The adventures of renovating a period house

Even our museum doesn’t have a boiler that old!”

the British Gas repairman exclaimed in delighted shock. Apparently studing our ancient boiler and trying to work out how to get the heating going again was one of their career highlights. As they scratched their heads in excited bewilderment at this never-seen-before relic, I found the remarkable boiler rather less exciting as the prospect of a cold winter stretched out in front of me.

I have always wanted to live in an old house. Having only ever lived in crisp, modern homes, or dated but fully-functioning military ones, there’s something romantic about the features in a period house: the higher ceilings, the doors and floorboards with character, the picture rails, the larger room sizes, the unusual windows and often larger gardens to boot. So when we found a period house with all the above we had to buy it, even though it needs complete renovation and was evidently last decorated in the 70s.

But living in a period house before doing it up is not as easy, or glamorous, as it first seems. I’ve spent months wearing two pairs of socks and unflattering thermals and fleeces to try and fend off the draughts coming through the floorboards and to cope with the inefficient heating.

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Check out the tiles!

And aside from the -albeit worthy – initial amusement at the décor in our downstairs loo, guests soon discover that there’s no hanging around on toilet visits given the cold quarry-tiled floor and no radiator!

According to a study, these things put would-be house buyers off a purchase:

  • Avocado-coloured bathroom suites
  • Woodchip wallpaper
  • Artex ceilings
  • Out-of-date kitchens
  • Old carpets
  • Blocked off fireplaces
  • Carpets in bathrooms

Guess what? We’ve got them all! And more! The estate agent must have been laughing all the way to the bank when we fought for this house that time forgot.

But despite the décor, the damp, the mould and the cold, we are excited at what other original features we might discover when the builders finally arrive. By tearing out all the old carpets, we have already unearthed an original oak parquet floor in the hallway, original floorboards everywhere else and thanks to the dog for chewing the carpet off the bottom stair; beautiful hardwood stairs too!

One thing is certain, when the boiler is gleefully replaced, the British Gas museum is welcome to it!IMG_0943

Mutt renovations

How ironic that the day after proudly announcing that our eight-month old puppy has never chewed anything, I came home to this!

Stair carpet

His saving grace: we have recently bought a period property that needs complete renovation and an extension, so the carpet was heading for the hills anyway!  Perhaps I should thank him for speeding up my DIY…IMG_4220

Pink Pooch Tails

Getting in touch with his feminine side!

Getting in touch with his feminine side!

“I am sure you get asked this all the time…”

a lady approached me at the beautiful Trebah gardens in Cornwall last week. Expecting the customary – since we got a Samoyed puppy at the beginning of the summer holidays – questions about the breed, I complacently replied:

“He’s a Samoyed.”

Best to get that one in quick before she had the chance to question where others had gone before:

Is it a pomeranian? [Rendered speechless at this one: does he look like a toy dog? Is he peeking out the top of my handbag?!]

Is it an albino husky? [Did you seriously just ask me that?]

Having pre-empted the breed question,  I prepared myself for the next onslaught of:

“How big will he get?”

“Bet it’s a nightmare keeping him white!”

“Does he take a lot of brushing?”

“Does he shed everywhere?”

But she floored me with:

“Why is he pink?”

What a refreshing question and as it happens she was the first person to ask why this cute, male puppy was now a paler shade of pink!  I had wickedly-wondered (after a painting accident where he started off aubergine-coloured and then after a thorough bath by Tina, a beautiful baby pink) whether I should fabricate a much more entertaining version about his pastel-coloured dream coat, such as:

“It’s a girl puppy; they start off pale pink and gradually fade to white.”

Would people be sucked in? Would they all be hitting google trying in vain to find one of these rare mystical breeds of dog?

Two months after getting him and the questions are still asked daily.   I have flippantly considered producing a FAQ’s flier to keep in my pocket.  It would save me sounding like a broken record several times a day:

“He’ll be slightly smaller and much lighter than a Labrador.”

“He stays white by himself: he seems to have some magical dirt-repellant coat.” (Fortunately 😁😳 most of it falls off onto my kitchen floor…!)

“Not too much brushing…” (yet!)

“And no, at the moment he sheds less than my brother’s Labrador; although he will shed excessively every spring.” [That’s when I may resemble a Samoyed myself…We could enter one of those dogs-and-their-owners-lookalike competitions!]

But back to his comedy-dog colour. Will he need to stay in touch with his feminine side for a few months whilst we wait for the fur to grow and shed? Will he slink along the paths to avoid being mocked by other male puppies for his girly appearance? Will he forthwith be known as Flossie or pinky? No, no and no!  You see thanks to his weather-repellant coat, the pink has now virtually disappeared. Looking at him you are not sure if it’s a very, very pale pink or just a trick of the light!  Once more a masculine powderpuff of white…no more candyfloss shades in sight!

Who me?

Who me?

Navy nylon knickers: a bloomin’ delight of PE in the 1980s

Vacancy: one games teacher from the 80s. Skills required: (a seeming) lack of compassion. You must be able to show little/no emotion as:

  • children enter the communal showers, under your watchful eye, collecting their towels on the exit
  • you insist on showers after games, even if children forget their towel. Make them air dry!
  • children shiver during winter sports, wearing barely any sports clothes ❄️☔️
  • you insist that children play sport without parts of their uniform if ‘accidentally’ forgotten. What’s a bit of embarrassment?!

Benefits: no communal showers for you! 😄 And you can comfortably shout, from the sidelines of the sports pitch, in your tracksuit top and bottoms during our cold winters.

According to the Telegraph (June 23, 2009), almost a third (29.3 per cent) of those questioned said PE lessons were their unhappiest experience of primary and secondary school, with women more likely to have bad memories that men (34 per cent compared to 21.3 per cent).

“Hours spent climbing ropes in the gym and running across fields in little more than a vest and underwear are most adults’ worst memories of school, a poll of more than 1,250 people found.”

In contrast and seemingly a lone voice out there, I loved PE: whether climbing ropes, throwing myself into the high jump, racing cross-country or jumping into a sand pit, I relished every heart-pounding minute. It was the uniform, or rather lack of, that bemused me. Consisting of slip-on plimsolls, a white aertex short-sleeved shirt and most memorably; a pair of navy nylon knickers with elasticated waist and legs (shorts would be too generous a word for these tight-leave-nothing-to-the-imagination horrors). Navy nylon knickers, PE kit, 1980s

Jeepers creepers; these left nothing to the imagination!

Jeepers creepers; these left nothing to the imagination!

Is it any wonder women have more bad memories than men, wearing these bloomers!  Whatever inspired the design of these pants: was it Wonder Woman’s costume, or was there a fabric shortage in the 80s? In winter we were allowed to cover our navy nylon knickers with a short pleated skirt and, if we were really lucky, a sweatshirt!   We would look reprovingly at the PE teachers, standing on the sidelines in their tracksuit bottoms, shouting at us for not being more lively as the notorious British weather lashed our legs. Playing hockey or running cross country in the winter with exposed legs was not a barrel of laughs: we used to try and mitigate chapped and blue skin by smothering our legs in vaseline on icy days.

And don’t get me started on the horrors of the sweaty-smelling COMMUNAL SHOWERS: entering and walking through single file, having to collect our towels from a railing as we exited… 😁 There’s no doubt about it, times have changed!  Today, games/PE is a much more pleasant experience, with less-strict games teachers and weather-forgiving games kit.   Although, when I recently considered a second mortgage to purchase games kit for my daughter (a full tracksuit – no chance of cold legs there – a hoody, a thermal base layer, winter, summer and house-coloured sports tops, a skort, various socks and games and swim bag), I couldn’t help wondering if the simplicity of the 80s navy nylon knickers and its co-ordinating get up, including the stricter PE teachers, weren’t such a bad idea after all…?

Thank you for inspiring my trip down memory lane lovely AGMA 😘 with your post, Don’t be fooled by the smile.

Back in the saddle!

Hailstones on a sunny day in June! Hailstones in June!Who could have predicted it? Well certainly not my cycling buddy’s weather forecast: it has become something of a private joke between us that we should expect the opposite to what her weather forecast states!

Dressed simply in cycling jackets and shorts – given the sunshine when we set off – the unexpected battering of hailstones blurred our glasses, chilled our arms and legs and quickly soaked through our lycra! There really is nothing quite like the great British weather and yet I would do it all again, as today is the first time I have been back in the saddle since my enforced no strenous exercise ban for a couple of weeks post-cardiac ablation.IMG_3206

Aside from jogging alongside my little one on his bicycle, this was my first serious test of my modified heart-rate!  Was I scared? Absolutely not;  but I could certainly feel nervous excitement coursing through me before I set off!

It was a little like cycling in someone else’s body!  Bizarrely, where previously cycling uphill felt much like my Mini Cooper’s supercharger kicking in: with my heartrate speeding up pretty fast, today I felt a bit like I had borrowed an old four-wheel-drive: a bit sluggish to get started, with my heartrate not racing into its familiar speed, yet quicker to settle back to normal.  But then again, I could just be looking into things too deeply!

Looking forward to the next ride; albeit preferably (📢 did you hear that Petra?! 📢) without the hailstones!

Fifty shades of creepy holiday!

Have you ever had a scary summer holiday? I’m not talking adventurous pursuits like cycling in the mountains, or kayaking on choppy waters; no, scary in the sense of creepy, eerie, weird, something’s-not-quite-right-about-this-place, scary!

A couple of summers ago, I thought I had booked somewhere special for our holiday in Tuscany. It looked special online, in a kind of fading aristocratic way: marble pillars in the house, statues round the swimming pool and perhaps the cincher; a hidden bedroom. That’s right in the library there was a door-handle disguised as a candlestick which, when pushed, opened an entire wall of books. How cool is that! How could we not book this place, with features reminiscent of a spy film? And how could we have known it would turn out to be more thriller, than spy; more Hitchcock than Nancy Drew or the Famous Five?

Things got off to a bad start the minute I set foot out of our car. Although we had already spent a week in a villa in the mountains – surrounded by trees and streams – I didn’t have a single mosquito bite and yet when we arrived at the special villa and I left the safety of our car, they descended upon me, like bees to nectar, or flies to sh**!   Perhaps my seemingly-chicken-poxed limbs, were a warning sign from the mossies:

Get back in the car, turn around and run…

And if they weren’t, perhaps they should have been!

There was a sense of sadness surrounding this crumbling mansion that had clearly seen better days. It was evident that in the past this had been a prominent villa, with wealthy or maybe even aristocratic connections. It was large, imposing and brimming with antiques, treasures and ornaments. Relaxing holiday with children, anyone? And then at some point the villa had been demarcated between a sparring family and also for holiday use.

We were shown around our quarters, which turned out to be the downstairs part to the family home, by the owner’s son and told not to enter one of the doors: it led to a museum which we would be shown around at the end of our holiday. A museum in a villa! How unusual!  🔔 Alarm bells ringing yet? 🔔 They were certainly starting to chime after a complete tour of our quarters revealed yet more locked doors!   Once left to our own devices, I had to take a peek: it’s like that don’t touch, fresh paint sign isn’t it, or a red flag to a bull.  Finding a key – foolishly hidden on top of a cabinet – I opened the forbidden museum door and encountered an eerily quiet, pitch black stone staircase. As I ascended a few steps – seriously, what was I thinking – I could almost hear threatening music as a horror film’s heroine takes tentative steps into the unknown.   Half way up, enough was enough, well actually the shadows lining the walls were enough and I ventured no further. Hastily retreating, I locked the door and promptly positioned a chair underneath the door handle, something I repeated for the other doors leading upstairs, with my husband looking on in mild bemusement.

Topping off this unique villa were the renaissance paintings lining our walls: nude men and women from a bygone-era, everywhere. The questions:

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Why are they naked mummy?

What are they doing mummy?

Seemed rather fitting, as their eyes seemed to follow you around the room, or was that my imagination spiralling out of control?  After all, if door handles can be disguised as candlesticks in a library wall, what could hidden cameras in bedrooms and bathrooms be disguised as….?  😨

As the week progressed, the oddness because quirky and the creepiness became an odd sort of charming, until I met Miss Havisham, sorry, the owner of the villa.   Her name escaped me, as encountering this tall, skinny, elderly and clearly once-elegant lady with waxy skin and a relatively-still expression; Miss Havisham was all that sprung to mind.

It’s not often that you wish a holiday away, but this formerly-majestic, now curious villa stirred all sorts of emotions. It was quaint, oddly charming, poignantly sad in its crumbling glory and mildly disturbing. So when the promised big day –the ominous tour of the museum – arrived, the alarm bells started going a little haywire! 🔔🔔🔔

Rather than taking the route from our living-quarters, we were led through the lady’s home via yet another staircase.   Heralded by pictures of Stalin and Lenin on the left and, get this, Mussolini on the right, I averted my children’s eyes from the ancient pornographic pictures on the walls; some cartoons, some paintings. Not renaissance nudes with conveniently-placed leaves, in this wing, I should point out! Yes, there was definitely a theme going on here.   And not your stereotypical old lady’s twee or chintz theme!  Never had the Miss Havisham similarities been more apparent: the is she a sweet and harmless or somewhat sinister elderly lady thoughts; the decaying mansion and – the icing on the cake – the museum!  Littered with objects, shadows and cobwebs, we saw ancient pages containing French and Italian (pornographic again!) poems, yet more nude pictures, countless ancient and treasured antiquities and something rather macabre I’d rather not recollect. Looking around with a mixture of fascination and discomfort, driving away from that holiday felt something of an accomplishment!

Cardiac ablation: my journey

I had the most irrational thought whilst under sedation for my cardiac ablation:

This is quite relaxing really!

Given that catheters were, at that point, travelling through a vein at the top of my leg to reach my heart, I think it is safe to assume that the sedative was doing its job!

My journey to get to that hospital theatre was not easy. Up until an hour before the procedure I was ready to bolt and hadn’t signed the papers. You see, I had done what we all know we shouldn’t do and googled the risks. And although this is a relatively safe procedure with a good safety record and a very low percentage of risk, those risks are terrifying:

  • Cardiac perforation,
  • Heart attack
  • Groin bleeding/brusing/vascular damage
  • Heart block
  • Stroke
  • Death.

As I kissed my sleeping children in their beds the night before and cuddled them at the school gates that very morning, I held them longer than normal and fought back tears, because worse-case scenario, according to the risks, it could have been the last time.

No-one forced me to get this done; it was a voluntary procedure. I had to weigh up the potential risks versus the benefits. And up until last November when I found myself on the kitchen floor after fainting, with a damaged front tooth, it was a procedure I did not think I would ever opt for.  Indeed, in the days leading up to D-day, the sayings:

You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t and

Stuck between a rock and a hard place

had never held so much meaning.  On the one hand, I was facing a lifetime of ectopic heartbeats: occasionally causing dizziness, rarely causing fainting and possibly, but not certainly, over time may, or may not, cause such a burden on the heart that left ventricular dysfunction occurs. On the other hand, this procedure could cure me, or reduce the ectopic beats; provided it didn’t result in one of the risks.

It was a horrid choice. But as I sat in my hospital bed and noticed the patient going in before me was a terrified girl; barely 20 years old, and remembered the few days in November when I couldn’t walk from one side of the room to another without blackouts, I felt it was a gamble I should take. I left the Consultants with one caveat: I did not want to come out worse than I went in.  If it got risky: stop!

Papers signed, the fashion show commenced as I dressed in their finest hospital gown and paper underwear (really, I had thought the baggy paper flatterers were the reserve of the maternity ward 😉 ) and had a cannula inserted in my arm for the all-important administration of sedative and pain relief.

Sometimes you come across people who could not be more perfect for their job, and the guy who wheeled me and my bed into the theatre was the perfect example. Light-hearted, funny and warm, he did a marvellous job of trying to keep my mind off the fact that I was about to undergo a heart procedure.

Let the fun begin!

This was no quiet tête à tête; more of a busy, yet calm gathering: electrophysiologists, cardiac physiologists, nurses and a radiographer. Cold sticky pads were placed on my back so they could map the electrical activity, coming from my heart, onto screens and countless electrodes were placed on my front. Probably the most physically painful part of the procedure was injecting the anaesthetic and then inserting the small tube, which the fine wires (catheters) pass through, into a vein at the top of my leg. Reminiscent of child birth, I squeezed the life-force out of a nurse’s hand as the small tube was inserted into my vein.

I had read that some people need a shot of adrenaline to activate their extra electrical pathways. As I expected, I did not. My nerves were so shot, my palpitations felt endless and so they mapped their location pretty fast and that’s when I realised the catheter was in my heart and I hadn’t felt its journey! As the sedative took hold, my head felt like it was swimming with a slight dizziness, and that’s when I had the vague, and wholly irrational, thought that it really wasn’t so bad.

Closing my eyes, for the next hour and a half, I visualised my favourite pastime; cycling. I pictured my favourite routes and mapped them out in my head: lanes, corners, hills, buildings, farm animals, dogs… and I imagined myself sailing down those hills and passing green fields. Over and over again!  As if struggling up a huge hill, I suddenly felt my heart racing; for seconds or minutes I am not sure. That’s when I realized they had started the arrhythmia electrically, via the wires positioned in my heart, so they could ablate the area of heart muscle it comes from.  With my heart pounding in my chest, it was even easier to imagine racing on a bike, although conversely, also a sharp reminder of where I was and what I was having done!  The next two or three ablations were different in sensation: less racing heartbeat, more intense tightness or pressure on my heart and then it was all over.

Has it completely gone? We don’t know, it’s too early to tell. But hopefully it’s improved.   Sometimes, when I lay down and all is quiet, I don’t recognise my own heartbeat: it’s silent, slower, unfamiliar! Some people have to go for a second procedure, only time will tell. For now, I hope it has reduced the frequency and in so doing reduced the possible burden the extra beats can place on a heart.

The next morning we were (politely) kicked out of our beds at 0630 hours in readiness for the 20+ heart procedures and operations scheduled for that day! Taking breakfast with three others; three of us who had had ablations and one who had had a pacemaker fitted, weary smiles all round, we marvelled at the wonder of today’s medicine and the amazing people who had helped us. And as I tentatively walked to my transport it struck me as incredible that less than 24 hours after a heart procedure I was on my way home.

If you are reading this and also considering this procedure, consider how much your arrhythmia affects your daily life and ask your consultant which risks are relevant to you. As what my google search hadn’t made clear is that risks vary depending on which part of the heart is being ablated; there are different types of ablation procedures for different heart rhythm disturbances.  From my experience, of course there are far more pleasant ways to spend a day, but the procedure was quick and I am told the recovery is too.  I am not on my surgical-distracting-bike yet, but I am mobile; albeit a little tired! And hopefully in the coming weeks and months, I might just find out that my arrhythmia has been reduced too!

Name-calling and intolerance: the disappointing social media legacy of 2015s election

It was impossible to miss the comments spewed angrily on social media in the immediate aftermath of 2015s General Election. From brandishing all eleven million Conservative voters as:

selfish, arrogant, narrowminded bigots,

to vandalizing a World War Two memorial with

Tory scum,

some of the disappointed voters weren’t shy to share their feelings.

Tory poster

So why was social media awash with people deriding those who voted differently to them? If comments on Facebook and on blogposts are anything to go by, it’s because people who vote Conservative are intolerant and selfish bigots. But given that a bigot is someone who is intolerant of those who hold opposing views, by making such accusations aren’t people displaying the very intolerance they say they detest?

Some argued it’s because our electoral system, which enables a party that gets just 36.9% of the vote to form a majority Government, is not truly democratic.   A sound argument, until you recall that only four years ago 67.9% of voters opted for our first-past-the-post system in the referendum. And was there such an outcry in 2005 when Labour won on 35.2% of the vote?  Is it not a little ironic to argue for democracy, but then show a steadfast intolerance towards people who voted differently?

Although not in the same league as selfish bigots, I saw one post denouncing the PMs wife as a tart. Assuming we aren’t talking about the sweet pastry variety, I wondered on what grounds such a comment could be founded: when I consider Samantha Cameron, and the other leader’s wives, I see supportive, patient, probably long-suffering, non-limelight-hogging, strong and composed women.

Sense of humour, compassion, kindness and intelligence are just some of the attributes that bring friends together. But is it enough? Apparently some people have severed social media ties upon learning that friends don’t share the same political leanings. Who can blame them for not wanting their newsfeed clogged up with political fanfare and condemnations, but to abruptly jettison a friend from your social media accounts just because you voted differently, is that not a form of discrimination: to presume that nothing but your own view is acceptable? As a country, we promote freedom of speech and diversity, so how can defriending someone, for voting differently, resonate with our western ideology?

Usually, I try to remain engaged with such people in the hope that I might be able to change their views through debate,

said Rebecca Roache on blog post If you’re a conservative, I’m not your friend.     Said blog post resulted in an outpouring of responses; mostly shocked that the author was treating a large number of people – one in four of the voters – with apparent contempt and in so doing inadvertently arguing against tolerance, respect and diversity. Embracing a full and free exchange of opinions in politics is something to be encouraged, but isn’t it close-minded to do so with only the intent of conversion?

For me, politics, like many things, isn’t a simple case of I am right and you are wrong, or vice versa.   Things aren’t always black or white; in most situations there are shades imbetween, dare I say it shades of grey that are worth considering! In the run up to the election, social media proved itself to be a hugely powerful tool for each party: an easy and instant way to share information and present worthwhile arguments or sound economic, social and environmental aspirations.  So how disappointing that one of the lasting legacy’s in this election, on social media, will be the negative outpourings from some disappointed voters who refused to consider any merit or worth in other people’s opinions, and displayed intolerance by readily-insulting their intelligence and morality. Surely a more constructive way to try and change a future outcome would be to learn why eleven million voters chose the Conservative party, rather than attacking them with words?  I am no philosopher or economist, but I suspect it’s safe to assume that most of us – and most politicians – want the same positive things for our country; we just differ on which are the best ways to get there.  But one thing is certain: the counter-productive elements of confrontation and name-calling are best left to the playground.

The Week, May 16, 2015

The Week, May 16, 2015