About this time of year, I start to get rather more nervous than usual.
My immediate concern is the prospect of lime-washing the wall of the house that takes the majority of the weather. One of the drawbacks of living in a house of straw bales is that you have to build up a protective but breathable skin of successive lime-washes. The idea being that over time the walls become as hard and as naturally impermeable as those brilliant white ones you see all over Greek islands.
Somewhere in the dustiest recesses of my brain, I seem to recall images of black-clad natives slopping the white stuff on with old brooms. It looked easy. Alas, the reality is rather more fraught. For a kick off, there has to be an ideal meteorological window of opportunity. From early September onwards, I scan the not-particularly-reliable internet météo, looking out for this rare but perfect window. Roughly five days without rain with a range of temperatures somewhere between a maximum of about 25oC and a minimum of about 5oC. Too hot or too cold and the stuff won’t cure properly. It will crack and blister like last year’s cover-up did. And, of course, if it rains before it’s cured, it is likely to wash that wash right off of our walls.
Assuming that the forecast is reliable, you need sufficient notice to make up the lime-wash mixture, so that it can ‘prove’ for a few days. Which brings me to the mixture. These days, I’m a dab hand with our Sunday-morning crêpe mix, but a lime-wash is quite another matter. The ingredients are lime, water, some natural colour and some kind of fixative. I’ve discovered that there is lime and there is lime. Last year’s failure was made with the wrong lime (I was reliably informed by one of those experts who takes great delight in telling you that you don’t want to do it like that, you want to do it like this). So this year, I’ve ordered some NHL2 from the good people of St. Astier. It sounds good, looks good, but I haven’t made the error of tasting it – remembering, as I do, an unpleasant lesson from childhood when I ate a spoonful of Robin starch in my mother’s pantry, mistaking it for icing sugar.
Then there’s the fixative (which, I think, is an additive that stops the lime powder rubbing off on your fingers or clothes). Up until now, I’ve used something called sel d’alum, which translates as alum salt, but don’t ask me what this is. I do know that it’s extremely hard to get hold of. And in view of last year’s failure – which I’ve got to put down to ingredients and/or conditions rather than personal (in)competence if I’m going to do this every year until I get too old to climb a ladder – I’ve decided this time to try something else.
I came across a recipe in a back copy of The Last Straw journal (ordered at great expense from the U.S.A.) that uses a wheat flour paste. This appealed to me because I can pop down to the local supermarket for the ingredient. The only trouble is that the measurements are quoted in the American imperial system. Cups, quarts and gallons are all slightly different from the British equivalents. I imagine that it was something to do with the rebellious colonists wishing to assert their independence from the mother country in more ways than war.
I haven’t yet tried to make up the paste, which is another reason for my present state of worry. Still. It’s good to have a recipe to work from. The first time I lime-washed our walls, it worked well, but I misplaced my recipe. So the next time I did it, I took care to write it down – only to discover the following year that I’d written down things like ‘1 bucketful…’ without specifying what size of bucket. So it’s all been very hit and miss and far from systematic.
Assuming that I get the mix right this time, I’ve then got to apply the stuff. I’m not good with ladders at the best of times. Once I get beyond a certain rung, I start to picture the whole assembly tottering over and wondering whether, like the Pink Panther, I could judge my moment and simply step off onto solid ground just before the crash. My insecurity is compounded by the fact that I need to get up there with brush, bucket of lime-wash, a second bucket of water in which to dip the brush before each application, and a sprayer for wetting the patch of wall to be washed. I’ve managed so far – in a way that Heath Robinson would surely have approved of – by hanging everything from my strimmer harness with home-made hooks of green fence wire.
Then, assuming that I get everything safely up the ladder, there’s the business of painting the lime-wash onto the wall itself. Being lime rather than paint, the liquid starts to dry as soon as the brush travels across the surface. Hence the reason for a bucket of water. But then you don’t want to get it too wet or… And the brushstrokes themselves. An artistic neighbour, who works with lime mixtures in her work as an interior designer/decorator, advocates the ‘slap it on at random’ approach. Which I like. But the received theory suggests that the best protection comes when you apply it in two coats: the first with horizontal brush strokes and the second with vertical brushstrokes, down which the eventual rain will travel safely away.
Oy vay! What happened to that mental image of mine of native Greeks slopping it on with old brooms? I’m sorry to go on, but you understand now why I get a little apprehensive at this time of year. It does make me wonder why we opted for straw and not those terracotta capillary briques that you render once and once only, thus sparing the proprietor of the house this annual autumnal torment. Strange to relate, I’m all for a quiet life.