Update on Work in Progress (aka Our New, Old House)

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Update on Work in Progress (aka Our New, Old House)

Omdurman HouseOmdurman House PlaqueBattle of Omdurman

Part One – Shedding Inhibitions

When we moved into our new house, what struck me initially was the state of the sheds in the courtyard area. The walls were made of breeze block and the roof of crumbling asbestos. My wife thought we should knock them all down, to open up the area. I thought that was a bad idea as it would leave the neighbours staring down into our backyard and their young child able to crawl over the resulting wall, possibly dropping into ours unexpectedly. Naturally I vetoed that.

We found someone who specialised in asbestos removal as apparently you need a licence to dispose of it because it is hazardous material. The roof was duly ripped off and a replacement metal one tacked on instead.

Before all this could happen though, I had to clear out all the sheds of their contents. One of the three, interconnected sections was easy as all it contained was material we had bought from our old place, in the way of tools and shelves. Even the second wasn't too bad - a workshop area will built in shelves and saw bench. I struggled for ages to remove the latter but in the end I had to give up and the roofer said he'd just have to work round it.

The middle section of the 'L' shaped trio was anything but easy to deal with. It was a hellish mess of sawdust and pine cones, hiding about a dozen tree trunks of various widths and lengths underneath, plus twenty branches, mostly ash and geans (wild cherry) from the looks of it.

Also buried under this lot were three mice nests, stinking out the sawdust with urine; there must still have been at least one in the area because when I entered the tool shed section during that winter, it had partially chewed the top off, of a plastic tub made of cellulose. Discovering this made me wish that I had taken the humane mouse trap we had in the old place as it had successfully trapped a sorry looking wretch that had crawled under the garage door.

I tried getting rid of some of the pine cones by throwing them on the fire but they didn't burn well, being damp, so I shovelled them into a bin along with the sawdust, filling one or two garden waste containers over a fortnight.

Buying myself an electric saw, I chopped up most of the branches into lengths that would fit in the multi-fuel stove, then set about demolishing the trunks with a wedge-shaped log splitter. Some of these were easier to break up than others as they were suffering from dry rot (not all the sawdust was sawdust and even stacked up wood in the shed, was crumbly from from rotten with damp and mould). The firewood we did have eventually ran out and we had to buy more in but that is another story.

To get back to the sage of the sheds, I discovered that two of the legs belonging to the bench, were also suffering from dry rot and were as crumbly as hell, just like next doors wood pile. Rod the roofer had cleared out leaves blocking the downpipe and I thought this explained the water in the shed.

Popping round to the side of the house, I found out that the gutters were rusty with added holes here and there, so replaced them with plastic equivalents. I also had to get new fascia board as the plywood beneath had split into layers like puff pastry.

Did this finally fix the water pouring into the shed? No. As background I should mention that the breeze block walls on both sides, were half underground where they met the garden. My next door neighbour suggested I check the drainage pipes on his side as the shed walls butted onto his ground. When I did, I found that the pipe in the soil didn't connect to the fitting above. You could push your fingers through the gap quite easily, so I poured cement into the area behind and voila it was fixed - no more leaks, no more water pouring in like there was a tap in the wall.

I can hardly believe it was like that from when the building went up and nobody fixed it. Years of neglect and a problem solved immediately with a little thought. Still this is the Highlands of Scotland, so reluctance to get frostbite while trying to fix things is completely understandable.

Apart from all that, I painted the shed walls and sealed the concrete floors. I tried a sealant for the walls first but only after I had finished the second coat did I see a notice on the label saying, not to be used below ground.

I put down pallets for stacking the wood, in the woodshed and all was finally set up to work smoothly. The electrics need upgrading at some point as I discovered when dropping one off the pallets which hit the wall and the lights went out but that is a future job.

Part Two – The Garden Of Needing

When I attacked the lawn last year, it was infested with about two hundred Hawkhead plants. Looking down the garden it was like green aerials poking into the sky everywhere. Getting down on my knees to pull them up, I found they were like hard, green, bifurcated plates, crushing the grass below. They almost completely filled a garden waste bin, by the time I had finished. I thanked God (or was it Lidl?) for knee pads I had recently bought. While this was a long and tedious job, worse awaited in the form of Snowberry Bush suckers, which made a sucker out of me.

Years of neglect had allowed them to creep under the lawn as roots, then burst out in various places as whole, new plants or at least that was their cunning plan: When we lived in Kilmarnock, in rented accommodation the same problem occurred with Japanese Knotweed.

Once again I partially filled a brown bin with ripped out roots, dug up with what looked like an ice axe, left by previous occupants of the house. A lot of the roots were feet long and had to be cut into shorter sections, to fit in the bin. It took me a lot of time to find and root out as much of the roots as possible. It was back breaking and pain not rain stopped work on several occasions.

Cutting back the laurels was also a hard task but in a different way. The far end of the garden, where the main bushes grew as a solid hedge, were several feet high, several feet long and several feet wide. Reaching some parts meant stretching and leaning into the hedge, quite a distance. Other bushes on the periphery, were also cut back, revealing other shrubs hidden behind them and bursting out of the top, including a Buddleia.

In another part of the garden I cut back ivy and clematis, growing over our fence, to reveal two, large, plastic planting tubs (a friend also pointed out a bird table, buried so deep in the shrubbery that I had missed it myself: I dug it out, pulled it out of its hiding place, dragged it across the lawn and replanted it closer to the house, where we could at least see the birds using it plus gave it a fresh lick of paint). I also dug up two hydrangeas, struggling to reach the light and also buried in the middle of this free-for-all chaos: they survived the winter but thinking they were dead from the transplant, I uprooted them again, only to find I was wrong and stuck them back in the earth (hopefully they will survive my gardening incompetence but only time will tell).

I didn’t know what else was in the flowerbed parts of the garden but planted primulas in abundance, only to discover other flowers pushing up from under them in places (they died equally in abundance too – see note above about incompetence). I also bought four azaleas, frost killing one totally and damaging two of the others but the fourth flourished because it was sheltered.

Daffodils and other bulbs either burst into bloom or I uprooted them up accidentally. One large clump of something in the middle of the square bed, turned out to be hostas. I found more in the ‘L’ shaped border, in a couple of odd lumps. I have now placed all of these in planters, to replace the winter’s losses. I also bought half a dozen geraniums for a couple of pots and an oblong wooden planter. Sadly they all seem to have succumbed to the frost, although a dwarf rose seems to have survived, despite being frozen to the ground.

One survivor of the ice and snow, I wish hadn’t. It was a rose bush gone mad. Great big branches, ten to twelve feet high, stretching into the sky, no longer attached to the rose arch meant for it. I thought I had killed it last year but fresh red shoots were visible this spring. The cheap option of using an old weed killer spray I found in the shed hadn’t worked. Apparently roses are notoriously hard to kill and after chopping off large chunks of root, it was still breathing (see illustration). I have now purchased stump killer and hopefully this will stunt its growth. I don’t like killing things deliberately but I am pretty good at doing it accidentally it seems.

On the gravel beside the dreaded rose bush, a fine fuzz of seedlings grew. It took me ages to pull them all up as they covered a large area of ground but came out easily as not deep rooted. Equally well-established brambles proliferated but were again nothing compared to one I had to deal with in rented accommodation elsewhere. It used a tree as support and was once more a monster, growing ten to twelve feet high at least. The bramble canes were as thick as my thumb and the roots looked like a gigantic, twisted, gnarly hand – as though out of a Grimm’s fairy tale illustration. Compared to this later rose though, it came out of the ground relatively easily, despite the thorns ripping my old skin to shreds at times.

I needed somewhere to store the larger garden tools and larger items for garden maintenance, including lawnmower, wheelbarrow, strimmer and hedge trimmer. A joiner friend was going to make me a shed for me but was overwhelmed with work, so rather than hang about I ordered one over the internet. Before it arrived, I had to level off the cement paving slabs I wanted it to go on. Previously it had held a sizeable dog kennel, sloped for run-off when cleaning it down I assume. I also purchased a small wooden bunker, to replace the warper plastic one that was beside it, which again we inherited and was used for bikes by the original owners. Strong winds lifted the lid as there was no locking mechanism left in operation and one of the hinges was also broken, which made shutting the top awkward at times. I bought the replacement to store our roof box as I had with the plastic one but unfortunately the top wouldn’t open, only the front and it wouldn’t fit, so in went the wheelbarrow instead.

I have yet to paint these two wooden structures but at least managed to paint the fence and gate last year.

Part Three – This Old House

When we initially moved in, literally the first day, we encountered problems. Our two couches, each of which was at least six to seven feet long, wouldn't go through the door. In the new build house we had just left, we had patio doors, so no worries about getting them in or out. There the stairs were also straight up from the front door - here they ran crosswise in front of you, being a traditional Highlands build. This meant little room for manoeuvre.

The removal guys tried this, then they tried that - all to no avail. One of them suggested going round the back of the house and and coming through the kitchen door. We got it in but then couldn't get it through the living room doorway. This was originally the back door before the kitchen extension was built. It was simply too narrow to go through, so not wanting a gigantic couch in the kitchen, out it went, joining the other on the pavement outside.

The agony wasn't over. Next came the superking bed. It came apart lengthways, not widthways, unlike our smaller, ordinary, king size bed. It went in the guest bedroom no bother. This thing though wouldn't go up the stairs. The removal men tried this, then that - all to no avail. The mattress being bendy might have made it but not the bottom divan, so out it went onto the pavement.

My wife being practical, phoned the local charity warehouse and the men very generously dumped all three items on their way home. I should mention that we knew about it as we had lived here twenty years ago. We watched over the coming weeks as the various bits of furniture sold and disappeared out of our lives forever.

Until new couches could be obtained that would actually fit through the front door, we had to make do with old, rickety chairs. As for the bed it was flat pack, self assembly IKEA, when it was eventually replaced.

Most of the internal work needed skilled tradesmen to upgrade it, from heating to electrics, not a blunderer like me. It was decided though that I could at least replace all the light fixtures in the ceiling.

All the old shades and bulbs were removed and modern, close-fitting lights replaced them. Simple? Not when you had to lean over the bannisters in one case, screwing part of the fitting onto the ceiling, while the rest of it dangled below, suspended by electrical wires.

Naturally because of the precarious situation, the light fell several times when I was trying to complete part two of the screwing together operation. Finally after much swearing it was up. This though was not the end of the story. All the dropping into the stairwell had taken its toll on the wiring and the light flickered on and off all night. New day, new light fixture ordered and back to square one attaching it to the ceiling.

Were the other lights easy to put up? No as the ceiling was traditional lath and plaster, which meant thin strips of wood to screw into. It was hit and miss whether the screws would connect with something solid or thin air, showering you with plaster dust, if not. Even where I was able to fit the screws into previous screw holes, this sometimes meant only one side of the bracket worked and I had to fiddle about to find a solid connection for the other side.

The carpeting was carried out quickly and efficiently. What carpets existed in the house before were mostly old and manky but one decent one still remains in the office. When they came, the creaking of the floorboards went, mostly. The kitchen floor still needs renovating as does the Heath-Robinson piping under the sink. The kitchen cupboard needed repainting as it was yellowed with cigarette smoke and stunk of it too (still does). The spin dryer was located in there but is now in the sheds and out of the way.

The guest bedroom, where we were forced to sleep during the first winter as there was no bed for the other room, was eventually painted by me, with the return of better weather. The main bedroom, office and living room had all been recently painted or with in a good enough state to leave as they were. The hall and landing both need repainting because of all the scuffs from trying to force furniture where furniture didn’t want to go. The kitchen walls also need redoing (too dark a colour) as does the bathroom ceiling, which is peeling and therefore no longer appealing. I painted the outside of the downstairs windows as thy needed another coat and perhaps will do the same this year with the upstairs ones, weather permitting. My wife thinks that all the windows will need replacing at some point and the front door definitely does. All work for professionals or our local go-to man for such carpentry jobs.

I put up the curtain rails in the bay windows – another near disaster. The one in the living room was fine as it was just a case of returning it to there from upstairs, where it had been used in the guest bedroom. However the other one was initially a mess as I bent the rail the wrong way round: cue replacement reordered and bent the right way round this time (noticing a pattern of human error by any chance?).

The built-in multi-fuel stove had its problems. The first year I burnt only wood and it kept going out as the door wasn’t properly sealed. This yearI have used coal as a base and the only thing going out was me for more wood.

So ends this tale of woe. There is nothing more depressing than a problem or series of problems and nothing more satisfying than solving them but the wife said burning it down for the insurance was not the most sensible or trustworthy result, so I didn’t do it. The saga therefore continues.

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