500 Year Vision

Take pleasure from walking lightly on this Earth



Since the beginning of the year we have been working on the pond. It’s filled by a mill race – a constructed waterway which eventually connects to the stream at the bottom of the valley.  First we had to redam the stream, and then solve the problem of the water leaking out of the half mile long mill race so it actually reached the pond.

The use of concrete or plastic pipe would have been expensive and ugly. Cursory research would suggest that this is now the only possible way of waterproofing, however that’s not how the millrace was built originally, some hundreds of years ago.   After further research we took inspiration from pigs (and the gley technique for sealing ponds). Pigs can be used to seal ponds as they like to wallow in water. They compress the earth which stops the water leaking out. We don’t have pigs, and the millrace would be an awkward shape to try to pen in pigs, but we do have feet, and wellies. I have spend several hours down the valley in the water. The dog comes along out of curiosity and the sheep and goat follow to be part of the herd. I wallow around for a bit in the water – which means basically standing welly deep in mud and tramping it down until it stops feeling sticky underfoot.  It’s noticeably more difficult below trees that are right on the bank – these are probably spots where the water continues to leach out, however it’s made a marked difference in general. Areas of the valley are now dry even after heavy rain.  It’s important to remove wood and stones in the bed so that the layer can be compressed properly.  We had been thinking about digging out the dead leaves which had fallen in the water, however these, apparently, will add to the waterproofing layer.

The pond is now beginning to fill. It has a huge surface area so it’ll take some time. Also, there are several pipes coming out in various spots around the barns and garden.  The ends of these are currently hidden in the reeds and grasses at the side of the pond so I’m spending some time searching around for them. Once the water is about a foot higher the sheep and goat can graze on the other side of our land, without hopping over into next door’s garden and eating their fruit trees. We can stock the pond with fish (the plan is to purchase rainbow trout fingerlings) and we can even think about putting in a turbine for electricity generation. For the time being, my ambition is to hold an Easter Monday duck race.

As the weather warms up, I hope that we can get out there and wallow in our bare feet. The water looks nice and clean, and will have a constant supply of fresh, oxygenated stream water going into it, so maybe this year we will be brave enough to use our natural swimming pond.

Learning to love composting toilets


One strong motivation for moving to South Bohemia was the spirit of enviro-entrepreneurship*.  Back home I had been working on a design for an accessible bathroom – to meet the needs of carers and those with profound disabilities, and organisations which want to be able to cater for them.  The design was to be based on a shipping container and fully independent – so not needing mains water and sewage – by harvesting rainwater and composting waste.  It could go anywhere on a temporary or permanent basis.  I had done a lot of research, and wanted to experiment with the various component parts of the system. Luckily…

When we first arrived at Nový Mlýn, we were surprised to discover that our 130 year old house did not have a water treatment system or water supply… unlike our fully serviced neighbour who had built his new home downhill of the house.

Life was hard for the eighteen months it took us to get permission to pump water from a new well to the house, but it gave us ample opportunity to radically reduce the amount of water we use, and many of these good habits have stuck.

Mike immediately constructed a toilet – an inglorious outhouse that at first didn’t even have a door.  We were clear that we wanted to actually use the compost which was generated, so we would dig a new poo hole and move the structure onto it every few months.  This was not a one person job, and gave us the inspiration for the Teepoo (more later).

The use of drinking water for toilet flushing is extremely inefficient because then contaminants then need to be removed from the water.  Urine is a sterile, ph neutral  fluid which contains nitrogen, phosphates and potassium – the main macronutrients required by plants. It therefore makes sense to operate waste separation at source – something people soon get used to.

There is a university in Austria working on a urine only toilet – and it would be nice to have a bespoke design (a wiidet) , however, instead we installed ‘rock bogs’ inside the house, by filling the water in the bottom of the toilets with pebbles. This greatly reduced the amount of water needed for flushing (a single litre for a completely clean flush), and provided people with a very visual reminder not to use the toilet for anything other than liquid.  We then installed our WWUK reed bed – a plant based system of cleaning waste water, and connected the bathroom plumbing to that.

Any household with more than one toilet could instigate a rock bog (urine only toilet) and therefore massively reduce the amount of water needed for flushing. It’s really, really simple. It would be nice to have a toilet insert designed to take the place of the stones, but stones are simple,  freely available and aesthetically pleasing.

As well as rock bogs inside the house, we now have a more sophisticated composting toilet system attached to the house.  Composting toilets will smell bad if they get wet for any reason (urine or rain water) or if waste is not adequately covered.  We purchased an insert to catch urine – as well as the box and a supply of cornstarch biodegradable bags. We think this beats even Moule’s Earth Closet – though an earth ‘flush’ would be great.

We have hosted 75 volunteers over the last two years. They have all but one been able to operate the composting toilet without leaving any unpleasant surprises.  We would recommend leaving a vinegar spray in the cubicle to clean the plastic as you would need to with any other toilet.

While the job of emptying the soil box is not pleasant, waste is always dry and covered with a cup of ash or earth, you tie the bag shut and put the lid on the box before moving the box to a ready prepared hole. You tip in the bag, then cover it with earth by digging the next hole.  We don’t bury compost directly in the vegetable garden, but instead under the paths through it. This trench system means that we are efficiently closing the loop and returning nutrients to the earth.

*My very first unsuccessful business was the Vermenathon Forest project which I worked on obsessively during the last few years of the millennium. This was, in short, a tree sponsorship scheme which people could visit physically and virtually – I’m happy that more successful business people had the same idea.

Rain Lights – wet days converted into light.


So, the issue of micro generation has been at the back of my mind for some time. The standard arguments about it are that if you are going to have a home generator of some description –  solar cells (ridiculously expensive at present), wind turbine or water turbine, you end up with a lot of maintenance and a payback time which is uneconomic (ie the amount of embedded energy needed to create the system will take too long to be made up by the equipment during it’s lifetime).  Dedicated enthusiasts and those who have serious amounts of money to invest can create their own personal electricity supply. Read the rest of this entry »

Nový Mlýn Apples in Honey & Incidental Mead


By the beginning of October it was not possible to dry apples in the sun any longer and I didn’t want to buy a small and power-hungry fruit drying machine. We have made cherry compote, but I’m keen to avoid using sugar as the main preservative here because it has to travel so far (food miles) and is not good for our teeth or waistlines. Therefore, the majority of the cherry compote is, rather tellingly, still in the cupboard.
I’ve been doing some research about alternatives and have come across some great information about honey. My interest was sparked by a radio article about honey from the Pyramids still being edible after thousands of years in storage. Eating locally produced honey is said to help build up a resistance to hay fever, and it was used as a preservative since Roman times, long before sugar was available so far from the equator. I tend to use honey to sweeten my current favourite Dilmah Green Tea with Moroccan Mint, as well as breakfast porridge, therefore it made sense to also use it to store apples that could not be dried.
Apples sliced with the kitchen mandolin and layered into the honey worked very well – they have kept their colour (unlike the vodka apples from 2007 which went brown very quickly). The only problem is that we keep eating them… meaning that I can’t judge how long they will keep. They are delicious on porridge (made with water) with a dash of cream – a good, hearty winter breakfast.
The apples and pears that we cut into cubes behaved rather differently – they started to ferment in a very short time, and the liquid bubbled out of the storage jars, slowly spreading a sticky goo around the kitchen. I eventually gave up on these, instead I drained the fruit and put it in with a batch of mulled wine – the result – apple or pear poached in mulled wine has made a very tasty desert to share with guests. The liquid continues to ferment – I’m adding it to tea, but it is beginning to loose it’s sweetness so I’m curious to see how this incidental mead will turn out.
I look forward to experimenting with cherries in honey in 2010.

Winter falls early


We have inadvertently stepped through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia. After a brief hailstorm, the snow began to fall… not a flurry as we were expecting, but a blizzard which continued for days, not hours. The temperature dropped suddenly and rapidly… fortunately the day before we’d bought two new fire stoves – one for the bathroom (how nice, to have a bath alongside a wood burning stove) and another for our bedroom. With the old range in the kitchen and giant barrel stove in the upstairs lounge we have been able to keep all the rooms in use at a decent temperature – though the hallway is now down to 12 degrees c.
More worryingly, there are still green leaves on the trees here, and I have heard the sound of migrating birds taking a rest from flight through the blizzarding snow. As with the flooding early in the summer, the locals say that these kinds of weather conditions are seen every 5 years or so in the Czech Republic, but it certainly must wrong foot many species to have winter arrive mid October. I hope this is temporary (we have lots of trees to plant yet, and not enough wood cut by far) however the snow is still falling five days later.
Luckily, as well as chopping wood, we have been insulating in recent weeks. Rosie – a workaway visitor – put her carpentry skills to use by ensuring that all the secondary windows were able to close properly. I also had an idea to use the cheap Ikea Irja curtain poles (29kc) installed directly into the wall* around the windows to hang a secondary layer of curtain (behind the thin, decorative curtains we have in the rooms currently used. As insulating curtains we have used the cheap Ikea single Mysa Gras quilts (69kc) which fit perfectly into the alcove of our Vienna windows. They are lightweight, washable and allow some light through, but substantially thicker than curtain material. We can keep these curtains shut during the longer winter nights, when the temperature outside drops off as soon as the sun goes down. Claire and Emily did a sterling job on Thursday – putting up many more curtain rods so we are now as insulated as we can be until I next visit Ikea for more supplies.
Did I mention the number of pairs of socks the house came with? We have put these to use as insulators of the current (temporary) plumbing system. They look rather like an art installation… I need to think of a good title for it.
Yesterday morning I had to clear a path through the snow to the composting toilet outside… we moved it to the back of the garden because though it was convenient to have it close to the front door, you did feel somewhat exposed when trucks came past the garden. Now we have a fantastic view up the valley… currently a wintery landscape of frost and fir trees, and beautiful white scenes from every window. Definitely not what I was hoping for in mid October.

*The curtain pole goes in via a parallel parking type manoeuvre. We cut the metal curtain pole to 3cm longer than the gap, then on the left hand side of the window, with a masonry drill bit the same diameter as the poles, drilled a hole 3cm deep angled towards the corner of the wall on the right, then again in the same spot, parallel with the glass, and a 1cm hole on the opposite side.

Water woes, shocks and explosions – high drama at the mill.


So at last, last month, we finally caught up with (what passes for) civilisation.  We had our new (second hand) Whirlpool washing machine and a shower attached to the boiler in the bathroom. It felt really great. For a glorious moment… then I got electrocuted by the tap on the shower – (luckily before I’d started running the water). The washing machine had blown up and taken out the boiler with it – leaving the taps and shower live.  At least it was me, rather than a visitor who got the shock.

The problem was that a plug in the bathroom (which was part of the old wiring) had been wired the wrong way – reminiscent of the copper wire that had been used to bypass the fuse system (which we discovered in the early days). Luckily nobody died either time – but it does leave the lingering impression that the house had been booby trapped.

So, yet again we are without hot water and a washing machine. When the weather is good we’re fine as we have the solar showers and bath outside. The repair cost for the boiler was greater than the cost of the boiler itself – so we’ve ordered a new boiler with three inputs – meaning that we can heat the tank from a back boiler on a stove, from a solar system input as well as a backup in the form of electricity.  That’ll be arriving next week, and the Whirlpool washing machine has been repaired – they phoned us to ask us what the maximum we were prepared to pay for the repair would be – then they charged us this amount. Our cheap second hand washing machine has stopped being.

Still… we hope to rejoin the 20th century again this week.

Soap Nuts


Have you ever noticed that if you get commercial washing powder on wet skin you get a slimy feeling that’s impossible to wash off? It’s not hard to guess that the clever chemicals that make your whites whiter than white ain’t great for just about anything else in the natural world. If your clothing is not covered in cooking oil, mud, tomato sauce and grass stains etc. – ie you are over the age of 12, and continent, you don’t really need high temperatures and harsh chemicals, do you?

As all the water we use at Novy Mlyn is taken out of the ground and (eventually) returns to the ground, we don’t use any harmful cleaning chemicals in the house. Instead we’ve researched the alternatives (and use vinegar a lot).

After fixing the drainage from the house last week, we installed our (second hand, energy rating: A, Whirlpool) washing machine. We decided to order soap nuts as these are a natural product which will not contain the vile chemicals of commercial detergents – we ordered these from a seller on Ebay and so we needed to wait for a few days for them to arrive… too long to wait for our first wash so we researched a traditional washing soap recipe – a 100g bar of soap finely grated, a 50g packet of (inexpensive) bicarbonate of soda and a teaspoon of borax – makes enough ‘powder’ for several loads of washing. This worked well with the longer 40 degree cycles, but the soap remained undissolved on the 30 minute quick wash cycle.

Currently the washing machine drains into the bath. I was quite shocked with the amount of water used – 40 litres even with the 30 minute cycle, therefore we are reusing the water by draining it into the mop bucket to wash floors and flush the toilet.

So, we collected a kilo of soap nuts from the post office today – it cost 13.50 GBP including postage. They are waxy shells about the same size as marbles and a kilo looks like a lot. They smell peculiar… the instructions I’ve read say that your clothing won’t smell peculiar after washing – we’ll see later today. You use 4-6 of them for four washes, so a kilo should last the year… as long as we’re not left smelling odd! One inconvenience is that you have to pre-treat them if you are planning to use a 30 degree cycle – they need warmer water in order to activate the soapiness.

I pre soaked the 6 shells in a cup of boiling water for about 5 minutes, and put the water into the washing liquid compartment of the washing machine and the shells in the little cloth bag in the main drum with the washing.  The washing is now on the line – the sunlight itself acts as a natural antibacterial and bleaching agent.

Once you have used the soap nut shells 4-6 times you stick them on the compost heap. All back to nature and with clean clothes to boot.

Rain, rain, go away…


It chucking it down. Raining cats and dogs (or raining wheelbarrows as they say in Czech). Oh the irony of our relationship with water.

On Saturday we were forced to change the drainage system for the water leaving the house. After we had bought rods for the drain, the neighbour told us that the pipe was actually broken about two feet from where the drain entered the ground. Why? A question which remains unanswered.

Instead we are feeding the water round to the (lower) front of the house (through the cellar). On Sunday I started digging in the reed bed filtration system. This is a set of troughs which will contain various special plants which use various things found in grey water from houses as nutrients (grey water is not contaminated with sewage – which has to be separately treated for safety reasons).  I’m just waiting for the list of species required. Luckily there is an institute of botany specialising in aquatic plants in nearby Třeboň, so I will be able to see which of these are native to the Czech Republic and available locally.

Today we dug up the drive way into the property as there was no drainage under it, meaning that a stream of water would pool in front of the house in heavy rain. Minutes after Mike, Dad and John put down their spades, the heavy rain started and we were able to see how effective it was.

Now the valley has flooded and it’s still raining – there have been deaths due to the floods in other areas of the Czech Republic and this water will now be headed down to lower ground. I went and checked on our neighbouring horses, who were not happy about the thunder and lightening, but able to stand on a bank out of the way of the water.

Our visitor from workaway.info helped me construct a ‘goat’ today – ie a wooden frame on which we can hang the solar showers over the stone fish pond (drained). We have moved the old bath over to the back of the garden, by the pond, so that when we have multiple guests (such as the twenty cyclists who are coming to camp in a couple of weeks) we can heat water in the bath – it has a black cover and gets hot in the sun, which can then be used to fill the solar bag showers. This seems like a distant dream right now… with this torrential rain.

(British children’s rhyme: It’s raining, it’s pouring. The old man is snoring, he went to bed and bumped his head and couldn’t get up in the morning).

Foul Play


The drainage out of Novy Mlyn stopped working soon after we started using the inside toilet fully.  Last year I converted it into a liquid only loo (partly due to our lack of info about the complete system, and also because all available water for flushing it was rainwater carried by bucket – so best to keep things simple). It worked well for number ones, though it was a delicate issue having to explain the procedure to visitors – we politely request you poo in the garden please. Soon after we reconnected the water in the spring, we decided to use it as a proper – no holds barred  type of toilet and almost immediately the drainage failed and we discovered the loo was emptying out of the top of a pipe near the back porch. Unpleasant and disappointing.

Husband had a poke about and said it was blocked solid.  A firm of plumbers visited last weekend and offered us a quote for a new system – I wasn’t at the house at the time or I would have insisted they try to rod the thing – but they didn’t.  “If you want a job done properly you have to do it yourself” is a saying I hate in respect of the prospect of sorting out a blocked toilet. But, as a last resort I decided to have a look for myself. Armed with a long stick with a nail stuck through it, I was able to retrieve a pair of trousers, a sheet and a t-shirt from the part of the drain before the bend. The neighbour looked on, with a cross expression which I cannot fathom. The drain is not unblocked – but there may be other items of clothing etc round the corner – for which we need more specialist equipment than a stick with a nail through it.

Why would someone want to sabotage our toilet? Is it the kind of thing one goes to the police about? I don’t feel angry… like when the barns collapsed within an hour of our first visit to our new home, I feel that we’ve coped with far worse than that in recent years.  Anyway, I made use of the bath in the garden after this vastly unpleasant task.  We can’t use the bath inside because of the lack of drainage, but I can’t imagine a better place to have a long soak than a solar heated roll top bath in the sun.

Sun Bathing


For May, it’s surprisingly warm. We spent today working outside as much as possible. But on a really hot day, water is essential. Our swimming pond is still  at the stage of pre-construction, so we have to find other means to ends…

The drainage from the house has stopped, and so we’re back to using the outhouse while we get the necessary permit to fit a new water treatment system (envi pur is a company originating from our local town).  The problem is that, if our 18 months waiting for a permit for our well is anything to go by, it could be a very long time before we have the right paperwork. I have contacted Envi Pur to see if they have a turnkey solution – ie they handle all that as well as fitting the system – however I’ve had no response to my email written in halting (or perhaps failing) Czech.

Our neighbour said that there has never been a water treatment system at the house (though we did wonder if he’d simply diverted it – as he did with the water supply). It’s horrible that even the bath and sink cannot be used in the bathroom for the time being – the water drains straight out of the top of a pipe by the back porch. JD, our builder, thinks that this could have been deliberately blocked – just to inconvenience us.

JD gave us a cast iron bath a few months ago when he was refurbishing the bathroom in his cottage. He has a place on a hill about 7 miles away – with fantastic views. JD is the hoarder I aspire to be… nothing is ever wasted. He decided that what we needed was a free standing cast iron bath. What could I do but agree. Though it was in a bit of a state, like everything in my life it was nothing that a bit of elbow grease and Hammerite couldn’t right.

Due to the dire drainage situation we decided to set the bath up in the garden. Today we positioned it in the middle of the lawn where it would get the sun all day, filled it with water, covered it with clear plastic sheet and waited.

After a day of pottering, rather than hard graft, with a bit of flopping about in the sun thrown in for good measure, just as the heat was getting unbearable, I was able to sink into our luxuruiously long & deep bath, containing water warmed by the sun. We had a good old splash about (we being Misha -2.3- and I) and after lay in the hammock strung between the apple trees to dry off. Absolutely the best bathtime ever.

« Older Entries