Tick, tock, tick, tock!

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We are busy with a building project at the house to add an extra bedroom for our baby boy who is due at the end of September. As with all building, it was meant to be a quick little project, but largely thanks to my fuzzy pregnancy brain it now feels huge! There just seem to be too many things to think about and organise and the clock is ticking away very loudly in my head. The existing structure – previously used as a kids playroom and general storage space for sports equipment and outdoor stuff – has been broken down and it seems to be taking ages to build it up again into a wider more functional space.

Part of the reason why it’s taking so long is because we are building with 13 x 13 inch sandstone blocks to match the rest of the house. Decades ago my father-in-law had a full-time stonemason working on the mountain to cut blocks for his various building projects. We used most of the left over blocks for our last renovation, which left us in a bit of a predicament because the new sandstone blocks one can buy are much smaller and look a lot more like bricks. Fortunately, Quentin was able to track down a team of craftsmen trained in the old techniques to cut new blocks for us. They have been busy for a few months already and it is painstaking work. Everything is done by hand with special tools. It’s incredible how they cut such straight and perfect blocks out of huge chunks of sandstone that have rolled down from the top of the mountain without shattering. The cutting site is carefully selected to make sure they use only the hardest and best quality sandstone. We hiked to the cutting site a few weeks ago to check on their progress. So far so good, but now we need to get those heavy blocks back to the house to get on with the building… otherwise this preggie lady’s nerves will shatter!

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Winter is Here!

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Winter has finally arrived at Vastrap. We’ve been bracing ourselves for the cold for a while now, but May was unusually sunny and warm. We spent some of the time on holiday down in the Transkei and Kwazulu Natal where it really felt like summer so that also saved us a bit. Last night the first big cold front of winter hit us and we were treated to some early morning rain and much colder temperatures. The forecast for the next while looks bitterly cold, as it should be for this time of year. This is the perfect start to the winter crop season so my farmer love is in a happy mood today!

At times like these, I’m always so grateful to have a warm and cosy home. It definitely wasn’t like this when I first arrived on the farm 5 years ago. My first experience of winter in the house was almost unbearable. There was no insulation in the ceiling, huge glass windows everywhere and only one or two heaters in the main living areas. We were always dressed in our warmest winter jackets and watched TV wrapped in blankets sitting on top of the heater. My hands even froze just sitting in bed drinking coffee or typing at my computer. Needless to say, it was absolute hell during a power outage. Not my idea of fun!

When we renovated the house about 3 years ago I insisted on installing double glazing and insulating the ceilings. We also made sure that there were multiple sources of heating – a Morsø fireplace and an Aga stove – and gas for cooking. With all these options we can cope well without power on a cold day.  We also put some underfloor heating in the main bathroom and kitchen just to take the chill off the tiles.

The Aga stove really is at the heart of our home and it’s an annual ritual getting it clean and lighting it for winter (see Lighting the Aga). This year Quentin had a brainwave to use the vacuum cleaner to suck out all the old grit and residue left inside the chimney from last winter. In two minutes everything looked spick and span and good as new so the fire should draw nicely.

Having the Aga lit changes the whole dynamic of the house. I use it a lot for cooking and everyone automatically gravitates towards the heat. New visitors to the house can’t help but admire it and share memories of old Aga’s from their childhoods. I was a bit worried how Livia would cope with such a big exposed heater, but so far she’s steered clear of it and she seems to understand that it’s hot. We’ve had to do a lot of childproofing in the house with a toddler cruising around. I’ve installed a safety guard around our fireplace and I found a lovely old oregon pine kitchen cupboard at one of the antique shops in town to store breakable things that were lying around. Now I just need some locks for our toilets to stop her throwing things into them, my car keys and remotes being the most recent victims!

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Happy Birthday Blog!

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I can’t believe it’s been a year since I started this blog! At the time it seemed like a crazy thing to do, but now it feels like an integral part of my routine. I had no idea how much I would enjoy sharing our experiences at Vastrap with you and how valuable it would be to join the community of bloggers on WordPress from all over the world. It is crazy how much one can learn from others and how one can develop friendships with people you will probably never meet. The whole experience has really been so much more rewarding than I ever anticipated and I am so grateful for that.

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In memory of the past year, I thought I would share some facts and figures about this blog and a few of my favourite posts.

  • Vastrap Farm has 107 full-time followers, but many people view the blog via Facebook and stumble across it through online searches. By far the most popular search terms are related to information about Boran cattle. Quite a few searches have also involved information about Aga stoves.
  • Including this one, I have written 74 posts and 5 pages.
  • There have been 10,917 views of pages on the blog over the past year, with the most views (301) on the first day when people read my first post Welcome to my World! and the pages I had set up About Me, History of Vastrap and About Ladybrand.
  • The most viewed page has been The Boran: God’s Gift to Cattlemen, which provides information on the benefits of Boran cattle and shows some photos of the Boran in their original habitat in Kenya. Because of the huge interest in our cattle, I designed a dedicated site for Vastrap Boran in December with detailed information about our stud (www.vastrapboran.com).
  • Vastrap Farm has been viewed by people in 101 countries! About half of total views have been from South Africa (5,302), followed by the UK (989) and the US (750).

It is hard to choose favourites, but posts that stand out for me about the farm include R.I.P Little Calf (about a newborn Boran calf that didn’t make it through a very cold snap in winter) and Mellow Yellow (photos of the sunflower crop in full bloom). Many people were amused  by my experience at Stockman school, which showed just how much life had changed for me since moving to the farm (see The stockman and his love)!

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Stockman 010I had great responses to my posts about our Aga stove (see The Magic of Aga), and I hope that some of the information has been useful to people with anthracite stoves.

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There have been quite a few cooking posts, although I really am not an expert in the kitchen. I write about things I actually make regularly rather than designing recipes specifically for the blog. My favourite has to be Let’s make jam! simply because it’s one of the most typical things farm wives are associated with and because it was one of the very first things I did when I moved to the farm. There are also some great stories about our cooking club, (see Happy Cooking Pasta! and Cooking in a Castle)

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We have done a lot in the garden over the past year, but our dry summer made it difficult to sustain things for very long. In retrospect the garden was definitely at its best in December (see An Explosion of Colour!) I was very proud of the changes we made in the vegetable garden, although the free-ranging chickens dug up more heirloom seeds than I care to think about. Such a shame! I will definitely not let that happen again (see What a coop!).

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There were a few stories very close to my heart celebrating the achievements of family members – see My extraordinary mother, Purple rain and A lifetime of love.

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Finally, our dogs are ever-present in most of my stories. They are such an integral part of our lives as any visitor to Vastrap will attest! My favourite dog post is without a doubt How Paris ‘Sees’ the World, about our beautiful brave blind dog Paris and her unfailing zest for life.

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Well, all I can hope is that the coming year provides lots of material for some great stories to share with you. Life is never static on a farm and you never know what lies around the corner. Keep reading to find out! I really appreciate all your feedback and support. Please let me know what you have enjoyed most and what you would like to see more (or less) of on the blog. Your opinions are highly valued!

Memories of the Vastrap renovation

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

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

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

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

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

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I can see clearly now!

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Our house at Vastrap has undergone a transformation over the past two years. In April last year we finished a major renovation of our kitchen, living areas, bedrooms and bathrooms. We replaced all the steel windows with wooden double glazed windows and totally reorganised the way we live. I cannot tell you what a difference it has made! It has taken another year to complete the final touches. One of our biggest areas of indecision was what to do about security. Before we made the changes, every window in the house was covered with steel framed burglar bars that made it look and feel like a jail. I hated them so much that I avoided taking photos of the house, something which I now regret because I can’t show good before and after shots!

Kitchen burglar bars "before".

Kitchen burglar bars “before”.

A pile of steel relegated to the backyard.

Pile of steel bars relegated to the backyard for recycling.

However, we could not get away from the reality that we need some form of security. Living out of town it is not an option to put up beams linked to armed response and one cannot help but feel vulnerable when you are home alone. We searched and searched an avoided the topic until one day we discovered an agent in Bloemfontein for transparent burglar bars, known as ClearBars. Quentin was initially sceptical but Hendrik, the agent for the Free State and Nothern Cape, came to our house to demonstrate how strong they are and convinced us they would do the job. They are made from “polycarbonate and ISO 9001 approved for military VIP protection, aircraft windows, Formula 1 cars, and other applications where safety and security are paramount.  The material has a tensile breaking strength of 3000 kg’s and is virtually indestructible!” Apparently we are the first people in the Free State outside of Bloemfontein to have them installed.

Unclear photos of ClearBars!

Unclear photos of ClearBars!

One obstacle was the roller fly screens we installed before the summer. They sit flush against the window and roll up away from sight when not needed. Hendrik had to figure out a way to install the bars behind the fly screens. I cannot praise his service enough. He and his assistant Via spent two solid days at the house removing the fly screens, installing the ClearBars, and cutting and installing new wooden frames onto which they mounted the fly screens. It really looks great and we can feel secure without feeling like we’re in jail. I am particularly happy that the views from my kitchen windows have not been ruined.

Kitchen windows.

View from the kitchen up to the veggie garden.

View from kitchen onto courtyard.

View from kitchen onto courtyard.

View onto the driveway.

View onto the driveway.

Fly screen detail.

Fly screen detail.

Bedroom views.

Bedroom views.

One area that remains unresolved is our enclosed veranda at the front of the house. It’s a beautifully warm room on winter’s days when the sun streams in. We did not change the bars here because we plan to eventually replace the steel windows with sliding or folding wooden windows and doors. I think I can live with this view for a while knowing that the rest of the house is sorted!

Remaining bars on the front veranda.

Remaining bars on the front veranda.

The Slow Life

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As predicted, our Easter weekend was luxuriously slow. The weather played its part, bringing soft, soothing rain and an autumn chill to warrant a small log fire. Some guests require a lot of entertainment with a schedule of activities planned around the farm, especially when there are lots of children visiting. Other people are happy to be left alone to rest and recuperate from their hectic city lives occasionally appearing for some nourishment and a good chat. There is no pressure to do anything. Just rest and enjoy. I love both kinds of guests, but the latter are certainly more relaxing for me! Quentin and Charles managed to get out on their mountain bikes twice, but the girls were not nearly as energetic. In fact, we only managed one walk in three days, one trip to town for lunch at Living Life, and a single short early evening outing on the farm to bond with our Boran cows.

Solar Consol light Easter nest.

Solar Consol light Easter nest.

Easter was celebrated with a lazy Sunday lunch of slow-cooked lamb shanks with polenta and green beans. Half way through our meal I realised that my favourite Consol solar glass jars would make a cute Easter table arrangement combined with some fallen pine needles and neon eggs. We spent the rest of lunch trying to capture the image on camera and a competition ensued between Apple, Samsung and our trusty Nikon D 7000 – not surprisingly the Nikon won hands down with Quentin behind the lens!

Early evening mountain drive.

Early evening mountain drive.

Sunset reflection.

Sunset reflections.

City ladies bonding with the beautiful Boran.

City girls bonding with the beautiful Boran.

Enjoying the quiet before sunset.

Charles and my mom enjoying the quiet before sunset.

After our guests left on Monday morning, we drove around the farm replenishing salt licks for the cattle. It was a moody, cloudy day and the cows were all very happy to see us. We took some time to pause with a group of Boran heifers who were weaned from their mothers a month ago. The Boran respond really well to some extra care and attention. If one makes a concerted effort to bond with them they can become very tame, which makes working with them an absolutely pleasure. For more information on Boran cattle and their origins see “The Boran: God’s Gift to Cattlemen.”

A moody autumn day.

Farm vista on a moody autumn day.

Paris passed out on the salt bags.

Paris napping on the salt bags.

Quentin with his beautiful Boran heifers.

Quentin bonding with a group of beautiful Boran heifers.

A Whiff of Spring!

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Weekends at home on the farm always seem like a real luxury and this one was no exception. I spent Saturday and Sunday cooking, gardening and entertaining friends – three of my favourite past times.

I laid out the plan for my new vegetable garden on Saturday afternoon. There is a big piece of ground above the house that is perfect for a vegetable garden, but it is totally unmanageable as it is. We have very heavy clay soil and it is always a struggle to manage the weeds and keep everything watered properly without structured beds. After more than a year I finally have a vision of what I want and I’m very excited to see the final product. I need raised beds, pathways, lots of compost to improve the soil and space for beautiful flowers and fruit trees so that there is a nice view from our guest bedrooms and the kitchen.

Entrance to the vegetable garden with metal arch made by Johannes in Clarens.

The rocks and stones to edge the raised beds will come from the mountain behind the house and I will use some of the left-over gravel from our building project on the house to fill in the pathways.  I found the metal arch for the garden entrance in Clarens, one of the most well-known and beautiful towns in the Eastern Free State. There will be two yellow heritage climbing roses on either side of the arch. I was also thrilled to find two cherry trees, a plum tree and a fig tree at our local nursery in town, which really spurred me into action!

Picture climbing roses, gravel path down the middle, stone-edged beds on either side, plum tree in raised stone circle in the center and lots, lots more!

It is Quentin’s birthday on Monday so we had some friends round for a celebration on Sunday. It was the most beautiful warm day – hard to believe it was snowing a week ago! Quentin dropped Ashley back with her mom in Johannesburg on Friday and he came back with the new table for our outside courtyard. I am so excited to finally have a dedicated space for outside entertaining in summer. It couldn’t have been a more perfect day to celebrate Quentin’s birthday and to initiate the table – sunny, still and almost spring! The pergola that will cover the table is not complete yet, but we were very happy to get some sun after the chilly winter we’ve had. Here’s to many more lunches and dinners at the new table!

New reclaimed teak table with temporary plastic chairs and unfinished pergola.

No flowers in the garden so lemons will have to do!

Anyone for desert? Apple cake, cheese cake, to-die-for chocolate brownies and vanilla fudge ice cream.

Happy birthday my love! xx