January To May : Many a mickle, makes a muckle

We last published an update in December.  So many apologies for the delay, which has been caused by a mixture of work, travel and generally not getting round to it.  It was also caused by the fact that although an awful lot has been going on, there has been no specific “big event” to write an update around.  So although the house has been a hive of activity, with a large number of people with all sorts of skills and trades spending time “on the hill”, it has really all been about steady progress.  One advantage is that I have finally managed to use in writing, a phrase which has been in my mind for years. I have no idea where I first heard it, but I love it.  And that’s what it all felt like over the past few months – lots of little mickles, making one big muckle…….

For those of you interested, here’s the definition of the phrase about mickles and muckles


Once the body of the building is up, what strikes you is how much manual, fiddly labour is involved in first and second fix, as the shell goes from bare walls to plastered, painted and finished beauty.  This of course takes a long time, but it also requires an inordinate amount of “stuff”.  Every person working on the house arrived with a huge pile of tools and equipment.  The level of dedication, diligence, effort and skill that everyone has shown has been remarkable.  These photos show the level of “stuff” that’s been involved.


I wrote in the last update about the ground source heat pump.  I will admit to being a little worried that, like so many green and environmental initiatives, it would be a lot of work and then wouldn’t work!  Well, it was certainly  a lot of work.  Even once the trenches were built, the plumbing, pipework and general equipment levels were very extensive.   However, once the system was plumbed in and fired up in March in order to start drying out the plasterwork, it certainly proved its worth.   The house became incredibly warm as the underfloor heating kicked in, and as a bonus the heat exchanger and pumps are incredibly quiet and pretty much inaudible.  We also have an advantage in that all the equipment is in a plant room in the basement, which hides it well away and also meant the installation was easier due to the space available. This week Karin and I also had a lesson from the nice guys at isoenergy who installed the system, so we now know how to operate it, deal with emergencies and check the filters.  For those of you who know us, you won’t be surprised to hear that it’s usually Karin who handles things like this, but even I managed to understand the instructions.  I just hope it never actually goes wrong….


And then there’s always a little bit of wiring….


Wooden Wonders – Doors, Stairs and Floors

A really exciting part of recent months has been the fitting of the doors and stairs.  These have somehow really started to bring our home to life.  You may recall in an earlier blog that we wrote about Meer End, the family owned joinery that produced our windows.  We really love their work, and the way they work with us to ensure that we get exactly what we want – so we went to them for the interior doors and staircases too.  The doors are a simple, but relatively modern design in solid oak, and we’ve chosen simple, stainless steel handles.  The doors were all produce in the joinery and then have been fitted to the door frames on site.  We love the colour of the oak as it’s warm and we hope will blend perfectly with the  engineered oak flooring which is being fitted to the ground floor and basement and stained on site to match.


We have three staircases in the house.  The main staircase from the ground to first floor, which is made of concrete and the back staircase from the ground floor to the basement, which will both be encased in wood.  We also have wooden staircases from the first to the second floor, and from the ground to the basement, via the atrium.  It is the latter two which were constructed by Meer End, together with a wood and glass bannister.  We had originally chosen a wire banister, but we suffered from one of the very many restrictive building regulations that we are subject to in the UK.  There is a wonderful website, called houzz, which has thousands of photos of all aspects of houses, from rooms to shelving to doors to banisters. It’s a brilliant resource, but unfortunately uses mainly, although not solely, photos from the US.  The danger with this is that when you choose a beautiful banister which is perfectly legal in the US, you may discover that the small-minded, health and safety tyrants in the UK have decided that such a design is way too dangerous for us British types….  Still, we do love our bannisters and the team at Meer End have done their usual thorough job!


Having lived in the US a couple of times, where hardwood floors are the norm, we have grown to love them – practical, clean, good-looking and robust; come to think of it, that’s how Karin describes me…..  So it was a no-brainer to go the same way for this house – at least for the ground floor and basement as they will have the most use.  Due to the underfloor heating, we had to go with engineered wood.  It looks exactly like a solid wood floor – at least to us – but is actually made of 3 or more layers of real wood with an upper layer of genuine hardwood. Its core strength comes from each layer being stacked in opposite directions, which helps avoid any issues with contraction or expansion, so it can be used in conjunction with underfloor heating.  We went with Elka flooring, due to the quality of the finish and, importantly for us, they are committed to ensuring the majority of the timber they use has a certified chain of custody for the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification® (PEFC), and the rest is from well-managed and sustainable sources.


So, a lot has been going on.  And moving day is getting close!  Karin has booked the movers and we’ve started a big clear out in our current house to get ready for the move.  Can’t wait…..

October to December; the swan

As Karin and I sit here preparing for New Year’s Eve, we thought it would be fitting to end the year with our final blog of 2015.

We’ve titled it the swan, as our ugly duckling of a building site is finally turning into a swan of a home.

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4th October – Still an ugly duckling

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24th December – A swan

It is often said that a person’s eyes are a window to their soul.  In the case of a house, windows bring the vacant expression of a featureless wall to life.  As we’ve mentioned before, we have been very keen to use local, British-based craftsmen and we made no exceptions for the windows.  Karin made her usual, sterling effort to investigate and discover the best person to make our windows and doors, but it was a long task as there is so much choice out there, from the double-glazing cowboys on up.  In the end, the solution was staring us in the face – literally.  We have always really loved the woodwork in our current home, that we moved into in 2001.  Luckily, the first owner left us all the paperwork from when the house was built in 1999, including for the oak doors, staircases and so on.  This was all made by Meer End, a bespoke joinery founded more than 20 years ago and still run and owned by the same family.  They have a wonderful site, near Kenilworth – around 80 miles away – where they design and manufacture high quality doors, windows, staircases, cabinetry and most other types of joinery.

All the team at Meer End are incredibly professional, creative and a pleasure to deal with and were very open to us making several visits and, in particular, letting us see our windows being made.

Sustainability has been an important factor for us and we had worries about the genuine sustainability of the hardwoods we planned to use. For oak we were confident we could get comfortable, but for anything sourced from outside Europe, particularly from rain forests, the claims for sustainability can be somewhat suspect and hard to prove..  For the windows, Meer End are big fans of Red Grandis, which is an engineered, strong, easy to use long-lasting wood and is perfect for windows.  It is a sub species of Eucalyptus and is grown in plantations, primarily now in Uruguay.  It is 100% certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and EUTR compliant.

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Our windows are a mixture of sash, casement and french doors, all double glazed and painted in “pointing”, an off-white that is neutral but warm and goes beautifully with the brickwork.

Visiting Meer End to see our actual windows being made has been a highlight of the build.  We drove up there on a wet day in October, en route to visit our daughter in Edinburgh.  Seeing the progression from cutting, through preparation, sash-weighting and then to painting was marvellous and really helped to bring ownership to our build, even though we are obviously not doing the manual building work ourselves…..

The House on the Hill has turned out to have a lot of glass, one reason being that our current house is quite dark inside, very noticeable in the winter months, and something we are keen to avoid in the future.  So one feature we really love, and which we designed in right from the start, is a roof lantern above the main staircase.  The lantern is again made of wood, double glazed, and measures 5m x 1.6m.  It has now been installed and really works, as light is spread from the top of the house to the ground floor.  Hopefully the self-cleaning glass will work properly……

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The other major element of works has been the installation of the ground source heat infrastructure. As I am sure is well known, the ground acts as a very large store of heat energy and can therefore be used as a heat source. A ground source heat pump is then used to extract heat energy from the ground in winter and to transfer the heat into buildings. It is clean, free of all carbon emissions other than that created in producing the small amount of electricity to run the compressor and the circulation pumps. Installations generally use a borehole or shallow trenches. A well designed ground source heat pump installation should deliver up to four times as much thermal energy as is used in electrical energy to drive the system. As it delivers water at a lower temperature than is commonly used in radiator systems ground source makes an ideal partner for underfloor heating systems.  So, although not cheap and quite complex to install, we like the idea of genuinely renewable energy and very low maintenance with a 50 year life span.  Just in case, we will have an LPG storage tank and boiler installed shortly.

As the House is situated on an eight acre plot, we chose to go with shallow trenches, which are generally cheaper to dig.  Luckily, we were planning to flatten the main paddock in any event, as the trenches turned it into something resembling the Somme!

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Other than that, it’s all been about first fix, plastering and generally a surprisingly quick transformation into the swan, especially once the scaffolding had been taken down.


Our last visit to the house this year on a beautiful, crisp, late December day reminded us why we love the location!

Happy New Year to all from both of us.

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Now the Important Stuff….

All of our posts so far, bar one, have been about The House.  It seems to me that given the progress made to date, it is now time for an update on the important stuff – my garages.

For those of you who have been following for a little while, you may recall that I last wrote about my garages in May – which you can read below if you scroll down.

For some reason, getting planning for the garages was a lot harder than getting it for the house.  We actually applied for out buildings, which pretty much exactly matched the footprint of the building which were already in existence.  Given that we always intended to use standard materials, and the buildings were to be replacements and were not overlooked by anybody, it was never clear to me why the planners found it all so hard. But I guess that’s not a fruitful line of questioning when it comes to anything to do with British local authority activities, let alone planning! So, I won’t dwell on this but will just be grateful that we got planning approval for pretty much exactly what we wanted to build.  I will admit that at one point I was prepared to simply go underground to get the garaging that I wanted, but luckily we never had to resort to that.

It is fair to say that the existing outbuildings, used for cars, garden equipment, wood and horses, had seen better days.  They were poorly constructed and had not been maintained.

As you can see, the buildings were designed for the wrong sort of horsepower, so they definitely needed replacing…..

As you may recall from the earlier post, the design is for four separate buildings, with 13 garages, a tractor store, a wood store (specific requirement of planning!), a gardener’s toilet. storage and an area rather grandly designated the man cave. The construction is concrete base, brick coursework, oak frame, weather boarding and oak doors.  They will be fully insulated and dehumidified. The bricks and tiles are exactly the same as those used for the house.

We knew from the beginning that we wanted traditional oak buildings, so we’d been looking around for some time, primarily at the bigger companies, but hadn’t found anything suitable or remotely sensible value.

One matter to mention here, is that when you start a house building project, you suddenly become part of an enormous, mainly online, community of fellow builders, all of whom seem willing not to just help, but to go out of their way to do so.  Remarkable and truly strengthens one’s faith in human nature.

So at this point we were helped by someone who had built his own garages, and we discovered him through a circuitous route via a journalist that I know who I also follow on twitter. Without going into detail here, let us just say thank you to Stu and Steve for the introduction to  Ben.

Ben is a remarkable oak craftsman who works out of a barn in Essex and is a master of his craft.  It’s been a pleasure to deal with him and he does great work and has created the frames and the doors.


The garage build has gone in parallel, and usually slightly ahead, of the house build.  The outbuildings were cleared, concrete slabs laid and then the walls built by Bob and his merry band of house builders, whilst Ben installed the frames.

We just love the craftsmanship of the oak carpentry, so here’s a few close-ups.

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The build, roofing and so on went pretty quickly, first fix is done and we are now waiting for the doors so that we can get on with final finishes and laying the courtyard.

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Looking forward to getting these finished so I can get my cars all in one place and accessible. Although, right now, there is a small possibility that I have more cars than garage spaces.  I wonder what I did with the plans for the underground parking……

July to September; Kings 6:9

Apologies for the delay since the last post.  It’s been too long but Karin and I have been busy with the house and other things.  So, as we sit here on a Sunday night we thought it was time to write an update.

We have just driven home through a biblical rain storm, which got us thinking about a title for the blog.  Being very knowledgeable about the bible and all things religion – not – I resorted to the holy site of Google to find an appropriate reference for this latest post.  Hence the title, taken from Kings 6:9

“So he built the house and finished it; and he covered the house with beams and planks of cedar”.  Please note, before Karin says something, that in this quote “he” can equally refer to “she”……

Well, the house isn’t yet finished by any means, but we certainly seem to have more than our fair share of beams and planks.  Sometimes it feels like we’re building an ark, not a house…..

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So as you can see, the last blog may have been about concrete and bricks, but this one has the flavour and scent of wood.  Lots of wood!  The brick facade has been built up and the house really started taking shape, as the roof steels went on followed, inevitably of course, by the wood.

The steels required another visit from the crane and the expert crew who made everything look so easy.




The other large quantity of material that came on site, and onto the building, was tile. As with the bricks, we were keen to source locally as far as possible.  After much research, mainly entailing driving round taking photographs of roofs, Karin alighted upon The Tudor Roof Tile Company based in Lydd, Kent.


Tudor was only relatively recently founded in 1986, but with the aim of producing authentic, hand-made tiles. All the tiles are hand moulded and fittings are cut individually from the “lump”. This traditional process, combined with specially developed firing techniques, imparts the unique character to the tiles that we were looking for, mainly that the house was to look established and not brand new.  Hand made product helps us create this look.

The tiles are being used on the roof of course.  Karin also had been trying hard to avoid what seems to have become the standard window sill of stone or simple brick, and she had researched, or “spied and copied”, a different type of window sill made from tiles and bricks.  At every stage of this build we have learned about new techniques or terminologies – and here is another one as the sills required us to use Creasing Tiles, which had no ribs, holes or cambers.  What was a simple idea, turned out to be rather harder than we had thought, at least for one poor bricklayer, Steve, who had to make several trial attempts to get it right before he was satisfied and prepared to sign off the technique, ensuring the windows would sit flush.  But we think it was worth it, as they look perfect in the context of the design and are a little different from the norm.

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The task of getting the tiles onto the roof, then laying them, turned out to be long and time-consuming.  But it was another step that meant the building started to take shape as a house, rather than just a project.



The other feature that started to enable us to see our future home, was something we had been excited about from the beginning – the chimneys.  We have always enjoyed real fires and have suffered from withdrawal symptoms for many years, especially in our current home where we have no real fireplaces at all.  So, from the start, we have planned traditional fireplaces and wood burning stoves. We have therefore ended up with 6 chimneys, which will give Karin capacity for sufficient hearths and cosy scenes on a winter’s evening, and me enough opportunity to satisfy a man’s desire to build fire….  The chimneys that the team have created are works of art, so much so that one is currently featured as the photo on the home page of my iPad. Karin did her usual research and “stealing of ideas” and our faithful architects, nicknamed Frank and Lloyd you may recall, did the rest.  We love the result and they are one of our early, favourite features.

So that all took us to September.  We were lucky with the weather, which was generally warm, sunny and pleasant with very little rain.  This meant that Bob the Builder and his team actually got ahead of schedule, although Karin is reluctant to admit it yet.  The build is now some 60% complete and we’re feeling good.  Fingers crossed.  Can it last???




April to June; The Phoenix….

I guess we’re not quite recreating greek mythology, but after so long in the planning and demolition, it did seem somewhat like a long told myth that something would rise again on our hallowed site, and if not a phoenix, a building would do.

I’m not going to go into a lot of technical talk here about construction materials and practices, however we may do that at the end of the blog.  I’m quite keen myself to know what we’ve used in the build, how much it all weighs and so on.

The house is principally built from breeze blocks, bricks, concrete, timber and a little bit of steel just to hold it all together.

You’ve already seen the tonnes of concrete poured into the foundations.

The ground and first floors are also constructed from concrete, but this time 150mm hollow core concrete slabs, craned into place.  This obviously creates very solid floors and is ideal for the large spans that we have in the house with a pretty open plan design on the ground floor. The fitment was quite a skilled affair, with a bunch of specialists from the sub-contractor spending less than a day on each floor, lifting the slabs in and making them fit. I was very impressed with how quickly and smoothly all this was done and not remotely worried.  I commented on this at one point to the foreman, who quickly told me that this was the first time they had used this flooring technique on a family home, rather than an industrial unit!  That’ll teach me to ask questions.  Best to leave it to Karin, who actually knows what is going on…..

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The staircases to the basement and first floor are also fashioned from concrete.  Built off site, and craned into place but unfortunately we were on holiday when this happened so have no video or photos of it. Clever and quick though, with pins embedded in the concrete just enabling the whole staircase to be picked up easily and dropped into place.

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We certainly can’t forget the faithful and noble breeze block.  Light, cheap, quick, effective and at the core of so many buildings.  Luckily, none will be visible once the house is finished, but I’m delighted to have it there standing solid, strong and silent behind the scenes, making sure everything works and stays together and letting the facing bricks look good and get all the credit.  I was about to write that there are similarities to our marriage there, but thought better of it……

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Which brings me to the bricks.  The planners requested that we use local brick, and we were very keen to do so as bricks made from locally mined clay do much to root a house in its landscape. Often hard to see it specifically, but there is something about the colours and the tones of local materials that just work. I had never thought much about the humble house brick, but when you have to choose, and price, the main construction material for your house, the subject suddenly becomes a little more of interest.  I’ve read a lot about it, and won’t bore you here.  Just worth pointing out, bricks are something else “the Romans did for us!”. If you’re interested, have a look here.  Fascinating!  http://www.brickdirectory.co.uk/html/brick_history.html

So Karin, in her usual thorough and determined way, got stuck in and started researching brick manufacturers, and techniques, grilling poor unsuspecting employees at brick works all over the South East!  We finally chose Bovingdon Bricks, located in the Chilterns and Hertfordshire’s sole surviving brick maker. They have made bricks from locally sourced clay since the 1920’s, mined from a sustainable site. Each brick is hand thrown then fired in a Scotch kiln. The different colours are then blended by hand, and Karin chose “bottom of the kiln, mid-range-multi” bricks.  Two small walls of bricks were built up from different manufacturers to see what they looked like when used in action.  Karin had two sets to choose from.  

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I chose the wrong one.  Was quickly put straight and off we went!

I must admit, all Karin’s research and effort paid off and the hand made bricks, with the brushed pointing, really looks good and just right.

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The other key component at this stage of the build is the insulation.  We aren’t going for a completely sealed house, but are looking for very high levels of thermal efficiency for all the obvious reasons. So we are using a lot, and I mean a LOT, of Cavitytherm’s 100mm Xtratherm cavity fill insulation.

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None of this would have been possible without that other stalwart of building, scaffolding.  In spite of using most of the scaffold pipes in Hertfordshire as far as I can tell. it was all quite elegant.

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So those are the details.  Karin understands it all a lot more than me.  All I know, is that by 30 June, our new home was really starting to take shape and we were 41% complete.  The phoenix is well and truly in flight…

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The Good Life gets even better…

I am writing the next instalment of the The Good Life at the House on the Hill on the day the BBC announced the new series of The Great British Bake Off. I received the news with great excitement and anticipation as I must confess to enjoying the series enormously over the past few years. The announcement of the new series led me to ponder about my TV viewing habits. Apart from political dramas such as West Wing, House of Cards (both the UK and US versions, although several decades apart) the hospital drama ER (I am reminded daily of the gorgeous George Clooney as I pause to make my coffee) and the compelling series of The Sopranos, I have not got particularly excited about new series on TV, other than anything Grand Design related. However that changed just a few years ago when I came across the first series of Ina Garten’s, The Barefoot Contessa cookery shows. She is a delightfully upbeat American celebrity chef who makes entertaining look easy and who starts every recipe with two sticks of butter and ends any ingredient assembly stage with the catchphrase “how bad can that be?” After following several series and now owning most of her cookery books, I can tell you that two sticks of butter as a start to a recipe are not the answer to staying slim and after each series I have had to carefully shed the pounds I gained as a result of trying out her recipes. However, she has been an inspiration not only for her recipes but also for kitchen equipment (I know, I must get a life) and most importantly she inspired the design of the kitchen and walk-in pantry, which have been closely modelled on hers.

A showstopper of my own

A showstopper of my own

Whilst very few TV programmes have had any great impact on our lives, that changed two years ago with the arrival of the BBC’s Big Allotment Challenge. It does seem ridiculous that I enjoyed each series so much. It wasn’t that the show was terribly helpful about planting and growing techniques, nor were the cooking tasks beyond most allotmenteers’ capabilities. The challenges they were given with the flowers they had grown were in every respect beyond anything I would do, given my inept attempts at anything to do with flowers and houseplants as I alluded to previously. To be honest, watching the unfailingly encouraging Monty Don every week on Gardeners World is rather more educational, but for some strange reason, The Big Allotment Challenge spurred me on to experimenting in the new vegetable garden and between the lovely Monty and the allotmenteers on BBC2, I started the expansion of the vegetable and fruit garden at the House on the Hill and much to the amusement, admiration and then consternation of the family, the vegetable and fruit garden has grown enormously since that first year in 2013. I mention the family’s “consternation” as I have trebled the size of the veg and fruit garden and so have increased productivity and output accordingly. We are only at the end of July as I type and Richard and the kids are already showing signs of courgette and lettuce fatigue, and are vociferously declining anything gooseberry related. Luckily I have frozen the raspberries and blackcurrants that were not made into jam. We haven’t even started with this year’s runner and French beans….

At the beginning of 2014, whilst the garden was still dormant but at the point when thought had to be given to the spreading of compost and the preparation of the vegetable beds, I mentioned out loud to Elliot, the gardener, how lovely it would be if “we” were to dig over another quadrant in the veg patch and so give us a larger area for potatoes and onions as well as various varieties of beans and squashes, whilst leaving the existing quadrant for some fruit bushes, strawberries and the more delicate vegetables. No sooner said than done and over a couple of weeks the grass in the quadrant was turned over to help it to die off and then in due course this was dug over. In order to justify the use of “we”, I hired a rotavator and then spent an exhausting couple of hours preparing the roughly dug plot. Why had nobody warned me that operating a rotavator is a bit like standing on a Power Plate? I couldn’t move for nearly a week after rotavating the new patch.



Thanks to some very thoughtful gifts from friends and family, I planted gooseberry, redcurrant and blackcurrant bushes and a good number of strawberry plants. In addition, in the old quadrant I also planted leeks, beetroot, courgettes (both yellow and green varieties), sweetcorn, sugar snaps and purple beans (disappointingly these turn green when cooked) as well as parsnips and kale. I also tried broccoli, pak choi and various lettuces, but these failed miserably as I waged war on the slug epidemic. The new quadrant had runner and French beans, onions and potatoes as well as pumpkins.


We had an amazingly colourful and bountiful harvest. Much to Richard’s horror, I bought a commercial fridge and freezer from a local school that was refurbishing it’s kitchen. It was not the electrical items themselves he objected to, but rather the fact that they were taking up valuable space in the garage. I thought it would be best to ignore the outburst, quickly rearranged the garage so that the fridge and freezer were less obvious and then went about filling them up with the 2014 produce. We are only just coming to the end of last year’s courgette soup and there are still some pickled beetroots to be eaten and the last of the roasted pumpkin.

Encouraged by the results of 2014 and buoyed by the series of The Big Allotment Challenge later that year, you would have thought I might have decided to enjoy the expanded veg patch and experiment within that space. After all, with the addition of all the soft fruit I would be able to create a few showstoppers of my own. However with the start of the build, a rather abundant by-product of the demolition became available and it would have been environmentally criminal not to make use of it….

I am talking about the pile of floorboards from the old house as well as the wood from the rafters and joists, piled high and begging to be reused rather than burnt. Beautiful, seasoned wood in three to five metre lengths. How bad could that be?

I will not even pretend that “we” made the seven raised beds. Elliot, now joined by Oli as his business has expanded, spent a few hours each visit sawing and screwing the beautiful containers together and then I did my bit by filling them with top soil and compost. Our daughters then painted them in wood preserver and then I got very busy filling them with the tomatoes and cucumbers grown from seed in the newly acquired greenhouse as well as seeds for radishes, leeks, beetroots, lettuce, kale, broccoli, cabbage, peas and cannellini beans.


The very newly erected greenhouse – my pride and joy

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An incredible harvest – autumn will be spent in the kitchen…

All that’s missing now is a little table and a couple of chairs and an electric socket for a kettle, which the electrician has promised will be fitted once he arrives for first fix. I have spent countless hours pottering around the greenhouse and sometimes I have simply given up any pretence of being busy and just sat down and gazed out at the vegetable garden and indulged in some daydreaming about the possibility of further expansion. After all, there is still quite a lot of wood left over from the old roof!

The Good Life

Richard is rather perplexed when it comes to the activities in the House on the Hill garden, so has firmly delegated the “green chapters” of the blog to me.

I need to start by stating that the two tractors we now own are my pride and joy and much to Richard’s upset, will have an outbuilding just for themselves, thereby taking up valuable car space. We inherited the 16 hp Roper from the people from whom we bought the house, they having inherited it from the previous owners. The proprietor of the local tractor repair shop told us he has been servicing it for more than 40 years. At the last service it required several parts of its body bolted down to the frame, as all the hard work required of it whilst we have been clearing woodland debris and transporting large logs have taken its toll. The Roper is of no use for cutting grass, so one of the first things we had to do after buying the property was to purchase a lawn tractor. Looking back over some notes I made in March 2013, I was taking it all quite seriously:

“The garden is changing each day, with snowdrops growing all over the grounds and a few primroses giving some yellow colour in the garden off the kitchen. Hundreds of daffodils have poked their green stems and leaves through grass and earth. It will be a sea of yellow later this month. Elliot will be starting to look after the garden this weekend, weather and tools permitting. That’s what I should be doing right this minute: ordering sundry Spear & Jackson hand tools to be picked up before Saturday. Elliot has very helpfully sent me a spreadsheet of everything he thinks we will need to keep the garden under control. I have started doing some research about sit-ons. Who would have thought there could be so many options to keeping grass short and neat? To mulch or to pick up, two wheels or four for the cutting plate (four!), back plate, reverse pedal or hand control (definitely reverse pedal) and the question of the location of the emergency cut off switch?!?”

So many options and so many decisions. We ended up getting a Kabota 2350 with the mulching option on the grass cutting plate. Such a lovely machine with a staggering 23hp and it even has a drinks holder (very necessary as it takes nearly six hours to mow all the grass in one go) and a 12v socket so that phones or ipods can be charged.

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Richard could not help himself when confronted with two tractors. He ended up racing me down the drive. I was driving the Roper with a trailer attached and had no chance against the Kabota. Richard even video’d the “race” and happily declared himself the winner. I rather cruelly suggested it was the only motor race he had won in the past year……

Prior to buying the house, we viewed the gardens either before the main growing season or well after when everything had gone to sleep for the winter and the grounds were lying dormant. We knew there was a lot of grass to be cut, but when we completed on the purchase in February 2013, we had absolutely no idea what would be popping out of the ground, sprouting on bushes and growing on trees during the next three seasons. We weren’t even sure what each tree was!

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Those of you who have known us for some years, must be wondering why we would have wanted a large garden. I can’t keep houseplants alive for more than a few weeks and I am always hugely relieved when flowers are given to me already fully arranged. However, the House on the Hill does not have many areas of pretty, high maintenance planting. Instead and in keeping with the surrounding National Trust land, the garden is mainly laid to lawn with a lot of beautiful large oak, beech and chestnut trees, as well as some fine silver birches. There were two paddocks that were used by large herds of deer as a cut through on their twice daily circuit. There were several huge rhododendron beds, which the deer ignored.

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But the true gem was a vegetable garden and a very small orchard. I had been quite successful in growing mustard and cress when I was about eight years old, but had barely been able to keep basil alive on the kitchen windowsill since then. What were the chances that I could grow vegetable and fruit, fit for the table? Only one way of finding out…

So I spread compost over the existing vegetable bed and dug the soil and started planting various seeds: turnips, beetroots, parsnips, radishes, potatoes, carrots, leeks, runner beans, red chard, courgettes and even sweetcorn. And then I waited to see what would happen, if anything. I had also cut down a whole load of canes shortly after taking over the property but I wasn’t sure what I had cut down nor whether I was meant to and indeed whether what I had cut would eventually be edible.

Incredibly, EVERYTHING started to grow and what was really fun, was that I had no idea what would happen next. I followed instructions from the local garden centre and various vegetable growing manuals and in time I had an amazingly bountiful harvest of turnips (never again – no one liked those), leeks, runner beans and red chard. As well as ruby red beetroots, peppery radishes and flavoursome potatoes. I even got four ears of corn. And the canes turned out to be both summer and late fruiting raspberries. The carrots were pathetic and I am not bothering with those again. Depending on how you look at things, the courgettes were the biggest success. They grew like weeds and of course some of them ended up as huge marrows. We had so many courgettes that apart from eating them steamed, fried, in soups, in ratatouille and curries the family even endured a courgette lasagna. Eventually there was mutiny in the ranks with our daughters refusing to eat any more, no matter how I disguised their presence in the dish. Two seasons later they are only just coming back to eating them, which is fortunate as there are currently 16 plants in full flower with beautiful yellow and green edible gems about to ripen.

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As for the rest of the fruit, we had loads of rhubarb and I have since planted more and the trees in the orchard turned out to be dessert apples and plum. There were two further huge apple trees that were good for cooking and in 2013 we had so many apples that I gave half of them to a local farmer who made juice from them and in return I got some 20 bottles of pressed apple juice. There were also another three plum trees in the garden and for the past two seasons they have been laden with fruit. We even have several grape vines that have given us enough sweet, but pip filled fruits, to make 20 jars of grape jelly each year. This has turned out to be a wonderful alternative to redcurrant jelly and of course delicious with peanut butter, a combination that we became very fond of whilst living in the US.

It’s all very well growing vegetables and picking the fruit, but the real issue is what to do with it as it all ripens at the same time? How much stewed fruit can you actually get through without unfortunate consequences, how many runner beans can you face after a month of eating them at every main meal? Even friends started to dread those bags of “goodies” that I started to offload to anyone who was foolish enough to say they would like some of our produce. The smell of freshly picked turnips in a plastic carrier bag was unforgettably off putting.

So I started blanching, freezing, pickling and preserving. In the first year I made over 150 jars of jams, jellies, pickles and chutneys. These made lovely Christmas presents. Little did friends and family know that this is all they will be getting for years to come!

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By the end of 2013 our little allotment at the House on the Hill had become a wonderfully relaxing hobby. Richard and the children were calling it an obsession, but little did they know what I was planning next…

January to March; Mud and Concrete

The old house was gone, and the story of the next few months could be summed up in two words.  Mud and concrete. Oh, and rain. And freezing temperatures.  And snow. And lorries.  And quite a lot of steel…….

Having demolished the old house, and the old out buildings, Bob the Builder and his team of merry men quickly got on with starting preparation for the new construction.

This involved the removal of an awful lot of old materials, and of course mud, some of which was taken off the site but much of which has been kept for future landscaping and hard core.  The team did an amazing job working through some very cold and wet days in January and really impressed us with their diligence and devotion to duty.  Makes me feel grateful that I spend my time in heated or air conditioned offices, and I’ve never really been one for the outdoors in winter as my family and friends can attest to…..


Garage Mud

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More Garage Mud

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House Excavations

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House Mud

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Muddy House Excavations

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House Chalk

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House Mud, Clay and Snow – and a Big Digger


While excavating for the house, we came across something slightly unexpected in an unexpected place.  Having removed the existing indoor swimming pool during the demolition, we were aware that the previous owners in the 1970’s, who had originally erected all the extensions, tended to do things on the cheap.  We had also been told that there had been an outside pool that had not been removed when the inside pool was built, just filled in.  In fact, the pool had simply been filled in and become a large flowerbed in the middle of the patio – now to be revealed after 40 years hidden away……

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Digging out and laying foundations can be high risk for any build.  I say this not as a construction expert of course, but as a Grand Designs expert, much more useful and relevant to what we are doing!  We were lucky.  We found nothing untoward while digging, such as man made items not on the plans, or archaeoligical artefacts that would have brought the local authority down on us.  The digs went smoothly, the soil is mainly clay and therefore stable and all was as we had hoped.

Up until now, we hadn’t really had any issues with the neighbours, and Karin had done a good job in communicating with the neighbours, either verbally or via newsletters.  We are lucky with our location as the houses are quite widely spaced and there are really only 7 houses that are in the vicinity – 6 on the ridge with us and one at the bottom.  Funnily enough, the close neighbours all understood – partly because 2 of them plan similar works.  It was the furthest away neighbour, who complained, but not to us, only to the others.  Finally, Karin called him up and he was very polite to her face – bit of a coward really! Anyway, all this resulted in a sign saying “Mud on Road” for those too dumb to not understand what mud looks like…..

The other effect of all the mud, apart from Karin’s Volvo being permanently filthy and smelling like a wet dog ( and her smug comments about how wonderful her 4×4 was and how useless all my cars are in the mud….) was that in attempting to get up our steep and winding 400 metre drive in all the mud and rain, the cement lorries destroyed it. This was really the first delay or snag we had to date and was not too traumatic.  All it really meant was that we lost a couple of days while concrete pumps and were installed to bring the concrete from the road up to the site. We had always planned to replace the driveway in any event, but Bob had to do this now, rather than wait until the end of the process.  So they put the main road in and it will be properly finished and edged at the end of the build and all in all we really only lost a week.  hoth - 5 hoth - 13

My wife has been, and continues to be, a brilliant manager of this project.  She does this by, also, not being a construction expert but with 3 main techniques :

  1. She is extremely charming and friendly, so gets on with everyone;
  2. She always knows exactly what she wants and due to 1. above almost always gets her way; and
  3. She looks at everything in a very simple way.  Her approach to this whole project was summed up for me with her phrase “building is just like lego……”

And it was at this point that the “lego” comment started to ring true as a great analogy with the laying of the concrete, the shapes, the use of the steel reinforcement and the construction of the formwork for the concrete.  Amazingly the next few weeks went very smoothly.  The pouring of the concrete foundations for the house took a couple of days and the walls a couple of weeks all in.  Concurrently, the team laid all the foundations for the garages.

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Mud and Synchronised Diggers

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More Lego

House Foundations Completed

House Foundations Completed

So by 11th March, our son Tom’s birthday, we were ready to start coming out of the ground.  It was still too early to sense how the finished building would look and feel, but Spring was on it’s way and it wouldn’t be too long now.

The Real Reason

As some of you will know, I have a bit of an obsession. Well several really, but only one that we will write about here! And that obsession is cars. It started out at a young age, and has just got worse over the years. What started out with collecting model cars, then car magazines, now, due to some good fortune, has turned into collecting full size cars.

Actually, a collection is probably a misnomer. These are collections……

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What I have is not so much a collection, just a greater ability to buy cars than to sell them, which means I have ended up with rather too many. Certainly more than logic or need would dictate. And cars require somewhere to keep them. So I started with squeezing them into a garage at our house, on the drive and anywhere I could find the space. Latterly they have been stored at a professional storage facility situated between my office and home, where the proprietor has become a friend. It works fine in many ways, picking a car up on a Friday night after work, and dropping it back there Monday morning.

So our plan for some time has been to build garages at our home to house all the cars. Karin seems to think I want to do this just so I can look at and stroke them. But the intention is to make it much easier to use them all, share them with friends and generally make it half sensible to own so many. I have never owned a car just for investment purposes, even though many have luckily turned out to be excellent investments. So I drive all my cars, and if they don’t get driven, they get sold.

It has been well known amongst my friends and associates for a long time that I planned to build garages. So over the last couple of years, I have been inundated with very many helpful suggestions and photos of what I should be building, such as these……

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As you will see, not that helpful!

What we have come up with is a set of garages that sit on the footprint of the existing outbuildings at the house, one of the planning requirements.  They look like agricultural buildings and can be converted by a saner, future owner to stables or genuine outbuildings. Having said that, I am very excited about what we are going to build and the fact that I will have all my cars at home with me. The garages will look like this


They will be of simple, oak construction and just designed for the cars – although with a little space for me too. Having been married 30 years, been together 35 years and known each other over 40 years, Karin continues to surprise me. She took it upon herself to utilise some spare space in the garages to create what she calls the “man cave”. She has designed it, sourced the kit and is in some ways more excited about it than I am! It has been suggested that this is because it will keep me out of the house, but hard to believe that could be true…….

So what will be in the garages? I bought my first car when I was 18. £600 for a classic mini of indeterminate miles and failing bodywork that lasted about 12 months. Since then I have bought a further 68 cars, which works out at nearly 2 every year, although most of them have been sold. I’m not sure whether I should go on here as Karin, although very supportive of my bad habit, has never been told the full truth. Oh well, a blog should be about truth, so here goes. As of today, I own 18 road cars, and 3 race cars. Not counting Karin’s Volvo and the kids’ cars. And Karin’s two favourite vehicles, which will have their own space to live in too.

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It has been suggested that the real reason we are building a new home is simply so that I can build garages for the cars. That’s clearly not the case. That would be like suggesting that Karin is not obsessed with George Clooney’s looks, but just his coffee maker……   The Real Reason?