There is a gardening TV presenter on UK TV called Christine Walkden. She’s from the north of England and has a wonderful turn of phrase. A few years ago, she was presenting Chelsea Flower Show on BBC TV and – whilst discussing the merits (or lack thereof) of some modern garden designs and designers she said something that has stuck with me. A single phrase which I think encompasses what it means to learn and practice a craft:
I’m not sure about a lot of these fancy designs and designers. For me, you have to spend some time with your hands in the dirt.
She was talking about learning by doing. Knowing your materials. Putting the time in.
I moved house a few weeks ago. I went from a modern house with all modern trappings: heating, insulation, double glazing – things I’d come to expect as a bare minimum. I moved to a 250 year old Welsh cottage. There is double glazing, but it’s 20 years old and crap. There’s no damp proof course. There was barely any loft insulation and the walls are two feet thick stone. It’s cold. There are drafts. To combat this, there is a wood burning stove and over a few short weeks, as Jack Frost starts nipping, I’ve grown to love burning wood to keep myself warm.
Burning oil or gas in a big mechanised boiler abstracts the value you get from heating. You pay for your supply, it burns in a big white box, and your house gets warm. With wood, you have to care for it. You have to chop it then season it for at least a year to remove the moisture. You only get out what you put in when caring for your wood supply, otherwise – as I’ve found out – you’ll find yourself either without any wood at all, or crap wood that won’t burn and soot up your chimney. These are all problems you don’t have to think about when owning a modern house. But recently – oh, maybe in the last week or so – I’ve started to look at these as just the process, not the problems.
Owning an old house brings with it a responsibility. Not only of looking after it, restoring it, giving the building what it needs, but also a responsibility to learn new skills in order to do that. For me that means buying a decent axe, learning how to store wood well and looking after my chimney. And there are a hundred and one of these new things I have to pick up to run this old house. At first, it was getting me down. But now, I’m realising it’s a process I can’t rush and I have to spend some time with my hands in the dirt.