Sunday, 1 February 2015

Part 2
Burning the candle...

In the early ‘70s, there was no such thing as an ‘eco-house’ – or if there was, Shan and I knew nothing about it. However, in the context of the time – UK houses still being built without insulation and with single-glazed windows – that’s what The Cottage certainly was.

Mid-’70s – our best attempt at an eco-house of the time was taking shape. Recycled roof tiles look more traditional and saved the energy consumed in creating new ones.

The small, original cottage was treated to new, timber-framed, double-glazed windows and a draught-busting front porch using local stone that was just lying around in the area.

By the end of the ‘70s, our house was kind-of finished, or at least was sufficiently completed for me to write a magazine article about it. It was the first work I had had published, and it was done at the instigation of my friend, Paul Skilleter. In fact, Rectory Cottage and Paul Skilleter are to blame for my leaving teaching and becoming a full-time writer. Here’s why…

In around 1976 or ’77, I was a classic car nut and Shan and I hit the heights with £1000-worth of pale blue, Series 1, 4.2 FHC E-type Jaguar, CNC 420C. I was also trying to make a few quid on the side doing up Morris Minors, though with only moderate financial success, it has to be said! I subscribed to Thoroughbred & Classic Cars magazine, where I read that one of their staff writers, the aforesaid Paul Skilleter, had moved from London to a village just down the road from us, and that his E-type, which looked almost identical to ours, had broken down nearby, leaving him stranded. No, children, his mobile phone battery hadn’t gone flat: they hadn’t been invented yet …

So I wrote to Paul – yes, children, a handwritten letter, on paper, with a postage stamp on the envelope – offering our assistance should such a misfortune happen again to Paul and his wife, June. Long story short: we made contact, both we and our wives hit it off – and Paul, with typical generosity, soon suggested I tried tried my hand at writing a magazine article, all about what we had done to The Cottage. Paul, who is a trained photographer, took some photos, I wrote my first article, and DIY Magazine (it was printed on paper, children!) ran it. Mind you, to Paul’s considerable chagrin, DIY Magazine sent its own photographer to take replacement pictures with their impressive Hasselblads. (It may also have had something to do with the fact that, while Paul is a superb photographer, especially of cars, we did ‘blokey’ things like leaving the toilet seat up and not ‘posing’ Shan and myself in the photographs.) The article – cringe-makingly called ‘We Built It Our Way’ – can be seen on my Amazon page at

Our first staircase was home-made using local oak treads. These were purchased as 'green' planks and were stacked for seasoning (air drying) over a two-year period while the outer shell was constructed. Low transport costs, no energy consumed in seasoning – and very satisfying!
A couple of years later, Paul and his business partners started work on the new Practical Classics magazine, which was launched in 1980, featuring no less an idiot than me as one of its writers. With yet more generosity, Paul Skilleter recommended me as an author to Haynes Publishing, which had recently published his first book, Jaguar Sports Cars. I was immediately signed up for a number of classic car books by Haynes’ then Managing Editor, Rod Grainger, and the man subsequently behind Veloce Publishing. Veloce is, of course, the publisher of my Renewable Energy Handbook (and several other of my titles) and we are also fortunate to be able to count Rod and his business partner, Judith Brooks, as more dear and valued friends.

It has to be said that writing magazine articles, writing books, school teaching (which I enjoyed enormously), plus a growing involvement in politics didn’t leave much time for working on Rectory Cottage, and through the 1980s, it was a matter of trying to complete unfinished jobs whenever time allowed. Taking the tough decision to leave teaching in 1983 freed up a lot of time, of course, but even so, the house was neglected – there wasn’t even proper loft insulation in place beyond a foil, reflective layer and a thin, inadequate sheet of fibreglass insulation. And the softwood window frames were going rotten.

An open fire: attractive – but so wasteful!

We even had an open fire in the early days – glamorous but dirty, draughty and deeply inefficient – and a rebuilt Aga in the kitchen. (Now that’s a real guzzler of dirty-fuel for you!) Heating oil, firewood and coal were cheap, and full awareness of climate change had not fully hit home. We were ‘into’ recycling: of timber and building materials, our restored kitchen stoves, and our rebuilt Morris Minors but, right through the ’80s and ’90s, we made no significant improvements in our consumption of fuel or our creation of harmful CO emissions, from either home or cars, until the stage of our lives that started to be covered by the work shown in my Renewable Energy Handbook.

Part 3 of my blog will skip ahead to all of that…

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