How to Quickly Convert a Barn.  Part One.  Why Bother?

Autumn beauty here, but winter is coming and the house is full. Seven people, cats, chickens, visitors, the occasional rat, and a roof full of birds.  Crows guard chimneys, swallows nest under gutters, and starlings sneak around inside the roof. Everybody needs a space to live, the humans and chickens pay to keep it all going. It was kind of working, until last winter, when we got a leak.

The Leak 

The last thing you need someone to say is ‘do you know there is a leak in this room?’  And you don’t feel better when they say ‘It’s OK I put a bucket under it.’ Whoever is least afraid of ladders, and spiders has to crawl into the roof to bash a slate back in, and squirt it with expanding foam. But that won’t last long.

Then you get anxious thoughts; ‘The house is old.’ ‘The roof won’t last.’ Followed by; ‘We have to do something about the barn.’

What Barn?

A few decades ago this village was a tiny hamlet. The sort of place where you trot across fields, and over styles, to get the shop. Maybe saying hello to a few cows and gathering buttercups along the way, and preferably wearing a white dress.

The shop sold fresh milk, from the cows you just saw, and in the evenings Gerald, the owner of the shop might invite you round the back for a nip of whisky.  Or possibly not if you wore the white dress. Only men ever talk of Gerald and his whisky.

In those days apple orchards and barns were everywhere.

Old, crumbly 18th century barns

We came from the city with children, who quickly found new friends and turned feral.

Here are a few, just before the feral phase.

Barns are excellent places for children to play, if they are big enough to rampage unsupervised. It was a shame when they accidentally set one on fire during an experiment with a firework and some hay. The owners were furious, and we had to hide the children and pretend that they ‘Never Go Out’. 

But it did not matter in the long run because we were not the only people who wanted to move here. 

Shortly after that fire, developers moved in to flatten the barns and rip up the orchards, and another few thousand people moved in.

There was one barn left, right next to us, so it came with the house. Beautifully constructed out of local stone, cracking roof tiles and cob, a mixture of mud and straw. Cob goes soggy when it gets wet, so there were a few holes in the walls.

It was too lovely not to be saved so we set about not saving it, ignored the cracking roof, patched up the holes with the wrong kind of cement, filled it up with junk and left it.  When you are raising children you don’t have time to save barns.

When Nature Stepped in

The children turned into teenagers and took to their rooms, along with the rest of the teenagers in the village, to study Hip Hop, smoking, alcohol and Sonic the Hedgehog. The barn crumbled quietly in the background.  It was just the place where the real hedgehogs lived. On Boxing day 2005 nature took over.  

It was 11.30pm and the house started to shake, there was a roaring sound outside followed by 30 seconds of shuddering walls, rattling window, and screaming wind. This was followed by more shaking with a stampede of teenagers rushing downstairs shouting ‘What the fuck man?’ and two more bursting in through the front door screaming ‘We just got blown over on the fucking road.’    

Everyone was excited, and relieved because it felt that we had survived a catastrophe. We were not quite sure what the catastrophe was but the teenagers became unnaturally friendly and communicative for a moment. As we pieced together our versions of those 30 seconds, we worked out that it must have been a mini tornado.

The next morning, the cold light of day revealed a stripe of flattened grass where it had screamed up to the barn, and a bigger stripe across of the roof.  Now we had a nice old barn, with half a roof.     

You can’t ignore a missing roof and you can’t flatten the only old barn in the village, even though that would have been such a sensible plan. Roofers came, we took out another mortgage and things looked good.

We went back to raising teenagers.

A Crash Course in Cob

Around 2010 I noticed that you can sweep small chunks of cement off the path by the barn quite easily, but large chunks, big enough to flatten a chicken are unsettling.

So was the friend, who happened to pass by and told me a nasty story about the day his house fell down around his ears, while he was sitting on the sofa feeding his baby. It would have been fair enough if he had been knocking down walls or something, but the only thing he did wrong was live in a cob house. He took one look at the barn and told us why we had to sink more money, and work, in immediately. 

The barn is made of cob, and cob needs to breathe. You can only protect it with soft, natural, kind, expensive lime plaster, not hard-crack off-let-the water-in-until- it-collapses cement.   

All the mortgage was gone on the roof, there was no budget to call in the specialist lime plastering company so we did it ourselves.

Anyone can do this. You just have to have at least one plasterer in the house and get over any phobia of working with a material that can take your eye out or burn through skin faster than a laser. Then you watch ‘how to do Lime Plastering DVD’ and off you go.  

The scaffold went up and we spent a few happy months arguing and chucking lime at the wall until it was a flat solid thing again.  It is nearly rocket science, you have to know about layers, and when to mix in horse hair but the barn lived to see another decade and stayed solid.

This corner shows the good plaster on the right and remaining bad cement on the left. That will crack off one day but is OK for now. The wire barricade is there to contain the chickens, who are talking about moving out.

It has been a play room, stable, rehearsal space, summer house, tool shed, rat breeding centre and temporary home for a succession of people, after one person snuck a kitchen and bathroom in when nobody was looking. And it is always a place to put things.

Over that decade we murmured and procrastinated. Little thoughts and sentences ‘the house will need a new roof too,’ ‘need to do something about the barn,’ ‘could be a gold mine,’ ‘do it up,’ ‘let it out.’

Or after wine ‘make it into a village shop,’  Who here has time to run a shop? ‘Start a cycle hire centre,’ Maybe not as none of us know how to mend a puncture. ‘Build a theatre, museum, chicken farm, breed puppies?’

It was a long road of balancing art and creativity against pure financial gain and practical considerations.  There were plenty of reasons to procrastinate, all that life stuff, work, holidays, parties and health problems. They all came first.  

But now there was still a mortgage and a house full of people, birds and leaks.  It was time to call in the consultants.  So we did.

Consultants come in many forms. Watch this space for the next instalment.

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