30 June 2013

Coastal Wales Construction: Building with Hemp and Lime

Oh, it's hard to play favorites, but my heart tells me that we've finally hit our stride with this whole volunteer thing, and my legs tell me that they are not going to want to be walking away from Mick and Lisa's.
Our new best friends taking us out for a beer. Can't say wrong with that.
Fate lead us to our amazing new hosts, because they just so happened to come upon the scene looking for help with exactly the type of thing John and I were looking to learn about, at exactly the moment things weren't working out with the host at our previous location.

Fate did us right. We are learning things--new things! Not just weeding or maintenance, but building skills that will fit nicely in our construction knowledge arsenal (which at this point is basically empty).
Plastering away in our plaster suits. Lime is pretty damaging to the skin and eyes, so protection is a must.
Before adding the plaster (left), the only insulation is from the stone wall (right)
I've mentioned before that within the past few months, John and I have changed the focus of this trip so that it's not utterly food-centric, but also includes more skill-building opportunities like construction, restoration, and general carpentry. Being self-reliant when it comes to those crafts will save us money in the future, but more than that, it's simply a nice back-to-the-roots feeling to be able to rely on one's own hands to get things done.
Can't be self-sufficient if you don't know how to weed whack
Can't be self-sufficient if you don't know how to knit. Wait...
The name of the game for the next week or so will be building with hemp and limestone. Limestone is a sedimentary rock has been used for thousands of years (for example, the Great Pyramid of Giza is made from it!) as an ideal building matierial because it is sturdy yet microscopically flexible, so instead of walls cracking in the way cement does, limestone slowly adjusts to changing conditions over time. Most of the stonewall structures one sees in Europe is built with some sort of limestone mortar.
The nearby coastal remnants of a church and cemetery near Fishguard, the "church" giving us a prime example of limestone mortar and it's amazing ability to resist the elements
The notion behind using hemp with lime is that hemp serves as a natural and relatively inexpensive filler/expander of a limestone mixture. More specifically, Mick decided to utilize hemp to provide the barn he's renovating (which will be rented out as holiday lets once finished) with insulation and fortification. The strips of hemp (which resemble wood chips) have tiny fibers that "grab" onto the lime mortar and other hemp fibers, fortifying the wall along with fattening it up to provide better insulation.
Team Plaster! Here we are (I am the one in the middle ready for my Russian vacation) putting a second coat of hemp & lime plaster on a wall. You can see the way we simply build the second coat along the first one if you look to the left of Mick. We just slop it on, punch it in, and it stays put (that is, if you have the mixture not too wet or dry).
Just in case you're curious, the process is essentially this: combine a shovelful of sand with a bucketful of pure powdered limestone. Mix in a construction mixer, add a well-measured bucket of water and two buckets of hemp. Quantities change ever-so-slightly based on the wetness of the sand, but adjustments are made as relevant, and once ready, we load the mixture into buckets and quickly slop it onto the walls before it begins to harden.

I know this is all terribly exciting for you to read about, and as far as the actual process goes, yes, it is a bit long. We listen to music and talk about what comes to mind, and it's somehow relaxing in its simplicity.
Betcha didn't know Wales had something like this, did ya? This was a little coastal walk near Dinas Cross.
And afterwards, if the sun is shining, we take some time to remind ourselves that we're living on the coast.

25 June 2013

Criss-Crossing Wales: Escaping the Manor House

After dancing around the issue several times, we finally managed to convince our host at the manor house to let us try a bit of limestone restoration, which had been the whole reason we came to volunteer here...
Taking proper precautions while touching up walls with lime mortar
Awkward John working on lime pointing, which is basically filling in tiny cracks and holes with lime mortar
But we quickly found that our host was not an eager teacher, and had mistakenly expected us to do more menial tasks for a week or two (or more?) before the mere possibility of moving on to more specialized tasks. Facing this, we followed our guts and sent out a search beacon for a more-understanding host.

This trip is too short to spend time with people who aren't willing to understand that John and I are volunteering to learn, and we have already learned the skill of weeding for days on end.
While working on this wall, John uncovered an old flue that we assumed to be a small wood-burning area
Being creepy in our room
 
But before we officially move on, I'll mention that the best part of our little foray at the manor house was that my dad had come to visit and was with us during our first couple of days there.

I think that despite the blog, many of our friends and family members still don't quite understand this whole "work-for-free" thing that we've been doing for the past year, so it was fun to give my dad a taste of it all, even though it ended up being less working and more eating and sight-seeing.
We're so stately!
From one of the inner terraces at Castell Coch
During his visit, the main work we did was to clear out a storage room filled with wood in Cwmdu (fun!). After that, we headed south to Castell Coch, a fairy-tale castle reconstructed in the 1800s, and spent the rest of the day exploring Cardiff. After that, we made our way to the manor house and dad was able to spend a couple leisurely nights there, an experience that you just can't get staying in hotels.
fairy room caslte
The Castle was restored in the late 1800s with a nod to Victorian "fantasy" by architect William Burges. You can see that fantastical tone here with the animal motif on the ceiling reminiscent of Aesop's fables.
The banquet hall, done in "Gothic Revival" style
Decorations in the drawing room....and one angry baby.
And so with mildly conflicted (but mostly eager) hearts, we fled the manor house after about five days and headed off to greener pastures.
calendar house
Farewell, 30-roomed home. Too bad things didn't work out better...

Next up, our new hosts (and saviors) by the coast in Southwest Wales!

16 June 2013

A Discrepancy at The Welsh Manor House

The manor house.

Oh dear.
In our new volunteer location lives our host, John, and myself. That's it. Built as a "calendar house," it was originally constructed with 365 windows, 52 doors, 12 chimneys, 4 wings, and so on. Braggart's rights, I suppose...
Somehow, despite conversations wherein I received assurance that there would be plenty of woodworking, construction, restoration, etc. to work on at this 30-room behemoth, we find that our dear host actually hopes to keep us in the bramble patches. Disassembling them.

And when I say bramble patch, I don't mean a few ornery blackberry bushes. I mean the type of thing you'd expect a witch or at least an evil wolf to live in. They are patches the size of a mobile home, and they are filled with bad things aiming to poke, scratch, and pierce us.
A patch that's very similar—though smaller—than what we were intended to tackle in our host's backyard     photocred: Gardening at the Edge
Did I mention that blackthorn, apart from having huge spines, is poisonous? On a nicer note, it produces the sloe, a berry most often used for sloe gin.  photcred: About.com
Why was this bramble-clearing workload not included in either the list of things-to-do as reviewed over telephone conversations or in our host's HelpX profile?

Why, when we told him that our intention as volunteers at his home would be to build our skill set regarding construction and craftsmanship, did he not mention among everything else that he planned for weeding to take up the majority of our time here?

Ah, the joyful surprises of being a volunteer.
The dining hall, while beautiful, is purely ornamental, as our host prefers to take meals in front of the television.
But hey, what's this about a 30-room house, you ask? Well, it's the house John and I are living in. It's the house that I'm maaaaybe pretending to be British royalty in...but only sometimes.
One of the guest bedrooms, and you might notice that our host used to have peacocks roaming the grounds
British men like their baths. There's not a functioning shower in the house, which is cute in a water-wasting way
To say the least, this experience (misunderstandings aside) is cool. It's cool figuratively and cool very, very literally. Like I-am-literally-under-three-duvets-right-now cool.

Nobody said it would be easy to heat a 30-room home with only three people living in it.
An old wall, probably belonging to a building where in the old days either meat was cured and stored or dry foods were kept
The beautiful backyard and magically-pruned fruit trees had space for bee hive boxes built into the surrounding walls. The overall space was originally more of a kitchen garden.
Dating back to the 1500s (reminder, this was as our history as North American invaders settlers had only just begun), the home served initially as the town sheriff's and housed over 30 people, including family, servants, and farm hands.

It is the closest I will come to Downton Abbey and I am relishing the fantasy (go ahead, I deserve to be made fun of).
"Maidgirl, come stoke the fire and fluff my pillows, won't you?"
(This is the room that we stayed in, which was in our own wing of the house)
But as you might notice, I am not quite relishing the rest of the situation. Despite our host being an easy-going Welsh gentleman with a love for candy that rivals even the fattest American diabetic child, this lack of promised "skill-building" work upsets me, and we might be on our way sooner than planned.
When in doubt, wear five layers and go for a walk with the sheep

I'll update you soon.

(receive updates in your inbox, if you like!)

11 June 2013

Bell Ringing and Castle Treks in Wild Wales

It's not all chutney making and mustachio'd horses here at Llwynaumawr (don't ask me how to pronounce it), our first volunteering farm in Wales.
Mustache. Didn't I tell you?
This lady so does not have time for me.
Hangin' out atop the hills around our hosts' house
There is also the song of bells in the air. I don't mean the simple sound of bells chiming the hour. I mean the actual song of bellsan art that most people know very little of these days. But there are a few people trying to keep it alivea difficult thing, considering most people have to start training in their teenage years in order to become any good at some point within the decade.
Know what I'm sayin? This bell is almost at the point of a full turn, and the ropes hanging below must be pulled just right to get the bell to chime at the right moment. Momentum isn't an easy medium to make music with.
Guys, I hate to tell you, but bell ringing as a musical form is endangeredquite nearly extinct. That we had the chance to experience it at a chapel whose bells were about 1,000 pounds and at least 500 years old is amazing; that we had the chance to actually operate the bells ourselves is nearly unbelievable.

So working for free in isolated towns in tiny countries has it's payoffs, am I right? (that is, if you consider ringing old bells a pay off...which I do.)
Our new friend shows us the ROPES! PUN!

Apparently, if you don't let go of the rope in time it will carry you up to the ceiling and "turn you into spaghetti"
Our current host happens to have the hook-up when it comes to the bell scene in Wales, and we were lucky to be taken to a Tuesday night rehersal at the local Cwmdu Church of The Archangel Michael, where one of the ringers took us to the belltower and explained how the bells worked.
The quaint interior of Cwmdu's local chapel
According to the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers (where can I sign up!?), "Bell ringing is a team activity that stimulates the brain and helps keep you fit ... Many consider ringing to be their contribution to church life, others do it for the pure pleasure and the company it brings."

Fitness? Brain Stimulation! Pure Pleasure!? What are you waiting for? What have we all been waiting for? Let's go out and find some bells!
Up in the belltower Master Bellman explains to us the way the bell swings using an axle and pulley rotation method (see some on the video below). You can see that the bats are also interested in the bell tower.
At any rate, here's a blip of very rural Welsh life for you, a bit of bell-ringing from a man who has been doing it for decades, and a video of five pros at an intimate performance of the bell method "Reverse Canterbury Pleasure Place".

In other news, there are even more fun things to do in Wales!
Jumping in old castle courtyards, everybody's idea of good fun.
Recently I embarked with John, a fellow volunteer, and our hosts' daughter to accomplish the three-castle walk to the nearby Skenfirth, Grosmont, and White Castle.
Skenfirth Castle, just doing its best.
We managed the first two castles only (because sometimes footpaths can get crazy and/or we are out of shape), but an amazing picnic and game of hide and seek amongst the ruins of Grosmont Castle made up for any missed castleage.
Hide and seek: guess how many people ended up hiding in the tower? The tower, by the way, is called a "keep tower" and served as the castle's main stronghold and residence (most of their budget went into the walls, apparently)
And if the historic bells and lush countryside of Wales isn't enough, you can always bring it back home with a few s'mores around a bonfire.
John sits with fellow volutneer Chel, Imgoen (the hosts' daughter), and our hosts as we discuss why the marshmallows in Wales do not light on fire.

Next up: A 30-room manor house in South Wales. This is the closest to Downton Abbey I'll ever getstay tuned!

06 June 2013

"British" Spiced Plum Chutney in a Little Place Called Wales

Somehow we pulled ourselves away from our work at the Pub and made our way up to London to visit some friends and get a glimpse of the marathon.
Being ultimate tourists on Tower Bridge
There was a donkey running the race!
Once London consumed all of our money, we said "cheerio" to Merry Olde England and journeyed forth to Wales. You know that place you may have heard of in reference to the Prince of Wales or when people talk about the country with the name of an ocean mammal? Well, turns out it's basically England's left hip. It's a small hipnot very womanlybut it is luscious none the less.
A short hike up a hill near our new hosts' house overlooking the hills near Brecon Beacons National Park
We found ourselves nestled under the black "mountains" (the Welsh haven't quite figured out what mountains are) just outside the Brecon Beacons National Park at the home of Roger and Beatrice, with whom we'll be working/volunteering to restore their 16th century home and barn.
John displays a neatly labeled jar of my plum chutney between the fine company of our hosts Beatrice and Roger (interesting note: Roger built the kitchen in which they're sitting; you can see the beginning of the section he added onto the original building in a vertical line going down the stones just behind the left side of Beatice's head. ).
Roger has a world of handyman knowledge in that brain of his, so we're happy to have made our goal during this period of volunteering move from farming and gardening more toward work related to building and self-sufficiency, as we figure that hands-on building skills might come very much in handy when we decide to do whatever it is that we decide to do (and if anyone has been informed on what this will be, please let me knowplease?!)
Behind you can see the barn that Roger has completely reconstructed and the prep for concreting its floor
huge rhubarb leaves
Serious rhubarbage meets serious worksuit. Who needs a suit and tie when you have an oversized blue one-piece?
But apart from building wood storage racks, painting chicken houses, and concreting floors, the less-rugged, more delicate woman in me ("haha," we all laugh in unison) has also found a place here. You see, in a similar way that many British will claim "curry" as their "national dish" with a tone and attitude suggesting that their statement actually somehow makes sense, they have similarly embraced the chutney.
Raisins and onions in jam? Oh my, oh yes...!
Why Americans have not similarly embraced the vast world of chutney I'm not sure, because this elusive condiment is a great way to spice up your cheeseboard, your sandwich, your pork tenderloin, and even your life (!!). Especially nice is the fact that there is much less sugar in it than in typically oversweetened things like jam or what ever high-fructose-gelatinous-thing it is that you spread on your food.
And below this beautiful pot of chutney you will find the most burnt pan bottom in your life.  And it will make you sore and mornful in your attempts to remove it.
So lucky me, because this family has a small plum and apple orchard, and when you get so overwhelmed with a glut of plums and apples, freeze them and make some damn good chutney whenever you damn please.

British Spiced Plum Chutney ("British" meaning "probably India-Inspired")
Ingredients
1 lb sugar
2 lbs/32 oz malt vinegar or pickling vinegar, 1 cup set aside
1 lb apples, peeled, cored, and chopped
3 lbs plums, stoned and quartered* (don't forget to buy organic stone fruit!)
1 lb onions, peeled and quartered
1/2 lb raisins
1/2 lb carrots, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 oz salt
2 tsp cloves
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp allspice
Tools: food processor (optional), sterilized jars
*Save half of the plum stones and remove the kernels to add to the food processor with the carrots. They'll add nutrition (but be careful, because too many can be toxic), flavor, and pectin. Triple threat!
Getting my mise en place on with frozen plums and apples and the rest of the gang. Dealing with frozen plums can be annoying, and I found removing the stone when the fruit was still half-frozen to be easiest.
I soaked the stones in water and then essentially bashed them with a blunt object to remove the kernel, which adds flavor to james and chutneys, but too many and you're poisoned. Just sayin'.
Directions
In a large pot, heat sugar and vinegar (minus one cup) over medium-high heat and stir until sugar is dissolved. Turn heat to low.

Pulse carrots in food processor 3-4 times, add raisins, pulse another 3-4 times, then add to sugar/vinegar mixture along with the plums.

Pulse onion in food processor until chopped (or chop by hand if you're feeling industrious). I also threw my frozen apple slices in with fine results. Add to the pot.
Don't forget to wear protective eyewear when chopping onions, especially if you're a fragile ginger like myself.
It almost looks like an appetizer platter.
You guys are just so beautiful.
Combine salt and spices in reserved cup of vinegar, then add to everything else. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer, stirring the mixture occasionally so that it doesn't catch on the bottom of the pan (clean-up will be hell if it doesI should know). Don't worry about chunky plum pieces, because they will break down during this process.

Let it reduce for 30-60 minutes, or until desired thickness is reached. It's hard to go wrong here, but a nice rule is that if you take a bit of chutney on a large wooden spoon and run your finger down the center and the line isn't filled up with runny chutney, it's probably thick enough.

Jar using your method of choice, but ideally place a disc of wax paper atop the hot chutney once it's been doled out to the jars.  Seal with an airtight lid, making sure that's it's non-metal on the interior, as this will react negatively with the vinegar. No need to boil these jars, although it never hurts.
Plopping my chutney and trying (yet failing) not to make a mess (not pictured)
Roger took it upon himself to pop out some labels for my jars. Isn't that the cutest?
Technically you're supposed to let this stuff "age" for three months or up to a year, but I gobble it down straight out of the pot and set aside a big tub in the refrigerator to eat throughout the week. If jarred, keep in a cool dark place, and eat within about a year, but I'll tell you that we've had chutney using this recipe that's lasted two years, so the risk is all yours.

Once you make your quintessentially British chutney, you can follow it with a nice British curry and something else completely British.

And then go outside and see the sunset.
Maybe this picture didn't follow with the general theme of where I was going with the post, but man Wales is pretty.

And stay tuned, bell ringing is coming up next!

(What does that even mean!?)

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