The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse

Last week, I went back to the village where I grew up, for the first time in years. It was a sad occasion, the funeral of a friend’s dad. I don’t want to intrude on that private event in any more detail…but it was very strange to go ‘home’ after so long, and it’s been on my mind ever since.

I always used to define myself as a ‘country’ person. I grew up in the country – proper country, despite being only a few miles from the end of the Central Line, the village is deep in Green Belt territory (having survived the addition of a handful of cul-de-sacs and some council housing in the 60s/70s) – and it felt like a proper childhood: dens in the field, long cycle rides, tramping through woods in the autumn, and living somewhere where you felt you knew everyone.

My expectation after 12-odd years was that it would be a lot more bling, Footballer’s Wives-style, and on the outskirts of the village there were a few new houses along those lines (big gates, pillars, you know the type), but the heart of the village was pretty much as I left it in 2001, just a lot cleaner than I remembered.

It was always pretty, back in the day, and it won ‘tidiest village’ awards from time to time, but it’s not one of those really pristine chocolate-box places like Finchingfield: it was always a bit shabbier and more awkward than that, with unexplained derelict houses, odd corners with ugly modern houses dumped in them, and run-down farmhouses with rusty equipment in the farmyard. Also, whilst it was idyllic and green, it was never what you’d call quiet: it was used as a bit of a rat run between the two nearest A-roads, so there were often lorries and horse boxes lumbering through the village centre, and in the early hours of the morning, the first flights of the day from Stanstead used to wake me up.

Now, it felt like it had had a proper spring clean, with formerly shabby cottages now tidy and smart, and even most of the 1960s houses, like the one I grew up in, had been made over in the Noughties, with lots of plate glass, skylights and wood cladding in place of PVC and plastic fascias. It was the houses which have been untouched since the ’80s which stuck out like a sore thumb, rather than the other way round.

But I walked just to the edge of the village, just round the corner from our road, and suddenly it felt like home again. The pavement comes to a sudden halt, it was muddy underfoot, and I stood at the crossroads which once represented freedom and the unknown to me, the road stretching away in the distance with an inviting gleam. I know where it goes, of course, but oh, I love the mystery of it. I love it.

Edge of the village

Edge of the village

It feels like an anomaly, my village, an anachronism in the county of TOWIE. A few miles west and it would be on the very edge of London sprawl. A few miles south and it would be a suburb of the nearest town, deep in nail-bar and tanning-salon territory. Yet here it is, a proper village, preserved in its Green Belt bubble: surrounded by fields, footpaths taking off in all directions, and a patch of Domesday-era woodland at its perimeter. I won’t ever live there again, (nor would I want to, even if I could afford it) but it will always be home.

Having said that, a week later I had an unexpected solo night out after booking a returned ticket to see David Tennant play Richard II at the Barbican. I’ve always loved the Barbican, despite getting lost there as I always do, (and why are there no toilets except the ones miles away in the basement?)

It was a beautiful, clear night when I left the theatre, and I decided to walk back to London Bridge, through the near-deserted City – and found, to my pleasure, I remembered the route quite easily from the last time I did it, even in the dark. (The City evidently not quite such a rabbit warren as the Barbican, then…)

I finally paused on London Bridge to take a picture of Tower Bridge and the moon, and I thought, perhaps I am a town mouse, after all.

Tower Bridge and Moon

Tower Bridge and Moon



Time to build!

The Christmas tree and decorations came down yesterday (I know there is some debate about whether Twelfth Night is actually the night of the 5th or the 6th of Jan, but practicality rather than folklore dictated our choice: bin day & tree collection day was Monday, so everything came down on Sunday).

Usually that would leave me a little despondent, but seeing the house cleared of festive clutter and stripped back to its bare bones makes me excited about the looming big project: building an extension.

It’s been rumbling on in our minds and discussions for months, but now we are actually talking to architects and building firms, which begins to make it REAL.

And I know the old adage says you should live in a house for a year before making any changes, to get a ‘feel’ for what will really work and what won’t – but we’ve lived here a year and I’m no nearer knowing what I want!

We have inherited a rabbit warren-style downstairs layout which some might call ‘quirky and charming’ and others might describe as ‘a pain in the backside’. The house originally had an outdoor toilet and storeroom (now housing the washing machine), which at some point got connected to the house by a ramshackly lean-to corridor.

The corrugated plastic roof of the corridor has withstood winter storms – so far – and the sound of heavy rain drumming on it has become a regular soundtrack of the past few months. It’s a useful way of literally doing a rain check before going out – ‘is that light drizzle, steady rain or a complete downpour? Should we just stay at home?’ – but the door at the end of the corridor is swollen stuck with damp so it’s no use as an access point to the garden, and apart from a rickety shelf unit there isn’t much space for it to be a proper utility room…but as a weird inside-outside space, part of the house and yet somehow outside it, I am rather fond of this odd little space and I suspect I’ll miss it when it goes.

Our rackety, rickety corridor

Our rackety, rickety corridor

Behind the door which leads back into the house is a under-stairs cubby hole space which at first I thought could be arranged more practically to create some useful storage.

Then, I realised that if you fill up the space with more fitted cupboards, shelves or shoe racks, you create more clutter which limits access to the important stuff, the gas and electric meters and fuse box. Plus, the hoover has to live *somewhere*.

Under-stairs gloomy space

Under-stairs gloomy space

The under-stairs space, therefore, has remained a dumping ground for clutter, and a messy pile of coats and shoes. Shoes lying all skew-wiff and untidy, and coat hooks over-burdened with bulging coats and scarfs makes the finickity bit of my brain shudder with horror, so we have to create better shoe and coat storage, but still be able to read the meters and get out the vacuum cleaner.

My dream is to have a proper utility room, with a sink where dirty shoes can be cleaned and seedlings potted, plus a downstairs cloakroom, and we want the washing machine in there too, as I am a big fan of washing machine noise being out of kitchens.

That’s a lot to fit into one utility space, so this is a dilemma I’ve been juggling – how much of our potential new lovely kitchen do we give over to the utility? Do we try to keep an access corridor from the utility to the garden or will it become dead space & never get used? If the only access to the garden is through the dining room garden doors (as it currently is), will I ever stop being sick of muddy footprints and dirt being trailed into the house? I’d love to have a separate back door going straight to the utility, but realistically I don’t think it would get used much, and I’m not sure we can afford to steal that space from the kitchen…

The current kitchen

The current kitchen, including delightful ceiling cork tiles.

The kitchen itself is the final piece of the puzzle. We will be knocking through to make it a kitchen-diner – that’s the easy bit – and push the whole thing out into the garden (losing most of the rather ugly patio) to make a big kitchen-diner-family-garden room.

This is exciting, but rather daunting: it will create a large space, but will it be a practical and useful space, or a cavernous room with too much crammed into it? We would like a dining table you can walk round without having to squeeze past the wall, room for a sofa down near the garden, and we wonder what to do with the back of the room (our current dining room) which presumably will become rather dark and gloomy…? Do we keep the two separate doors to kitchen and dining room or try to create one single door in the middle? (The great big structural pillar between the two doors suggests we probably can’t).

My floor plan

My floor plan

This sketch above is my rough outline of how I imagine it *could* be, and the one bit I’m pretty confident about is the kitchen itself.

To my surprise, the rather unpromising kitchen we inherited with the house has turned out to be a bit of a gem: it has that triangle (or in fact, square) of sink, stove, fridge and counter space in exactly the right places, and in the extension I pretty much want the same layout, just a bit bigger, but with more counter space and better organised storage (I do miss my old carousel cupboard, and we need some deep drawers for things like baking equipment and tupperware). A proper larder cupboard would be nice, too.

Funnily enough the one thing I don’t have a strong feeling about is the actual kitchen style, after agonising about it so long at my old house. Simple and not fussy (without being too neutral or bland) will probably be my watchwords, and as with the renovations we’ve done so far, I’d want it to be respectful to the age of the house, without it being a pastiche.

I am assuming the architects and building firms will shake their heads at me and tell me half of this is simply not possible, and supporting beams and pillars are in the wrong place, so I am well prepared for frustrations and setbacks…and I hope I can keep an open mind. I suspect my biggest challenge is that, despite not knowing exactly what I want, I usually know exactly what I *don’t* want…and perhaps what I don’t want might be the perfect thing for this house. Watch this space, I suppose….