Saturday, January 2, 2016

New Year Renovations

Lancaster with a view of the castle and Lakeland fells
Spent Christmas with the family, young and old, in Heysham, Lancashire and Todmorden, West Yorkshire, amid scenes of flood devastation across the North of England in the most hard hit areas although luckily we escaped the worst of the weather without power cuts or water damage and Lancaster on the days I arrived and left was bathed in mild winter sunshine. At the labyrinthine second hand bookshop in Carnforth I bought and read 'Rats, Lice and History' by Hans Zinsser which gives an oblique historical perspective on diseases and how the lives of insects and men are inter-connected. From the point of view of 'kamma', or the ripening of volitional action into its corresponding fruit, this is something to consider perhaps every time a spider is trapped in the bathtub.

Swinside stone circle. late Neolithic
On an early morning walk around Heysham Head I found myself musing about the juncture of ancient and modern 'power lines'. Look south and there are the two nuclear power stations as controversial as the one at Windscale, now Sellafield, over the sands on the Cumbrian coast, which was the site of Britain's worst nuclear power accident involving a fire in 1957. Look north across the treacherous sands of Morecambe Bay and the recumbent form of Black Combe rises gently from the coast of the Irish Sea. Lying in its flank is Swinside or Sunkenkirk stone circle which the stone age people of The Barrows, for whom Heysham Head was an a burial ground, must have known about. Perhaps they looked from these coastal cliffs towards the mountains of the Lake District, connected by a network of similar stone circles, and felt the signification of these collective and ritual lines of energy and communication between people, times and places.  

The site has one of only three pre-Roman labyrinth carvings in Britain and Ireland, the ruins of the 8th century St Patrick's chapel, which local legend says he founded when he landed here, and 11th century rock cut tombs. Below this the small St. Peter's church dates from 14th century with pre-Norman conquest, Saxon and Viking remains, which include a rare hogback Viking tomb. Adding my regular comings and goings here to the many before me I am struck by the long memory of the stones.

St Peter's church in spring

  We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration

T S Elliot, The Four Quartets, Little Gidding. 

Returning laden with my mother's boiled fruit cake and supplies of Stilton cheese I spent the second week of the holiday working in Bruges with Patrick making a new kitchen step from the hall with terracotta tiles and lime plaster on brick and laying the kitchen and bathroom tiles. Before and after scenes reveal this is still a work in progress. 

Most exciting is the limecrete hall floor with its two breathable membranes and expanded clay ball layer and sand, lime and aggregate mix which has worked very well and is level, hard, dry and ready now for me to lay Patrick's reclaimed 17th/18th century handmade bricks in herringbone pattern before sanding and cleaning them and treating them with a mixture of linseed oil and turpentine. All the floor surfaces will have natural materials in subtle and restrained colours with different textures, patterns and rhythms transitioning through the old house to the new kitchen and integrating with the lime plastered walls

My efforts to speak the West Flanders version of Dutch is not very good and attempts at pronouncing schilt ende vriend (Shield and Friend) from the Bruges Matins, when the rebellious citizens used this phrase as a test to find all the Frenchmen in the city and kill them before the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302, comes out more like Scheel ende Vriend which means 'cross eyed friend'. I would have almost certainly been massacred, although being English might have saved me.

I am not sure what they would have thought in the 14th century about the Mexicans carved into the 'traditional' Flemish fireplace with its 19th century Dutch tiles, made and installed over a much older fireplace in the 1960s by the previous occupants.  Perhaps they would not have found them so strange, after all Bruges was probably one of the most international cities in Europe at the time. In 1520 Albrecht Durer saw Montezuma's treasures sent by Cortez from Mexico to the Queen of Spain on display in Brussels as part of the entourage of the Emperor Charles V and said this. 

All the days of my life I have seen nothing that has gladdened my heart so much as these things,  for I saw amongst them wonderful works of art, and I marvelled at the subtle ingenia of men in foreign lands, indeed, I cannot express all that I thought there.

A World History of Art.  Hugh Honour and John Fleming

I have finally found a place for the English 'Delft' tiles I made in Malta 20 years ago, after much trial and error, based on designs found in Jonathon Horn's 'English Tin-Glazed Tiles' and the techniques described in Daphne Carnegy's book, 'Tin Glazed Earthenware.'

The development, quality and character of European pottery without the influence of north African and far Eastern ceramics would have been much poorer. Arab technology in the tin-opacified white glazes and Chinese Ming dynasty blue and white porcelain designs fused with the European figurative tradition in Renaissance and Baroque pictorial and decorative schemes, creating in turn Majolica, Faenza and Deruta ceramics as well as Dutch Delftware tiles and the Portuguese Baroque azulejos as the influences spread from the Mediterranean into Northern Europe. 

Elsewhere in the house oak beam renovations with a simple galvanized steel extension are a prelude to the more extensive woodwork planned for the new and repaired floors, windows and doors.

Below are some photos of the various stages in stripping back pine paneling, scraping, cleaning and consolidating certain internal composite walls in living room and in particular around an oak beam embedded in masonry and anchored to the front and back wall before pointing, dubbing out, and plastering with first a scratch coat then floating coat of lime which in this case is the final coat. Evidently from the remaining oak lintels either an earlier door and/or windows have been later bricked up, and it took some significant effort to chip off the cement layer that was plastered over these bricks. 

Finally burning the recycled wooden pallets brought by P in the new wood-stove has kept the house warm and cheerful during work in a remarkably mild winter.  15 months since the start of the process it really feels as though it has reached half way and turned a corner although there is still much to do.

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