Busy, busy, busy

Many apologies for the radio silence, it’s been an astonishingly busy few weeks, mainly down to the arrival of our lambs!  32 of them running around the place now, with one last ewe holding out on us, though she has an udder like a football, so I hope number 33 will be with us before too much longer.

Guests have been coming and going at Ethel’s and we’ve had a few more bathroom issues.  Jeff’s bottle trap fixed the basin leak and I haven’t had any further comments about leaks in the shower, but I did get a message from one set of guests to say the shower was backing up to the point where they’d had a small flood in the bathroom.  So Jeff and I went down there while they were out (with their permission) and investigated.  First stop, check the shower trap – clear (I take the hair out of it at every changeover, not my favourite job, but important).  Second test, flush the loo, which is below the the shower in terms of the way the water runs.  Water level in shower trap rose slightly, indicating there was a blockage somewhere between the house and the soakaway.  John Angie had told us that the drains can block at one particular point and he used to rod it every three months – now, we hadn’t touched it in 2 years and I doubt Ethel’s son did when he lived there for a while in the 2 years after she died either.  We lifted the access point John had pointed out and sure enough, it was backed up, indicating the blockage was further down.  One set of rods, a satisfying sucking noise and a miniature ancient fatberg later, it flowed away, but Jeff advised getting Magnus (the house painter) over, as he had the right equipment to power flush the whole system through.

Magnus turned up two days later, after the guests had gone, lifted the cover to the first rodding point right outside the bathroom and…

Yes, the scourge of all septic tank systems – the wet wipe!!  I think we need a better sign for the top of the toilet – the one provided by the agency says only soft tissue may be flushed down the toilet and it appears that people are taking that to include the dreaded wipes.  Magnus, who needs a bravery medal, cleared it, flushed the system, and so far it seems to be behaving itself, but he thinks we might benefit from having the soakaway redone at some point, as it’s not working too effectively right now.

Then on Thursday last week we had to get Jeff back again, as the hot water stopped working.  A quick investigation revealed the culprit, a hole in a rubber hose inside the boiler, which had obviously been rubbing against something and gradually eroding.  Fortunately Jeff had the right part at home and was able to repair it straight away.  I peered into the tank to check there was oil in it, could see my reflection but didn’t have anything to dip it with, so we fired it up and it started working – all seemed good.  At midnight I got another email from the guests to say it had stopped working again, so I went down there at 7am with a bamboo cane and found the oil level was below the outlet pipe from the tank.  Given I’d put 500 litres of heating oil in there about two months previously, that was not good news – I’d had the same amount put in our tank at home at the same time and that was nearly half full still.  We appeared to have lost 200-300 litres from the leak.  I called the two oil delivery companies, neither of whom were coming west that day (Friday), but got a delivery booked for today (Monday).  Our thought was to try and find someone local with a small pump, siphon some oil out of ours and take it down the road, but when a number of phone calls drew a blank, we suddenly remembered that Allans of Gillock, the agricultural store where we buy our red diesel for the tractor, also has kerosene on pump, so I emptied all our jerry cans into their respective bits of machinery, drove over to Watten, filled them with 75l of kerosene, lashed them all together in the boot so they wouldn’t fall over, drove back, emptied them into the tank, hit the reset button on the boiler and….nothing.

Jeff, who by this point was probably qualified to put ‘damsel in distress rescuer’ on his business cards, arrived 15 minutes later, diagnosed a lot of air in the system, bled it, and it started up just fine and has been working ever since.  I saw the Simpsons lorry go up the road this morning, so I can now stop worrying that this week’s guests are going to run out of oil.  ‘Dip tank’ will be added to the list of monthly maintenance tasks!!

We are now on our eighth set of guests and are starting to get less panicky that people are going to hate it and give us bad reviews.  So far we have three out of three 10/10 scores on Revoo (which get displayed on our listing with the agency) and the comments in the visitors’ book have been amazing.  I’ve learned that to do a full changeover of all five bed spaces is about seven loads of laundry (depending on whether they used all the towels as well) and that the next set of bed linen I buy is going to have fitted sheets instead of flat – slightly harder to iron, but a lot quicker to make up!  Bookings-wise, we’re now up to 113 nights booked and a little under £8,500 of revenue after the agency’s fee is taken out.

As regards the other house, missives are concluded and we’re completing on Thursday, but in the meantime I’ve got involved with two other little projects on the side.  One is our own house, which has needed a new roof for a while, so Pete and his new sidekick, Al, have been taking the fibre cement tiles off it and replacing with proper heavy slate.  It looks fabulous.  James, who is now a delivery driver, has even been back to cut the scallops, just like he did for Ethel’s.  We were going to go for diamonds either side of the Velux, but it’s not quite central and it would have sent Mick’s OCD bananas, so we’re having a big diamond on the porch roof instead!

The other project is our village hall!  I’m now the hall committee secretary and we’re applying for a big grant from the local wind farm to turn our lovely old traditional hall into something fit for use.  We’re working with a local architect, who’s come up with the brilliant idea of building a new structure around the old hall, so it becomes the main room within the new building.  We’re planning to provide facilities not just for the village, but for tourists passing on the North Coast 500 and people visiting the beach, so it’ll have toilets, showers and a laundry room which can be open for public use while the main hall and the kitchen remains locked up.  This is what it looks like at the moment, just after the landscapers had been in to clear out the overgrown car park and take down a few trees.

So lots and lots to get my teeth into and I can’t wait to get going with Tor Aluinn!

Settling in

Our first three sets of guests couldn’t have been nicer, they’ve all left us lovely comments in the guest book, one has left us 10 out of 10 on Reevoo, which is the feedback service Cottages.com uses for its properties, and they’ve been very patient with the little teething troubles we’ve had.  I was away when the second guests checked out, so Mick popped his head in to make sure all was okay and turn the heating back down.  He reported all was fine, they’d very kindly stripped the bed and left used towels in the bathroom.  ‘Perfect,’ I thought, ‘Don’t need to do much before the next lot arrive on Saturday.’  On the Saturday morning I waved Mick off to London for work and went down to clean.  Picked up the towels from the shower tray and found they were all soaking.

You can insert your own Scooby-Doo ‘Ruh-roh’ noise here.

Yes, there was a massive leak in the back corner of the shower where the glass screen met the wall.  Neither Jeff nor Pete were picking up, but Pete’s was going straight to voicemail which indicated he might actually be using it, so I sent him a text to see if there was any chance he was free to come and rescue me and then got on with sorting out the rest of the house.  Three hours later, when I’d finished everything else that needed doing, I went home, watched a few YouTube videos on how to use a silicone gun, thought it didn’t look that difficult and was just marching back up the drive with it tucked under one arm and a knife in my pocket, when Pete screeched to a halt at the top of the drive.  He’d actually been in the village when I was trying to call him, but his phone had no signal, and he’d got all the way home to Reay before my message had got through.  He tried to call me back, but my phone had no signal here either, so he’d rummaged in his shed for some silicone, jumped in his van and come all the way back.  On a Saturday.  Megastar!

I left the guests a note asking them to try and avoid spraying that area of the shower too heavily that evening and asked them to let me know if there were any further problems.  On Tuesday they let me know there was a bit of a leak from another bit of the shower and the basin was leaking like mad.  This time I really did need to summon up Jeff.  I went down while they were out on Wednesday afternoon and managed to fix the shower myself (proud DIY moment!) and then Jeff and I took the basin to pieces on Thursday morning.  His theory is that there are too many joints in the U-bend waste pipe and the angle it goes into the wall is putting pressure on them and loosening them.  He tightened everything up, stuffed a towel into the back of it to catch drips and is coming back tomorrow with a bottle trap waste, which he reckons should solve the problem.

The next guests are due on the 14th and if we’re very lucky with the weather next week (this week is rubbish) we might get the problem chimney harled before they arrive.  Pete has finished the big job he was working on and has been bringing all his scaffolding to our house today (he’s going to replace our roof with proper slate as our old fibre cement slates are completely knackered), so it’s here and ready to go up down the road if we catch a break.

Ethel’s is now removed from the council tax register and onto business rates.  I’ve applied for 100% rates relief, which I should get, but it would be about half the normal council tax if I had to pay it in full.  Scottish Water is coming on Monday to survey the house to see if I’ll be better off with a water meter fitted and then I have to find a water provider.  Apparently there are 20 to choose from in Scotland at the moment (list here), so I need to work my way through those later and see if any of them give the remotest hint of what prices might be like.  I only need water supply, the drainage is to a private septic tank, so that’s one fewer bill at least.

The final thing I have to arrange is commercial waste and recycling collections.  The Highland Council has a very easy form to fill in and, even better, lets me split my year into two seasons, so I can have a fortnightly collection from 1st April to the end of October, which is the usual residential cycle, and then from 1st November to the end of the year on 31st March, I can just have an uplift once a month, which helps save me money.  Unfortunately I got an error message submitting the form, so I’ll have to try again tomorrow, but for a normal sized wheelie bin for a self-catering cottage, the current Highland Council price is £5.03+VAT for a rubbish bin and £2.20+VAT for a recycling bin, so not extortionate.

In Coldbackie news, we have all the financing in place, which is absolutely fantastic.  Just a small boundary query for the solicitors to sort out between them and then we should be all systems go.

Girl done good

The day our first guests were due to depart, I saw no car when I went to feed the sheep, so went in through the main gate rather than the back one and noticed a pink envelope on the coffee table in the living room.  I went in and found that not only had they left the house practically cleaner than it was when they arrived, but they’d also left us a thank-you card and this very lovely message as the first entry in our visitor book.

I really hope they’re all like this!  I emailed them to say thank you and they gave me a couple of bits of useful feedback, firstly that there was a draft coming from the front door (which I have been trying to replicate and have concluded that I need to put something in the information book about lifting the handle up to engage the entire multi-point locking system when closing the door, because that’s the only way I can make it happen) and secondly that the shower screen leaked.  We have, I hope, got that fixed after Mick checked and then re-did the seals around it – it’s just finishing off 48 hours to dry out and then I’ll give it a test tomorrow.

Today has been an exciting day as the valuer came round.  He couldn’t give me a number then and there, but he did say the stunning views and the fact that it’s essentially a new house inside a traditional shell (he said he doesn’t see many traditional croft houses in this kind of condition, which I hope was meant in a positive way!) would be reflected in the value, so I am hopeful that we’ll at least get to the figure I estimated on the Cumberland application and possibly even exceed it.  The last two three bedroom houses sold in the village, which were both in good repair, went for £15,000 and £22,000 more than the number I came up with.  He was carrying on west and going to value the house we’re buying straight afterwards, which was useful, because I was able to tell him what I’d estimated rental income at and he said that without even seeing the house, that sounded reasonable – although obviously again, he couldn’t guarantee that’s what would go in the valuation report without going round it.

Anyway, he said he’d get his reports back to both banks by the end of the week and since these valuations are the last things I’m waiting on before full formal mortgage offers are issued, I think I’m going to spend the next few days biting my nails.  The solicitors are primed and ready to go!

Pay day!

Excuse me while I jump up and down and whoop a bit, because when I checked my business account today I saw that £75 had been deposited yesterday, which is 3 x £25 deposits from our first three bookings 🙂  We get the balance month-end before the stay, so at the end of February I’ll get the balance of the 3-day stay booked for March less the annual property registration fee of £105.  We’ve also had another week booked for September.

I had an answerphone message from BT on Monday telling me that the engineer would be visiting again on Wednesday 31st January and please could I be in from 8am until 1pm?  The line was a bit crackly, so I double-checked with BT’s Live Chat who confirmed the engineer was booked.  I’d picked up some new plaster, so was able to get those last few screw heads and plasterboard joins filled in, but confidently expecting that BT wouldn’t let me down twice in a row, I hadn’t taken down much else to get on with, and I couldn’t carry on painting the hall over wet plaster.  So I made a big snagging list (it runs to three pages):

And I discovered that my phone talks to the TV as they’re both Samsungs.  I can throw my phone screen to the TV or put the TV screen on my phone, and if you put the phone screen on the TV and then switch the camera on, you get this:

(Can you tell I was slightly bored by this stage??)

Anyway, no-one showed up again, so I stomped back down the road, and at 1.12pm an email pinged in saying they were continuing to work on my line installation and would contact me with further information on 5th February – at which point I was so icily polite to Live Chat that they opened a complaint without me asking them to!

Today I’ve been re-doing the screw heads in the plasterboard, because the first lot of plaster shrank a bit, and then decided to have a go at sorting out the hole David had to cut in the plasterboard to put in some stud to attach the extractor hood to.  I mean, plastering a wall around a freshly installed extractor over brand new hob and wood worktop, what could possibly go wrong??  I did the sensible thing and got a sheet and some masking tape.

And amazingly managed not to make too much of a mess!  The nice thing about this paint, annoying as it was to apply, is that all its claims about being washable are true.  Once I’d plastered around the cut-out line and filled in the screw heads, I was able to wipe it over with a J-cloth and take most of the excess plaster off.

(Those three little dots are nail holes, I have no idea how they got there.)  I’m not 100% certain I’m going to be able to cover it up properly, but I’ll sand it tomorrow and then see how well it takes another coat of paint.  I need to get rid of David’s pencil marks as well.  If it doesn’t look good then we’ll go back to the original idea of getting some brushed metal cut to size and attach it to the wall.

Hello 2018

We’re having an unexpectedly soggy start to it up here – we were forecast a nice dry day with a gentle breeze to the south, so Mick set off down the road this morning intent on clearing out the woodwormy boards from the barn and having a big bonfire.  It was going well until about half an hour ago when the skies opened, but he’s manfully carrying on, as there isn’t that much left to go (we had a big fire on Saturday as well and got rid of all the wood lying out in the field).

I’ve been cramming myself into the corners of the bedrooms with my tripod and camera and think I’ve managed to come up with some photos good enough to go up on Scottish Cottages.  They accepted the exterior ones anyway, which is good, so I’ve sent five shots of the bedrooms over and tomorrow I’ll get Mick to help me load the coffee table into the car and then I can stage the living room and photograph that as well.

In very exciting news, we have our first booking!!!  Cheating a bit, because it’s a friend, but she emailed me the other day to say she’d booked a week in the summer and was looking forward to seeing us 🙂  Neither she nor I have had a confirmation email through yet, but I’m assuming that’s because everything’s shut down for the holidays and the agency won’t confirm until the deposit has cleared through their payment system.

As far as I can tell at the moment, the start of 2018 for us is going to look something like this:

January & February: finish Ethel’s.  We have 59 days until we could potentially have a guest, as it’s available from 1st March.
March:  Hopefully welcome first guests (it’s an early Easter this year).  Get house-cleaning routine thoroughly documented so it can be handed over to Clean Bees if necessary.
April:  Get to grips with social media promotion before lambs start arriving for cute photo ops!

What we’ll do post-Ethel, we’re still not 100% sure.  Our options are:

  1. Buy another holiday let
  2. Buy another project to renovate into a holiday let
  3. Buy a plot and build a holiday let
  4. Build a house and agricultural shed on a big field we already own in the village (I need to get planning through for the shed this year, as I need to apply for a crofting grant for it before Brexit happens – it needs full planning rather than prior notification because the site is less than 25m from the road, so we might as well put a house on the same application)
  5. Renovate the house we live in which is, to put it politely, looking a bit tired

One thing’s for sure, it’s not going to be boring 🙂

It’s a Christmas miracle!

Or that’s what I thought yesterday morning, anyway, when I was feeding the horses and looked up to see David’s van coming down the road!  He spent yesterday trimming doors and is in town this morning picking up some more wood and some different hinges, as he thinks the ones he got originally will look too heavy for the smaller upstairs doors.

Even better, we’re now up and running on the agency’s website!  I’ve been taking some exterior photos this morning, which are so huge that my email provider refused to send them, so they’re going via WeTransfer and I hope one or two will be good enough to use.  I keep forgetting to check the fitting on the bottle lamps, but between Christmas and New Year I’ll get some lightbulbs and then start taking some interiors.

Caroline causes chaos

Well, that didn’t quite go as planned.  Storm Caroline arrived earlier than expected, and after I got pinned against the field gate with two buckets of horse feed until the gusts dropped sufficiently for me to open it, we decided to abandon the idea of trying to get the coffee table into the car on health and safety grounds.  The electricals were loaded up and we went down the road, only to find that the power was off at that end of the village.

This was a problem, because (a) I still needed to hoover and (b) the sky was so grey that there wasn’t enough natural light to take interiors.  So we zoomed back home, rang SSE to report the fault (who, I have to say, have been absolutely excellent at getting it sorted and keeping me informed of progress) and then rang Annie, the Scottish Cottages area representative, to see if she still wanted to come up or whether it would be better for her to turn back.  She said since she was only 20 minutes away she might as well come on up and we could at least get all the paperwork done and do the grading.

So the upshot is that we’re all signed up, Ethel’s House will be going live on their website in about a fortnight (if I can take good enough pictures myself) and will be available for guests from 1st March next year (which gives me a chance to get a few friends to stay in it and tell me what I’ve missed), and I am the proud owner of a 4* (and apparently a high 4*) holiday cottage 🙂

Time to shop

I’m NEARLY there with the landing!  Just one top coat of Milk White to go on the bannisters and I’m declaring it done, although in truth I’ll probably paint that loft hatch white as well over the next few weeks.

Dougie has been back.  Remember we had a problem with the hot water not working and Jeff the heating engineer told me the switch had been unwired in the boiler?  Dougie gently reminded me that he’d fitted a master control switch for the boiler next to the manifold and had we checked that the hot water was on…?  Sure enough, one quick button press from OFF to CONTINUOUS and we were in business, so I shall be ringing Jeff tomorrow to tell him I’m an idiot and asking him to come back on a dry day and service the boiler!  I also need to order some oil, but the padlock on the tank has rusted shut again and Mick is in London until tomorrow evening.  It’s not super-low, so it can wait for a couple of weeks, as they won’t be able to deliver with (a) carpet fitters and furniture vans parked outside next week or (b) the landscaper digging up the parking area to gravel it.

Anyway, Dougie has nearly finished the kitchen lights, which look great, and will be popping back and forth over the next fortnight to finish everything else off.  (They’re all silver, but they reflect the wall colour, so look turquoise in this picture!)

We emptied out my office a bit further at the weekend – I’m thinking I should have maybe gone for silver appliances 🙁  Oh well, when these need replacing I can change.  I absolutely refuse to have integrated ones, I hear nothing but grumbles from people who have them!

Parcels are starting to arrive now – the three Velux blinds are here, the two Roman blinds are in transit, the curtain poles and curtains have all arrived too, but it’s all sitting in the office for the moment.  I took advantage of a Debenhams one-day 50% off on bedding and bought 5 duvets, 10 pillows and a king-size mattress protector (all the singles were gone) for £100, but at checkout they advised delivery for the Highlands was up to 2 weeks, so I hope they get here in time for the photographs, otherwise it’s going to be a sprint over to Tesco.  I’ve also ordered all the lampshades and cushions from a fantastic local business, Just Wright Crafts, I’m particularly fond of this Highland Cow lampshade which will be going in the hall and will hopefully put a smile on people’s faces when they walk in!  I’ve found some plain white wooden candlestick-style lamp bases on eBay, so have ordered one to see what they’re like – hopefully they’ll be fine for the bedside tables and the living room.

Tomorrow is Black Friday and I’ll be shopping primarily for the following:

  • Television
  • Blu-ray player
  • Freesat box
  • Bluetooth speaker for kitchen
  • Microwave
  • Bedspreads
  • Bedding
  • Towels

However, Schofields Insurance has put together this incredibly handy list of 200+ items you need in your self-catering cottage, so I think I need to print it out and start ticking it off.  For things that are easily breakable or stainable, I either need to shop within an hour’s drive (e.g. crockery from Tesco – their new Fox and Ivy premium homeware range actually looks very good) or buy generic (Out of Eden’s plain white Egyptian cotton bed linen) so it can be replaced by another brand if necessary without looking mismatched.

That’s the way to do it

Every year my mother, my cousin and I go away for a week together somewhere in the UK and stay in a holiday let cottage.  This year it’s been a particularly interesting experience for me, because Mum booked a 4* cottage through the agency I’m going to be using – Dove Cottage in Nairn.

I have to say, it’s gorgeous.  A period cottage in Nairn’s Fishertown, a short walk from the beach, and not expensive.  The living room has given me serious fireplace envy:

And the kitchen looks very familiar – I spy another Howdens afficionado!

The bedrooms are set up as two doubles and a twin, with one of the doubles being downstairs off the living room.

The bathrooms are neutral with a big walk-in shower upstairs and a bath downstairs.  (I need to try and track down those loo roll holders!)

And outside there’s a small courtyard space.

A few points that I need to learn from:

  1. Although the cottage takes dogs, and judging by the visitors’ book many guests do bring them, you wouldn’t have known.  It was spotlessly clean.
  2. One small grumble in the visitors’ book about the beds being too soft.  We’ve found them softer than we’re all used to, but absolutely fine.  However, I think I’ll go for mattresses in the medium-firm range.
  3. The Belfast sink in the kitchen is beautiful, but there’s no draining board for things we’re washing up by hand and as that’s a real wood worktop, we don’t want to put wet stuff on it and leave rings.
  4. I need to think about mirror placement in relation to power sockets – I don’t ever use a hairdryer, but Mum does and though she chose the twin room as it’s nearest the bathroom, she’s been using mine to dry her hair in as it’s got a big mirror near a plug.

One bonus of being a tourist so close to my home patch is that we went to the big sheep sale at Lairg on Tuesday and I bumped into David, who was selling there.  I got a little confused, but I think he’ll be back either next week or the week after to get the jobs list finished.  Can’t wait to get back to work down the road and get it finished now!