A Very Small Holding

The Elliffs journey into the good life

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A very busy auction

My parents, my sister and her family came to stay with us for a few days to view our new home and help us settle in. My family are a restless bunch and like to make themselves busy. This proved to be very helpful to us over the duration of their stay. They also provided us with several practical gifts as house-warming presents.

My sister had recently replaced their petrol lawnmower for a newer model. My father had taken possession of the lawnmower, refurbished it and brought the lawnmower with them. The size of our gardens, forty metres in length, made using an electric lawnmower problematic. We were very grateful for the donation and set about mowing the front and back gardens for the first time.

We had been reviewing the farm trade press for the past few weeks looking at local farm dispersal sales that we could attend. At these events the contents of a farm are auctioned to the highest bidder. The reason for the auction is often due to the closure of the farm, or a change in farming policy, or simply to raise additional funds. By coincidence there was a very large farm auction in the next village while my relatives were visiting.

Katie, my father and I attended the auction early on Saturday morning. There were more than five hundred lots ranging from a canal boat to a chimney pot. Over two hundred vehicles arrived, parking in a paddock beside the field where the lots were laid out in several dozen rows. We made our way along each line and made a note of any lots that would be useful to us. Katie, who was seven months pregnant, had to sit down and rest leaving my father and I to contest the open-air auction.

The crowd follows the auctioneer up the line of lots laid out in the farmer’s field

Everyone in attendance was given instructors as to how the auction would progress. The auctioneers would take turns leading the bidders along the lines and hoped to sell each item within a minute of frantic bidding. We registered with the auction administrators and headed over to the first item we had marked on our list. Sensibly we set a bid limit on each item to avoid being carried away by the drama of it all.

The auctioneers were true to their word and swiftly ran through the bidding process for each item. Lot number one, a workbench and various tools, was sold to a lone bidder for five pounds. When the auction reached our first choice, two plastic barrels, we did not enter the bidding after the price passed our ceiling of ten pounds and sold for twelve. Our next item was a collection of wood, three inches square and three metres in length. There were two dozen lengths that I thought we could use to rebuild the cattery. The first bid was one pound. I bid two and there the auction ended. Our first success.

We waiting for a few more lots to conclude before our next target arrived; two dozen lengths of drainpipe and guttering. Again the auction lasted only a few seconds. I bid a pound. An opponent pushed the price up to two pounds. I raised my hand to indicate a bid of three. A brief silence from the bidders led the auctioneer to lower his staff to the ground. Sold.

Sadly our victories ended there. The other items we had picked out sold beyond our chosen limit. They included a small trailer that sold for one hundred pounds, the precise value at which we had capped our bidding. Another notable failure was a stack of two dozen plastic roof sheets. The price soared passed the fifty pound limit we had set ourselves, and raced on to be sold for one hundred and forty pounds. I discovered later that we had misjudged the value of the three metre roofing sheets. I may have raised the bidding beyond the winning bid if we had researched their true value before the event.

Experience would led us to become a better judge of an item’s value. We were new to this lifestyle and would slowly learn the skills required to maintain a successful smallholding. There were dozens of farmers at the event keen to pick up a bargain. Many had travelled across the country to bid on the resources that were on offer. We talked to several of the attendees who passed on advice and encouragement. One smallholder told us that we had been wise to set a limit to our bidding. Another said that he had started a career in farming on a small three acre smallholding similar to ours.

The auction experience had been enlightening and encouraging. We returned home with our booty strapped to the roof of the car.

While we were at the auction my brother-in-law continued the work my father had begun the day before. He had demolished the cages inside the building at the end of the garden that had each housed a greyhound. The building was now empty and free to be converted into a workshop. The broken breeze-blocks, wooden frames and steel caging was piled up outside the workshop until we decided how the remains could be reused. We hoped the smell of disinfectant and bleach would slowly subside.

The numerous trees in our back garden concealing the play area and threatening to envelop the neighbouring garden

Another useful tool my parents had brought with them was an electric chainsaw. My father had already used it to chop down the two fir trees in the middle of the back garden. With these two large bushy trees removed we were able to see the full extent of the garden from the patio. The additional light reaching the foot of the garden would hopefully prevent the area being so damp and we would be able to observe the children playing on the climbing frame.

Katie mentioned that she had a discussion with our neighbour referring to one of the large birch trees dividing the two properties. The previous occupants had promised to prune the tree to prevent the overhanging branches interfering with his garden. My brother-in-law was eager to lay his hands on the chainsaw and an axe, and volunteered to take up the challenge. Overcoming his fear of heights he climbed a ladder and began cutting down the branches in question.

The task was not small. Many of the branches were six inches in diameter and twenty feet up. Each branch had to be nursed to the ground, to avoid damaging the fence or those of us that were helping to remove the branches. While my father held the ladder steady, my mother, sister and nieces cleared away the fallen branches. I began lopping the branches into fire-sticks and sawed the larger trunks into short stumps, so that we could use them to fuel our stoves the following year.

After we had completed our tree surgery Katie noticed that the plug socket in the conservatory was leaking. This was worrying. There appeared to be no water entering the plug socket from above, but there was a blue liquid trailing down from the wall socket. As a precaution we manually tripped the socket circuit for the second time in two weeks. When we removed the faceplate it emerged that the socket had fused, but surprisingly it had continued to function. The heat had melted the plastic casing around the wires. The melting plastic was the source of the leak. We removed the damaged double socket and purchased a new unit to replace it.

There were many more small tasks that we completed while my family was visiting us. My mother set herself to work each day making sure all our clothes were washed and dry. She also gave herself the task of cleaning out the playhouse at the bottom of the garden. She assumed that the children would like to play inside the wooden structure free from any cobwebs or dirt.

The children’s playhouse near the end of the garden with the small duck house wedged behind it

The playhouse was well constructed, eight feet square and did not appear to have any problems with damp. We had a quantity of laminate flooring that we had intended to use in the bathroom of our last house. After we purchased an additional packet of laminate strips we had enough panels to cover the floor area of the playhouse. My mother carefully cut the strips to length, laid them out and stuck them to the wooden base.

In the middle of the allotment was an old greenhouse. We planned to extend the allotment beds and this small nursery would have been an obstruction. We removed the panes of glass from the greenhouse and relocated the metal frame to the old chicken enclosure, safely out of reach of the children. Several panes of glass were broken, the door was detached and the frame was not in peak condition. We were very wary of mixing children and greenhouses.

Six years earlier Katie’s young sister had an unfortunate accident in her father’s garden. While playing a game of football in her flip-flops she had slid into the side of their greenhouse. Her foot broke through the lowest pane of glass and the pane above fell down like a guillotine onto her leg. It sliced through her thigh to the bone. She was lucky that it did not sever any major arteries and that her brother happened to be visiting at the time. He was a restaurant manager and had basic first aid training. He used his belt to create a tourniquet and stabilized the wound until the paramedics arrived. This particular story ended happily; Miraculously her leg healed completely and all that she has to remind her of the event is a scar across her thigh.

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A very dangerous shelf

We hoped that we would never need to move home again. We took great care in choosing our new home within the limited budget that we had. One of the primary criteria was that the house had the potential to be extended. We did not have the lending criteria or the personal finances to purchase a house with all the features we ultimately desired, largely due to my self-employment and our decision to start a family. However with the ability to extend the house we may be able to achieve our ultimate objectives.

An aerial photograph of our house and the large number of trees hiding the gardens

With the future in mind we asked a friend, who happened to be an architect, to visit and give us some advice on extending the family home. One pressing requirement would be an office for my business. I was occupying one of the three bedrooms. This would not be feasible if I were to grow the business and would mean that our children had to share a single bedroom.

Following our discussion, and mulling over the various options, we concluded that a simple solution was to convert the garage into an office. The more financially efficient way forward would be to make all the alterations we desired in one build. Therefore we commissioned the architect to draw up plans for an extension that included an office, a larger utility room, a wet room, an additional bedroom and a dining room. We deferred calculating how we would finance the building work until we had finalised the plans.

Talking through the ideas for our home filled us with excitement and renewed motivation, if any more was needed, to make our smallholding exactly how we wished. We had been lucky to achieve most of our goals in the past and we hoped that our luck would continue.

This week I continued the maintenance tasks over at the croft. I trimmed the hedges inside the allotment and those surrounding the old chicken enclosure with a pair of ratchet loppers.

The hedges that spanned the boundary all needed cutting down to a sensible level. There were two hundred metres of hedges running along the two adjacent roads. The task seemed daunting for a single person and a pair of shears.

We made enquiries to establish how they had been maintained previously and were given the names of various local farmers. We would follow these up at a later date, if the farmer and his tractor did not show up in the meantime.

An area of the allotment partially cleared of weeds revealed a layer of paving slabs

In the allotment there was a large paved area covered with weeds that had sprouted from the gaps between the slabs and the dirt that had accumulated on the surface. I took a spade and began slicing the weeds from the paving and pulling out the roots. After several hours spanning two afternoons I had revealed a paved area of approximately twenty square feet in size. The section of paving near the entrance was still covered with a pile of rubble the previous owners had left us. This was another task that required additional help, this time in the shape of a skip.

While I was across the road clearing the allotment Katie was performing some maintenance of her own. The task appeared to be minor; There was a small shelf in the kitchen that was hanging loosely from the wall. It was located above the cooker and kettle sockets. Katie removed the shelf and started to re-install the shelf bracket. Whilst inserting one of the screws Katie was surprised to receive a slight electric shock. She assumed it was a static charge, but when Katie touched the metal bracket she received another small shock. As a safety precaution we manually tripped the circuit breaker and inspected the wall fixings.

It transpired that one of the screws had touched the live wire that fed the cooker socket below. The past inhabitants must have known this was an issue because they had added a wall plug, but not fixed the screw to the bracket. I removed the wall plug and further inspection revealed that they had drilled through the outer casing of the cable and the red plastic covering the live wire.

The socket circuit appeared to function correctly even with the damage it had sustained. Following a brief discussion with an electrician I filled all the screw holes with plaster filler to avoid an unnecessary bill for restoration work. I was beginning to form the opinion that rewiring the house may be a good option to add to our plan to extend the house, budget permitting.

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A very sick apple tree

I longed to be able to spend more hours each week managing our smallholding and preparing the allotment for the new year. Unfortunately we had bills to pay and I would need to work full-time for the foreseeable future. Katie was busy managing the house and caring for our young family.

I was fortunate to work from home and be self-employed, which allowed me to dictate the hours that I worked. When the weather was favourable I would postpone an afternoon behind the desk and take the short walk across the road to the croft.

During the afternoon breaks in my work this week I continued removing the weeds from allotment. Each time I pottered over there seemed to be several more that I had missed among the stones or an area I had not tackled.

The area between the field and the cattery after I had removed the first small tree

While I picked away at the ground I would stare at the handful of trees beside the cattery and wonder if they should be removed. The area was a waste of space between the field and cattery. Stones covered the ground, but as no membrane was beneath them the weeds had run riot. A mature chestnut tree was the dominant feature, but there were several other young trees trying to grow in its shadow.

It made sense to me that the fence to the field should continue in a straight line to the entrance of the cattery. The small cluster of trees would be moved into the field and the unused space made to be productive. The chestnut tree would be spared the chop, because it was a focal feature of the croft and we imagined that our children would enjoy collecting its conkers every autumn.

I decided to begin removing the smaller trees and harvesting the wood. I did not have a chainsaw or a wood-chipper, so I sawed down the first few trees, cutting the small trunks and larger branches into fire-sticks. The remaining twigs and foliage I placed in the household recycle bin. I left the tree stumps in the ground for future removal.

Our young apple tree, having survived the move in a plant pot, is transplanted to the field

When we moved we had brought with us two young fruit trees that Katie had purchased for a few pounds in the spring. They were only six feet tall and I had temporarily planted them in pots to keep them alive. They had been sat in the allotment for the past month waiting to be utilised. The apple tree had developed fruit, whilst the cherry tree had not, and did not look like it ever would.

I added the cherry tree to our growing pile of compostable greenery, but decided that I would plant the apple tree in the field rather than waste it. It had borne fruit this summer and may continue its progress next year. We had not planned where our orchard would be located, so I picked a spot close to the allotment.

Over the next few days the leaves began to wilt and the last apples dropped to the floor. I was aware that trees hated being transplanted. I had my fingers crossed that the downturn in the tree’s health would be temporary or related to the approaching autumn season.

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A very lucky cat

We expected that once we had established ourselves in our small-holding that there would be several hours each week of necessary general maintenance. The outbuildings may need a lick of paint or the boundaries to the land in need of repair.

Initially we knew that there would be a great deal of work required to get the small-holding into a productive state. After reviewing the various features and assets we had been left with we established a rough plan of action. It would evolve over time, but there were quite a few areas we wanted to get right before we jumped headlong into planting vegetables and acquiring livestock.

With our second child on the way there was going to be a necessary delay in our evolution of the small-holding. We decided to postpone any food production until the next spring, when our family would be less demanding on our time and when we hoped to have the allotment constructed to our liking.

In the meantime I would be largely maintaining the status quo, while taking opportunities to progress our grand plan for the small-holding. Katie would be tied to producing and then feeding the new member of our little unit, until some time earlier next year when we hope to begin enjoying development of the land as a family.

Tree branches, vines and weeds in three separate piles waiting to be recycled

This week I spent a couple of hours each day removing weeds from the allotment area. The stones that surrounding the allotment beds were being invaded by a number of weeds, mostly grasses and thistles. Most of the stones sat on a weed suppressing material, but this did not stop the weeds from sprouting up and the root of the thistles spearing through the material to the earth below.

As I moved around the allotment digging out the weeds with a trowel I was amazed at how many insects and small spiders lived among the stones. They ran for cover as this giant beast shuffled towards them on his knees, like a small crowd escaping an erupting volcano.

I was aware that in all probability my efforts would be futile, but as I have stated previously I did find some satisfaction from the manual task of clearing an area of weeds. Perhaps I have some form of obsessive compulsive disorder, that Katie would point out does not extend to cleaning the house.

A month after the move our elderly cat developed some very strange behaviour. She had been a house cat before we rescued Tabitha and her brother from the RSPCA. We introduced them to the outside world at our last house. Jake loved roaming the streets and scrapping with his neighbours. Tabitha had not been so keen and this meant we were still required to keep a litter tray close by.

The moment I found Tabitha curled up in her litter tray we feared the worse. She seemed physically well, but had a withdrawn demeanour. When I encouraged her out of the litter tray she found other odd places to make her bed. Previously she had been happy either on the sofa or in her own bed under the dining table.

Tabitha, our twenty-one year old cat enjoying the sunshine in the safety of our lounge

We knew the old wives tale regarding how a cat will find a comfortable place to rest when they are near death. Katie called the vet fearing the worst. The conversation with the veterinary nurse confirmed our fears as Katie described Tabitha’s recent odd behaviour. We packed Tabitha into the travel basket and drove to the surgery expecting to return empty handed.

The vet surprised us by diagnosing a simple case of fleas. We were unsure how they had been transmitted. Neither of our cats had ever had a flea infestation, and due to Tabitha’s agoraphobia she never mixed with other animals. We therefore suspected that the previous feline occupants of our new house had left Tabitha a welcoming committee. Tabitha was treated by the vet with a simple ointment, while we purchased some flea spray to rid the house of our unwelcome guests.

The next day I spent a couple of hours fumigated the house and then retreated to the allotment to trim more branches from the troublesome vine roots. Katie and Matilda had left that morning to visit a friend, accepting an invitation to stay for the night and avoid breathing any lingering fumes. I consoled myself that evening with a trip to the pub for a seafood platter and a few drinks.

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A very invasive vine

The largest allotment bed took a little longer than the first to clear of weeds. I repeated the process of the previous weekend, progressing along the length of the bed pulling the weeds out of the soil. I completed three separate shifts removing the weeds and wheeling several dozen barrows to the temporary compost pile.

The three allotment beds after they had been cleared of weeds

Like many gardeners I found the act of weeding therapeutic and good exercise. We had not bought a home with land to satisfy a theological principle. We were seeking a more natural, peaceful and local way of life. There would be no need to join a gym; the land management would provide all the exercise we needed and save money instead of costing us money.  There would be no need to travel by car to the country park; we had the countryside on our doorstep and several bridleways crossing our road. We felt there would be no need to take a holiday; we had moved to a location that was far removed from the rat-race.

We had already discovered we were watching very little television. Our free time was used more productively, maintaining our new home or investigating the local area. A difficultly we could see on the horizon that would interrupt our progress was the imminent arrival of our second child. How much time two children will occupy would have a bearing on what we could achieve and in what time.

Most of the initial tasks involved maintenance and restoration. In our back garden, to avoid any unnecessary injuries to myself, my family or any visitors, I trimmed all the low hanging branches. There were more than twenty trees dotted around the garden and it was apparent that more radical maintenance would be needed to make the garden a more usable space. The trees hid the bottom half of the garden. It was dark, damp and a mess. I lacked any tree felling equipment or lumberjack experience, so I decided to postpone tree management to another day.

The dark cattery interior on a summer’s day before the vine covering was removed

I moved my attention to the old cattery. It had been constructed twenty years ago and appeared that it would be able to serve its purpose for twenty more. However, the cattery was being consumed by vines that had been intentionally planted around the perimeter. The vines covered the roof and protected you temporarily from the rain, until the rainwater began to drip down long after the rain had subsided. The cattery was dark and damp as a result. The paved floor green and slippery under foot.

I decided to cut down all the vines and bushes surrounding the cattery. The vines served no real purpose and would only get in the way of any improvements to the structure. The task was made complicated by the growth of the branches weaving in and out of the steel mesh. I cut all the visible branches that wove under the mesh roof enabling me to pull most of the vine structure from the roof. I had to cut the branches in many places, every two inches in some cases, to separate the plant from the wire.

The cattery enclosure during the removal of the vine branches from the main structure

Several days of cutting, pulling and sawing removed most of the vines. I left part of the vine structure in place to maintain the structural integrity of the cattery wall. The wooden supports had rotten away in places, or had been eaten away by the insects living in the vine architecture. If we decided to keep the cattery in its present design we would need to replace several of the wooden pillars and finally remove the main trunk of the vine plant.

There were smaller maintenance tasks I slowly chipped away at over the passing days. Each time I left the house or returned from the croft I kept an eye out for weeds growing through our gravel driveway. My neighbour had commented the first time I pulled at a lone weed among the stones that it would be a futile task removing them. He had abandoned the idea long ago. I thought I would give it a try. The weeds would never be eradicated completely from the driveway due to the nature of its construction, but I hoped I would keep the worst of them at bay.

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A very rotten chicken run

The chicken’s vacation was over when we returned to our old house to collect the hens from our neighbour’s garden. They briefly resisted capture as each hen was placed into a cardboard box ready for transportation. We had decided to dismantle the chicken run and take the remains for recycling. Their new home was complete, ready and waiting for them. It would have taken far longer to dismantle the run, to avoid damaging the rotting frame, and it required a second journey home. It took less than an hour to take the chicken run to pieces using a hammer, a saw and a brute force. I loaded the broken remnants into the car, tied the rotten frame to the roof-rack and drove five miles to the nearest recycling centre.

The cattery run before the chickens were released

Following a chat with our old neighbours to catch up with local events we drove home. We released the chickens into the cattery run and left them to familiarise themselves with their new residence. They quickly made themselves at home, scratching at the virgin ground and exploring the undergrowth.

There were so many tasks and projects that we wanted to complete it was difficult to know where to start. Matilda was in the care of Katie’s parents which allowed both of us the freedom to spend a full day on the allotment.

The previous owners had constructed three raised beds a foot in height and six feet wide. Each were a different size; thirty feet, twenty-four feet and twelve feet in length. The smallest bed had been maintained over the past six months. The other two allotment beds had been left in the hands of nature. The result was a forest of weeds eight feet tall. The smaller bed had raspberries, strawberries and rhubarb growing in it quite satisfactorily, with only a small number of weeds. It needed some additional care, but not major restoration work like the other two beds.

Raspberry canes, strawberry and rhubarb plants left to grow in the allotment

Katie set to work picking the ripe berries and clearing the weeds that were crowding the fruitful plants. Any dead, damaged or deceased plants or rhubarb stalks were removed and added to the compost. Katie’s tortuous pregnancy did not allow her to do too much physical activity so this task was more than enough.

I tackled the first of the other two overgrown allotment beds. The weeds were taller than me, but the roots were fairly shallow. The various grasses and plants had all gone to seed and therefore I expected a reasonable amount of regrowth after clearing them. I progressed from one end of the bed to the other, systematically pulling out the weeds, trying doggedly to keep the roots intact. It took the whole afternoon to completely remove all the weeds. Among the thistles, groundsel, chickweed, fat-hen were a dozen parsnips that must have been sown a year earlier.

I piled the weeds into a wheelbarrow and unloaded them onto the concrete base, with the expectation that they would be added to a compost heap. I knew it was a bad idea adding weeds in seed directly into a compost heap, but once they had been drowned for several weeks I would be able to utilise the organic waste in my heap. At present I had no compost heap constructed or a bin to drown them in.

The middle allotment bed after all the eight-foot weeds had been removed

The allotment bed had lost a fair amount of soil. It was clumped into the roots of the weeds that have been removed. I avoided disturbing the weed heads and roots to lessen the possibility that they would shed their seeds. We would be improving the soil in any case, adding compost and rotted manure once we had located a supplier or generated our own. We had no idea of the source for the previous owners soil. It seemed fertile as demonstrated by the exaggerated weed growth. It was had a slightly clay consistency and a loamy texture. To my amateur eyes it appeared to be good stuff, but without testing it we had no idea of its origin. We hoped no chemicals had been used to fertilise the soil, as we would eventually digest produce grown in these allotment beds.

Katie returned to the house after harvesting several bowls of strawberries, raspberries and a bucket of rhubarb stalks. She spent the evening baking several rhubarb sponge cakes. One cake was delivered to each of our immediate neighbours and the ice-breaker was very much appreciated. The berries were washed and frozen to be offered to friends and family who would visit our new home over the first few weeks.

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A very overgrown allotment

The entrance to the croft

We discovered that the allotment and the croft had been neglected for the passed six months. The weeds had taken over, some were eight feet in height and obscured the allotment beds from view. Grass and dandelions were consuming the ornamental stones that were supposed to suppress them. The entrance to the croft was almost hidden, the hedges had ballooned in size during the recent mix of sunshine and rain.

The overgrown entrance to the cattery

There was a cattery next to the field that had for the last twenty years been home to rescue cats. We were in no position to take this responsibility on, especially as Katie was allergic to cats and pregnant. The cattery building was obscured by vines that had been left to grow for many years into an organic roof covering. The wooden structure partially eaten and strangled by this relentless parasite.

The only areas that had been maintained recently were the old chicken enclosure and a small fruit bed containing several strawberry, raspberry and rhubarb plants. The previous owner’s chickens had eaten all the weeds and grasses in the enclosure leaving the ground clear. The surface was partially covered in bark, the centre had a concrete base that must have been intended as the foundation for an incomplete building.

During this first visit to our new allotment we happily picked all the fruit that had ripened on the plants and broke off the mature stalks from the rhubarb. Katie made several rhubarb cakes and we were able to harvest the stalks and berries for several weeks. Some were frozen, but most were offered to guests as they made their first visit to our new home.

Our first task in the house would be to work out that we had all the keys for all the locks of the property. The previous owner had left us a bowl full of keys. None of the keys were labelled, so we began by trying each key in every lock we found. We had already two sets of front door keys that Katie had collected from the owner on moving day. After an hour we had three sets of keys for the workshop, three for the conservatory, ten for the windows, two for the kitchen, one for the boiler and two for the garage. Once all the useful keys had been set aside we had another dozen that appeared to have no home and no purpose. I guess this to be a typical situation in most households. If all the orphaned keys were collected together from every home there would be a mountain of keys the size of Everest.

We performed the usual checks on the house to make sure all the services and appliances were functioning correctly. The house was in general good order, but one issue that we discovered immediately was a constant trickle of water escaping through the overflow pipe from the water tank in the bathroom. My dad decided to investigate and inadvertently snapped the cold water tank ball valve. He rushed down the stairwell into the kitchen to switch off the stop-cock and avoid flooding the house. The valve had broken because the float was too small and the valve was submerged permanently in cold water. Over the years the metal had corroded and a small amount of force snapped it clean off. A quick visit to the DIY store later, we fitted a new valve and a large ball float to prevent the water submerging the valve in future.

One of our ambitions for our dream house was to have an open log fire. We were lucky that this house had two chimneys and two log burners. Each multi-fuel stove appeared to be reasonably new and in working order. We had been left a receipt from a chimney sweep who had cleaned the chimney in the lounge, so we decided to test it out and build our first fire. The stove came with instructions on how to maintain the fire and optimise the heat it produced. We ignored them, piled in some coal, kindling, rolled up newspaper and lit the fire. It was not long before we had a roaring flame and the wonderful aroma of charred wood permeating the house.

The workshop building at the end of the garden that had been converted to house two greyhounds

There was a workshop at the bottom of the garden behind a two metre fence. The previous owners had used the building to house two greyhounds. The interior was partitioned into two pens, each with a raised wooden bed board and a door to access an external pen where the dogs would exercise. The building had running water and electricity. The power was provided by a fifty metre extension lead that wound its way down the garden from the conservatory. This was not terribly safe and at risk of a wayward lawn mover. We had an armoured cable and additional fuse wiring on our long list of home improvements.

The water pipe followed the cable down the side of the garden to the workshop. It was in several sections partly due to damaged pipe having been replaced. I am not sure how they managed to damage the pipe, which was an adequate thickness. A misplaced spade or edging tool perhaps. Despite the revisions we discovered that the pipe was leaking in several places where the joints were not sealing correctly and the plastic tap inside the workshop was dripping slowly into a bucket for the same reason. Initially we tried replacing the tap, but came to the conclusion that we were unlikely to need running water in the workshop. Therefore we saved some time and removed the long stretch of pipework. Where the external water pipe began we fitted an outside tap on to the utility room brickwork. With our old hose reel attached we had sufficient range to reach most parts of the garden. We kept the large blue water pipe, because we have learnt over the years that nearly every unemployed item of equipment will eventually have its uses.

The allotment beds growing eight foot weeds

The croft too needed some urgent maintenance. In was in danger of disappearing behind a wall of branches and weeds. The green veil made exploration a more exciting event and exaggerated its size, but we would need to clear the croft if it were to become a practical space to grow produce and keep livestock.

We hacked away at the hedges by the entrance and dug up the grass that had grown over the ground. There was now a clear paved driveway connecting the road to the croft gate, across a grass verge and where, we presumed, the hedgerow had continued. The wooden gate was rotten and in need of a replacement. It had a rubber wheel on its base to assist opening and that was all the prevented its weight from wrenching the rusty hinges from the fence post. Another item to add to our list of required improvements.

We would be collecting the chickens imminently so we had to locate an area within the croft that they would call home. The area where the previous owner had allocated for her chickens was reasonable large and open. The ground was bare, covered in bark and concrete. It did not seem like an appealing site or completely safe from an agile fox. The cattery seemed like the obvious choice. It was enclosed in wire mesh, safe from any canine, feline or winged invaders. The main area had two rows of pens, each sectioned off by galvanised steel mesh. Every pen had a lockable door, a shelf, a wooden cat box and an electric socket. One of the home-made boxes still had an electric blanket plugged inside. A gangway between the two rows led to the detainees exercise yard. It was another thirty feet long and completely enclosed. There were shrubs, small trees and grasses enjoying the animal free environment.

The two cat pens we converted into a chicken house

The cat boxes made perfect nesting boxes and each pen would be ideal for our chickens to roost overnight. We isolated two pens at the entrance to the run from the rest of the cattery by removing their doors and fixing them across the gangway entrance. Several round wooden stakes were used to create perches inside the pens and two planks of wood were rested against the shelves to allow the hens to walk up to their new nesting box. We put down a layer of cardboard on the floor and scattered straw inside the pens ready for their return the following week. The chickens would make light work of clearing the yard of weeds and grass. We were very fortunate to have the infrastructure already in place to house our birds and easily expand our flock in the future.