Sunday 3 December 2023

Forty Below

Forty Below: A Long-Overdue Essay on Cold and Balintore Castle

the first heating at Balintore Castle

At secondary school, I was impressed by a Jack London short story, possibly called "Forty Below", which detailed life in the extreme cold in the far North of America. Not only was this level of cold mind-blowing, but it could be poetically unit-free as -40 Celcius is the same as -40 Fahrenheit. And while I have never experienced such temperatures, it is only since buying Balintore Castle that I have experienced -18C, and got rather too close to hypothermia for my own comfort on a number of occasions.

I knew before purchasing Balintore Castle that "cold" would be an issue. A castle is the archetypal cold and drafty building, and nearby Braemar is the coldest place in the UK, so how was I going to heat this vast building, let alone afford to do so?

It swiftly became apparent that people in the past were hardier than nowadays. The Victorians had no notion of building insulation, but wore more layers of clothing in heavy fabrics, were more physically active and must simply have had a different mindset.

The only sources of heat originally at Balintore were coal fires. Getting these going again has been very rewarding, and although a coal fire does heat a room somewhat, a whopping 80% of the heat goes up the chimney and only 20% goes into the room. The effect is certainly nothing like modern central heating. Huddling round the fire is the order of the day.

When I first lived in the building, there was no heating full-stop so winters were a challenge. I recall one night early on, where despite a four season sleeping-bag, my body temperature continually dropped throughout the night and I was woken up again and again by the cold. Normally, you 
expect to warm up in bed, so this experience was my literal and metaphorical wake-up call.

I evolved a sleeping solution using 3 high tog duvets. My discovery was that the 4th duvet adds weight but no extra warmth. When I was sleeping in a tiny caravan round the back of the building, I was inside a 4 season mummy sleeping bag with the zip on the right pulled fully up and my head in the hood, with a woolly hat on. On top of the sleeping bag were two plump duvets.

If I moved at all in the night, and the zip came down even 6 inches or so, the pain from the cold in my right arm would wake me up. I taught myself to sleep absolutely stationary and flat on my back, using mind control to resist the temptation to sleep on my side, which is my natural inclination,  I went to sleep like an Egyptian Mummy and woke up in the exact same position.

I kept a litre bottle of water by my bed, and this regularly froze completely solid overnight. I had rain butts to collect water and the huge volume of water inside them froze totally solid during the record-breaking winters of 2010 and 2011. In normal winters, you only get a frozen outside with liquid water inside.

The caravan was totally uninsulated, and only consisted of a single metal shell, reminiscent of a tin can. I had set up an electric heater there and a small computer desk. With the bed folded out, only a square foot of floor remained and it is hard to believe that for 2 years I lived on that square foot.

In the middle of the second bitter winter in the caravan, I reach the point of stir-craziness or cabin fever. I knew that with one more night in the caravan, I would go mad, and moved into the castle for good, even though my bedroom there lacked glass in the window and even lacked a floor. I had to skip across floor joists to reach my bed, and had to remember in the mornings not to step out normally as I would fall through the joists to the dirt floor three feet below. There was only one morning I absentmindedly forgot about the joists and tumbled onto the earth.

Anyhow, things got better in the castle with an electric underblanket and I would switch this on for the first part of the night to warm up the bed. In the extreme cold, it is sometimes worryingly touch-and-go whether the bed is warming up with body heat alone. I would often fall asleep with the electric blanket on and wake up at 2AM absolutely stifling! 

In fact the first evening with the electric blanket I was able to watch "Frozen Planet" in bed. I hadn't been able to watch this documentary series before because the combination of 
real physical cold and on-screen cold was too much to bear. As I settled down in bed, I thought "Do your worst, David Attenborough!". :-)

The first heating in the castle was a green enamelled Norwegian Jøtul stove which I bought on eBay and picked up in Milngavie. It had originally come from Mull. My friend Andrew and I lit it tentatively the first time, and thereafter I would always put it on for his visits. We would side astride the stove like riders on a horse as it started up, so desperate were we for any kind of warmth. We both recall the first occasion we 
got the temperature in the room up to double digits. It was a moment to celebrate and somewhere there is a photograph.

At Balintore, piling stoves high with wood is the order of the day, and we always knew the
Jøtul stove was pumping out the heat, when the caribou's bottom on the moulded cast iron side panel of the stove started to glow red. I have subsequently found out this is not good for the stove, and no longer do I aim for this.

A friend visited from London. I made him dinner, and between courses I announced "It is time to run round the castle now". The order was met with complete disbelief. I had got into the habit of running round the castle between courses as it is when you are sitting still that your body temperature starts to drop. So laps round the castle were the quid pro quo for formal dining. I normally never kept still inside the 
castle and danced to keep warm from waking up until going to bed. I was living a cold-induced rave lifestyle.

I have lived in the castle with a foot of snow inside the building. There was no glass 
in all the windows of the Victorian kitchen for the longest time so fine snow could blow in, and I found myself walking on top of a foot of snow while cooking for about a week.

My friend Andrew and I remember one time each of us was sitting with a cup of tea at the kitchen table, obviously with our coats on. The windows on each side of us had holes in the glass, and the wind was just howling through the kitchen where we were sitting. This was a common occurrence, but the bleakness of this particular occasion when we tried to have a normal conversation while both shivering has imprinted, with both of us clinging desperately onto the cup of tea for residual warmth.

So over the years I have "toughened up" a bit. Although, I am never quite sure 
if I have actually just learned to discern "feeling cold" from "being cold". Now "feeling cold" can be unpleasant but one can still get on with things. However, "being cold" is another matter. This is the bone-chilling cold, which brings pain to one's feet and hands, that drains one's soul, and renders tasks impossible and requires intervention. At the castle intervention used to be taking to one's bed. Andrew who works in agriculture engineering in all weathers, will work through the "pain in hands" stage to the "no feeling in hands" stage. I take the pain as the warning sign and stop there.

One Christmas early on, I stayed up at the castle instead of visiting my friends in Norfolk, as the 14 days off would give me a lot of uninterrupted time to work on the building. I was doing some wiring in the loft of the kitchen wing. I could spend 15 minutes 
wiring (which needed gloves off for dexterity) before my hands would hurt too much. To thaw my hands would take the next 30 minutes in my bedroom with the Jøtul stove. I achieved that fortnight what I could have done in a day in Summer. It was a learning experience.

Once when I came up from England, I was discussing matters with my builder of  the time called Andy. After 5 minutes of standing still, not only was I shivering with the cold but I was violently spasming with the cold. "You've turned into a southern softie, David". I could only reply "Yes.". 

Three weeks later when I had acclimatised as much as you can to cold, it was another freezing cold day. Andy must have been feeling the cold himself, as he announced "I don't know how you can live here, David.". Result! 

My current builder Gregor recently confessed that he has frequently turned up in the morning, not expecting 
me to have made it through a particularly cold night.

It is useful to have a thermometer to measure the temperature for safety.
Sometimes, you find are just being a wuss and it is not actually as cold as you  feel it is. At other times, your instincts are spot on and the temperature is indeed so low that things could quickly become dangerous without action.

My experience suggests that 13C is the safe temperature - you may feel cold but 
you are OK. Below this wear a coat indoors. 5C is where things start to get unpleasant, and in high humidity 5C can feel as cold as when it is sub-zero.

Below zero temperatures need not be as bad as you may think. Snow can blanket the castle and of course bright sunshine and below zero temperatures is a mood lifter. You need one space you can heat up as a refuge from the cold. I did not have this for quite some time at the castle, and the alternative of retreating to bed felt like a defeat.

I had grand plans of installing a Ground Source Heat Pump (GSHP) at the castle and powering this by 
the castle's old hydroelectric station. The magic about a GSHP is that you put one unit of electrical pumping energy in, and you get 5 units of heat energy out, so it works out to be the cheapest form of heating to run. However, the capital cost is high. I was looking at 40k for Balintore, so I demurred to a good old oil boiler. The oil heating works well and keeps three zones of the castle, on three heating circuits, nice and toasty.

In the film "Gone WIth the Wind" the character Scarlett O'Hara declares "I'll never be hungry again", and I have often pondered a similar declaration at Balintore "I'll never be cold again". 

To this end, while open fires look lovely and I will keep a number operational at the castle, I now have no qualms about putting a wood-burner in front of a fireplace as with these 80% of the heat goes into the room and only 20% up the chimney.

I am still staying in an unrestored heating-
free part of the castle over this winter, but watch this space.

So, fingers crossed, it is unlikely that I will ever return to the early castle days of "Jack London" levels of cold at Balintore, but I thought I 
had better record them for posterity as few would believe them otherwise, and looking back I can scarcely believe them myself.

Monday 27 November 2023

Dinner for 25 !

Yesterday, I held a dinner party at Balintore Castle to thank everyone who has supported the restoration over the years. Some of the guests are involved with their own restoration projects and have provided advice and a shoulder to cry upon, when things have not gone to plan. There was a contingent from Wales and a contingent from Orkney, so quite a gathering.

The event, more or less, was at full moon (actually tonight) so was one of the castle's Lunar Dining Club 
soirées, albeit one at a larger scale than usual - 25 guests rather than just a handful. In fact, I catered for 32 to be on the safe side, but there are always last minute cancellations and no-shows.

Naturally, I was too preoccupied to take any photos, but friend of Balintore James sent me these rather splendid ones, so I thought I would share.

I love to see light shining out of the windows at Balintore, as it is a sign that the building is alive. The photo below shows the full moon. It is actually a night shot, but digital cameras perform miracles with exposure nowadays.

I had pleaded with my builders Craig, Gregor and Gavin to clear the chimney in the Servant's Dining Hall in the basement  for the event so we could heat this space with a wood burner. Finally on Friday, after several months of encountering impenetrable blockage after impenetrable blockage, the stove was installed. Result! For several weeks, Gregor's chimney rods were stuck up the chimney, it was Craig's refusal to give up that eventually retrieved them. This chimney goes from the very bottom of the building to the very top, so challenging is the word.

Here, in another night-time shot you can see smoke coming from the Servant's Hall:

I picked up the massive wood-burner from an architectural antiques yard outside Bath for £60. I put a large pan of water on top of the stove, just to clean the surrounding fireplace, and the water boiled in just 3 minutes. I was so pleased by the sheer quantity of heat pumped out by the stove, and it was gratifyingly warm during the meal. Below you can see the stove on the go and the red wine chambre-ing on the mantel shelf above

We set up 4 tables each with 8 place settings, and did our best to create a festive ambiance for the guests. Winter is now beginning to bite and I have been suffering from some health issues, so we all badly needed distraction and cheering-up. The dinner party was just the ticket.

The menu so you can recreate your own Balintore dinner party at home:

starter - stuffed mushrooms

1st course - Mark's pheasant and apple stew

dessert 1 - Bailey's and Coffee Cheesecake

dessert 2 - Veronique's French Apple Tart

venison casserole

Bailey's and coffee cheesecake

A special thank-you to all my friends who stepped in concernedly to help, given my health issues, with the catering and clearing up. They were amazing. I was told just to sit at the dining table and enjoy myself, which I did, flitting between tables during the meal like a social gad-fly. :-)

Wednesday 18 October 2023

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

The famous engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (IKB) was an illustrious Victorian gentleman with his finger in many pies. The architect of Balintore Castle, William Burn (WB), was also an illustrious Victorian gentleman with his finger in may pies.

It is almost inevitable, therefore, that at some stage they should have their fingers in each others' pies, and friend of Balintore, Gareth, has just unearthed some evidence of this at the new museum in Bristol dedicated to the life of IKB.

Gareth's photos tell the story, but it is astonishing to think that WB was going to build IKB, his own version of Balintore albeit with sections of the building in a very different (and clashing) style. IKB himself was an architect and constructed many buildings including a house in Abingdon, close to my home in England, that was once pointed out to me. So for IKB to engage WB, must have meant that he rated him very highly.

Monday 16 October 2023

The Toilet Paper Mystery

I have been charged twice recently for unpaid postage. My suspicion was that someone in the Post Office was on the fiddle, and there was no indication of which eventual deliveries had merited the extra charges.

However, today this letter arrived:

Inside was a short section of toilet paper folded in an exceedingly neat manner:

Can anyone solve the mystery or identify the printing? All I can conclude is that someone in the Glasgow area (the post mark) wants to wreak revenge for some unidentified wrong-doing of mine by charging me postage by using no-longer-valid stamps. £1.10 is a lot to pay per wipe. :-)


The mystery was solved by my housekeeper who contacted the guest that took away the key to the AirBnB in error. He attempted to post it back and was able to identify the envelope. It's still a mystery why the key was not inside the pocket of toilet paper, but the envelope has been with the Post Office for 3 weeks so anything could have happened.

Monday 9 October 2023

Butler's Pantry 2

Gregor and Gavin have finished repairing the lining of the window reveals in the Butler's Pantry.

Here is the after:

And here is the before for comparison:

The restoration of the original door of the room is underway:

Gregor asked me if I wanted him to restore the original door. I responded "What kind of question is that?". Gregor knows that I am scrupulous is re-using every single bit of original fabric when I can, and of course in reality, it is good that he actually did ask. Gregor misses no opportunity to tease me mercilessly, so it is only fair that I reciprocate. :-)

The original door would have been here:

I have decided to move this blog more into the multi-media age, as a video can give you a far better feel for a space than a sequence of photographs. The video below hopefully captures the feeling in the Butler's Pantry, largely before the full restoration that lies ahead. 


You will notice in the video that Gregor has freed up the three-point lock on the large iron door to the silver safe. The relative proportions of brute force and WD40 required have not been revealed. :-)


Saturday 30 September 2023

Butler's Pantry

The butler's pantry in the basement is one of the most intact rooms in the castle.  Having said that, the flooring had been totally removed long before I bought the building, so the space was not usable.

It still has its original window, with just one broken pane of glass at the bottom right, The original door is still there too, but it had been kicked off its hinges in the past, so is rather in need of repair.

window in butler's pantry

Gregor has recently been repairing the wooden linings round the window, using new bespoke linings manufactured locally with an absolutely identical profile. The cost of these was eye-watering. We have been very careful to "repair" existing fittings throughout this restoration, not only does this exempt the work from any form of planning considerations but it is also perhaps the purest and best approach.

paint "lip"reveals location of original worktop for butler's sink

I instructed Gregor to keep the 5 short existing sections of moulding on left hand side in the above image. These reveal the location of a worksurface which would have held a butler's sink. There was a blocked-up drain underneath as corroboration. When I visited Mellerstain House in the Scottish Borders, I was delighted to see their butler's pantry and committed the details to memory.

In fact, it was the blocked-up drain than prevented us from rebuilding the floor over the top for the longest time. Unblocking the drain was quite an adventure in itself but this is a story for another day - suffice it to say that the drain is now flowing.

Anyhow, Gregor called me over a couple of days ago for a site meeting in the butler's pantry, and asked how we were going to line the walls underneath the worksurface and wouldn't it be better to take the new lining down to the ground instead of just replicating short sections? Gregor was of course correct, and I abandoned my principle of retaining all original fabric in this one instance. The five short lengths could go, especially as there was already a lot of this original lining surviving in the room.

Anyhow, removing this small amount of original fabric made me record the "before" and indeed create this particular blog entry. You can see the original lining on the left hand side of the window reveal, and the new lining on the right hand side of the window reveal.

original lining on left

new lining on right

While the Victorians generally had great attention to detail, I am constantly amazed that linings on sides and on tops, don't line up! :-)

Monday 25 September 2023


One of the side-effects of walking in the countryside with friends at this time of year, is unscheduled foraging. As soon as I walked past this bracket fungus growing on a tree in the vicinity of the castle yesterday, I instantly knew what it was: "Chicken-of-the-Woods" (Laetiporus sulphureus).

I had the fungus pointed out to me around 20 years ago, on a professionally organised "fungus foray" at Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire. Unfortunately the Oxfordshire fungus was high up on a tree and well out of reach. This time the fungus was within arm's reach - hurrah! The guide had told us that Chicken-of-the-Woods" is one of the most delicious there is: both looking like and tasting like chicken and we should grab any opportunity to try it.

I could not believe my good luck this time and picked one piece. Of course, correct identification is vital. The seek App on my mobile phone also identified it as "
Chicken-of-the-Woods", and prior to cooking I looked at a number of YouTube videos, for both identification and preparation purposes. For example:

However, "Chicken of the Woods" is so distinctive being a bright yellow, growing on trees, and consisting of multiple clusters of fans, that it could hardly be anything else - and certainly none of the dangerous fungi in Europe look anything like this.

chicken of the woods growing wild

The YouTube video suggested marinating in olive oil and Teriyaki sauce, and I improvised with olive oil and Soy sauce - 2 minutes was enough.

marinated chicken of the woods

The video barbequed the slices for 2 minutes, but I fried for 3 minutes ensuring that the pieces were well-cooked and had turned brown at the edges. Cooking the pieces well removes any risk from natural bacterial contamination apparently.

cooked chicken of the woods

I presumed that "tasting like chicken" was just a figment of the imagination as the slices look like chicken. In fact, the fungus really does have a mild taste of chicken, and there is also a good robust and meaty texture. This contrasts with some mushrooms which go slimy after cooking.

This delicious fungus would work well with a venison casserole and presumably would keep more texture than a conventional mushroom. "Chicken-of-the-Woods" is much more quorn-like than mushroom-like, and it probably would work well in a casserole where it would absorb other flavours. One YouTube video makes a version of KFC from "Chicken-of-the-Woods", and anything which brings in other flavours like the KFC batter, would be a great accompaniment.

I would go so far as to say 
"Chicken-of-the-Woods" is the best edible fungus I've tried! :-)