London Lockdown

The streets and squares are empty here in London. It’s quite surreal for a city that was packed with people only a week ago. I know that they’re in the houses and flats somewhere, living their lives behind the windows, but it feels deserted.

London is now officially in lockdown. Bars, restaurants, cafes, gyms and businesses closed. Very limited public transport. No cars on the road.

Buying food is now a problem. We have some stores of dried and frozen food, but have no idea how or when we will be able to buy more. Online food services are overloaded and either suspended or not taking on new customers due to demand. The local Tesco supermarket has been stripped back to the bare shelves through panic buying.

I have bread flour, and when my current loaf runs out I will bake bread at home. Sourdough, flatbreads, rolls, scones. As long as I can source flour we won’t starve. I know how to make meals from scratch and cook with the dried pulses and grains that we always have on hand, but I do wonder how many of the generation who don’t cook this way are going to cope.

Perhaps this will be a reset for humanity. Maybe this will act as a very real warning that we have lived disposably, wastefully and with excess for too long. I believe that we will get through this, but I also think that what we will be left with when we do will be a very different world.

On the Skye build front- it looks as if work should start in the next few weeks at last, subject to contracts next week. If we still have builders who are able and allowed to work, that is. I can’t think in chunks of more than a week at a time at the moment so where we go from here is very uncertain.

Both Hugh and I wish that we were a year further along and had the resources of the croft behind us for isolation, but there’s no merit in that thinking. We are here and we need to make the best of our current reality. All this has done is to re-strengthen my resolve to be more independent – to grow vegetables, keep a well stocked pantry of essentials, and build the life skills to get through such times as these as easily as possible.

Knitting through uncertainty

When the going gets tough, dig out your largest, brightest ball of yarn and get knitting!

With the whole world seemingly in meltdown, either quarantined in their homes or trapped in an endless loop of panic buying toilet roll, our house build problems seem to pale into insignificance.

I am recovering at home this week following a manipulation under anaesthetic on my replacement knee.

As such, whilst waiting to hear about revised costs and start dates for the house build which I am sure will be delayed even further, I am keeping my knee mobile with an exercise machine, dutifully swallowing my pain medication and knitting a very loud, very yellow scarf.

Coping mechanisms for the times, eh..

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 πŸ‘

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 Β£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.

πŸ’We hope to have confirmed costs in this next week.

πŸ’The builder has visited the plot and is firming up initial estimates.

πŸ’We have a Quantity Surveyor appointed who is managing the activities around the build.

πŸ’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.