Challenging times

Could we have possibly chosen a more challenging time in which to build our house and take early retirement? I think maybe not…

A combination of health, wealth and logistics challenges are dominating our lives right now.

I’ve had severe arthritis in both knees for a few years now, and decided that I needed to get this sorted if I was going to be an active helpmeet and partner in croft life.

As such in December last year I had a left knee total knee replacement. The recovery has been slow and very painful over the past few months, and progress has not been as planned or hoped for.

I’m writing this from a hospital bed having just gone through a Manipulation under Anaesthetic to try and break down the scar tissue that has formed (despite physio therapy), and get a few degrees more flexibility back. It’s now massively swollen and painful, but should be able to bend and straighten properly once everything has calmed down.

We thought long and hard about elective surgery in a London hospital as the city is going through lockdown to try and control the virus spread. In the end, the small window of opportunity for this process, combined with the fact that I think that hospitals will be under even more pressure in the months to come, meant that I felt that I should have it done now.

The Coronavirus panic has also caused the stock markets to melt down. In the worst trading week for decades we’ve seen over 25% wiped off our savings for the house and our future life. I hope that this will eventually bounce back, but whether it will do so in time for us is a matter for speculation and great concern. This was already tight, and now it’s even more important that we find ways of cutting the costs to make our build viable. Doubly worrying as costs have only been going in the other direction…

To that end, the builder is arranging to go back to the site next week to look again at the access road and try and work with us to get the costs down. This is just a portion of the spend, but if we start with an element that is three times its original estimate that really doesn’t bode well for the rest.

So, in this time of doom and gloom, what are we doing? We are not giving up. We will fight to find ways to make this work, and are as determined as we ever were that we want this move.

Not that moving to this new lifestyle will solve the worlds problems or even isolate us from them, but we believe that a life of purpose, living closer to nature and with a small community around us will be a healthier and happier way to live.

Bring it on 👍

The static looms….

We have been working our way through costs as meticulously as we can before the build actually starts. The architects estimates were way out. By a country mile.

It’s becoming clear that the only way that we can complete this project is to strip out £100k of costs, and that means a few things are sadly certain.

Firstly, that there is no way that we can afford the builders to do more than build the house. Groundworks, access road, house erection, cladding, guttering and windows. Everything else we will need to do ourselves.

Secondly, we will need to put a static caravan on the land and at some point move into it in order to finish the work. I suspect this means a Highland winter and Christmas in a caravan… 😬

Thirdly, there isn’t any chance that it will be complete as planned this year. The exterior build should be complete by the summer, but the interior will take us much longer to complete than it would with professional builders and will probably run into next year.

We will be offline whilst we finalise plans and put some things in motion.

Check in again soon!

Send warm socks!

The dreaded cost overrun

I guess in a way it was always going to happen, despite our best efforts to avoid it. The Quantity Surveyor has just shared his schedule of costs with us, and it’s way over both budget and the initial estimates that we’d been given.

It was a stomach wrenching moment when we worked our way down his itemised spreadsheet and realised that the costs were about 30% over what we’d been led to expect. With some big costs, such as the utilities, not yet factored in…

And so late in the process! Too late to feasibly change anything big.

Having tried to control costs as much as possible by buying a ‘turnkey’ solution from a reputable firm of architects, we’ve been scuppered by the quotes from their builders for the groundworks, access road and actual build of the house.

Although the SIP kit is a fixed price and estimates for the erection were provided, their builder has come in with quotes way over what was initially estimated.

We’re now faced with challenging those figures, and if we can’t get them down to a reasonable level, which I think unlikely, potentially trying to source another builder. Not an easy task on the island where builders are scarce and already over-subscribed with work for the year. We may have to spread the net more widely.

And if costs still prove too high, we may have to do some of the work ourselves to make this in any way affordable.

There is a definite feeling that some of these figures are what we call “London” prices. (Ah, they’re from London. They must have loads of money and will accept any cost that we give them.) That’s a bitterly sad thought, and one that I sincerely hope doesn’t prove to be true.

Let’s see where this next week takes us…

Mushroom growing

One of the foods that I really love is mushrooms. Just about all mushrooms, but especially the meaty, flavourful ones such as ceps or shiitake mushrooms.

Living in France for many years gave me an even deeper appreciation of them, with the wild mushroom season kicking off an almost religious fervour in the locals, and restaurants using them in everything whilst they were fresh and plentiful. The flavour and textures were unlike anything I’d tasted from shop bought mushrooms, and I was hooked.

We’ve been looking at growing mushrooms using spore-loaded plugs drilled into beech logs on the croft. We have the wood, the rain and the space.

Skye has a good climate for mushrooms – relatively mild and wet – and there used to be someone who grew mushrooms commercially there until recently, so we think that they would be successful.

It takes a few years for the mycelium to take, spread into the fibre of the logs and the underlying ground and fruit into mushrooms, but then it’s possible to crop for many years.

Mycelium, the thread-like network of spores that propagate mushrooms are fascinating.

Research has shown that the presence of mycelium is beneficial to spreading and keeping nutrients locked into soil, and the no-dig method relies on not disturbing this network for maximum soil fertility and crop health.

Trees also use a network like this to communicate and exchange food and healing chemicals to each other beneath the ground. It’s remarkable.

However, back to the edibles!

We can get spore-loaded plugs online for shiitake, oyster, chicken of the wood and enoki mushrooms, all of which are worth a try.

Will keep you posted (but with a trial period of two to three years before we would expect results and enough for a portion of mushrooms on toast, don’t hold your breath..!)

Using the time wisely

As the weeks move on and progress inches along slowly, I try and keep my resolve strong and hold onto the dream by looking back at why we are doing this and using my time in active preparation for our new life.

Photos and videos that we’ve taken of the croft help me to reconnect. Endless lists and plans scribbled in notebooks also help. We are making progress, even if it seems painfully slow at this stage.

🍒We hope to have confirmed costs in this next week.

🍒The builder has visited the plot and is firming up initial estimates.

🍒We have a Quantity Surveyor appointed who is managing the activities around the build.

🍒We have the window and doors ordered, along with the request to start SIP panel production.

Yet somehow, until we break ground and I see something tangible, like the access road or the foundations for the house, it doesn’t seem real…

In the meantime, I re-read my books on bread making, jam making and crafts, all things that I hope to happily fill my time with once we are in our new home. I plan for years out when we have hedgerow fruits and can make blackberry wine!

I resist the temptation to peak too soon and buy demijohns, which we’d only have to cart a thousand miles to the island..

I create mood boards and source paint colours. I find floor tile and wood samples and try and decide remotely what will look best in the space and the light, balancing practicality with design.

We plan endless potential uses for the old barn on the croft. Book barn, accommodation, studio, willow weaving shed, brewery… I think we’re up to around 400 potential uses for it so far 😬. It’s become our family joke. I think it’s because it’s the only actual building on the land, however tumbledown. At least it’s real.

I think of my studio and all the things that I will create once I have the time and mental space to do so – canvases, textile works, sculptural objects, things with driftwood and beach finds. I’ve commissioned a weaving for the wall.

I dream about the croft. I think about how it will look once we have thousands of trees planted and birds and wildlife start to return to the land. I dream of those beautiful views across the sound, and the sheer magical peace of the place.

And I try and use the final months here in productive preparation. Organising the recovering of my bargain sofas for the house. Sourcing a local stone sculptor to make our house sign. Researching where we can find the cheapest scaffolding boards on the island. Thinking of buying a car suitable for the roads on Skye. Contacting the forestry commission and woodland trusts. Sourcing firewood. Registering the croft.

It’s coming, we tell ourselves. Hold on.

Christmas Mojo

As the days tick around to the final approach to Christmas, it’s been a slow burn this year in starting to feel the usual joy for the season.

This has been mainly down to health, having undergone a knee replacement operation a few weeks ago and now living the prospect of a long, slow slog back to pain-free existence. It’s been a tough few weeks.

I know that the operation was necessary to allow me to live a full, active life on the croft, and I embrace and am thankful for the opportunity to do that.

By now I’ve usually baked a Christmas cake, the Christmas pudding, put up a tree and am onto an annoying Spotify loop of Christmas carols. I haven’t felt like doing any of this so far this year.

As we enter the final few days before Christmas, I’ve rallied a bit. Tradition holds strong, and in the end I couldn’t envision a Christmas without some of these things.

So we’ve decorated the bay tree on the balcony, lit some candles, and bought presents. The fridge is full, and the annual charitable donations have been made. We’ve got new books to thumb through over the break in preparation for our new life, and each page promises new knowledge. Family arrives tomorrow, which is really what it’s all about.

This will be our last Christmas in London and we will make the best of it. Skye beckons next year, and we simply can’t wait, but every day is precious and living in the now is important. This year is about using our waiting time fruitfully, but it’s also about enjoying the company of family, and relaxing into the seasonal embrace of Christmas.

Wishing you all a warm, relaxed and happy festive break and a wonderful New Year, wherever you are reading this from.

Christmas Mojo is being wrestled back on as we speak 😘.

Tree Planting Plans

When we first saw the land, a number of pieces of life’s puzzle slipped neatly into place. The croft was steep and unsuitable for agriculture, but it would be perfect for trees.

Hugh and I both love trees and believe that there is a strong need to plant them, both to increase the biodiversity of the land but also to offset the effects of climate change with carbon capture in whatever way that we could.

We started to look into Woodland Croft creation. Despite the northern latitude, strong winds and exposed coastal location, many types of tree are naturalised and grow well on the island.

Sleat is the least exposed part of the island, a peninsula turning its face towards the mainland on the south side of Skye. As such, lying nestled between the Cuillins to the North West and the Knoydart hills to the South East, it’s at least partly sheltered from the full force of the Atlantic.

Although Skye is almost barren of trees, being famous for huge expanses of high moorland and mountain, Sleat has more trees than the rest of the island. We are lucky, and the more we looked into it, the more we felt that a diverse planting would be completely viable.

The Woodland Trust offer advice and help with tree planting, but due to the recent rise in interest in this area, they are completely overloaded. There are long lead times to even get to see them to discuss plans. They’ve handed over some of their work to the Scottish Forestry Commission, who have been in touch at last and who will be assessing the croft land for tree planting viability next week. We can’t wait for the report.

We expect the recommended species to be a mix of trees such as rowan, alder, blackthorn, grey willow, downy and silver birch, sessile oak, scots pine, hazel, wych elm, holly and aspen.

We want to supplement these plantings with wild, edible hedges filled with crab apple, blackberries and hawthorn, and an area of sheltered orchard with hazelnuts, apples, cherries and pears.

As soon as we have the Forestry Commission report we can discuss deer protection and build a planting plan for the land. Even though we know that the first trees probably won’t go in for at least another year, it still feels like a milestone in the journey!

The relative slowness of this process is frustrating, but in a way it’s also contemplative, allowing time for our initial thoughts to be challenged and supplemented with local wisdom. We’re watching other local crofts start this, and learning what works and what doesn’t.

Don’t get me going on the merits of spiral guards, staking, vole protection and windbreaks now…☺️