The Wreath Lectures, 2016

We are definitely into the post-Xmas slump, it’s New Years bloody Eve after all, but the decorations are still up, just about, so it’s time for another wreath round-up.

I did worry, again, that I would struggle to find new and interesting wreaths this year, but as with 2015 I tried out a few new roads on my walks and I struck lucky. 

There are definitely a few common trends I spotted this year; last year was all about heart shapes, and while there are still plenty of your classic holly, ivy, evergreen and red ribbon wreaths out there, I just didn’t take so many photos of those traditional types this time round. As ever, the pictures are a bit wonky but I have tried to crop out house numbers where possible.


This year, everything seemed to have gone silver, white and sparkling. The spiky one above was a rather dramatic example, and after spotting that one it seemed everything I saw was sharp-edged, metallic, glittering and monochrome. 


And rather than holly or ivy, what I saw on wreath after wreath was mistletoe. It was definitely a bumper year for mistletoe (if only the artificial kind).


The wreath above on the yellow door with fake pearls for mistletoe berries I thought was particularly glamorous. That one is a favourite, I think.

 

The silver theme continued with these two, one with tinsel and bells and another livened up with a large pink bow.


Another spiky leafy wreath, all cream this time.


And to prove there was some colour out there, a spangly rainbow wreath to cheer things up a bit. (Stop press: I actually had this same wreath on last year’s round up, but it was too good not to include again).

If I was trying to be clever, I might say all these sharp, glittery edges and artificial textures over nature is indicative of the strange modern times we find ourselves in this year. Or maybe it’s adding a bit of sparkle and fun in the face of humdrum harsh reality. 

As I said at the beginning, there were still a lot of natural wreaths, I just didn’t photograph so many of them, but I couldn’t resist a few, as I love a good wreath/ painted door contrast.


Smoky blue door (how I love that colour!) with bright orange accents on the wreath, and pink door with a white and pine cone wreath. 

Finally, from Hatchlands Park just outside Guildford, a natural wreath with a bit more than just plain holly and ivy – look at that old man’s beard, and a gorgeous pine cone detail. Really special.


That brings another year of blogging to an end, and I hope a good 2017 awaits you all. It may not have been a memorable year for all the right reasons, but 2016 has taught me to be grateful for all the good stuff as well as weathering the less good, and I’ll try and make sure the good stuff is what I take with me into 2017.

A Christmassy day at Standen House

We got into the Christmas spirit a bit early this year, and we had a good excuse for it – on the first weekend in December we had been given the grave responsibility of looking after the Class Bear. 

We had to find something suitably exciting and festive to do: a country house with a display of Christmas trees through the ages was just the ticket.

It would be fair to say I loved Standen House from first sight – I knew it was an Arts and Crafts era house, but it was far more higgledy piggledy than I expected – the house was extended from a much earlier farmhouse, so with that house, the courtyard, stables and other outbuildings, plus a couple of farm cottages down the lane, it had the feeling of being a tiny hamlet in its own right. 

The sight of so many huge chimneys, gables, archways leading to intriguing places with steps up and down and round corners, was pure catnip to me, so I knew I was going to like it, even without the extra sheen of Christmas.

Our first hint that Standen was somewhere really special, though, was the tree in the courtyard outside the house. Not your typical red and gold baubles and tinsel – 

This day-glo colour scheme with pom-poms and tassels was so incongruous: such a glorious bright sight on a winter day – well, I applaud whoevers’ idea it was.

When we got inside the house, the first few rooms contained more conventional country house trees, but what was really special was the atmosphere of the place. Every room lit by flickering (fake, but good fake) candles, and that unmistakeable feel of a real home lived in by real people.

I particularly liked this huge tree in a stairwell with a vaguely Victorian theme – tassels and paper tartan fans, who knew fans would make such perfect tree decorations?

There was a very tasteful tree all in silver and white, but the last room had the best tree of all, one from the era taste forgot: drenched in the shiny, too-easily-shattered baubles of my childhood, snowflakes and lametta.

There were more delights upstairs as there was an exhibition of work by the textile designer Kaffe Fassett – my idea of patchwork heaven.

All of that without mentioning the Arts & Crafts interior, the artworks and lovely William Morris decor: no time to look at it all properly but there were certainly works by Burne-Jones among others. (Just room to squeeze in a pic of this turquoise pot). 

Outside, it was just as delightful. There was a tiny outbuilding which had been a playroom upstairs for the children, (still kitted out with a nice range of toys – some antique and some that could actually be played with), and downstairs was a little nook with a bench, clad in Dutch tiles.

Then we walked on a footbridge which crossed a ravine (yes, really) and took a path along the edge of the valley until we got a spectacular view across Ashdown Forest in the last of the afternoon sun. The gardens themselves are probably better seen in a return visit in spring, but the walk for this view alone was worth the trip.

 

The class bear was treated to a good day out, and the spirit of adventure he brought out in the children helped – we don’t tend to take favourite toys on days out, in case of disaster, so the bear being with us was a proper novelty.

I could write about Standen House for a LOT longer, and I am delighted that there is more of it to explore another time, but what stayed with me was the unity of the place: not just lovely gardens (usually my main criteria) but an interesting house filled with beautiful things and a magical setting. Top marks all round.

Wreathed in glory – the 2014 reboot

Our Christmas spirit came to a rather abrupt end today when we came home from the New Year’s Day trudge round the park & lunch to find our tree had fallen over! Either a draught coming in from somewhere (it has been very windy) or our tree stand is not going to last us another year.

Still, no decorations were broken and it would have been coming down in 2 days anyway, but I’m keeping all the other decorations up for a few more days to compensate for the loss of tree. And we had spent the morning hanging pictures which had been stashed away since before The Builders, so the house was already looking a bit less bare, luckily.

To make the last bit of Christmas cheer last into 2015, though, I’ll share with you some of the lovely wreaths I’ve seen around our local streets lately. Lots of interesting colours and decorations beyond the usual holly and red ribbons, I’m pleased to report!

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A very bright red berried wreath against a pale blue door in winter sun – this was the first one I spotted and I loved it!

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A simple but pleasing wicker/straw and ribbon affair.

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What a beauty – pine cones and dried orange chillies against a royal blue door. Gorgeous colours!

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All in shades of green, against a grey door. Classy.

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Possibly my favourite of the year, a lovely natural wreath incorporating dried hydrangea heads.

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Another natural wreath, this one in autumnal colours against *another* pale blue door, and this one has an unusual shape with the sprays of leaves spiralling out.

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A wreath entirely of gold leaves and berries, a bit reminiscent of the laurel wreaths given to ancient Olympians (I think I’m remembering a gold laurel wreath which features in ‘Asterix at the Olympics’.

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Jingle bell wreath, pure and simple. We have some similar jingle bell stars hanging up in the windows which the toddler is very fond of, and whilst it wouldn’t be the sort of thing I’d have bought a few years ago, I want there to be a few decorations she feels are especially ‘hers’ and which she’ll get excited about them coming out every year – exactly how I remember feeling at Christmas.

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Finally, a vision of pine cones in purple against a dark door.

Those are all the wreaths – but I have one more thing to share, a picture of the handmade decorations I sent to friends and family over Christmas.

It all started with a kit for decorations (mainly felt & buttons) I bought in Oxfam, and have supplemented with other ribbons, my own button collection and Christmas fabric which was a very well-timed birthday present. Most had cloves inside so they smelt Christmassy too.

I had so much fun making them I now feel a bit bereft without a craft project on the go – my fingers are itching to start something new.

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In any case, it feels good to start the new year with a reminder of something creative I achieved in 2014 and something which also brought a great deal of enjoyment. If I feel really inspired for next Christmas, I might make enough to sell at a craft fair, but I doubt the hours spent hand-sewing and what I spent on materials would result in a very good return on investment – still, if I enjoy the work, that’s what counts, I hope.

The year in retrospect was dominated by the stress of the building project, but also a lot of good stuff too – our summer holiday in France gave me the chance to tick 2 things off my adult ‘life list’, the Bayeux Tapestry and the Normandy landing beaches (I’d visited both as a child but had few memories of either).

Both matched up to my expectations, and this time round will be remembered for many years, I hope – and it leaves me excited about what 2015 might bring, probably not any travel abroad but a chance to explore a corner or two of Britain we haven’t seen so much of lately. The main priority will be finding a good family-friendly venue for our main holiday, now that the toddler is old enough to really ‘get’ what holidays are about, we have to make sure it’s as fun as possible for her, whilst still keeping entertainment for adults in mind (even if it’s just remembering to bring board games this time…).

The other big joy of 2014 was seeing the toddler change from a baby, this time last year, to a fully functioning, chattering child. The growth in her language after she started at nursery in May has been phenomenal, and as her nursery is a co-operative run by the parents, I’ve been privileged to see a lot of her development and interaction with other children up close myself.

She will be ready to move to preschool and towards school itself before we know it, so this time spent with her at nursery has been precious indeed, and I know she has loved it too.

There is not likely to be any gardening happening soon unless the weather gets markedly better – so the next proper, meaty blog on that topic may be some way off…and there is still plenty to occupy us inside the house, too. So for now, a Happy New Year and hope that 2015 brings good and joyful things to you all!

Our new room, inside & out

We are about 2 weeks in to having a fully functional kitchen – hurrah! – and the honeymoon period is still definitely on.

True, there have been a few bumps and scrapes on paintwork already, and the ‘fun’ of learning my way round a new oven, washing machine and dishwasher, but there is no mistaking we have a proper, workable family room at last.

Getting used to a large kitchen is an interesting challenge – room for two adults to prepare food without getting in each other’s way is a plus, but a looong walk to get to a tea towel or open the fridge door is something to get used to!

Other big improvements are a proper recycling bin rather than an overflowing bag, and finally enough deep drawers for all the saucepans.

Here’s a picture of the kitchen as it looked at the weekend: not at its tidiest, but looking well-used, I hope (we have thrown ourselves back into proper cooking with a vengeance: veg soup, roast dinner, shepherd’s pie AND veggie mushroom version, macaroni cheese, lemon pudding…I am rediscovering the joys of having enough leftovers to make Monday night dinner!)

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The dining area we all love already – table, light, and awesome fitted shelves and cupboards which we haven’t even filled…yet. Just being able to sit round the table properly to eat after months of eating on our laps is a joy.

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The bit that doesn’t feel quite finished yet is the sitting area overlooking the garden – currently occupied by my old red sofa, soon to be home to a bigger new sofa, but still awaiting storage for toys and a coffee table and whatever else we think might be missing.

The one thing I knew I would love is being able to sit down there and look at the garden – finally it doesn’t feel like the garden is separate from the house, it has become an integral part of the home.

The amount of light coming into the room is even better than I could have imagined, and even on a wet day, with rain pouring down the Veluxes, it’s a pleasure to be there just taking it all in.

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Finally, here’s some pictures of the odd little nooks and corners:

What used to be our funny inside-outside corridor, now mostly an outdoor side return, which may eventually house some kind of storage unit for garden things: it looks so much bigger than when it was ‘indoors’ it feels like a waste not to use it for something!

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Next is the teeny tiny utility cubby hole, what was going to be an actual utility room. Just big enough now for the washing machine and boiler, but it is also somewhere to leave muddy boots and gives us that little bit of extra space between us & the outside world. (And we also have, not photographed, the holy grail of the downstairs loo, and some proper hall storage for shoes & coats courtesy of a trip to Ikea this weekend).

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After a severe drenching at the weekend, the lawn we are trying to reseed is looking pretty dreadful, but we did get an hour of work done tidying up the garden on Saturday morning, before the serious rain set in.

Flower pots have been returned to the patio and overgrown shrubs hacked back, and it’s all looking a lot smarter than it has for the last few months.

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And there is always the view of the house, plus the new patio and path which I’m still in love with, to stop and admire while I’m working.

It has been a long, stressful four months of having strangers in our house 6 days a week, noise, dust and chaos, but we have gained a very happy house – now to get on with the job of living in it, and planning for Christmas. Other projects and plans can wait now for 2015 and beyond!

And we’re back in the room!

Just one week on from my last blog (this is getting a bit much, can I really keep up this regular blogging lark?) and we have come a LONG way.

We have a floor, and a working oven, and paintwork nearly all finished. We plugged in the kettle and toaster in the kitchen today, after 3 months of them being in the living room, and we had dinner cooked in the oven last night.

And here is the room as it looks today:

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A temporary sink and worktop have been put in, but we’ll still be without a hob for another 3 weeks until the proper worktop is fitted. Trying to work out what we can cook in the oven *without* needing a hob too is an interesting challenge – we can roast veg, but not if it needs parboiling first.

No bechamel sauce, no sautéing onions…but it did occur to me I could make rice pudding if I wanted to – and that would tick one of my ‘autumn comfort food’ boxes, too, though what I really crave is a big home-made vat of winter veg soup, preferably with carrot, butternut squash and lots of cumin in it.

We’ve also had a big success with the finishing work in the garden this week – a new patio and garden path have been laid, a huge improvement on what we had before.

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The lawn has taken a bit of a battering, but a bit of lawn seed and we hope to get it looking better soon (though I have my doubts it will recover much over winter).

I was a little bit aghast when I saw how much lawn had disappeared under the new garden path, but I knew I would love it once I got used to it – and already the trip down the path to the compost bin is much less of a hassle than it used to be. And a good wide, flat path makes a great surface for toddler scooting and bike riding practice.

Also here’s a view of our funny little side return and new back door –

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Actually a lot bigger than I was expecting, I’m hoping we’ll find room for some useful garden storage if I can find something very slimline or compact. At the very least, somewhere to stash a watering can or two.

We also have a downstairs loo taking shape – no door yet, and the loo has not been plumbed in yet, but the sink went in today.

We found a really compact corner sink which still had space for a cupboard below, (somewhere to stash the loo rolls!); I think it’s a really efficient use of space, but we failed to consider whether the wall we were fixing it to was strong enough to bear the load of a wall-hanging sink! Whoops!

Luckily the plumber managed to install it to his satisfaction, so I think it will be OK, but children will have to learn not to hang off it or try to climb it – a lesson there for anyone installing a cloakroom or downstairs loo, I think.

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The plumber also plumbed in the dishwasher for us, and having given it a spin tonight, I am lost in admiration at the shininess of our cutlery (I’m easily pleased…) – just goes to show that our old dishwasher, which I thought of as a reliable old workhorse, was actually ready for the glue factory. (It did have a good innings, though, it was at least 20 years old, if not more!)

What’s on next week? Washing machine arrives (woo hoo!), decorators should be finished, and the patio will be sealed, which I hope will mean we avoid the very annoying flaking off and crumbling that ruined the poor patio in the old garden. Then nothing, until the worktop is ready and the final finish of the kitchen units can begin.

And in the mean time? I’m going to spend a lot of time standing in my kitchen, staring at the lovely view of my garden, enjoying the afternoon light and the sunsets. And maybe knock up the odd rice pudding…

Furnishing a nursery, the shambolic way.

There are plenty of things to feel guilty about as a parent – too much screen time, not enough fresh air, distracted multi-tasking parents leaving toddlers to their own devices, the list goes on – but one thing I can’t bring myself to feel ‘guilty’ about is the rather chaotic state of my daughter’s bedroom.

It is, of course, no concern of hers that none of the furniture matches and the curtains and carpet have seen better days – as long as she has a comfy bed in a snug, secure, well-ventilated room with all her toys around her, what does she care?

I will, however, admit to feeling a bit ashamed that her room is such a mish-mash of styles and inadequate storage. We haven’t done anything with any of the bedrooms since we moved in, bar putting pictures on the walls and clothes in the cupboards – the rooms were all decorated neutrally and the previous owners left their curtains behind, so decorating the bedrooms has been bottom of the list in terms of priority.

Where I’ve been particularly slack is in sorting out proper storage for the toddler’s room. It is an odd shaped room, above the garage, with irregular walls and pipes sticking out in awkward places (though it also has the advantage of a bay window with a deep windowsill, facing south and east, which lets in heaps of light).

The odd corners and alcoves would lend themselves to built-in furniture, and I’d like to hide the ugly pipes, but ultimately, eventually, the toddler will probably move into one of the two larger rooms and this room will be the spare room (as it is big enough to take a double bed, just). So there is no point building in toddler-friendly toy cupboards or drawers unless they can function as adult storage later on.

What we have instead of sensible storage is a motley collection of objects – starting with an inherited, rickety three-tier shelf unit which houses everything from socks to nappies to jigsaw puzzles. This unit really ought to house ornaments and delicate objects but frankly I just don’t know what else to do with it.

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The only really sensible bit of storage is a plain and uninteresting chest of drawers – but which, no matter how often I tidy it, never seems to have quite enough space for everything. I’ve allowed some bulky items – winter coats, old grobags, spare towels – to overspill into a wicker hamper, and more things are in boxes under the bed – I just don’t see an end to the quantities of stuff I have to find homes for!

We also have a bookcase which has previously contained bibs, toiletries, and bags of cotton wool, now starting to fill up with toddler books – but I needed to find a home for my more precious childhood paperback books which were in danger of getting damaged by toddler hands.

We found these shelves from Great Little Trading Co to be a good solution – this picture shows one of a pair, also adorned with various pieces of toddler artwork and other ornamental bits I would like to keep out of her hands.

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Above the shelves is a glimpse of the bunting I made whilst waiting for the toddler’s arrival – hand sewn, very laborious. I also found time to embroider the picture below during her early months – not quite sure how I did it, but I will confess I cheated slightly to try and get the French Knots right.

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I am perhaps most fond of the mobile which hangs over her bed – five hanging birds made by me from a Crafty Creatives kit (from Box 10), which might possibly be my favourite crafty thing I’ve ever made.

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There is also a monkey I painted myself, from a kit my mum gave me – he would look better hanging from the ceiling somehow, but I haven’t worked out a way of suspending him that we won’t knock our heads on all the time!

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When I look round her room, I do feel the special and handmade objects in the toddler’s room slightly make up for the disorganised state of it – at least it’s quirky, and full of things you’re unlikely to find anywhere else, and whilst I’m never going to be an expert at dressmaking, knitting or quilting, I can take pride in having decorated her room with things I’ve made myself, which she might (hopefully) treasure for years.

My long term plans for Improving This Mess so far include starting a Pinterest board for future design and storage ideas, a way of assuaging that parental shame that her room does not resemble the beautifully decorated nurseries I’ve seen elsewhere. I am keen on the idea of book slings, which seem to be an easy-ish project I could attempt myself, but I also like the Ikea hack I first saw on Gill Crawshaw’s Baby on Board blog, using Ikea spice racks painted in fun colours as instant toddler-friendly book storage.

I doubt very much that any of these ideas will be put into action in this current bedroom – it will probably happen when the toddler moves to the larger room, which has the space and potential to be organised as a practical and fun room for an older child.

The remaining question is whether we tackle one bedroom at a time or do a big swoop on them all at once (and move ourselves into the back bedroom at the same time, with the toddler going into our current bedroom). After the big renovation work downstairs is done, the short answer is that we are in no hurry to do more right now – so the poor toddler is going to be stuck with her shambolic room for a little while longer. Sorry, love – your chance will come!

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.

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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!