Sunday 26 August 2007

Adrian chews carpet

Something strange is happening. I used to be the impulsive one; the one who started major projects just as sensible people were going to bed: ripping down wallpaper; rearranging the furniture; lugging sofas up and down stairs, getting stuck and yelping for help. Meanwhile Adrian would roll his eyes and mutter darkly, ‘Why are you so damn impulsive? Why can’t you just wait?’
So I was somewhat bemused, as I lay in bed last night, to hear the distinct sound of ripping and tearing.
‘What the hell?’
Stumbling out of bed and peering over the banister to see Adrian setting into the hallway carpet with a Stanley knife.
‘What ARE you doing?’
‘Pulling up the carpet.’
Now, we had both decided the carpet needed to come up. For many reasons.
a) It was a sickly acid yellow (and not in a cool Designers Guild sort of way).
b) It was speckled with black spots all along the edges (and that wasn’t part of the design).
c) It smelled. Bad.
d) It was contributing to the General Damp Problem by dint of providing a soggy soft moss-like sponge for our dripping pipework.
e) We had peeled up a corner and discovered – oh joy! – the widest, most delectable floorboards we’d ever seen.

But then we had both agreed we would not be precipitous. We would wait for the Right Moment before ripping and tearing. Which begged the question…..
‘Why now?’
‘Er, I don’t know. It just sort of came over me.’

We’ve found, since moving into town, that things frequently just ‘come over us’. Usually alcohol. After nine years of having to be sensible and tossing coins for who became the designated driver and not being out too late because of driving to the school bus the next day has taken its toll. We are like teenagers leaving home for the first time: all sense of moderation has been flung into the ether. Since moving here, it’s been one non-stop party. Well, what do you do? Someone drops by and you offer a G&T/Pimm’s/glass of fizz, don’t you? It would be rude not to. Just as it would be exceedingly rude to go round to someone’s house for dinner/drinks/party and not pay suitable homage to their hospitality. But a few nights ago, it did dawn on me it had got a little out of hand as I found myself, on my hands and knees, climbing up the spinney steps in the pitch black after one too many glasses of Cointreau.

Anyhow, back to the carpet. Up it came in a frenzy of ripping and tearing and shredding. Hmm. Yes, there were some lovely wide boards but also some horrid new skinny pine ones and also a few patches of, er, chipboard. Not such a good look.
Then Adrian went a bit green.
‘Oh heck. We’ve just taken up the only thing between us and the Asbestos Cellar.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. It’s got a ceiling.’
‘Er, I don’t think so.’ Shining a torch down through the wide gaps between the multi-coloured patchwork of floorboards.
‘Oh ***t.’

Ah well, we have a site meeting for the asbestos removal on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, both Adrian and I have developed coughs. Psychosomatic or what?
PS - I shall, when I can bear the endless wait for uploading, bung up some pictures that show the house in its less attractive you can hardly wait.

Friday 17 August 2007

The feral children of summer

It’s reached that horrible tipping point in the holidays when children are turning feral. Well, at least mine is. The summer is stretching out for too long… There is grumbling and whining and whinging and where once he would eat most things, now anything other than chips or pizza is met with a moue of distaste or out and out retching. Any suggestion of drawing a picture or playing guitar or, heaven forfend, playing in his room is met with total horror. If there are no friends on offer to play with, James would quite happily spend chunks of his life shunting between TV, PC, Gameboy and PS2, eyes glazed, thumbs frantically beating out some arcane beat. He needs entertaining. The dread word 'bored' rears its ugly head at all available opportunities.

When did it change? When did children stop being self-sufficient and suddenly need shepherding every step of the way. When did they stop knowing instinctively how to amuse themselves and instead need lessons in play?
I suppose if I’m fair, he doesn’t have good examples in front of him – Adrian and I spend large chunks of the day glued to the computer screen. But it distresses me, this cyber-childhood. I can’t help but think back to when I was eight (oh gawd, says Adrian, here we go again – living in a cardboard box, on tuppen’th a week). But really I didn’t have much in the way of toys yet I don’t ever remember being bored. I would head off on my trusty old bicycle, sandwiches stowed in the basket, and spend the day with a friend or two, poking around in the woods, or fishing for tiddlers, or borrowing ‘Sandy’ the most disreputable mutt in the neighbourhood, which for some odd reason made him infinitely desirable. Mandy Cotton and I would fight for the honour of holding his lead as he made his royal progression, cocking his leg at regular intervals and hopping on three legs for long periods (why?).

A visit to the cinema was An Event. We would queue for hours and The 101 Dalmations still makes me wince as I remember queuing three times and not getting in. One screen cinemas eh?
Swimming was special. We’d queue again, listening with eager anticipation to the wall of sound within. Waiting for our half-hour in the hot sticky little pool that was probably more wee than water. There was barely room to move, let alone swim…and every five minutes numbers would be yelled out and one batch of children would reluctantly clamber out while a fresh batch would sidle their way in.
Then again I could spend hours sitting up in an apple tree just thinking or reading. Or I’d devise secret societies and enrol my friends, giving them badges and certificates and making them undergo endurance trials and other tests of proficiency, loyalty and girl power. I was always trying to make money and would come up with a project for each summer. One year it was an art gallery – and parents, friends and relations would have little choice but to purchase one of my ‘works of art’. The next it was a craft fair (match boxes painted and decorated with shells and sequins; knitted pot holders; felt egg cosies; dried flower bookmarks). I tried a museum which really was totally lame. Most successful (and certainly most lucrative) was the haunted house tour in which I would vanish at one point to flush the lav, racing down to ask if they’d heard the ghost knocking in the pipework. Like all good entrepreneurs I had the marketing down to an art – not only where they charged to enter but I also fleeced them for ‘badges’, ‘postcards’ and instructions on how to remove ghosts (which involved, if I recall, liberal amounts of lemon juice and a lot of shouting).

James however knows all about bored. We haul him off on walks but he gets grumpy after a mile. I suggested hut building in the spinney but he wanted me to make the hut for him (which surely defeats the object?). He’ll play football and cricket endlessly but needs another child to play with (whereas I can clearly remember spending literally hours throwing a ball against a wall – to the point where the woman who lived next-door finally complained that the repetitious noise was bringing on her migraines).
Am I being unfair? Maybe I was just a more introverted child, happy to be left alone with my imagination? My imagination conjured up an entire stable yard of horses and ponies in my suburban garden. There were the thoroughbreds Atlendor and Aragorn (guess my childhood reading); the naughty Dartmoors Whisky, Rum and Brandy; and my favourite Arab mare Misty plus others whose names and manes I have forgotten in the mists of time. Their stable was the shed and I would set up jumps on the lawn (broom handles and rakes on buckets) and, slapping my bottom with a crop, jump perfect clear rounds to the applause of the ecstatic crowd. When it rained I would sit on a special chair, over which I put a particularly fluffy bathroom mat and pretend I was riding, hour after hour, lost in the hills and moorland of my mind. Or, when my mother finally confiscated the mat (she ‘needed’ it for the bathroom) I’d sit and watch rain drops dribbling down the window, laying bets with myself as to which would win. But if I suggested this kind of pastime to James he’d think I’d gone totally mad. I don’t know, maybe it’s a girl thing.

It doesn’t help that children can no longer run free. Adrian and I endlessly wonder if we’re cotton-wooling James. Other children of his age seem to run free around town – but I fear that James is still not street-wise enough. Then, inevitably, there’s the horrible fear of What Might Happen. It’s a small town, he would be in screaming distance of at least four people he knows at any time but still……. At what age do you let children enjoy the freedom we took for granted?

So then you have to wonder, are we creating these stay-at-home cyber-children? We dislike the electronic babysitters but – in our hearts – maybe we feel they are safer than allowing children to be children. I read back this blog and hate the sound of my own voice….so righteous, so nagging, so ‘in the good old days’ pious. I guess all children are different. It would be a boring world if we turned out children who were perfect mini-me’s. I love it that James doesn’t support Arsenal, like his father. That he doesn’t ‘do’ spooky, unlike his supernaturally-obsessed mother. He’s his own boy and that is great. But…oh but….I do wish that just once in a while I would see him, silent in a tree, gazing off into the mid-distance, off with the fairies…..

Monday 13 August 2007

The Black Hole of Renovation

It sometimes feels as if we have fallen into a black hole. Hellloooooo, we wail plaintively, looking for people to help us repair the bonkers house. We cup our ears but hear nothing but the echo of our sad little voices (and the distant sound of cheering from the cricket pitch). Before we went away I had finally – after much dithering – decided on the Architect of Choice (wooed by a website with House & Garden type pictures of drop-dead gorgeous houses that had been lovingly restored and remodelled by AoC). He specialises in old houses and has green leanings – what could be better? Merrily emailed him. Email bounced back. Tried again. Boing. And again and again. No joy. Walked by his office – shut. Tried phoning – no reply, just a jaunty ansaphone that doesn’t permit messages (er, why?).

So we put him on the back burner and renewed our efforts to track down our ex-Aga man (who has been happily sorting our heating and Aga needs for the last fifteen years). He too has gone AWOL – calls not returned over the last six weeks. Once again the ansaphone clicks on, another message (even more mournful than the last).
‘Hi Paul. It’s us again [yes we say who it was!]. Er, not sure if you are getting our messages or if you’re away on holiday [longest holiday ever] or if you’re just really busy [how busy can a heating engineer BE in summer?]. Or maybe you hate us and want us to be cold and smelly. Whatever, it’s cool - just please just phone and let us know eh?’
OK, so we didn’t say the last bit verbatim but you get the drift.
At this point Adrian was so depressed he phoned the fish man – just to get the joy of a reply.

It really is a bit grim. We need the Rayburn. We really do. The day we moved in we went to wash up and found freezing cold water coming out of the taps. I went to run a bath (sorely needed) – and an inch of luke-warm water sort of juddered out. We phoned up our vendor rather sheepishly and she laughed in a sort of ‘he he he, not my problem any more!’ way and explained the situation.
‘Ah well. If you want hot water you have to turn the heating ON and turn all the radiators OFF.

‘Oh, and you can’t have all the radiators on anyway – it overloads the boiler.’
Great. I am pretty stoic but I do like a nice hot bath and I thought I’d grown out of boiling kettles to do the washing up.
We really must get a nice clear Order of Works to follow before winter kicks in. I can see fresh air through the windows of my study and James is nervous at how the slant of the hall seems to be getting more acute as the weeks go by.

I wonder though if, hand on heart, I’m trying to delay the inevitable. Maybe there is such a thing as negative cosmic ordering – perhaps I am somehow making these people vanish into thin air because in my heart of hearts I am dreading the start of the renovation? Truly I feel a bit sick at the thought of finding out the extent of what needs doing. The phrase Money Pit comes frequently to mind. Then there is the upheaval, the mess, the haemorrhaging of cash, the sauntering and careless whistling of workmen, the endless mugs of tea, the mountains of sugar (I think of Milla and wince). Not AT Milla of course, but at her accounts of life ruled by builders. Sometimes I think I’d rather just stay as we are – living with the inch of water in the cellar, the damp stains up the walls, the wobbling staircase and the slanting floors. I think I could get used to vinyl wallpaper and curtains that looks as if armies of cats had been having ripping contests. A seventies kitchen? So nearly back in fashion (just a shame half the doors are missing and the others lurch when you open them). Maybe we should treasure the bathroom with the tiles that clash with the wallpaper that clashes with the carpet that clashes with the curtains (not to mention the little hat of a lampshade that, yup, clashes with everything)……oh, forgot the Bath Knight thingy that lowers you into the bath and the plug that has to be held in the entire time the bath fills (to a giddy four inches - oh the excitement).

No, it’s no good. It must be faced. So I pour myself another glass of the red stuff and flick through a few copies of Period Living or Country Homes & Interiors and dream…..

Thursday 9 August 2007

In Praise of Northumberland

Long time, no blog…..blame two weeks in Northumberland (plus the bonkers house and the Amazonian garden). Our holiday didn’t begin auspiciously. I really didn’t want to go (still madly in love with the bonkers house and loathe to leave it) and so packed in a bit of a grump. Actually felt envious of our house/dog sitters! Then, of course, we managed to get ourselves caught in the floods in Gloucestershire and very nearly spent the night on the M5.
As we arrived in Seahouses, Adrian had a decided sneer on his face.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘I don’t like it.’
He ummed and ahhed and finally admitted it was a case of horrible snobbery mixed with an upbringing in a seaside town. OK, so Seahouses is no Southwald – it’s upfront and brassy, with ticky-tacky gift emporia and a hoard of fish ‘n’ chip shops and some truly revolting architecture. But I loved it. After all, you’d have to have a soul of lead not to sigh at the view from our cottage window: boats bobbing in the harbour, waves crashing against the wall; the Farne Islands glistening and so close you’d almost think you could doggy-paddle over to them. An expanse of the perfect wide sandy beach stretching away, punctuated by the solid mass of Bamburgh Castle. Far away, a blue impossibility, Lindisfarne, Holy Island nudging the horizon.
Adrian came round (I thought he would)…wholeheartedly admitting he was wrong and I was right (that was a moment to savour). Suffice to say, we all fell in love with the land of the North and shall be returning next year for sure.
I won’t bore the socks off you with a blow by blow account but let us say there are many reasons to visit and, out of very many, these were our favourites….

1. The most beautiful beaches in the world (probably). OK, California has bigger surf and the Bahamas have whiter sand (and warmer weather) but truly if you have children or dogs (and if you don’t) there are no beaches better….. You park your car on a verge, wander through sand-dunes and find your own bit of paradise. Perfection. No rules - dogs prance merrily and nobody tells you not to swim here or sit there. It all polices itself very nicely, thank you.
2. Barter Books in Alnwick. Adrian spent hours upon hours in this bibliophile heaven. A HUGE second-hand bookshop based in an old railway station. Comfy sofas and chairs all over the place; pots of coffee on the brew; stacks of toys and a model railway running overhead to amuse the children….
3. The Cheviots. Greedy old Northumberland. Stunning beaches AND drop-dead gorgeous hills and moorland. Exmoor with knobs on. We walked to Linhope Spout, a modest hike with the reward of a pretty fabulous waterfall at the end of it.
4. The people. Friendly, down-to-earth, wicked sense of humour. After two weeks they were kind enough to make us feel like locals.
5. Castle overload. Heck, if you’re into ten foot thick walls and turrets, get thee to Northumberland. Turn any corner and there you go – big ones, little ones, solid lived-in jobbies, desolate madly romantic ruins. To be truthful, after you’ve done about five they all start segueing into one big fortification. But at least you get some mileage out of the swords and shields you bought at the first one.
6. Hadrian’s Wall. At which we (along with every other parent in the vicinity) try to ram a bit of history down our beloved children’s throats. ‘Gosh look….this is where they had their baths. Did you know that the Romans were such an advanced civilisation….’ ‘Hey, Mum, look at me rolling down this bank.’ ‘It’s a fosse…’ Oh, give up. Buy a copy of Eagle of the Ninth (that you will read out of nostalgia and which will be stoically ignored in favour of Harry Potter septimus) and move on. At least you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth out of your National Trust membership.
7. Hexham Farmer’s Market (Saturdays). Adrian in foodie heaven buying up local meat, pasties, cakes, veg, pickles…blah blah blah. Needless to say we ate VERY well (honourable mentions too to Swallows fish shop in Seahouses and the butchers in Bamburgh).
8. Scary as hell boat ride to the Farnes. The rest of the boats are big buckets that stolidly roll around the islands. We however were told that Aqua Trax was the boat for us, and Lloydie the man to show us serious seals and birdlife. Thanks @themill! ‘Oooh, isn’t this fun,’ as we speed (yup, it’s a speedboat) out of the harbour. ‘Aaagh, when will it stop?’ as we lurch onto open water and I think we’re going to die at every 90 degree lurch. When I wasn’t in mortal terror of my life, I did manage to oooh and aaah over the seals and puffins and so on. Fruity and deeply non-PC tales come free with the fear factor.
9. Newcastle. This of course was the main reason we went to Northumberland – to make pilgrimage to ‘the Toon’…..James is (for reasons we will never fathom) a committed Magpie. He threw his last nine months’ pocket money into the maw of the St James’ Park shop and emerged with many black and white souvenirs. Then we wandered around town – and what a very nice city it is too.
10. Purplecooers. Ah, the sheer joy. Saw @themill a few times, met her lovely family and was plied with copious libations of Fleurie…..she’s a total joy and I do so wish she didn’t live at the other end of the country. Had a lovely lunch with Crystal (and met Angel too for the first time - hurrah!) and toured her very spooky house….both Angel and I had exactly the same reaction as we went into one part of the house – palpitations out of nowhere. Deeply weird.
I am still awed by what a lovely bunch of people you all are…. Adrian is slightly perturbed that our future holidays may be picked on account of which blogger lives there, rather than more rational approaches...but hey, I can think of worse places to visit than Shropshire, Suffolk, Cornwall, Yorkshire, Scotland, Ireland, France, New York, Canada, New Zealand....I know, I know, I've missed a bucketload but you get the idea....

I could go on and on but I think that’s enough for now. I felt truly desolate at leaving. It is one of the most beautiful places in the British Isles and one that is blissfully unspoilt – for now. Part of me wants to say, ‘well actually it was really crap – avoid it like the plague’ so it will remain untrendy and divine. But I can’t lie – truly it is fabulous. Do yourself a favour and get thee up there (or down there), preferably renting out Spitalford….and say hello from us.