-----In 2004 we bought a falling-down house and 30 acres. This blog documents our progress-----

Monday, May 30, 2005

Our comments on Eric's house plans

This has taken far longer than anticipated, but at last we've written up our detailed comments on Eric's first iteration of the house plan. Because Eric is in Australia, it's not possible to meet in person to discuss them, which is what I'd guess was normal. So, instead, a way that seems to work is for Dave and I to write up our comments in detail (which also serves to force us to think through exactly what we want to say), send them to Eric to read and then follow-up with a phone conversation to talk them through.

If you're interested, you can download them here although a warning... it's in powerpoint and it is 6Mb so don't try it unless you have broadband and way to open powerpoint files!

Thursday, May 26, 2005

yay, we won! amazing stained glass

We so very nearly didn't bid on these because we're supposed to be saving money (to help out in a family emergency) but in the end they're so special and unique, and we both loved them so much that we couldn't resist. We'll just have to eat rice & beans for the next month to make up for it!

I'm so happy we got them and can't wait to see them in real life. We trust that they'll be as good if not better than described though 'cos they're coming from the same people we bought the wonderful Arts&Crafts stair railing last year. Ultimately they'll be destined for Amherst somewhere but I think I'm going to try and use them here in London too, even if it's just leaning up against the windows we have already.

Here's some pictures, and below is the description from the auction listing.

Originally uploaded by lynetter.

Originally uploaded by lynetter.

"This auction is for 7 original 19th century Arts and Crafts hand painted stained glass leaded panels each measuring 11 x 10 inches. We have placed these in the order they appear to be in, symmetrical with the enameling all on the same side, (but does not look quite right, perhaps originally this was much bigger or in 2 parts or like), no matter - the absolute stunning original design and quality make these worth the restoration. The design has a border of a red & clear glass stripe all the way around the outside. There are 5 large stylized flowers (sunflowers with big seed heads and narrow petals?). These flowers seem to grow out of Acanthus leaves against a blue background. The flower heads, petals and leaves have all been hand painted with great detail. All glass is thick and heavy with an irregular texture, lots of ripples and little bubbles, fantastic depth of colours (we have photographed with light behind to illuminate). The lead work is all original and pretty much solid, with the exception of the lower right corner panel. Please see below for a concise list of condition. We have been advised that these have a baked on enamel decoration and date c1880. They are in the style of William De Morgan, William Morris, Mackintosh, the leading designers of the day. These are very unusual and it would not be surprising if these are actually by a prominent maker ...

This glass does have some cracks, most of which are not so noticeable but we have decided to highlight everything! Please keep in mind there are a total of 208 pieces of glass present. The top right hand corner panel is absent. Although these panels have been wiped over we have not attempted to clean thoroughly, there are some paint spots to the glass and the leadwork (green), that will need removing - this shows up as dark patches against the glass. Only 1 seed head has slight chipping to the edge which appears to have been done when cut. Out of all the flower petals only the top left corner panel (1 hairline) and the upper middle right hand panel (2 hairlines) have small fractures. Painted leaves: Top left corner panel (2 hairlines), Upper middle left panel (1), lower middle right (1), and from the two bottom panels that have many more leaves: The left hand has 2 out of 11 leaves have hairlines, and the right hand panel has 3 out of 9 damaged – also missing two small leaves on the left (see photo). Plain Blue Glass: Top left corner (3), Upper middle left (1), Lower Middle right (1), Lower left 1 out of 4 with hairlines, and lower right 2 out of 4. From the entire border we have counted 7 hairlines to the little red panels and 8 to the clear glass panels. ALL PANELS ARE EXTREMELY SOLID AND STRONG with the exception of the lower right hand corner panel; it has lost some of its edging lead work and is a little fragile as can be seen in the pictures.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

It's raining!

Mum sent me a few emails to say it's raining in Melbourne, she was so excited. Now, normally you wouldn't think rain would be cause for celebration but they're in the midst of a drought so... I remember a few years ago being up in Deniliquin (country town between Sydney & Melbourne) staying with friends on New Years Eve. Suddenly the skies opened and it bucketed down, a really heavy tropical rain. We were at the supermarket and everyone just ran outside, some people even just standing in it getting drenched with big smiles on their faces! It rained and rained but then unfortunately after a day it went back to hot weather again and the drought continued. If rain falls heavy & fast the soil is baked so hard it just runs off it... you need sustained periods of soft rain to make a big difference. Here's extracts from Mum's email from 23rd May:

"Tony (Dave's Dad) just rang - there is rain at Ballarat. I just checked the BoM site - indeed rain up that way and approaching here, though weakening. He too said the trees were doing well, olives too though not nearly as well as the gums. Fruit trees battling and some have given up. People have been ringing the radio on ABC up and saying "It is raining here" or "I just had to put the wipers on for the first time in a car we bought three months ago".. and so on. We certainly need rain - may it bucket down!"

...then half an hour later...

"It is raining at last! It has been sounding on the roof for about three minutes now. Not hard nor heavy, and from the look of the radar screen, not going to last for long, but it is absolutely fantastic while it lasts! Obviously we have not had rain for some time - and have been in a drought for about 4-5 years. And I can still hear it! Wonderful sound that it is.... "

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Liberty's 2005 arts & crafts sale

Liberty is my favourite store in the whole world. It's in central London and even though it has now been given a modern glass extension, the original store building still thrives. It's made out of wood salvaged from a sailing ship, coupled with Tudor decorations on the outside. I always walk up the staircase there rather than the catching the lifts because I just love the polished oak rails. Visiting the shop is an experience in itself, and it isn't as expensive as you might always think. They have a gift section in the basement part that sells great candles and pewter / silver-plated things. I've bought gifts there for under £20 that looked like they cost £200. It's just a lovely place.

Anyway, I am forbidding myself from going there for the next few months because I've just discovered they have an Arts & Crafts exhibition on with all these gorgeous antiques on show WHICH YOU CAN BUY!!! Now, if I had to pick my favourite style it would be Arts & Crafts (although I am more eclectic... sometimes just having it *all* is just a little spartan and puritan). Anyway, Liberty's are the spiritual home of Arts & Crafts in the UK... William Morris, Archibold Knox, etc all were supported by them.

I've been through the show catalogue online (which you can look at here) and these are my favourite pieces. I thought I'd include them here partly to share, and partly to have as inspiration if we ever get round to doing some furniture DIY.

This is my absolute favourite - an upholstered arm chair in oak with carved decoration. Circa 1905. And it's only £2800! which of course I can't afford but it is not as extreme as what I was expecting...

upholstered armchair
Originally uploaded by lynetter.

p>...considering that this clock costs £8,500!!! Now, fortunately I don't have to be tempted by this or attempt to make it myself, because Dave bought me a replica of something similar for my birthday in Liberty's sales a few years ago. (The joyous thing about Liberty is they have proper sales... things marked 50, 75% off and thus bringing them within the just-affordable bracket). It has pride of place on our dresser. Anyway, this one is the real thing: Liberty & Co Tudric mantle clock in pewter, copper and enamel. Designed by Archibald Knox. Model 0608. Circa 1902

archibald knox tudric clock
Originally uploaded by lynetter.

Back to the chairs... this one I like because it's such an interesting shape, although it doesn't seem like it'd be as comfortable to sit in as the other. Upholstered porter's chair in mahogany. Glasgow School. Circa 1905.

upholstered porters chair
Originally uploaded by lynetter.

Finally, here is a gorgeous chunky sideboard in oak with adzed decoration and burr panel doors. Designed by Robert Thompson (The 'Mouse man') circa 1930.

Originally uploaded by lynetter.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

the dream radiator

Actually Dave found this, not me, and he fell in love with it on sight as did I. It's more like a work of art than a radiator. It's made of concrete and apparently functions even better than a normal one in terms of heating (you run hot water through it... this is the most common form of heating in Europe, although it's not very common in Australia yet).

radiator by joris laarman
Originally uploaded by lynetter.

I don't yet know how much it costs but I've sent some emails to try and find out. It was created by a guy called Joris Laarman in the Netherlands as part of his graduation project and then put into production by DroogDesign, an ultra-hip so-trendy-it-hurts design house. You can see more details at Joris's site and also an interview with him here

UPDATE: you'll never believe it but just as I finished writing this and was about to hit Post, an email reply arrived from Joris himself! Turns out he's in the process of making an affordable line of them. It's still at prototype stage so might take a while to arrive but WOOHOO!! it means we'll be able to have one for Amherst! It's going to be so cool, I'm going to plan in wallspace for it in the bathroom right now.

the dream stove?

Now, I think I'm in dreamland here... although who knows how prices might come down over the next 5 years. But I think I've found the ideal stove for the kitchen at Amherst, as a supplement to the Aga/Rayburn. It's energy efficient, no flames to worry about, and it won't heat up the kitchen (great for cooking on those summer days of 40 degrees). Best of all, no need to bother with gas - which is a problem for us as we're going to have to use gas bottles as there's no mains connection - ironically, despite a gas pipeline running underneath part of our land!

This article in NY Times is what put me onto it. Induction cooktops! Here's an extract:

"Induction cooking has been around for decades, but until now never made it past the swinging doors of restaurant kitchens. The units were too expensive and too fussy and the concept too weird to find a home audience... At Chelsea Fine Custom Kitchens, a shop that caters to the competitive New York cook, Mr. Smeeton demonstrated two Küppersbusch cooktops, one with a special wok unit. "Ice, please," he said, sliding a steel wok into a bowl-shape indentation. He turned the power to high and allowed himself to smile when the ice started boiling before it was fully melted....

Slow cooking has its place, but when you're hungry, fast is so much better. And here was a space-age force, just in time for pasta al pesto and corn on the cob. Induction uses magnetic coils under the cooktop's glass surface to jangle the molecules of iron in the pan, turning the pan into the heat source. Different models offer different amounts of speed and power, but in all cases heat doesn't dissipate into the air so the chef stays as cool as her cucumbers. Shut down the magnetic field and cooking stops instantly. Remove the pan and the glass surface is barely warm. Indeed, Mr. Smeeton said, spills do not bake on, leaving nothing to clean up beyond the fingerprints of disbelieving guests.

The new cooktops are sold with a lot of razzle-dazzle. But the true benefits are a little subtler: once you turn off the power you can leave the pan in place; there's no need to shove it aside or lift it off the stove. Induction also holds steady at low temperatures. While experimenting with one model I found it easy to achieve that elusive trickle of bubbles known as "just below a simmer."

Irwin and I dropped by Krup's Kitchen & Bath near Union Square, where a Viking distributor, Robert A. Luyckx, was on hand with a salesman's model that requires only 110 volts, half the usual power... Irwin skeptically poured a bit of oil into a pan and added a half-pound of cold, moist stew meat. He turned the unit to high, and in seconds the oil was sizzling. In less than two minutes the meat was browned.

Viking, the company that did so much to popularize the semiprofessional gas range, now plans to introduce several induction cooktops. One cleverly combines two induction units and two that use regular radiant heat, the better to keep the cost below $2,000 and allow sentimental cooks to keep their copper pots"

I just had a look at Viking's website and they only have two induction models on sale at the moment, but I guess more will come. I also found that they have an Australian distributor in Moorabbin, which is only a few hours away from our farm, so it wouldn't be impossible to get hold of.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

turning a piano into a filing cabinet

This morning I read a post on Lakewood2-flat's blog about making your own furniture. We haven't - and I suspect never will - get into making our own furniture the way they are, but I suddenly thought perhaps others might be interested in Dave's conversion of a piano to a filing cabinet!

Originally uploaded by lynetter.

The history to this is that I was missing my piano, which sadly we had to leave behind in Australia. (It's loaned now indefinitely to my Mum's church so gets well-used and cared for... I figure when we go back I'll have to buy them a replacement, they've become so used to having it! Anyway, I digress...) I didn't want one of those electric ones as I figured they just wouldn't feel the same to play, and the top-line ones that supposedly mimic the feel of a piano cost thousands.

So, I reverted to Ebay and took a gamble. For the princely sum of £70 we took possession of an old old piano with the most gorgeous ornate casing. It still worked, though was way out of tune and a few dead notes. I figured I could just get a piano tuner in to fix it and all would be well, but as it turned out, it was not possible. In fact, we had bought an obscure kind of piano with a "birdcage" design that made it hard to tune anyway, and it was going to require a lot of dismantling & DIY on my part to repair to a standard that would make me like playing it (would cost more than buying a new piano if I'd got someone professional to do it!)

Worse though was that it just didn't fit properly in our study, it made the whole room feel really cramped. After much discussion we decided instead to give up on the idea of having a piano and resurrect it as something else. One weekend we moved the piano to the backyard and began the great piano dismantling. We salvaged the gorgeous case, which Dave reassembled into a knee-height table / filing cabinet. Not all of the joins are perfect but it's functional and I like it a lot. It fits more files than you'd think because I have hanging files at the top and archived piles stacked up below. In fact, it holds so much we were able to banish our office-like 4 drawer filing cabinet to the garden and replace it with this, which is a much nicer piece of furniture.

Here's a few pictures of our study so you get a sense of how small a space we have to play with...you can see the piano cabinet in situ under the computer screen. It doubles as a table for the mouse! Besides the piano filing cabinet, my favourite things here are the square chair you see with cushions folds out into a really comfortable, properly sprung, single bed, and the computer monitor hanging on the wall. Oh, and the bluebird stained glass window, another Ebay find. :-)

our study in London
Originally uploaded by lynetter.

computer in our study
Originally uploaded by lynetter.

We're re-using other parts of the piano too... the "action" (the bit with all the little hammers etc) is squirrelled away in the hall cupboard; it will one day be the centrepiece of a coffee table inside a glass box. The big iron frame is now in the garden leaning against the fence as decoration. And the wooden board which contained all the little metal pins around which the piano wires were threaded is now fixed to the wall in the under-stairs cupboard, as hanger for Dave's tools!

The only parts we didn't re-use in the end were the piano wires (very nasty and sharp) and the piano keys. I did attempt to get the ivory off them but they just kept cracking, and unfortunately we didn't have room to keep them with all the wood...)

The Rashleigh Inn in Polkerris

I was talking to Dave this morning about Cornwall and we were trying to remember the name of the great inn at Polkerris. This is my favourite place in Cornwall I was talking about in my last post. A quick google later and I'd found it - and even better, the had this cool aeriel picture that shows you what I was trying to describe about the narrow road down and just a few houses. There are other pictures on their site too, including a map... if you're ever in the vicinity I recommend it - at least during off-season when there's not many people.

Originally uploaded by lynetter.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

remembering Cornwall

I just came across this article in the New York Times about one of my favourite gardens and it sparked some great memories: The New York Times > Travel > A 'Lost' Cornwall Garden Regains Its Glory

Back nearly a decade ago(!) when I used to work in management consulting, I spent nearly 5 months based in St Austell, which is in the heart of Cornwall, on a project. It is only about half an hour's drive from these gardens. It was the off-season when our team were working there so instead of staying in some nondescript chain hotel we convinced a local B&B to open especially for the winter to put us up. Because we were the only guests there, we were able to keep our rooms from week to week so it came to feel like our home... I still vividly remember my room as it had such lovely floor to ceiling bookshelves stocked with all sorts of old paperbacks, and whitewashed timber walls. Anyway, it was so lovely that often instead of me going back to London for the weekend, Dave would catch the evening train down. The journey took around 5-6 hours, so if he got the train in the early evening he'd arrive in time for me to pick him up late evening. Usually I used to work really late on Fridays so as to have the weekend free for exploring. Dave always had a nice trip, there was a proper old fashioned dining car with starched tableclothes etc, so you could have a relaxing dinner and bottle of wine en-route! The way back was even better because there was a sleeper train... you caught it around 11pm on Sunday night from St Austell and woke up 7am in Victoria station in central London and could just go straight to work. (I think the train on the way back went slower so as not to rock the sleeping passengers!) I still adore sleeper trains, and partly it was because of the Cornwall experience.

Anyway, it meant we spent many weekends exploring Cornwall, and the Lost Gardens of Heligan were my second favourite place to visit. My absolute favourite place was the tiny little beach cove at Polkerris, which had just space for 1 inn (great evening meals), 1 beach shop (selling old fashioned buckets and spades, those funny little windbreaks that English people love, etc) and a little window serving icecream cones. Maybe only about 10 houses in the village in total. It was also not far from the house that Daphne du Maurier lived in and modelled the house in "Rebecca" on... the fictional house was called Manderley - the real life one is called Menabilly. Sadly it wasn't open to the public when I was there, but if you were adventurous you could go walking along the cliff path and see it from the distance. The road down to the cove is very steep and only wide enough for 1 car, lined either side with steep rock faces covered in climbing ivy. My technique for getting down it was to go carefully till the first bend, and then on the straight bit just go like the clappers to get off it as quickly as possible, since if you met another car coming the opposite direction someone had a difficult backing-up job! Fortunately, it was such a small place that there wasn't usually much traffic.

But back to Heligan... over the past 8 years since I first started visiting, it's grown a lot. They've uncovered whole sections, like the ravine, that were still overgrown and impassable when it first re-opened. But there's just something so romantic about the garden's history and the way it was rediscovered. The most wondrous parts for me are the little details which survived... like this paving they uncovered in the garden shed, and the hooks for hanging hand tools with the gardeners names next to them. Little pieces of inconsequential history but they impart so much.

stone and pebble paving (Lost Gardens of Heligan - Tim Smit)
Originally uploaded by lynetter.

I love the whole garden at Heligan, but my favourite part is the vegetable garden - here's a blurb from the NYT article that does a good job of describing it:

"At the heart of the operation stands the brick-walled vegetable garden, a two-acre trapezoid whose northeast corner stretches out to catch every last bit of warmth from the early-evening sun. Divided by an apple arbor and footpaths into six plots, each with rows up to 40 yards long, the garden is dug (and manure is dug in) exclusively with hand tools. Parts are covered in winter with seaweed brought from the nearby village of Portmellon, which imparts both iodine and other beneficial trace elements to the soil... In keeping with the Victorian ethos, rows are straight, plants are evenly spaced, everything is in its ordained place.

Heligan does not limit itself, of course, to common vegetables; it grows salsify and scorzonera and parsley root, cardoons and borecole and sea kale, all highly valued a century ago but now largely ignored. Nor does it focus on long-lasting if often tasteless supermarket varieties; in an effort to preserve diversity the gardeners grow heirloom gems - six kinds of broad beans, five kinds of peas, a dozen kinds of cabbage and brussels sprouts and no fewer than 27 kinds of potatoes, including yellow-fleshed rattes, beloved by French epicures but hard to find, at least through commercial channels, in Britain or the United States. There are red, black, purple, blue, brown and white spuds, still only a fraction of the 1,500-odd varieties seen at London shows in the 1870's.

Special corners are reserved for princely species like the purple-tinged artichokes, relatives of thistles, and asparagus, with its feathery foliage climbing high above elevated beds. Rhubarb is grown under ancient terra-cotta bell jars, scarlet runner beans climb bamboo tepees and pears and plums are espaliered against the old walls.

In spring and early summer, the garden seethes with color - not only the florid gladioli, snapdragons and other flowers raised for cutting but also the more delicate blossoms of the gooseberries, currants and raspberries growing in cages off to one side, and a sizzling array of chards, with wrinkled, prominently veined red or green leaves and stems of orange, yellow, red, peach and pink. More hues of green than the most avid gardener has ever seen provide a subtle and ever-changing background.

But some of the most dramatic achievements at Heligan take place out of sight, notably the culture of pineapples - yes, pineapples, real Jamaica queens and smooth cayennes - far from their natural habitat. They are grown in pits heated by decaying horse manure, laboriously shoveled by hand, 30 tons several times each season. The first to be produced in the reborn garden were presented to Queen Elizabeth II"

Monday, May 16, 2005

update from Mum about weekend visit

Mum and Dad went up to Amherst this weekend, partly to go to the farmer's market and partly to water the trees, etc. I talked to Mum just after she got home so unfortunately I haven't the benefit of her detailed email description, but this is what she said (in a nutshell):

Gum trees are all doing really well, they've filled out so that they're mostly touching the sides of their frames and their trunks are now the width of a finger. Considering they were little twig stalks the last time I saw them this is pretty good going! They're about 3 inches from the shade cloth at the top of their frames. There have been a couple of light frosts up there which they've survived; we still have to hope they'll be OK through any big frosts to come.

The fruit trees too are struggling on... Dad has now swaddled them in shade cloth on the theory that they might not like wind - and until the gums get bigger they won't be much of a windbreak. We'll see, give them another year, they might just take longer to get established.

Dad has moved the little caravan from Mum's place up to near the shipping container and is apparently thinking of building a carport or something over the top of it and the container with some old corrugated iron roofing material he was given. He's been gathering things as he sees them that might come in handy, including a toilet and washbasin set! He's also used salvaged pallettes to build some wide steps to get into the front door of the old house without having to climb, and cleared out the front right hand room. Now it has some carpet on the floor (remnants) and a couple of old sofas etc. Mum said it's a place you can now go and sit comfortably in, so that's not a bad style of camping!

It's been pretty dry up there still with no rain. One of Tex's (our neighbour) dams is almost empty with just mud in the bottom, although the other is still OK... Ours is getting low again so that you can now see the ridge in the middle of the dam again. But, Dad's been using a lot of the water, pumping it out to refill tanks for irrigating the trees. The olive trees and the fruit trees now have their own tanks (which are full) and there are 2 tanks for the gum trees still and a separate tank for drinking water. It is coming into the coldest part of the year up there now so fingers crossed it gets some rain soon.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Where ARE the HouseBloggers?

Just discovered this map at Houseblogs.net showing where everyone who's part of their houseblogs ring is. It's fascinating and wow, we're the first Australian housebloggers ... but hopefully not the last! There must be some others out there somewhere...

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

wooden buildings from Kadriorg, Tallinn

Here's a couple of photos showing some of the wooden buildings in Kadriorg which I was raving about in my earlier email. If you'd like to see the full set, you can take a look at them here.

Originally uploaded by lynetter.

Originally uploaded by lynetter.

Originally uploaded by lynetter.

meeting Ingrid in Tallinn

As per my previous post, we met up with Ingrid while on holiday in Tallinn, thanks to a fortuitous blog comment... here's the proof! Ingrid and her husband Vincent are doing something similar to us except in Estonia. I just found out today that they've found and bought their land, which is brilliant.

lynette and ingrid in Tallinn
Originally uploaded by lynetter.

update on allotment

I didn't get back from Athens till late on Saturday so Sunday was a very busy day at the allotment. While we were away the tomatoes had gone beserk so we had to plant them regardless of the weather. We spent around 7 hours up there in total - mostly planting them up and then building frames and frost/wind protectors. (In the UK it seems the key to success in vegetable gardening is knowing how to swaddle up plants!) Also we did some weeding and watered in the nematodes (which are supposed to kill slugs organically), etc etc. This photo shows Dave watering in... you can see we still have a few beds to clear at the top end, but we're getting there.

061corner view
Originally uploaded by lynetter.

update on trees

From an email from Mum on May 7th: "Dad said all well, a few leaves burnt off - I think they had a frost a week or so ago. It was cold here, and -1 at Coldstream so I would guess it was colder up there. Still they have survived that OK. Some are now high enough to be about reaching the top of the enclosures. That is what Dad says - they were moving along nicely when I last saw them but not that high. Still it is a while since I went up there"

I can't wait to get the photos. Dad has taken lots and he has managed to get them off the digital camera and onto his computer... now he just has to do the last step and upload them! He's doing really well to learn how to do all this computer stuff considering he's only been online for around a year.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

a quick update from Greece

So now I'm in Athens... I'm here for a work conference till the weekend so unfortunately not expecting to get to see much other than the inside of a hotel ballroom. So unlikely to get more inspirations for the house - although, based on what I saw from the taxi on the way from the airport I don't think the buildings here are really my style anyway...there's an awful lot of concrete! Still, I can't complain, I'm looking out the hotel window and can see the Acropolis all lit up and it is beautiful.

I'm not going to be able to post properly again till the weekend when I get back to London, but wanted to say thanks to people who've commented on my posts. I really appreciate it and there has been some really helpful input, so thank you. Also a special thanks to jm who told me about Vincent and Ingrid's blog... it turns out they're similarly in the throes of planning to build their dream house, except that theirs is in Estonia! I saw jm's comment while still in Tallinn and got in touch with them. Unfortunately Vincent was working in Finland but Ingrid was around and we met up for coffee and chocolate on our last night in Tallin and had a wonderful chat comparing notes. The world is getting to be a really small place. :-)

Monday, May 02, 2005

inspiration from Tallinn

So it has been *ages* since I wrote. The excuse as usual is that work was manic, but it is over at least for now... we are on holiday and I don't have to go into the office for a whole week, yay! Right now I'm in Tallinn in Estonia. We got here on Saturday and stay till Wednesday. After that Dave goes home and I have to go to Athens in Greece for a work conference (but it's still better than being in the office!)

Tallinn is wonderful, it has a great old town full of cobbled streets and baroque buildings, and it's not yet over-run by tourists. Oh, it's still touristed, but the shops aren't yet stuffed 100% full of junk and trinkets, like in places like Prague, and there are lots of nice restaurants, galleries, museums, etc.

Tallinn is also incredibly wired up, to the extent that our hotel (which is only mid-range) has terminals in each room with free broadband Internet! It's been a big help in researching what to do each day as well as catching up with email etc. Dave unfortunately has had to bring some work with him to do, so while he did that I spent a few hours writing emails, mostly to Eric our architect with ideas about the house. Here's extracts from the first of them which I thought I'd post here for posterity too. When I get back in London, I'll add some pictures we took (unfortunately can't get the pictures off the digital camera here).

Extracts from email to Eric about Tallinn houses (1st May 2005)

Today we spent the morning wandering round one of the oldest suburbs to the east of the "old town", called Kadriorg. It seems in the process of converting from quite slummy to posh so there are some interesting juxtapositions! Anyway, the reason we went there is because Lonely Planet said it had a lot of old wooden houses, and they weren't wrong.

From the guide: "Wood - mainly pine, spruce and oak - was the main building material in the independent interwar period, and an attempt was made to incorporate national romantic visions highlighting peasant and country architectural elements into modernised city designs, a back-to-roots trend which recurred periodically throughout the 20th century. A typical feature of this romantic architecture is a sun motif placed atop window frames. Wooden architecture was by no means simple or uniform, and was influenced by fashions and styles. In Tallinn alone, you can see the influences of Art Deco, Art Nouveau, neo-Renaissance functionalism, classicism, eclecticism and Gothic revivalism".

I am not sure I could identify all those styles, but I could spot differences between the houses we saw A lot of my favourite houses were in disrepair; the outsides looking similar to Amherst with flaking paint etc. There were a few cottages, but the majority tended to be a lot larger, mostly 2 and many 3 storey, like big apartment buildings but made of wood. The sad thing was that interspersed between them were all these dreadful concrete monstrosities; obviously some developers have decided it's better to knock an old wooden building down and replace it with something modern than to restore it. I suppose too that some were burnt down; we saw one that was gutted, plus quite a few that had their windows boarded up. It was quite tragic to look at the abandoned ones because you could still see their characters and ornate wood carvings, they would be highly valued anywhere else.

Anyway, all hope for them is not lost because it seems like people here now are starting to recognise the value of this part of their heritage. In fact, there's an exhibition on at an art gallery here this week about the "wooden houses of Tallinn" which is to coincide with the publication of a book we spotted in a store window today (sadly it was shut, and it's not available on Amazon, so we're going to go back tomorrow to buy a copy since it said on the cover it had English text as well as Estonian).

[Update: we later heard that many of the houses are under protection orders from the city and that grants are available for doing them up, which is wonderful. The main problem is that ownership of the houses is still being wrestled over...the Soviets nationalised everything; when Estonia became independent they sought to give them back to the previous owners or their descendants, but in some cases it wasn't so clear and hence there are tussles about who really owns them. Of course, until ownership is sorted out no-one is willing to spend any money on repairing them, so they just sit there boarded up in limbo. Which is really bad still but at least hopefully it will be sorted out sometime soon and then they'll be resurrected]

After wandering round backstreets looking at around 20 different wooden houses and pointing out things to each other we especially liked and didn't like, we've come to some conclusions about things we definitely want at Amherst. I thought I'd jot them down now while they're fresh in my mind, so here goes...

First and foremost, we definitely want a wooden house. It can have brick / stone footings, and use different materials for things like chimneys etc, but the main part of the house we want to be wooden, or at least clad in wood.

We definitely want a few windows that jut out from the main wall of the house (I call these bay windows but that might not be the right term). They don't have to be big ones; in fact I tend to prefer small rather than giant ones. Also, we don't want a bay window that is curved. We much prefer ones that are either rectangular or, even better, triangular. Basically, we like sharp angles not curves. In fact, there is a house on the road in to Maryborough that has a great demonstration of the kind of window I mean, which I like as much as the ones we saw here. I am kicking myself for not taking a photo of it when I was there. Basically, it is a rectangular jutting out window but the stunning thing about it is that it's positioned on the corner of the house! So you have the wall, then the jutting out part at an angle of 120 degrees, then the rectangular window bit (90 degrees), before finishing turning the corner with another 120 degrees

We want a roof line and outside shape to the house which is interestingly shaped and more eclectic than the ones you've done on the plans so far. Plan A we've decided we don't like the outside of because it just feels too storybook and a little boring. It is similar I know to some of the houses in pictures I sent and capecod style etc that I said I liked, but as we're learning more our tastes are broadening! Plan B was OK and our favourite of the 3 you drew but not a patch on the houses we've seen here, although I did like that it had a friendly face.

From looking at the houses here, it seems the ones we loved had a lot of variation in their external appearance. They weren't symmetrical from one end to the other; they still were balanced and "felt right" but not a mirror copy. They almost all had a mixture of heights... double storey for most of it but with e.g., a small lean to single-storey section or front porch, plus a room jutting out at the top like a kind of tower (although usually square-ish rather than circular, to make it 3 storeys in some parts. Sometimes this 3rd storey was just in one corner; in a few houses it rose up in the middle of the house. Sometimes it seemed like it jutted up only half a storey... guessing because it and the room below it had lower ceilings than elsewhere in the house.

We both adored the effect created by these little jutting up extra rooms, and so would really like to have one at Amherst too. For example, perhaps it could be accessed via steep steps (like on ships) from the study? It wouldn't need to be big, just enough space eg to have single futons around 3 walls, low bookshelf on another, and opening windows to all 4 sides from waist height. We could put the telescope up there. It would just be a fun place to spend time reading if you wanted to be alone and would double as extra sleeping space for guests, at least on summer nights. (Guessing it might be too cold in winter, but that's OK, we don't mind if it's only usable part of the year)

In terms specifically of roof shape, we generally prefer steeper roofs to flat ones. I've been doing some research on what each roof type is called. Based on that I can tell you I'm not a huge fan of Mansard roofs. But at the same time I don't want it to be so steep that it ends up being a hugely dominant triangle, like some of the houses you see in Germany.

In case it helps any... I was browsing around and came across About.com's guide to different architectural styles. Based on this, it seems the houses we liked most here were a cross between carpenter gothic", "folk victorian", "victorian stick" (for the outside wall textures especially) and "queen anne" (especially for the little rooms jutting up). We especially liked how atop each of the windows there was a little sticking out boxy thing... not sure what purpose it served other than decoration, but we thought it would be very practical for us, as we could have some kind of blind hidden away rolled up out there, and then could just pull it down when needed to block out the sun.

Finally, (and I know this is irrelevant at this point probably, but just to jot it down) we think we want the main colour of the house to be green. Not a pastelly green, but a deeper colour, like the colours 009944, 119944, 228B22 here (although obviously we'd have to do tests on which worked best in Australian light). The reason for picking green is because not only do we both really like that colour, we thought it would go well in terms of helping it feel lush/cool in the height of summer. A lot of houses here were that colour green or a more natural orangey colour. I really like the latter colour too but as Dave said, that's the colour most of our land will go in summer so we need something that will contrast. Probably, we would use a natural oak colour for the outside of the window frames etc rather than having them the typical white.