The Great Project – half way point

We have just reached the end of week 7 of our extension. July seems a very, very long time ago, back when we had a working kitchen and a washing machine and a house not covered in layers of dust. 7 weeks since I was last able to get into my garden and do some proper weeding and pruning, or even just sit in the sunshine and enjoy my garden.

There have been some blips along the way – we learned that living without a boiler and only having an immersion heater does not mean guaranteed hot water on tap; the plumber who assured us immersions could be left on all the time was proved wrong after about 4 days.

Then there was the issue of trying to fit a skip and a portaloo on our drive, meaning all the useful stuff in the garage we thought we’d be able to get at, we can’t – until the garage door button was accidentally pressed, it opened against the portaloo and we now have a buckled garage door. Oops. (Here’s a picture of the skip being emptied, earlier this week).

Skip in action!

Skip in action!

The actual new room itself is starting to take shape – roof and three Velux windows, electrics going in, and walls for the cloakroom and teeny tiny utility room (more like a utility corridor with an alcove) are going up.

New room

New room – kitchen window on left, bi-fold door on right

There are two big things we’re waiting on now, one is the kitchen window and bi-fold doors which have to come from (where else?) Germany, and although we were given a 6 week lead time, we are told they’re already ahead of schedule (hurrah!). My well-worn joke is that wouldn’t it be great if the big truck arrived from Germany and we found we’d actually had a Huf Haus delivered? I can dream, anyway…

Then we are also waiting on the kitchen itself. This is also a 6 week wait, more or less, and whilst the room is beginning to feel like a real room, I can’t quite visualise the kitchen in the space we’ve created, and am still slightly worried there won’t be room for everything. We’ve already lost the space where the boiler was going to go, and it’s been relegated to the utility, but thankfully this does mean we gain a cupboard.

In lieu of being able to do anything really constructive with the kitchen yet, we have been planning out the rest of the room in our heads. The two things we decided we really needed were a new dining table and chairs – the old ones are well past their best – and a new sofa, as we’ll have space for a bigger one and my well-loved but battered red Sofa Workshop model won’t really suit the colours in the new room.

We are both keen on having a corner sofa, for the full relaxation potential of sitting overlooking the garden with feet up and a cup of tea (though which adult exactly gets the prime feet-up position is still up for debate…) and we liked the Finlay sofa from John Lewis…until we saw the price, so we are now on the look out for a cheaper alternative to that, although of course the other key criteria is that it must be comfortable.

I was amazed to discover when plonking down on many, many sofas, how some of them are far too soft – just like Mummy Bear’s bed, you sink down and wonder how you are ever going to get up again. On the other hand, neither do you want a sofa that’s too firm, in the ‘dentist’s waiting room’ style.

Then we come to the dining table – my original goal was a proper family table, made of good solid wood, no MDF or veneers, thank you very much! On the other hand, it’s not a country kitchen with Aga and chocolate retriever, so I can’t have a lovely Victorian pine table, as much as I’d like one, and nor do I want something too bland and modern. (I dutifully looked at Oak Furniture Village, seeing as they are so keen to sell me something on their adverts, but that’s definitely not my taste).

On the John Lewis site, I really, really liked the Harmony table, until I realised it didn’t come with any dining chairs as standard, just benches with high backs which remind me a bit too much of school or church, and are not very practical compared to a bench that can slide under the table.

John Lewis recommended the chairs to go with this table were the Eames moulded plastic chairs – well, I know, it’s Eames, you can’t really go wrong, can you? That is until I tried sitting on one, and discovered that although it’s comfortable, it’s not what I’d call £328 comfortable.

And as a friend pointed out, why buy Eames chairs when they are going to be scribbled over and dribbled on with bolognese sauce for the next few years? – you can always by designer furniture later on. Then we discovered that the bog-standard moulded plastic chairs in the John Lewis cafe were just as comfortable for a fraction of the price…so those are now on the ‘maybe’ list.

Whilst in JL, we also spotted a table that seemed to answer everything we needed – Mira has a sleek, unfussy style that would go perfectly with our kitchen without veering too much into the retro 50s style (e.g. Ercol) which I like very much but am not sure I could live with. The Mira range also has a bench without a back which would slide perfectly under the table and be great functional seating for children.

We were quite happily decided that this was the table for us, until I checked the website and saw some of the reviews: “The only thing to be aware of is that the table top stains very easily…currently looking for a product to protect without effecting [sic] the matt/untreated-style finish”, and “Secondly, the table stains so easily, every mark shows. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of protective coating on the wood. It’s a great table for short-term use but we have now had ours for less than 6 months and it is starting to look worn and tired. Such a shame”.

That threw up a big red flag – sure, we have an oilcloth we could put over the table, but the legs and the bench would still be vulnerable, and at the moment we are going through a stage of a *lot* of toddler scribbling, on floors, the sofa, her own clothes, whatever she can get her hands on. We need a heavy duty table that can take a lot of knocks, and I’m not sure Mira is that table.

So we are back at square one with the table. I’ve looked at M&S, Debenhams, Ikea, House of Fraser etc, and can’t see anything else I like as much as the ones in John Lewis. I’d happily go for the Harmony table if I could decide I liked the benches with backs after all – but then, that table wasn’t actually on show in either of the shops we visited, and do I really want to order a table without seeing it for real?

We do have a back-up table, my old kitchen table from the old house, which seats 4 comfortably, but we really want a proper table sitting at least 6 or 8 in time for Christmas. With that deadline in mind, I need to keep hunting!

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A walk around…Oxford Botanic Garden

I am not sure quite why I am bothering to write anything for this blog now there’s a great opening line, as I could just upload all my photos from this trip and it still wouldn’t do justice to how much I loved the Oxford Botanic Gardens.

We had a long weekend planned in Oxford as the Mr was at a conference – and the Botanic Gardens was top of my list of places to visit. The colleges all look lovely but not the kind of place you can snoop on a weekday (especially not in exam season), climbing church towers not really toddler-friendly, and the museums I suspect she will enjoy much more in a few years.

So I had the rare luxury of going somewhere I wanted to go – and why not Britain’s oldest botanic garden?

Oxford Botanic Garden

Oxford Botanic Gardens – view across the walled garden

I was completely out of my depth identifying the trees, though many were clearly very old, but idling around the flower beds I spotted a few favourite plants – alliums, irises, columbines.

Irises

Irises

Allium

Allium

A new one to me was (what appeared to be) a white version of a verbena. I love purple verbena but the alba variety is gorgeous…one to try and get hold of one day, if I can find it.

Verbena alba

Verbena alba

The gardens spill out from a formal walled area into lawns which end abruptly at the river’s edge – a sheer (unfenced) drop which the toddler teetered on the brink of, terrifyingly, to watch ducks and punts going by.

River Cherwell

River Cherwell

Along the river side of the gardens we also found the glasshouses, not on the Kew scale but still very impressive. Lilies, cacti, carnivorous plants.

Water lilies

Water lilies – Nymphaea

Golden Barrel Cactus

Echinocactus grusonii – commonly known as Golden Barrel Cactus

Finally, and most importantly of all, there was a bench I needed to find. I had done my research, read up on other blogs, looked at Google Image Search, and I was determined to find Lyra and Will’s bench.

It really was the loveliest place I could have imagined – under a spreading tree, with its back to the river, and a view of flower beds stretching away towards the church towers and college walls.

Will and Lyra's bench

Will and Lyra’s bench

View from Will and Lyra's bench, Oxford

View from Will and Lyra’s bench – toddler in foreground

We found the names Will and Lyra scratched into the wood, and I wondered how many people will fight to sit there on Midsummer Day, and dream of lost loves?

His Dark Materials is one of those books I wish had been written when I was younger – I can take or leave Harry Potter, I haven’t tackled the Hunger Games or A Song of Ice and Fire (and I don’t intend to), but if only, if only I had been 14 or so when I first encountered Lyra and Will, it would have been a life-moulding experience.

As it is, I love the books and I re-read them religiously every year, but I know they won’t quite bind themselves to my heart the way they would have if I’d read them in the crucible of teenage angst and fury. As it is, I feel a kind of nostalgia for that white-hot intensity, but mainly a relief that it has passed.

Instead, I grow my garden, I water, I nurture and plant and weed and dead-head and prune – gentle, grown-up, non-threatening pursuits – but just for a moment, I got to be Lyra sitting on her bench, and it was just perfect.

Sitting on Lyra's bench

Sitting on Lyra’s bench

Front garden snooping: the uniformity of suburbia

One thing I’ve noticed about the time I spend traipsing back and forth with a toddler to various playgroups, crèches and parks is…how *little* I notice, relatively speaking.

We’d been retracing our steps along one particular road for several weeks, in the slightly ‘naicer’ part of town, and I’d been enjoying the general ambience of attractive suburban houses with well-kept gardens – houses like mine, but slightly smarter, with slightly posher cars outside – but without dawdling, as we’re usually on our way home and have other things on our mind, namely how soon the toddler can get to her milk and CBeebies.

Last week, however, was the last walk in that direction for a while, as a particular playgroup is coming to an end and our routine is changing. So I decided, for a change, to dawdle, and take some pictures on the way.

First of all, I saw a flower you don’t often see in the city, and a real harbinger of spring for me, Lesser Celandine. Nothing quite so heart-lifting as these lovely yellow starry flowers.

Lesser Celandine

Further along the road, though, I suddenly started noticing a rather depressing uniformity – rockery after rockery, and in virtually every garden, this rather garish lime-green plant.

I have no idea what it is, but the ubiquity of it reminded me of elephant’s ear, which I was seeing in front gardens everywhere last year (including my own, though I can’t quite face the epic task of digging it out and am reluctantly letting it thrive there).

Unknown lime-green plant

Granted, perhaps this lime green Triffid has self-seeded across various gardens, (in which case, I wonder why they haven’t dug it out…) and perhaps these people actually like it, in which case, good luck to them, but it won’t be welcomed in my garden I’m afraid.

I then spotted a slightly more subtle pleasure – beautiful lichen on a wooden gate post. They always say lichen can only flourish in good air conditions – the more lichen, the lower the air pollution – so I hope that’s a good sign…

Lichen

I was just ready to push on home when I spotted another garden I had walked past many times on the other side of the road, and never noticed – which just shows that hidden gems can be there amongst suburban uniformity.

This one had evidently drawn inspiration from Sissinghurst, as there was a beautiful white floral theme – including hyacinths and (new to me), a really lovely white forget-me-not, which I would love to have in my garden if I can find it somewhere!

White forget-me-not

Beyond that, though, what struck me about this garden was the variety of shrubs and trees used to form a backdrop for the white planting – a perfect contrast of green and white.

They even had topiary dotted around, rather than in a formal hedge – very random and apparently disorganised, but SO pleasing to the eye compared to all those other identikit gardens. So many different shades of green, and a variety of heights and textures which helps offset the otherwise basic colour scheme.

White garden

I would just like to salute those people, whoever they are, for their fine front garden. The all-white colour scheme is such a classic, and it makes me wonder what I could do with my front garden if it wasn’t already full of pink, blue, yellow, orange, red and purple flowers? (Yes, it currently resembles an explosion in a paint factory, but what can I say, I rather like it…)

Our front garden

Our front garden, spring 2014

 

The Tale of an Enormous Cabbage

In September, Brockwell Park hosted one of my favourite events of the year – the Lambeth Country Show. Imagine a funfair combined with live music, sheep shearing, goat milking, petting zoo and an amazingly diverse food market, and you have an idea – but that’s not even half of it.

Cake display

All the cakes!

The show is usually held in July, and I’d missed the previous two as I’d been on holiday (and was seriously considering planning my holidays more carefully in 2012 so that I didn’t miss it a third year in a row, it’s that good!), but this year Lambeth Council announced thanks to a lack of security staff and portaloos, due to the Olympics (yes, because there were LOADS of security staff and portaloos there…), the show would be cancelled.

Following protests from the local community, the council relented, and in a improbably gracious and considerate decision, announced that the show would be held in September instead.

I applaud the move to early autumn for two reasons and hope Lambeth keep it in September from now on – selfishly so that it doesn’t clash with my holidays again, but more importantly, the show becomes in effect a Harvest Festival, and means fruit, flowers and vegetables can be shown off at their very best.

My highlight of the weekend, apart from admiring Vauxhall City Farm’s guinea pigs, was the visit to the marquee which contains all the traditional Country Show goodies – jars of jam, perfectly round onions, cakes, crocheted loo-roll dollies (yes, they still exist…) and flower displays.

Loo roll crochet dolly

The 70s called, it wants its loo roll dolly back…

By the time I went round, the prizes had already been awarded, so cakes were missing slices and some of the wares were a little past their best, but there was still plenty to admire, including these simple and attractive displays of fresh herbs in vases…

Herbs in vases

Herbs in vases

…alongside these rather more dramatic flower arrangements – again, the change of season meant autumnal colours and Michaelmas daisies could be incorporated to pleasing effect.

Autumnal flowers

Autumnal flowers

This vase of wheatfield flowers, including ox-eye daisies and cornflowers was perhaps my favourite piece, although the worthies had only awarded it second prize.

Wheatfield flowers

Wheatfield flowers

Finally, the most impressive thing of all – the most enormous cabbage you’ve ever seen, outside a fairy tale. Lovely.

Cabbages

The most enormous cabbage!

I was pleased to see the show was as big as I’ve ever seen it, and very busy – I do hope, budget cuts notwithstanding, Lambeth keep the show going and consider holding it permanently in September from now on, and next year I will make a point of not going on holiday that weekend.

A walk around…Box Hill

This blog dates back to the beginning of September which just shows how far behind I am…we are already well into autumn and these pictures feel like the very last hurrah of summer.

Box Hill is another place I’d been wanting to visit for a while, having first encountered it in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ (although I have always wondered if the Box Hill mentioned there was the one in Bath, which I now associate with the rather more gory Box Tunnel events of ‘Being Human’), and more recently watched it as the site of the Olympics cycle road race. I also knew it was a famous spot for chalk downland flower meadows and orchids, although I realised we were in the wrong season for those.

I suspect late August/early September is probably when most things are past their best, but I still managed to spot a few interesting plants – firstly, a wild campanula which was so similar to the garden varieties it looked very incongruous in a flower meadow.

Wild campanula

Wild campanula

Besides a few usual suspects like ragwort, knapweed and scabious, amongst some dried thistle-heads was this example which had lost its fluffy seeds and, dried out, had a amazing metallic sheen to it – looking just like a child’s drawing of the sun, or some expensive piece of jewellery.

Thistle head

Thistle head

Apart from wandering across the flower meadows, we tried to follow a trail through the wooded part of the hill but got thoroughly lost – no 3G signal meant no blue dot to help us on Google maps, and the signposts for the various trail options were either missing or rather confusing. The paths through the undergrowth are so labyrinthine they had me in mind of Hansel and Gretel – we should have been dropping white pebbles or unwinding a thread like Theseus to find our way back!

We eventually emerged from the woods near Broadwood’s Folly, a ruined tower built by Broadwood of the pianos fame, and managed to work out from there a route which eventually brought us back to the car park.

Broadwood's Folly

Broadwood’s Folly

I’m pleased to report, though, that mentioning the lack of signposting on Twitter got me a friendly response from the National Trust acknowledging that they needed to do some work on this. Always good to see an organisation with a social media team on the ball! Hopefully if we go back in spring for the orchid season, we might be able to find our way round a little better.

Either way, we couldn’t miss the main viewpoint looking out over the valley – still sporting the Olympic rings – and from there it was a quick walk, fortunately, to the tea room.

Olympic rings at Box Hill

Olympic rings at Box Hill

Definitely a place I want to revisit in the spring, and next time, be prepared with a proper map, baby carrier and walking boots to do a serious hike.

‘It was abundant, it seemed as though it must go on shining forever’

The title is a line from one of my favourite novels, Possession by AS Byatt. It is taken from a description of a wildflower meadow in full bloom at the height of summer, filled with ‘scabious, yellow snapdragons, bacon and egg plant, pale milkmaids, purple hearts-ease, scarlet pimpernel and white shepherd’s purse…’ and more.

Eggs and Bacon

The scene is set in Victorian England, but seems to hark back to a prelapsarian state, some perfect ideal England that only exists in the imagination…none of those flowers can ever really have bloomed all together in the same field, not even in pre-herbicide times, surely over-zealous farmers would have slashed them back and weeded them out?

Awesome stripy caterpillars on (I think?) ragwort

They certainly didn’t always bloom like that in childhood memory – hedgerows in the 80’s were brutally slashed back, leaving bare jagged edges where they should have been properly laid (yes, I know that sounds like a double entendre) in the traditional fashion, and verges were overgrown with fertilizer-loving grasses and nettles, swamping the wildflowers, which prefer poor soil.

Knapweed and fly

Sometimes, a wildflower did creep back in…and sometimes nature had a helping hand. My mother was so fed up with the lack of flowers in our local verges that one day she scattered chicory seeds on the edge of a field, and to our amusement, they flowered for years afterwards. It’s not recommended to introduce cultivated seeds of native plants into the wild, but in this case my mum couldn’t resist doing it – and the thought of those pastel-blue flowers continuing to bloom in a bare windy corner of an Essex field makes me smile even now.

Chicory

This summer I was lucky enough to find a country lane with hedges and verges that AS Byatt would delight in. It was in the village where my parents-in-law live, where I had a rare chance to take a baby-free walk by myself and document what I saw.

A handful of photos are included here, but the list identified includes white dead-nettle, red dead-nettle, knapweed, poppy, ragwort, eggs-and-bacon (or birds-foot trefoil, to give it its proper name), red campion, white campion, scabious, yarrow, convolvulus, scarlet pimpernel, mallow, lords-and-ladies, and finally, dear old chicory.

White Campion

I was thrilled to see so many native plants flourishing in 21st century fields and hedges. It shows you don’t need to sacrifice much space from agriculture to make room for wild flowers, the insects that they depend on for pollination and other wildlife – you just need a sympathetic farmer and a bit of carefully managed neglect, rather than willful ignorance and destruction of the beauty right under our noses.

Lords and Ladies fruit spike, after flowering. Very poisonous!

Hut with a view

A recent article in the Guardian about the joys of living in huts and cabins reminded me of the various small dwellings I’ve stayed in and visited, from the huts belonging to my relatives in Wales and the Lakes to a tiny gem of a converted barn in Cornwall, and perhaps best of all, a bothy on a beach in Orkney, which had barely any furniture but a fire burning to warm any passing hikers.

However, one thing missing from my childhood was a beach hut. Whenever we went to the beach, I used to long for a hut of our own – although I was disappointed to learn you weren’t allowed to stay overnight in them, and subsequently struggled to understand what they were for.

If all you could do was sit in them during the day, and not have a fire on the beach at night, toasting marshmallows, before going back to drink hot chocolate and sleep in cosy bunks in your beach hut, what was the point?

Blinged beach hut, Felixstowe

Blinged beach hut, Felixstowe

On a recent trip to Suffolk, however, I was reminded, via the joys of the British summer, what the real purpose of a beach hut is. As we battled along the windy Felixstowe sea front, and eyed a dark cloud that threatened to break before we reached the nearest cafe, I saw smug people in beach huts who were able to brew tea on their Primus stoves, hide from the gusts behind wind breaks, and (if the clouds burst) retreat right inside to play cards or Cluedo, while those of us without beach huts had to pay to sit in a cafe and stare glumly at our smartphones.

Shoreside cabins and boats, Waldringfield

Shoreside cabins and boats, Waldringfield

In the nearby village of Waldringfield we saw even larger huts – proper cabins – with curtains at the windows, verandahs and everything, which presumably could be slept in overnight. (although we spotted one with a Portaloo cabin behind it, so evidently full plumbing is not part of the works).

What I was not able to photograph, without being too stalkerish, were the cabin interiors – but from the casual snooping I did as we walked past, I began to realise why the perennially popular ‘nautical style’ is so beloved (it’s not a design trend I’ve ever really understood).

Nautical flowers and cabins, Felixstowe Ferry

Nautical flowers and cabins, Felixstowe Ferry

The beach huts which are properly kitted out, not just used as a dumping ground for deckchairs, really are a joy – the snug little kitchen units straight out of a ship’s galley, the padded benches on opposite sides, the checked curtains at the window and the shelves of driftwood, shells and other seaside nicknacks would all look dreadfully twee if they were in Homes and Gardens or Elle Deco, but in a beach hut they look just right.

And for a really glamorous hut with a view, this one overlooking the estuary at Waldringfield, complete with sun deck and bunting, really got me drooling…

Hut with a view, Waldringfield

Hut with a view, Waldringfield

We were only there for an afternoon, but I was pleased to discover beach huts at Felixstowe are available to hire by the day – some council-owned, surprisingly – so anyone can become king or queen of their own beach hut for a day.

No, I won’t get my daydream of sleeping in a beach hut overnight and drinking hot chocolate while watching for shooting stars above the North Sea, but I can still be one of those people sheltering from the rain on a British summer’s day, brewing my own tea and eating my own sandy sandwiches, and you can bet I’ll be as smug as anything about it.