Burtle Village Hall

When the Lottery said “No” the villagers renovated their village hall themselves.

It took 1000 straw bales, 4000 wine bottles, 1500 sheep fleece, and a lot of imagination and hard work.

Built in 1939 this was how the Burtle Village Hall looked in April 2008

Fifteen months later…

This is how it looked in June 2009

The following is an extract from the Burtle Village Hall website which set out what we intended to do. In fact we did it pretty much according to plan.

Burtle is a small village of about 300 people on the Somerset levels near Glastonbury. It has a church (also in need of repair), two pubs and a village hall which was built in 1939, is tired, cold, and looks like a chicken shed. Burtle is thus of little consequence to the rest of the world, except that it has a Silver Band (who practise in the hall), an amateur dramatics club

We shall need 1000 straw bales, 1500 sheep fleeces, 4000 wine bottles, about 20 tons of clay, some good weather and a lot of free help. So far the only thing we haven’t guaranteed is good weather!

We were turned down by the Lottery Fund for a new Village Hall so we have decided to extend and refurbish the old one ourselves with straw bale walls and sheep fleece roof insulation.

We already know where our walls are growing, and our roof insulation is still feeding lambs in fields round the village.

We have most, but not all the specialist skills we need within the village, and since the whole project is very low tech almost everyone who wants to, can be a builder.

The principle is that we are going to put an agricultural barn over the whole hall, cocoon the walls in straw bales, and put sheep fleece between the old and new roof. We have just started, and by the time we finish we want every child in the village who is old enough to stand up to have jumped on a bale and helped to build it, and put their hand prints in the clay plaster, which means that for the rest of their lives they will remember that they helped. We are hoping that we can have a “wall of clay “section inside the hall with all the children’s hand prints in it.

If you want to sponsor a bale we will give you a “time capsule “ envelope which will be built into the walls. Unless you are very young you may never see it again, but someone will, and it will be a remarkable archive of local personal history.

The Picture Story

I pinched this whole section from the village hall website, which does a pretty good job of summarising what happened with a good representative collection of photos. I have got lots more if there are particular things you might need a picture of.

How We Did it.

In fondest memory of Mick Perdue, without whom I wouldn’t have managed.

For those of you who don’t know exactly where Burtle is, which puts you in the same bracket as 99.9% of the population, it is half way between Brent Knoll and Glastonbury, or half way between Mark and Edington in Somerset. The Lottery people described us as a small, isolated, rural community, and told us that they weren’t going to give us any money. This was because Edington, from whom we were presumably isolated, had recently been given some, so we could use their hall. This goes to show that the Lottery people have absolutely no idea what a village hall really is so I felt we were just as well off without them.

What we did is not a model for how to do up a village hall. It was the way we decided to do Burtle Village Hall, which is fundamentally a prefabricated wooden chicken shed made in sections at Snows in Glastonbury and erected on a brick base by Sydney Wall and his cousin in 1939 before they went off to fight a war.

At the end of February 2008 there was a public village hall meeting to announce that we hadn’t got lottery funding, which meant that we were going to lose the £70,000 matched funding from Sedgemoor and Somerset and so we were back to square one, with a tired old village hall. It was now the last week in February and the meeting of the joint committee which was going to withdraw the funding was on Friday March 14th in Dunster.

I told the meeting that I thought we could come up with a scheme a where we could renovate the hall ourselves if I could persuade the joint committee to carry the £70,000 funding into the 2008/9 year.

The plan was this: we would put an agricultural steel barn over the whole old hall which would give us some extra space; we would wrap the building in 1000 straw bales, sitting on a base containing about 4000 wine bottles as cavity wall insulation, plastered in clay from under the local peat mixed with sand from the Severn estuary, and use 1500 local sheep fleece as roof insulation.

Then we would strip out the inside and make new loos and a kitchen and everything and I could do it for £150,000. And the whole village could help, including children and grannies, and they would really enjoy it and it would be great.

There probably wasn’t a single person in the room who thought we had a cat in hell’s chance of actually doing it but they agreed we could try.

So, lesson number one. The first thing you need is a lunatic. And it has to be a lunatic who has the time and energy to drive a project like this. Of course, in my particular case it was jolly helpful that I had spent most of my life mending buildings in interesting ways, but any one person with the time and energy can be your lunatic.

I can’t tell you how many people told us that what we’re doing couldn’t be done. If I had believed that before we started, they would have been right. However, we now had a serious time problem. Within a week we had met Eileen Zoers and also Chris Sidaway from Sedgemoor and persuaded them that this was worth a go. By the time of the meeting on the 14that Dunster we had put together a simple costed proposal and a chance to get five minutes to speak to the committee. Ken Bell and I went to the meeting, and they agreed to carry forward the funding into the 2008/9 year. We put forward an impassioned case, but the real reason they agreed was because Eileen Zoers and Chris Sidaway told them they thought we could do it.

So here are lessons number two and three.

Lesson Two

It is absolutely vital that you get the support of the Community Council and your Local Authority Officers. They are the people with their ear to the ground and their job is to advise the elected members. It can be done, but it will be very hard work to get a committee to go against the advice of its officers, because these are the people who they depend on to give them good advice.

Lesson Three

If you want politicians to back anything that is the least bit risky, try to give them as little time as possible to think about it. Now, I know that you think that many politicians are just greedy self interested megalomaniacs interested in fiddling their expenses and making indecent profits out of second homes, and strangely enough I agree with you. Personally I don’t want to “move on” and draw a line under it, and trust them to get us out of something that their policy got us into. I still want blood, and stocks in the town square, and general public humiliation, but that’s just me.

But they are actually timid little souls, and mainly petrified of looking silly, so if you give them too much time to think they won’t do anything interesting at all.

Okay so far as good! But, it was now March 14th and the condition of our approval was that we had to make a meaningful start by the end of the month! This was because it was the end of the current fiscal year for the local authorities and they couldn’t carry something forward that hadn’t already been started. Plus, it turned out that we needed to apply for planning permission because we were now proposing a refurb as opposed to a new build, and planning permission prices were going up if we didn’t have our application in by April 2nd !

In the following two weeks, without professional help because they said it couldn’t be done in the time, we designed the steel building thanks to Dudley, got three quotes, chose one, paid a deposit and registered the planning application with a very tolerant planning department who put up with my not very clever drawings because actually there was nothing very contentious about it, and we already had permission for a new build, as part of the Lottery application. Of course, the approval didn’t come through until later, but we did get in at the old price.

So lesson No. 4 is that things can be done more quickly than you think, provided you are totally on the ball and the authorities are with you.

Building Regulations

I am sorry to have to tell you about lesson No, 5 but it is an important one so I do have to. In fact I should warn you that this section contains some mild expletives and some Building Inspectors may be offended, so if you are a building inspector of a nervous disposition you may like to skip this bit.

Building Regulations started off as a nightmare. I was looking forward to working with Sedgemoor building control because this was an innovative project and would be a significant opportunity for us all to learn about some interesting techniques, and in any case Sedgemoor was giving us lots of money. I am in favour of local government as being closer to reality than Westminster, but Sedgemoor Building Control let us down seriously.

Well, for a start, they didn’t like the wooden cladding specified by the planners because we were too close to our boundary and might set fire to buildings next door in the fields. I phoned Denise Todd in planning to say thanks a lot for giving us planning permission provided that we had wooden cladding that building control said we couldn’t have.

“We are nothing to do with them.” she said. “If you look carefully at your permission it says ‘subject to Building regs’.”

“OK,” I said, “but presumably you liaise with them?”

“No,” she said, “we never talk to them. We are quite separate.”

“Yes,” I said, “but surely you don’t just give permission irrespective of building regs?”

“Yes, we do.” she said cheerfully. “We often give planning permission for things you can’t build!”

“And also,” said the Building Inspector, “you can’t have any windows at all because you are too close to your boundary.”

“But there aren’t any buildings next door. They are fields, and you are not allowed to build in them.”

“That’s not the point Mr Howell,” they said.

“Oh come on.” I said. “We already have windows in the old building and this is a refurb, so we must be able to keep the windows?”

“No you can’t.” he said. “Any repairs or mods have to comply with the latest regs.”

I went and did some homework.

“If we have fire rated windows we can have them can’t we?”

“Yes.” he said.

“You might have told me.” I said.

“Not my job.” he said, very politely.

I did some more homework.

“Look I said, if I have windows less than one metre square and at least 4 metres apart I can have as many as I like and they don’t even have to be fire rated do they?

“No.” he said.

“This is ridiculous.” I said. “I thought you were supposed to be helping us.

“Well,” he said, “you are the designer Mr Howell. It’s all a matter of liability you see. If I suggest anything and it goes wrong you will sue us.”

“So,” I said, “having a sensible conversation with you about straw bales and clay and wine bottles and sheep fleece is probably not going to be much fun.”

“No.” he said “I don’t think we would want to approve any of those!”

So they were very polite, and very correct, and were quite determined to be absolutely no help at all.

I have to say this was a bit of a low point. We were about to be scuppered before we even started.

In desperation, I contacted Barbara Jones of Amazonails, who are the straw bale gurus whose house won the Grand Design thing and she said “Oh for goodness sake, I know – local authority building control are hopeless. We use “approved inspectors” and put me in touch with a firm who are used to innovative construction, and our inspector lives in Weston. Amazonails began as a women’s roofing cooperative and gradually morphed into straw bale construction and allowing men to be part of it. Claire and I went on a weekend straw bale course in Todmorden and had a very interesting weekend.

I can recommend Building with Straw Bales by Barbara Jones Published by Green Books.

Our Approved Inspectors charged us exactly the same as Sedgemoor and sat down with us over every problem we had and worked out how we could do what we wanted and comply with all the regulations. We now have all the certification for building regs. fire regs. etc. So lesson 5. Do try your LA building control but unless they are seriously prepared to work with you and help, don’t use them. Honestly, all you have to do is to ask an approved inspector to do it , and they simply inform the Local Authority Building Control Dept that they have taken it away.

So with that lot sorted we just got on and did it – in about 15 months!

“Well, it’s okay for you” people say “because Burtle is known for its community spirit but our village wouldn’t do it”.

Let’s be honest about this. If I had said to the village 3 years ago, look, we don’t need the lottery money. If you all pitch in we can do it ourselves, and you can all help and you will be really pleased and it will be more fun, they would have said, No thanks, we’ll have a nice new shiny one please, with lottery money , and built by ShedsR Us, without any effort on our part at all.

So Lesson No 6 is that it helps to be the only show in town. With hindsight, I now realise how incredibly lucky we were, because not having lottery funding and all the bureaucracy that goes with it has meant that we have had a lot more control over how our hall should be, and also we have got out without owing a penny, partly because we did it relatively cheaply. So next time, I could make a stronger case than just telling them how much fun it would be.

So, at the beginning , whilst they humoured me, I don’t suppose more than about three people in the village thought we had any chance of actually doing it. But, basically people are nice, and they will help, and they did. In spades. After a couple of weeks Mick Perdue turned up because he felt sorry for me on my own. We worked together full time from then until the day before the Grand Opening on Saturday June 20th 2009. On the Friday we were just tidying up and getting organised, and Mick didn’t turn up. On the way home that evening I popped in to check that he hadn’t selfishly died without letting me know. This had been a sort of running joke for the whole job on the very rare occasions he missed a day. He looked terrible. Maureen said she thought she ought to pop him down to Musgrove, and within a few days we discovered he had pancreatic cancer. He died before the end of the year. The renovation would not have happened without a lot of help from so many people, but especially the quiet, unassuming constant presence and hard work of Mick.

Actually, I ought to mention the Village Hall Committee, who were technically my customers. I had made it clear that I didn’t want to be on the committee because I needed to just get on with building stuff, and democracy was just going to slow things down. I remember having a discussion with Tony Spiller who was a great Chairman throughout the project. If possible, this is how I would like it to work. I decide what we are going to do. Then you and I have a good talk about it. Provided you agree, your job is to go and talk to the committee and then come back and say “Yes, Dear!” I hope that Tony would agree that it worked a treat and he did a great job.

So, I will accept the credit for being the driver but it would not have happened without a lot of help from a lot of people whenever we needed it. Mind you, actually using that help produced a few interesting problems, and brought us a surprising ally.

Health and Safety

This next bit may offend some Health and Safety experts, and may contain more mild expletives. Like most grumpy old men I find health and safety a pretty easy target, but like most sensible grumpy old men I do understand what they are trying to do, and in principle I am a believer, mostly. The Village Hall Committee employed a H&S consultant who managed to produce an entire dossier weighing roughly the same as a brick which still didn’t cover me going to the hall with a hammer to actually do anything, but apparently we needed to do it so I was very grateful. I went to see him.

Right, I said. First Problem. I have never done site work as a contractor. All my work has been in customers’ houses or offices and all my equipment is 240 volt, and the chances are that most of my helpers will only have 240v stuff. Out of the question he said, got to be 110v. We use safety breakers I said, so surely that is OK. No, he said. The rules are 110volt. It is a regulation which applies to all construction sites, and I am surprised you were even allowed into offices without 110v kit, he said.

This would cost us an initial couple of thousand pounds and no one could use their own unless they had 110v kit. So I rang the Health and Safety Executive themselves being prepared to fib about who I was just in case they decided to send twenty eight inspectors down to the hall to live with us, most of whom were ex traffic wardens. They were charming and helpful and on the ball. No problem at all they said. As long as you use the correct circuit breakers available from any good DIY store you are absolutely fine with 240v equipment.

Then there was the asbestos. We had an asbestos roof on the hall which had to come off, and once again our private advisor was adamant that there was no way we could do it ourselves, so I rang the health and safety executive again. Once again they couldn’t have been more helpful. The roof asbestos was the least dangerous sort and provided that was all there was (which it was) they referred us to exactly the web information we needed and said that if we followed the instructions carefully there was no reason why we shouldn’t do it ourselves so we did, and saved £10,000.00.

There was a PS to this exercise. We had registered the hall as a site of hazardous waste etc and carefully loaded the asbestos into a trailer, and got our transport documentation. We went by appointment with it to Walpole in our white suits and goggles and boots and hard hats and everything. When we got to the Weybridge, we said what do we do now, and Yvonne told us where to go and we said yes but how do we unload it. You tip it, she said. You mean we have filled in acres of forms, bought God knows how much silly clothing, personally cuddled every sheet on to the trailer and then out it goes, Whoosh. Yup!

And then there were my straw bale and clay plastering picnic weekends, because I wanted every child in the village who was old enough to stand up to have squidged in some clay and jumped on a straw bale so that they would have been part of it and would remember being part of it for the rest of their lives.

You can imagine. Our bloody expert didn’t approve of children being on a building site at all, let alone actually doing anything.

And he said, (this is true), he recommended that we take Counsel’s advice, that he was concerned that we might trigger the employment of children safeguarding legislation, and that we should register with the Children’s Legal Centre. I am not making this up.

By now I had decide that The Health and Safety Executive were my friends so I rang them,.. and sure enough they were the epitome of wonderful common sense. They make no distinction between adults and children and employees and voluntary workers. We have an equal duty of care to all of them, which sounds eminently reasonable to me. It is all a matter of risk assessment they said, although from what I described they couldn’t see any particular areas of concern.

I do have to say that it was beginning to dawn on me that risk assessment is a funny animal, and rather than making everyone safe, seems to be mainly concerned with making sure that if they do insist on damaging themselves, it absolutely definitely isn’t your fault. In this respect our paid consultant was pretty good.

The Health and Safety Executive hadn’t heard of employment of children safeguarding legislation but in any case that would be the Home office, they said.

So I got on to the Home Office. I can’t tell you how many departments in the Home Office had not the vaguest idea what I was talking about. Eventually Andy rang me back to say that he didn’t think our village infants were actually being employed, so even though he wasn’t quite sure which bit of legislation it was, it was probably irrelevant. However, he suggested we might contact the County Education Welfare Department.

So I did, and I spoke to a terribly helpful John Oliver. He said that the infants of Burtle definitely weren’t employed even if they got burgers and fizzy drinks.

However, if we were going to use very young children, which of course we were, it might be an idea to get a simple form from parents to say that they knew what the job was, and that they would look after them, and were happy that their infants could join in. This, he said, was on the technicality that two year olds might not actually be qualified to make an informed decision about volunteering even if you did give them burgers and a drink instead of money.

So that just left us with the Children’s Legal Centre in order to deal with the final thing our expert had raised, except Council’s opinion of course, which by this time I had already decided was bollocks.

Once I had given all my personal details to Helen at The Children’s Legal Centre and assured her that I really wasn’t on the sex offenders register, I explained what we were doing and she said it sounded lovely and could she come!

She couldn’t see how it could possibly be of any concern to them but thanked me very much for calling.

So lesson number seven was that your help and common sense can come from surprising places, and I am now a firm fan of the Health and Safety Executive, but not of the experts who interpret their rules.

Which brings me to the penultimate lesson.

We did the whole job, including the kitchen, new loos, heating, lighting, the whole lot for under £150,000.

We spent less than £5,000 on professional fees, and less than £20,000 on labour, which was for erecting the barn, doing the electrics, the heating, and the internal plastering. All the rest we did ourselves.

Even if we had had no free help at all, and had to pay for all the labour including me and Mick Perdue who were full time, it would have cost less than £300,000 because the whole thing was conceived and designed to be very simple so that I could make the best possible use of all the help I could get.

And it is this simplicity that brings us to the last lesson.

Although we are all conscious of the need to use sustainable materials, and to be aware of the environmental impact of any construction, and all the other cuddly things, a lot of which will turn out to be well intentioned but complete nonsense, that wasn’t what drove the project.

What drove it was that it should be very cheap, and very simple, so that I could make the best use of child labour and grannies, and that the result was then going to be looked after by a committee.

So the windows and doors are plastic, because they will last for ages, and look OK and survive democracy not quite getting round to painting them this year, which they would have to, if they were wood. And the outside cladding is a special timber heat treated in Finland, which contains no treatments or chemicals, and never requires any maintenance ever, which is exactly what a committee does best.

Skips are expensive, so we did not use a single skip. Not one!!

The asbestos had to go to land fill of course. Everything, such as metal, paper, cardboard etc was taken by volunteers for recycling.

All old wood, and new offcuts were converted to kindling, or for burning in domestic fires. Because we are on the bogs, the small amount of hardcore, was eagerly removed to fill in field gateways etc. All non recyclable materials, plasterboard, ceiling board, hardboard, plastic, old lino, was built back into cavities in the construction, and serves as extra insulation. Apart from the asbestos, if it could not be recycled it has not left the site. All suppliers who brought packaging or waste had to take it away again. They got grumpy of course but they did it.

The straw bales were from a few miles away, because that was cheaper. The sheep fleece is untreated and much of it from sheep grazing close to the hall, because it was cheap and simple. The clay and sand are local, and we collected 4000 wine bottles from a village with a total population of less than 400 in about six weeks. Don’t even ask!

So the last lesson seems to be that cheap and simple is probably pretty good in terms of green points too.

So there we are. If you want to do something exciting without it all dragging on for years……here are ten rules

  1. Find one very bossy person who can make the commitment to get it done.
  2. Get the Community Council and your Local Authority Officers behind you, because they are your key support.
  3. Try to bounce the politicians into it before they have too much time to think.
  4. You can get things done surprisingly quickly if the local authority is on your side.
  5. If your local Building Control are not really helpful I regret that my advice is to bypass them and use an independent inspector, but you have to decide right at the beginning.
  6. It does help if you are the only option, because let’s face it, it is a lot more work to do it yourselves. But if you save money you could be in the situation we are in where we don’t owe any so we don’t have to generate income just to pay a debt.
  7. You may find help and support in places that surprise you, like the Health and Safety Executive.
  8. It is absolutely essential that whatever plan you have, the fundamental concept and design must be simple so that you can make the best use of the volunteer help you will need.
  9. It seems from what we did that if you make it very cheap and very simple it stands a good chance of ticking lots of green boxes as well.

And finally Rule number ten

  1. Try to aim for a total project time of a year at the most. This really is worth planning for. Firstly, most lunatics have a pretty short attention span, and would not even get involved in a job that might drag on for a long time. Actually, everyone gets bored after a bit, and then it becomes a chore, and then it isn’t fun, and then it begins to go wrong, and then it becomes a real struggle. One of the reasons it worked in Burtle was that we kept the hall open for the whole job and things happened quickly enough to keep them interested, and once they could see that it really was going to work, then I had got them. But only for a bit. If it had dragged on I would have lost them and then it would have been down to two old men and a dog on their own and that is no fun.

And that’s all there is to it.

When I recently looked through the photos again to decide which ones to use two things hit me as being quite remarkable.

Firstly, it was a massive achievement in such a short time. Secondly, the amount of effort put in by so many in Burtle is extraordinary. It is a testament to the idea of community and I am proud to have been part of it.

Wine bottles

Wine bottles are not the best cavity wall insulation but they have three big advantages. They don’t rot. They are free. And everybody can bring one. This last meant that even people who made no other contribution were still part of it, and felt part of it. In fact people mentioned it at work and within days we had wine bottles coming in from all over Somerset. We got 4000 in less than six weeks! It was the same principle we applied to the Argos Catalogue Visitor Centre at the Red Brick Project. We had to stop people pinching the current ones from Argos in Shepton.

Straw Bales

You will find lots of expert advice on straw bale construction. Our project was more a “retro wrap” than a construction, but this is my advice. You need to know exactly the single source that your bales are going to come from before you even start the project. They need to be baled on one machine to a specific size and tension, and you need to know exactly what the dimensions are. Even so the dimensions will vary because we are dealing with a natural product in variable conditions. Your design must deal with that. Pay no attention whatsoever to any advice that tells you what size a standard bale is. I promise you there is no such thing. It doesn’t matter what size they are as long as they are all the same and this will only be true if they are all made on one baler. Source your bales before you start and try to keep them as dry as possible right from the word go.

Harold Lee

I don’t know how long the Lee family have been farming in Burtle, but Harold and Margaret, together with their sons Richard and Andrew, and their families are at the heart of the Burtle farming community. Harold was typical of the amazing support and involvement of the village in the whole project. He didn’t think we had a hope of pulling it off, but he and the family organised all the straw and sponsored most of it. The family turned out to help in whatever way they could and no one was more delighted than Harold at the opening party. Weeks later he was trampled to death by cattle stampeded by a local fire crew who were too impatient to wait for the family to clear the road of cows near the farm.


We used the local blue lias clay which is what lies under our Somerset peat. In fact because clay is “waterproof” it is what enables peat to form at all. It is remarkable stuff, and the way it works as a watertight liner for ponds and reservoirs is this. It is made of such fine particles that when it is wet it forms a sort of gel which holds water. If it is damaged, as soon as the “dry” clay gets wet it forms the gel and repairs the “puncture” on its own. To clad the hall we mixed it with sharp sand from the Severn Estuary in a ratio of 3:1 sand to clay. We mixed a bit of chopped straw with it, and it formed part of the structure of the wall for the benefit of fire regulations. We had been told that a standard cement mixer wouldn’t mix it, so Nathan Henderson invented the Clay Betty using an old Lister engine and a Ford Sierra diff which we eventually passed on to Amazonails. To be honest the ordinary mixer did seem to work so we used both.

Of course our clay mix would not have been sufficiently hardy if exposed to the weather. It was only OK because we had wood cladding outside. To be weatherproof it would have had to be a lime render. One big advantage of the simple chemical free clay mix was that the little ones could do it and were actually very good at it.

Sheep Fleece

Over which I very nearly got my comeuppance

Sheep fleece for roof insulation was the obvious choice in principle, since we have got quite a lot of it round us. However, in its sanitised and commercial form it was pretty expensive, so I planned to use it more or less raw. Also, in 2008 you almost couldn’t give it away. Sheeponomics have been pretty rubbish for some time. It cost about £1.00 to have a sheep sheared and you only got around 80p for a fleece. My brother in law Tony got virtually nothing for his because his Jacob sheep weren’t even white wool. And, there was a problem getting them at all because all sheep fleece were supposed to be bought and controlled by the Wool Marketing Board. We decided that we could get round that if they were a gift so we did. I knew that just using raw fleece might be a problem, so against my lifelong experience I decided to seek some expert advice. I had contacted the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, North Wales before and each time had found them to be snotty, offhand, patronising and unhelpful. This attempt also came down to expectations. They didn’t really want to talk to me at all, unless I wanted to pay. I persisted on the basis that I was a volunteer at a community project etc and eventually got through to someone who explained to me in a fairly tired way that it was impossible, it didn’t work, it wouldn’t pass building regs and therefore couldn’t be done without professional, commercial treatment. Since this wasn’t the answer I wanted, I rang Barbara Jones at Amazonails.

No problem in principle, she said, but there is the problem of moths. It really is just moths. All the other things that infest sheep fleece aren’t much interested once it isn’t on the sheep anymore. So you have a choice. In any case, she suggested we wash them. Then we could either treat them with borax, which would need to be done about every six years, or we could wrap them in moth proof material, but that might be difficult.

The sheep farmers of Burtle were very sceptical about washing. The only thing less manageable than a wet sheep, they said, was a dead wet sheep, and the prospect of washing and drying out 1500 of them was not a process they recommended.

It did occur to me that tents left over from Glastonbury would make ideal moth proof “duvet covers” and Michael Eavis happily agreed to let us have all we needed as soon as the 2008 festival was over. Chris Mockeridge and Mick picked a load up and Colin Pople kindly stored them in a barn until they dried out.

So we decided to clean the fleeces up a bit and use them as they were, but stuffed into zipped up tents.

We had a couple of Dedagging Sundays to remove “second hand grass”, packed the tents and piled them in the roof space. But it didn’t really work. Trying to get the stuffed tents to snuggle down together was like trying to get balloons to squidge together. Putting less fleece in each tent didn’t work either. Rather than keep trying something that clearly isn’t working I tend to give up and think of something else. I put this down to lack of moral fibre on my part, but it does save a lot of frustration. We created the parallel channels very quickly and easily, which stopped the fleeces tending to migrate down the roof slope and it all worked a treat. It was about a foot thick and looked fantastic, felt great, and for the first time in over half a century Burtle Village Hall was as snug as a bug.

I decided to take two risks. This was on the basis that if it did all go horribly wrong, it wasn’t “built in” so I could always take it all out and think of Plan C. The first was that if people kept complaining that the hall smelled of sheep shit, which they never, ever did I would have to do something. The second was the moths. The prospect of covering it all in mesh and getting it moth tight was just too hard so I decided to ignore it and hope it would go away. Everybody who knew these things said it would all end in tears and had horror stories of how wool of all kinds, treated or not was eventually converted to a pile of dust and millions of moths. After three years it was fine, and I decided that it must be that we didn’t even wash them so perhaps the lanolin was acting as an insecticide, and we had got away with it.

Either just before or after the fourth anniversary party of the opening of the hall I went in the loft to be greeted by a very large number of moths. By this time the prospect of pulling it all out and starting again was pretty dispiriting, so it was with little enthusiasm that I confessed to Maureen Perdue, then chairman, that we had a problem. She was onto it in a flash. Within days she had called in a professional expert who announced that it was a very simple problem which could easily be solved. It required two commercial versions of those UV light box things they have in kitchens which buzz ominously when something is exterminated. They didn’t cost much to get installed in the loft space and they don’t cost much to run and the problem seems to be over. So there we are. I didn’t take any sensible advice, saved a huge amount of money and effort, and got away with it! I am very grateful for the luck I get whether I deserve it or not.

The Heating System

I can’t remember exactly how we first started thinking about the heating system we finished up with. It might have been Paul Wren, in which case I am very grateful because it turned out to be a pretty good choice. It was certainly not thanks to the Energy Savings Trust who are, or were a completely useless bunch of tossers. I don’t know exactly where their money comes from, but probably us, and I only say “were” in the hope that they have either improved or been put down for terminal incompetence. I went to them in all innocence because there seemed to be very little expertise around about how to heat village halls and churches. There were, however, endless tales of heating systems that were hugely expensive to install, or run, or both, and then didn’t work very well anyway. They often involved a lot of maintenance, were difficult to control, often went wrong, and most of all were noisy. The EST were offering free consultancy and an expert who could advise us. I know what you are thinking. Here he goes again, slagging off people whose job it is to know about these things and then he’s going to ignore their advice anyway! Well, OK, but by now I hope I have convinced you that it is worth questioning. At the time in 2008 ground source heat pumps, underfloor heating, and solar panels were the trendy things to have. The problem was that none of these work particularly well for a village hall and specially not for Burtle.

Our village hall gets intermittent use. It might go days without being used at all, and then be used for the morning only. This means that ideally it needs to heat up very quickly to avoid somebody having to turn it on three hours before use, and then not take so long to heat up properly that it is just beginning to warm up nicely as they are all leaving. We don’t have any land at all round the hall so we couldn’t have a ground source heat pump system even if we wanted one. In any case this system provides “trickle heat” so is especially good for keeping background heat all the time which is exactly what we didn’t need, and lends itself to underfloor heating which we couldn’t have either. This was because we were keeping the original floor and it would be impossible to take it up and re lay it successfully. Since we did a bit of washing up once a fortnight there wasn’t much point in a solar panel system for hot water. Having explained all this very carefully to our free EST consultant the resultant report suggested a ground source heat pump, underfloor heating and solar panels!

What we got was a hyper inverter air source heat pump system in parallel with a ventilation system and heat recovery. It sounds complicated but it works roughly like this. The heating system looks like air conditioning. The outside unit draws heat out of the air and pumps it into the hall. The ventilation system sucks it through the whole building and blows it out. However, a heat exchanger takes 90% of the heat out of it on its way out and passes it to new clean air which gets pumped back into the hall. This means that you can shut all the doors and windows, and circulate fresh air all the time while keeping all the heat. If the hall is full of people they do most of the heating themselves. It heats up very quickly and virtually no heat is wasted. The total installation cost about £12,000, and does exactly what we want. This is much less than even a conventional boiler system, and no radiators. Our total fuel bills (the hall is all electric)) including heating, lighting and hot water are around £1,100 a year which seem to be OK. I am disappointed that we couldn’t persuade any academic set up to evaluate just how good it is, for the benefit of other people. I can give you lots more details on it if you contact me.

Cake and Reggie

Most of the volunteer things with lots of people tended to be at weekends. During the week it was quite often just me and Mick. And cake. And Reggie. Reggie was a delightful springer spaniel who brought Ken Bell with him, and the cake came from June Loud. In the village June made you a cake if you were ill. Actually, June might make you a cake if she knew it was your birthday, or even if she just felt kindly disposed towards you. It was usually a sponge cake and always with raspberry jam and was the best. It was more solid than a Victoria sponge and much nicer. Since doing up the village hall counted as being a good thing, and Mick and I were doing it, we qualified for June’s cake. So, brought by June and Derek, or sometimes just Derek, cake would appear. Often. I ate more cake doing up Burtle village hall than in the whole of the rest of my life. And if we couldn’t quite manage to keep up Reggie would help. Ken Bell opened and shut the church each day and passed the hall on the way. Reggie very quickly cottoned on to the possibility of cake so tended to pop in and bring Ken with him. In fact Ken was one of the stalwart helpers we came to depend on because if I shouted help he would always turn up. All these small things are part of what makes a project like this work.