You Can Never Go Home Again

It is nearly a year since I wrote about the one that got away – the house we were never going to buy, but which I could happily weave a lottery-win fantasy renovation around.

More recently, I had a far more surprising and emotional experience whilst browsing local Rightmove: my old house, my own little house that I bought myself, was there – 6.5 years since we closed the door on it in December 2012.

I have walked past it, of course, and seen that they changed the curtains and repainted the door (pillar box red, initially – ouch! – and now tasteful pale green) – but I always wondered how it would look inside. And now I had a chance to snoop.

Dear old house; it had once been the tattiest house on the street, with wonky windows and missing gutter and the shrub growing out of a drain, and I had coaxed it into being a nice respectable tidy house – but no amount of fancy dressing could hide that it was a plain little box of a terrace, no fancy fixtures like cornices or ceiling roses or original fireplaces.

But what’s this on the estate agent description? – ‘numerous original details’? What could they be? The bannister rail? The internal doors? Already that slightly baffled me. And ‘late Victorian’ – well the house was built in 1905, so yes, Queen Victoria was pretty late by that point, I seem to recall.

Back to the house – I was pleasantly surprised to see the living room looking much as it did, my shelves and cupboards exactly as I left them, the only change was the chimney breast picked out in plum colour.

Awkward corner to the left of the chimney breast is still awkward – I squeezed the TV unit into there anyway, in a space that didn’t quite fit. Lovely shutters that I spent all my money on still look lovely. Nice to see it looking cosy and welcoming just as it was in our day.

Having started this blog after I’d done the bulk of the renovation, I missed the chance to do a proper Insta-story mega renovation diary. No swipe to reveal the ‘before’.

So indulge me whilst I do a bit of compare and contrast with the house as I inherited it and left it….

Here is the same room ‘before’ – same cupboards, same shelves, awkward TV unit, different sofa, baby. Before before, in 2008, it was all peach walls and navy blue wallpaper borders, I kid you not.

The kitchen was another story altogether….

These two photos aren’t mid-renovation. This is the actual kitchen I lived with for a year and a half. Bare walls was where cupboards had been ripped off to install a boiler – the boiler beforehand was a back-to-back 1970s affair behind the gas fire in the living room, so for my own safety I had that taken out soon after moving in, as ‘avoiding carbon monoxide poisoning’ had to take priority over ‘making it look nice’.

The order of stuff that happened after I moved in (May 2008) was:

Spring/summer 2008:

Replaced broken gutter

New front door

Fresh paintwork around front windows and tiling on bay window

(All of which meant the house no longer looked like the shabbiest on the street – even though it was a wreck inside, I wanted it to be presentable outside)

New boiler and radiator installed in living room

Autumn 2008

Wonky bedroom floor straightened out

Bedroom and living room cupboards and shelves built

Bedroom carpet installed

Winter/spring 2009

Turned box room into bathroom

Summer 2009

Gutted ex-downstairs bathroom and knocked through into kitchen

Installed new kitchen, new hardwood floor across entire ground floor, new downstairs loo, new patio and flowerbed, new back door and windows.

Autumn 2009

New carpet and wardrobe in spare bedroom.

New stair carpet and spare hardwood floor used on upstairs landing

Ran Out of Money.

2010 – lived in house

2011 – used money present from grandmother to finish doing up garden

2012 – had baby, sold house

Quite an epic journey, all told.

Here’s the kitchen as it was, properly lived in by me, and full of clutter. Very quickly ran out of storage space, as always seems to happen in every kitchen I’ve had, but it functioned very well as a kitchen, apart from the crappy washing machine, possibly one of my worst ever purchase decisions, and the useless under-counter lights which broke easily and were near-impossible to replace.

Here’s the kitchen as it appeared on the estate agents site now. Much the same, so nice to see the tiles I chose still in place – I loved those tiles – and the (old bathroom) windowsill full of plants, just how I imagined it might look back in 2007 when it was a wreck. Looks like they’ve added in some extra shelf space above the sink which is eminently sensible. I can’t fault that.

Here’s the garden once we’d finally finished renovating. It was such a short time we had it ‘done’ before we moved out I’m sad I didn’t enjoy it more – hardly any photos of peak summer 2012 when it was fully planted up and full of flowers.

Too busy taking photos of a baby that summer, which is fair enough – though I do have a couple of photos of my beloved roses.

Finally, I did take a photo on the day we moved out, Dec 2012:

I felt like I was handing over a fairly low maintenance courtyard garden, mostly patio, good storage space – but evidently not low maintenance enough, the new owners have ripped out most of the plants and put in AstroTurf. I could cry. I guess this is what people with small gardens want, small boxes with no plants that they don’t have to worry about or spend time on.

Not even going to share the photo, it’s too dreary entirely. I just have to hope Albertine is still blooming behind the new fence they’ve installed at the back. She would have been very prickly to remove.

There’s also the small matter of the asking price – they’re making potentially 200k off mostly my hard work and a bit of painting and tidying up by them. But then it’s also 6 years of property market nonsense which has potentially gifted it to them. And perhaps it will never make half a million – we shall see.

I spent maybe 2 days feeling sad about it, and thinking more about the old house than I had in years, but now, a week on? Well, it’s not home now, here is home, this house, this garden, family, all my happy things and memories.

But still I think of the work I did, the effort, the money I earned and saved to put into it, the fact every choice made and mistake and idea was my decision and mine alone – all unrecorded on Instagram or this blog – and I think I did this. I set out to renovate a house by myself, and I did it. And then I sent it out into the world, and now it will be someone’s new home, new paintwork, new flowers planted perhaps, new families growing, new memories. Life goes on.

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Something About Knockers

Resisting the urge to make this blog title an innuendo. I love a good pun as much as the next person, but there’s a time and place for smut and this ain’t it.

This blog post was planned for early January, meant to come straight off the back of my Christmas wreath lecture – as the two were connected, as you’ll see – but well, January got in the way of my plans, with its god-damned sheer Januaryness.

We got through it all, more or less in one piece, but it’s only now that temperatures have begun to climb and snowdrops peep out, that I have had enough mental energy to think about writing – there are plenty more real-life doings and happenings to talk about, but I did want to start the year with the post I had originally planned, even if it is a month late.

Back, then, to the knockers – when I was scouting around for my favourite wreaths at Christmas, I noticed a rather fine door knocker in the shape of a bee.

A few doors down, a lovely dragonfly –

And on the same street, another bee, but this time in gold (no photo of that one, sorry) – all three within the same half dozen row of houses. Clearly two of the neighbours must all have admired the original bee and been inspired to copy it, I do wonder if they are all friends or if the original adopter of a quirky knocker resents being imitated? Either way, the fun of spotting unusual knockers became a new game.

It had never really occurred to me that there were options beyond the typical D-shape knocker, circle or vertical strip – and I’d never really looked closely at them, since our door doesn’t have one, it’s never been on my radar. (Though I did have one at the old house, a boring D-shape one, I can’t even remember if I considered other options, or gave it more than minimal thought).

On New Year’s Day we went to Greenwich – lots of character in some of the little grids of terraced streets around the Park and river frontage, and I bet there would be even more unusual knockers if I had a proper explore around the grander streets, but I found the cheeky frog (above), and Romanesque-looking lion with a mane like a Medusa’s locks (below).

Closer to home, I found another, more conventional lion, and a handsome fox:

This was my last quirky knocker for a while – I have been keeping an eye out, but the standard styles are so universal, at least on our regular suburban streets, it’s really hard to spot anything different. Then today, just a stones throw from preschool, I saw perhaps my favourite yet:

Is it an eagle or a Phoenix? Whichever it is, I love it. It’s got a very Hogwarts feel to it.

My architectural excitement for the day was not over yet, though, as looking at that particular house got me looking higher up at the frontages of the row as a whole, and saw something I’d never noticed before, a beautiful decorative portico:

And the house next door had one too

I must have walked past these houses a hundred times and never noticed how ornate they were. It just goes to show, wherever you go – remember to look up!

****

UPDATE

Unprecedented, I know. I’ve never revisited a blog before – but this time, I feel I should have waited a bit longer before writing this. Just a few weekends later, we visited Cambridge for the first time in years, and spent a Sunday morning wandering round in glorious sunshine.

I should have guessed Cambridge would deliver good knockers, and it didn’t let me down.

Scallop shell designs seemed to be popular.

Bird knocking on wood (though not a woodpecker, surely a missed opportunity there!)

Definitely a favourite – a growing seed? Tree? Flames of a fire? Whatever it is, I like it.

Finally, a rather surreal disembodied horse.

Thank you, Cambridge, for giving me a chance to return to the subject (aka pad out a blog that was rather thin on content, you decide…)

The Wreath Lectures, 2018

It’s the last Sunday evening of 2018, I have gin, chocolate and Star Wars on TV, just enough time to wrap up my favourite wreaths of the year.

This year is going to be short-ish on text and big on images because there were just too many to choose from – in fact I’ve gone so far as to make collages, fancy!

First off, if we have a theme this year, it’s that wreaths have gone BIG. We have baubles, gold and silver trimmings, plastic cherries and wheat, red ribbons, cinnamon sticks and dried fruit – and they are all BIG! Some of these four are a little too artificial for my personal taste, but the effect of them is very impressive.

This one was probably the biggest of the lot – practically a third of the door space taken up. Huuuge! Eucalyptus leaves seem to be quite a trend this year, too.

Some others I really liked: silvery-white all natural wreath with what look like frosted apples and pears, red and white rags, heart shaped and star shaped. (Red and white rags possibly my personal winner this year, really stood out from all the rest).

EVEN MORE, red leaves, red ribbons, bells, robins, hearts, baubles. Bottom right was a first for me: a wreath hung in a window rather than on a door (on closed shutters) – looked really good.

Final four combo: totally plain fir tree branches against a geometric glass door, big brash wreath with white roses on a yellow door, big red ribbon on dark green door, and one with a wooden heart in the middle. Loved all of these ones.

My last favourite isn’t even really a favourite – it isn’t the sort of wreath I’d normally stop to admire, but it reminded me of something and I couldn’t think what –

Then it struck me, the frosted-tinsel look with red ribbon was exactly what the 5cm high wreath I used to hang on the door of my dolls house looked like. You can still get them, exactly the same as they were, and sold in a two-pack, exactly as I had (why, when the dolls house had only one door? – always puzzled me!).

So the frosty wreath on the red door gets a thumbs up from me.

That’s all for me from 2018 – I didn’t quite stick to my goal of blogging at least once a month this year, and certainly this has been the least garden-focused year I’ve had since I started, but branching out (pun intended) into other areas has been fun. And carving out time to write whilst rebuilding a career and keeping family life on the go has been good for helping keep the brain clear of other distractions (I finally gave up Plants vs Zombies, yay me!)

I do hope the poor garden gets a bit more love next year, but for now, a very happy New Year and back for more of the same in 2019!

No Room on the Tree

I can’t say that this has been the most stressful Christmas run-up we’ve ever had – no-one has been seriously ill (so far – touch wood), we aren’t moving house, I’m not pregnant or clutching a baby – but it’s certainly been the most relentless.

The timing of term dates means means school doesn’t break up until tomorrow – the 21st – and we’ve already done nearly all the big festive run-up events, some of them weeks ago now. Christmas markets, tick. Preschool nativity, tick. Tree’s up, tick. School Christmas fair and school play, tick. Family get-together, tick. Preschool outing to Winter Wonderland, and end-of-term party, tick!

All that’s left to do (all!) is festive play date with old friends from baby playgroup days, visit the tree in Trafalgar Square, make mince pies and biscuits, another family gathering on Christmas Eve, and then the big day itself.

But we are all, undoubtedly, shattered already – the Mr working long hours and me spinning all the plates trying to keep everything under control while finishing off my last few work tasks for the year. It hasn’t helped that it’s rained endlessly for the past few weeks – mornings so dark and children exhausted after school – any brief patch of daylight has me scurrying for fresh air and the outdoors.

This has been the first year, though, where Christmas has felt like a routine – and I don’t mean that necessarily as a bad thing. Both children are old enough to remember previous christmases – I realise that this is IT, now, these are their memories being laid down for the future, when I hear them say ‘I remember this decoration!’ or ‘oh, this one is my favourite’ or ‘I made this one last year’ – those, suddenly, are the moments to grasp hold of and think, I hope you remember this!

My usual goal of adding new decorations to the tree – and making some – is curtailed this year simply because there is no more room! We’d need a foot taller tree next year – which could fit, just about – to find space for anything else, although that hasn’t stopped me cramming a few new things on.

We have, above, lovely personalised baubles made by an old colleague, Stacy (you can see her calligraphy here), a cat from Southwark Cathedral (meant to represent, though nothing very like in reality, Doorkins) and a pair of Gisela Graham gingerbread bears because they were just too cute to resist.

I haven’t been completely uncreative – I had a ball of white wool doing nothing at home (I’ll never be a knitter) so I spent an evening making pom-poms for a snowball garland in the children’s room – using the old cardboard disc method they didn’t come out very successful, but they have the authentic hand-made look, and luckily someone is getting a pom-pom making kit with a wooden frame for Christmas, so I hope to have better luck next time.

What I’m perhaps most fond of, though, is the little fake tree in the girl’s room – a cheap piece of tat bought from B&Q when I was very pregnant and determined to do something special for the big girl’s last Christmas as an only child. It had fibre optic lights which finally gave up working this year, so it’s not quite as magical for children as it was before – but everything on it, (see photos above) they chose, or had a hand in making, from the very earliest playgroup trips to the angel made at preschool this year.

As with the big tree, there’s barely room to fit any more on – but wild horses wouldn’t part me from any of the things on it now.

Anyway, on to the final push to Christmas, and I’ll be back before the end of the year with my round-up of my favourite wreaths – it’s been a bumper year!

The One That Got Away

Every so often, I play fantasy Rightmove…don’t we all play fantasy Rightmove? Pick a place at random, plug in our budget (plus a bit more) and number of bedrooms, and see what our money gets us.

I’ve seen all sorts of dreamy but unsuitable places, places where the house was right but the schools weren’t, or there was a bypass thundering by, or the trains were the wrong line, or any number of other reasons not to buy it.

But even more fun for me is to play fantasy house move with an actual real house which we looked at but didn’t buy. I walk past it several times a week, and I’ve just noticed it’s back on Rightmove. Again.

The fact it’s back on the market again, and has failed to sell after repeated attempts, tells you there is something seriously amiss there – we heard a rumour about Japanese knotweed, and that several previous buyers had found they couldn’t get mortgages on it – so if we had tried to pursue it, undoubtedly it would have fallen through and we’d be left a lot worse off and back at square one.

Going for the safe option, then, the house which didn’t appear to be such a money pit, was the better choice, and all sorts of other reasons occur to me now why that house wouldn’t have been so suitable. It’s on one of the most ‘premium’ local streets, but which is also a rat-run choked with cars, and a constant jostling for parking spaces, and we wouldn’t have the advantage of the garage and drive we have at home.

But I still walk past the flaky garden wall with its straggling roses, and the tired old front porch (setting aside my own crumbling front wall and straggling roses for the time being), and think ‘I could have done wonders with that house. I could have turned it around’.

Having another chance to sneak a look on Rightmove, I can see all the things I liked at the time – high ceilings, an impressive Victorian staircase far grander than ours, two enormous double bedrooms upstairs – and the things I would have done to improve it.

There was a bizarre downstairs bathroom opening off a split-level dining room-garden room, which I would have turned into a kitchen cum family room like we have now. It was a fairly shoddy looking extension so I imagine we’d have had the whole thing demolished and redone.

The kitchen on a raised ground floor level would have become a study with cloakroom or utility opening off it – the room having two windows made it an easy option to split into two. If that didn’t work, the basement could have become a utility room or shower room.

Upstairs, besides the two large bedrooms there was a third bedroom split into two as a bedroom-study or dressing room – again, each with a window. This would have been a perfect nursery and bedroom for the girls when they were small, becoming a shared space (bedroom and playroom) when they were older, or eventually having the dividing wall removed to make one room.

Losing the downstairs bathroom would mean only one bathroom upstairs, but I imagine we could have squeezed a shower room in somewhere (when it’s fantasy Rightmove you can do what you like, hey?) and we could one day have converted the attic too, once the girls needed their own rooms, with a bathroom of its own.

We’d also have to paint the entire outside, lose the nasty 80s style aluminium windows, and get rid of that horrid porch. And do whatever I liked with the back garden – mainly just grass, 60 foot of it, a real blank canvas.

So I can daydream quite happily about what I would have done with the house that got away, without regretting it in the least. It would have been a bad mistake to try and buy it, we probably would have had to give up on it anyway, and if we had managed to buy it, it would have swallowed every penny we have – but I feel sad for the house itself.

Six years on, still shabby and unloved, and back on the market again. Somebody somewhere will take pity on it, I hope – but for better or worse, it won’t be me. Sorry, fantasy house. You are much easier to renovate in my imagination than in reality.

All For the Want of a Horseshoe Nail

I am sure I have mentioned this before, but there is something about having done a big building project which puts you off wanting to tackle the little things.

To begin with, there’s no money left, and then the need to have a break from endless workmen in the house, and the feeling that as long as most of the house is nice, you can live with the rest.

The thought of kicking off the whole recommendations – quotes – comparisons – appointments process to get one small thing fixed is heart-sinking enough, let alone the actual reality of having workmen in again.

And then after the big renovations in 2014 and a couple of smaller projects in 2015, we financially ground to a halt in 2016/2017, so nothing was going to happen then anyway (thanks, Brexit).

After a while, though, the little things begin to gnaw away at you, and there is a satisfaction in being able to tick off the small jobs one by one. For example, £90 got me pigeon spikes fitted above the bay window in the spare room = result, no more pigeon poo on the drive. It’s a small victory, but I’ll take it.

However, the thing that has bothered me is trying to get one small problem fixed and discovering it hasn’t been fixed at all, and the one small problem is symptomatic of all sorts of other things you weren’t even aware of. It always reminds me of the old poem about the horseshoe nail.

For instance, this is a patch of rising damp by the front door. Back in the old days it was hidden under a thick layer of woodchip, out of sight, out of mind. When we had the wall replastered and painted, it began to flake, so we had it stripped back and a new damp proof course inserted.

It held up for a while but started to peel and crack again – damp proof course had failed, and the trader (who we tried to contact within the warranty period) had mysteriously vanished from Rated People, damn him.

So we are back to square one with the rising damp, but we had other signs of mould appearing – in our bedroom and the spare room, and a patch on the bathroom ceiling.

It turns out, frustratingly, there is no one simple fix for all these things, they all need different solutions and to be tackled separately…frustrating, but ultimately, like the horseshoe nail, fixing one thing may have positive knock-on effects elsewhere.

The mould patch in the bathroom, we now realise, appears because it’s alongside the void of a blocked up chimney, which means there is a cavity of cold air stuck there in winter. A stronger bathroom fan should help improve ventilation in the room overall which should also help with condensation in the bedrooms.

Ah, the bedrooms. What should be the tranquil retreat from family life is a dismal gloomy room with an awkward bay window, horrid curtains and an even more horrid mustard carpet.

The worst thing about our bedroom was the mould behind the curtains. We had kept the net curtains up in our room for privacy, but they got more and more filthy and in the end I couldn’t take any more – I took down the nets one day back in Feb some time, and gave the wall and windowsill area around the bay a good scrub (baking soda is the thing to use, apparently).

The difference straight away was amazing – the room so much brighter, and of course I wondered why I hadn’t done it before.

There was a secondary motive – we had in the end decided to get new windows fitted in the living room and upstairs front rooms, (thanks, PPI payout) as we’d been debating back at the start of the year, so I’d been wanting to get rid of the nets before the new window came.

The windows were fitted in the spring and already our room is so much more pleasant – the black mould hasn’t come back and I don’t feel my heart sink when I set foot in there like I used to.

The spare room is a conundrum, though – the mould there is not under the window, the room is warm and south-east facing, (so it doesn’t get the prevailing weather) well-ventilated and only occasionally slept in, (so it’s not due to heavy night-time breathers). It is, admittedly, used for drying clothes, so that could be where all the condensation comes from.

The black mould doesn’t seem to be disappearing from the spare room, whereas in our room where we breathe all night, it isn’t coming back so far. The whole room is a mystery – it’s an odd shape with all sorts of awkward angles – and as it’s ‘only’ the guest room it probably matters the least, but I don’t want guests to have to sleep in a mouldy room!

But I’ve reluctantly admitted there is no point trying to do anything more to those rooms (when we can afford to) – redecorating, fitting new storage or tearing up those awful carpets – if the mould isn’t gone. I can’t bear the thought of having it fixed up once and then having the mould come back, like the rising damp did.

So we go back to the original suggestion – fit a more powerful bathroom fan and see if that helps reduce condensation overall. We’ve also been recommended to try dehumidifiers. Two small fixes, wait another winter to see what happens to the mouldy walls, and perhaps then we tackle the next project.

That’s without even getting on to the massive potential work to be done in the front garden where we have a wall crumbling away and a drive we can barely fit the car onto – again, no point doing a quick fix, it needs to be the whole job or nothing.

Meanwhile, I can make the most of the other investment we made this spring, new sofa and armchairs in the living room.

This is finally a room we can go to in the evening and feel we’ve left the chaos of everyday life behind. The battered old leather sofas and even more battered beige rug gone – it feels like a proper grown-up, reasonably clutter-free room. And that feeling is worth every penny!

The Wreath Lectures, 2017

Another year has rolled round and I’ve been sneaking up to front doors and admiring wreaths yet again. Last year was all about the mistletoe and silvery wreaths, this year what I’ve been noticing were cones. Big cones, little cones, it’s all about the cones.

First of all, cones with cinnamon sticks, a huge red ribbon and what looks like the contents of the fruit bowl.

Big cones, small cones and fake shiny fruit including cherries. I saw this wreath on quite a few doors locally and was slightly bemused by the apparent introduction of cherries to the festive fruit canon.

Cones with silvery leaves. Lovely.

And more cones with more silvery leaves and big silver baubles. This was perhaps the point at which I decided cones were the ‘thing’ this year.

What looks like a home-made wreath, I always like a low-hanging wreath (or perhaps I should call it a sub-letterbox? Or a below the fold?) I particularly liked this one because of the slightly wonky Easter-eggish shape.

This one appears to be coneless, but I liked the asymmetric gold leaves against the yellow door. (Poor photo, as it was a big house with steps up to the front door so I couldn’t get any closer, but I didn’t want to leave this one out).

Another yellow door and a really spectacular display – wreath PLUS ivy PLUS holly PLUS a big offcut of the Christmas tree. If you have a big grand yellow door, why the hell wouldn’t you? I would.

And in contrast, a plain green wreath not even hung up, just dropped straight on the doorknob, against an austere black door. Classy.

Another plain black door, this time with a twiggy wreath with a hint of sparkle underneath. Endorsed.

Finally, a poinsettia wreath not on a door but simply propped casually on a windowsill. Audacious, but it works beautifully.

Those are my best finds of the year, with no repeats – and finishes off a very happy Christmas. Hello to 2018 (in 20 minutes) and a big far off wave to Spring. I have a big pile of gardening jobs with my name on and I am looking forward to getting started!