Locked-down and Armed: one man’s struggle with entropy (5) – The White Rabbit

I didn’t explain about the three drills…

I’ve written about the new one – a slinky DeWALT with a noise that makes you shiver with DIYlight. The other two are older versions by the same maker.

Buying the new one was prompted by the failure of both my re-chargeable batteries, when I tried to use the drill after a year of idleness… So, technically, I had a spare drill – but I had purchased only one battery with the new device… Two drills, one battery…hmm.

Prior to the destruction of Salty Pete’s old interior (the ‘radio shacks’), I stored my personal protective gear – safety helmet, armoured gloves, eye-protectors, long waders for the pond, etc – in a large plastic box that was loosely jammed on to the main cross-member that supports the upper part of the building. The middle of the former Saltpetre was so cluttered that I needed somewhere with easy access to my most precious life-protecting gear. Being high above, I only had to arrange the pink ladder (more on this later) to access my essential gear.

Before I swung the sledgehammer at the entire left side of the interior, I shimmied up the ladder to retrieve the box before the start of armageddon. The box contained a surprise: all my expected stuff and, underneath, another drill case. It was old and dirty, but inside was a drill and two batteries… presumable dead ones.

(Picture: One drill plus two batteries… Literally, a gift from ‘above’)

In a state of disbelief, I did a quiet calculation on my fingers and realised I now had – at least potentially – three drills and three batteries – assuming the older ones worked.

It was too good to be true. Hardly daring to hope, I stretched a power line up to the only socket in the place and used a multi-plug to connect the two chargers. There was a satisfying clunk as the batteries dropped into the charger’s housing… and then both red lights began to blink, indicating they were charging. Disbelief… and a silent thank you to the fates.

Within a meagre half an hour, they were fully charged, tested and ready for action. Two of the drills were mine; the other was a mystery. Five years ago, we had some structural work done to create an interior loft within the Saltpetre; but no-one had contacted us about a lost drill case and contents.

I made a phone call to check. Nope… said the roofer and builder of lofts. The drill kit was not his…. A mystery; but in these circumstances, a delightful one. If anyone else who’d worked here came to mind, I’d come clean.

If not, I had three drills…each with a battery.

A drill saves hours of work, but what slows you down is having to change the ‘bit’ from, say, a thin pilot drill – used to make sure the final screw doesn’t split the wood, to a bit that functions as a powerful screwdriver – driving a long, high-tensile screw home in a few seconds, where it would have taken long minutes by hand. The small, dedicated ones are useful in a house, but, for serious stuff, get an adaptor for your drill…heaven!

(Above: Square 1, now almost finished. The storage rack made from old pallets would have taken hours to ‘fix’ onto the battens without the twin drills, one in each hand… okay, slight exaggeration…)

The only reason the ‘long-handled garden tools rack’ had been finished in the short time available was the double-act of two drills, functioning as described, above.

The main problem when working on Salty Pete’s interior was the low level of light- there are no windows. When we bought The Wharf, ten years ago, there was no electric to the ‘shed’. While having the contours of the future garden carved out of the muddy building site, we had an armoured cable routed under what would become the main lawn. For the first few years, we survived off this, and the single plug near the door, barely visiting Salty Pete during the dark months. Eventually, we had a overhead set of sockets and a strip light put in, but the light was in the wrong place – on the side of the lintel and not its lower face, where it would light up the intended (future) workbench, below.

(Above: The interior of Salty Pete as a Lucky Bag word square – see previous posts – Squares 14 and 6 were today’s targets for development)

I was going to need a lot of light for some of the work I had planned, so I disconnected the fuse, then the light-fitting, before stretching the existing cable to allow for it to be mounted directly over the central part of the building. The spring days were bright, but that little extra from the overhead helped a lot.

(Above: the newly positioned strip light in the centre of the space)

Having relocated the main light, I took stock of what the rest of the day might contain. There was another ‘easy win’ for Square 14: an object that would add both hand-tools and liquid storage beneath the long-handled tools rack. For years it had served as a shelving unit in the larder of our former house. It was made wholly of plastic and I hated it… But it was free.

(Above: the sawn-off shelving unit was a perfect fit beneath the tool rack)

The plastic shelf was too tall. The top of this unit had to be level with the base of the tools above it. A hand saw made short work of the adjustment in height. Minutes later, minus its top shelf, it was functioning as a container for the petrol, two-stroke, white spirit, turps and various other liquids that normally take up flow-through space on a garage floor.

(Square 14 now re-used as our ‘liquids store’ and complete, or were they?)

The new structure was beginning to emerge within the dusty cube of the Saltpetre. Its functions and forms were nascent in what was included and excluded so far. This wall was to be dedicated to garden tools and liquids at one end; and ‘tall power tools’ at the other, with drills taking a central place in the middle. The ‘tall power tools’ had no common home at present and were a damned nuisance. Incorporating them into the wall would free up much of the floor and provide a wonderful feeling of walkable space.

I was starting to realise that this was not just a physical journey, but a psychological one, as well. Much of my personal past was being confronted, here… Contradictions have a habit of being exposed in such a process.

Enter contradiction…

(Big, red, ugly and plastic – the useless ‘tools cabinet’)

It’s about four feet tall, garish red with grey trim, and had large castor wheels. It’s all plastic, and often bends in all the wrong places. It’s useless and Bernie couldn’t wait to get rid of it!

(Above: Four large castor wheels… and that floor. I ask you…)

It’s a tool chest – but was never strong enough to do its job. I used it for years in my office–but not for anything heavy. Since then, it had mouldered at the back of Salty Pete, buried under a mountain of other, unlikely-to-be-reused stuff.

But my ‘gift from above’ drills were sitting, quite nicely, on it. Moreover, it could be rotated into the corner of Square 6, where it would take up the minimum room and not block access to the ‘long power tools’ that had to live on the adjacent and recessed Square 19. Reluctantly, I could see the potential for it to be dedicated solely to the drill-related part of my hardware. And I had just redeemed and re-used Bernie’s nasty plastic shelves. According to the verdict accompanying the last mug of tea, she was ‘well pleased!’

There was a trade, here… And I knew just how to sweeten the deal. On her last mercy mission with the tea, Bernie had remarked that it was a pity that we couldn’t re-use the severed top of the plastic shelves. Two drills at the ready, and armed with my large plastic jar of may-come-in-handy bits, I fixed the old top, vertically to the side of the renewed liquids rack and, using long screws, locked it tightly in six places against the verticals of the shelving. The hard ‘webbed’ surface was perfect for the use of plastic ties. A short time later, we had a place where shorter garden tools could be slipped into strong plastic loops and tightened… all made from scrap pieces of plastic and large-packet Amazon wrapping.

(Above: Not pretty, and would need some cleaning, but the ‘Liquids Shelving’ had acquired a side wall for smaller garden tools… Bernie was delighted!)

Returning to the other side of the left wall, there was a problem with the tool cabinet’s feet – four large castor wheels, allowing it to be pushed around on a hard level floor. But on cobbles from 1820! Even Hercules would shudder… Removing the wheels was a matter of sliding the casings out of the ‘loose from new’ plastic housings. I put the heavy castors to one side. They were the best made part of the cabinet and would possibly come in handy within the house. Wheel-less, it stood more firmly on the ever-present, ever uneven cobbles.

“If it were snowing, we could tow it away on a sleigh,” I heard myself mutter. And then thought about what I’d said. Flat runners would at least average out the effects of the cobbles. I scrambled to retrieve two lengths of scrap wood and one of Peter’s old jam jars in which he had stored a selection of basic washers. The cabinet’s plastic was flimsy, but I suspected that the right fat-screw and washer combination would fix it to anything below. I could drill through the cabinet anywhere I liked, there was no strength in any of it…

(Above: Mounted on wooden runners and drilled into the back wall, the all-plastic tool cabinet began to behave itself for the first time since it entered Salty Pete, many years ago)

I examined the interior of the cabinet to check where the structure was weakest. Pulling my head back to the daylight, I noticed that two of the older timber battens ran down the wall at the back.

Thirty minutes later, the ugly red box was not only secure, it was drilled and screwed so tightly into what was around it that it had become an integral part of Salty Pete’s structure. I grunted in triumph. I wasn’t just remodelling the interior, I was building a Favela!

(Above: Requiring only a good wash – which was pointless at this stage – I now had a level-ish ‘Drill Station’ cabinet screwed so firmly into the walls, it had become part of the structure. My very own ‘Favela’ was taking shape!

Keen to keep the momentum going, I located everything I could find related to my drills: bits galore (thank you, Dad), plastic plugs of all sizes, the lot. I stuffed them all into their new home, with the twin drills on top and… and stood back; looking from garden tools, across the expanse of the left wall to the new, bright red, ‘drill station’.

It felt really good, until I focussed on the actual wall between these twin triumphs. Before me was a patchwork of ancient red pegboard, slotted-in timbers for support, and a wealth of old MDF pieces to fill the gaps. Each was a different colour. The effect wasn’t vital, it was ‘dead’ and old… Whatever happened next with that important central section, I didn’t want it backed by such a sad base…

We needed a break from the past, and colour was the most powerful technique I knew. But the spirit of the project was to do it by re-use and upcycling–spending no additional money in the process.

(Above: At the back of one of the nastiest recesses of the Saltpetre were two large drums of white emulsion paint, surplus to requirements in 2012. Would they still be usable?)

I knew that, in the back of one of the nastiest corners of the building, (Square 5 on our map) buried beneath a pile of other things – including our ‘bagged’ Brompton folding cycles, were two ten litre plastic drums of white emulsion paint. They had been left over from decorating the house when it was finally complete, back in 2012. I doubted they would still be usable… But they were the best chance I had of changing the ‘feel’ of Salty Pete… without spending a penny!

But, first, I had to dig my way to them…

Twenty minutes later, sweating profusely with the effort of shifting enough stuff to get in there, I located them in the near darkness. They were as far back as they could be, and against the old stone of the back wall. As I inched towards them, I looked sideways, for motivation, at the shining red side of my new ‘Drill Station’…. and saw the remarkable blue eyes of a large rat looking back at me…

To be continued…

Other parts of the Locked Down and Armed series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, this is Part Five

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Locked-down and Armed: one man’s struggle with entropy (4) – Push and Twist

I didn’t set out to have three drills…

The posh one, a nice DIY model from DeWALT, was bought because both the batteries for my previous drill failed at the same time, after lying idle in their case for nearly a year… My fault. So, with lockdown looming, we dashed out to Wickes in Morecambe and got a new one.

(Above: the drill… Mr Versatile)

Portable drills have come a long way from the early ‘Black and Decker’ days. Just pressing the trigger on this one and hearing that incredibly potent zzzsweeeesh gives me a rush. I’m a bit odd, Bernie says. But she loves the results.

There’s something about the relationship between man and drill… Women and drills, too, as a growing number of ladies are focussed and proficient DIYers.

You can do with a drill. You can do amazing things that a Leonardo da Vinci could never have envisaged. A simple spinning piece of metal – in various forms – together with that triumph of engineering – the modern screw – can perform miracles… and even transform an interior as hostile as The Saltpetre: Salty Pete’ as we have affectionately come to call it.

(Above: The interior of Salty Pete as a Lucky Bag word square – see previous posts – The green, although, at this stage still space, was beginning to make an impact)

My developing man-cave, is definitely a ‘he’, I thought, that bright morning after the bonfire of Peter’s Pride.

For two hours, and wearing an essential dust mask, I had swept out the cobbles along the entire left side of the emerging space with an industrial brush: squares 1-19 if you’re following this on our ‘lucky bag’ square diagram, above. I dumped the resulting buckets of the black dirt on the compost heap in the lower level of the garden – the ‘U’ shape that used to be the canal basin.

(Above: the compost heap (two bins) can be seen just right of the wall of Salty Pete, at the end of the garden)

I came back to take a deep breath and surveyed the long and narrow corridor in which I intended to construct the first section of our storage – and the new life of Salty Pete.

The requirements were simple: I needed space and functionality for gardening tools, woodworking tools, a woodworking bench (to be made as part of the project), decorating storage, general tools – car, bikes, motorbike and the like.

I also needed space for four pedal bikes. Before getting our Collie dog, we were passionate cyclists – often taking our summer holidays as cycling trips to France, Italy and Croatia. We have Brompton folding bikes, too, so the bike storage was going to have to be cleverly planned.

Then, lawnmowers… three of them. One is my beloved Honda, bought as the main machine for the Wharf’s large lawns. It’s large but not a ‘sit-on’, as I’d kill myself on the slopes that run down to the old canal bed – see photo below.

(Above: a lot of lawn to look after… machinery is essential. You can’t really see it from the photo, but there is a ten foot difference between the upper levels and the old canal bed… It didn’t look like this back in 2010 – see below))

Another is the mower from the previous house, which makes a good standby in the event of the primary being serviced. The third is not actually a mower, it’s a petrol-driven scarifier. Used only a few times a year, it saves days of raking and is an essential tool to get air into the soil and eradicate the winter moss. Lakeland’s wet winters make much moss…

There were other, smaller, categories, but each one was important in its own right. Liquid storage, for example. We needed a whole shelf system, at low level – because liquid is heavy – just to cope with two and four-stroke petrol for the strimmer and lawnmowers, white spirit and rubbing alcohol and the like.

(Above: The old canal bed as it looked when we bought the place, ten years, ago)

Most of these things come in multi-gallon containers that are useful but take up a lot of space. They are also difficult to move around, so this part of the storage had to be close to Salty Pete’s door.

(Above: six of the ‘rough’ DIYer’s best friends: mitre saw with portable bench, visor and gloves, trusty hat, wheelbarrow and giant bulk bags…)

Bernie’s words rang in my ears… “Well, how about not spending any money at all?” It had seemed a fun challenge at the time, but fulfilling the above list of requirements without buying anything new was going take ingenuity… and saws.

Saws are almost as useful as drills. I knew I had a plethora of hand saws… somewhere. My parents spent half their working lives running a greengrocer’s shop along one of the busiest arterial roads in Bolton. When Morrisons supermarket demolished the old factory opposite to build their new superstore, the days of their business were numbered. Mum was near to retirement age and had every intention of, as she put it, ‘not freezing her fingers off, every winter’. Dad didn’t want to stop selling things… he liked it. So he switched the shop’s remit be a to a general gift, handy things and tools shop.

(Above: Dad hadn’t always sold fruit and veg… A De Havilland Mosquito. Source Wikipedia, Public Domain)

Every birthday and Christmas, I’d be given something new with which to re-model the physical world. He was much better at engineering than I was – he’d been an aircraft factory fitter at the local De Havilland factory in his youth. I think he felt that his love and gifting of tools would result in me getting better at using them… Hmmm.

I knew that Salty Pete contained a lot of these tool presents… I just wasn’t sure where. The one thing I had found was the mitre saw. Old by today’s standards, it was clunky and very heavy. But its motor was as strong as an ox. After much physical exertion and grunting, I had dug it out of one of Salty Pete’s corners the day before, before remembering, with sadness that it was broken. The blade had started making noises because it was slowly working its way off the shaft that should have held it rigid. I’d taken a cursory glance at it – even taken it apart – but, when I tried to bolt the deadly blade back in place, it wouldn’t tighten.

It was a shame, because, in its day, I had used it more than anything else he ever bought me (apart from my first motorbike, but that’s another story…) Reluctantly, I took it around to the ‘crash and burn’ tip behind Salty Pete at close of business that day.

But then I had the dream… and in the dream the axle for the blade had a black line along its length. Waking, I remembered the dream, but none of the details. But, sipping my tea, I got a flash of that black line… and knew what to do to fix it. I walked with confidence to the ‘tip’ behind the shed and retrieved it from the old bin. With a small toolkit in hand, I laid it at an angle on the grass to test my theory. Sure enough, the cutting blade was ‘keyed’ and had to be re-fitted along a line that would allow it to sink deeper towards the base of the shaft.

Five minutes later, I had a mitre saw, again, zinging like it was new… and Dad was smiling from somewhere… I know he was.

A mitre saw is wonderful and deadly. The rules are simple: if you’re wearing armoured clothing, including gloves, you can instantly cut anything wooden or plastic that will fit into its jaws..

There were a few sections of pallets that needed the mitre saw treatment, and the clock was ticking.

Sitting on the box, looking at the now plain walls of the left edge of Salty Pete, I knew I needed a ‘quick win’. Two hours from now, our lockdown ‘working day’ would be ending. Bernie would return with the final mug of tea, and I didn’t want the wow factor to fade. Apart from anything else, the emotional effect of getting a pat on the back was of critical importance at this stage of such a big project, with so little to see so far, apart from tearing things down.

(Above: the brutal base structure was never far away!)

One of the raw materials I had plenty of was a pile of well-used pallets on which various gardening deliveries had been dropped off by brave lorry drivers, at the end of our narrow and long lane. The key to their usefulness lay in something that Bernie had said when she started her horticulture course in Penrith–back in 2013.

“Pallets…” She said, arriving home at the end of her first day to lavish attention from me and the Collie dog. “Are magic! Cut them to size and stick the handles of spades into them, with a twist.”

It took me a while to grasp it. In fact, it was only sitting there on my box with cold tea that triggered the need to make it work. But it did… I fired up the mitre saw and grabbed a hand tool or two for the difficult bits… Oh, and the two drills. I forgot to explain why I have three. Better leave that for next time as the hour is late…

I had two hours to get something useful on that wall. I had a working, if ancient, mitre saw. And drills… and those wonderful long screws that will just about join anything to anything else.

(Above: a gift from heaven – a pre-battened wall had emerged beneath the ruins of Peter’s Pride)

The revealed wall behind Peter’s Pride was already battened… That, alone, would save me hours of work. I dragged the best three of the pallets to the saw. Then, like some desperado, I set up the two drills; one with a long narrow bit to cut the pilot holes, and the other to fix the chopped and chosen pallet to the internal skeleton of Salty Pete with a triumph of gusto over accuracy.

It worked.

Two hours later, I wheeled the motorbike and large mower back into Salty Pete, looking for all the world as though I had been through another day of drudge. Bernie was coming up the drive with that final mug of tea.

“Better call it a day,” she said, consolingly, “Another one tomorrow… make more progress, then”

I nodded, taking the tea, gratefully, and looking over her shoulder to what she hadn’t yet seen.

“Push and twist… the handles?” I asked, cryptically.

She turned, then smiled. It was a moment I will remember for a long time.

“Oh, yes!”

Salty Pete now contained an organised storage system for our long-handles garden tools. Squares 1 and 14. Something was real. Something was done… and it hadn’t cost a penny.

To be continued…

Other parts of the Locked Down and Armed series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, this is Part Four

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Locked-down and Armed: one man’s struggle with entropy (3) – Two Peters…

(Continued from Part two)

Everything was quiet…

Several hours after I began swinging the sledgehammer, there was finally peace from the destruction. I pulled up a wooden box and sat on it, wiping the congealed sweat from my forehead onto my arm.

The Lucky Bag ‘number square’ idea from the last post seems to have caught the imagination, so I’ve updated it, below, to reflect the actual dimensions of the Saltpetre – or ‘Salty Pete’ as we have come to know it.

(Above: The ‘Lucky Bag’ map of the Saltpetre was getting greener. The motorbike and lawnmower normally take up squares 20 and 9, but they were parked on the gravel drive, leaving squares 2 and 15 from which to swing the mighty sledgehammer)

My wooden box/seat was located at 2.

I was sitting, gazing at three mountains of shattered and fragmented red pegboard, broken spars of ancient wood, and the surprisingly intact skeleton of an old wall cupboard. This pile of re-organised carbon took up squares 1, 14 and 11.

Hearing the temporary cessation of the apocalypse, Bernie had taken pity and brought me a large mug of steaming tea. I sipped it gratefully and looked around at the remains of Peter’s Pride…

“Wow,” she said, leaving hastily, before the tall red pile could begin sliding towards her.

(Above: The Wharf just after we bought it, in the spring of 2010. Phone cameras have come a long way, since!)

Peter’s Pride: I had better explain… We bought ‘The Wharf’, as the property is named, in December 2009, during one of the coldest winters on record. On December 23rd, we literally slid along the pavements in Kendal to collect the keys from the seller’s estate agents, keen to, at least, take possession of what would be our new home – once we had thrown our life savings into rebuilding it.

I clearly remember coming back to open our own front door for the first time. The property was a 1960s single storey bungalow with a large plot of land, the plot running along the line of the old Preston-Kendal canal. The canal had been drained in 1958, but the waterway had been unused for decades before that. A man named Peter and his wife had built the house, and brought up their children there. Their son, Richard, still lives in a cottage next door, gifted, by his mother, to him and his wife before, sadly widowed, she moved south to live with her daughter in Cheshire.

The Wharf was left to its own devices, eventually being bought by an ‘investor’ and becoming a rental cottage. It was overgrown, run-down and had a poor bathroom. The place soon got a bad name in the holiday trade market.

On the Sunday when we deliberately got ourselves lost in the car and inched down the tiny lane with the ‘For Sale by Auction’ sign, we found a very dilapidated house on a large and potentially beautiful plot of Lakeland soil, just outside Kendal. The house was behind a huge stockade fence and unoccupied.

As we approached in the car, a man came out of the adjacent cottage, looking a little hostile. We didn’t know him, but it was Peter’s son, Richard. Seeing we were genuinely interested he spent a few minutes telling us the history of the place. He was eager to have someone ‘real’ take over the property that had been so important in his life. Ironically, the house had failed to sell that very weekend. A local builder had been interested but wasn’t prepared to pay the ‘Investor’s’ asking price. For the sake of about ten thousand pounds, the deal had fallen through. Later, we found that the ‘Investor’ had money problems…

(Above: The Wharf in the spring of 2010, just before work began on its partial demolition and re-making)

The run-down ‘Wharf’ had potential, but you had to have a lot of imagination to see what it could become. Bernie and I got back in the car for a chat. After a long discussion lasting six minutes, we decided it was our big chance to have our own ‘Grand Designs’… On the following morning, we made an offer, subject to survey… and waited.

Several weeks later, the deal was done. It was two days before Christmas when we entered our new house. It was freezing – the heating had failed – something it did all the time, according to the holiday lettings company. We made some tea with the supplies we had brought and explored, with that lovely feeling that we finally had a Lakeland home – no matter how much needed doing to it!

We didn’t need to stay, as we still had Bernie’s house in Chorley to go back to. But we wanted to have good look round what would one day be our dream home. As darkness was falling, we managed to reset the boiler before we left, wishing our new home-to-be a happy Christmas.

Just before driving off, I said to Bernie that I wanted to stick my head into the old outbuilding. We had no idea, at that time, of its importance in the village’s industrial history. It wasn’t a listed building; we could have just knocked it down… but something said, “No…. wait and see.”

(Above: The Saltpetre, as it looked in the spring after we bought the plot. A sad and neglected outbuilding with a leaking roof, no driveway and a jammed door!)

The old door was rusted and hanging off. I managed to prise it open and stuck my head in. It looked to be full of rubbish, but when I peered into the gloom, I could see that all the rubbish on the left side of the building was a faded red colour.

There was no power, so I had to switch on my phone light to take another look. As my eyes got used to the gloom, I could see what looked like a string of cubicles made of red pegboard and hung together with an assortment of cast-off timbers. Months later, I was to find out that Peter – the father of the man next door, who had sadly died five years prior, was a keen radio-ham. The ‘cubicles’ were his radio-shacks, and had been connected to a complex arial system. Each of the huts had a specialised function, but they had fallen into disuse a long time ago. Even his son, Richard, had no idea what they did.

(Above: the entire length of the left wall, and the first square around the corner, had been freed up by the destruction of the ‘radio-shacks’. Now we could begin the work of reconstruction and organisation)

At that point none of this was known. I knew that, whatever the red cubicles were, I would one day have to knock them down. Now, ten years later and sitting on my wooden box, sipping tea, I looked with satisfaction at what the necessary destruction had wrought. The entire length of the radio-huts had been reduced to rubble, and there was an emotional feeling that the ghost of the second Peter had been finally ‘freed’ from the place.

There would be a bonfire that evening. The shattered bits of the old radio shacks would burn brightly in the canal basin. Later, in the smoke-kissed morning, I would have the luxury of the entire left wall to begin my ‘organic reorganisation’ of Salty Pete. Even at this stage, I could feel the place beginning to breathe… though it was still laughing at me. “There’s only so much you can do with a hammer, little man,” it seemed to say.

Giant hammers, I mused–thinking of my boyhood love of the Norse tales–are mighty things. But they are not the only tools in the box…

To be continued…

Other parts of the Locked Down and Armed series:

Part One, Part Two, This is Part Three.

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Summer Solstice 2020

They placed a test within the breast

Of humans, who go round and round

To gaze on fullness, once, and then

Descend, with scent and sigh

From gold on face to black

And back…

So little held, this joy of June’s

Delight and softest night with dawn

A moment’s slumber distant

Long grass between the fingers

Petals’ kiss, a fleeting bliss

A setting sun.

Son of the Sun whose outward star

Then cycles down, withhold the frown

And hide, with pride, regret.

For you alone can see the whole

And shepherd in and out without

Fragility, your true nobility.

©Stephen Tanham 12June2020

Locked-down and Armed: one man’s struggle with entropy (2) – ‘If I had a hammer..’

“If I had a hammer…” The words rang out in my head. Peter, Paul and Mary giving it their all with one of the most memorable protest songs of the 1960’s. Now, I did have a hammer – a rather big one – and I was striding up the garden path towards an unsuspecting ‘Saltpetre’ with a hefty degree of intent…

(Above: Oh, yes, do I have a hammer!)

Bernie’s words rang in my ears… “Well, how about not spending any money at all?” The challenge, designed to inject some humour and purpose into the Covid-19 lockdown period, had been accepted over one too many white wines the previous evening in the amber light of the sunset.

I was about to begin the work… but where to begin?

The problem was one of space… To deal with the jam-packed interior of an old and dank stone building (built in 1820 as a gunpowder store for the canal that used to be half our garden) required working space… and that was precisely the problem: there was no space left, inside. Aside, that is, from the tailored holes that remained when you wheeled out either the lawnmower or my motorcycle.

(Above: The ‘Saltpetre” – a former gunpowder store from 1820, known in those times as an ‘Expense Magazine’. It had seen me fail, before. But this time I had intent…. and a big hammer… A kind of High Noon, but it was ten in the morning)

When it comes to tidying, I have what Bernie calls an ‘organic method’. You would have to study her facial expression when she says this to understand the subtlety of the remark. She will approach a similar task with a mental fork-lift truck, wearing battle fatigues and brandishing a couple of litres of bleach wired to the end of a long mop… But me, I prefer to get close and personal and work around the space I’m in.

I don’t mind getting down and dirty… the dark and dubiously-speckled detritus washing off my body in the shower at the end of such a day is all the testimonial I need that it has, indeed, been well spent.

When it comes to working within a confined space, I’ve developed a nimble and strength-inducing set of arm movements that simulate an octopus. In fact, when armed with one of my favourite drills, I can guarantee that…

But we’ll get to drills later. Drills rule, drills are killer-diller old school tech modernised with freedom-bestowing, long-life batteries.

(Above: the drill, the mighty, finger-lickin’ drill… stay tuned)

Ok, later then… I say (in the now) to the sequence-loving muse on my shoulder as I type. I’m all right now… Back in the story, I unlock Salty Pete, as we have come to know it. Later in the story it will come to have another name, earned in the battle of the drills… Ok, I know, I know…

(Above: Salty Pete leers down at us. “Oh yeah?” it seems to say…)

The newly funded door swings up and in. Don’t let it fool you: what’s inside isn’t related to such efficiency. The dark interior sneers at us. “Oh, yeah,” it seems to say. Clearly, we’ve been here, before. But never with a hammer this big. You’ll note I’ve switched to the present tense. I’m taking you with me… kindly buckle up! Those of delicate sensibilities better leave now, I drawl, nodding at the side door and sounding Welsh rather than Texan. It’s the fault of Tommy Lee Jones, always wanted to be able to do his voice at moments like this… Never works, but you’ve got to keep trying…

(Above: the Saltpetre’s side door. “Last chance to leave,” says Tommy Lee Jones)

The only accessible space is occupied by the lawnmower and the motorbike. So, as two of the most precious objects in here, we wheel them carefully, backwards, to stand on the garden path, where they will be safe from everything but Cumbria’s dubious climate. Later in the project, the supportive neighbour who’s so adept at DIY he’s just fitted a galvanised roof on his shed, confesses that he knew ‘something was up’ when I did this. One object ‘on the lawn’ he could understand; two meant business…

The effect is electric. Even sneering Salty Pete is considering his options. It’s the hammer in the right hand… Great track here (Jackson Browne) about how the ‘hammer shapes the hand’. It’s dark work, but somebody’s got to do it…

(Above: The ‘Lucky Bag’ number square – undoubtedly toxic and one of a nastiest devices ever inflicted on children. Source Pinterest)

Your childhood may well have been later than mine, but one of the little toys we used to be able to get for sixpence was a ‘Lucky Bag’. Apart from dodgy sweets, they sometimes contained a plastic square of numbers or letters that you needed to slide into new positions to make, say, a chosen word or to allow a line to add to a specific total. It was an intensely frustrating experience, because the initial state of the square had only one blank. Play with it in your head and you’ll see the problem.

We’ve just created two squares… Two squares of space makes all the difference in the world. No wonder Salty Pete has fallen silent.

I pick up the huge sledgehammer and brace my legs across both squares. “I’m comin’ for ya!” Tommy Lee Jones says. It’s getting better… at least it’s not Welsh this time.

We swing the mighty hammer. No going back now… The colossal head arcs, neatly, through the old and dusty air… towards a tall target selected in the dying light of the previous day.

They’re not laughing now, as the comedian Bob Monkhouse used to say…

To be continued…

Other parts of the Locked Down and Armed series:

Part One, this is Part Two

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

#ShortWrytz : Lucky

Sometimes, you just get lucky…

You’re standing there with a camera that will actually reach into the shot that you’ve just seen.

You know that the moment will last less than a second, so you don’t even breathe, you just press.

Sometimes, you get lucky. A second later, the glorious white flicker is gone… but left behind is the ghost it allowed you to keep.

©Stephen Tanham, 2020

#ShortWrytz : Fractal Loving

(Above: Blue skies near Sizergh – April 2020)

I confess, I’m in love with the sky…

A strange opening to a blog post, I know, but, when I came to think about my photographic relationship with the sky, it was simply one of love.

“Look up!” The admonition was from Sue Vincent, one of my fellow Directors of the Silent Eye, when talking about churches and what lies above the normal eye-level. It’s a good watchword… and the same can be said about the sky. Ever new, like life, it’s as fascinating in winter as it is in spring or summer.

In winter it’s dramatic and you get those huge vistas that seem to go on forever above the Earth’s surface. In spring, you get the softness of the deep blues and the candy-floss whiteness of the clouds that deliver a feeling of sheer excitement that the infinitely-recharging energy of the deep summer is just around the corner.

I was delighted to read, many years ago, that Benoit Mandelbrot – a father of one of the many sciences that led to Chaos Theory, had taken the inspiration for his idea of ‘Fractals’ from clouds. He was looking for a way to describe the 3D structures of those carriers of moisture in the air; a way to convey the constancy of their type whilst still recognising that they are all unique; a bit like human beings – different but essentially the same. Much like the idea of the Platonic form.

The science of Fractals gave us an understanding of why coastlines are infinitely longer than we can ever measure, of why our lungs have a true inner space bigger than trees, of how impossible volumes can be fitted into any small space with the right ‘organic’ structure.

It’s old science now. Except when I look up… then that fluffy white on blue grabs me by the follicles and I stop doing anything else except the act of fractal loving.

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Painted Pebbles in the valley of the Moon

(Above: the Lune Valley from Ruskin’s View, behind St Mary’s church, Kirkby Lonsdale)

John Ruskin was the leading English art critic of the Victorian era. He was also an art patron, watercolourist, prominent social thinker and philanthropist. He wrote on subjects as varied as geology, architecture, myth, education and political economy. For the last quarter-century of his life, he lived at Brantwood – a house he designed on the shores of Lake Coniston.

(Above: John Ruskin, painted in 1863)

Despite this, one of his favourite places was outside the Lake District on what is now the Cumbria-Yorkshire border, some thirty miles east of Coniston. Kirkby Lonsdale is the most picturesque of the small towns that lie on the River Lune, which flows through this beautiful, limestone scenery, to emerge into the Irish Sea near Lancaster.

In 1875, Ruskin, standing on the escarpment above the River Lune by Kirkby Lonsdale’s St Mary’s church, described it as ‘one of the loveliest views in England, and therefore the world’. Ruskin was fulfilling a long-held ambition; to see the view that the English artist, Turner, had painted in 1822, about which the critic had said ‘I do not know in all my country, still less in France or Italy, a place more naturally divine.’

The modern guidebook says the scene ‘presents a gentle panorama of river, meadow, woods, and hills.’

The valley inspiring this praise was that of the River Lune, which flows through the gentle valleys carved over millions of years in the native limestone – once the bed of a tropical sea, and flows out into the Irish Sea beyond Lancaster.

(Above: the limestone foundations of the River Lune are evident)

Kirby Lonsdale is famous for both its beauty and its history. Devil’s Bridge, which used to be the place of the primary road between Westmorland and the West Riding of Yorkshire, is the most photographed (and painted) part of the river.

(Above: Devils Bridge seen from the banks of the River Lune)

From St Mary’s Church and nearby Ruskin’s View, we can take the eighty-sxi (uneven) ‘Radical Steps’ down to join the river path, and there we will find a surprise…

After a short distance, we encounter a band of colour on the side of the path.

(Above: The mysterious line of colour on the side of the path opposite the River Lune)

On closer inspection, the band of colour turns out to be painted pebbles, done by the local children and their families to say thank you to the NHS and others who have been providing the vital care during the Covid-19 epidemic.

(Above: the sense of caring and the sense of the spring)

The stones are themed in different ways. One set even portrays a train – an ingenious use of pebbles!

(Above: a full train rendered in painted pebbles)

The artistic line continues for a way along the riverbank.

The hand of both adult and child is reflected in the lovely painted stones. Left purely for our enjoyment….and, possibly, reflection.

(Above: houses straight out of a Bronte novel)

After a while, the line of stones ends, but we are tipped off by passing walkers that it continues in small sections in the streets of the town… Fortunately there is an alternative to the Radical Steps; one that will bring us directly into the Main Street.

(Above: Kirkby Lonsdale’s Main street)

Turning back towards the river, we pick up the trail of the painted pebbles, again.

(Above: in the hidden alleyways and side street, the trail continues…)

I can’t help thinking that both Turner and Ruskin would have been proud of the good people of Kirkby Lonsdale for this lovely gesture…about which I can find no official announcement!

(Above: The cultural and artistic inclinations of Kirkby Lonsdale are evident in the town’s style)
(Above: a final glimpse of the ‘pebble trail’

©️Stephen Tanham 2020

#ShortWrytz : The Time-Capsule

(Above: The Saltpetre – a 19th century gunpowder store at the end of our garden!)

I’ve written about it, before. The Saltpetre is a gunpowder store that was used to house the produce of the local gunpowder factory by the river Kent. The ‘black powder’ as it used to be called, was brought up through the village, slowly, by horse and cart – the cart having dressed wheels to help prevent sparks. There were many deaths in the village from explosions, so everyone was deeply conscious of the danger.

Old (black) gunpowder was mixed in the following proportions (by weight): 75% potassium nitrate (saltpetre), 15% softwood charcoal, and 10% sulphur. Our quirky outbuilding was named after the component with the greater part by volume – 75%. We suspect that gunpowder was also generally known as ‘saltpeter’ in those days when the bargemen would collect it from the canal wharf that is now our garden and take it south.

The photo was taken from the lower part of the garden. It’s lower because it was the canal bed. The Saltpetre was constructed in about 1820, the year the local Quaker banker and gunpowder entrepreneur, the first John Wakefield, persuaded the canal trust to change their route and run as close to his works as possible.

The simple stone structure has been there ever since, enjoying many incarnations, but none as exciting as its original use. For the past decade, we have been filling it up with our ‘stuff’. It’s bigger than it looks and has taken a lot of filling! But, with the Covid-19 lockdown in place, it made sense to spend some of the time doing the long-promised clean out.

Right at the back were three shoe boxes, each one carefully taped closed so that not even dust could get in. I had packed them – several house-moves ago, but any knowledge of their contents had long vaporised.

Grubby from the day’s dusty excavations and disposal into a mountain of ‘black bags’, I reached for a my knife and sliced open the tape, feeling intrigued as to what was in there.

Much of it was instantly binable. But an inner ‘jiffy pack’ contained two items: a vintage pocket watch, bought on a business trip to The Hague, and a passport sized photo of me taken approximately 25 years ago. I had thought the watch was long lost, and was delighted to be reunited with an object I loved. It cost me the equivalent of £150 back then. Not a huge investment, but I found its slim and elegant lines very pleasing, and simply wanted to keep it.

The second item was more shocking. There’s nothing quite so sobering as seeing yourself as you were a quarter of a century ago… Ageing is inevitable, but such a brutal confrontation across the years requires a deep breath.

The day was ending in a lovely and still-warm sunset when, freshly showered, I brought the two objects to our patio table, where Bernie had made us each a long gin and tonic.

We sat in silence, gazing at the evening gold reflected in drink and watch, and laughing at the young man. Talk about a time capsule!

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Circles around Sedgwick (1)

It’s a Viking word, Sedgwick. It dates from the time when the Lake District was part of the Danelaw, the half of England under the rule of the Norsemen, and means ‘place by the river’. The river in question is the Kent, which flows from Kentmere lake through Kendal on its way to the estuary at nearby Arnside, then out as a major channel into the expanse of Morecambe Bay.

Sedgwick, our home village, lies on the edge of the Lake District. For now, due to the Covid19 crisis, we are, like millions of others, confined to our homes – apart from essential trips out for food, medicines, or to help vulnerable people. Our incarceration is compounded by our choosing to bring my mother – who is ninety and has (moderate) vascular dementia – to live with us for the duration of the ‘lockdown’ period, rather than leaving her alone in the family home town of Bolton, Lancashire.

Three people, two dogs (we have a five-year old Collie and my mother has her aged Pomeranian with her) and an exotic looking cat… It’s a challenging mix.

So… how to (a) stay sane, and, (b) make best use of this enforced grounding?

The lower part of our garden a hollowed-out basin as its used to be a section of the long-defunct Preston-Kendal canal.

Doing the garden is one possibility. We have a large and challenging garden due to half of it being a residual hollow resembling the bed of a canal… which is just what it is. The celebrated Lancaster canal, which connects Preston and Tewitfield, used to extend all the way to Kendal, ferrying coal from the south and gunpowder (amongst other things) back to Preston, and via the docks there, out to sea and the world… Our house is directly on the line of that route and the (long gone) wharf here played an important part in the history of the village.

(Above: the old canal holds many surprises. It will form the starting point for many of the walks to follow, as will the occasional ‘bridge to nowhere’)

More on that, later… Sedgwick is only famous for two things, so it’s nice to be connected with one of them… (and, obliquely, both!)

(Above: The entire village of Sedgwick, set in its classic glacial ‘Basket of Eggs’ topography (technically – Drumlins)

The canal north of Tewitfield was drained of water in the 1950s and our garden is one of many plots that were sold off to the owners of adjacent land. We moved here in 2010 and inherited a sunken wilderness which has taken many years to bring into harmony with the rest of the plot. The far side of the garden rises to the level of the old canal path, which, although our land, is still a public right of way and footpath. When we’re gardening – which is often in the warmer months – we often get walkers stopping to chat. We spent most of our savings transforming the decaying 1960s property and are happy to suspend the garden work and take a few minutes to chat to those passing.

Cumbria is next to Scotland so the weather is similarly chilly and wet. But the verdant green countryside is the result. Currently, the unseasonal north wind is trying to exterminate us with arctic conditions, and mum can only take so much of the cold, though she hates being ‘cooped up in the house’, so gardening is only a partial solution. We used to take her out for drives, but non-essential motoring is now out of the question, so… it’s walking. Despite her age, she still walks a few miles every day at home. It makes sense to carry that on, keeping her healthy and exercising the dogs at the same time.

(Above: Mum at ninety, with Sammy the Pomeranian dog – inseparable companions)

If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll know I take a lot of photographs. Many of them find their way here, when they are appropriate to the writing. In this time of reduced mobility, I thought it might be fun to describe and illustrate some of the local walks we take.

I’ve called this series ‘Circles around Sedgwick‘ because that’s just what they will be: circular walks from our home that last, typically, 3-4 hours. We take along a flask of tea and a biscuit or two. The cafes are all closed, of course, and those with outdoor tables seem to have stored them away. I can understand the logic (reduced social meetings) but the result is that we usually end up – at the farthest point of the walk – huddled against some stone wall, hiding from the wind and sipping tea.

(Above: The black arrow shows the location of the tiny village of Sedgwick. The dark shaded area to the left of Kendal is the Lake District National Park)

Where is Sedgwick? It’s a small village a twenty minute drive due south of Kendal. Kendal is the major gateway town to the Lake District, though the fast A590/591 dual carriageway re-routed the majority of the traffic past the town and on to Windermere or along the coast to Ulverston and Barrow in Furness. If you were visiting the northern lakes of Ullswater or the popular twin-laked town of Keswick, you’d stay on the northern M6 motorway and exit at the Penrith junction.

We are therefore in what is known as the ‘South Lakes’, and that is what you’ll see on the sign at Junction 36 as you leave the M6. At the moment, you’ll find the A590 looks, unusually, like this:

The mighty A590, which conveys millions of visitors each year to the Lake District – now virtually empty.

Sedgwick is a small village. It has a farm shop, no pubs (the nearest is a thirty-minute walk away), and no cafes. It does have an excellent cricket club, which will serve you a pint on a Friday night, if you’re a member. The nearest church is a twenty-minute walk over the hill to the even smaller hamlet of Crosscrake.

The old canal – what’s left of it – will form the starting point to many of these local walks. We’ll encounter some of its history, and the reason for the presence of the largest house for miles around…

(Above: small village, mysterious mansion…)

©Stephen Tanham 2020

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.