Home & Shop Companion #0042
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
Most of this week, my son and I have been building. Our house, built in the 1860s for a farm worker’s family, is typical of the era, made of local irregular red bricks with a Welsh slate roof. Within easy smelling distance, just outside the back door is an old pigsty, built at the same time as the house with matching walls and roof. After 150 years the roof is showing its age, but next week the roof will come off what is now the bike shed, because after rebuilding and doubling the height of the walls of the outside pig run, we are going to roof the lot, the new bit being turned into a forge. Over the summer my son has been using our mobile forge in the open fronted shed which I use for the horses in winter, but not wanting to mix sparks and straw, another solution was needed before any horse can come in. The stable could have been split in two relatively easily, but it works very well just as it is, so it would be a shame to put work into it just to make it less useful.
In the couple of days before lockdown we took delivery of the sand, cement, and ballast for the concrete, and timber for the roof, and went on the search for old bricks. We could have used concrete blocks for cheapness and ease, or new bricks, but the extra cost of matching bricks is not a lot considering we will have to live with the result. So I asked around, and walked around, until I saw a neat pile of bricks, which the new owners of what used to be a smallholding had collected when taking down their old pigsty, and which they were happy to sell.
Once our site was clear and the foundations poured, we took the horses, hitch cart and a heavy-duty four-wheel steel trailer the half mile to collect the bricks. Since I haven’t a pole for the trailer and the shafts that came with it are beyond repair, I had to drive into their field and out again to get close to the new stable block where the bricks were stored, facing the right way for an easy exit. It’s times like this when it would be nice to have a pole on the vehicle and be able to turn tight round and to back it up. Once in position, I looped the cords round the hame ball mounted on the guard rail of the hitch cart, shut the gate in front of the horses, but a brick in front of both rear tyres as an added precaution and started moving bricks. The owners appeared and asked whether the horses would stand there. ‘They should do,’ I replied, using ‘should’ in both senses, as in ‘they probably will,’ and also ‘that is something I expect them to do.’ Molly is pretty good at this standing still business, she is usually happy to follow the line of least resistance, but Lucy can sometimes get fed up with it, hence the closed gate and the two bricks.
Carrying four bricks at a time, it didn’t take long to warm up, enough to shed a layer of clothing even on a damp and dull afternoon, and the physical exertion and achievement of getting a useful job done was just the ticket for preventing a dull day from being dismal. Close to an hour later and 550 bricks down, we had the full contingent; at 8 ½ pounds per brick that is about a 2-ton load, so with the heavy trailer which probably weighs a ton that was a good load for the horses, not excessive for pneumatic tyres on a tarmac road, but they still had to lean into the collars to get started. Even so, since neither horse gets a lot of work, we came back home the easy way, with only a gentle uphill pull and plenty of loose stones on the side of the road to help slow down the vehicle on the downward slope and take pressure off the britchens. The other way, which is a hundred yards shorter, has a steeper downhill slope to a blind junction and then an uphill pull which would increase the draught by about 10%.
Back at home, the space to manoeuvre is very tight so the horses were driven right up to the hedge to get the trailer into position, then I had to pull the pin on the trailer to back the hitch cart a yard so I had space to unhitch the horses before tying them up to the stable. Meanwhile Liz started to transfer some of the bricks from the far side of the trailer into the wheel barrow to put them immediately where they will be needed, whilst Samuel threw the rest to me, one at a time, to be stacked out of the way in the centre of the forge-to-be.
There are some weighty similarities between farm work and building work, both requiring moving a lot of heavy stuff. I sometimes think farm work is all about moving stuff about, manure this way, straw that way, hay, silage, stones, corn, all to be shifted. With machinery it’s all easier, but the principles still apply. But when using muscle power, a bit of thought makes all the difference – never handle anything more than necessary, don’t leave anything in the way of the job you are going to do soon, face the vehicle you are loading, even a wheelbarrow, in the direction you want to go, leave any loaded vehicle on hard ground and at the top of a downwards slope if possible, and if it has a load that will settle, leave it on level ground.
As soon as the bricks were unloaded, we put the rubble on the trailer to take to the field, pushed it back down the gentle slope into the road by hand, so we had enough space to turn the hitch cart and reattach the horses and get back to the field before dark.
Since then we have been mixing concrete and cement with a shovel and laying bricks. It’s hard work, especially for an aging part-timer, and on day two I recognised that uncomfortable sensation akin to feeling sick when I bent down. I recognise the symptoms of old, particularly from lifting mangels which must be one of the most strenuous jobs on the farm, bending down to loosen the swollen roots from the soil and throwing them up into carts. My symptoms are not a sign of impending doom, but my body telling me to take a break, to slow down a bit, but I also know the best treatment is to get back to it the next day, to recondition unaccustomed muscles to some honest toil. And that is what we have been doing.
Now, two of the walls are almost up to height. We put an arched topped window in one wall; building the arch was perhaps twenty minutes more work than using a concrete lintel, and it makes me smile every time I look at it. With the gable above still a series of steps, it looks a bit like one of the follies the eighteenth-century aristocrats built on their estates to mimic the classical ruins they saw on their Grand Tour of Europe. But by next week it will look different, hopefully more like a building than a ruin.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.