Starting the Cottage reveal

So, when I redesigned the blog I promised some more posts about the cottage.  Let’s start with some background about the house before I move on the details.

We don’t know exactly how old the cottage is, but neighbours tell us it was probably built sometime in the early nineteenth century so could be up to 200 years old.

Back then this valley was radically different to the quiet, peaceful place it is today. In the nineteenth century it would have been a hive of heavy industry, with quarries and mines fuelling the industrial revolution. These days, you can still see the remains of some of the old villages, the forges and tramways that were used to transport the iron to the outside world. This is the landscape where Alexander Cordell based his novel Rape of the Fair Country, charting the hardship of life in these communities and the increasing tensions between the ironmasters and trade unionists.

Keeper's Pond
‘The Tumble’ road to Blaenavon goes over the Blorenge or Iron Mountain – one of Wales’ steepest climbs and now a popular cyclist route
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Keeper’s Pond on the very top of the Blorenge – built in the 19th century to provide water for Garnddyrys Forge
Gilwern quarries
Gilwern Hill limestone quarries

I talk about the ‘cottage’ in the singular, but actually the house started life as two small semi-detached cottages. You can just see in the picture that it looks like we have numerous front doors.

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View of the cottage from down in the garden
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One of the front doors from January 2014, by this time the door was so swollen and warped it was stuck fast and refused to open

The cottages had gardens to the front and shared a well for their water (which is still there although pretty silted up – take a look at the picture below – not sure I would have wanted to navigate those steps every day). At the back there were pig sties which still remain, although they’re in need of some restoration too. The cottages sat – and still sit – surrounded by fields, and were originally part of a larger neighbouring farm.

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Steps down to the ‘dip well’
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The back of the cottage 2014, after we’d chopped down a mass of blackthorn – the pig sties are down there somewhere…
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There they are! One of the two pig sties in a pretty bad way – but you can see the opening for the pigs and the outline of the stone walled open area

We know the cottages were occupied until the early twentieth century but then laid empty for some fifty years. In the early seventies the then owners the rescued them from near ruin and – turning them into a single cottage for the first time – renovated them with a pretty light touch. I think it would have been at this point that the cottage got its first electricity, but as there’s no gas main out here, heating came from a  solid fuel Rayburn installed into the kitchen. The same Rayburn that forty years later we’d come to battle with – unsuccessfully. Importantly though, they maintained the bones of the place – the flagstone floor in the dining room, the open beamed ceiling between the two floors, the tiny winding stone staircase that curves behind the fireplace.

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The Rayburn which we struggled with daily for six months
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The old stone staircase winds round the back of the fireplace – you can also just see the old bread oven in the side of the fire

When we bought the cottage two years ago, the time had come for a little updating. After forty years, the electricity needed rewiring and we decided to install some central heating. Both big jobs. We also wanted to install a kitchen as the previous one was freestanding and had been moved with the previous owners, leaving us with just a sink unit in the corner. The bathrooms also needed some updating.

So, now you’ve seen some of pictures from back when we moved in, let’s start on the before and afters! What would you like to see first?

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A Taste of Autumn – Elderberry Vodka

1Autumn has very definitely arrived here in the valley. There is a real chill in the air and the leaves are coming down thick and fast. A few weeks ago we spotted some berries on our elder tree and as we (once again) missed the window for making elderflower cordial this year, decided to see whether we could use the berries instead.

The Internet doesn’t throw up that many suggestions for elderberry use and where it does it tends to come with a warning about tartness and bitterness. Given a long soak in some vodka and s healthy amount of sugar however, it seems you can make a very nice liqueur. The first winter we moved here evenings would consist of damson vodka in front of the fire listening to records and trying not to panic as we contemplated the very long list of ‘things to do in the house and garden’. So while fruit-based liqueurs will always have a mild taste of DIY-induced anxiety about them to me, I thought it would be good to try some home-made , home-grown elderberry vodka.

This recipe is courtesy of master forager Andy Hamilton, as found on the Guardian website, but all mistakes are entirely my own. Find more foraging and brewing recipes in his Booze for Free book.

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Identify your elder tree. We have one elder growing in front of the house; it’s half rotten from the base  (on the other side of this wall above) but still produces a glorious crop of frothy white elderflower each year. If you manage to refrain from picking the flowers – or like us, forget to – then in autumn you’ll be rewarded with hundreds of small purple berries hanging down in batches.

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Pick your berries. You’ll need 800ml elderberries which was just a small proportion of what was available on our one tree.

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Once picked, you need to strip the berries off their stalks. This is the messy part and your hands will turn a pretty purple colour, and you will still be finding runaway berries over your floor days later. We weren’t super fussy about whether some tiny bits of stalk got in with the berries as it all gets strained anyway.
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Once you have your 800ml elder berries it’s time to choose your vodka. You’ll need a standard 750ml bottle for this purpose. We had a bottle of Chase English Potato Vodka in the cupboard which I bought last year after I attended a hedgerow cocktail tutorial they ran at the Abergavenny Food Festival. Potatoes might seem an unusual choice to make vodka, but read their story and try some – I’m by no means vodka connoisseur but this is smooth and creamy.

Spoon your berries into a sealable jar. I used a 2 litre Kilner jar with a clippable lid. Pour 730ml vodka on top of the berries. Take the peel of half a lemon with as little pith as possible and put this in the jar. Seal. Drink your remaining 20ml vodka in a form that pleases you as reward for your foraging skills.

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Store your jar in a cool dark cupboard, shaking every week, for around 3 months. After this time you’ll need to strain the berries. I haven’t got to this part yet, but I’d suggest using a muslin cloth in a funnel over a bowl. Again, it sounds messy. Your aim here is to extract as much flavour from the berries whilst leaving behind the skins, stalks, lemon peel etc.

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Now you need to add your sugar. Here’s where Andy Hamilton suggests quantities are down to personal preference regarding how tart/sweet you like your drinks. The old adage of ‘you can always add, but you can’t take away’ applies. Start with 50g, but he suggests you can go up to a ‘shameful’ 200g. I’ll let you know what we go with when we get to this stage in January.

8At this point, you’ll want to ‘bottle’ your vodka. You can always keep and reuse the same bottle you’ve just emptied, or for aesthetic purposes you can decant your liqueur into a fancy flip-top bottle. Spoon (you might need to use the funnel again here) your sugar into the bottle and pour the vodka over the top. Shake.

Store your newly strained, sugared vodka for a further 2 months, remembering to shake every week. After this time your elderberry vodka is ready to drink, but can be kept in your sealed bottle maturing nicely with age. Get the fire going, put a record on and enjoy!

Find more foraging and brewing tips from Andy Hamilton on his website The Other Andy Hamilton.

New Melin Tregwynt catalogue

Whilst others hang out for the latest Toast collection, it’s the new Melin Tregwynt catalogue landing in the post that gets me excited. Beautifully designed Welsh tapestry fabric made into blankets, throws, cushions or available by the metre. There’s a new collection for autumn 2015, ‘Patrwm Patagonia’, inspired by the story of the pioneers from Wales who settled in South America 150 years ago and set up new Welsh-speaking communities which exist to this day.

However, it’s the St David’s Cross design that I really love. This reversible design is an historic pattern, based on eighteenth century Shaker design. You might remember the curtains I was planning, ooh, almost one year to the day ago now? Well, being nothing if not indecisive, I’m still planning. With winter coming however, I’m feeling a bit of pressure to now get these sorted.

So, I have two windows that need covering, both full-length French windows. For the first one in our living room, I’m planning something quite neutral in greys as we have a few big splashes of colour from a footstool and cushions already, so the St David’s Cross in Silver would be ideal in there:

For the second French door though I’m looking for something a bit more colourful. This is in our dining room and has replaced an old solid stable door that was so warped with damp that it didn’t open. We put in a glass door and the light now floods in. It does get a bit cold though in winter when you sit at the table with your back to it, so it needs a curtain to keep the heat in. The rest of the room is pretty neutral, so it can take some colour. I’m thinking of the St David’s Cross in this red colourway:

Just look how good it looks in ‘real life’ i.e. if I had a beautiful old oak settle:

Now all I have to do is get the fabric ordered and made. Stay tuned (don’t hold your breath).

All pictures: Melin Tregwynt

Holiday to-do list – an update

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Mowing paths in the field

Holidaying in Wales in July is always going to be dicey weather-wise. All this green doesn’t happen by accident. And rained it has, not every day, but probably half the time we were here. Still, we had a great two weeks in the cottage and garden, getting on with projects and taking some time to explore more around the area than we usually have opportunity to do during the weekends.

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Chimneys and blue skies from the back of the house

But, how did I get on with the to-do list I so optimistically posted at the start of the holiday?

  1. Weed large bed of ground elder doom – spectacular fail on this one. Not only did I not weed it but the weeds are now literally laughing at me every time I walk past.
  2. Try at least two new walks in the area Done! We had a number of fantastic walks including a great 6 miler around Talybont on Usk reservoir, ending up for lunch and a tremendous selection of real ales at the Star Inn. We also did an extremely wet (did I mention the rain?) walk up Table Mountain, just outside Crickhowell, where we were dry for approximately 10 minutes of a 3 hours walk. Ordinarily there would be spectacular views from the top but not that day.
  3. Try out kayaking on the river Wye Done! We hired a two man Canadian kayak from Wye Valley Canoes in Glasbury and did a 5 mile kayak down the Wye to Hay. They then pick you up so you don’t have to do the hard bit and paddle upstream, and transport you and your kayak back to base where we had a lovely lunch at their River Cafe next door. Thanks to Jane and her labrador for the lift! We’re now planning our next, longer outing on the river.
  4. Deadhead flower beds  Done! Admittedly this was a quick and easy one, but a nice meditative pastime to tidy up the flower beds.
  5. Cut back geraniums  as experiment to see whether they reflower Done! Zero signs of regrowth so far.

So, not bad really and the ground elder bed was always going to be a long term project. The Mexican Marigolds I sowed back in spring are now coming on well, after being really slow to germinate I have around 5 decent plants to go in and hopefully zap the ground elder with their noxious smelling roots. That’s the theory anyway, I’ll keep you posted.

Now it’s back to work and just being here at weekends, trying to get things done. We have a few nice milestones in the diary coming up though – Green Man in just three weeks time. Anyone else got ways to get through the post-holiday blues?

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Pinks and purples

Hallway

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In my obsession with the garden, I realised I haven’t shown any recent pictures from inside the cottage. The renovation works are now all complete and we’re now living in a fully finished, furnished house.

This weekend we had a rainy day indoors, cleaning and doing some of the final finishing touches. Among other things, we put up these two photographs in the hallway. If you squint closely enough there are two black and white photos of the abandoned Denbigh asylum in North Wales, close to where I grew up. It was always a cautionary tale, a threat: ‘carry on like that and you’ll be taken to Denbigh’. I’m ashamed to say that it seemed to be locally known – among us kids at least – as the ‘nuthouse’.

The asylum was built in 1848 as the first of its kind in North Wales. Previously, Welsh-speaking patients were sent to English asylums. The hospital treated patients until it started to close in the 1990s. You can read a fascinating history of it at The Time Chamber. These days there has been considerable fire damage and vandalism and, as a result of the neglect, the site has been compulsorily purchased by the council, which is being appealed by the current owners.

Choices, choices…traditional Welsh tapestry fabrics

When I said there wasn’t going to be any decision overload about window ‘dressing’ in my last post, I could have been lying. Whilst we’ll have shutters on all the windows throughout the cottage, there are two french doors that need a little something else. Feeling that shutters on doors isn’t such a great look (ours are solid shutters, not plantation style) but knowing that despite the double glazing it WILL still be cold by them, I’m planning on full length curtains.

I’d like them to be a little different however, so rather than just plain upholstery fabric I’ve been looking at the traditional fabrics made here in Wales. The woollen mills of West and North Wales have long been famous for their weaving and tapestry-style fabrics, and over the last ten years there’s been a fantastic renaissance for these styles, led by Melin Tregwynt and their spotty fabrics. Before all that however, when I was growing up in North Wales it seemed you couldn’t visit an elderly relative’s house without seeing a set of tapestry table mats.

It was in one of Under The Thatch’s cottages that I got the idea for using this fabric as curtains. Blaen y Buarth is a traditional little cottage high up near Penmachno, Gwynedd. One of the (many, many) amazing elements of their very stylish interior was a set of long, full length curtains to um, curtain off a set of stairs that led straight up from the kitchen to an open bedroom above.

Photo thanks to Under The Thatch

I’d really like to stick with something fairly traditional and given that our cottage’s predominant colour so far is grey (grey flagstones, dark grey walls, light grey walls…) I’d like to warm it up a bit with something that most definitely isn’t grey. I’ve been looking through some of the mills’ websites, and have come up with the following options which I can now torture myself with.

Melin Tregwynt’s St David’s Cross designs – all reversible, thereby doubling the decision making in one swoop:

Next up is Melin Tregwynt’s Knot Garden, again reversible:

And finally, Melin Trefriw’s tapestry fabrics, once again back and front,

Preparing for autumn

As part of our house renovations we were keen to weather-proof the cottage in preparation for autumn and winter. Whilst the front of the cottage faces south and so gets the sun most of the day, the gable end bears the brunt of all the wind and rain that comes down the valley. As a result, the single glazed, wooden windows on that end were completely rotten through. There was a little insulation in the roof but not much. Our thick stone walls keep the cottage cool during the hotter months, but seem to suck up and radiate the cold during winter. Having been so cold this winter that a balaclava in bed started to look like a tempting option, we knew we had to take steps to make sure the house was a warm and cosy as possible.

Heating pre-August – the wood burning stove
Heating pre-August – the Rayburn

As I blogged before, all the windows needed replacing. Whilst the prevailing vernacular in Wales seems to be for PVC windows (I can say that, I’m from here – okay?) it wasn’t passing my threshold so we choose timber. Painted. I know – that wind and rain that comes down the valley? I’ve made peace with the maintenance and upkeep that’ll be required. Small price versus the horrors of PVC.  On top of the windows we have solid shutters that are in the process of being made at the moment. In addition to removing the decision making overload that ‘dressing’ every single window (Blinds? What style? Curtains? Lining? Interlining? Pleat top? Pencil pleat?) would have brought, the shutters will also provide another layer of insulation when closed.

New window, not yet finished…

I’ll discuss our central heating system another time as it transpires a plant room has had to be built (for plant room read: shed on back of house) to contain the upgrades to the water supply required to power the heating. It’s all quite technical and likely of very little interest to those not directly benefitting from the heat it’ll provide, so I’ll just say – radiators! Radiators that turn off and on at the switch of a button! No more wrestling with the Rayburn and it’s many moods first thing in the morning, throughout the day, 3am at night…

A radiator, September

There is an exciting element to the central heating system though – because we’re not at the cottage all week we needed an ability to remotely control the heating to respond to changes in the weather and to ensure it was working as efficiently as possible. So, for example, I can leave the heating off all week to avoid heating an empty house, but ensure it’s warm for when I arrive on a Thursday night. Or if we get a sudden cold spell, I can either switch on the frost control setting or bump up the temperature a few degrees. After more research and internet time than is strictly healthy, I’ve gone for British Gas’s Hive system. Last weekend our plumber installed it, so I’m hoping for a bit of cold weather this weekend so I can try it out. Update to be provided, no doubt.

Finally, to make sure the heat we’re producing stays where it’s meant to, we’ve upgraded the amount of insulation in the roof. We now have 300mm sheeps’ wool lining the loft, like a giant cosy rug above our heads.

A room full of insulation