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  • This is the house that Ben Law built, by hard love and labour, in the woods of West Sussex. I remember watching the original show about it with my Grandad when I was a teenager. My Grandad was a builder and I was a dreamer, so we would settle arguments over the remote control by watching "Grand Designs", where the gentle and appreciative Kevin McCloud would visit various ambitious self-build projects. It would be an understatement to say this house was my favourite: somehow it slipped into my subconscious and has lodged there in the years since.

    My Grandad was foreman on all sorts of public construction works around the British Isles: power stations at Didcot and Aghada, sections of the M25, parts of Greenwich and Cambridge water systems. He grew up in the 30s in a cramped terrace house off the Balls Pond Road, shared with eight hungry siblings and a puppy. From the outhouse, the family could hear the bells of St Mary-le-Bow, which made them real Cockneys. He lived through the Blitz, through evacuation to a chip shop, through TB and a long stay in a sanatorium, through rationing and poverty and loss. Necessity is the mother of invention, and it made him resourceful and crafty as a fox. He took a lot of pride in improving people's lives in all the ways the 50s and 60s had to offer: coal-fired power, motorways, shopping centres and supermarkets.

    Since he retired 25 years ago he's continued tinkering. He built a series of sheds around the grounds of the cottage he bought with my Nanna in the New Forest. He built the house I grew up in. He built dovecotes and duck houses, bookshelves, kitchens, wooden toys. He made cricket balls and finials for banisters and rat traps. And now he's nearing 80 - still strong and well, but not as strong, not as well. His eyesight's not great, his legs swell with blood infections, he has diabetes.

    Grandad sniffs at ideas of "nature" - too pragmatic and perhaps too traumatised by events of his childhood, for any sentimentalising of the old ways. But Ben Law's house won him over and I remember him watching it with kind, tired eyes and proclaiming, "Cor. That's a beautiful thing." As I grow older I remember more and more of my Grandad's deep intuition for making things, his unlikely reverence for dowsing, his stories about walling up my Nanna's shoes at the top of cooling towers, the way he would assess a piece of wood with his rough and woody hands.

    He has a temper and a few failings I won't mention here. But he is what he is, monumental and chipped and scarred as a block of wood, as a boulder. I still have deep secret dreams about building my own house someday, somewhere in the woods. I hope it's in the blood.

    (Photo from London Permaculture's Flickr stream)
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