fourth and final mouse skeleton, wedged tight between the thin sticks and the beam. Unfortunately, when mice and no doubt any other mammal passes on to the next world, they leave behind an organic mass that tends to degrade somewhat. That process of decay has a habit of releasing unpleasant fluids which, if compacted against the surface of porous wood for some time… can you see where I’m going with this?

Not to put too fine a point on it, there’s a horrible greasy blob on the oak that used to be a mouse and I don’t want my gaze to keep drifting to it when I’m trying to watch Homes Under The Hammer in my PJs while I’m eating toast and chocolate bourbons every morning. It’ll put me right off my brekky, it will.

Mouse of horrors
Happy Hallowe'en!
(on Saturday)

Monday 19 October 2015

Six months on - a time to reflect

Since we started this blog Dawn has been sharing some of our posts on a web forum that we’ve been members of since before we even met.

Many of our real-life friends are on there, as well as dozens of e-friends and many hundreds of assorted strangers from all walks of life, and we figured that some might be mildly interested in what’s going on at The Lodge, especially since they’re literally scattered across the four corners of the globe and we don’t see many of them all that often. It’s the modern way, innit.

The comments on that forum have given rise to light-hearted banter and some proper discussion, all of which is welcome, but one in particular has made me stop and reflect. Rather than type a reply over there that may be dismissed offhand or overlooked altogether I thought I’d hang this blog post on explaining why we’re doing things the way we are after six months of living and working here.
If you’ve Googled your way here and have no idea who we are, maybe it’ll give you a different perspective and put you off buying a period property altogether or maybe it’ll give you the push you need to put an offer in on your dream home. Either way, I apologise in advance.

The comment in question was based around our recent work to get rid of the Artex on the ceilings to help make the entire property breathe a little better:
“Eh? There's some odd information coming out about breathability with this build. I'm not convinced about some of it.”
This came from someone who has a wealth of experience working in the building trade, who had earlier asked why we didn’t leave the ceilings as they were and simply plasterboard over them. My reply joked that that’s what all the bodgers say. I even put a winking smiley on it ;)

The Lodge was tired and mistreated
when it became ours on April 17
But as tongue-in-cheek as my reply was, it’s his kind of thinking that has got The Lodge in the state it is today. It’s the willingness to chuck modern materials around for ease in previous decades that is seeing the building suffer the consequences now in 2015. And it’s that lack of knowledge on the importance of breathability everywhere in a period property that is forcing us to deal with crumbling bricks and dampness at almost every stage of this project.
We’ve written about it in this blog before, but if it wasn’t for the plaster, paints, bitumen, plastic and other impermeable materials there wouldn’t be anywhere near the amount of moisture, mould and general horribleness that we have been encountering since April 17 when we first opened the door.

The board-it-and-skim-it way of thinking may have been the cheapest and most immediately effective way of temporarily dealing with problems at the time but it didn’t look to the future and it totally disregarded those who would live here afterwards. Yes, those dirty bodges may have made the house more comfortable for the occupiers of the day but they did nothing useful for the fabric of the building or its longevity. And let’s not forget that The Lodge has been herein one form or anotherfor circa two centuries and will still be here when we’re all dead and gone, which means that the blinkered nature of previous repair work has to stop.

Dawn answered that post on the forum perfectly about the breathability of all the surfaces in the house so I won’t bother repeating it (we’ve said it all here many times before anyway), but there’s a wider point that has put me in my thoughtful mood.

It’s about respect.

Our friends Andy and Jodie, over on their blog about renovating an old stone cottage, wrote recently that they were the “current custodians” of the property and although I haven’t mentioned it to anyone I thought that that was a beautiful way to put it.
It was only said off-the-cuff and maybe they didn’t even ponder the truism of the term, but it was bang-on and made more of an impact upon me than I realised until tonight.

Dawn and I, as the first private owners of The Lodge in its entire history, are merely its custodians. And that’s a humbling thought you would never really have in a newer property.

We might be turning it into our home now and for the foreseeable future, but it’s not just ours full-stop. Research has told us that it was once home to the Taylors and the Scotts among others, and one day it’ll be home to other families who will never know about us (until they see our names scrawled in the mortar at the top of the new chimney stack). So it’s our duty to make that home right and as it was always intended to be back when it was built in Georgian times. It’s incumbent upon us to respect those who came before us and those who will be here in 2100, in 2200. It’s not just about us – it’s about so much more.

George III was probably on the throne when
The Lodge's first incarnation was built.
That's how old it is.
The Lodge was never designed to act like a plastic box, and it would be wholly wrong and disrespectful to attempt to turn it in to one (an impossible task anyway) just because it would be quick, easy and cheap. If we had wanted a building full of modern materials that didn’t work in sympathy with its environment we would have bought a soulless new-build and saved ourselves heaps of grief and a boat-load of cash.

I know that some people probably think we’re just making work for the sake of it, but we’re really not. For the most-part it might be fun but there has also been a lot of worry, many sleepless nights, much accidental blood-loss and a fair share of actual and metaphorical tears that I haven’t alluded to all that much, but it’s all for a purpose.
It’s all because that’s what The Lodge demands of its custodians in order to keep it true to its roots and preserve it for the future. This place has seen nine British monarchs and two world wars with the potential to see more of both, so who are we to stop that happening because of ignorance and a lack of respect for the building and its heritage.

So that’s why we’re not bodging and cutting corners. That’s why we’re trying to go ‘traditional’. That’s why breathability is such a big thing and that’s why we’re doing it the hard way.
And despite the stress, and despite the fact we're still living in a shed, that’s why we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Anyway, enough of this romanticised nonsense and back to reality.
Dawn is out for the evening and I need to fend for myself. I have a lump of salmon in the fridge all ready to go and it has just occurred to me that I have absolutely no idea how to work the oven that we’ve had for six months.

Pot Noodle for one it is, then.

Bringing out the dead... or not

I can see my house from up here!
If you had asked us earlier in the year how we would be spending our six monthiversary at The Lodge, chances are that ‘trying to find what had died up the chimney’ would have been low on the list of options.

Yesterday saw the major milestone creep up and launch itself at us so, being unable to conjure up celebrations of any kind at the last minute, I marked the occasion by climbing a ludicrously-long and wobbly ladder while Dawn, Terminator Trevor, Andy and SamtheDog cajoled me from 300ft below (approx) on terra firma.

The feat of admirable bravery had come about thanks to 250,000 flies (also approx – I tried counting but they wouldn’t hold still) that had decided to take up residence in Bedroom 1 over the past week, along with hundreds of ladybirds and a couple of handfuls of furious, evil wasps. The wasps were a minor irritation, all things considered, and the ladybirds – despite being Harlequins that are purported to cannibalise our indigenous ladybird population – were comparatively pretty. It was the flies that were the problem. And a fairly large problem it was, too.

I had first discovered them a few days after finishing removing the Artex in the room, when I popped my head in for some reason. Probably on the hunt for one of our many missing tools. The door had been sealed up with masking tape to stop dust going through the house and the windows had been closed, but it was there I found a few dozen flies trying their hardest to smash the glass and make a bid for freedom. I helped them on their way, scratched my head, then closed the door back up.
Two days later and the room was like something from a horror movie. There were many, many hundreds – if not thousands – of flies at the windows and a load of them buzzing around the ceiling. Just writing about it is making me itchy.

Flies - before it got bad
I opened the windows again and most went on their merry way, so I spent a few minutes pondering their origins. Having finished the Artex at around the same time they had appeared, had I disturbed some kind of stash of dormant eggs where the walls meet the ceiling and a reasonable amount of lime had come away between the two? The window frames haven’t been touched by us since we moved here and they’re gopping filthy – were they hatching inside there? It was entirely possible. What about the floors? There are large gaps between the edges of many of the floorboards and the brick walls. Were they emerging from in there?
Whatever it was, it couldn’t have been the chimney because there’s a bird guard cowl thing on there so nothing could have come in and died, could it? No. No way.

A couple of days after that the sheer number of flies in the room almost saw me hoisted aloft and carried out of the window along with them, so I decided that enough was enough.
I had been avoiding sticking my head through the partially-open loft hatch (the CCTV cables still feed through there) for reasons that I’ve documented thoroughly already, but the time had come to man-up and get it done. But other than a huge hornet crawling around on the rafters there were no flies at all. There might have been a slight smell of… something… but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. So that was the loft eliminated, anyroad.

I tried smoking them out but they went up...
then down the other pot and in to the Living
Room. It took hours to get rid of them.
After pretty much discounting all other possibilities I stuck my head in the fireplace and looked up the chimney flue as a last resort. I was instantly bombarded by a dozen guardflies hurtling towards my exposed face, and when I cautiously looked up again, taking care to keep my mouth closed this time – there they were.
Hundreds of flies were lining all sides of the brick flue and slowly but surely making their way down to the fireplace and the promise of escape via the window. The majority were at the top, close to where I could see the underside of the cowl so it was only natural to assume that something previously-living had been thwarted by my ingenious efforts and had simply died on top of the pot or down the side of the cowl, unable to get inside the chimney. That would explain why I couldn't smell anything in the room.

That’s what led to me fearing for my life up by the chimney pot yesterday morning. I had run out of ladder rungs to hold on to so was clinging to the pot itself and anything else I could reach that seemed secure.
And guess what I found?

Absolutely nothing.

So that was the best-case scenario out the window along with the flies themselves.
It would have been a perfect ending to find a maggoty pigeon wedged between the inside of the pot and the outside of the cowl’s cage… not for the pigeon, of course… but none of the alternatives are particularly great.

Which raises some questions:

  • What was dead?
  • Where exactly was it? The flue doesn’t go straight up to the top without passing Go, there are a couple of slight kinks and brick ‘shelves’ that could be harbouring the culprit, which means we’re never likely to find it.
  • When did it get in there?
  • Most importantly – HOW did it get in there?

There are a number of theories, any one of which could be correct but none of which will likely ever be proved. One is that a bird flew through the open window and went straight up the chimney – on the outside of the steel flue liner – and just gave up when it found it couldn’t get out.

Our infestation of ladybirds has paled
in to insignificance for the moment
Another is that something was already trapped alive inside the chimney when we dropped the liner, sealing its fate by closing off its upward escape. Maybe it was already incapacitated somehow. But that was a good two months ago now so is the timing all off? Maybe. How long does it take for a dead pigeon to go all, you know, soft and gooey like that?
And another theory is that after the liner was dropped, a rat, mouse or brontosaurus (there were enough flies to make that a possibility) somehow managed to get inside and become stuck on one of the shelves, which means that if it has happened once it could happen again.

The one saving grace is that we’re yet to fit the register plates to the ‘ceiling’ of the fireplaces so if it does happen again we’ll probably not realise and the flies would have nowhere to go except upwards.

Which would make a pleasant change because this itching just won't go away now.

Thursday 8 October 2015

How to remove Artex - revisited

They say there’s a special place in Hell that’s reserved for people who bring unimaginable pain and suffering to humanity as a whole or sections thereof.
And while I’m not suggesting for a moment that such a spot should be held open for the man who invented Artex, he should at the very least be hog-tied naked to a rotisserie over the Lake of Fire and fed nothing but celery and slugs for the rest of eternity.

His invention does, however, feature in Hell’s special place for VIPs where, if you head in to the Hitler Wing, down the Gaddafi Corridor and in to the Nothing But Jedward Room you will find Cosby’s Endless Ceiling of Artex Swirls which must be cleared every day by special guests chosen via a raffle hosted once every millennia by Lucifer himself.
There you will find permanent residents Pol Pot and Jimmy Savile arm wrestling over who gets the only scraper while Idi Amin bypasses all of that juvenile nonsense by simply using his fingernails and teeth.

The Living Room with five days to go
If these walls could talk they'd just swear a lot
Not being the most engaging of activities, your mind wanders when you’re scraping Artex and because of the way my own mind is wired-up it tends to go around in very tight circles of ridiculousness, giving rise to scenarios like that above. Inside my head is not a pleasant place to be when faced with such tedium.
This is what I’ve been doing over the past few weeks, you see, which should explain why I haven’t exactly been in a blogging mood. I’ve been closer to a killing mood, truth be told, although I have resisted the temptation – partly helped by a lack of visitors to The Lodge (the postman and binman don’t count because we need them).

You may remember that the last post I did was about whether or not I needed to remove the terrible stuff from the Living Room ceiling, given the unidentified residue that was being left behind on the lime plaster. I had started the process of scrapingandscrapingandscraping but it wasn’t exactly filling me with joy so I decided to stop while we got advice from someone in-the-know in case I was wasting my time and the whole thing had to come down. Instead I filled my days with the delights of scraping glued-on wallpaper from the walls and ceiling of the World’s Smallest Bathroom™, chiselling yet more gypsum off the walls of Bedroom 1 and planting hundreds of daffodil bulbs on the verge outside the gates with Dawn.

The right tools for the job
Anything but Artex-scraping.

But if there’s one thing that putting off the inevitable has taught me, it’s that you can’t put off the inevitable.
So having been advised by the lime plasterer we’re probably going to hire at the end of this week that the bluey/white residue beneath the Artex was probably mostly original lime wash (and besides, the Artex was better in a bin bag than on the ceiling no matter what it was), I still spent an embarrassing amount of time hoping it would scrape itself, which it didn’t.

So here’s my guide to banishing Artex from your homestead, carefully put together to help those of you who have stumbled in here while Googling for a magic bullet:

You will need

  • A scraper - I used a mix of a pallet knife, long-handled wallpaper scraper and a chisel for the really stubborn bits, of which there were a lot
  • A whetstone to periodically sharpen the above (a smooth brick face will also do the job)
  • Overalls (wash them separately and take care to avoid breathing in the dust as you stuff them in the washing machine… back in days of yore many wives of dockers who were working with asbestos died of asbestosis because of this very reason)
  • Stepladders or a raised work platform so you can wander about a little bit and stretch your legs
  • A hat
  • Goggles
  • Gloves
  • Masking tape to seal the gaps around the doors to prevent dust from travelling through the house
  • A vacuum cleaner - preferably a high-powered large-capacity builders' one, not your best Dyson
  • Biscuits and a bottle of Coke so you don't have to leave the taped-up room
  • An empty bottle to pee in for the same reason... ladies could always take a bucket in, I suppose, or do it out of the window - depending on your upbringing
  • Decent music - I used the app on my iPhone (remember a charger!) because it's sweary, loud and distracting
  • Coffee and porridge before you start give you surprising amounts of energy (seriously)

The technique

  • Spend one afternoon hacking at the Artex with your weapon of choice while inventing new blasphemic words and looking for excuses to stop
  • Spend the following day nursing the RSI in your shoulder while claiming a day off
  • Spend at least two weeks avoiding the whole thing and telling everyone you meet that scraping Artex is “a bastard pig of a job”
  • Spend one further week psyching yourself up to tame that bastard pig
  • Realise that nobody else is stupid enough to offer help, so get on with it
  • Climb ladders
  • Scrape
  • Scrape
  • Scrape
  • …ad infinitum for many, many days

All-in-all, discounting the lengthy periods of procrastination, it took maybe a week of 10-hour days for me to get everything off the Living Room ceiling and by the time I was finished I was hallucinating and could hear voices telling me to do bad things. Fortunately I didn’t have any energy left to act on them, but I didn't really have the energy to blog about it either.

As much of a relief as finishing that room was (the last square meter is the worst bit) I couldn’t lie down and rest because, as I've mentioned before, the job is all part of getting two rooms ready so we can move in to the house from the shed before we die of hypothermia.

Which meant I had one more ceiling to do - Bedroom 1.

Bedroom 1 was a lonely place to be for three solid days

Fortunately, the Artex on that ceiling must have been mixed differently because rather than come off in microscopic flakes, this wasn't stuck so solidly and much of it fell to the floor in chunks - actual chunks! - which made the job easier. Not easy, but easier at least.

This particular ceiling also featured fewer cracks, so after three more long days (I went on until after 10pm for the final push) I was left with an Artex-free ceiling which had far fewer missing bits. In fact about half of the holes that were there were caused by a subtle mix of furious rage and over-enthusiasm rather than a poor work surface.

The idea now is to widen all of the cracks on both ceilings a little bit and fill them with pre-mixed lime putty before lime-washing/painting the lot, effectively bringing them back from the dead. Widening the cracks will likely be another arduous task, mind, but at least it'll be the beginning of the end of that particular job.

And what a bastard pig of a job it was.