Monday, 28 January 2013

Gonna dust myself off, start all over again

If you're wondering why I haven't responded to the email you sent me, or the text message, here's why. The entire house is under a layer of dust, or dust sheets, while the new floor is laid in the kitchen and the hall. Most of the time, my computer is under a layer of dust, or dust sheets, and so is my mobile, and the land line.
During the next few days, life will become even more complicated because a self-levelling screed is going down tomorrow, which needs 24 hours to set. I haven't quite worked out how I am going to negotiate this, since the screeded bit will be between my bedroom (where I sleep, obviously) and the living room (where all my stuff is). It's all very well having the contents of the kitchen in the living room if I can't actually access the microwave and the fridge.
The cats will be OK, because I'll shut them in the living room with a litter tray and their food. Come to think of it, I might even get myself a litter tray.

The living room, which currently has all the living room furniture, plus the dining room table and chairs, all the coats from the hall, the contents of the kitchen cupboards, the microwave, the toaster and a mini fridge. And the cats, of course.

The kitchen. It's going to get a self-levelling screed tomorrow, then a new stone floor and new units.

Another view of the kitchen. Please give it up on a global scale for my brother-in-law, who took out all the old units, plus the downstairs loo and utility room; took up all the parquet flooring in the kitchen and spent today jack-hammering off about 10 square yards of quarry tiles to give the tilers a reasonably level surface to screed. He is a hero.
It was a really tough job - and the tiles were so difficult to drill out that he ended up having to fill a couple of holes with concrete. He put down boards, which you can see in some of the pictures, so that the cats wouldn't walk on the concrete.
However, the cats managed to avoid the boards and leave little footprints in the concrete after all. Aren't  they clever?

The hall, minus the banisters,  and plus the kitchen doors,  which have been temporarily relocated. Somtimes, I would quite like to be temporarily relocated too.

Another view of the hall. That's some of my gardening gear on the stairs. Well, a girl can dream, can't she?

The study. Under some of the dust sheets are my piano, my desk and my computer. There are lots of other things in here too, but they've been under dust sheets so long, I've forgotten what they are.

Dust! That white patch is where I put the cat food for five minutes. I keep telling myself it will all be worth it in the end. I have to go wash my hands now - they're filthy from using this keyboard.

Friday, 25 January 2013

That "leave the garden for a year" rule

Running two blogs is trickier than I thought. When I started up this blog, about life in Bibury, Gloucestershire, I thought I would use my old blog, Victoria's Backyard, to write about gardening in general, and my new blog to write specifically about my own house and garden.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but only a couple of months in, I find myself writing about a subject that would sit equally well on either. So ... it's going on both! Apologies if you feel cheated. What can I say? I'm a cheapskate.

The classic advice when you move into a new house and garden is to leave the garden for a year before you make any changes. This allows you to see what is in the garden - to identify trees that may not have been in leaf when you moved in; to discover what bulbs come up in spring; to find out where the hot/dry spots and the cool/damp spots are; to determine the best place (shady or sunny, depending on your personal taste) to put your garden table and chairs; to see how your views of the neighbourhood (or their views of you) work when trees are both in leaf, and bare in winter.
Indeed, there are a whole host of good reasons not to rush into making changes in a garden you have only just acquired.
What the experts don't tell you, however, is that it is incredibly frustrating simply to sit and look at a garden if you are used to pottering happily outside, cutting a new lawn edge here or replanting an area there. Luckily, my garden is under a blanket of thick snow at the moment, so that has meant a few days less in the year when I am not driven mad by the urge to go outside and CHANGE THINGS!
However, it's still only January. What on earth am I going to be like by the time I've been to the Malvern Spring Show, to the Chelsea Flower Show, to Barnsley House down the road, or to the local gardens that open under the National Gardens Scheme? Even a visit to the garden centre is sometimes enough to inspire me to rejig a part of the garden completely. Must I completely ignore all these sources of inspiration and temptation?
Then there is the long list of plants that keep metaphorically poking me in the ribs, chorusing: "Plant us, plant us!" Must I really go a whole year without putting in Rosa 'Ballerina', or Viburnum plicatum tomentosum 'Lanarth', or Physocarpus opulifolius 'Diabolo', or Dianthus carthusianorum or the whole host of other things on my wish list?
Yes, there are snowdrops coming through, which is very exciting (at least, it would be if I could see them). Somewhere under all that snow, there are primroses and bluebells waiting in the wings, and I'm looking forward to their gala performance later in the spring. 
However, there are other bits of the garden that I really don't want to see in their current state this time next year - or indeed in six months' time. One is the gap between the two terraces, at the back and the side of the house, and I have already had a new walkway built that connects the two. "Now you can follow the sun right round the house with a drink in your hand," said the builder. With a drink in my hand? Are you kidding? With a heavy load of plants in my wheelbarrow, more like.
Running alongside the terrace at the back are two small borders. One is full of marjoram (where it isn't overgrown with grass, nettles and perennial weeds such as plantains). The other has a huge clump of what looks like Iris sibirica at one end, and a matching selection of grass, nettles and weeds.
When I first viewed the house, in late August, the irises had long gone over, and the borders looked a bit of a mess. I thought then that tidying them up would probably be my first project.
I've already made the borders deeper and deturfed the bits that were completely overgrown. They are full of bulbs - lots of snowdrops, by the look of them - so a full-scale replanting can wait until March. Technically, spring is too early to split the iris, but I'm going to take some of it out next month anyway, and pot up the divisions to plant in the other border or elsewhere in the garden. If they don't take, it's not the end of the world, and if they do, they will help create a sense of unity.
The experts say Iris sibirica should be divided in summer or early autumn, but the experts also say its spread is around 30cm to 90cm, depending on the variety. This particular clump, or cluster of clumps, is about 6ft in diameter. So much for experts.
I want a classic cottage-garden look here, with billowing clumps of hardy geraniums, lavender, Verbena bonariensis and roses, followed by sedums, grasses and rudbeckia to carry the torch on into early autumn.

Work on the new bit of terrace got under at the beginning of December. It's a basic block wall construction, with a traditional dry stone facade.

It's now finished, but for the first couple of weeks, I couldn't bring myself to walk on it. I was so pleased with it, I didn't want to spoil it with muddy footprints!

Making a start on the borders at the back of the house. Oh, for lighter evenings! If you do something in the garden at this time of year, you have a daylight window of about four hours. And by the time you've remembered to take a photograph, it's dark.

Ooooh, look - there's a paved bit hidden away underneath here. How lovely - almost as exciting as snowdrops.

Good vibrations and far-flung relations

When I moved into the cottage, I knew that it had been a holiday home, and that it had been owned by the Ellis family for many years. Whenever I came to view the house before I bought it, the sun always seemed to be shining, and it seemed to have an atmosphere of warmth and serenity.
I hadn't really thought much about it - there were lots of reasons why I liked the house - until my son's girlfriend came to stay at Christmas. Almost the moment that she stepped over the threshold, she said she thought the house was a very happy place, and I was intrigued that she had picked up on this.
I've never been a great one for supernatural theories. I've heard - and no doubt you have too - of the Stone Tape Theory, which holds that the events that take place in a building become somehow imprinted on the fabric of the house.
It's an intriguing theory, but I've always thought that there was a more practical explanation. When people are happy in their homes, they tend to look after them, or at least use them in a way that makes the house feel comfortable and relaxed. When they're not happy, they don't. That's why holiday rentals always seem a bit stark - there are no family photographs or personal items that show that one individual has put their stamp on the place in order to create a refuge from the world outside.
However, I like to think that my house has always been a happy home (doesn't everybody?) and I used to wonder about the Ellis family, and who had which room, and imagine the children playing in the garden and so on.
Norman Ellis bought the house in the 1970s, according to Terry, the local builder. Terry is my source of information on most local issues, and he told me that before Mr Ellis, it had been owned by a rather eccentric character called Oliver, who had a plantation of Christmas trees in the front garden. Apparently, this Oliver person was a bit of a miser, and instead of spending money on food, he would creep up the lane in the middle of the night and steal eggs from his neighbour's henhouse. Charming!
Norman Ellis and his first wife had three children: Mandy, Nick and Penny. After the death of the first Mrs Ellis, Norman married again and it was his second wife, Sue, who handled the sale of the house on behalf of herself and the three children.
I know it was a huge wrench for Sue to sell up, and I worried that the children might resent the idea of me making changes to their beloved holiday home. Perhaps it might not be too tactful to write about my activities on my blog?
 I needn't have worried. The day after I moved in, a card arrived from Mandy, who now lives in New Zealand, welcoming me to my new home. "You don't know it yet," she said, "but you have not only bought a house, you have inherited a whole new extended antipodean family!"
Sure enough, Mandy and her brother and sister have followed my progress at Awkward Hill, very often commenting here on the blog, and always in a very encouraging and positive way. At Christmas, Mandy sent me this picture of her family, all together for the first time in 10 years.

From left: Mandy's husband Don, her sons Ben (18), Lachie (16) and James (24); Mandy herself; her son Sam (20), her daughter Natalie (22), Vickie (her brother Nick's wife), Nick, and Mandy's sister Penny. She wasn't kidding about the extended family!

Nick and his wife are hoping to come over to the UK in July, and pay a visit. I really hope they make it to Gloucestershire, because it would be great to see them, and to ask Nick about life at Awkward Hill.
So, is it their happy memories that make this house such a lovely place, or the good vibrations they are sending me from New Zealand?
One final thing. When Mandy started reading this blog, I assumed that the estate agent had told her about it, but the story was a little more complicated, as Mandy explained in her email:
"When I first arrived in New Zealand 28 years ago, I worked on a thoroughbred stud farm for a wonderful family who have become my second family. They have all stayed at Bibury over the years and love it as much as we all do.
"One of the sisters lives in Australia and obviously has far too much time on her hands as she found the website and spread the news to us here. Your blog is giving meaningful pleasure to many people in all corners of the world.  I think one of the most amazing things about the internet is how it can unite people all around the world without being complicated."
I couldn't have put it better myself! 

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

So this is 2013?

So far, the new year has not got off to a good start. Yesterday - New Year's Eve - I discovered that water was seeping through the wall in my son's bedroom. A quick foray outside (it was pouring with rain) revealed that the water from the gutter at the side of the house was not pouring into the the downpipe as planned, but dribbling down the wall. I suspect some sort of leaf blockage is responsible, but I decided to wait for a less windy, less rainy day to investigate.
I was slightly cheered when Terry, the builder, appeared at the front door with a brace of pheasant for me. How kind! I hung them in the garage, to keep them cool and out of the way of the cats until I had a minute to pluck them.
In the meantime, I got on with the marathon task of sorting out all the recycling that had accumulated over the Christmas period. As I started picking through the mountain of paper and cardboard and bottles and cans in the kitchen, I noticed that a newspaper at the bottom of the bin was soaking wet. Huh? Perhaps someone had chucked a bottle in there that still had liquid in it? Stranger still, the water seemed warm.
It didn't take long to realise that the nearby radiator was leaking, and had been leaking for some time, judging by the base of the cat scratching post, which was saturated. I put all the recycling (now neatly sorted into its various bags and boxes) in the garage, and called the Dave, the heating engineer, who very kindly agreed to come out and have a look at it, despite the fact that it was 6pm on New Year's Eve, and he had a bad cold.
It took Dave about 10 minutes to sort the radiator, and he departed with my fervent thanks ringing in his ears while I got on with cooking supper. My daughter and I ate our roast lamb, watched the Graham Norton Show (I am now in love with Hugh Jackman) and wished each other happy new year while the fireworks exploded over London.
On our way to bed, we realised we hadn't seen Luigi for a while. Mario had been curled up with us while we watched TV, but there was no sign of Luigi anywhere. We called, we rattled his food bowl (normally a surefire way to get a response), but no, nothing.
A dreadful suspicion began to sidle into my brain. Perhaps he had sneaked into the garage while I was putting the recycling away. Perhaps I had shut him in the garage. Perhaps I had shut him in the garage WITH THE PHEASANTS.
My suspicions were confirmed. I opened the garage door to find Luigi sitting among a pile of feathers, licking his paws. Did he look guilty? Not a bit. He gave me a rather cross miaow, as if to say: "About time too!" and stalked into the house.
Never mind, I thought, perhaps it was good to get all the bad luck out of the way before 2013 began. This morning, I came downstairs to find that the cats had indulged in some sort of nocturnal rampage and knocked over a bottle of fabric conditioner, which had leaked all over the utility room floor.
Have a very happy 2013, everyone. And, erm, shake a tail feather, baby.