Adventures in cob

And so they begin 🙂

When we first moved to Rum it was our intention to live in our static caravan for a short while until we built a house. We’d always felt it was really important to get to know the location properly before actually committing to building so planned a full year – seeing where the sun rose and set, where it was most windy and most sheltered, where never dried out during the winter and what happened to ditches, rivers and burns over the course of a year.

Our caravan is sited on the first flattish bit of the croft, oriented east-west to take the smallest amount of the winds. We put a fair bit of thought into it but after nearly 2 years I can give you a full list of the things I would change it I brought it here again (not that I would ever, EVER bring it here again!). It would not put it as high up the croft as it is, it is the biggest pain carrying every single thing up that hill, from 47kg gas bottles to sacks of potatoes and firewood, I estimate I have climbed that muddy hill several thousand times in 2 years, almost always carrying something heavy!. I would keep it east-west as it does indeed not then bear the brunt of the winds but I would spin it round 180 degrees so that the bedrooms are on the south side and the kitchen on the north side. This would mean the bedrooms would get sun, even in winter and probably be less damp and condensation-y and the fridge and sink with storage underneath would be cooler and shaded. Those are the sorts of things you want to have occur to you before you built something permanent!

So we planned a timber framed kit house and even had provisional chat with the local planning department about location and style. We talked to local builders about best siting within the croft and took advice from all corners about materials, design, style, supplier etc. We listened to everyone and everything they had to say and took it all on board. We had quotes for metal agricultural style buildings, log cabins and huts. I think we tried the patience of pretty much everyone as they all seemed to give up on us and stop believing we had any intention of building anything. Meanwhile we quietly observed the land and stuck the odd post in here and there to mark places. Places that had stunning views or made us feel right. We stood facing east in the early morning, west at sunset, south overlooking the river when it was in spate, running fast and furious or just trickling along. We thought about power, water, sanitation. We pondered wind, rain, sun.

For financial reasons (our house not selling) the conventional route to building a house didn’t happen. For philosophical reasons a conventional route to building a house is probably not the right path for us anyway. When we set off on this adventure a house build was never part of our plans but having had it come up we are determined that we make the most of the opportunity and build something that reflects us, is beautiful, fits into it’s surroundings and is as much of an adventure and learning opportunity to build as possible.

We have a bookcase full of books on green building, regularly turn down page corners on lovely houses in Permaculture Magazine, Mother Earth Magazine and other such publications and Ady and I are always emailing each other links to websites and news articles about alternative buildings. We have looked at straw bale, wattle and daub, log cabins, cordwood, earthships….The one we keep coming back to us cob. For various reasons it speaks to us – the idea that anyone can build with cob, from young children to more mature people, it is not as physical a build as some other options. There is much scope for artistic freedom, cob is a material you can sculpt with, building both the external structure but also the internal features. It seems pretty forgiving – there are some basic rules from which you can’t deviate but after that once you understand it there is no need for full on technical engineering level skills. It is properly green – pretty much everything we need is already right here for us to use. It is low cost high labour which pretty much suits our budget and the large number of family, friends and volunteers who want to come and help out.

Finally there is something incredibly poetic about the idea of finding the best possible use ever for all that mud.

So, we’re plowing our way through a couple of books on all the grown up, proper stuff we need to understand. We’ve booked ourselves on a course to go and learn more of the really important stuff. We’ve been testing our soil, making mixtures up and measuring them for shrinkage, drying times, hardness once set and so on. We have been digging test holes in various places on the croft and doing lots and lots of getting our hands dirty.

The next step is to actually build something. Something small so that if it goes wrong we have only made a small mistake, but something useful so that we are investing our time wisely into both research and developing our croft. So we’re building a chicken house. We have a deadline of the cob course so that we can take along our practical experience to know where we need to learn the most.

A big decision was what to use for the roof – we don’t want to spend on materials for this and we have plenty of recycled galvanised metal sheets on the croft so they are the logical choice. We need to better understand how the roof will all work which is the current indoors research we are working on.

Meanwhile we gathered the sheets, laid them out and measured them as these are the dictator of the size and shape of our chicken house. That done we worked out the right location for the chicken house – close to where they currently are houses, near to where we sell from, close to a water source and somewhere on a slight slope where drainage will be easy to organise. We drew a set of plans and then measured and marked out the site.

The next step is to dig out the trench which will be the foundation. That is planned for this weekend – I’ll let you know how we get on.

Optimism as a curse

Friends have pointed out to me before that my optimism can be dangerous. Only ever seeing the good side of things and approaching the world with an unshakable belief that everything will be fine can be setting yourself up for a fall. The fact is that sometimes bad things do happen and no amount of positive thinking is going to make everything ok.

I have in the past been guilty of sticking my fingers in my ears and ‘la-la-la not listening’ over the voices in my own head telling me to sort stuff out, deal with things, read the warning signs that everything is not ok. Not often and never with any really dire consequences. In the main my tendency towards an airy ‘it’ll al be fine’ response is proved right, but there are times when I have had to stop, face facts and deal with things like a grown up. Not often, obviously, or I’d not be where I am right now, but just sometimes.

Right at the moment we are still enough in the tough winter bit of the year for living conditions to be hard, have just forked out spare funds for this month, next month and the month after on booking a trip off to visit friends and attend a cob course, are in the limbo period between winkle picking and the tourist season / honesty larder income of eggs, jams and crafts. And then the car goes and dies.A week before our biggest ever animal feed bills come in (we have an account so are paying now for the deliveries we had pre Christmas when we were worried about ferries being cancelled and still had six pigs all hungry). Ouch.

We are reminded that even here, in our chosen life away from consumerism and credit card bills there are still times when finances catch up with us and everything just feels a little bit like a house of cards.

So, natural optimism needs to be mixed with a healthy dose of realism and a side order of practicality and some serious consideration as to how to make it all work out. We have some ideas, I’ll let you know how they pan out.

In other news today we spent a couple of hours helping a friend pack up a van ready to start moving him and his stuff off Rum. We are excited for him starting a new life but it’s been a tough day to keep smiling.

Happy Second Yes-iversary!

IDSCF9359 by nicgee
It’s been a gorgeous day today, as the photos above show – some stunning shots of the view from the sporran as Ady and I enjoyed morning coffee out there today, of Kinloch Bay, the rocky shore and the sea looking towards the snowy peaks on the mainland.

We celebrated today with a beer on the bench down beside the sea our second ‘yes-iversary’. It’s two years ago today we came to Rum for our interview for the croft and to move here. After a fairly tough grilling from a panel of interviewers we were told ‘Yes. We think it will be a challenge, but we think you’re up to it’. They had no idea how many times those words would ring in our ears over the next two years. And, I suspect beyond!

A stunningly beautiful February day, low sun in the sky making the remaining snow on the peaks glisten and the sea shine, two loads of laundry washed and line dried, chats with fellow islanders we encountered along the way as we walked from the croft to the pier, to the village and home again. We celebrated and toasted our life here, excitedly got email confirmation of our places on the cob course in a couple of months and discussed plans, hopes and dreams. We watched a sea eagle circle over the peaks, oystercatchers, geese and divers in the loch and a pair of ravens noisily fly overhead.

But our car, which we bought hurriedly in the very brief window of packing our lives up and moving from Sussex to Rum back in 2012 has finally died. It’s been ailing for almost our entire time living here and despite best efforts of the mechanically minded few here (we do not number among them!) and a bit of trying various things I think it has now drive it’s last. We will bring it to the croft where it will serve purpose as a feedstore for which is will be perfect – dry, almost rodent proof and of course spares such as the batteries will be of great use for electric fencing. But life without a vehicle for us will very quickly prove incredibly difficult. Not least groceries, jerry cans of petrol and the bulk buy purchases we make of flour etc, we also have regular deliveries of animal feed and fencing. Not to mention getting firewood up to the croft. 

I suspect the coming week will be rather dominated by replacement vehicle sourcing…

Lifelong Learning

This week I joined a new facebook group on freedom in education. It popped up as a suggested group for me and as I miss hanging out with other Home Educators in real life I thought I’d hang out with some online. Some of my best friends are fellow Home Educators but we have all been friends a long time, some of them have chosen school, pretty much all of us are secure in our educational choices and it tends to not be something we talk about any more – just the common factor which brought us together in the first place but long since lost as shared memories and years of friendship take over as the reason we are in contact.

Interestingly I have not really contributed to any discussions about Home Education but have had several chats about island life, WWOOFing, traveling and our general lifestyle. Also this week I answered some FAQs about Life On Rum for a website and I spent some real life time with one of our newest residents so have been doing lots of talking about what it’s like to live here rather than anything to do with Home Education.

I actually often forget we Home Educate as it has long since ceased to be the interesting thing about our family to outsiders and it has faded into one of the many things we do as a family which makes us us rather than the single defining thing. Davies and Scarlett are constantly learning but in the same way as Ady and I are rather than any contrived, planned manner.

This week I have been learning more about cob house building, I had my first go on a spinning wheel and I learnt how to knit a sock. Ady has been researching how to provide heating, hot water and cooking for a small cob dwelling using wood rather than bottled gas or other fossil fuels. All self directed and driven by a need or a desire to learn. Davies and Scarlett’s learning is driven by the same motivators – a need or a desire. I can’t list everything they have learnt this week or even all the methods by which they have learned in just the same way as I would struggle to do so for myself – I know there have been external inputs such as radio, books, the internet – some accidental stumbling upon, some deliberate research. There has been chance encounters with people, conversation, incidents and happenings. Our children learn in the same way that we do, by living alongside us and dealing with things as they come up. There will be gaps certainly, but they will be filled as and when necessary by either necessity or curiosity.

I do know that this week Davies completed a book for Scarlett as a valentines gift (we ignored the romantic love association and all gave each other gifts on St Valentines Day – a mix of handmade and shop bought) and a comic strip to go in the island newsletter, he made a birthday card and used his initiative when the wind turbine was spinning so fast it overloaded the battery and he had to work out what to do as we were all out.

I know that Scarlett spent time coming up with ideas for gifts for everyone and then set about making them – Davies got chocolates, I got a handcarved dibber complete with Mummy carved into the handle and Ady got a catapault for shooting at crows, again handcarved and decorated. She also made treats for Bonnie and Humphrey (her hamster), worked out how old Humphrey is in hamster years, came to work with me and insisted on working out all of the change to give people from the till in her head. She also struck a deal with the shop owner to earn a little walnut deer head badge that she had been coveting.

If necessity is the mother of invention then maybe curiosity should be the mother of education…