500 Year Vision

Take pleasure from walking lightly on this Earth

87 solutions to be found…


Anyone who is renovating a large house using little more than elbow grease and some judiciously applied paint , as opposed to a Grand Designs budget… will know that for every repair made, another problem is unearthed.

Currently, my main worries are the reed bed which has bowed under the weight of it’s contents, so needs to be emptied, moved out and restructured, as well as the holes in the upstairs ceiling caused by beam which have crumbled (hence hinting at the possibility that similar damage has occurred elsewhere).

We had a very long, very cold winter – six months under snow – keeping the house warm was a major undertaking, and a problem with the mortgage means that we may not get the central heating system installed this year.

So, for balance, it’s important to take stock of the positives.

  • The winter was tough but we survived it
  • We have had amazing people visit us over the past 12 months, allowing us to travel without moving & meet kindred spirits from around the world
  • Far more has been done than I could manage alone – wood cut, willow planted, the hen house built, furniture restored, the garden started, rubble cleared, walls painted, mosaics designed, dragons sculpted
  • The house is clean and tidy most of the time (the housekeeping alone at Nový Mlýn would be a full time job for one person)
  • We have eaten many delicious meals with our ever shifting house-sharers
  • Mushrooms from the forest! enough said really
  • The woods around the house are filled with bilberries – and we have bilberry picking tools we found in the house.
  • Ariela found an amazing strawberry patch just down the road
  • We went on holiday!  For the last 7 years we have only gone to the Czech Republic from the UK or vice versa, so a holiday is a big deal for us. We went to the seaside for a week! And we weren’t burgled because Jaakko looked after everything for us.
  • We have hens
  • The garden is full of delicious greens we didn’t even plant – we just had to learn which weeds are the tasty ones
  • We are living a sustainable lifestyle and sharing our experience with other people

I will keep my mind open for the 87 solutions we are seeking.

What do Minstrels and our floorboards have in common?


Wanting to stay as close as possible to nature – we decided to try Shellac as a varnish on the stripped floorboards. This is bought in the form of flakes and dissolved in a very strong alcohol – it would have been nice to use a local alcohol – and would have certainly smelled more pleasant, however it needs to evaporate completely – so Slivovice was not the thing to use. Shellac is a secretion from an Indian bug, which is then scraped off the trees and processed. It is the same bug which is used for the production of cochineal – and in fact, Shellac is used in food production – such as over the brightly coloured coatings on Skittles. Yum. As with anything in our immediate environment – including skin creams, the fact that it comes in an edible form gives me confidence that we’re not inadvertently poisoning ourselves by using chemicals which have not been tested a, in combination with other chemicals, and b, over the course of lifetimes rather than weeks to check of ill effects. Shellac has been used for hundreds of years in the form of French polish. It has a long history as well as uses in the food industry.

We have two litres of Shellac made up, I’m interested to know how far this will go – so far I’ve used it to treat the areas of floorboard which have woodworm damage – long dead woodworm which has attacked the wood from the sides, rather than the top – suggesting to me that the woodworm was in the wood when it was cut into planks.

The filler I made up with sawdust and shellac hasn’t been successful – perhaps because the sawdust wasn’t fine enough. I was hoping I could fill the woodworm holes with this mix, but it’s not quite right yet. It’s nice having the chance to experiment anyway.

Whitewashing in the truest sense


Most people are aware of the quantity of man-made chemicals we now carry in our bodies – with all sorts of nasties even being present in breast milk. Fire retardants are particularly vile, and, as with most modern day decisions, ‘you pays your money and you takes your choice’. Fire retardant on pillows: you are less likely to set fire to your head, and more likely to get cancer.

Whitewash is essentially a mix of calcium hydroxide, chalk and water. I can buy it ready made for 165kc for 15kg – so it’s much, much cheaper than paint. It appeals to me for the same reasons we’re experimenting with Shellac. Once I’ve got the basic repair and decoration finished I plan to experiment with pigments added to the whitewash – though I will certainly not be using pig’s blood as they did to produce ‘Suffolk Pink’ in the old days. I was thinking more along the lines of leaves and berries for a Dulux style hint of colour.

I’ve been painting with the whitewash for a few days now. If you get it on your skin it’s incredibly drying – it’s important to wash it off quickly or your hands will become dry and cracked (rescued only by the Body Shop’s Hemp hand cream).  I’ve been using a domestic whisk to mix the paint – which settles over time into a watery layer over the heavy, cream cheese consistency, lime. Once mixed together thoroughly whitewash should have the appearance of yoghurt.

A few days ago I used paint which hadn’t been mixed properly thinking that it might save me time on additional layers – it went on well, however when I came back to it today I found that it had cracked into small squares and was loose or peeling off the walls on about half of the places I’d painted. My only excuse was I was rather unwell with a horrible cold, but it was a bad job. Mike said it could have been the paint itself, but I know that I tried something different and it’s worked well in the other rooms. Lesson learned. I then had to sweep down the walls again, vacuum up the mess and start again. The brilliant white emulsion is faster and doesn’t rub off on other things (like a paint made of chalk does), but I’m far more concerned with our health and the health of the house – why add VOCs to your home if you don’t have to?

Global Agents for Change visit – accompanied by a huge storm.


The house feels verry verry quiet.  We had been gearing up for the visit of our 24 cyclists for some time… clearing out the courtyard for the hog roast, building the frame for the solar showers and laying down the hosepipe covered by tin guttering to heat the water, and clearing away as much clutter as possible.

Friday was a wonderfully hot day, but as the first of the cyclists arrived, so did the first signs of bad weather – a storm cloud made it’s way over from Tabor as they did.  As more people arrived, so the rain became heavier.

The last cyclists had not been able to find our road, and instead had stopped at a farm in another village which had the same house number as ours.  The perplexed farmer had no idea why two girls who spoke no Czech were pointing to their T-Shirts and expecting to put up tents in his garden.  Shortly after their arrival here, as we were serving the food, the light show started. A wonderful, wonderful lightening storm – if you weren’t trying to cater for 36.

As well as the Global Agents (Gala’s description), we also had Olivier and Arno – French couchsurfers, and Janni from Finland. Our workaway.inf0 guest Jessica, Shane, Nat and Keith from The English Centre, Tabor. And of course, Pig John (as he now wishes to be known).  After the barbecue we watched the storm from the porch.

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.

How to live without running water – lessons from 15 dry months


I thought that we’d have a big celebration when we got water… so many of my sentences began with ‘when we have water, I’ll…’. But, to my own surprise, it doesn’t feel like such a big deal. And why? because we learned to live without it.

The water supply to Nový Mlýn was cut off (we think that when our neighbour built his house, he simply disconnected the supply from Nový Mlýn and diverted it to his new home).  Our lawyer told us that it was a cheap and simple task to get a new well put in, so we went ahead with the purchase anyway. It took us 15 months to get the necessary paperwork to install a new well from our local council. The bore hole cost a bomb. Luckily, we had a lot of help with the necessary manual work (such as the metre deep trench to take water to the house).

So, now we have a tap installed on the outside of Nový Mlýn. With clean and plentifully available water. No more filling up the barrel and transporting it from town. No more plastic bottles. No more dependence on rainwater – which inconveniently freezes in the winter.

According to a UN report in 2000, half of the World’s population live without access to clean water.  Our experience over the last 15 months has given us a little insight into how the other half live.   Those who have water on tap in the west use it wantonly. It is not a precious resource & because it is provided at a flat cost for most people, no penalty for leaving the tap on while you brush your teeth or flushing drinking water literally down the pan.

So, here’s what we learned:

  1. Rainwater is really useful: flushing toilets, pre cleaning dishes, for all household cleaning tasks. If you’re not going to lick it, then does it need to be drinking water quality?
  2. We used drinking water for washing, drinking & rinsing dishes.
  3. Heat. A can of water is kept by the kitchen sink for washing dishes. You don’t need to heat water to wash dishes most of the time, the problem is that when it comes out of the cold tap it is normally as cold as the ground – ie about 10 degrees C. Raise this to room temperature and it’s good to go.  Try it. As a result for our future hot water supply we will divert the water supply into the attic to preheat it before it goes into the boiler. That’ll save us a good 15 degrees heating costs in the summer (when the back boilers aren’t functioning).
  4. We have a composting toilet outside as well as a liquid only loo inside. We reduced the quantity of water needed to flush the toilet by putting rocks in the bowl. This also served as a visual reminder for visitors.  Two litres instead of five makes a huge difference if you have to go fill up buckets with rainwater to flush. I’m really not keen on the idea of ‘mellow yellow’ – it’s not so mellow when you’re female. You have to flush it away before you go so you don’t get splashback. We will hook up the toilets to a rainwater tank in the attic when we get the guttering replaced.
  5. In the bathroom we had the following: baby wipes (which were washed out and used for domestic cleaning & insulation at a later date) , an alcohol hand gel (for more paranoid visitors), liquid soap and a mister (a water spray with a pump to add pressure). The mister allows you to rinse soap from your hands very easily with a very small amount of water which you can turn on and off.
  6. Solar water heating – those inexpensive 20 litre bags, with the shower attachment are surprisingly effective.  I don’t know why solar water heaters are so expensive. We are putting double glazed windows in the south side of our roof & will use this light to heat water before it goes into the boiler.

Our next step will be to get the water inside… then we will be working on the first new bathroom – the accessible shower room.

Hunter gatherer fare


Early July is a very fertile time. Walking through the forest this weekend we were able to gather bilberries (the British English name for blueberries), Chanterel & Bolete mushrooms. It’s a beautiful place to be… wandering in the woods… just far enough from the racket from the roofer’s radio. Czech radio… so much to answer for. It went into the 80’s and never left.

Currently, the roof at Nový Mlýn is being replaced. We had expected the roofers to be here on weekdays, but they are working through the weekends during all daylight hours. So… we have 4 permanent guests. Seeing as they are working 16 hour days we are cooking them an evening meal & providing beer.  The food has been quite a challenge because now is not the time to introduce them to contemporary English cooking. We’ve had to search around for Czech recipes & make meat and potato type meals.

The cats are totally freaked out. Two unfortunate events coincided. Last week we installed the new cat door – to stop the neighbour’s cats coming in, making stinks and eating all the food. The new system is controlled by magnets. The magnets are worn by our cats. The full implications of this did not become apparent until we’d put the collars on them. The magnets are very, very strong. The cats now stick to things. For example we have a metal kitchen (a communist throwback), the cats had metal feeding bowls & the table & chairs we brought with us from the UK have metal legs.  Suddenly, as well as having to wear a stupid collar, the cats were clanking onto everything they walked past. Plus, they gather bits of rusty old metal.

Pavouk hid under the woodpile all night in protest. They have made their best efforts to scratch up the collars… which are now very tatty looking, but still attached to the cats.  And then the roofers arrived. People. Clanking. Banging. Stuff being thrown about. Pavouk moved from behind the woodpile to under the duvet, and stayed there for three days. We had to bring her food and water up to the bedroom, but realised just to late about the metal bowls, and the clank sent her scurrying off back under the duvet.

Cherry Heaven


The first weekend in July is when the dark cherries are completely ripe and the bright red cherries just getting there. We have masses, and masses, and masses. So… I invited some people to come over for a cherry picking day on Saturday. The cherry glut is a new problem for us because a late frost destroyed most of the fruit before it set in last year.

I haven’t yet worked out which are the cooking cherries and which are for eating. There is general disagreement with the neighbour saying one thing, and the roofers saying another. I find it difficult to tell because in the UK, cherries never seemed to get that ripe – so were normally somewhat sour.  So… I have picked as many as I can, and given them away to neighbours, students and friends.  When we have water I will be able to make jam. When we have water…

It’s a delicious problem… what to do with so many cherries.  You can take a cherry diet day, for example. Simply, a day on which you eat nothing but cherries. It’s said to be very cleansing. Cherries are certainly a wonder food – they release their energy much slower than many other fruit – they have a low GI index. Friends have also suggested making cherry soup (a sort of juice with other things in it which can be stored for a long time)  and my neighbour in Tabor made a beautiful cake using some of them. In the mean time, I have pickled a good few kilos in vodka. Some with their stalks, some without.

To take the stones out of the cherries, you can use a hair pin. You stick the u shape into the stalk hole from the cherry and hook out the stone. It’s very effective.

I have cut back one of the trees somewhat – the tree is huge with many branches that will always be out of reach – next year the cherries should be less and larger.

Water in all the wrong places


So… last night the rain started.  Why, when it has been dry and sunny for months on end, does the bad weather start as soon work on our roof begins.

We’re still without water – the pump went back to the shop (an hour drive away), but the owner of the shop is on holiday until next week – and back next Tuesday. They found the fault with the pump, but can’t replace it without the say so of the shop owner. Can I just clarify – this is a brand new pump, which was faulty when we bought it, and under Czech law the business owner can take their sweet time fixing the problem.  Leaving us without water yet again. So… we now have a team of 6+ roofers on premises, with no supply of clean water.

Last night we managed to feed our 5 guests – and find an extra bed. The accommodation is basic: two rooms with two beds, two chairs & two lamps, but we also have a sofa bed in the kitchen and one further upstairs room. Everyone ate. We coped with washing up afterwards. Given the water situation, things are okay.  We thought that they would be here during the week and travelling back home at weekends, but they are working through the weekends for the next few weeks.

This morning they started work at 5.30 because the van arrived with the scaffolding. I wonder what hours they’ll work? It’s now 7.30 am and I’ve already been out taking some last minute ‘before’ photos of the roof.

The larch roof begins!


Today is the day the roofers arrive to replace our roof with a beautiful larch wooden roof. I need to remember to take some ‘before’ photos.

Wooden roofing is by far the most sustainable option – and unlike Cedar – is grown locally – so less embedded energy in shipping. The slats are hand split to make them naturally resistant to woodworm & other bugs.

The roofers plan to start with the roof of the front porch – that’s great because we will be able to see it immediately. Wish us luck!

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