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Wales, United Kingdom
Documenting one couple's attempts to live a more self-sufficient life.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

The darkest time of the year (and a fireplace)

Take several months of financial stress, add seasonal depression, responsibility for a big, stressful event, a period of intense uncertainty (which isn't resolved yet, so I can't tell you about it) and on top of all that, a dead cat... well, it hasn't been the easiest autumn. There are good days and bad days.

On the good days, I've been working on the fireplace surround. This has been a ragged hole in the wall since I attacked it four years ago.

I've had some ideas about what to do here, but most of my ideas involved spending money, which we'd generally rather avoid, and is currently not an option for merely decorative projects. The part I was most certain of was the brick arch. It would be nice to get hold of some attractive bricks, but perhaps not entirely necessary. I started by searching the property for all the old bricks I could find. One was on the driveway, having been used as an alternative handbrake. Several were serving as a stand for the barbecue. Some were just lying around. Those you see in the photo above were the least scruffy/most similar to each other that I could find.

The next step was to clean the bricks as best I could without buying chemical cleaners (to be avoided for several reasons). Online advice suggested that dishwashing liquid might be worth a try, so I tried it, applied using brushes with both nylon and steel bristles. It didn't make much difference. My next attempt involved play dough. I made up a salt dough and pressed it onto the ends of the bricks, then baked them in a low oven until it was hard. The next day, I soaked it off, then scrubbed with dishwashing liquid again. I can't be entirely sure, but I think that quite a lot more soot came off the second time. Whether the play dough had anything to do with this, I have no idea.

Having selected my bricks, I still didn't know what to do with the edges of the fireplace. I'd quite like to leave the bricks bare, but as you can see, the brickwork is far from tidy. My cousin suggested brick slips - bricks made in thin tile shapes, including corner pieces, sold for applications just like this. It was a good suggestion, but.... money. Then a visiting friend suggested a wood surround. This is much more realistic as we have lots of old floorboards. I was sure I could find a couple of pieces that would suit. I even considered carving some decoration into them, but that would be quite a big project, not to be attempted before Christmas. In the meantime, I considered how to fix up a shelf above the fireplace.

I found the old shelf that had been there before, somewhat weathered now, but not necessarily any the worse for that. I was holding this up in position (it's just a little longer than the width of the arch - the ideal size), wondering what kind of brackets would be suitable, when Ian walked by and said, Ah, a mantlepiece! This comment set off a new train of thought. I'd been referring to the horizontal pieces of wood in my mind as a shelf, and shelves are typically supported by brackets. Mantlepieces, on the other hand, are often part of a fire surround, with supports that sometimes go right down to the floor. I wondered whether we might have any pieces of wood that I could use like that? Initially I was thinking of new cut timber that I might carve, but before long I lighted on the idea of using the leylandii trunks I got from cutting down the hedge. Quite a few of these have been turned into firewood, and some still have branches attached, but there were three trimmed and unburned. I selected the two longest and cut the ends straight across. Here they are in position, under the mantlepiece:

Leylandii trunks holding up mantlepiece and hiding scruffy brickwork

I'm quite pleased with this. They're currently held in place with bits of string - I'll fix them properly after Christmas. No, really, I will!

The bad days come with the rain. Not just the rain, but closed-in, up-in-the-clouds weather that blocks out light and warmth and joy for days on end. The air and the ground get saturated with water so that nothing's ever quite dry, and we get puddles in the store room.

Those orange dots at the top of the picture are squash. I'm having to keep a close eye on them so as to eat them up quickly as they start going mouldy.

The other day, some friends and I discussed what the point of Christmas is. We came up with quite a lot of points, and agreed that you can take your pick. My focus is to fend off the gloom and darkness of this time of year, and celebrate the return of the light. When my mood lifts sufficiently to get anything done, I'm focusing on Christmas. Today, I am mostly making sweets and - the reason I wanted the mantlepiece up before Christmas - I have decorations up.

Mouse ears and chocolate pigs

Evergreens and sparkly things around the fireplace

Tonight is both the solstice and the new moon, so it truly is the longest, darkest night of the year. After this, the light returns. Yuletide greetings to one and all!