A Castle in the Sky

In March 2013, after years of talking about it we eventually sell up and move out of the city with our 2 year old, Gracie. We both grew up in the countryside and this is what we want for our daughter. So we swap a 2 bed flat in London for a small country pile on the west coast of Scotland that needs a lot of work. I've done a bit of interior design and my partner, Ed has a good knowledge of the outdoors – but we're on a tight budget and we've both got a lot to learn. It's a life time's project and this is a record of our adventure…


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Dreaming of a shower in the tower… (Sep 19)

After several weeks of plumbing work the hot water in the main wing is at last connected to the new biomass boiler.   This has meant getting rid of 2 immersion heaters, re-routing some original pipework and putting in a load of new pipes that run from the boiler house up to a huge new tank in the roof space  – and all the way back down again.

The house, as Ed puts it, is getting a bit ‘pipey’.   We tried to find the route of least resistance and managed to avoid any of the grand rooms – but some of the corridors are suffering.    It’s a perennial problem in old houses like this with lathe and plaster walls and lots of plaster mouldings.

This is the worst bit in part of our downstairs, back corridor…

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The black pipes are the hot water pipes covered in insulation.  The copper pipes were added a year ago to extend the heating and the white pipes were already here.   It would be good to hide them all at some point – we’re not quite sure how yet.   Another problem for another day.

The up-side is that we now have really hot water whenever we want it and it’s cheaper to heat.  The pressure is better too as it’s running directly off the mains.  It’s also another step forward in our master plan for this side of the house:   we’ve got 3 small bathrooms to renovate and one of the large bedroom’s on the top floor is earmarked to become a fourth.   It took a bit of time to persuade Ed of this plan but if you can’t have a huge bathroom in a house like this then when can you?

One of the lovely features of this room is the inside of the small round tower in the corner.  At the moment it’s  a semi-circular cupboard but I’m hoping to transform it into a walk-in shower.

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Turning this vision into a reality is a long way off but ever since we bought the house I’ve been dreaming of relaxing in the bath in the middle of this room – a glass of something in my hand, a real fire burning in the hearth, taking in the view of the mountains in the distance as snow falls gently on the lawn.  When that day comes my work here will be done.

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A taste of things to come.. (May 10)

The refurb’ of the old wing (originally a cottage built in 1700) into a high-end holiday let is on hold (see Sledgehammer happy – Mar 4).    When we can afford to do it, it’s going to need a lot of work, including putting in a new kitchen, 2 new bathrooms (possibly a new shower room) and acquiring a whole load of furniture.   So our plan in the short term is to rent it out.

It’s only been possible to do this since we upgraded all the heating.   When we first moved in the heating circuit for the whole house criss-crossed between both wings, and the hot water was on 4 separate immersions heaters – a thoughtless concoction built up over decades.  Thankfully the electrics were already separated.

So when we installed the biomass, we got the plumbers to reconfigure everything. Now the old wing is a fully functioning separate unit and when you turn on the taps there’s instant hot water – a luxury we have yet to experience in the main wing.

To rent it out though it still needs some sprucing up.  So we’ve invested a bit of money in some basic redecorating while making a few inroads into our longer term plan.  The wood chip in the hall has gone and the walls replastered, every room has had a coat of paint, we’ve revealed an old doorway on the first floor (which we’ll need later for our holiday let) and we’ve painted the boards white in one of the attic bedrooms – a transformation that has given us an inspiring glimpse of things to come…

Attic bedroom.  Before and after with salvaged column radiator.

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A scary crack on the top floor hall wall; it turned out to be the seam where the apex of the dining hall roof meets the roof of the old wing

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Heat, glorious heat… (Dec 2)

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Work started last Monday on our conversion to renewable energy with the installation of our wood pellet boiler (see Preparing for next winter (Apr 7).   Vans have been coming and going all week and we’ve had a constant supply of coffee on the go for 15 different workmen.   Several floors have been lifted, yards of gleaming copper pipes connected and huge bits of kit hauled into the workshop.  It’s the beginning of making the house work for us and it feels exhilarating and a bit scary.

Outside at the back of the house now stands a massive 8 tonne steel silo (or wood pellet store). It’s 2 meters wide and 4 meters high and will need obscuring with a fence – a job we’ve planned for next summer.   Ed’s workshop is unfortunately no more and instead houses a dazzling array of equipment including a maze of new pipework and dials, 3 thermal stores (water tanks essentially) and the boiler itself – a massive 2 and half tonne orange box from Austria.     The engineer says we’ll soon be showing off this space-age system (we can operate it through our mobile phones!) to all our friends .  I scoffed at this, but now the job’s done, I’m afraid to say I can feel a few guided tours coming on…

Inside the house, the heating and hot water for the old wing is now on its own circuit; stage 1 of our plan to turn it into a holiday let.  The hot water for the main part of the house (where we live) will be done in the summer (too many more floors to pull up in the run up to Christmas).

Then the last of the salvaged radiators was plumbed in yesterday and we were ready to turn on the boiler for the first time…    It’s a different house:  Walking into the front hall is never going to feel the same again. When Gracie gets out of the bath she runs around naked on the landing.  Getting up in the morning is a treat…

So we have in fact found a way to live here comfortably (see It’s bloody cold but we do have deer… (Mar 10).  We’re starting to realise the potential of this wonderful place.


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Preparing for next winter…(Apr 7)

We knew before we bought the house that we’d like to be as green and energy efficient as possible here, despite the fact that the house is so big.

The oil boiler’s been first on our list to try and replace. It’s taken a few weeks of research but I’m now an expert on renewable energy – and could bore you to death with my knowledge of biomass and geo-therm, hydropower and heat pumps.  We’d imagined wind turbines, solar panels and ground source might all be options – but the thing that’s going to save us here is wood. Or more specifically wood pellets.

It’s a massive job – the installation is big and complicated – and includes a 2 storey high metal box or hopper (to store the pellets) as well as a boiler and 3 accumulator tanks (thermal heat stores) that will take up all the space in both of our out-houses. There’s a whole load of consents to get – listed building, planning and a building warrant – and we need to-scale drawings, diagrams, photographs and specs.  We also need a shed-load of cash; the home improvement loan that we had earmarked for just some of the refurb’ is now all going to have to go on the heating.

The good news is that the government is providing incentives – and once the new system is in we can apply to recoup some of the money in installments across 20 years.

The even better news is that as wood is much cheaper than oil the new system should allow us to have the heating on whenever we need it throughout the winter months which is going to be a life saver.

Now I just need to make it happen before the cold weather returns.