Seppe’s Solution

All the best laid plans and so forth, often never come to fruition, and one of mine almost didn’t. In 2011, I searched everywhere for a tall metal gate, and the local Italian DIY stores shrugged their collective shoulders; the ironmongers’ were more helpful, as they offered me, metal bars, nuts and bolts so I could build my own. There’s only one flaw in this plan, I’m as handy with a saw and screwdriver as a blind plasterer. So I did the next best thing and ordered the gate and posts from a UK store and had them delivered.

And they’ve lain here un-erected until today. The problem is I want the gate at the top of the concrete steps down the side of our house. In April, the first person to look at the job was our previous builder, who shook his head and pointed out that we’d have to excavate the concrete to set the posts, and that the stairs are not suitable enough to set a post into. I asked him again in June if he could bolt the posts onto the house and steps, this facilitated lots of teeth sucking and head shaking. “Not possible,” he said, “forget about your gate.”

We’ve had people wander down the side steps, which go past our bedroom window so I want the security of a gate. In September another builder had a look at the gate and tried to fix it to the outside wall, but as it’s stone it was like trying to drill into steel with a cotton bud. Giuseppe called over a few days later and looked at the problem, “it can be fixed,” he said, “but with compromise. Leave it with me.”

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Regular readers will be aware of Seppe’s celebrity status on this blog.

So off went Seppe with some measurements and the following day he arrived with homemade brackets, I understood that the gate would look very little how it would look in the UK, and would be more rustic. Looks are of no interest to me, it’s the security I want. So with a spot of recycling, at the end of the day, thanks to Seppe, we have a gate, now all I have to do is find that padlock I put in a safe place.

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It turned out that I had put the padlock in such a safe place, I couldn’t find it, so went out to buy another one. The following day the safe place turned out to be the back of my sock drawer, so now I have an extra padlock. Looks like I’ll have to buy another gate.

Making Good

Today we are having our electrics checked by Aldo, a local electrician. We don’t have a problem with them, but since parting company with our previous builder we think it prudent to do this as we’ve since been told he’s not authorised to fit electric.

Aldo looks more like a Calabrian than an Abruzzese, he’s about 5 feet and a fag end and has a voice that sounds like he’s been breathing in helium. He’s a sort of miniature, Italian Joe Pasquale. He sets too unscrewing the plugs and immediately discovers exposed wiring, he points this out whilst asking why the cable from the meter isn’t in any conduit. I explain that towards the end of his employ our previous builder became very lazy and the quality of his work suffered too. Aldo secures the cable to the meter then discovers that one of the kitchen plugs is broken despite it still being fitted, making it unsafe.

We have a moment where he tries all the main switches and as he can still hear music he can’t understand why there’s still electricity running through cables, he scratches his head and I smile as I tell him that the iPod dock is charged up and not plugged into the supply. I ask him if he can fit me a plug downstairs and also if it’s possible to have smaller centre light fittings so that my lampshades I brought from England can be fitted. He rummages in his tool box and the iPod shuffles and Love Story by the Au Pairs begins to play as he disappears down the stairs.

Twenty minutes later my lampshades have been fitted and he’s sweeping up the plaster where a new double plug has been fitted. As he drives away I make a mental note to contact our geometra who okayed the original electrical work and tell him I’ll be talking to my lawyer.100_7418

Rip Off Britain’s

One of the first pieces of advice I was given when I first talked of purchasing a house in Italy came from an English woman in L’Aquila. The advice was, “Don’t trust the Italian’s, as soon as they find out you’re English they’ll rip you off. Make sure you get quotes in writing etc. etc. blah blah blah…” I know of so many Brits who have moved here that actually believe in this nonsense. I am under no illusion why statements like this are rife in the ex-pat community, they either originate from one person having a bad experience and then the rumour-mill kicks in or they’re the result of fear.

I can understand if someone has a bad experience with a tradesperson they will be naturally disgruntled, but how often is the ‘bad experience’ down to incompetent communication? I know of people who have complained about tradespeople when the actual problem was a lack of language skill. One that springs to mind is a man who asked an Italian builder to construct a wall for him while he took a trip over to the UK; the man explained that he wanted a muro di mattoni and then flew back to England. Upon his return he was horrified to find at his restored cottage a nice new red brick wall. An argument ensued and the builder explained that he had done exactly what he had been asked to do. It turned out the customer wanted a wall made of reclaimed stone to match the walls of his cottage, but had not asked for a muro di pietra vecchia,  Here, I think there were two mistakes made, the first was flying back to the UK, therefore not being on hand to supervise, and the second, probably relying on Google translate.

But to get back to my initial reason for today’s blog entry. Without thinking, ex-pats often hand out nuggets of advice like the one I was given, I understand when people say I want an English builder because then there’ll be no language problems, this makes perfect sense if you speak little or no Italian. However, to blindly say I want and English builder, because the Italian ones will rip me off is nonsense. And to be honest my experience has been quite the opposite.

Before we started our renovation we obtained three quotes for the work in total, two were from English builders and the third from an Italian, the British builder’s quotes turned out to be the most expensive. Now I’m not saying there was any duplicity involved or any intention to rip me off, I’m just stating a fact. In the end we chose none of the people who gave us quotes and went along with the advice from our architect and the comune, (council) and hired someone local who they recommended.

However during the renovation there has been times when we have needed to look for extra personnel for specialised jobs. For example, I wanted the rear of the house clearing of weeds, tree stumps, a tumbledown brick shed and years of neglect. I asked around and got the following quotes:

British builder – Delivery of JCB €50. Hire of JCB €85 per day, Hire of operator €180 per day Job length 2 days. Total €580

Italian Builder – €40 per hour maximum time 3 hours. Total €120

The Italian builder came over and true to his word did the job in two and a half hours and even dug us a trench for a water pipe for free. Total €100

Again I’m not suggesting any intended duplicity took place, but surely a qualified builder would know a three-hour job from from a two-day one?

We pretty soon discovered that, despite the recommendation of the comune, the original sewage system, an ancient fossa biologica was not really fit for use and that we’d be better off  erring on the side of precaution and having a new septic tank put in. So we asked for a few quotes, stating that we’d like a tank suitable for a four person household, we actually stressed the make and tank reference number we required and here’s what we received:

British builder 1 – Tank €1050. Excavation and installation €150. Two men at €180 per day. Total €1560 (delivery estimate 2 – 4 days)

British builder 2 – Tank €1200. Excavation and installation €200. Three men at €150 per day. Total €1850 (delivery estimate 2 – 6 days)

Italian builder – Tank, including collection from supplier €800. Excavation and installation €200. Total €1000

Now in this instance we had already done our homework and knew that the tank cost the trade price of €700 including taxes, and our Italian builder would charge us a €100 on top of this to collect it from Guardiagrele, approximately 24 Km away. what we couldn’t understand was, even if there was a delivery charge of €100 on the British builder’s quotes why was the same tank now €250 and €400 more expensive?

Once again I’m not suggesting any intended duplicity took place, I’ll leave it to you to make up your own mind.

Call the Fashion Police

Today I received a text from a friend asking if we’d like to come over for a bite to eat, so as, Let the Rhythm Get You, the Megatone Records classic by, Touch and Go plays, I reply in the affirmative. The remainder of the day passes without incident and it’s soon time to get ready to go out. Now you have to bear in mind that we are still living on what is essentially a building site, so it’s a strip wash at the outside tap, a shave in the washing up bowl with hot water provided by the kettle and hair washing bent over the ancient washing tub out the front. Oh the joys of house restoration. (I have now learned the times the school bus passes, a semi-naked Englishman at the outside sink, is not what a bus full of kids want to see.)

So with most of my clothes and shoes boxed up and stacked in the darkened space that is due to become the bathroom, I have a small amount of clothing that is worn, washed, worn, washed etc. So small is my wardrobe, that I’ve not really paid attention to what is on the dust free (ha! that’s a laugh) pile of washed clothes. There’s only twenty-minutes in which to dress and leave if I’m to be punctual for our dinner date and the options do not look good.

There’s a pair of what I call my, One Direction trousers, two pairs of balled-up socks: yellow or purple and a red or a blue shirt. I hunt around for shoes and cannot find any, only the pink canvas pumps that I’ve been wearing of late. I’m shouted at to get a move on and with a less than friendly reminder, it’s pointed out that we no longer have time to pop into Eurospin to buy a bottle of prosecco to take with us.

So I hurriedly dress, slipping on the socks, wriggling into my green, One Direction trousers and then receive a look that Medusa would have been proud of. “Are you going out like that?” I’m asked, I look down and shrug before saying, “This is all I have that’s ironed. This and my Orange Ted Baker pyjama bottoms and a yellow vest.”

As we climb into the car, the Oh says, “It’s a good job we’re not going out in public.”

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There’s a siren in the distance, could it be the fashion police, or has Gok Wan just collapsed with apoplexy.

A Stair is Born

Today has been an odd one. Looking back at the posts on this blog, you’d be forgiven for thinking aren’t most for me. Our builder arrived and proceeded to measure me, “Aspetta,” (wait) he said as I walked away after he determined I was 1.557m tall, he then measured the length of my foot, then made me walk normally, stopping me he then got down on his hands and knees to measure the length of my stride. He makes a remark about measuring an other part of my body, then screws up his eyes and laughs at his own joke. I tell him, I think he’s a nut job and leave for the bank in Lanciano.

Now initially, I’d been led to believe that in Italy, it costs more to withdraw cash in person rather than use an ATM. Turns out that whoever passed me that nugget of information was wrong. At our bank cash transaction at the sportello (banker’s window) cost nothing, unlike cash machines.  I collected my cash from the very pretty girl and am leaving when Massimo, the manager appears, he calls me over and we exchange morning pleasantries, he asks if I’d like a coffee, I say yes and he opens a door to let the person the other side that he’s popping out for coffee. I peer in and sat at the desk is a woman who is the spitting image of  Marge Simpson’s sister Selma Bouvier: the one with the parting in her hair. The woman stands up and despite not being bright yellow looks even more like her cartoon doppelganger. I want to laugh but this would be rude, so I cover it by pretending to sneeze and go outside to wait for Massimo.

Coffee over, I drive back when the iPod shuffles and Barry White, begins to sing Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Babe, as his bass laden voice fills the car I smile wondering what our builder’s up to back at the house. He calls me Barry White, I asked him why once and his answer was simple yet honest, he said because you are named Barry and you’re white. You can’t say fairer than that.

I get back and the result of all the measuring is revealed the staircase has been started to be installed. He explains that being a big man he had to get the headroom correct, I in turn correct him and explain the phrase is tall not big, he says why, because he’s a small man. I explain that small and short are different words in English, he then says he has tall feet for a small man. We laugh and I give up correcting his English, even when he says for a tall man my feet shouldn’t be so short. I’m tempted to tell him size 8 (42) is average, but realise that I’d be unable to explain why in this case short and small are correct usage when talking about feet, but not when talking about his height.

The day ends and after he’s gone, I spend my time walking up and down my bespoke staircase. You see I’m easily pleased.

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Keeping the Donkey Warm.

The Brothers Johnson are playing Stomp, as I walk along the lane. It’s a warm and sunny afternoon, perfect for a leisurely stroll. The Italian countryside is filled with unloved and unwanted buildings. The reason for this is a culmination of unemployment and the antiquated, convoluted inheritance law. You can understand people moving to where the work is but as it’s unlawful to disinherit your children, so, even if you have a disobedient first son who brings shame to the family door, he’ll still have automatic entitlement. The shares of your estate go down in fractions depending on your living relatives, meaning one property could have as many as fifty-owners, with Luciano in New York owning a third of the attic room, while Maria in Torino owns the doorstep. This plethora of properties means that Italy is still a good place to buy a holiday bolthole, and falling prices mean the buyer is in a good position. The only problem is getting all the owners in one place, at the same time. I have met an English couple who told me there was fifty people crowded inside the notary’s office when they signed for their little house in the hills.

100_6157Nearby is a ruin, two small one storey houses side by side, I take the ear-buds to my iPod out, just as Ultravox begin to play, Visions In Blue, letting them play on without an audience. I step inside one of the houses. The stone walls are solid, at least half a metre thick and the oak beams look like they’ll still be doing their job in the next millennium. The doors and windows have gone, possibly removed for firewood, and a simple chair lies broken upon the floor like a wooden corpse. There is only two rooms, one has a manger, cage and a stall, obviously the animal housing. But what’s this in the corner, a wood burning oven. Surely if you have animals, you have straw and hay, so isn’t an oven in a stable a little risky? I like to think that the owner was so caring, that on cold winter nights he lit the oven to keep his donkey warm?

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I move back into the other room, its ceiling is testament to Italian ingenuity, but an health and safety horror. Bamboo that grows in abundance here and the rafters are canes that have been cut and laid side by side. Other canes and an assortment of branches and planks make up the cross beams. This all sits upon the oak beams and sitting on top of this ancient and dry bamboo is a roof made up of ochre and terracotta coloured tiles. It’s amazing to think many years on, all this weight is supported by something as slender as bamboo. On the floor is several crates of passata, homemade tomato sauce, abandoned like the bricks and mortar. I estimate that there must be at least one hundred and fifty, mostly brown beer bottles of the reddish brown liquid. They say storing passata in brown glass keeps it fresher.

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I pick up a bottle and break off the cap, the heady aroma of tomato fills the air, it still smells good, I can imagine women de-seeding and skinning as the sun shone, while the men drank beer and lit a large fire for the sterilising of the bottles and eventually sealing them. I pour a little out onto the stone floor, it looks good enough to eat, however I’m wouldn’t be game enough to try this batch. I replace the bottle, step over the skeletal chair and leave the house. Outside, replace my ear-buds; Kate Bush is singing, Mother Stands for Comfort, and I continue on with my stroll.

Method in the Madness

Living on a building site isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I’ve had grit in my bed, dust in my sock drawer and splinters in my, well lets just say I sit on it. Add to this the fact that I’ve just discovered I’m allergic to cement and you can forgive me for saying, that this is a testing time. okay it’s not as bad as four years in limbo, being displaced, but it runs a close second. I know the weather here in Abruzzo is better than it is back in the UK at the moment, but what good is sunshine when you’re trapped in a restoration project.

100_6075Today I did my morning trip to the builders’ merchants for the day’s materials, but today was different. You see today I understood why I had to keep going for cement etc. in dribs and drabs. For the past two weeks it’s annoyed me that I have to do the daily trip, but no longer. At the start of the restoration I asked the builder how many bags of cement will we need to complete the master bedroom downstairs, his reply was “I don’t know, but today we’ll only use four.” Confused, I asked why we only buy four bags, when we’ll have to come back tomorrow. His response to this question was, “Why tie money up in bags of cement that sit waiting to be used, money is better in your bank.” I tried to explain that, I’ll still have to spend the money the following day and he said, “But you held onto the money for a day longer.” What a crazy way of looking at things, I first thought.

Then Nino arrived to measure for windows, he measured only one room then left. “Why didn’t he measure all the windows?” I asked our builder, who just shrugged his shoulders and shaking his head told me because the each room is a separate job. “But it makes sense if he’s here to measure all the windows in the house. That’s what they would do in England.” Our builder removes his hat and wipes his brow before telling me, we’re not in England, we’re in Italy. What a crazy way of looking at things, I thought, again.

The quote comes in from Nino and I say it’s okay, so he arrives at the house again. This time he’s measuring for a window and a door for the second bedroom. The process is repeated, he leaves after ignoring the kitchen windows and the third bedroom’s window. The following day he calls with his quote. I tell him it’s fine and ask if he’ll be coming today to measure the other windows. “No,” I’m told, “I will make these two jobs first.” I’m about to say that surely my total requirements are just one job, but think better of it.

Now to  work on a house in Italy you must obtain permission from your local comune (council). This means paying for a piece of paper and a job number granting you permission to move doors or build a balcony etc. So this extra expense has to be factored into any restoration project. So our 1970’s, porn star look-a-like, geometa (architect) comes along to measure everything and says you may just need a simple number. We then mention we’re putting in stairs and the whole thing changes. Apparently, new stairs will alter the house considerably, and will therefore require a complete job number and permissions. Total cost will be one thousand five-hundred euro. He says he’ll be back to take photos on another day and can I e-mail him our house purchase paperwork and payment will be split into three payments of five-hundred euro, cash if possible and cheque later. “I could just give you a cheque for the total amount,” I say, “Or cash if you…” I am unable to finish as he strokes his moustache, looks over the top of his sunglasses and says “No three payments is fine.” He then hitches up his ridiculously tight jeans and strides off towards his immaculate cherry red sporty number that’s parked beside my dirty sand-covered Zafira. What a crazy way of looking at things, I think, yet again.

Later this practice of one job being split into several smaller ones, and payments being requested in instalments makes sense. I’m in town, talking to my bank manager, he’s asking how things are progressing and I tell him how it’s going. “I’ve not seen any cheques go from your account,” he asks. I explain that I’ve not needed to write any. “But what about your builder, how do you pay him?” I explain that we pay him a daily rate we’ve negotiated. “Ahh, I see.” he says. “You have taken to the Italian way of doing things very quickly,” I’m a little confused, and about to let him know that I find it frustrating that I have to pay everything in several small amounts, rather than in one go, when he says, “Here, it’s against the law to pay anyone more than one-thousand euro in cash, you must set up payments with the bank. So people break down their bigger jobs into smaller ones and invoice for smaller amounts. It our way of keeping secrets from the government.”

Suddenly it all makes sense “But I still don’t understand why I can’t buy more cement and let it sit outside waiting to be used, I’m hardly going to buy a thousand euro worth of the stuff,” I tell him as he sets a coffee down in front of me. “Well,” he says, “it’s just the way we do things. But no doubt somewhere there’ll be no madness in the method.” I smile at his misquoting, Hamlet and stir my coffee as the sun shines down upon Lanciano.

That Crazy Foreigner

At the bend in the lane, before our house, sits an ancient stone fountain. The fountain isn’t a decorative one but a practical one, it served the small community here before mains water was piped in. Sadly it now lies decommissioned and nature has started to claim back the space. An old elder grows to the left, it’s knotted branches shadowing the trough where women would stand washing the family’s clothes. The right side, the animal drinking trough is slowly becoming engulfed in brambles, the thorny, limbs providing green lizards with a safe haven from the feral cats that hunt them. I look at this structure with its weed covered façade and an idea surfaces. “I know,” I say to myself loudly: As I’m alone, no is going to think, who’s the nutter talking to himself. “I’ll clean it up.” So I set too with petrol powered brush cutter and I’m attacking the brambles like a man possessed, when out of no where appears a small Italian man. He’s no more than 5’3”,  leathery from years in the sun and nut brown. Now I may have said before that Italy has an omnipresence about it. You could believe you were alone in the countryside and feel the call of nature and pop behind a tree and I can guarantee that by the time you’ve got home two-thirds of the village know that you’ve not only peed behind a tree, but the grid reference and who owns aforementioned tree.

“What are you doing?” asks my companion, intrigued by my toil. I explain that I’m clearing the weeds around the fountain and he smiles, a broad smile revealing teeth as white as Italian plaster. “Why do this,” he says, “it doesn’t benefit you?” I try to explain that I’m doing it because it would look nice, but he doesn’t understand why I’d waste energy on such a task. “Pazzo,” he says, a phrase I’ve heard before, meaning, crazy: My friend Allessio calls me, il pazzo straniero, the crazy foreigner. I tell my new friend that I may be crazy but the fountain is a piece of history. He likes this and begins to tell me how this stone utility was an important part of village life. He explains how the women stood two abreast, chatting as they washed clothes, by hand and how the men would bring the family horse to drink water before it was harnessed up for a days labour in the fields.

IMGA0164The conversation changes and he tells me how the water was turned off when the village was connected to the mains water supply, “the community started to change, people didn’t spend time at the fountain discussing the important things anymore.” I ask him what the important things were that would be talked over. “ Who’s olives are first at the community press, who makes the best pasta orechiette, who’s ill and who’s died, All of these things are important in a small village.” He then points to where he appeared and tells me it’s his family’s land, I make out an Ape* camouflaged among the olives, he then tells me that since he had heart surgery he’s been unable to use a petrol strimmer, he laughs as he pretends the vibrations are causing him to suffer a heart attack and then with one more “pazzo.” he disappears back into the countryside.

I then set to with hedge clippers, I’m not going to trim the greenery within an inch of its life; just enough to neaten it without making it look artificial. I turn on my iPod and X-Ray Spex play Highly Inflammable, it’s hard to imagine that the charismatic, yet reclusive singer Poly Styrene past away a year ago, this month. Their single, The Day the World Turned Day-Glo, is still one of my all-time favourite songs and holds many memories of the emerging punk scene in Britain. I take a break from clipping and with a pair of secateurs begin cutting back the elder. Several hours later and the stone fountain is revealed in all its glory. Time to retreat from the midday heat and have that well earned cold beer.

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The following day I shift all the earth that has accumulated around the base, fight against the brambles and even come under attack from a gang of black ants, the size of golf balls: okay a slight exaggeration, maybe the size of half an Oxo cube. I beat the ants into submission and as a particularly sulky one waves its fist at me in anger as his comrades retreat I stand back to survey my work. I’m happy with the transformation from overgrown ruin to restored glory, and as the iPod shuffles and Kasabian play, Fire, I walk the few steps home.

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Later, after a trip into town I return to find the old guy standing with another looking at the fountain. I hear them say, “good work,” and “nice job.” They both spot me and give me the thumbs up and my friend from yesterday says, “Thank you, many memories.” I wait, but I don’t hear ‘pazzo straniero’.

*Ape, meaning bee (pronounced App-ay) is a three-wheeled hybrid of a scooter and pick-up, made by the vespa (meaning wasp) manufacturers, Piaggio.

Domenico’s Ruin

When we purchased our little piece of Italy, namely a five room house with lots of neglected land I hated the old ruin that was opposite. We soon discovered that the ruin was part of an old palazzo and as it had become unstable the owners were told to take it down. Three of the owners removed their properties, however one remained standing; or literally clinging on. We discovered this small ruined house belonged to Domenico. A small, wiry septuagenarian with a personality akin to that of a terrier. It appears that Domenico thinks he can get away with just removing the roof. I can see his point, why spend your own money when no one lives nearby, however now someone does live nearby, in fact just 4.5 metres away. Our lawyer said we can let the comune (council) know and they’ll order it taken down. However not wanting to upset the locals I said leave it for now, thinking at least it keeps our place hidden from the road: What a mistake that was, hidden away we were burgled twice in 2012.

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Now that I’m getting settled into life here in Abruzzo and restoring our house I’ve grown quite fond of Domenico’s ruin, especially on nights like this. Streisand, sings, With One More Look at You, I take my glass of wine outside where there’s very little light pollution and the evening air clings to the remnants of the days warmth and it stands silent, a sentinel looking over the valley. There’s the sound but no sight of wildlife and everything feels good with the world. I grab my camera and fire of a picture of the ruin; a memory frozen in time of this quarter of a palazzo that was built more years ago than anyone can remember; the last restoration previously done back in 1931.

Maybe, I’m losing my Englishness and unconsciously embracing the Italian way of thinking. Perhaps living with a ruin isn’t too bad. It certainly puts things into perspective. There are more important things the worry about than if a pile of bricks looks unsightly, but then again there’s that old cliché about beauty being in the eye of the beholder.

There’s a breeze as the music shuffles and Depeche Mode begin to play, Halo. Perhaps I’ll take my wine back inside and leave the ruin to stand alone inside the inky blackness of the Abruzzi countryside. I close my front door as Dave Gahan sings the lyric, ‘When the walls come tumbling in.’ Let’s hope, not tonight, I’d like some more time with this ramshackle old building.

Restoration Nation

During a recent walk around the ‘forgotten’ areas of the city; the parts that had been subjected to compulsory purchase orders for some new government scheme for new social housing that never came to fruition. The old terraces have mostly been demolished, Some empty streets still stand neglected and decaying, but I was pleased to see a environmentally aware project that was taking these old houses and giving them a new lease of life. The new houses use recycled materials and will feature energy saving heating systems including solar energy, they even have a small vegetable plot and composting bin. Meaning the street goes from looking like the left side of the photo below and looks like the right side now.

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I think rather than build on green sites we should spend more effort purchasing redundant land and build new homes there. I also believe that we should also look at the possibility of 100_5443restoration rather than demolition, there are many old buildings out there that would benefit from some love and attention. On a recent trip into Cheadle it was nice to see the old Wheatsheaf public house that had stood neglected for years until it became unsafe, had been restored, breathing new life and jobs into the market town. It’s a shame they chose to paint it green though.

As I write this my iPod is recycling tunes from the eighties, as Five Star sing, Rock My World.

Around town at the moment there is much activity from men on scaffolding as they insulate nearby properties, cladding the outside with what look like large Lego blocks. These blocks are then rendered and painted white. The newly insulated houses benefit from not only energy saving but also from a new up to date look.