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  • Out-of-date kitchens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

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!

When is a holiday, a holiday?

Louise looked forlornly at her bicycle whilst grabbing buckets and spades and a picnic blanket. Hanging on the wall, it was tantalisingly close and yet out of reach for a few weeks.  You see, Louise had no free time because it was the holidays!

She wondered why, two weeks into the holiday with one to go, she needed a holiday.  Surely that didn’t make sense! She reflected, trying to find a clue: not having to rush around in the early hours getting everyone ready for school, was definitely a bonus and the holiday had been filled with laughter from fun-packed days out and visiting family and friends.  But relaxing?  Let’s see… she had packed the diary with entertainment, driven around the UK visiting friends and family, packed, unpacked and re-packed everyone’s suitcases several times, run a seemingly never-ending launderette, cooked and cleaned and even squeezed a wee-bit of work in too.   💡 Playing detective, she digged deeper:

There were the relentless demands:

Mum, I’m hungry.  Mum, I’m thirsty.

The boundless energy:

Mum, I’m bored.

How many minutes till we get there?

Four minutes less than the last time you asked darling….

And on a special day; the occasional bickering:

He said…. she said…

He’s had more television time than me.

She had two more smarties than me.

Her work was piling up with little free time available.  Her blog became a distant memory.  And most agonizingly of all, her prized cycle rides became like the holy grail.  Hanging on the wall and gathering dust, her bicycle was crying out to be sat on and taken for a spin.   😥

She idly wondered if a siren goes off in children’s heads when their parents’ bum hits a seat.  How do they know you are having a moment to yourself? Testing the theory whilst craving a moments peace, she made a cup of tea, grabbed a book and sneaked off to a bathroom, where she shielded herself from the incessant noise and demands by closing and locking the door.  Two pages in, an elusive calm descended – absolute bliss! And then as if by magic, her absence was noted: the door handle turned and then shook in frustration:

 Why has she locked the door?  Mum, what are you doing in there?

 Having a few minutes peace.

Can we join you?

No.

Why not, don’t you love us?

Yes I do: very much,  I just need a couple of minutes to myself.

Shall we join you?

Yes, definitely a siren she concluded, as those cherished moments were snatched away from her as they laughingly-remembered they could unlock the bathroom door from the outside.   :/

And so, her escape into the countryside at the weekends, or the occasional evening, is her nectar, her dream, her  ideal and her rejuvenation.  Consider it re-charging the battery to reward the children with more attention and energy!

Relishing the freedom and racing around the country lanes; the recent spring sunshine and warm temperatures have added to the delight.  Even the challenging 24 mph – gusting at 37 -wind today, was enjoyed.  After all for just an hour and a half of the week it was just her, her bike, tranquility and sweeping views of fields.  No petting zoos, no garishly-lit and noisy rollerskating parks, no soft-play areas, no over-crowded parks, no long car journeys.   Just bliss and this view for miles around; with the reward of precious cuddles when you get home:

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Bliss!

The cyclist’s The Birds!

Try to picture Tippi Hedren, in this image from Hitchcock’s, The Birds, on her bicycle and you’ll get a flavour of the momentary terror I felt on todays bike ride!220px-The_Birds_original_poster

Turning a corner on my bike, I encountered what seemed like hundreds of swooping and soaring birds ahead of me.  Flocking around a huge dome of freshly-dug potatoes, the birds were highly-vocal and erratic in their flying and I silently praised the protection of my helmet.

Gathering my thoughts quickly,  I wondered whether to ring my bell to attempt to clear my path, or try to pass unnoticed. Cowardly, or sensibly, I am undecided; I opted for the latter and although many scattered in different directions at my sudden appearance, I managed to miss any bird collisions and resumed normal breathing after a few metres!

The rest of the bike ride shook off the cobwebs from a week’s work, with the promise of spring in the air: a rather pleasant 12˚c, the sun breaking through the clouds and a not-too-bad 15 mph wind!

Approach with caution!

Approach with caution!

‘Dear diary, daddy’s home!!!I love him so much.’ Deployment from a child’s view

Dear diary

It feels like I don’t have a daddy.

This heart-wrenching statement, during my husband’s recent deployment, stopped me in my tracks as it dawned upon me how the separation of a few weeks can seem like a lifetime for a child.   Weeks of missing her dad, the ever-present niggling fear of him not coming  home and seeing her friend’s dads everywhere: parents evenings, school drop offs and pick ups, in town on a Saturday, down the park on a Sunday.  Dads; everywhere, except in her arms.

For a child living off-base, whose own friends don’t live this lifestyle, this can seem a very lonely and unjust existence:

It’s not fair: he missed my birthday this year and last year… My friend’s dads come to school pick  up and know who the teachers are… My friend’s dads are at their birthday parties.

My youngest child couldn’t comprehend the timescale and was constantly asking how many more sleeps.  Ever-hopeful:

Two sleeps?  Four sleeps mummy?

Trying not to dash hopes:

No, sweetheart just 98 to go.  How many is that mummy?  Not many more sweetheart, it’ll fly by.

The experiences during and after deployment are starkly different pre-children to during children.  Pre-children I recall feeling lonely and bored:  coming home after work to a silent house.  The ennui of cooking-for-one leading to small, simple meals until the evidence shows in your increasingly-gaunt face.  Watching the news obsessively to find out what is happening in a particular hotspot.

Bored and silent are two adjectives I would never use to describe deployment with children.  Quite simply, there is no time to be bored. Taking on two peoples roles, the adult at home doesn’t pause from dawn until the children are tucked into bed.  Exhaustion is your new adjective, as you take on every task: in the house, with the cars, with the children and keeping abreast of the school diary.  As you try to fill your own diary with events and day trips; to keep little minds occupied and to stave off any looming boredom.   And your own worry has to be contained to maintain a calm and strong presence for the children.

Yet children, for all their fears and insecurities, are amazingly resilient and the countdown calendar, they still won’t let me throw away, reminds me of this.  Although the first few weeks looked spectacularly measly: when fewer weeks had been crossed off than they had to go, in no time at all they developed a sense of achievement as they reached halfway and the end – the homecoming – was in sight.

But could the last week or two be any longer for a child?  How can such a short space of time, in comparison to what they have just done, turn into agonizingly drawn-out days?

Emotions run high:  anticipation, as family roles have changed and new routines have formed;  anxiety, will we all feel the same?  On edge; fearful there will be a delay, dashing their little hopes.

But then the day dawns.  And that beautiful moment in time is forever etched in my memory: two little children, both so vulnerable yet so very strong, in their daddy’s arms, holding on tight.  Tears of joy, sheer elation, happiness, relief and comfort shared by each of them.