Jack and the Haystack

Volunteers (wearing nearly time to go home smiles)

Volunteers (wearing nearly-time-to-go-home smiles)

Once upon a time – what seems like a very long time ago – Jack’s Mother opened the rusty biscuit-tin in which she kept her life-savings and said to Jack

Jasper? (she could never remember his name) …I want you to get up early in the morning and go to the market. Take this seven-pence-farthing I’ve managed to save up over a lifetime of drudge and go and buy some bricks and mortar, then when you get home you can build us a house …I’m sick and tired of living in this 800 year old caravan.

Jack’s Mother’s great-great-Grandfather had lent the King of Scotland 30,000 Livres back in Twelve-hundred-and-something, but the King forgot to pay it back before he died. Ever since then the family had lived in a simple caravan made from some kind of wood, nailed together with some sort of nails. The caravan had been handed-down from father-to-son, and after all that handing-down it was in a terrible state-of-repair: It had no wheels or roof, no walls, no doors, no windows (apart from the one I mention in a minute), no underfloor heating, no Argon-filled Pilkington ‘K’ double glazing units supplied with a generous 14mm bronze glazing bar …nor even infra-red number-plate-recognition to operate the electric gate they didn’t own.

Wealthy neighbours envied them their simple life-style. They looked longingly on Jack and his Mother, surrounded by their rotting pieces of wood which barely kept out the rain, and wished they could be as happy as they were, having so little.

If I could learn to be as happy as they are, having so little; they’d often say to themselves; …what with all the stuff I’ve bought off of Amazon – half of which I haven’t even had time to open – I’d be able to wander around this mansion grinning like a Sperm Donor who’s just switched banks.

Volunteers banging in Hazel Pegs

Volunteers banging in Hazel Pegs

At five o clock the next morning, just as his Mother had asked, Jack got out of his bed, opened the biscuit tin, slipped the seven-pence-farthing in his pocket and began walking the 362 miles to the nearest market. As he stepped over the garden gate, lying where it had fallen, he heard behind him the rickety old sash window which looked out from his mothers’ bedroom being thrown open …and turned to see his mother lean out:

If you meet any strangers, don’t talk to them. I’ve read thousands of these stories and that’s where the trouble always starts. She called.

No sooner had she finished speaking than a rumbling sound presaged the old sash window falling unexpectedly down, cracking Jack’s Mother on the skull before finishing its journey and trapping her arthritic hands by the wrists. Jack heard his mother yelp with pain.

I won’t! He called back, as he skipped away.

Volunteer on lunch break

Volunteer on lunch break

Being mindful of the fact that Nursery Stories always contain pithy morals; we interrupt this tale to point out that Jack went about accomplishing his long journey in the way that we must all accomplish our great endeavours: By taking the first step, and immediately following-on with a second …then a third. This fatuous observation will be so useful to us all in our own lives – if only we would remember it – that we almost don’t mind its intrusion here whilst we wait to find out whether Jack will meet a stranger on his journey; whether or not he will speak to that stranger; and what manner of disaster orbits our hero when he inevitably does.

At first Jack’s journey was pleasant as he made his way through the trackless woods. He observed many rare species of bird – pausing to record each sighting in his Bird Observation Book, just in case anyone was remotely interested: Into his book went the Silver Plover, quickly followed by an absolute corker of a sighting: the Medium-Eared Owl – which a close relative of both the Long Eared Owl and the Short Eared Owl (…so close a relative, in fact, that anyone possessed of a suspicious turn-of-mind might wonder if the two latter species had met one night during a power cut) – and after just a short distance more, with his back turned toward him, Jack surprised a Long Tailed Twat. Well, lets put it this way: …they surprised each other.

Volunteer who missed lunch

Volunteer who missed lunch

As Jack romped through the wood the morning mist snaked behind gnarled trees of Oak, Chestnut and Beech to watch him pass – watching without ever drawing near.

To his surprise (though not, perhaps, to ours) when he reached The Bridge of no Return, which crosses Desperation Brook – a painfully slow drain for the Swamp of Despair – Jack was sure he saw a stranger sitting on the branch of a tree some twenty feet above the ground. The stranger was dressed in a simple white smock, smoking a clay pipe. Some of our younger readers are probably not old enough to remember clay pipes because they went out of fashion in the mid 1700’s when it was discovered that the heat from the clay mouth-piece – which got very hot – caused carcinoma of the lip. All models of clay pipe were immediately withdrawn from sale and replaced 200 years later with the petrochemical compound ‘Bakelite’, still in use today.

Pendant from the stranger’s neck was a shepherds crook – he wore it in that manner for the simplicity it offered as a means of portage, allowing him both-hands-free …one to hold his pipe, and the other, crucially, to hold onto the branch. The Stranger’s eyes were fixed on Jack as he approached …and the sight of the Stranger, after his Mother’s warning, disconcerted Jack causing him to falter in his step, and eventually come to a standstill altogether.

They eyed each other – Jack twitching like the Cowboy in a Clint Eastwood film when he knows the plot’s about to thicken.

You’re late. Said the stranger… Five-of-the-clock you was told. Kept me waiting you ‘ave.

P- Pardon? Said Jack.

Ave you got the money?

What money?

Seven-Pence-farthing.

How did you know?

Let’s be aving it then. …Told you not to talk to me dint she?

Who?

Your haggard-faced, bony, mean, ugly, good-for-nothing old lady – living in that broken-down caravan.

How dare you speak of our caravan like that! Said Jack.

Caravan?…there’s bugger all left! Anyways- never mind all that …save you walking another 300-and-odd miles to market, I’ve got some straw for ee.

I don’t need straw, thank you very much.

Building a house aincha?

How did you know that?.

Then you’ll need seven-pence-farthings’ worth of straw bales. And God help ya – though they say tis awful ‘green’, and other such nonsense.

Jack raised his voice: Building a house out of straw bales is the rediculousist thing I ever heard – do you imagine I was born yesterday? Asked Jack.

The stranger answered that question by not answering it.

Every great truth begins life as a blasphemy [pithy moral] and once the stranger had fully explained to Jack how many Kilograms of Carbon would be captured per Square Metre of built-accommodation; how Straw – a waste product – ranked favourably against other more widely-used building materials such as Chromium, and Smoked-Glass in terms of both Sustainability and Embodied Energy; how straw is a low-skilled building material – only requiring the operator to hold an NVQ1 or a below average IQ; the Health Benefits of living in a house built from straw bale as opposed to, say, Asbestos; and how Straw Bale had been demonstrated to offer an 87% reduction in fuel bills, year-on-year when you calculate the compound interest on the sum invested; how your house may be at risk if you don’t keep up payments; and how, in tests, 8 out of 10 cats preferred them – Jack became convinced that the future of construction lay in straw and wondered why all hairy-arsed builders weren’t using it. Are they mad? He remembered thinking, as he handed over the seven-pence-farthing.

Gin Lane, William Hogarth

Volunteer at evening party

You’ve done what!! Asked Jack’s mother as he tried to explain the benefits of straw using a piece of graph paper and a NoBo board. Get to your room – and you’re not having a bite to eat.

Jack didn’t have a ‘room’, as noted earlier, but climbed instead into his ‘bunk’ bed. It wasn’t a real bunk bed because Jack’s Mother couldn’t afford a real bunk bed …Jack’s bunk bed differed from a real bunk bed in that his was at floor level, and didn’t have another bed above it. He lay there with his head approximately 3 feet away from his mothers slippers as she prepared herself a delicious meal of sardines-on-toast – minus the toast – muttering to herself all the while: Dear God – you wait until that boy comes down in the morning – I’ll give him bales-of-straw. If only the lord could look down and see me now, how I suffer.

Unbeknown to Jack’s Mother the Lord was indeed looking down upon her suffering. Up in heaven he was lying on a cloud – a white and fluffy Cumulus which had a Cumulo-Nimbus for its headboard, and a Cirrus Stratus at the foot-end which tailed away to nothing and was there purely for ornament. As beds go The Lord’s cloud was damper than Jack’s, but the Lord’s bed had the benefit of being higher, lifting him well clear of Jack’s Mother’s odiferous slippers. The Lord was looking over the side of his cloud and shaking his head, for he was very wroth with Jack. Oh God, what has he done now? The Lord kept saying as he looked down on the straw-stack. In fact because The Lord and God are really one and the same person, he didn’t actually say: Oh God!; but instead: Oh Me!Me almighty! …for My sake!, and Dear Me …I don’t effing believe what he’s gone and done this time! …etc.

Volunteer on Elevenses

Volunteer on Elevenses

Next morning, Jack was first up. He yawned, got out of bed, and walked outside where to his amazement he found a house. He smiled to himself when he realized that the straw bales the Stranger had sold him were just like the beans he’d swapped for a cow in an earlier story – they were magic bales and had built themselves into a wonderful house overnight. Mother will be pleased, thought Jack, and went back to bed.

His mother got up next. She yawned got out of bed and when she went outside for a pee to her amazement she found a house.

Jeremy! Jeremy! She called. Someone’s built themselves a house right next to our place …how the hell did they get planning permission for that?

Jack got up and went outside. It’s not someone’s house, Mother, it’s our house. Isn’t it wonderful?

Ours? Yes, said Jack’s mother, it is!

Then both Jack and his mother jumped in surprise when at exactly the same time they noticed something they hadn’t seen before – there was someone sitting on one of the window-cills of the house wearing a white smock, smoking a clay pipe, and around his neck he carried a shepherds crook. It was the Stranger.

What are you doing hanging around my house – hop it! Yelled Jack’s mother at the Stranger; Shoo!!; she said, and began flicking her apron at him in the way that she did when she wanted to clear it of a few crumbs.

Don’t be so ungrateful you old crow …I always promised I’ d build ee a house, and now I built one – dint I?

You built this for me?

That I did …Like it?

No you didn’t – I built it …called God from his cloud.

You keep out of this. Answered the Stranger, poking his Crook up towards God’s cloud… or I’ll shove a hole in your cloud.

Might dry it out a bit… Answered God.

Whoever built it, it’s wonderful! Said Jack’s Mother.

Yer tis then – let me carry you over the threshold, my old maid.

Who said that? Asked Jack’s Mother, looking up at God, and then at the Stranger. God rolled his eyes heavenward, and with that the Stranger swept Jack’s mother clean off her feet and carried her over the threshold, very much to Jack’s amazement. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as they disappeared inside. Then Jack’s mother called back over the Stranger’s shoulder:

Johnny, this is your father, by the way. He’s built me a house – so I’m afraid you’re going to have to leave home and find a place of your own. Byee!

Jack swallowed hard, mournfully gathered up his few belongings, and then took the first steps of his long journey to a new and uncertain life when he heard a window being thrown open behind him. It was his mother, leaning out so that her voice wouldn’t be muffled by the Argon-filled double glazing unit and storm-seals. Jack – I was only kidding! Come on in!

Jack threw down his belongings, jumped up and down on them in triumph, and then ran into the straw bale house.

Jack – this is your father. Jack’s Mother said, introducing them.

Jack – I’m your father. Said the stranger, shaking Jack by the hand.

Father – I’m your son. Said Jack.

…And I’m the Holy Ghost. Said God, wittily. God asked if he could stay for a few days whilst he awaited delivery of a new cloud which he hoped would be drier – it was an Alto Stratus from John Lewis – and they all said ‘Yes’ they would love to have him to stay …not least of all because they’d only got one fish – a sardine – and no loafs of bread to feed three of them, and they wondered if God would perform one of the miracles for which he was famous.

We use real hair in our Lime Mortar

Kim Jong Un volunteered some of his hair to go in our Lime Mortar

God didn’t let them down – God never lets-down those who have faith in him. Seated around the dinner table, as with one voice, they spoke these words: For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly grateful …no sooner had they spoken than outside the window they heard the unmistakable sound of loafs of bread falling from heaven onto the lawn, followed by some fishes, and also some baskets to put them in. Those baskets alone must be worth a pretty penny, thought Jack’s mother, avariciously …I’ll take those down to the market and sell them as baskets. Jack’s mother was a very imaginative cook and when she saw the fish and bread falling in such abundance a menu immediately came to her mind: I know, she said, we’ll have fish with bread.

They all ate fish and bread until they became so tired they dropped off their chairs one by one and slept on the floor. And then the next day, when they woke up, they all lived happily ever after …in their straw bale house. Anyone would …wouldn’t they?

God didn’t live in the straw bale house, of course, as soon as his cloud arrived from John Lewis he moved back into heaven which is a bit more spacious and has fewer residents – the entrance exam being harder than most people imagine. The delivery men had had to climb the stairway to heaven carrying God’s huge cloud and were knackered when they got to the top so God gave them a tip for all their hard work – he is quite an accomplished baritone and as a treat sung them the hymn, Abide with me… the delivery men ran down those stairs faster than they’d ever run in their lives and when they got to the bottom they hugged each other and wept with joy. The very last thing they wanted to do was live in heaven, and they hadn’t got through all the other things they wanted to do before living in heaven. No one ever has.

By an extraordinary coincidence Linda and I are building a straw bale house. We’re fast approaching the stage where Linda will carry me over the threshold: The Straw Bale walls have been erected, greatly helped by the super human effort of some volunteers who joined us a week or two back …photographic evidence of which litters this blog.

The windows are in, glazed, and I am just getting to grips with the Lime rendering. You can’t apply lime if there is likely to be a frost during the following week or so – yet here we are in November and it’s so mild that we’ve got away with it so far. We’ve got climate change to thank for that …imagine – if all houses were built of straw we wouldn’t have benefited from climate change!

If you’ve been longing to lend us a hand with our straw bale build but weren’t able to make it to the straw bale raising weekend – don’t worry, taking the UK population as a whole most people were unable to make it. However, there is one more chance to help! Without getting too technical: You can claim VAT back on a new build, but you’re only allowed to make one claim. When you get near the end of your building budget – as we have – this ‘one claim’ rule throws up the interesting dilemma for self-builders of whether to make your VAT claim ‘now’ and use the refund to finish their building project …but lose the VAT on the final spend; or to borrow the VAT you will get back (£9,000 in our case) from someone wonderful so that all final purchases can be made, the VAT claim filled-in, and VAT returned on the whole blooming lot.

That’s where you come in. You know that £9,000-farthing you’ve got hidden in a rusty biscuit tin? …or perhaps you are one of 9,000 people who have a pound put aside? Well, if you don’t need your savings for about 4 months and were at all inclined to lend it to us… Linda and I have been talking and we’d be happy to knock the paltry 0.25% rate of interest the Bank of England are currently offering into a cocked hat by offering you the much more exciting rate of 0.26% Not only that but your money would be doing more good-in-the-world than you’ll ever know. God, too, will see your charitable work and he’s bound to take it into account if ever you need a favour from Him.

At the end of the 4 months a £9,000 loan will have earned £7.80 which we’ll re-pay to you, the lender, down at the local hostelry. And if you turn up in your Sports Utility Vehicle – we’ll chuck a couple of bales of straw in the back …they’ll get you off to a flying start with your own building project.

Don’t forget to act quickly! – we can only accept the first offer of help.

 

Phoenix from the Ashes

Canvas Fying, Seagulls Crying

 

The man who fell to Earth

Major Tim Peake and I touched down at exactly the same moment. What happened was  that Tim’s bolts blew allowing his module to separate whilst I was up a ladder trying to attach a purlin to the roof. When I heard those bolts go, the ladder slipped from under me. We both saw the ground rushing toward us, and we both overtook my ladder. Tim landed in Kurdistan, I hit the ground in Somerset with a welt. Tim gave the thumbs up ….I lay groaning, winded. Tim planned ahead and had a comfy seat for his crash, I didn’t even have a parachute. My injuries would have been more severe but by a stroke of luck Linda happened to be under my ladder and broke my fall.

This blog is about building ‘affordable’ housing ….we’re setting out to prove that affordable needn’t mean ‘stingy’.

Like many would-be house owners we haven’t got a great deal of money but don’t want to live in a poorly designed box.

If you’d like to do a similar thing, but wonder if you’re capable – you are. Get in touch …we’ll give you all the help we can.

We began by thinking of all the things we want from a house – designed those in, and left out the things we thought would sound impressive, but which weren’t important to us …like having four bedrooms when we only need two.

There’s a verandah running the length of the house where we’ll be able to store firewood conveniently near the front door; leave wet coats and muddy boots, …and sit outside when it’s pissing down.

We went on to make scale plans for the planning application …then went into much more detail for building control. It was hard work that we were tempted to farm out to an architect, but it forced us to work out how we would actually build the house, and from what materials. I nearly gave up several times because it was so tedious, but doing our own drawings saved £10k. At least.

Now we’re building we have to be our own quantity surveyors …to work out how many of everything we need – so that we don’t get left with loads of wasted materials. That’s not very much fun, either, but in the words of Benjamin Franklin ‘Few people realise what income there is in economy.’

We decided to build a garage/workshop first of all – on our empty site – which would give us somewhere to work, and to store tools. If the house isn’t wind and watertight by this winter we’ll move out of our titchy caravan, clear the workshop, and live in that. The workshop only took five weeks – but I’d already built that on paper, too, so it helped speed things up.

The timber frame for our house is a vanity project. Straw bales don’t need a frame, but I’ve always loved heavy frames.

Framing team: Martin (hoist) Kes, Linda and me, Chris.

Framing team: Martin (hoist) Kes (framer), Linda (foreman), me (camera operator), Chris (boss).

We found some brilliant timber-framers who agreed to take on the heavy parts of the frame (which was most of it) and leave the rest (only slightly lighter) timbers to me. I was planning to do all that myself, but I hadn’t noticed how old I’m getting. I’m 56, you know? You can always tell when you’re past it – you fall into the habit of telling complete strangers how old you are, and then following the information with the words ‘you know?’.

We hadn’t budgeted for the £8,000  labour costs of having the frame built by others, but it was worth it so that we could avoid lengthy stays in hospital. I expect I’ll have to make all the windows to get us back on budget, but at least windows are made from lighter bits of wood, which can be lifted by one person, working alone.

(By the way …stop worrying about Linda – I was only joking about that bit.)

I’ve covered the roof with sarking board – they’re a bit like floor boards for your roof, and they remain ‘on view’. Then I taped on a vapour membrane, then 6×2 rafters, then 120mm foam insulation …and right now I’m putting on the felt-and-batten, ready for slating. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to working at heights.

After that we’ll build a foundation for the straw bales, and then have a fun couple of days stacking them. We’d love you to join us for that – many hands make light work. We’ll do the food. If you can’t make it for that day, but would love to try your hand working with lime render – come then. And if you’d like to have advance notice of the dates that we’ll be doing our community straw baling and lime rendering – drop me an email saying ‘dates please’ to justin@justintyers.plus.com

Other stuff we’ve achieved to date (we started on March 1st 2016):

We’ve installed a ‘Package Treatment Plant’ to deal with our domestic waste water.  That’ll save us money eventually, on ‘sewage’ bills.

We’re capturing spring water on site. It’s piped into an under-ground tank, then pumped and filtered for our domestic supply. It tastes like bottled water (we’ve had it analysed) and it doesn’t have fluoride or chlorine added. Best of all it costs nothing per litre.

We’ve bought enough solar panels to provide 4kw of electricity. (No, that doesn’t mean anything to me either.) We didn’t have ‘mains’ electricity when we lived on our boat and always swore that mains electricity was the one thing we were really looking forward to when we lived in a house again. But because connection costs to the mains grid were so high, when we realised we could go ‘off-grid’ for the same money we set ourselves up with solar panels in the hope that we won’t have to worry about electricity. We’re quite frugal – we don’t use much …you don’t when you’ve lived on a boat. And we’ve bought a generator for the winter days when we’ve all forgotten what the sun looks like. We haven’t bought the other bits yet (batteries, inverter, charge controller).

Crashing onto a Bookstand near you!

Here is our old house… we didn’t have mains electricity because we couldn’t find a cable long enough.

If you’d like to read about our travels on board, by the way, meet the people we met along the way, and dream about the lifestyle – you can find the books I wrote here and here.

We brought seven tons of timber down from Scotland when we ‘moved south’ – mostly it is in long wide planks, and because I paid for it six years ago, it feels like it’s free and saving us a fortuneThey will be used for the floorboards eventually, but are proving to be useful all over the place. I hope there will be enough left.

We’ve bought an Esse wood-fired range recently which we’re very excited about for £5k as an ex-display model …it will be the heart of the home and we can’t wait to fire it up.

I think that sums up our progress to date. We’ve got about £24k left to buy the slate, glazing, straw, lime, bathroom, kitchen, the rest of the off grid electricity equipment (among many other incidental items). If you’ve done this kind of thing before you will realise that the budget is really tight …though we’ll be helped by getting a bit of VAT back on our purchases.

If you’d like more information on any aspect of our build – let me know. I’m being brief with the description here in the hope that I won’t bore those of you who aren’t looking for a manual.

Another similarity between me and Major Tim Peake is that he spent six months in a confined space in the company of people with whom he didn’t share a common language.  Me and Linda have been in our two berth caravan for six months …and she’s from Glasgow.

This is where we are ‘at’ today:

roofing can be fun - but only if you like that kind of thing...

roofing can be fun – if you’re young and like that kind of thing… I’m 56 you know?

 

Now that’s what I call quite good

One of the striking differences between buying a ready-made house and building one – setting aside for a moment the thousands of hours of work you’ll have to put in if you decide to build one – is that if you’re considering buying a house off-the-shelf for, say, £300,000 you know that it’s going to cost you around £300,000 …whereas when you build a house you have absolutely no idea how much it will cost. That simple fact will haunt you until the job is finally completed …over-budget.

Just as a man in possession of a million pounds is unable to afford an item whose price tag is two millions, a man in possession of a pound is unable to afford an item whose price is two pounds. Our budget, then, for this build is £65,000. Not a penny more.

Houses have been built for less, much less, but we want to live in a stylish house built from quality materials, and one which modest though our needs are – includes everything we’d like it have.

Medieval Frame

Medieval Frame – now that’s what I call ‘quite good’.

We like Medieval pegged joint frames. You can save a fortune by learning to design them from a book – armed with a passing interest in that sort of thing. When we lived in Scotland we had one designed for us – it was lovely, but somehow the design ran away from us and we ended up with a big house we couldn’t afford to build. This time we did it ourselves and t’s just right.

Two of the timbers in this photo – which was taken today, by the way …just so you know you’re right up-to-date – weigh just under ¼ ton each. When I saw them I realised that I was too old to build the house by myself and got some splendid framers to do all you can see here, for me.

When we were quoted £2,700 for connecting to a mains water tank situated 30 feet away from us, we baulked and got a dowser on to our plot to see if we had water on-site …below ground. He found three sources of water. His costs for drilling a bore hole were going to be similar – but e’d get free water. Whilst waiting six weeks for the drilling team to arrive, we had leisure to wonder if a spring which weeped reliably from some rocks on site would provide us with sufficient and potable water. We had it tested and found it was similar in quality to bottled water, so now we’ve made a connection to that, instead – and together with the pump and UV treatment have excellent free water for an investment of just under £2,000.

Electricity was similarly expensive: Early investigations showed it would cost £7,500 to connect, plus a pepper-corn rent to the owner of a field the cable would have to come through. It didn’t take long to decide, bravely we thought, to install equipment for all-off-grid electricity. We haven’t got that far yet, so I can’t tell you how it is all going …but it will be the subject of a future blog.

I’ll try to get a bit more organised in my next blog and give you a sense of the running order of our build …what has been done, and what has yet to be done. I’m rushing this a bit, I know …but we have only recently got broadband on site, and because we don’t yet have photo-voltaic electricity, I have to start the generator every time we want to turn on the router and go online. And because both the generator and my computer are in my workshop, I have about 20 minutes before I have to turn everything off and go outside to recover from carbon monoxide poisoning.

This is the workshop, it’s 40m2 and cost a whisker under £3,000 to build.

Workshop

Workshop

I’ll be back with more news soon – but in the meantime, thanks for following me, and here’s a piece of wood I’m working on. It measure a foot across by ten inches deep by ten feet long and weighs in at just under 300lb (140kg).

Shouldered Dovetail

Shouldered Dovetail

…I don’t know how I’m going to lift this one in place either – so if you happen to be passing…

 

So…

A few years back – probably 20 – I noticed people were beginning to preface everything they said with the word ‘So’. For example:

What would you like for breakfast?

So …what are my choices?

…and I thought to myself you know Justin, you’re not doing too bad if you’ve still got all your own teeth and hair, and you don’t plonk the word So in front of everything you say. Since then I’ve noticed that my hair is getting a bit thin, and I’ve got a dentist’s appointment coming up at the end of the month. Having already met the new dentist for a check-up I couldn’t help thinking how keen he was.

Why have I been so tardy in posting a new blog?

So …the reason is that I know you enjoy a bit of a break from me. A little time to heal. Not only that – we haven’t had broadband laid on to our small craftsman-built caravan until just now.

DSC_3695

No holiday

This week, in an unthinking moment, we invited a ‘digger’ and his ‘digging machine’ onto our building plot. He turned out to be an absolute bastard for digging holes – we only had time to boil the kettle, sit down for a cup of tea and next time we looked out of the window the caravan was marooned. Now we can’t even go on holiday.  He was like a bloody mole.

Kit House

Kit House

Linda and I are building a straw-bale house – did I mention that? We went to the sawmill a few weeks ago to pick up our kit-house. We’re having a frame inside our straw bales. Bloody clever, really – all you have to do is design a house to your own specification; work out how many bits of wood you’ll need …and what size they should be; and then when you get them home, lay-out where all the mortise and tenon joints should go; cut them; raise the frame – and then you’re ready to begin the painstaking work of building yourself a house. In the photograph above Linda is sitting on a piece of wood at the sawmill. Like all the bits of wood around her, the one she’s sitting on now belongs to us. When I first caught sight of our stack of timber I had a short period of hospitalisation.

Why the f–k we thought that building a timber frame would be a good way to go about getting ourselves a house to live in …and why we thought we’d be the ideal people to take the task on, will be the subject of my future blogs.

The diligent reader will spot that this blog no longer claims to be about ‘living in the Hebrides’ but claims instead to be ‘An idiots guide to building a Straw Bale house’.

Don’t miss an instalment (which will be more frequent now than of late) and as an observant practitioner you’ll avoid the pitfalls of this new and exciting method of building by watching me fall into them first.

We’re not laying-on real electricity, but using ‘solar’. We’re not having real chlorinated, flourinated water either, hoping instead to divert water from a spring. We will be having real straw in our bales …not sure where they’ll come from, but they’re being grown, somewhere, as we speak.

In the next blog I shall tell you how much money we’ve got to spend and where we hope to save money on our build, and what progress we’ve made so far.

Let me know if you think a vlog would be a more interesting way of imparting information about our build.

Thanks for being there.

Justin

Phoenix from the Ashes

Canvas Flying, Seagulls Crying

Maritime Artwork

 

 

 

Right ole hippies…

This is a cow. Cows eat Straw Bale Houses. Your home is not safe if you own a Cow. Be like Justin. Don't buy a Cow.

This is a cow.
Cows eat Straw Bale Houses.
Your home is not safe if you own a Cow.
Be like Justin.
Don’t buy a Cow.

Those Dyson’s are bloody brilliant! Until they’re about three months old. Then when you get a blockage it’s overalls-on, and half-a-day dismantling to rod out the rabbit warrens …and clean all meeting-surfaces with a toothpick on re-assembly. I can see the blockage because everything on it is see-through …like one of those Ant Farms. But I can’t get to it. Fortunately I’ve got a broom.

Linda and I are leaving our luxury accommodation tomorrow. Because we’re so disorganised we don’t know where we’re going next. My Mum’s gone to Spain for a few weeks so I asked her if we could stay there but she said ‘No’. She’s afraid we’ll disturb the cats. ‘You know what I’m like about my cats,’ she said; ‘they’re like children to me’. My mother doesn’t have a sense of irony.

We’ve been looking for an old caravan. You get to meet a lot of dodgy people when you’re buying a Caravan, bottom-end. One bloke let us into his caravan by banging a screwdriver into the lock. He’d got two stories about how it came to be in his possession and he kept forgetting which one he’d told us. As bits came off in our hands he was full of re-assurance: ‘You won’t need that bit, anyway.’

Have you got any experience of Yurts? We were thinking one of those might suit us? Are they like wedding marquee’s – all very well on the big day but you’d have to be a right old hippie to live in one? You probably think we are a couple of old hippies, me and Linda. they say you’re always the last to know.

I was going to tell you I don’t know when I’ll be able to write the next instalment of this blog – now we’re going to be living in a Yurt – but god knows you’re used to that by now. Tell you what come and visit us in our Yurt -that way you can get all the latest news – don’t forget to bring a handful of sawdust for the composting loo.

Im getting quite into this yurt idea – get in touch if you happen to be flogging one …or failing that a caravan that you can get into without a screwdriver.

Here, for no good reason, is a photo of a wood in Cornwall in Springtime. Because it’s cheerful, and fills me with hope.

Spring is just around the corner.

Spring is just around the corner.

Justin

Linda and I enjoy a joke as much as the next man …but

One Card???

I can’t decide whether you’re determined to have the last laugh this year or I forgot to give you the address where Linda and I will be staying for Christmas (Batsom Farm, Withypool Somerset, TA24 7RG – if there’s still a card left in your box).We can take a joke, usually.

In making the following observations I take into account that I have spent the last eight years hibernating from society’s ebullience by hiding on a Scottish island. We went to the Bicester Outlet Centre. OMFG – what a mistaker to maker.

Wandering along its tinselled precinct, with deeply unhappy-looking women and men clutching braces of plump bags, waltzing right across my path without so much as a Pardon-me – I wasn’t looking where I was going, I felt bewilderingly out-of-style to notice that shops with names like Oscar de la Renta, Ermenegildo Zegna and Vile brequin meant nothing to me. What merchandise do they offer, I wondered? Walking past Door-Security l Forest-Gumped in to find out.

If the stuff they were offering for sale was in a Salvation Army Hall it would fetch 10, maybe 20 pence – yet here it flies off the shelf at £200. Visitors literally can’t get enough of it – and then rush home to leave bragging reviews about what a bargain they’ve just snapped-up. Do you ever feel like you’re on the wrong planet? If the Sally Army had better lighting and employed surly, airbrushed, centre-fold staff who sneered at all new arrivals in their shop they’d raise all the money they need in an afternoon.

Prêt A Manger was my favourite. I didn’t buy anything in there because the prices were so high – but I had the pleasing sensation of recognising the goods they were selling.

I can’t tell you how relieved I am to have just this morning finished the job of designing and preparing the ‘Building Regulations’ drawings for our house. Doing them myself has saved me a fortune. (Do you see a pattern emerging here?) If you’re planning to build yourself a straw bale house but can’t be arsed to do the design yourself – don’t hesitate to ask …but we’ll need to be on your christmas card list if you want to curry that sort of a favour.

I arrived back on Exmoor this week. Spiritually I mean – we’ve been coming and going for months. I went up to the trig point on Court Down (SS915297 for those of you who know about these sorts of things) and I climbed onto it for the first time in 17 years. Last time I surveyed the hills beyond my parish from its vantage was when we were building the boat, and I begged it to let us go. Tired of its folds I wanted to see the country more at large.  This time I asked if it would have us back …I am not one of its native sons, but adopted. That same day we got an email from the National Park telling us they recognised as locals, giving us the right to live on the plot we’d bought.

Need a christmas prezzie for someone who has everything? Excuse my merciless advertising, but I guarantee they won’t have one of these: Don’t worry about Christmas posting times – I’ll get it to them on time if I have to deliver it myself by Tall Ship. You’d be well-advised to invest now – but if you miss this, there’ll be one more chance – I’m going to rent a unit in Bicester Village for the January Sales and I’ll be offering my wares for five times their usual price.

If, wisely, you only buy from bonafide retailers try this and this.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS! Thank you for following this blog – without you being there all would be wasted. I wish you and everyone you love a fantastic Christmas, and a prosperous and successful new year.

At the time of writing, in 33 hours summer will be on its way.

Summer

Summer

Justin.

…are you knackered, Justin?

There can only be one of two reasons for Yachting Monthly – Britain’s favourite boaty mag – choosing to publish a 700 word excerpt from Canvas Flying, Seagulls Crying: the first is that they thought it was bloody brilliant; the second, more plausibly, is that their feature writer has gone on leave. Look out for it on the shelves of all good newsagents from Jan 7th. Smarm.

bloody brilliant...

bloody brilliant…

At the grand age of about 70, Mary has cut a few peats in her time. It’s a calendar event in the Hebrides. Islanders go out ‘onto the moss’ to dig peat in the spring for burning during the long winter’s nights ahead. I’d gone along to see how it was all done under the pretext of being there to help. So it was embarrassing that whenever I grunted from exertion I’d hear Mary’s sympathetic voice in the vicinity of my backside as I bent over my work:

Are ya knackered, Chustin? …Eh?  Are ya buggered?

Mary and Linda

Mary and Linda

Her son, John – about my age – was cutting the peats like a perpetual-motion machine …sending them flying up from his ditch to land heavily on the bank. From deep in the bog I heard his voice confirming the worst:

Aye – you’re knackered boy …you’re knackered.

John, holding a tsgeir.

John, holding a ‘tsgeir’.

With that they both leant heavily on their tools and turned toward me with a pitying look -wondering, perhaps, whether it might not be kinder to have me put down. Eventually their expressions softened and I knew they’d spare me. Never-the-less, they continued to gaze for a while – an Englishman holding a fork, standing in a Hebridean bog being something of a novelty for its own sake.

I don’t mean a ‘fork’ – in the Hebrides it’s known as a ‘g-r-r-rip’.

In a completely uncalled-for act of generosity they gave us thirty sacks of peat and there was absolutely nothing we could do to refuse them: We don’t NEED them, we insisted. ‘But your GETTIN them! John said, raising his voice.

Bearing in mind that Mary’s head had spent the morning a couple of feet from my bum it gave me a hell of a shock, when we’d all got back home and my hand fell into my lap whilst drinking tea, to discover that the gusset of my trousers had a huge hole. Let’s be honest – when I say ‘hole’, there was actually no ‘trouser’ …just that folded seam which is meant to hold the two legs together. A moment later I remembered I’d fallen out of love with wearing underpants six months earlier, preferring to go commando. It dawned on me that poor Mary would not have been able to avoid having both an intimate and prolonged examination of my reproductive equipment – swinging like the hammer in a bell as I worked – and getting to know it all far better by the end of the day than I knew it myself. I flushed with horror – first hot, …then cold. I looked over at Mary who paused as she raised her teacup. She looked at me, held my gaze, then winked.

Linda and I have come ashore now for a couple of months. I’m nervously looking forward to having a hot bath …’looking forward’ because I haven’t had one for a while; ‘nervous’ because if I get into difficulties – will the coastguard think to look for me this far inland?

…thanks, Dr. Sandy

I went on a walk four years ago when we were living in the Hebrides which bloody nearly killed me. Mentally, I’m not quite over it yet. The difference between walking in the Hebrides and walking in, say, Cornwall – where we’re living now, on board our boat – is that if your spirits flag and you begin to fall behind, in Cornwall you can slip into a coastal hostelry for a restoring pint – or if you’re on a low-alcohol diet, a cup of coffee in cafe with steamy windows – before having a quick pee and heading back out to catch everyone up …whereas if you lag behind in the Hebrides, your a dead man.

I'm scared of heights and like to travel with my medical team. Drs. Sandy and Chris, together with Nurse Linda.

I like to travel with my medical team Dr. Chris (l) Dr. Sandy (m),  Nurse Linda (r) ….together with a mountain rescue dog in case we become separated and it begins to snow.

I bought some straw bales last week. I’m not a very good at buying straw. The bales required for building (did I mention we’re building a straw bale house?) need to be bound so tightly that you’d struggle to push your fingers under the baler-twine, your finger tips turn white, and when you attempt to lift them they’re so heavy – and you unused to dealing in agricultural quantities – that the bales pull you off balance throwing you face down in the dung. It gives the farmer something to chortle at – for which purpose he excuses himself and tells you he’s got to go …back up the ‘ouse a minute.

The bales I bought weren’t like that, though. I could float my arm freely in the space under both strings and when I braced my feet to lift the bale – 1 – 2 – 3 heave, it was so light it shot over my head, dislocating my arm in the process. It’s still hanging in the rafters now (the bale, I mean) – we tried poking it with a stick.  In my embarrassment I pretended the bales were ideal and gave him a £200 deposit. The farmer supplies Waitrose with free range eggs. Did you know he has to write the date on 3000 eggs every day, and then paint a little tractor on them?

Off Grid

Living Off-Grid

Linda and I are living off grid.

Now that I come to work out for how long we’ve lived off grid I feel quite proud: it’s not many people who can claim to have lived without electricity for fifteen percent of their lives.  Well, ignoring two-thirds of the world’s population, I mean.

I’m going to be perfectly honest with you – I was hoping that all this greeny eco-living would be brought firmly to an end with our Straw Bale house and that we’d supply it with real electricity. But in order to get mains power – it turns out – we’d have to run a cable underground through a field belonging to the Bath & Wells Diocese (Crosses himself). B & W strenuously champion two causes: Enabling affordable housing; and Raising money to repair the crumbling fabric of their buildings. After battling with their emotions they decided that crumbling buildings were the things closest to their hearts and asked us for £5000 (plus costs) so they could repair some, in exchange for which they’d allow us to dig a trench and then fill it up again, thus ‘enabling’ our house. You can buy a lot of solar panels for five thousand quid.

We’re falling into a similar trap with our mains water – but let’s not go there. Let’s not go there isn’t really one of my expressions – but my Mum uses it a lot. So do two-thirds of the world’s population …but let’s not go there.

In a week or two’s time we’ll hear whether or not we have got our planning permission. Did I mention that we are building a straw-bale house? We were at the plot the other day and our nearest neighbour on the other side of the lane, who has lived in his house for 45 years, came over and introduced himself with the words “I’ve been in favour of this from the beginning, you know?”; forcing us to contrast him with our nearest neighbour on our side of the road who moved in last Tuesday and who has listed his objections in a letter to the planning authority which runs for eight pages.

I know that one of you kind folks has mentioned my book Canvas Flying, Seagulls Crying in a blog or something because sales on Amazon have been soaring. Relatively speaking. Thank you.

Irish Harbour Can I ask you to hold off buying presents for your family for about two weeks? In two weeks’ time I’ll be announcing a promotional price reduction from £48 to £39.95 (inc p+p) for my Limited-Edition Fine-Art Prints.

In my gallery you’ll find an image suitable for every member of your family …and if you can’t, why not surprise them by giving them an image you know they won’t like?

If you’d like to pre-order a piece of artwork today for delivery in about two weeks visit the gallery, fill out your delivery address on the order form, and insert the words justin tyers blog in the message field –  you won’t be charged any money now, and we’ll know it is to be charged at the promotional price when we send it.

If your loved-one just isn’t into works of art – but owns a dog, or a cat – what about some straw?

Justin

I’ll blow your house down…

We’ve been given fair warning, illustrated by that folklore tale, but we’re going to build a house made from bales of straw. It’s official now because we’ve just spent £385 applying for planning permission – and we don’t chuck that kind of money about easily.

I’ve spent the last few months researching straw bale houses, and doing all the drawings. If you can buy your bales dry, it seems, and keep them dry, then plaster them in lime mortar, there is no reason why they shouldn’t last for between 100 and 200 years.

What about fire? No problem, ‘traditional’ concrete-block built housing schemes are starting to incorporate straw bale walls every so often as a fire break. Flames just can’t get through the buggers.

Rats? They’re not attracted to the bales because there are no seed heads. And they won’t  gnaw through the lime to make runs because the lime is so caustic.

Here is an artist’s impression of the house we hope to build. It incorporates a ‘studio’ underneath in which this particular artist can continue to fail to make an impression. Hurry – you have until the early days of October to object to it.

Artist's Impression

Artist’s Impression

Just a thought… next year, right? …if you’d like to learn how to build a straw bale house …or to teach us how to do it …we’d be extremely grateful for your help. Or guidance.

Since May we have been living back on board our sailing boat and on one memorable occasion, as we walked along the low water beach, Linda found the world’s biggest Oyster. She thought it was a stone, at first.

It weighed just over a kilo.

It weighed just over a kilo.

Fortunately for the Oyster Linda doesn’t eat Oysters so she popped it back where she found it. Unfortunately for the Oyster I saw where she put it. It was delicious.

Here in Cornwall, in the words of Coleridge, summer has set in with its usual severity. Never-the-less, we’re enjoying it very much between showers, and have even made in-roads into the sanding and varnishing jobs we neglected for so long. People are beginning to recognise the old girl: they motor up to us calling out “Is this the boat that featured in Phoenix from the Ashes?” We tell them coyly that it is …slipping-in that there is a second book out …copies of which we happen to have on board …then we tell them that we will let them have a copy if they can match our generosity by letting us have nine quid. I know it’s shameless – but the way we look at it is that every book we can sell is another straw bale for our house.

If you’d like to buy us a straw bale for our house you can order them from Amazon, or even better get a signed one – perhaps including a dedication for a friend – direct from my website. Or you can send us a straw bale – mark the back of the envelope ‘Radio 4 straw bale appeal’.

Thank you.

 

Devils on horseback

Other Places

Other Places – Linda and Justin are leaving…

I’m beginning to get interested in horse-riding again.

Of course, it’s good exercise …get’s you out and about and all that – but I’ve had some of my best laughs whilst riding.

Take the time we lived on Exmoor and my mucker Steve came down for the weekend with his family. We all booked a ride and were issued with our horses and because Steve is such a big chap he got a big horse; lucky boy. I can still remember his face as he looked up at it for the first time; he didn’t say anything but you could see the thought-bubble: Oh my f–king god …and knew he was in for two hours of hell. We all did really, and that was enough to start me off. Laugh? …and the ride hadn’t even begun yet! Talk about value-for-money…

Steve very bravely mounted his horse with the help of a three-stage ladder we borrowed from a passing fire truck, and from atop the beast we heard him call down to ask the name of his horse …I think he wanted to get on ‘first name’ terms with it; You’re on ‘Fury’; the girl called back up to him, using her hands as a hailing trumpet. I watched the colour drain from Steve’s face – there was another really good belly laugh right there – but I daren’t let it out …I was in pain with trying to keep it in. Never mind Steve – I wasn’t sure how much of this I could take. The ride started and we hadn’t gone very far before we noticed that Steve was missing …so we turned back and found him and one-half his horse – the other half was stuck in a Beech hedge, browsing. Steve was pulling on the reins in a half-hearted sort of a way, pleading with it to come away, but he wasn’t being sufficiently assertive because he didn’t want to make it angry.

We put Steve at the front for a bit, after that, where we could keep an eye on him but, bite-by-bite, the horse fell back to last place. It was heartbreaking, really, to know that Steve had paid good money for this, but wasn’t having a lovely time. As for the rest of us, we were thriving!

When he failed to turn up at a gate half an hour after that I turned back and found him about a mile behind – horse in hedge, again. Steve seemed pleased to see me after so long – though I think he would have been pleased to see anyone …bit of company, like: Yoost, come and give me a hand, mate. He said, using my nickname and getting all chummy. I thought he was doing terribly well not to get cross with me, considering I was biting my lip so hard it was bleeding.

Then came an awful roaring noise from further along the track, which startled his horse. Two youths on motocross bikes were coming along the lane, full-pelt, spiralling up the dirt in their wake. Steve’s horse bolted, it’s eyes, I noticed as it galloped past, were as round as saucers. And then, blow me down, I noticed that Steve’s eyes were as round as saucers too …and seeing both heads wearing identical expressions, mounted one on top of the other, is one of my most treasured memories. You can’t buy memories like that, And at twenty quid with a horse ride thrown-in – you can’t very well go wrong.

Anyway, this is as a prelude to saying that having lived for eight lovely years in the Hebrides, we are moving back down south to where we come from – to Exmoor. We’ll be living back on board until the autumn, but we’re in the process of buying a plot, on which we are going to build a straw bale house. I hope to God a horse doesn’t eat it.

Living in the Hebrides has been wonderful:

It is not a garment I cast off this day, but a skin I tear with my own hand. (Khalil Gibran)

The view we will no longer have...

The view we will no longer have…