500 Year Vision

Take pleasure from walking lightly on this Earth

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.

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).

Moth repellent revisited


Last year I researched which essential oils were disliked by moths and put little glasses in various cupboards and drawers to ward off unwanted visitors.  When I went back to them, the scent had faded and a sticky oil residue was left on the containers – which was a pain to clean off.

I cheated a few weeks ago and bought a commercial bio  ‘lavender’  moth repellent – but it stank out the room – even with the wardrobe door shut, and I started having difficulty breathing.  The lavender I planted earlier this year is not yet thriving.  I would be happy to have a good supply of it.

Eventually a solution has occurred to me… I’ve gathered some pine cones from the forest and put the essential oil (geranium to deter flies, and peppermint and cedar to keep moths away) on these – it’s soaked in without touching the shot glasses. Tomorrow I’ll add some chilli and cloves to the glasses and put them about the house.

Mushroom Roulette – rules to live by.


Today we ate a new type of mushroom – well – new to us – not to Czechs who’ve been eating it for hundreds of years.  Amanita Rubescens (known locally as Masák –  meaty) is a relative of both Fly Agaric (the hallucegenic red mushroom with white spots popular in fairy tale illustrations of pixies)  and the Death Cap or Destroying Angel (there’s a clue in the name) – so careful identification is essential. It is therefore important to know how to identify those which are poisonous, especially those which share similarities to edible mushrooms. About 20 people die every year in the Czech Republic because of mushroom poisoning – with Death Cap being the principle culprit – combined with human error (aka – guns aren’t dangerous).

The first time I try any mushroom I identify it using several different sources (both books and Internet based), I also get someone else to identify it, seperately, then cook it thoroughly, and only taste a tiny amount (ie cubic milimetre).  The second time, a few days later, it’s okay to eat more. Sometimes you discover that a mushroom is edible, but not enjoyable.

Some types of mushroom share a chemical element with kidney beans – so must be cooked thoroughly in order to prevent poisoning, others are poisonous when combined with other stuff – like alchohol and the Ink Cap mushroom (now used as a treatment for alchoholics) combined together cause illness.

The variety we ate today was delicious. It tasted a lot like crispy fatty bacon bits (would to somebody who has avoided pork and bacon for many years) – but perhaps because we fried it in a mixture of olive oil and butter, with lots of salt.  No matter how certain I am about identification, eating wild mushrooms feels like taking a risk, and I’m left with unsettling self doubt until they are thoroughly digested and I live to tell the tale.

We have visitors over the summer and I’m not yet sure what our mushroom strategy should be.  I think we should only cook Porchini and Chanterelle for other people – as these are very clearly identifiable and differentiable from poisonous species. We have many books available if visitors want to go into the forest themselves to hunt for different types… maybe we could find a mushroom expert who could help?

George the Second


Beware the dangers of inaccurate communication…  we now have a kitten on our hands (quite literally – pouncing on me as I try to type).

When we visited Jerry and Vladka at the weekend, we met a kitten. He was like a baby George (the cat we lost last autumn), and wanted to play football, even though the ball was twice his size. Jerry told us that he belonged to his neighbour, and had been a present and we said ‘lovely, how nice’ etc. Once everyone started calling him George (Jiri)  it transpired that Jerry had actually said ‘our neighbour will give you the kitten as a present’. After a few drinks it didn’t seem like such a calamitous error, and on Sunday morning we came home to a not-so-enchanted-by-the-new-arrival Pavouk (sister of lost George).

The kitten now has the rather grand title of  Jiri Druhy – George the Second. It’s been ten months since we last saw the original George. I hope he was catnapped by a family who love him as we did. Jiri Druhy has a lot to live up to.

Spinning surprises


When I was small my mum bought a spinning wheel which was sent in a box from New Zealand. We learned how to card wool (to straighten out the fibres so it can be spun) and used all sorts of things to dye the wool after we’d spun it… we saved our onion skins for months, and experimented with spice. The result of all this was somewhat uninspiring turmeric scented browns when our friends wore Cerise pink and electric blue.

The spinning wheel is now on it’s way to Novy Mlyn – and is in need of a bit of repair. I was telling our neighbour about it (I say ‘telling’ and mean performing – I have at my disposal simple words and acting out – rather than the word for spinning wheel in Czech – kolovratek).  His reaction was way more interest than I expected (another strangeness from the strange English couple in the village) & he explained that he’d actually had to throw wool away in the past as nobody wanted it. He has sheep for flavour, not for wool, so the strands aren’t very long, but I am very happy to try it out – if it’s unsuitable for producing yarn, I will certainly be able to use it for felt – and I can experiment with different natural dyes as well.

While I’m working on the house I’m also thinking about activity holidays at Novy Mlyn… as well as knitting we now have the potential to take part in the whole process… a knitting holiday could involve meeting the sheep whose wool we will spin, dye and knit.  Now… I wonder if I can persuade our neighbour to adopt some Alpaca.

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.

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