Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Putting down roots

          The Monday morning, after an uncomfortable weekend without our furniture, finally arrived. We stirred as early as we could. Not because we wanted to, but because we couldn’t stand to spend another moment in those poxy little sleeping bags, two inches off the bare concrete floor. We knew that the first ferry from Kirkwall arrived just after nine, so I was standing at the gate by half past. I soon got bored. I climbed up the dunes to get a better view of the road. Oh! Look, you can see the sea on the other side of the island as well. Oh! You can see Start Point lighthouse AND the North Ronaldsay lighthouse, too. Now that’s plain greedy. I went back inside for fear of catching my death.
          An hour or more later, they completed the thirty minute drive from the pier. A huge blue pantechnicon arrived at our gate. This is when our problems started. They drove their huge leviathan up onto the dunes in order to get a good angle to reverse through our narrow gate. It didn’t work. They navigated close to the sight-splay fence in order to get through. It tore off a mud-flap and the wheel-arch trim from their monster truck before they decided that it didn’t work. Fortunately, they had brought a man with a van along with them, having bumped into him at the ferry and realising that there was every chance that he might be required. So the last one hundred metres of the gig was completed by relay, a twenty by one hundred metre relay. Needless to say that it wasn’t long before our driveway somewhat resembled Passchendaele and, furthermore, it was only a matter of time before said van, a two-wheel drive Transit, got stuck in it. Reinforcements were called for and after an hiatus of at least thirty minutes, another guy with a four-wheel drive SUV turned up to tow the stricken mule out. Hurrah! After that, they would stop the van in a slightly different place each time, so while it ‘nearly’ got stuck again, it was nothing that a couple of scrap bits of carpet couldn’t fix. There was, however, no alternative to the pathway to our only door.  In the circumstances, I suppose that it was inevitable that something would get dropped. Fortunately it was only one corner of the sofa and the mud came off pretty easily when it dried out, about two weeks later!
          Then we were alone. Whereas before we had only two salvaged dressers from the previous owner, now every room had loads of boxes in it. It looked like we were going to have a Christmas after all.
          Do people properly label boxes when they move, or is it just us who don’t bother? We had no idea where anything was. The bed was pretty obvious, but if it didn’t get transported in one, big, self-contained unit, it was on the exhaustive list of the missing. We’d find the Bose, but not the remote control for the Bose, making the Bose wholly redundant and the finding of the Bose in the first place utterly pointless. The x-box was put in its own ‘precious’ box, but not with the controllers. No, they were with the Playstation in a separate crate but wait, where were the battery packs? I could go on and on, but having lived it I can say that, even upon reflection, the story is not an amusing tale.
          The most important news was that our nights of sleeping on the floor were over. Even if we’d found Skyrim, i-pod and the allen-keys all in the first five minutes, it could not have made me any happier.
          Our neighbours to the South, Richard and his wife Alison, turned up the following day. Gail and Alison stayed indoors to chat while Richard and I walked ‘the estate’. I had been confused by the two septic tanks and soak-aways on the property. The one to the front, he assured me, was no longer in use, so anything I wanted rid of should be chucked in there and then it should be filled in. Images of fly-tippers and ticking time-bombs swirled around my head for a while, but it would seem to make sense to eradicate this ugly scar so fair enough, I will consider the least unsavoury elements of his advice. The second septic tank is a canyon of a hole, crudely and wholly unsuccessfully covered by half a dozen old doors which were now sagging and unfit for purpose. (Both are reasons why Smokey is not allowed out yet). Richard explained that he would be happy to help me make up some reinforced concrete slabs to cover the latter one over with. He stamped on the ground and confirmed that the soak-away seemed to be doing a good job as the land was firm around it. Where is the soakaway then? I asked him. Right beside the huge, rainwater filled crevasse is a slightly raised area of grass which I hadn’t really noticed until now. Richard smiled at me and started to bounce up and down on it. It turns out that when a previous owner had built the tank, he’d buried his old caravan right next to it and filled with loads of rubbish he didn’t want to act as a soak-away and it was the roof of said caravan that Richard was bouncing on. Future generations are not going to find Skara brea type archaeology on this particular spot. The thought of what may lie beneath my feet does not intrigue me so much as it horrifies me. Richard showed me also the hole that had been dug in the corner of the plot for the sand needed for the mortar to build the outbuildings, mainly constructed from large cobbles ‘harvested’ from the beach, where I assume they had been placed as part of the sea defences! The hole is now a lake as a result of all the rain we’ve had. I will have to ask the neighbours if they feel that it might threaten to undermine their house and fill it in if it would make them feel more confident that it wasn’t about to disappear to where only Doug McClure would have been able to find it.
          We also have a problem with a large population of rabbits. I must admit that the heavy rain might have helped us out there by flooding the warrens. Otherwise, I was offered a .22 rifle, but I’d have to make a massive (un)ethical step if I plan to limit the numbers personally. Anyone who has ever had the misfortune of being driven anywhere by me, particularly after dark, knows that I brake for any furry beastie on the road. (It’s what seatbelts are for, people!) No, I really don’t think I can shoot a bunny and I’m fairly certain that it’s not a path I want to go down. I’ll start and not know where to stop. A life is a life in my opinion, so one minute it’ll be Thumper and then, before you know it, it’ll be a president. Let’s not go there, eh?
          I plumbed in the washing machine next. Just as well really. When you layer up as much as we have to you tend to get through your wardrobe pretty darn quickly. I hung the first wash out on the line. I checked on it an hour or so later and found half of it on the ground. Some of it I couldn’t find at all. I’ve been checking ebay auctions in Norway for my Roger Ramjet boxer shorts ever since!
          We made a return trip to Kirkwall to order an induction cooker. Gail got into the ‘downsizer’ frame of mind and ordered the more expensive of the two options just because it played ‘Girl from Ipanema’ as it rotisseried or some such tosh, I don’t know. We trawled around for an emergency Calor Gas camping stove just in case of a power cut but without success. There were lots of Yankee candles and even more single malts in a shop that also doubled as the local equivalent of Mothercare. Then we took a stroll around the graveyard of St. Magnus Cathedral and were accosted by what I thought was a drunk, but who kindly, and lucidly, gave us a very interesting lecture on Dr. John Rae the (not) famous (enough) explorer, an Orcadian, who happened to be buried there. I must stop stereotyping people on account of their accent, especially the indigenous population.
          After several days of microwave meals, we returned to Elizabeth and John at The Belsair in Kettletoft and were, for a pleasant change, not their only patrons. Our neighbour, Irene, her daughter, Claire, who is married to the postman, Tony, their daughter Rosa and Tony’s mum were there too. In fact, the front room of the place was full. Even when Irene, Claire and Rosa left, another family who were visiting the island for a day to look for property arrived. The weather outside was turning angry again, (it obviously hadn’t been for about an hour!), so we wished them a safe crossing for what I’m sure was going to be a bumpy journey back to the Mainland.
          I’d survived a week. At times I really didn’t think that I would. John had told me about ‘eighteen monthers’, people who come for the summer, endure a winter, enjoy a second summer and then remember how much of a bitch last winter was and decide to naff off home. I have a long way to go even to qualify to be one of those but at least arriving during the winter I hope shows an intention to stick around for a good while yet.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The Old Tractor Shed

I suppose, before anything else, I ought to provide you with a description of the curtilage.

It has a front door. That is to say that there is access to the property, albeit not exactly at the front, and that, once upon a time, the feature over the step could have been a door. The furniture both inside and out is hanging off and many of the panels are rotten or absent. The glass panels are intact but there is a layer of the great outdoors on each and I am only guessing that they are glass because of the hint of opaqueness about them. There is also a fair amount of tape around the frame of the door to block out draughts. The problems are exacerbated by the fact that it is quite a job to open it without kicking it. Sooner or later someone’s foot, or at least their footwear, will become a fixture.

Once indoors and at least partly protected from the elements and their excitable choreography, you arrive in the hallway, with doors, mostly with handles, to the left, right and ahead. The first thing that hits you, or more accurately does not come anywhere near hitting you unless you happen to be Andre the Giant, is the height of the ceiling. Now I have to pause while I break out the tape measure. It stands at nine feet and three inches. OK, so not quite stately homes proportions, but this edifice is hardly a stately home. (It is a state, though!) Another thing that will not have escaped your notice is the bare concrete floor, which currently features throughout.

The door to the right leads to a store room. It also provides, theoretically at least, access into the loft. This is primarily as it benefits from not having a ceiling. The electric meter lives here and also the spaghetti of cables heading off to all corners of the house. Presently it is home to a pair of Poang chairs, a reclaimed dresser, the Vax and the fridge freezer. Looking up you will see that the underside of the roof is boarded and seemingly, touch wood, dry.

The door to the left of the hallway leads to the first of the Goat rooms, so named because the previous owner kept a sickly goat in there until, so we are told, its demise. There is a large, many paned window in the South wall, bathing what is a largely unpopulated room with more light than it needs and which would be put to much better use if it could, somehow, be allowed to flow into the kitchen. Plans are afoot to execute such a notion. Given its veterinary history and situation, I don’t see it being on the top of anyone’s wish-list to stay in, but perhaps when the removals boxes are removed, the Poangs, a stereo stacking system and all my guitars, not forgetting my coffin-sized bass amp and others, can take up residence. The only other door in the room leads to Goat room two. Again a profusion of cardboard boxes obscure that it is quite a generous and accommodating nine and a half feet by six and a half. There is a smaller window again on the South wall. The room’s external walls are not presently boarded or plastered, giving it a particularly utilitarian ambience. Another functional room, therefore. I’m hoping to be allowed to set the telescope up in here, although common sense suggests that it would be more usefully sited in the first Goat room so it would make it easier to take outside when the weather permitted and the need was greatest.

Returning to the hallway, the door opposite the front door leads to the main living room. This cavernous space measures over twenty three feet in length. Half of it is utilised as a kitchen/diner, with the back of a pair of dining table chairs backing on to our sofa, which designates the division into the living space.

The kitchen space has a marble effect work-top along most of the South wall. There is no window, hence the desire to knock a hole in the wall for a window of some sort to share in the glorious effulgence enjoyed in the Goat rooms! There is a narrow space at the end of the work-top for a cooker. It is however five centimetres narrow than the cooker that Gail has ordered from Scottish Hydro. Guess who didn’t bring a saw? There is a cupboard largely dominated by a hot water immersion system for the kitchen sink. A large under-counter space has plenty of room for a washing machine but not for another appliance beside it. A drawer space with no drawers lies below the counter at the other end. The splashbacks are tiled but have been crudely painted over and the gaps need sealing. It all gets a bit weird behind the space where the cooker will eventually be shoe-horned. Our beloved dining table and chairs fit in quite well, more by happy accident than design.

The remaining living space is quite a good size. Gail is keen for me to set up her Kinect for the x-box and I must confess that it makes a change not to be intimidated by the looming proximity of the television.  To be honest, it looks quite titchy now. This’ll be the cue for my better half to start insisting for a larger screen. Instead of a coffee table (which we broke some of the plastic lugs of when we disassembled it), we have a large four-seater footstool to pile our rubbish on. It sort of dominated the living-room in Fareham but here does not. A rug allows us to put our feet on the floor without all our body temperature being sucked out through our socks. As well as flooring, the walls need a fresh lick of paint, preferably something that will allow for a little movement and maybe a little condensation without flaking off all over the place. Another massive window allows massive amounts of light to pour onto the TV. Blackout curtains will surely become a necessity in the summer months. The North end of the room has a single door in it.

The small, confined, unlit hallway beyond has a door in each wall. The South, obviously, leads back into the living room. West leads to bedroom two, North to the WC/shower room and East to the ‘mistress’ bedroom. I am hoping very much that Smokey’s litter tray will not become a permanent fixture.

Bedroom two is over eleven by nine with a window facing North. I’ve set up the bunk-beds in there. Otherwise it acts as another storeroom full of removals boxes. It has a pair of curtains and a lampshade, but it’s far from welcoming at present.

The WC is functional. I sorted out why the cistern leaked at any rate. Now I’m just concerned where the rest of the damp on the North wall is coming from. More disturbingly, the bird crap too. I think that both have something to do with the extractor fan being improperly sealed and every avian’s second choice perch. Their first choice of perch being the car, which I am sure used to be blue before it got covered in guano! There is a shower cubicle but we haven’t used it as the shower itself is what can best be described as ineffective. The water does not get very hot and there is not a lot of it. Given that the room itself is cold and damp it does not exactly encourage use.

The master, sorry I mean mistress, bedroom is the most popular room in the place. The best thing that we’ve ever bought, in my opinion, is our wonderful cast iron bed. It has a great mattress on it and a twelve tog duvet that has attractive properties in that you never want to leave it. I try hard not to and Gail has even less success in escaping from it. A large window faces East and will constitute a liability in Summer when the sun starts coming up at three in the morning. There is a second door in the room that leads to what was intended to be an en-suite shower-room. It has a small window in the North wall. It is very much unfinished. The walls are bare breezeblock and the ceiling is unplastered. There is also no artificial light in the room. It also has no fittings for an en-suite shower-room meaning that it is also just another store room.

Thereby ends the tour. Thank you for your patronage. Please make your way out through the gift shop.

The journey North

We left Fareham on the fifteenth as planned, but not as early as we’d have liked. It’s amazing how much you have to do even after all your stuff has supposedly been packed up and shipped off the day before. We found loads more of our gear that the removals guys didn’t take and consequently spent an age filling the garage with it all instead. This included all the practical stuff like gardening equipment and things you need for the car when undertaking a long journey, like a foot pump, WD40 and spanners. Pah! Who needs all that clutter, eh? All the space in the back was taken up with a huge cage, which the cat was hardly ever in!  
Poor old Smokey despises my driving, but after we’d let her curl up on Gail’s lap, she chilled and was not really a problem for the next three days. Bless her. Did the whole first leg to Cumbernauld with only one petrol stop at Gretna. That’s how far a three-pot Skoda gets you on a bellyful. We spent the night at the Travelodge there and phoned out for a fantastic Chinese from Pearl’s. Absolutely gorgeous, except for the banana fritter that was just that little bit too weird for me. Cosmopolitan, I am not. The huge bag of complementary prawn crackers made up for that. Smokey didn’t like the traffic outside in the hallway and tried to bury herself in the far corner of the room. It could be that the last residents of the room included a big dog or something, but she clearly wasn’t happy. When I piled all the bags in the corner to stop her, she slept on the bed with us in the end.
In the morning, I looked out of the window to see that it had snowed during the night. The weather forecast assured us that this was the Northern limit of the winter weather so I happily abandoned my alternative route. Had the storm that had been forecast hit, I knew that I would have been too much of a coward to risk the A9 over the Cairngorms and, instead, had plotted a circuitous route via Aberdeen, all the way around the East coast. But with the promise of a fine day, we hopped back in the car and set off for Aviemore. I am so glad that we did. The snow-capped peaks were pure eye-candy and it seemed as if everyone else had been overcautious and given the mountain pass a miss, because it was practically empty.  We came down the other side into Inverness for the second petrol stop. When we crossed the bridge over the Moray Firth, we left the civilised world that we had known behind us.
View back to the Dornoch Firth from the A9
The Northern Highlands

Just as we were losing the light, we skirted around Thurso and headed for Castletown. The hotel there is brilliant. It’s a tiny community but the place was rocking because it seemed that all of the local businesses were just finishing their Christmas lunches. Gail was reunited with her beloved Orkney beer, Smokey had an Empress size bed to monopolise and a windowsill to taunt the neighbour’s dog from. Fed and watered we retired and even the raucous Karaoke from the evening revellers failed to wake us.
If the weather had turned nasty, it would have been fabulous to have had to spend the whole weekend there, but alas we had a ferry to catch. Gail, in my experience, has been extraordinarily lucky with ferry crossings. The North and Irish Seas and even The Minch to Stornoway were mirror calm when we crossed them. The Pentland Firth, however, is a different proposition. The waves rolled in from a lumpy sea and I was concerned that the ferry had to turn around outside the harbour wall. The souvenirs in the gift shop clanked and banged and Gail sent me off to find her a barf-bag and a bottle of water to wash her medicinal Pringles down with. It was a bit of a rollercoaster ride until we got into sheltered water toward Scapa Flow. We soon docked at Stromness and then had to drive to Kirkwall to catch the next ferry to Loth Pier on Sanday. We made it in plenty of time, so I was sent off to Scottish Hydro to buy a heater.
A miscalculation had meant our second boat of the day had to stop at two other islands, Eday and Stronsay, on its way to ours. Consequently, Smokey was left in the car for nearly three hours, but if anything seemed peeved when we finally got back to the car deck and woke her up.
We were on Sanday, albeit on the opposite side of it from the one we were headed to. It was dark. The huge, white windturbines turned lazily overhead as I raced after the row of tail-lights ahead of me that I was relying on to guide me. One by one, they reached the end of their journeys, leaving me to find my own way. They really don’t have much truck with roadmarkings and signposts so it really was trailblazing. Eventually I saw the dilapidated horsebox that stood beside our gate. We were home.
My first job was to inflate the two matresses on the bare concrete floor that would be our beds for the next couple of nights until our furniture arrived on Monday. The next was to unpack the heater. Six degrees centigrade is just plain not warm enough. Our sleeping bags were tiny and how the hell we didn’t die of exposure remains a mystery to me.
Over the weekend, two neighbours to the East of us dropped by with bottles of wine and warm welcomes. We took a walk around the garden, explored the dunes and Lopness Bay and then drove off to have Sunday Lunch at The Belsair in Kettletoft. The place was empty and it was just as if the owners had opened just for us. Perhaps they had. We also availed ourselves of their wi-fi connection afterwards, which allowed Gail a second bottle of Orkney beer.
Back at the shed, all we could do was twiddle our thumbs and wait until our stuff arrived. Now that’s a different story.