Within these walls….

Eager to use every inch of available space in No.3, our attention turned to the area under the stairs, that for some reason had been ‘bricked up’ – literally, it was inaccessible.  As we set about removing the bricks, I jokingly remarked to John, “I hope we don’t find a body under here….”

John made a hole big enough to poke his head through and using a torch, peered into the darkness…. Inside could only be described as resembling a ‘midden’ – and there on top of a mound of earth, lay a bone! Slightly nervous of what we were about to find, we continued to break our way in…. What we found was an assorted pile of rubbish and a quantity of animal bones, we can only assume what we had unearthed was a very old rat’s lair….

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Bones found under the stairs of No.3….

Oddly though, amongst the debris were a collection of marbles and another of old bottle tops…. We never did get to the bottom of why the under stairs had been bricked up (perhaps it really had been a midden and previous occupants, long gone by, couldn’t be bothered to clear it out – who knows) ; it now serves as a very useful cupboard space….

As this was one of the last areas to be explored, I think we were secretly hoping we were going to find something like a ‘concealed shoe’….or perhaps some other ‘offering’ hidden away….protecting the house from evil spirits. We had gone over just about every other inch of the place and all we had found were a few hairgrips under a window sill, a magazine from the 1950s under the bath and a few giant acorns stashed in a hole in a beam….

‘Caches’, the correct term for offerings, (from the French ‘cache’ – meaning to give), are items that have been concealed somewhere in a building; under floors, above ceilings, up chimneys, around windows and doors, plastered into walls….

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Photo credit : ‘Semaphore Reno 004’ – Marlene Manto via Foter.com / CC BY-NC  Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/marlenemanto/2874151309/    (Shoe plastered into wall….)

They were believed to protect the inhabitants from evil influences; witches, ghosts, demons and the like. It was a custom that was with us for centuries, only really dying out at some point in the last century (may be the advent of burglar alarms made people feel safer?!)…. It is not a custom that was confined just to the UK, by any means; such offerings have been found in buildings all over Europe, parts of Scandinavia, North America, Australia, even China….

Shoes are the most common; nearly always a single shoe, usually well worn and often repaired. In days gone by, as much use as possible would be gleaned from possessions, unlike the throw away society we know today….

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Photo credit : Edmund Patrick – CC BY-SA 3.0  Collection of concealed shoes from East Anglia held by St. Edmundsbury Heritage Service

About half of the shoes recorded have been those of children; it was believed the innocence and purity of children would over power evil spirits…. The earliest shoe that has been found to date was discovered behind the choir stalls in Winchester Cathedral, the stalls were originally built in 1308; it is thought the shoe may have been there since that time….

It is assumed many shoes are found and simply thrown away, never to be recorded. Northampton Museum has a ‘Concealed Shoe Index’ that it has been compiling since the late 1950s; it has approximately 2,000 entries. Shoes have been found in a large variety of buildings : monasteries, churches, hospitals, theatres, schools, even army barracks. They have been discovered in pubs and breweries, museums, factories and of course private dwellings, from tiny cottages to manor houses, even the likes of Hampton Court Palace….

The shoe is the only item of clothing that truly takes on the form of the wearer, it shapes itself to the foot…. It was believed that the spirit of a deceased person would be trapped in the shoe – a ‘spirit trap’…. It is thought this belief comes from the 14th Century, when it is said John Schorn, the Rector of Marston, Buckinghamshire, cast the Devil into a boot, thus entrapping him….

The largest cache found in the UK was in a 400 year old cottage, which was being renovated in Snowdonia, Wales. Here, building contractors found nearly 100 single shoes buried under a chimney stack. The nearest recorded example of a concealed shoe being found to here, was in the neighbouring village of Hascombe. A house was undergoing repair work and from the rafters fell an 18th Century child’s shoe….its heel broken down where the child had continuously pulled it on and off….and the toe was worn through.

Although many think the ‘concealed shoe’ was to keep away evil influences, there are also others who believe shoes were hidden as a fertility offering. Shoes have long been associated with fertility. In Lancashire, there is an old custom called ‘smickling’ – it involves trying on the shoes worn by a woman who has recently given birth, supposedly this brings luck in conceiving…. Casting a shoe after a bride departing for her honeymoon was another old tradition, even today we still tie shoes to the car of a newly wed couple….

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Photo credit : Just Married – Johan Lindqvist Fotografi via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/johanlinqvist/4297282191/

Some think the connection between shoes and fertility is reflected in an old English nursery rhyme from Mother Goose :

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe;
She had so many children she didn’t know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and sent them to bed….

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Photo credit : Internet Archive Book Images “Mother Goose’s Melodies : or songs for the nursery” (1879) via Foter.com/No known copyright restrictions : Original image URL: https//www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivesimages/14583156277/

This rhyme dates to 1794 and there are some that think it refers to King George II, who’s wife, Caroline, had eight children. George II had the nickname ‘Old Woman’ and it was widely believed that Caroline was the one with the real power….

Of course, it wasn’t just shoes that were used as caches. Other items of clothing have often been found; gloves, hats, belts, breeches, jackets. In a thatched cottage, in Pontarddulias, South Wales, a mid 18th Century corset was found in a wall…. It is not just clothing that has been found; objects such as coins, spoons, knives, books, goblets, pots, pipes, children’s toys and dolls and more macabre things, horses skulls and mummified cats….

Dried cats have been found on numerous occasions. It was thought the presence of the cat would deter vermin, such as rats. However, there was another reason cats were hidden within the house, cats were believed to be highly susceptible to detecting evil spirits : and because of their connection to witches, it was the belief that they would provide protection from such….

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Photo credit : Radarsmum67 via Foter.com / CC BY Mummified cat, found between floorboards in the attic of a Victorian house, built 1879, being renovated in Seaforth…. Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/radarsmum67/27029137971/

Witchcraft was greatly feared in centuries gone by. Witches bottles are also regularly found, no where more so than in East Anglia, where the belief in witches was very strong indeed…. Very often they are discovered buried under a fireplace, the floor or plastered into a wall. It was believed that as long as the bottle was kept well hidden and remained unbroken, the ‘spell’ contained within would keep on working…. The origins go back to the 1500s and they are particular to the Elizabethan period….

The earliest bottles to be found were typically ‘Bartmann jugs’ – made from salt glazed stone. During the 1500s and 1600s, Bartmann jugs were made throughout Europe but most especially in Germany. Shaped in the form of a bearded man, their intended use was to store food and drink. They were also manufactured in England, either by copycat potters or German immigrants. Because of the malevolent face of the bearded figure, it became adopted by many as the perfect vessel for a witch’s ‘spell’….

The contents were usually prepared by the local ‘witch’ or folk healer. The spells would be used not only to ward off evil but very often in an attempt to cure an affliction, condition or illness. Earlier spells would contain something personal of the person it was intended for, usually urine but sometimes hair or nail clippings….

Later witches bottles were often made of glass…. They would be filled with red wine, rosemary, pins and needles. The bottle would be buried and it was believed evil spirits would be caught on the pins and needles, drowned in the wine and then banished by the rosemary….

Other ‘ingredients’ could be added to the bottle; depending on the requirements of the particular spell – sea water, stones, earth, ashes, feathers, shells, vinegar….

Sometimes, instead of burying the bottle it would be hurled into the fire, causing it to explode; so if someone was thought to be ‘cast under a spell’, it would be broken….

Generally though, it was customary to bury the bottle, especially under the fireplace….

Now, there’s somewhere we’ve never looked…. Any one got a spade….?

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Photo credit : The British Library via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions  –  From the Ingoldsby Legends. Illustrated by Cruickshank, Leech and Tenniel (People’s edition) [A selection]  Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/11276749235/

House at Pooh Corner….

I often joke that we live in a house made of ‘cow poo’…. OK, so that’s not strictly true but wattle and daub does often incorporate soiled animal bedding which may contain dung – (why use the expensive, good stuff – especially when it has already been well trod down?)….

Wattle and daub has been used for thousands of years, pretty much ever since man started building shelters. It is one of the most common infills for timber framed buildings….

Daub refers to the clay mixture, which is made by treading the materials beneath the feet…. (Crumbs!!  Weren’t grapes crushed this way once when making wine? I do hope they washed their feet first!)…. The clay is combined with water (or perhaps animal urine in days long gone by) and straw, or other vegetation matter. Daub is still made in very much the same way today as it was centuries ago…. Thank goodness for wellies….

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Photo credit: London Permaculture via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA https://www.flickr.com/photos/7371031@N08/

The wattle is the mesh of small timbers (usually hazel but sometimes oak laths are used), which are woven or tied between a supporting framework of larger timbers or ‘staves’. The wood used needs to be in its green state and so is put to use almost as soon as it is ‘coppiced’….

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Photo credit: ‘Wattle and Daub’ – Travis S via Foter.com / CC BY-NC  Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/baggis/9131021731/
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Photo credit: ‘wattle and daub’ – quinet via Foter.com / CC BY  Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/quinet/7911569748/

Coppicing is an ancient form of woodland management which goes back to Neolithic times. Once common, copses would of been found throughout the countryside – however, with the advent of modern day materials, the practice went into decline in the middle of the last century. Nowadays, it is beginning to be revived due to its sustainability. Coppicing involves cutting down young trees, such as hazel, willow or sweet chestnut, to almost ground level. These broad leaf trees will then send shoots up from the stump again, thus regenerating themselves….

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Photo credit: ‘Serious Coppicing’ – Dissonancefalling via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA          Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dissonancefalling/2141751008/

These shoots are then harvested periodically – anywhere between five to thirty years, depending on the size of the required poles. A part from providing the timber for wattle, coppice product useage is varied; anything from smaller items, such as pea/bean sticks, charcoal, firewood, baskets, tool/broom handles to larger products – furniture, fencing and even ships planking….

Once the timber framework and wattle has been constructed, the daub is applied to the panels on both sides, (usually simultaneously, often two people working together, on opposite sides). The daub is formed into balls called ‘cats’, which are then carefully pushed between the gaps of the wattle and surrounding frame, then building it up until the surfaces are covered.

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Photo credit: ‘Cobbling the shed’ – henna lion via Foter.com / CC BY-NC                               Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pipdiddly/10177479136/

 

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Photo credit: ‘Romanian house construction’ – quinet via Foter.com / CC BY                       Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/quinet/7919479734/

Mis-shapen, bowing walls are associated with wattle and daub constructions, so often this adds to the ‘charm’ but the daub can be surprisingly pliable. Some grander homes would have had decorative panels where the clay had been moulded into attractive patterns.

Examples of No.3’s wattle and daub – still awaiting restoration work….

Once the daub has completely dried out, if it is not the intention to plaster it, the normal practice is to limewash it. This should generally be repeated every Spring, as limewash acts as a disinfectant due to its caustic properties, helping to prevent rot. It is not applied purely for asthetic reasons but helps with preservation too….

Timber framed buildings because of their very nature, are subject to a certain amount of movement. Wattle and daub is very good at accomodating this, although the odd gap or crack will appear, it is not difficult to remedy this, (another reason for regular lime washing, as this helps to fill in any minor cracks). If well maintained, a wattle and daub panel can last for centuries. Although it is porous and absorbs water in wet conditions, daub effectively acts like blotting paper. Moisture is dispersed and quickly evaporates keeping the building relatively dry. Sometimes, to protect from the elements, outside walls may be tile hung or clad with weather boards….

Internal walls are often plastered, usually using the lath and plaster technique. Laths (generally oak) are long, thin strips of green wood. These are nailed flat to the wall or ceiling, ready for the plaster to be applied. The plaster would usually be made from lime and sand, then animal hair (such as horse) added for reinforcement….

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A section of plaster in the process of being removed, showing the laths underneath – (during the restoration of No.3)

The lime for mortar and plaster is obtained by extracting limestone from a quarry and processing it in a lime kiln, where it is heated to form a powder substance called Quick Lime (Calcium Oxide). Sometimes, when lime was not available, they would have used oyster shells instead, as when heated they produce a very similar material….

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Photo credit: Thiophene_Guy via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA ‘Firing up the kiln’ https://www.flickr.com/photos/7371031@N08/

It is important when doing repair work to buildings constructed with wattle and daub, to use traditional materials. Daub may have shrinkage as it dries, this is perfectly normal, gaps may occur; similarly, as green timbers season, this too may cause gaps. This can easily be remedied by filling in with lime mortar. When larger areas of daub have failed, with careful preparation they can be repaired or replaced with new daub. Timbers can be prone to rot or insect attack, especially woodworm. Staves can be replaced and if necessary, stainless steel meshing can be used to strengthen weak areas of wattle. Each case needs to be assessed and treated individually, sometimes specialist help may be required….

What is necessary, is to consider the nature of the fabric of older buildings, due to the fact the material needs to ‘breathe’. Modern day cements, renders and impermeable paints are unsympathetic to this and their useage can cause a building to decay. Rain water will soak into cracks and soon rot timbers and soak into daub. Therefore, it is absolutely essential to use flexible, porous materials such as limeplaster and limewash on wattle and daub….

With a little love and care  (and the right treatment when a problem does arise)….there are very few reasons as to why these old buildings, that have stood for so many centuries, shouldn’t stand for many more….

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In need of some TLC….

Back to basics….

Being in the very fortunate position of having two homes between us, we were able to sell one to secure the purchase of No.3 and live in the other, while all the renovations were underway…. Well, this was the plan anyway – but as so is often the case, the time allowed for such a project was greatly under estimated….

John sold his property in December 2003 and work on the cottage commenced in the Spring of 2004. We already had an architect lined up and he drew up plans for a two storey extension, comprising of additional downstairs living space and providing a third bedroom and family bathroom upstairs. What we considered a perfectly reasonable proposal was, unfortunately, not so agreeable to the listed buildings section of the local planning department. We were refused permission for two storeys and eventually, after much negotiation, were granted a small, single storey extension, to the side of the building. Undeterred by this set back, we commenced to plan as best we could with the somewhat now limited space we had to work with. It was all going to be a little cosier than we had originally envisaged… However, before alterations of any kind could commence, there was the question of the basic fabric of the building. Every inch of plaster was in need of replacement and a plasterer willing to apply his trade the old fashioned way, using lime and horsehair, had to be found…. Firstly though, it was our job to remove all the old plaster from the ceilings and walls and in the process replace any laths that were in need….

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Sourcing materials became a project in itself, several trips around the country ensued; laths from Bath, lime from Winchester, hand made clout nails from Oxfordshire was just the start if it….

Before commencing with the removal of the plaster, we got a specialist in to sandblast all the beams in the house. This was actually against the wishes of the Listed Buildings Officer assigned to our case; he wanted  us to sand the beams down by hand, as he was concerned sandblasting would be too harsh and may inflict damage to the beams. If we had adhered to his wishes, we could well still be in the process of sanding down beams today! So, we found a sandblaster with an excellent reputation, who had worked on many important, historical buildings (including Windsor Castle after the fire in 1992). We were confident he would do a sympathetic job and we were certainly not to be disappointed….

Afterwards we gave the beams a good coat of liquid wax, to help protect them. Getting rid of centuries worth of grime and layers of paint from those beams, gave the whole place an instant transformation….

So, then the dirtiest, dustiest, most gruelling task of all could begin….stripping the house back virtually to its wattle and daub. Each night we would return home caked from head to toe in lime plaster dust – it would be in our hair, eyes, everywhere! Even though we wore protective masks, we both developed nasty coughs that would take months to clear….

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At last this unpleasant task was completed and we were able to bring in the plasterer…. Finally, we were beginning to see progress….

It’s all in a number….

No.3 is undoubtedly old, the exact year it was built is unknown but we have a rough idea. Whilst carrying out the restoration work, we were approached by the Domestic Buildings Research Group, who were interested in having a close look at the structure of the house. It was an excellent opportunity, as we had it virtually stripped back to its wattle and daub at the time and the timber framing was completely exposed.

Accompanying the group were a couple of archeologists and a dendrochronologist. Although dendro samples were taken, it was unfortunate that it was not possible to obtain one that would give an accurate enough reading for tree ring dating. A successful sample needs to have at least eighty visible rings. Carbon dating is another option, we have promised ourselves that one day we will look into having this done.

However, the archeologists were able to provide us with a rough guide to the time of construction, by the nature and style of the timber framing, particularly the lack of purlins (horizontal roof beams) and the long wind braces. The estimate they gave was circa 1350.

Incidentally, a successful dendro analysis was undertaken on another house in the village, The Forge, dating it to 1254. So, that tells us there was a settlement of a certain size here at that time. There is no written record before 1291 that refers to the village – although, it is possible there is reference in the 1086 Domesday to a chapel, that once stood where the village church is now situated. The existing church was built around 1290.

Back in the day, it is most likely that most of this area would have been predominantly woodland, typically oak. Timber framed buildings would often have been built from trees growing in situ. Possibly a saw pit would have been dug close by and clay for wattle and daub locally sourced. The digging of clay would result in impressions which would then naturally fill with water. This explains why there is often a pond in the immediate vicinity of a timber framed building.

These early builders and carpenters were highly skilled, very often working as mobile units, moving from site to site, constructing buildings surprisingly quickly. The smallest trees possible for the job in hand would be selected, the builds would tend to be constructed in the winter months from green wood. Seasoned wood, especially oak, is very hard to work with. Being green, the wood would be susceptible to twisting, thus giving that ‘crooked’ charm so many of these cottages and houses exude.

This particular cottage is a two bay, open hall house, with one and a half storeys. It is timber framed with brick infill on the lower level and lime washed wattle and daub/render infill to the upper level. It has a steeply pitched, plain tiled, hipped roof with end gables. Of course, at one time it would have been thatched. It has its original outshot.

A hall house, to put it simply, is basically just that – a ‘hall’. A simple , one main room dwelling. Sometimes, one or two smaller rooms, for the storage of food etc., would be included at one end. A more affluent family home may possibly of had another section at the other end for privacy and somewhere to keep valuables. Generally though, the whole ‘community’ (this would include the family and any servants they may of had if they were wealthy enough), all lived together in the main hall.

A hearth in the middle of the room provided a fire for warmth and cooking. The resulting smoke would have been drawn up into the roof area to a vent.

There are still many examples of these buildings around but few remain relatively unchanged. Sometimes, they become so unrecognisable through modernisation over the ages, that it is only when work is undertaken that happens to expose tell tale, soot blackened roof beams, that the origins become evident.

This cottage is an unspoilt example of an early house. At some point after 1540 a chimney was added and an inglenook fireplace incorporated. At a later date the house was extended and the fireplace became enclosed within the building rather than being on an outside wall. I assume it was all one house at that time because nowadays, that ‘extension’ is a separate cottage in its own right – we are actually semi-detached. It is possible it was originally added as a ‘dower’ cottage – maybe to provide accommodation for an elderly relative…. I speculate. This extension would have been less than half the size of the main house but it has been enlarged since.

I am not at all sure when the outshot was added or whether it was in fact part of the main build.

There are four main types of timber framed house. Box frame, post and truss, aisled and cruck. Of course, builders would of added their own variations and modifications to a particular style. This house appears to have been built following the aisle method, although having said that, it is not entirely true to form.

An upper floor was added, possibly in the 1400’s, to half the house, leaving the remaining half still open hall. The beams supporting this floor are substantial, almost ‘over engineered’ when compared to those of the ceiling added at a later date to the other half of the house.

The later addition would have happened about the time the fireplace was built, also it is likely this is when the staircase was installed. Originally, access to upstairs would have been via what was basically a ladder. Amongst the large ceiling beams of what is now the dining room, is an area that has been infilled with much smaller ones, this is quite obviously where the ladder was situated. I, for one, am relieved access to upstairs is no longer by this method….!!

Love at first sight? I hardly think so….

When my then future husband, John, told me that his dream was to live in an old timber framed house, it came as no surprise. Being a tree surgeon he has a natural obsession with wood, especially oak. However, I thought it would remain just that – a dream…. I should have known better than to underestimate him….

One evening, shortly after putting his own house on the market and moving in with Jordan (my then 2 year old son) and myself, John arrived home, obviously excited about something. It soon became apparent what – “I think I might have found us a project!” – he announced. He’d had a meeting with his estate agent and conversation had turned to the type of property we may be interested in. It so happened the agent knew of one that might ‘tick all the boxes’….

Now, had I of known John for slightly longer at that point, I would of had an inkling of what exactly his idea of a project was and alarm bells would have been ringing…. I still had a lot to learn….

It was on a particularly filthy evening (lashing with rain and howling a gale) in October 2003, that we set out to view this project of John’s for the first time. It was just under an hours drive from our then home but to an area I was totally unfamiliar with. It seemed like an endless journey down narrow, twisting country lanes. For all intents and purposes, I could have been in a foreign land – I was completely lost! It makes me smile when I think back on that journey – how well I know every twist and turn of those lanes now….

Eventually we arrived in the middle of what seemed like….nowhere! We had driven up a bumpy, unmade road and come to a halt at a dark and gloomy dead end – the only light to be seen, was that escaping from the odd chink in the curtains of a few houses, clumped together in a vast expanse of….nothingness! Behind an apology of a hedge stood a dilapidated, sorry looking cottage. This was obviously ‘it’ – the potential project. John’s enthusiasm was unabated but I had a distinct sinking feeling as we knocked on the neglected door with its peeling paint….

Once inside, the first thing to hit me was an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. The ceiling was so low, only 6 foot from the cold, flagstone floor. We had entered from outside straight into a dreary sitting room – the only cheer came from the fire blazing in a magnificent inglenook. My thoughts were – “You have got to be joking…. You can’t honestly expect us to live here….!”

We were shown around the property and I was imagining ghosts and ghoulies in every dark, shadowy corner…. I’ve always had an overactive imagination. Needless to say, I was unimpressed at that first viewing and it took a bit of persuading for me to return for a second look….

Seeing the cottage again, this time in daylight, I was slightly more heartened. It was a Sunday afternoon and the sun was shining. Now it could be appreciated it was not situated in a vast expanse of nothingness but actually on a stretch of common land with a pretty pond close by. Just beyond was a hive of activity. A large bonfire was being constructed in readiness for the coming November 5th celebrations and it seemed as if the whole village had turned out to help. The sense of community spirit was infectious….

Looking around inside once again, I was pleasantly surprised. Knowing what to expect this time, the lowness of the ceiling was not quite so imposing – in fact it felt rather cosy. Still though, I had major reservations about the overall state of the place. It was with a degree of reluctance that I allowed myself to agree to our making an offer on the cottage…. My one stipulation was – ‘all building and renovation work was to be completed before we moved in’…. I refused to live in a building site. The deadline….before Jordan started school. Well, that backfired. We moved into the building site the day before Jordan started school!!

So, that was how it came to be that we were now the proud owners of what was, in my mind at that time, a derelict, tumbledown, disaster waiting to happen….

It was hardly love at first sight….