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.

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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!

Struggling into spring

I never quite understood what TS Eliot had against April, or lilacs (mine flowers in May, not April, anyway – the photo below shows its buds still squeezed tightly up in the last week of April), but this spring has certainly proved that April can indeed be the cruellest month.

As the Easter holidays approached, we’d had a few glorious sunny days, when it felt like the year had turned the corner – the clocks had gone forward, the evenings were light, and finally things had begun to grow.

Then, the Easter weekend forecast began to grow worse, and it rained solidly virtually all day on Good Friday. Easter Saturday and Sunday stayed dry, more or less, but there was an iron grey cloud overhead all day; the sun simply vanished. It felt more like February than April.

Spring seemed to give up on us: I can count on one hand how many daffodils grew in the garden this year – it was as if the leaves came up, but the flowers thought ‘nah, can’t be bothered’.

Easter Monday we spent in Greenwich, where the Observatory was a good indoor distraction for a child ‘doing space’ at school next term – but what a dismal sight compared to the normal view across Greenwich Park! I felt sorry for the tourists seeing one of my favourite places at its absolute worst.

Having lost most of February half term to a vomiting bug, I had been banking on the Easter fortnight to be a chance for fresh air, sightseeing and fun, but fitting around work commitments, play dates and the ever worsening weather forecast meant we had little chance for proper outdoorsy exploring anywhere new or exciting.

There was one glorious, perfect sunny day in the first week of the holiday, but various plans already made that day meant we had no time to go further than Streatham Common (when it looks this lovely, though, who’s complaining?)

The next day, which started out grey but got better, we went to Crystal Palace Park, another old favourite, which as luck would have it had a funfair – I felt I was giving the children one unadulterated fun day which didn’t also involve me running errands, making a delivery or doing some other dull adult task en route.

And coming across lesser celandine spreading itself across waste ground in dappled sunlight (just outside the park) will always make my day – so that was, overall, a good day. That was the last sunshine we saw for quite some time, though.

Of course, we’ve had cold, wet and windy weather in April before – looking back at past blogs at this time of year I can see I’m always complaining about the rain and the lack of spring warmth – but there was something about the cold grey spell managing to last exactly the length of the Easter holiday which was relentless in its ability to grind me down.

We did find indoor stuff to do, naturally – the Horniman, Tate Modern, Flip Out, swimming, visits from friends and a thrilling trip to meet Doorkins, the famous Cat of Southwark Cathedral – but the endless grey skies were a monotonous backdrop to all the photos I took.

The day at Tate Modern was eerie and oppressive, with the City gradually disappearing into fog over the course of the afternoon – memorable, certainly, and perhaps a glimpse of London Dickens might recognise – but dismal when compared to past sunny day outings across the Wobbly Bridge and watching the street entertainers.

Into the second week, I felt the weather was beginning to troll me – the forecast when school went back was suddenly lovely, heading up to 24 degrees or more.

This felt like torment – all the fun times we could have been having, but the children will be back at school and preschool and I will be locked into the usual routine racing up and down the hill between them. Not fair!

In the end, it doesn’t really matter. The small ones had a fun time, and the mini heatwave, when it came, was still lovely. (We seem now to have settled back into more typical April showers followed by sunshine with a side serving of brisk winds, but the weather is set to worsen again this weekend – THANKS FOR THAT, APRIL).

Still, after the short intense burst of warmth and sun, the garden has finally caught up with itself, and May bank holiday weekend weather is looking promising – but then I’m spending it in the Lakes, famous for its prolonged dry spells and sunshine….oh well!

The Golden Age

I was sitting drinking a cup of tea at playgroup the other day when it suddenly struck me – I was coming to the end of the era of playgroups.

The toddler gets her 15 free hours at preschool after the end of the Easter holidays, so she’ll add in an extra day to the 3 she already does (we’re keeping one day free for swimming lessons), and the last remaining playgroup we go to will be a thing of the past.

It’s no big change for her, really – preschool is in the same building as playgroup, going through the same door, using the same toilets and playing in the same garden. She’s been there since September and only cried at drop-off once. Going there one extra day won’t make a big difference to her.

But for me, it has felt like the end of an era – when the big girl left preschool, I was able to think ‘there’s still one more to go, still a few years with a baby and toddler ahead of me’ – and now that time has gone. I won’t ever sit in that hall, making small talk to mums I know slightly, or get dragged up to the craft room to ‘help’ paint another picture or make a collage.

So much of my life spent in those halls, drinking tea, watching babies grow from tiny things to toddlers charging around. That time has gone, completely: it won’t ever come back again.

And it’s also made me question what I have done with all that time – so many mums have moved on, those who had to go back to work or wanted to go back, those who’ve moved away from the area, have not been in the same halls and community centres, week in, week out, like I have – and I wonder what else I could have been doing with myself?

Six years of being a non-working parent, and I haven’t written a novel (probably best all round, that one), or made my children their clothes by hand, or managed to teach the big girl to read before she started school, or taken 6 months, (or even just a month), to do some exciting life-changing travel experience with them.

Instead, their lives have been made up of the very ordinary, everyday things – the park, playgroup, the local museum, gym class, swimming, library, soft play, the park again. And yet I look back on that time, especially when I had a preschooler and a baby, before we were tied to the school routine, before Brexit, as the golden age.

Ok, so there was no sleep being had, that bit wasn’t good, but it now feels like a more innocent, carefree time, and at the time it was happening, it felt like exactly what I ought to be doing. I wanted to be with my children while they were still young, I had not wanted to go back to my old life commuting in and out of central London, and there were golden moments when it felt like it would go on forever.

I was still working alongside all this, which kept me feeling like I was keeping some other part of my brain active and interested, but it was voluntary work – work I loved, work I wanted to be doing – but the guilt of not contributing financially to the household still bothered me, and even the thought I was no longer a proper taxpayer in my own right.

I used to pay my way, do my bit for the NHS and schools and keeping this sorry country afloat; now I was an unwaged mother by choice, a ‘lifestyle choice’ according to George Osborne (huh!). Sure, we’ve saved a lot on childcare by me not working, but increasingly, this past year, the voice inside my head has been telling me I do actually feel like I want something more. I finally wanted to work because I wanted to, not because I had to – and that took a long time in coming.

And, in one of those moments which did feel like the universe presenting me with an opportunity I couldn’t say no to, work appeared. Suddenly, I am doing freelance work for a couple of local organisations, and I realise what it is all my working mum friends have been juggling all these years.

The diaries that have to be scheduled, the rushing off to meetings after preschool drop-off, the time working in cafes noted by the hour, and then making a conscious effort to switch all that off when I am actually with the kids.

And no longer being the ‘parent at home’ means struggling to keep on top of household things – when can I be home for the boiler to be serviced, or get a quote for new windows, or plan a birthday party, or find time to get things done around the house? How do parents manage to do all that when both of them work? The plan is, eventually, I can justify getting a cleaner, now we have the extra income. But even sorting that out has slipped to the bottom of the to-do list.

The good bit, though, is that I still have a girl at preschool for a whole year and a bit, so we still get our lunches and afternoons together, and a whole day on Thursdays when we swim – she is still my baby (sort of) for a while – and I have a chance to build up a career (and my confidence) in the meantime, so I won’t be completely floundering when she does start school.

And – the bit where I have to try not to blub – even though the Golden Age has finished, I had that time, we had it all together, I got to be with my girls whilst they were small – and it was good. I have that golden time locked up in its golden box, and I get to keep it.

The Last of the Melting Snow

We finally had the thaw today, and seems appropriate to use the title of a song by one of my favourite bands, The Leisure Society. We went out for a few hours today, snow still thick on pavements and lawns, and came home to find it mostly gone. Rain just as it got dark took the last of it away.

This (above) was how it looked a day ago!

Seems bizarre that just two weekends before we’d been enjoying almost spring-like weather – we’d been to Emmett’s Garden where we’d seen amazing bluebells a few years ago.

It turned out late Feb was not nearly such a special time there, barely any snowdrops, and daffodils only just appearing, but it is a lovely setting at any time of year, and has what must be one of my favourite views, anywhere.

This photo doesn’t really do it justice, but take it from me, you can see a long way into the distance, across the Weald and towards what must be some part of the South Downs, blue in the distance.

However, the blast of cold we’ve had in early March was hardly unforeseen – it had been the talk of Facebook for several weeks beforehand (I have a weather guru friend), and pretty much exactly what was predicted, came to pass.

It feels very different from the last real snow we had – 2013, memorable to me because we had just moved house and the big grown-up girl was only 9 months old.

I was terrified of going down the steep hill to our nearest high street with a buggy, and went everywhere by bus instead, because I could walk to the nearest bus stop without having to negotiate any major slopes.

I particularly remember the Monday morning trudge to the Pilates class I’d signed up to – I could get most of the way by bus, but had to edge my way down another hill to get to the church hall where the class was, and back up the hill to the library where we’d retreat from the cold for a bit, before heading home. All through the winter of 2013, well into March, it seemed to snow every Monday – that may be a slight exaggeration, but when I picture that church hall in my mind, it’s always with snow falling outside.

These days, the thought of a day where getting to a Pilates class is the only challenge, seems like a far-off dream – though, after a gap of a few years, I am doing Pilates again, much to the relief of my back and arms, which were quite tired of carrying toddler.

Despite the snow, the school run went on, meetings had to happen, and appointments kept, all with a constant stream of nose-wiping and night-time coughing and whimpering about cold feet.

Having a five-year-old who LOVES snow is thrilling, and seeing her make snow angels for the first time a joy, but when you add in a three-year-old who only wants to experience snow from under a blanket and behind glass, it gets tricky.

I had forgotten that we even had a footmuff for the buggy – it hasn’t been used for years and I had no idea where it was – so had to improvise with blankets and even a hot-water bottle to try and forestall wailing the entire length, there and back, of the school run.

Finally, school gave in on Thursday lunchtime, asked us to pick the children up early, and cancelled school on Friday. A bonus day at home was just what was needed – most of half term had been lost in a fog of sickness, and to have a free day to do fun stuff was like a bonus prize at the end of a lot of cold dull January and February days.

The down side was not being able to go out and sledge and enjoy the outdoors – the small snow refusenik would not have tolerated that – but we did the library and had haircuts and made cakes and played dominoes and had a disco party with Alexa.

Of course it didn’t go perfectly; right at the end of the day a toy got broken in a catastrophe of glitter which is never going to be satisfactorily cleaned up, but the cakes were pretty damn good.

And, before I get my soggy muddy green garden back, I will remember that, just for a minute, it looked like this….

We Aren’t Quite There Yet

It is nearly the end of January, but we aren’t quite there yet. I don’t like to let a month slip by without writing a blog, but if there ever was a month to let slip by, January would be it.

January on social media has been taken over by people giving things up – Dryanuary, Veganuary, and over on Instagram (I’ve joined Instagram, for my sins), it’s all clean living and Slimming World.

Dryanuary would seem a bit wasted on me, who can go a fortnight without drinking and barely notice it, and whilst I have been tempted to dabble in veganism (hey, you can still eat chips, and I like dark chocolate, and tofu, right?) – and I do love my shiny new HFW River Cottage veg cookbook –

…..the thought of tea with some kind of milk substitute in it just can’t be borne.

So I have limped on to nearly-the-end of January without giving anything up, or taking anything up, and it has felt like a month of endless rain. Morning school runs in the rain, and slogs down the hill to preschool in rain, and dashing back up the hill to be home before it rains (this week bought some respite; we got the rain, but we also got a rainbow). I have only ventured into the back garden to fill up bird feeders, and found the lawn to be completely sodden.

It’s the time of year I like least, because the garden feels most remote from me. I look out of the window and notice things: I must cut that back when I’ve got a minute. I never pulled up the dead Michaelmas daisies. I wonder which ferns have survived the winter. And I don’t go and look. I put it off for another month. I think, February, I’ll deal with it in February.

And then February will roll round and there is a baby girl about to turn 3 – no longer a baby! – and half term and lots of weekends taken ferrying children to birthday parties, so another month will slip by and I still probably won’t get any jobs done in the garden.

I have done what I term ‘the basics’ in the front garden – sweep up the leaves, deadhead roses, cut back the fuchsia and a few other things that have got too big for their boots – but that to me is the very least, a lick and a promise to keep the front of the house looking vaguely respectable (and I’m sure I’ve typed very similar words in previous Januaries).

There is so much more to be done out there, an entire dead hydrangea to be dug out, for starters. That’s going to be an afternoon’s work in itself – and at least two other plants which don’t deserve to be there at all, and an enormous overgrown holly which is pretty much a hedge now.

Then we have to make decisions about the really big jobs of the year – new windows, and perhaps redecorating the sad neglected bedrooms (ours and the spare), or dealing with the drive and crumbling front wall. Make the house look more respectable from the outside, or the inside? The bit everyone sees, or the bit no-one but us sees? Paging Dr Freud…

In the meantime, the snowdrops are nearly up, the catkins are on the hazel tree, and for a pound you can buy a vase of sunshine in the shape of daffodils. So, spring is coming, but we aren’t quite there yet.

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!