Memories of the Vastrap renovation

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I can’t believe it’s a year since we finished the big transformation of our house at Vastrap. That means it’s only a month off the first anniversary of this blog! People with experience know what a nightmare it is to live and work on a building site 24/7, which we did for 8 months between October 2011 and May 2012. What started as a relatively minor alteration of the kitchen and TV room ended up being something much bigger encompassing most of the rooms in the house except our study and Ashley’s room. It was dusty and noisy and relentless and in retrospect took up a huge amount of time and head space. The beautiful silence (and free time) left behind by the departing builders allowed me to think again and ultimately led me to start this blog.

It might seem strange that I’m only documenting our building process now, but I think I needed some time to get perspective. At a distance I’m able to look back on it with nostalgia rather than dread! It has also taken a year for things to settle and find their place. We love the final product and have thoroughly enjoyed entertaining and hosting people in our ‘new’ home over the past year.

What made building a bit more difficult was the fact that we used 13 inch sandstone blocks in the alterations to match the existing house. Large sandstone blocks are typical of the old buildings in our area, but these days people tend to build with smaller blocks almost the size of bricks. We decided to stay true to the original since there were still 13 inch blocks strewn around the mountain behind our house left over from when my father-in-law employed a full-time stone mason in the 1960s. The blocks were carved out of big chunks of sandstone fallen from the cliffs above. He must have been a very productive guy because he carved all the blocks for the renovations that Bill and Karine did in the 1960s (including the building of a squash court) with more than enough left over for us!

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June 003Building with these heavy blocks is laborious work. The builders used a pulley system to stack the blocks on top of each other. Plastering the stone is another story entirely, because the blocks don’t fit perfectly on top of each other and the surface is very uneven. The thick plaster virtually guarantees a slightly wonky wall, which becomes very apparent when you start installing straight kitchen cupboards or try to get tiles to match up! Fortunately, we were happy to sacrifice perfection for authenticity so we’ve made peace with these little imperfections.

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All that heavy lifting gave us a slightly larger kitchen and a new main bathroom added onto the side of the house. Many of the internal walls were broken down and changed, but the brick work seemed easy compared to the stone! We replaced all the steel windows with double glazed wooden windows to improve our insulation. Internally, we also had to source some old reclaimed wooden doors and frames to match the original doors in the old section of the house. Below is the final product as seen from the outside, including the changes to the garden (see Before and After: The courtyard transformation). Over time the stone will change colour and develop a patina to match the original stone so that one can’t see where we patched and matched. Now the house can be left in peace until the next generation decides to leave its mark on Vastrap!

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Lighting the AGA

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One of the very first things I blogged about almost a year ago was our beautiful AGA stove, which was lovingly restored as part of our renovations (see The magic of AGA). It is a very old anthracite stove so requires quite a bit of tinkering and attention to keep it running properly through the winter. I can get terribly distracted by it, lifting the chrome lids every time I walk past to check if the fire is still burning hot. When the kettle takes a bit longer to boil, I know it’s time to stoke it up!

With a cold front moving through our region this weekend I decided to light it yesterday. My neighbour Jenny is resisting lighting hers because she says that’s the surest sign that winter has arrived and the longer she can hold out the better. For me it’s all part of embracing winter and the slower pace of life it brings. I love the late afternoon ritual of closing all the curtains, getting a roaring fire going, stoking up the AGA and getting slow cooked supper in the oven. Of course our animals love it too, especially Poepsie cat!

I’ve had some questions about how I light my AGA. Newer AGA’s are generally oil or gas run, which must be a lot easier to maintain. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of information about the anthracite versions on the Internet so I will share my experience in the hope that it will help someone.

First, make sure the stove is regularly serviced to keep it and the chimney clean. It will be much harder to keep the fire going if the stove does not draw properly. Our chimney is hidden behind pieces of old pressed ceiling which we can remove easily to sort out any problems. I only scraped out a handful of grime so it still looks okay. [Note: After three winters of full time use I gave the Aga a more thorough clean by opening up the connection to the chimney and cleaning it out. At first we were very puzzled about how to get the grime out, but then Quentin had the bright idea of using the vacuum cleaner. It worked like a charm! We sucked up loads of anthracite residue and I’m sure this will help to keep the fire drawing nicely.]

Aga 010Second, rinse the anthracite before using it as this will minimise the soot deposit on your kitchen cupboards. We had hardly any last year so I think it really does make a difference.

Third, anthracite is very hard to light so you either need to get some red hot coals going outside using a fire starter canister or you can start the anthracite in the stove using a gas flame. I prefer the latter method, because it’s so much easier especially when the weather is foul outside. Also, it’s much easier to restart the fire if it goes out. There is nothing worse than being in constant fear of the fire going out and having to scoop the cold anthracite out by hand! I have a gas bottle with a hose connector and metal rod attachment on the end. I simply stick it in the bottom of the stove and leave it until the anthracite is lit. It works like a dream and gives one so much more flexibility. It can take a good 30 minutes to get things going the first time so just be patient. It’s worth having a torch on hand to look into the drum if you aren’t sure if it’s lit. There must be a good red glow otherwise it won’t work! [Note: don’t be too sparing with your anthracite. You need to fill the fire box up completely and top up the coals twice a day if you want the fire to go 24/7. If you add anthracite at the wrong time when the coals are too low this will just kill the fire. It feels like you are going through a lot of fuel in the beginning, but it soon stabilises out and you also get a more constant stove and oven temperature.]

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Fourth, don’t expect it to be hot immediately. It takes quite a long time to heat up properly. I lit mine in the early afternoon and it was perfect by the next morning when Poepsie cat had taken up her position for the winter and I was able to boil the kettle for my morning cup of Rooibos tea. When the coals are glowing red hot top up the drum with anthracite. Be careful to use the right tools so that you don’t burn yourself! Also, keep a metal bucket on hand to scrape out the ash once or twice a day.

Aga 027I would love to hear from anyone with more tips and tricks on how to use the AGA!

Hello Winter

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We’re back! After an amazing holiday in Spain it feels like I’ve been “in transit” for the past few days. I spent a few days in Joburg after we got back, followed by a quick trip home before I leave again tomorrow for the opening of my grandmother’s exhibition at the SMAC Gallery in Stellenbosch (see Hannatjie van der Wat: In Retro – Seventy-Year Career Survey). I am so excited for her and feel extremely privileged to be able to share this proud moment honouring her career as an artist.

Winter has very definitely arrived in the Eastern Free State! Although the days are clear and bright, night time temperatures have dropped to zero bringing the frost with it. Our house is situated against a mountain, which protects the garden a bit. In fact, there is a stark difference between the leaves on the poplar trees next to the house and those in the valley. This afternoon I needed a bit of farm soul food so I went for a walk with Tumi and Coco. Paris and Patch were off somewhere with Quentin. I took the camera along and could not resist snapping away in the beautiful golden light. As I left our yard, the sheep were being brought back to the kraals. We did a big loop down to the valley and then returned to see that the sheep were all safely put to rest for the night. The light was fading quickly by the time I got home, but I couldn’t resist a photo of the garden, which still has a few roses, some beautiful purple irises and pink daisy bushes in fine form. As much as I love travelling and seeing new sights, I have to admit, home trumps all!

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Stragglers.

Stragglers.

Coco in her element.

Coco in her element.

Valley Poplars.

Poplars in the valley.

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Happy hounds.

Happy hounds.

Still a few golden leaves.

Still a few golden leaves.

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Safely kraaled for the night.

Safely kraaled for the night.

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Garden in the fading sun.

Garden in the fading light.