RENEWABLES AT BLACKBROOK FARM
Summer of 2011 saw a 1kW photovoltaic array installed on the roof of the farmhouse.This will meet some of our electricity requirements and will compliment the existing solar water heating panel on the roof beside it.
When the sun isn't shining a stove with backboiler heats domestic hotwater and radiators. Fuel for the stove comes from managing the farm's six acres of woodland and from woodwaste created by the carpenter and furniture restorer operating in one of the outbuildings.
Any excess firewood and kindling is sold to our neighbours to create a small income which goes back into managing and developing the farm.
When it gets seriously cold the stove is backed up by an air source heat pump which is far more efficient than our old calor gas powered boiler.
Plans to utilise a small stream running through the farm to power a 1kW micro hydro generator are in the pipeline and this should be up and running by 2015.
BEE HAS BEES -- JUST !
Having collected our nucleus in June 2011 and installed it in our new hive all seemed to be going well.
The colony was growing and was busy foraging and bringing in pollen and nectar.
Then it swarmed. We managed to capture that swarm and rehouse it in a spare hive. The old colony , now seriously depleted then swarmed again.And again. We nursed it back to something like health providing extra sugar to build it up for the winter months ahead and it emerged in the spring with new vigour.
That year ( 2012 ) the original colony seemed just as prone to swarming as it had the previous year , and despite attempts to check regularly for new Queen cells , finally it failed.
We invested more time now in our second colony ( built up from our first swarm ) but sadly this did not survive the long, hard winter of 2012/ 2013 .
I'd had enough of beekeeping for the time being but Cenk, my fellow beekeeper decided to clean out his hive and frames , leave it in the garden and see if a colony fancied moving in. One duly did .
It has thrived and finally this September we have enjoyed some of our own Blackbrook Honey. Delicious and at a price ( after setup costs ) of only about £80 per jar an absolute bargain!
THE SEVEN HOUR BRIDGE
Mihir,the son in law of a friend of mine, rings to tell me that it's fallen to him to organise a stag do. Graham (the stag ) has trained , like Mihir, as an architect but now works as a town planner.When Graham is out and about on a job( or just with friends )he is renowned for commenting, " Ooh, nice wall, very nice wall ".
Mihir thinks some kind of walling activity might be just the thing as part of the stag weekend.
" Well, yes " I say, "That's what we do , run dry stone walling courses".
"Yes, but do you think we could do something a bit different. Something special".
" Er, well on the two day courses we sometimes finish off by building a dry stone arch".
"Oh, OK. Could we build a bridge, then"?
Now , bridges take careful planning , well sourced materials; they need wallers skilled in selecting and placing the right stone, and they take a good deal of time to build. At least I assume they do because I have never, if I'm honest , actually built a bridge.
" Yes , we can do that , " I reply, liking a challenge and not wanting to pass up work." How many of you will there be"?
" Er, sixteen ".
My walling courses usually have four or , at most five participants . Sixteen will certainly be a challenge.
" And can you feed us all as well," he adds.
So, at 10.30 on the morning of the thirty-first of August a minibus , kitted out with strobe lights and full on speaker system, deposits its load of heinously hungover young men at the top of my drive for the inaugural Blackbrook Bridge Building Day.
The two best men, Mihir and John, resplendent in their project manager's dayglo yellow tabards lead fourteen ashen faced and unsuspecting workers into the courtyard where they are plied with bacon and egg butties and copious cups of tea and strong coffee.
I say ' unsuspecting ' because it turns out that apart from the two best men none of the other members of the party know what they are doing here.
I've set out the five wooden formers in the courtyard for all to see. Over these we will build the arches which constitute our bridge. However, the woodpile behind them proves to be an unforeseen red herring and when asked if anyone knows what we are doing , only one amongst the alcohol addled group ventures, " Are we chopping wood? "
No , we're building a bridge ," I announce.
" Yes , we're going to build a bridge! " one chap shouts excitedly, possibly still drunk from the night before.
After a quick briefing on what the day entails the party is split into two groups. One group heads up the field with Cenk, my fellow instructor , to become aquainted with the fundamentals of dry stone walling while the remainder accompany me down to the stream where we begin prepping the bridge.
The stream , now thankfully not much more than a trickle after an exceptionally dry summer, is diverted and we begin collecting suitable stone from the stream's bed.
Once we have enough springers , keystones and voussoirs ( the key components of an arch ) we take up our picks and shovels and begin clearing the accumulated silt from the stream.
It's at this point that the bilious groom excuses himself to be sick and to recuperate in the kitchen quietly sipping pepsi.
In his absence we knock in some stakes to which we attach a taut rope. This marks the line of our bridge across the stream.
Time to swap over now. Bridge preppers to have a go at walling and wallers to continue prepping.
Once the new group is filled in on where we're at we begin arranging each of the five wooden formers at regular intervals along the proposed line of our bridge. Inbetween each former , and at either side of the first and last former we place flat stone roof slates. These sit on the gravelly silt and will form the foundation for the arches.
The formers are then raised and levelled on little wooden blocks so that we can remove them later.
Time for a brew and a bit of cake and then the two groups converge at the stream to put their newly acquired walling skills and arch theory to the test.
Different members of the group adopt different roles. Whilst some become concerned with achieving the correct structure , others busy themselves fetching and carrying stone . One or two are happy just to stand back and chat , offering encouraging words when necessary. And one or two disappear upstream to be sick.
It's fascinating to stand back and watch the group form themselves into an effective workforce.Only once do I need to step in when, nearing completion of the arches, the group start hastily misplacing stones and are in danger of compromising the bridge's structure.
Once the arches have been formed we build a couple of courses of dry stone wall over the top of them to further strengthen them .
Finally the time has come. Full of anticipation the wooden blocks are wiggled out from beneath the formers, the forms drop and ...success, the arches hold.
The bridge is strong enough to hold it's own weight but will it support its architects and builders. The groom is the first to test the strength of the arches .
So far, so good. Then, one by one the rest of the team climb on board.
All that remains now is to redirect the flow of the stream under the arches and then stand back and admire our work. Not perfectly formed perhaps, not always pretty but full of character and most importantly , structurally intact.
Back at the house Cenk has prepared a fantastic BBQ for us with homemade burgers , local sausages and fresh salads. And for those who can still face it , beer. Strangely , despite all that fresh air , it doesn't all get drunk.