500 Year Vision

Take pleasure from walking lightly on this Earth

2008 ends in sunshine


Today is an amazing day. Bright blue sky, sunshine and crisp air. Cold and beautiful. We’re out at the house… something that hasn’t happened very much in recent months because of… working to get the next release of our language learning programme out by the end of the year… thinking it’ll be cold here… loosing our resilience to the lack of running water (no central heating, so we had to drain the water out of the house when the temperatures started to drop to stop pipes and boilers bursting)… and apathy, maybe. The fact that the task seems so daunting at times.

So, my plan today is general cleaning and tidying. It’s not possible to do any painting as paint doesn’t work at these temperatures. Luckily there is always a lot of cleaning and organising to do. I’m just really glad to be here. To be able to potter about undisturbed, to escape out to the forest if I wish. We’ve spent so much time recently cooped up in that dark little flat.

Pavouk the cat has been funny – she spent the whole of last night coming in and out of the house – even though it was minus 8 outside. So much freedom here for all of us. She left a mouse gift by the bed for us, and was kind enough to kill it first, rather than making us catch it ourselves in the middle of the night like last time.

Meeting Vaclav Havel – Play-write, Poet and first President of The Czech Republic


A couple of weeks ago our friends phoned and asked us to meet in Prague. Now, communication with our friends has never been the most precise art – there’s a linguistic chasm between us, though English and Czech are improving on each side. The first time our friend Jerry called us, we were not sure if he was calling to invite us to their cottage for the weekend, or just to talk about Mike dancing like a chicken.

Last year they introduced us to a friend of theirs who is a radio producer – I told her the story of my grandfather and the bomb (his life had been saved during the second world war as a result of the actions of Czechoslovakian saboteurs). Helena said she’d like to make a radio programme about it & we were made up by the idea that this story could be shared with people in the Czech Republic. The second world war was such a dark time here, but there were acts of astonishing heroism – and reprisal. The land was occupied, and many were forced to work in German munitions factories.

So, the interview was recorded a couple of months ago, a few days after our chimney fire, when, for a second time, we were saved by Czechs filling something with sand. During the interview, we mentioned that our chimneys had been cleaned by a man called Vaclav Havel – namesake of the first President of the Czech Republic.

Jerry & Vladka mentioned something about an interview, and insisted that we had to be in Prague – though we were pretty vague about what was going on. We arrived at the Fireman’s Theatre, and they told us that Vaclav Havel was coming. ‘Vaclav Havel our chimney sweep?’ ‘yes, yes, the chimney sweep’.

There seemed to be a pretty big crowd of people at the theatre to see a chimney sweep. So… it transpired that we were there for a live interview with the former president and his second wife, Daša. Vaclav Havel spoke Czech in a beautifully slow and (therefore) comprehensible way, and seemed genuinely delighted when Vaclav Havel the chimney sweep was introduced to him.

After the interview the radio producer asked us back stage and introduced us to the president. Unfortunately I was totally tongue tied and, blank minded, didn’t tell Vaclav Havel the story of my grandfather and the bomb. Another time.

Domestic carbon sequestration


This morning I was thinking about chimneys. A strange thing to wake up wondering about but bear with me. We had our chimneys swept by Vaclav Havel on Thursday (namesake of the first president of the post-communist Czech Republic). It was all very high tech – surprisingly – we had been expecting Dick Van Dyke I suppose. The 21 century equivalent brings with him a camera and lights in order to film the chimney lining to check that it’s safe.
After our chimney fire two weeks ago, I cleaned the sand out of the chimney (filled to extinguish the blaze). With the sand came out big clumps of carbon, solid like soft charcoal. When I had looked into the burning chimney, the walls glowed like a furnace – it was this charcoal like lining which was burning.
Carbon sequestration has been happening in our chimneys for the last 20 years (Vaclav Havel said they had not been cleaned for a considerable length of time.) Currently the science exists to take the harmful carbon out of the pollution from coal burning power stations. The problem has been the cost of including such technology – and seeing as global warming has until recently been intangible – then there is no direct financial benefit to energy companies to include the technology.
Though there is a logical argument for us burning wood as a source of heat – it is a renewable source of energy as the wood is taken from a sustainable source – I wonder how far down the line is development of domestic sequestration.

What is it with the Czechs and sand?


On Sunday we learnt an important lesson – why chimneys should be regularly cleaned.  The lesson was, of course, too late – as we had by then already set our house on fire. To our rescue came Chynov fire brigade. With great efficiency they poured sand down our chimney and put out the blaze. When the police arrived, I told the officer that the firemen were on the roof, putting songs in the chimney (Pisek/Pisen). My Czech is not good.
This is the second time I have been rescued by Czechs filling something up with sand.

When he was a child, my grandfather watched as Exeter was set ablaze during the second world war. As he watched it burn, a bomb fell a few feet away from him. He felt the ground heave up… but the bomb did not detonate.  When the bomb disposal officer arrived, my grandfather followed him to the crater where there lay a 1100 pound bomb ‘as big as a dinner table’. When they opened it they discovered a note written in pencil saying ‘to the people of England from the people of Czechoslovakia, this bomb will not explode’. The bomb had been filled with sand.

When we got married in Prague (31st May 2005, Old Town Hall), I tried to tell the story about the bomb to the official conducting the service…  a strange feeling – if it had not been for the bravery of unknown saboteurs…

Chynov fire brigade – first class service


So… we’re just sitting down after the fire crew have left.

To dry the plaster going on in the new kitchen/dining room we lit the old boiler fire.  A while later the chimney set light.

Ironically, sweeping the chimneys was something that I had asked our previous builder to arrange for us before we came out to visit Novy Mlyn before we lived over here. It didn’t happen. I didn’t think about it… one of those someday soon jobs.

So, when I went up to the attic to see what was going on there were flames coming out of the access hatch. Mike et al put out the old boiler fire & Zdenek called the fire service, then we used wet blankets to block up all the access points we could find for air to get into the chimney.

When the fire service arrived they carried sand up onto the roof and threw it down the chimney. It did cross my mind that we could walk away from the house at that point. Leave Novy Mlyn and the problems there contained and simply walk away into the forest – it was strangely calming. The fire is now out, but the fire inspector said that the chimneys hadn’t been cleaned for many, many years. We need to get them all swept and inspected before we can light the fires again.  There is a risk of reignition over the next two or three days because of the heat still in the chimney.

George – last seen on the 5th September 2008


Our gorgeous cat, George, has gone missing.  He ran away while we were away in the UK. We are all very sad. Pavouk, in particular, is pining. We are devastated at the loss of such a fine character.

So that our lives are not completely dominated by computer work (such as our project for language learners), all four of us normally go for a walk together in the forest every evening. Once, while out walking, both cats decided to explore the hunter’s cabin (essentially a shed on long sticks with a window). I was lucky to get a picture of George actually looking out of the window of the cabin. What a fine hunter he is. 

I have put up posters in the local villages, but people don’t seem to care very much about cats here. Our last builder expressed surprise when we told him we planned to bring our cats over from the UK – “Why don’t you just get them put down and get new ones here”. The single most unappealing Czech habit I have come across is that if a cat is run down on the road, nobody will stop to remove the body.

I really, really hope that George found new owners, and more than that, I hope he will find his way home some time. But the snow will be here soon – he’s running out of time.

Life isn’t the same with just the three of us.

Mortgage problems


We thought we had it sorted… after a ridiculously long process we had agreed the mortgage and drawn down the first payment to cover the cost of the roof and rewiring… until a call today.

Apparently, we have some buildings missing.  Because of this, the Czech government register of property will not enter our mortgage on the property register.  Potentially this means that we are not meeting our side of the mortgage agreement. And this means… that the bank could ask for it back. After all, banks need money at the moment.

We’re totally stressed out at the moment, with George missing and the house in such a mess. Extra pressure is the last thing we need. With my doom-mongering head on, I think they’ll take the house off us and sell it.

The missing buildings have been gone for years – but somebody should have let officials know about it. Let’s hope we can get this sorted out, and quickly – unlike the water permit, which took 18 months.  My positive motivation is nearly completely destroyed.

Theft during the construction of our Larch roof


While our roof was being replaced, a large amount of stuff went missing from our attic and back work room.

The individual value of each item would not have been high – an antique mangle for squeezing out washing, various mechanical parts from vehicles and from the old mill – these items were part of the history of the house. I imagine that they have been taken for their scrap metal value, without a consideration that we would have put things back together, or wanted to use tools that were so old.

We have not reported this to the police because we are not 100% certain what was taken by whom. However I am not going to be recommending this firm to others.  This is a massive shame because the work was excellent, and we now have an unsurpassably sustainable and ecological roof covering. I thoroughly recommend a Larch roof (like Cedar, but produced in Europe), but I cannot thoroughly recommend a firm to do it.

This experience leaves a bitter taste in my mouth and has rather dampened my spirit concerning the project.

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.

« Older Entries