Sunday, 22 May 2016

Demolition Man

Question: how many men does it take to demolish a solid stone wall which has been standing since the 1760s? Answer: about half a day.  Oh yes, our long-awaited renovation project is now well under way with our amazing farmer-cum-builders working like Trojans to construct our fabulous new kitchen.  We are still very much at the “bashing it all up” stage, as my three year old likes to call it (“Daddy, why are those men bashing up the house?”) and for most of this week the whole house has been precariously balanced on what to all intents and purposes looks like a rusty old bit of pipe. Also, it’s amazing what you can learn about a house from ripping it apart with a 20lb sledgehammer and a pneumatic jack hammer. Turns out our predecessors were forerunners of the upcycling movement, using old fertiliser bags directly on the bare earth in place of damp course (I kid you not) or perhaps (much more likely) didn’t care so much for conventional building rules, given that there are absolutely no foundations to speak of in the old part of the house. But given that it’s been standing now for over 250 years facing a beating from the toughest of winters, we’re not overly concerned. These Welsh farmers knew a thing or two about building a house I reckon.

They don't make houses like they used to

Whole house balanced on a rusty pipe
My husband has got stuck right in to all of this demolition work too, shovelling debris, barrowing stones and enthusiastically engaging in all of the general head scratching and chin rubbing that is all part and parcel of the building experience, his work trousers at half-mast and his arse crack proudly hanging out.  And after only a couple of weeks of heavy lifting, manly grunting, exaggerated belching and crude jokes he was pronounced to have been accepted as ‘one of the boys’, much to his amusement and delight. These builders are fuelled on a pure diet of instant coffee, chips and Hobnobs and each lunchtime my husband is duly dispatched to the local chippy to collect supplies. They now know him by name down there and I think we have tripled their profits in the past fortnight. It’s one of the things that they never tell you about embarking on a renovation project: your healthy, ‘self-sufficient’ diet will go to rat shit.

One of the boys...
Not least because we don’t have a kitchen. Now you would think that being married to a survival expert and having delusions of self-sufficient grandeur, the small matter of not having a kitchen wouldn’t make us bat an eyelid. You’d think we’d be purifying stream water through old socks and burying a home-grown beast in an underground pit oven every night to feast upon wouldn’t you? The reality I’m afraid is rather more mundane. We’ve set up our living quarters in three rooms downstairs and have a microwave, a toaster, a kettle and a camping stove at our disposal. We planned the work to happen in early summer fully imagining being able to spend all of our time and meals outside, just coming in to sleep. Of course it was blisteringly hot (for Wales) on the first day and since then has pissed down relentlessly. And so I find myself holed up with two kids, a hobbling dog (who has fractured his little toe not, as you might expect, on some valiant ascent of a remote Welsh hill, but rather catching a ball in a manicured London park) living, working, eating and sleeping in the same room.

Sounds hellish doesn’t it. But actually, we are really rather enjoying it. It feels a bit like we are on holiday, and therefore all holiday rules apply right? Ice cream mid-week, red wine with evening emails, the odd cheeky takeaway and trips to the local farm shop for ‘no-cook-eat–with-your-hands' deli delights, watching telly in bed (well it’s right there, rude not to). It also makes locating ones’ children a hell of a lot easier because they are right there. Not careering about upstairs getting up to Christ knows what or sneaking off into the office to muck about on our swirly chairs and graffiti all over the whiteboards. No, they are right under your nose. And amazingly, we are surviving on a skeleton toy box. It’s remarkable what you can do with a few dried up felt tip pens, some old bog rolls and a bit of tuppaware. It just goes to show that you don’t need boxes and boxes of toys and games, just a little creativity and a bit of the good old Blitzkrieg spirit goes a long way. That said, I think I might poke my right eye out before this is done if I have to read the same story book every night for the next three months (especially as that one book happens to be a slightly strange Dr Seuss, which I now feel is giving me subliminal messages I have read it so often). On that note, for any of you familiar with the oeuvre of Julia Donaldson (of Gruffalo fame), after the past couple of weeks we feel like the living incarnation of A Squash and a Squeeze … Our house is going to feel pretty big once we get the full run of it again.

Our house is beginning to feel pretty big

I can see the novelty soon wearing off however. The charm of having your kids share a room for the first time and chatter and giggle each other to sleep each night soon becomes a right  pain in the arse when, faced with a lack of blackout curtains and a west facing room, bedtime becomes closer to 9pm than 7pm. There is also the small issue of washing up the aftermath of an entire family’s three meals in a tiny hand basin, not to mention the lack of a shower or a bath. We have resorted to baby wipes in place of showers and strategically timed trips to the local swimming baths. Not ideal when one of us is labouring all day, one of us is shovelling shit out of the never-ending heap of manure, Sisyphus-like, at every available opportunity and the other two delight in daubing each other in food and/or mud all day long.  We’ve also been cadging meals and baths with our wonderfully understanding and tolerant friends on the promise that they can come and help us toast our new kitchen once it’s finished.  One small mercy is that the builders have taken pity on me and plumbed my washing machine in under piles of old insulation and kitchen units in the barn. A last bastion of civilisation and cleanliness before we descend completely into feraldom. If I can actually find it that is.

My washing machine is in here somewhere...

What this whole experience is fast giving me is a new found respect for my parents who lived in a static caravan for nine months when we were growing up and they were renovating their house (yeah, yeah cue the trailer trash jokes). I’ve been doing this for less than two weeks and feel like a complete hero. They were at this for the best part of a year and through the winter. I look back on those days fondly and as part of one big adventure. I hope we will do the same. It has been a lot of fun so far but maybe ask me again in a month!

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