the house that k & m built

OK, so it’s been more of a renovation than a rebuild, but over the past 2 years and 11 months, we’ve re-configured rooms, converted a barn and a cowshed into habitable living spaces and given the house a new terrace, a new roof and a bright sunny colour. We’ve added a heating system to end all heating systems, laid pipes and fitted radiators and have completed it all with an un-missable fireplace. Old floors have been dug up and new ones have been laid. Windows have been opened up and doorways blocked. Walls have been knocked through to join rooms together. We’ve mixed, carried and laid cement, plaster and concrete. We’ve put up and taken down scaffolding in all sorts of configurations and in all sorts of weather more times than I care to remember. Floors and walls both internally and externally have been reinforced with iron mesh and rods, all painstakingly welded together. Battleship grey has been replaced with a fresh outdoor green.

And it has only taken:

  • 37 cubic metres of sand
  • 322 bags of cement
  • 173 bags of calce (calcium carbonate/lime binder)
  • 399 bags of leca (lightweight cement/concrete mix)
  • 248 bags of ready mixed grey render
  • 33 bags of white finishing plaster
  • 82 bags of colour render
  • 31 bags of tile glue
  • 170kg grout
  • 2000 roof tiles
  • 68 metres of roof beams
  • 40 square metres of tongue and groove
  • 800 metres of roof tile batons
  • 390 square metres of insulation
  • 9 rolls of roofing felt (360 metres in total)
  • 2169 bricks of various dimensions and composition
  • 700 metres of heating pipes
  • 864 metres of iron reinforcing rods
  • 39 sheets of iron reinforcing mesh of 2 x 3 metres
  • 80 metres of copper guttering
  • 15 metres of copper downpipe

And literally thousands and thousands of screws.

But we can’t take all the credit for the work as clearly without our builder none of the above would have happened in the way we envisaged. We have also been supported in this endeavour by the following, in order of first appearance:

  • my mum
  • Joe
  • my Dad
  • Shirley & Ian
  • Jim
  • Milly & Karl
  • Nathalie & John
  • Gareth, Jane, Lily & Phoebe
  • Sarah & Lara

not to mention the trainees from Finland, the help from our neighbours and last but not least, the constant advice and helpful suggestions from chicken lady’s son-in-law.

Would we do it all again? No, probably not. Would we change anything? Yes, maybe a little. Are we happy? Extremely. Welcome to our house:



the last big change to the house

When we viewed the house back in 2012, there was one room in which all the cooking, eating and living took place. For the past few years, in the absence of any other rooms, we continued to use it in the same way, subjecting our friends and family to many evenings round the table, more often than not, playing cards (and drinking wine of course!). It was always our intention once we had moved the kitchen downstairs to turn this room into a study. I know the kitchen moved downstairs last September but there’s always been something more pressing to finish.

So finally, with all the main building work on the house completed, we were able to set about changing this room into more than just a walk-through to get downstairs. Although not significant on the scale of some of the other room conversions we have done, there was still a fair amount to do: kitchen sink and units to remove, tiles to hack off, pipes to be disconnected and blocked off, the obligatory making good and re-plastering, plus painting and then fitting of battiscopa.

With the arrival of a new bookcase, we were also finally able to unpack 7 boxes of books! It didn’t take us long to realise that 7 boxes of books do not go into one bookcase, even with some heavy editing. So some thinking to do there then……..

In the meantime though, we can enjoy a view of the Apuan Alps from the desk, curl up on a comfy chair with a good book, and if the fancy takes me, bash out a tune on what now must be a painfully out of tune piano. Thank goodness M is tone deaf!

the original kitchen

the same corner now

the trap door, bannisters and the original fireplace

as it is now

bookcase and piano!

the view taken from the doorway

Coincidentally, just as we finished where we started with the main building work (the terrace), so too have we ended in the same room where it all began back in 2013, with the replacing of the trap door and wooden ladder with the floating concrete staircase. It’s almost like we planned it!

more than just another table

Many years ago I went with my mum to the south of Italy to the town where she grew up. It was December and the weather was incredibly mild. We took a bus to the coast nearby, to a place well known for its ceramic products. After scouring the shops looking for a souvenir, we strolled along the beach, only to discover it was literally littered with hundreds of pieces of broken ceramics, each one washed smooth by the sea.

We walked along the entire stretch of beach, gathering those that took our fancy; a lovely colour, an interesting shape, a pattern or some text. We were selective over quality but not quantity. We were certainly not thinking about our hand luggage weight (we were supposed to be travelling light).

Our individual collections have now been united and brought back to their country of origin, albeit 600km or so from their starting point. Today, the best of these are on permanent display:

It has always been my intention to use the ceramics at some point to create a mosaic effect table top. After a long search (over a number of years) for a wrought iron base, I finally found this small rusty table instead:

rubbed down, legs and underside painted

close up of leg

ceramics fixed with tile glue

grouted ceramics

detail of corner

I look at this table now and all the memories of that trip are brought back to me in a way that no shop bought souvenir ever could.

my first electrics (and a lamp called Ronnie)

I’m not lacking in creative ideas when it comes to using the many interesting pieces I have salvaged either from the renovation of our house or from our travels. My trouble is, however, I am lacking in some of the knowledge and skills to execute these ideas. This usually means that M has to get roped in and is directed where to cut, drill and so on.

A while back I found a core bit by the river and knew at some point it would be good for something. I finally decided that it would make a good base for a table lamp. After persuading M to drill a hole right through the centre for the flex and then angle grind a channel underneath for the flex to sit it, I thought it was high time that my involvement should be more than just giving it a coat of varnish.

We bought a lamp holder, some flex, a switch and a plug and today, I learnt how to connect them all together. Under M’s patient guidance, I stripped back the outer plastic of the flex to expose the live and neutral cables. Then, using a pair of wire cutters, I removed more plastic coating to reveal the copper wires. Not as easy as it sounds and after cutting the wires themselves a number of times, I was glad we had more flex than we needed! I connected the live and neutral to the lamp holder and then threaded the flex through the core bit. Slightly regretting the fact I thought an on/off switch was a nice touch, I cut the flex, stripped it back again and connected to one side of the switch and then, as you’ve guessed, did it all again for the other side. So far so good. By this time, connecting the plug was relatively simple, just more of the same. It all sounds very straightforward but it actually took me two hours! Well, you can’t be too careful when dealing with electrics!

All that was left to do was test my wiring. In went the bulb, on went the lamp and…… all worked. If only I had learnt this a little sooner I might have been slightly more use when we were doing the electrics here!

the core bit, varnished and with the hole drilled through

close of up the pattern of the cut stones and cement

finished lamp

finished lamp with switch!

All I need to do now is to find a suitable lampshade. Perhaps I could make one?

when dehydration is a good thing

I have never been one for kitchen gadgets; a small hand mixer and a stick blender are about as advanced as it gets in my kitchen and that’s just the way I like it. But for a while now I have been taken with the idea of a food dehydrator (an essiccatore). One of my neighbours has one and having already tried her dried apple and kiwi, I decided it was definitely the way to go in food preservation!

This particular neighbour is fast becoming my role model: she makes her own bread and pizza in a wood fired oven, makes her own balsamic vinegar, has not just one campo but two, producing vegetables in almost commercial size quantities, does her own preserving of fresh anchovies in oil (her own oil, of course, from their 300+ olive trees), not forgetting the vast quantities of wine made from their very own grapes, wine which we are given, as well as her bread, in exchange for eggs (my one advantage over her – I have chickens!). It therefore goes without saying that not only did I ask her for advice first but I then chose the very same model (thanks to the generosity of my big sis who paid half).

It’s not the most discreet of gadgets but I feel it adds a somewhat semi-professional edge to the kitchen and my casalinga (housewife) tasks! It won’t be a permanent fixture, only coming out when needed and in time, once we have sorted electrics and space in the hay barn we may even run it out there along with our overspill freezer (which is already up and running with a temporary connection).

It seems that almost any fruit, vegetable or herbs can be dried (as well as meat and fish) but obviously the greater the water content the longer the drying time. Apparently you can even dry your own homemade pasta but that’s a step too far for me. I am particularly looking forward to my own dried figs (strangely hard to find in the shops here), not to mention apples, pears and even persimmons.

I’ve given the dehydrator a test run over the past couple of days, unfortunately choosing one of the hardest things to dry with the longest drying time: tomatoes! It may take a bit of time to get it right, but here are the results:

loaded drawers before drying

sliced tomatoes after drying

dried cherry and datterini tomatoes

The sliced tomatoes didn’t work as well as I sliced them too thinly to begin with. Although the manual gives guidance on this for a number of other fruits/vegetables, it didn’t for tomatoes but I’ve also tried a couple of courgettes which seem to have worked well:

So a few more jars to go with the sauces in the store cupboard:

In spite of the current heatwave it looks like we are going to be in with a bumper crop of most things so I am sure it will pay for itself before the year’s out.

watermelons and peaches

After weeks of lovely yellow flowers trailing in both directions, I was excited to finally see two watermelons growing on one of the plants. On closer inspection, I noticed small beginnings of watermelons that had fallen off each plant so I’ve been checking these two every day until it is clear they have firmly taken hold:

The bigger one is currently the size of a large grapefruit, the other about the size of a small peach. Both plants are still flowering so if we are lucky, we may end up with some more:

The next problem will be knowing when they are ready to harvest but there’s quite a way to go before I need to worry about that!

Talking of peaches, we have finally managed to eradicate the leaf curl from our peach tree. It’s only taken us 3 years so this will be the first time we will get a harvest since planting the tree and it’s looking like it will be a good one. Its branches are laden and sagging under the weight of the fruit, so much so, we’ve had to add a support for fear it may snap (it’s still a very young tree):

Luckily, I now have a new kitchen gadget to help with preserving. It’s having a test run in the next few days so watch this space…..

this little piggy

Ever since my brief encounter with the baby boar, I have been out every night on boar watch. Although he is not a great time keeper and seems to have no idea that he should only come out at dusk, I have seen him almost every evening. And sometimes during the day; at 9:30am one morning we spotted him from the terrace on a grassy patch near the chicken lady’s shed. Her son-in-law was watering his orto with his back to the grass, blissfully unaware that a boar was standing watching him. At 3:30pm one afternoon while outside painting a table, I heard a crunch and turned in time to see the boar dive behind the bamboo. I rushed to grab my camera (now always at close hand) and startled him on the orto steps. So close!

Capturing him on camera has not been easy. While eating my dinner with the dining room doors open, I heard the familiar sound of boar crunching on windfall plums. It was almost 7:30pm. Abandoning my dinner, I crept out and finally got these photos:

From that point on, my boar watch duties took a more proactive approach. I began to know his routine and patiently sat in wait at the bottom of the orto as his main route up from the woods seemed to be through the paddock:

He’s a cute little fellow. It’s hard to believe looking at him that he’s going to grow up into something big, bristly and destructive (and hunted). From my internet research, his colouring suggests he is no more than 4 months old, although I have also read that he could be anything up to 10 months old. The young males leave the sounder (the group of boars) at the age of 8-15 months, so based on that information, if he’s not an orphan, then he could be between 8-10 months old.

Apparently, he doesn’t have good eyesight but has an acute sense of smell and hearing. I can’t get that close before he senses me, one way or another. I too, though, have developed a keen ear and can recognise a boar snort, snuffle or crunch at 50 paces. This has allowed me to track him across neighbouring land:

This little baby boar is also quite wily. He manages to either stand just out of range of my zoom lens, to place himself under the camouflage of leaves and grasses or only comes closer when the light is fading and my camera can’t cope, all of which contribute to the fuzziness of my photos!

In my heart, he’s no ordinary baby boar. He’s my baby boar. I have kept him quiet from the locals who undoubtedly won’t share my affection for him. I certainly don’t think they would be trying to photograph him. This has suddenly put into question my plans to own a pig. If I am becoming attached to a wild one that forages on our land (carefully, I might add – he has not dug up any of our vegetables), how will I cope if I finally have a pig of my own?

started first, finished last

In September 2014, when we were naïve and enthusiastic, and building work and house renovation was exciting and full of promise, M and I started on our first job: removing the roof and walls of the hay barn to create a terrace. Keen friends came out and assisted in the demolition and it wasn’t long before we had the makings of a terrace.

With what was to becoming a recurring theme in the renovation of our house, it then stayed untouched for a while as we moved onto other things. Every now and then, and seemingly without any real planning, we did a bit to it: making it watertight, reinforcing the floor, adding a supporting concrete layer, fixing a railing and tiling. Slowly but surely, it started to look more and more like a terrace.

Now two years and 10 months later, it is done. We have gone from this:

original barn as seen on our first viewing (looking into our now bedroom)

the roof!

cleared and ready for demolition

to this:

view from our bedroom

view from the terrace

looking back towards our bedroom

a decorative corner with plants and an old mirror

The completion of the terrace means the building work on our house is now finished. Just one more thing to do before the final ‘before and after’ photos: paint the front door. In the meantime, we are enjoying the view

with a couple of these:

another step completed….

…..or two actually! We can finally say goodbye to draughts, temporary thresholds made out of 3×2 offcuts, and to all the creatures that have managed to squeeze round them. We now have proper thresholds on all the doors and have some steps leading out of the dining room and living room made out of the very stones that we dug up from the cowshed almost 2 years ago!

You might wonder why the doors never came with thresholds in the first place: surprisingly, these are not common here. After all, how do you sweep the dust from your floors if you have a threshold in the way? Our builder was asked this question and demonstrated with a dustpan and brush. We did ask our carpenter to build in the threshold but it seemed incomprehensible to him. ‘Make a very big window frame’, we suggested but to no avail. So, a couple of years on, we have finally got around to some finishing touches. Not a wildly exciting development but a very satisfying one nonetheless.

steps from the dining room

shallow living room step

Martin stress testing the steps!

Have you had an injury at work? Is Tracy planning to sue us for leaving our reject stones around?!

close encounters of the boar kind

At about 9:15pm, on the way back from shutting the chickens in the coop for the night, a baby boar walked out of one of our bushes right in front of me and then headed into the old vineyard next to us. It was about the size of our cats and was seemingly alone. I rushed back in to get M and together we went to find it (at a safe distance of course and keeping our ears and eyes open for any larger relatives).

It was still light, there was the sound of people dining al fresco and a couple of girls were playing on a tree swing on the other side of the vineyard. The boar was un-phased by it all. As I crept closer, it must have been startled by the rustling (the vineyard is now very overgrown) and ran off out of sight. As we walked back to our house, we caught another glimpse of it further down the vineyard, merrily chomping on the undergrowth. Martin and Tracy, clearly aware of its presence, were not bothered by it. We, on the other hand, although feeling privileged to see one so close, wonder why it was alone and what’s bringing it out of the woods so early in the evening?