Saturday, 30 July 2011

17 Visitors, the eBay Purchase from Hell, and the Return of the Internet!

My Internet has come back up after six-and-a-half days of outage. The words of wisdom from Orange technical support were "There's nothing we can do, if the service does not come back within 10 days, get back to us" !!!!!!!!!!!!!! It feels like I have been to hell and back many times over the last week. The problem was that by tweaking with the ADSL modem's settings, I could sometimes get Internet at 55 kbits - though not reliably. There was a lot of failed tweaking and a lot of wasted time.

Anyhow, to celebrate the InterNet coming back a brief blog entry for yesterday!

I had 17 visitors in total:

  • 1 plumber
  • 1 builder
  • 6 members of a local family (including relatives on holiday from Holland)
  • 7 Slovakian fruit pickets who arrived on 7 push bikes
  • 2 lady police officers late at night
Only the builder and plumber were expected. I am teetering on the edge of having a working bathroom - it's getting quite exciting.

The police officers were somewhat alarming, but as soon as they mentioned Arbroath I had an inkling. I recently bought a TV from Arbroath off eBay - only the TV received had a much lower specification  than the TV advertised. And geeks like me know precisely what features we are going for and which models have these and which models do not! :-) I contacted the seller about the misrepresentation, suggesting some resolutions, and was immediately accused of lying about the misrepresentation; stealing her TV; not paying any money and threatened with the police! So this accounted for the visit. All I could do was tell the police that I had documentary evidence that everything the seller was saying was false, and indeed had sent this documentary evidence to the seller. I had already taken the mis-selling to the eBay resolution centre, to get an independent judgement this way.

Anyhow, although it was dark when the lady police officers arrived, they had mighty powerful torches so I could take them for a tour of the castle in the dark. :-)

So the castle does make one speculate on the nature of humanity. The visitors today were absolutely lovely - I only wish I had had some notice so I could have baked some scones or something. Indeed, I did precisely that later in the day out of consequent guilt! This contrasts totally with the "eBay purchase from hell" as just described - one never expects clicking the "BUY" button to result in a police visit. I will not pass any judgement on the individual concerned, but will report back on the outcome of the eBay resolution.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Castle Internet Down AGAIN !

Apologies again for the lack of any blog entries. The Internet has been down at the castle for three days and counting, since the afternoon of Saturday 23rd July. :-(

I get occasional windows in time when the Internet works and the speed then is 55 kbits/second. Yes, a dial-up modem would be faster. Orange technical support said "If the problem has not gone in 10 days, contact us back.". Clearly, 10 days without the Internet is considered a perfectly valid service by this ISP!

I had another call to technical support today - the chap finally admitted that there was nothing he could do, and he said that the problem should be gone in two days. I asked him how he could say this, when it had been going on for longer than this already, and that the previous Internet outage (with identical symptoms) was 10 days. No justification was supplied.

Anyhow, the technical support must be improving as the guessed-at time to fix is going down. :-) / :-(

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Electric Chair Comes to UK

Yesterday morning, I popped a couple of slices of bread into the toaster for breakfast. Yes, my life really is that prosaic, but hang on in there for the denouement.

Next thing I knew, the power went down in the castle. This happened inevitably at the worst possible moment: while I was installing a new computer operating system. After a brief thought that it might be the fault of "Windows 7", well everything else is, I realised that the toaster (high current device) could be the cause. I rushed through to the kitchen. There was a terrible smell of burning, and the toast had popped up - rather make that warm bread. As the RCD (residual current device) in the fuse box had triggered I figured there was a short in the toaster and that probably meant a new toaster :-( I disconnected the toaster, and ate the warm bread. I would worry about the toaster later.

This morning I went to make breakfast again; decided I would not risk using the toaster again with my computer running; extracted an old small toaster from the loft, and proceeded to make toast. After breakfast, I decided I could not put off checking the failed toaster over any longer. I peered inside. There was a bit of bread stuck inside - I could remove that for a start. I stuck a knife in. Gosh that bread is below the shelves that lift the toast, and will be hard to extract. No problem, I can break the bread up into smaller bits. Gosh, that bread is very firm. Only, that was no piece of bread, it was a dead mouse totally entangled in all the metal wires inside the toaster!!!!!!

It was now apparent what the burning smell had been. The mouse had crawled inside the toaster to get the crumbs at the bottom. I had applied 240 volts to the mouse, and it had cross-circuited the mains. The burning smell was the electrocuted mouse - the burning smell had been so intense I hadn't merely toasted the mouse but "fried" it!

I have a terrible mouse problem at the castle. Nowadays, I am very careful about locking food away - in fact there is a whole blog entry pending about my battle with the mice. Anyhow, two days ago I asked my friend Andrew if I should be killing my mice. His reply was "yes" and for such a gentle soul that is quite something. The irony is that while I am too wimpy to kill my mice, I seem to be able to put them in the "electric chair".

At the moment, I can't even bring myself to dismantle the toaster and remove the dead mouse.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Range Archaeology

Today, I was clearing out the brick in-fill at the back of the old kitchen range, which was removed a few days ago - see First Kitchen Lum Reek in 50 Years! The intention is to open up this space to create an open fireplace i.e. to re-use the existing chimney. Re-use is a sound restoration principle.

Anyhow, as I was removing the brick rubble, I came across a "sooted surface" as an underlying layer in the archaeology. This is shown in the first photograph. The only explanation is that the range that was removed was NOT the original range in that position, and that the earlier range was somewhat deeper.

I decided to excavate to this level as shown in the second photograph. There were clearly three flues: a larger one in the centre, and two smaller ones at either side. In fact, the replacement range also had three flues in similar positions.

This discovery solves two mysteries:-

  1. The brick in-full was oddly untidy when everything in the castle is neat, so we wondered if it was later. In fact, the actual original 1860 brick in-fill that has just been discovered is neat
  2. The stove design always looked a bit Edwardian to me. So the evidence now suggests it is indeed later than 1860. I think the 1860 model would have been very heavy cast iron. Some of the panels of the replacement stove are quite thin, and have rusted through.

I suspect the inhabitants of the castle simply installed a new model of cooker at one stage, which was smaller, lighter and presumably more efficient.

The bricks behind the original flues, were I guess, intended to be heat resistant. In the top of the middle flue the bricks take their place in the stone wall. On the left and right and at the bottom of the central blue, half bricks are placed on their sides and stuck onto the wall to provide this heat-proof and air-tight surface. You can see the vertical dimension of the bricks in this orientation is slightly larger.

The result of all this archaeology is that a sooty smell now pervades the kitchen wing, and that I am as black as the ace of spaces! :-) A late night bath awaits. It is interesting how a smell created in the past emerges in the present!

I will be removing the brick in-fill for the original stove tomorrow too, but like any good archaeologist I am recording the historic layer for posterity. :-)

sooty surface in underlying layer behind lime mortar

the three 1860 flues excavated  i.e. three blackened brick columns

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Carboniferous Tree Fern Assaults Baronial Pile

As more and more vegetation gets pulled off Balintore Castle in the process of restoration, the bits that do remain suddenly jump into hitherto unknown prominence. Gosh, I thought to myself, that fern growing directly under the kitchen window needs to be removed. I decided to remove this plant as a quick task, while my friend Andrew and I were taking turns at painting a high-up window leaning over the edge of some scaffolding. In fact, the somewhat exhausting position one had to adopt while painting, was reminiscent of  the contortion demanded whilst kissing the Blarney Stone.

Anyhow, it wasn't a quick weeding task at all! Like all jobs at the castle, the tendency is to totally underestimate their scale. I reckon this fern had been growing there for at least 50 years. After two hours of work, Andrew and I had got only half the fern removed. We had chopped it with an axe, used trowels and shovels - but the roots proved incredibly tenacious. We had first to clear away the leaves, then the earth mound the fern had created for itself through decades of self-fertilising.

In the end I bought myself a garden fork (the most appropriate tool that we did not have) and removed the final bit of root a couple of days later, after 30 minutes work. The last bit of roots I removed are shown in the photograph with the ladder for scale. This is only a third of  the entire root system, and thus the plant deserves its place in the "super-size-my-biology" seam of carboniferous fossils, along with foot-wide dragonflies!

Ferns hold water against the side of stonework, and this spalls the stone in the winter as well as washing away the mortar, so as much as I love the fractally bootylicious fern as a plant - it had to go. When I first saw the castle, vertical columns of ferns were growing up the sides of the building, in precisely the locations where the stolen downpipes should have been.  If I half-closed my eyes, the elevations of Balintore were the exotically-vegetated cliffs leading up to the plateau of Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World". :-)

Friday, 8 July 2011

Supersize My Birthday Timber and Going for the Test Burn

When someone asked what choice activity I had lined-up for my birthday (today),  the answer was that I would be humphing beams. :-) Well, the two beams have just now been humphed, and thank goodness this is over.

These beams are monsters, one foot square, and around 15 feet long. They were so heavy my builder and I had to roll them along the ground on short sections of scaffolding pole. When we were lifting them, we could only do so for a few seconds. 

These are 200 year-old beams reclaimed from a Dundee jute mill. The beams' cross-sections are more than twice the dimensions they need to be, but the local sawmill found too many nails in them to cut them up - so we had to use them "as is". This is a known risk with reclaimed wood. My builder cut the ends to slip into the pre-existing corbelled stone sockets in the walls, and when the last one fell into its socket, with a final whack from a baton we were so relieved.

We put in the first beam yesterday. The effort require was so enormous, that I almost fainted on numerous occasions, and it genuinely makes you instantly tired - a very weird phenomenon that I am not used to. My builder and I were yawning all over the place! :-)

The pictures show the first beam in place (taken yesterday), and the second beam in place (taken today).

An on a lighter note. :-) Note double pun - I once did a triple pun i.e. four simultaneous encoded meanings that were all applicable! Anyhow, I picked up a wood-burning stove in brilliant condition, found on gumtree, from a lovely chap in Broxburn (outside Edinburgh) on Wednesday.

There was some uncertainty over the make and model, which was a bit concerning because there are many Chinese import looky-likey stoves, with components which will wear out in a couple of years. Anyhow, by some detective work via the original supplier of the stove, I worked out it was the real deal: a "Yeoman Country". Yeoman is an excellent British manufacturer, and the Country is the biggest model they make - just right for a chilly castle.

My builder and I set the stove up in place, to check that it would draw OK - as in the picture.  Even without the flue sealed-in to the chimney, the heat output was phenomenal. That room has never been so warm. I have taken out a temporary more industrial looking solid cast iron Norwegian 11kW model, and put in this British 13kW steel model with glass doors so you can see the flames. This befits this "living room to be" more. 

My builder and I put the stove at various heights to check the aesthetics within the old curved alcove - a pain with such a heavy object - but definitely worth doing. The right height appears to be around 10" off the ground - easier to insert logs and logs can be stored underneath if we raise the height using small dwarf walls.

The chimney is not central in the alcove sadly, so we has to move the stove slightly to one side for the "test burn". I now need to buy two 45 degree pipe bends to create a dog-leg at the top, so the stove can sit centrally. Off to eBay! :-)

Thanks for all the happy birthday wishes on Facebook!

beam one in place (taken yesterday)

beam two in place (taken today)

test firing of newly purchased stove (taken yesterday)

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Let's Go Explore !

When I was looking for a historic property to restore, I snooped around a lot of ruins.
Most of this is all in the past now.......

However, I did my first bit of ruin snooping for ages about a week back.
I was driving my friend Andrew around (he's also been a big friend of
Balintore Castle) on a glorious warm and sunny day, but we took the
"wrong" route back to the castle by mistake.

As we passed a old stone cottage high up on the hill, almost
hidden by vegetation, I exclaimed "Is that occupied, or deserted?".
Andrew indicated he suspected this had been deserted for some
time, so I couldn't help a "Let's go explore!". :-)

This we did! It was/is an incredibly picturesque place with fruit trees
growing in front of the building, but nature had taken over and it must
have been deserted for decades. The wooden outbuildings had collapsed.
but the stone building itself was good, with just one corner of the
roof needing fixing.

It was a traditional single story "but 'n' ben" i.e. a 2 room cottage consisting
of kitchen and bedroom - in this instance with a short bit of corridor and a
bathroom between. However, the rooms were generous as was the size
of the building overall. We peeked into the loft space through the hatch in the
bathroom - the roof was both high and quite steeply pitched with no beams
crossing the space. The building spoke to us both simultaneously and said

  •                two good-sized en-suite bedrooms in the roof space
  •                bathroom becomes central stairs
  •                two downstairs rooms become kitchen and lounge

The building was on a steep slope of the side of a hill. However, it was
south facing and looked down over a beautiful broad sweep of glen.
The setting could have not been better. The extent of the jungle indicated
the garden must have stretched all the way down to the road, and as such
would have been beautifully staged, and the evidence suggested it would
have been magnificent in its heyday. The only downside would be the
snow in winter given the elevation - though last winter the whole UK was struck.

Anyhow, a perfect little "do-er upper". I have my own little project of course, but
could not help teasing Andrew with this as his!

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

First Kitchen Lum Reek in 50 Years!

Having removed the wood burner from the scullery, in order to dismantle the dangerous flue above this, there was nowhere to keep guests warm, for the ensuing castle party. And keeping warm at Balintore Castle is a matter of life and death, rather than mere comfort! :-)

I thought this might be the right time to create an open fireplace in the kitchen. The long-standing plan has been to install an open fire, reminiscent of a mediaeval great hall fireplace, in the location of the old range.. Indeed, the kitchen has been designed to look like a mediaeval great hall, so it would be entirely fitting.

Accordingly, Andy, Andrew and I photograpically documented the sad in-situ remnants of the Victorian range cooker, carefully removed them, and placed them in the basement for future generations. We lifted a recently purchased large dog grate into the aperture that was left. Andy said that the way to test if the chimney is working is simply to light a large fire underneath and see where the smoke goes. This we did. As you can see from the photograph, the room filled with smoke. Our eyes stung, and we flung open the windows. Any passers-by would have been alarmed by the dense plumes of smoke pouring out of the castle windows. :-)

So total failure! Or so one might think. From outside the building we could see smoke streaming out of one of the chimney tops - probably for the first time in 50 years. So the chimney was not in fact blocked. Andy rodded the chimney from the top and from the bottom - this is around 30 metres high - and did some unblocking from the top of others in the same stack improving the situation perhaps slightly. But the bottom line was that the draw inside the kitchen fireplace was not correct for an open fire - so this idea had to be put on hold.

It would be possible to move the fire dog back a foot or so by removing the crumbly brick packing that was at the back of the range, and less smoke would certainly get into the room. However, the draw still needs to be majorly improved and in my positive way I think it must be possible. The large opening above the fireplace has to be throttled, in my view, to a thin strip at the back. The velocity of the rising hot air will thus be greater (Bernoulli's principle) and this will pull the smoke through. Open fires are always throated with a surprisingly small opening at the back.

As a temporary solution we stuck the old wood-burner inside the opening. The metal flue pipe vents into the chimney and as it is not sealed in, the draw is not great. However, the stove still works fairly OK in this location and only a relatively small amount of smoke escapes into the room.

The best outcome of the failed dog grate experiment, was that despite the smoke, on walking into the kitchen one was just hit by a wall of heat. And I have never, ever known the kitchen to be warm before. :-) The promise of warmth and comfort at Balintore continues to tantalise.

remnants of old Victorian kitchen range

failed experiment with new dog grate (smoke everywhere!)

temporary compromise wood burner heating solution

Monday, 4 July 2011

Art and the Archetype

With my Internet running at 128 kbits, and unreliably at that, it is
folly to attempt a blog entry, but then that's me all over. :-)

This may sound a very silly fear indeed, if not grandiloquently
pompous, but I am in a state of continual concern that I confuse art
with the archetypal. And yes, it is a real fear, and yes it does
occupy my thoughts.

Despite the philosophising, we all really know what art is: something
that moves us through its beauty in a very personal communing with the
work. Preconditions for this communing are an openness for new
experience, unprejudiced but keen observation, and some knowledge of
rules that can be made and rules that can be broken - in short the
cultural context.

However, once we have learned to pattern match a style (Art Deco), an
artist (Van Gogh), or a painting (the Mona Lisa), do we enjoy what is
quintessential or do we actually engage in sufficient observation to
judge the art?

The quintessential is comforting; art is discomforting. My castle is
damningly quintessential,  facilely archetypal, or as a child would
put it, a really "castley-castle". It is a cube with turrets on the
four corners. Was its purchase a quick fix, tick box in life (the
quintessential) or a response to its art. There is no doubt that it
was an investment in beauty and beauty alone, but was it commoditised,
as with an artist with a name, or suitably and artfully reckless? I
very much fear it was the  former. Interestingly, a number of ruined
buildings I tried to buy were by the  same architect (William Burn)
but I just did not know it at the time. I am certainly consistent, but
this is the indistinguishable hallmark not just of good taste but of
the archetypal.

Castles are ripe for archetyping, and I very much enjoy this. I attach
two such images from the Polanski film "The Ninth Gate." This film is
severely under-rated, and somehow I felt vindicated in my admiration
when he later came out with "The Pianist" which is both genius and the
definitive holocaust film. This is possibly because it stays outside
the concentration camp door - avoiding the emotionally undepictable
rather than the technically so.

Anyhow, the film features a recurring castle image throughout ( the
attached photo) and mediaeval woodcuts which provide the clues for a
bibliophilic puzzle: one example is the attached illustration. Did I
like the film because of its art, because of its castles, because of
its archetyping (I am a bit of a bibliophile) or because of its
archetyped castles? :-) Oddly, in this instance I almost certainly
liked the art, but then I am a cineast,  but boy do I like those
castles! :-)

I am now looking at "classic period" light fitting designs for the
castle's interior. This is fraught with danger, as the period enforces
boundaries now that were not present then in the period. Should one
like a light in order to go for it, or should it simply be in keeping
with the period, or should it simply suit its location? I am trying to
go for all three - but a little blurring in the period seems to be
necessary. Victorian lighting is not hugely inspired, as the basic
purpose was to make the best of low intensity light sources: oil, gas,
candles. Electricity frees light fittings from this straight-jacket,
and Art Deco starts to revel in colour and design - and I am a bit of
a reveller. :-)

So for "classic" read archetypal. Not all Victorian lighting looks
Victorian,  so one favours a look that is clearly Victorian, to prove
to others/oneself that one has got it right. :-)

Sadly, I am no further forward in my conundrum, even after its first
expression in prose. Am I art or archetype? You decide!

recurring castle image from film "The Ninth Gate"

woodcut castle image from film "The Ninth Gate" 

Saturday, 2 July 2011

The Professionals Know All the Best Angles

Two delightful guests at last Saturday's castle party were Kyle and Louise who together have recently opened a photographic studio and gallery in Kirriemuir called "Hamilton Kerr", after their respective surnames. I was fortunate enough to attend the opening of the gallery, and this is where I first met Kyle and Louise.

A joyous surprise was seeing this stunning image of Balintore Castle at the opening exhibition. It really is one of the best photographs of the castle I have seen. Using the "ha ha" as visual symmetry for the castle is genius: why didn't I think of this angle? I always think of yesterday's ha-ha as today's infinity pool. :-)

Kyle and Louise have given me permission to use this image in my blog. You can find further examples of their work on their web site:

There is a strange coincidence in this picture. The Victorian architect, William Burn, who designed the castle would always produce a scenic painting of every building in its landscape for his clients, in advance of construction. Quite rightly, he did not expect a client to buy a concept "off plan" and "off elevation". Anyhow, he would always add "pen and ink" crows to the painting to zhuzh-up the gothic atmosphere. Fascinatingly. Hamilton Kerr have upheld this tradition with Photoshop, unconsciously tapping into the original vision of the architect.

Indeed, a number of talented photographers have each created their own unique vision of Balintore Castle through their art, and I hope to be able to showcase these works in future blog entries.