As we approach Christmas, I keep remembering this time last year, when we were scrambling to pack up the old house and I was phoning the solicitor daily, pleading with her to try and get our contracts sorted so we’d have any kind of hope of moving before Christmas.
When we did manage to move just days before Christmas, it was a huge relief, not least because I could put up decorations and immediately make the house feel cosy and homely.
With no shelf space or mantelpiece to hang up cards, we improvised with string and clothes pegs, which looked surprisingly good…and leaving our tree-buying till the last minute meant we had to get an old-school needle dropping variety, with predictable messy results (it did smell properly Christmassy, though). It was an instant injection of colour and personality which the house badly needed – and when my own home-made wreath went up, I felt I’d already put my own small personal mark on the house.
Trying to make our house a home after Christmas was a bit more of a challenge, as it coincided with the baby becoming a toddler, and learning to crawl…and then walk…and climb. We hadn’t had to put anything out of reach at the old house, but it suddenly became a priority – and we didn’t have any fitted storage downstairs at all, so nothing could be shut away or put out of her reach unless we kept it boxed up and invisible.
So after the urgent work was done – electrics and boiler – we had some shelves fitted in the dining and sitting rooms. I am particularly fond of the dining room shelves, as they come into view as you walk down the stairs, and the clutter which has accumulated there over the last few months makes me feel at home.
The shelves started out with some of my favourite ornaments on the lower shelves – the Australian boomerang, the Chinese fan, my Silver Jubilee mug, my teapot – but small hands soon began to grab at these, so we had to do a bit of rejigging.
The bottom shelf now has children’s books and a crate of Duplo, and the breakable items, including some of my favourite vintage pieces, have moved higher and higher up, as the toddler learnt how to scramble up onto the sofa to reach the second and even third shelves. They are now a pleasing jumble of books, china, ornaments and children’s toys, and I like them all the more for that.
The sitting room shelves are on either side of the non-functioning chimney breast, and to quote Anthony Powell, confirm that ‘books do furnish a room’. In a rather dull, characterless room like this, (and also long and narrow, an unhelpful shape for a living room), books add depth and colour, and some much-needed noise absorption. The room felt rather bleak and echoey before, and now, with curtains pulled and the Advent candle lit, it’s cosy and snug.
The shelves also provide a good dumping ground for things we want to keep out of the toddler’s way – remote controls, fiddly toys which she would lose pieces of, and now various Christmas bits and bobs too. The carpenter even built the right-hand shelf around a pillar, which created dinky little alcoves just big enough to take our clock and a few other ornaments.
The lower half of the sitting room may be – and usually is – a tidal wave of toys, discarded shoes and board books, but at least I can look at my lovely shelves and feel quite at home.
It also reminds me of previous places I’ve lived, and how the most unlikely things can make you feel settled. I remember the housing association flat in SE1, where I had no furniture to speak of and had to sit on a futon mattress with no base, far more fondly than the grand Georgian flat in Kensington where the blocked-up marble fireplace had been lined, interestingly, with corrugated plastic.
I don’t have photos of either of those flats – the days before digital cameras and smart phones – but I do have a few of the cutest, dinkiest flat I ever lived in, on the first floor of a handsome mansion block in Bloomsbury. There wasn’t space to swing a cat, but I loved it.
It was the first place I’d ever lived properly on my own, and it became my retreat from the world during days when work had become dreary and I was rather lonely. The living room was particularly snug and dark, like a little she-bear cave, and it had a lovely deep mantelpiece which I piled high with nick nacks and scented candles and the like, so I decided what it really needed was pink fluffy fairy lights to complete the look.
I justified this utterly uncharacteristic girliness on the grounds I’d probably never live anywhere else suitable for pink fluffy fairy lights – and so indeed has been the case.
Making a family home from a rather ordinary house has been a challenge all of its own, and I’ve had to learn to dial down my love of pretty objects and scented candles, so I’ve given away the fairy lights – there simply isn’t room for so much clutter. And will there be room for a decent sized Christmas tree? That’s the next task ahead of us…