Saturday, 17 November 2007

We're getting there!

It is a beautiful sunny day. J is up the scaffolding painting our new window frames, we have first fix electrics and plumbing completed, the roof is on and the floorboards are due to arrive on Monday. It is happening. But not quite quickly enough now, for my liking! We won’t be done for Christmas, but all our workmen have promised to try and get the kitchen in so that we can at least make a turkey sandwich from the doggy-bag mum and dad will, no doubt, provide.

We sit at night and look, not at our lovely open fire, but at our lovely new slipper bath instead (another eBay bargain!). We can see the TV (just) not that we watch it much anyway. We can also see cardboard boxes of extractor fans, light switches (antique dolly switches also stockpiled from eBay), taps and heat/smoke detectors (all part of building regs!). We can make tea. And toast. Oh! And we can warm soup on top of the log burner in the dining room – it is our only form of heating in the whole cottage and lit 24hrs a day.

I’ve finally killed the Dyson – it battled bravely trying to suck up dust and debris, but keeled over with a groan on Thursday. I’m posting on Freecycle for another one – it’s doomed before it gets here!

And next week I am 40! How on earth did THAT happen? I’ve an awful feeling that my birthday will coincide with the day the builders “do” the knock-through for the new staircase and I will have scuttled back to mum and dad’s out of the way. I’ve only been home a couple of weeks and my bag is already lurking in the corner, waiting to be re-packed!

Has it been worth it? Mmmmm. There’s a question! Truthfully? Yes. Absolutely. Are we broke? Totally. But our dream is taking shape and in the New Year, we will have such fun putting the icing on the cake of this wonderful job our builders are doing for us.

I can’t see out of the landing window as well but still manage to catch glimpses of our Jays, long-tailed tits and glorious bejeweled frosty mornings. We have had to relocate the bird feeders and this has caused a bit of a furore and the blue tits perch on the scaffolding and look in to tell us when they are running low! The wrens also use the scaffolding to peer in at us and the dunnocks tap at their reflections in the glass (although how they can see anything through the brick dust is beyond me).

I miss dabbling into all your lives but, to be honest, at the moment am too scared to even click on one of your blogs or visit the common room in fear of being side-tracked. I do think of you all the time and can’t wait for this all to be over so life can get back to normal. It is taking a marathon of self control to keep off the site, but I just wanted to say hello (yet again), please don’t forget me and I SOOOOO want to come back. And soon.

And next year, I hope the Welsh/Marches lot will come to me for a visit and see the end result in the flesh……………. In the meantime, if there’s a trip to Ludlow on the cards – I do still have Christmas shopping to do, girls!!xx

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Two bloggers' days and the roof starts to go on!

I started off with good intentions……… I really did. We would live in the house as the builders ripped it apart and then proceeded to put it back together, even better than before. (Note the “I’s” and “we’s”). And then the caravan came.

And now I am at my mum and dad’s. Wimp? You betcha. They are only around 15 minutes away so I can shower, eat and sleep in comfort and then return fully charged to spend the day “on site”. Note this phrase – “on site”. No longer, “at home”. I found myself saying to mum the other day that we’d be “home” for dinner at 6pm. Dad looked at me aghast over his glasses, eyebrows raised so far that they were almost on the back of his head and said “er…….. home?” total panic on his face. I grinned sheepishly.

So the bloggers’ day at Elizabeth’s was a wonderful reprieve. I was able to wear clean jeans and put some mascara on, jump into my car and spend a day in delightful company, eat lovely food and gaze at views to die for. Heaven. Jimmy, meanwhile, is in his element shinning up and down the scaffolding and camping in the house like a boy-scout. There is a definite divide in what “I can” and “we can” cope with at the moment!!

But Thursday morning took my breath away as I drove “to site” before heading off to Elizabeth’s. The sun was low and watery, with the promise of a beautiful day to come. The early morning mist floated above the ground and gently rolled up the hills so that the trees just poked out at the very tops and they looked like they were floating in cotton wool. I startled a buzzard as I drove along the lane and he flew from the farm gate up and away, silhouetted against the misty sunshine.

It was 7.30am and already I was smiling. I love days like this when nature makes Herself so…….. I guess “in your face” is the expression that leaps to mind. Everywhere I looked was gentle, rural beauty and the wildlife was there, especially if you knew where to look: rabbits jumping into verges; pheasants running along in front of the car, jumping neither left nor right, but just doing that funny run straight ahead; buzzards and kestrels out hunting for breakfast; squirrels foraging and all supported by a chorus of birdsong. Thursday was definitely one of those days that remind me how wonderful it is to be alive and to rise up above the problems we can all face in our daily lives and that, sometimes, can make us fail to see the beauty all around. Corny to say my heart felt full to bursting? I hope not.

Then, before I knew it, the sun was going down and I was heading back. This time, the night came quickly and on the last leg of the journey, my eyes felt gritty with tiredness. The day was playing over in my head and I smiled at the familiar ease we already seem to have found in one another’s company. An amazing community we have formed here on these purple pages.

It was only just after 8pm when I got back to mum’s and I ran a bath, made tea and was in bed with my book before 9pm. I battled with dry, heavy eyes and gave up trying to finish my book. My call to wish J goodnight wasn’t as long as usual and soon I was away with the fairies.

Friday was spent coordinating deliveries, paying bills and negotiating deals. It was a day attached to the phone, making builder tea and gazing at pages of Kingspan, coach bolts, battens, galvanized nails and breathable roofing membranes. By 4pm we had part of the roof trusses in place and we were skipping around like kids.

Saturday was a day for skiving off the build. No bricklayers this weekend as they have only got the 3 gable ends to finish and they have to wait for the roof to be in situ. So, with nothing to organize, choose, order or buy I leapt at the chance of meeting up with Bodran again (yep, twice in a week!).

We met at the Hop Pocket – a local craft centre with tea room and garden section selling cottage garden plants (we each bought a cranberry plant and have high hopes of home made cranberry sauce!). Nell went off to look around while we drank coffee and talked……… again. I know we have all been attracted to this site and this means we have things in common, but actually meeting up with fellow bloggers never fails to remind me just how much we really do have in common. Especially for those of us that were (dare I say it?) on t’other side before. That living in the country element and the whole lifestyle thing, ties us together and means we never run out of things to talk about.

I didn’t want to gate crash or hog Bodran’s day with Nell, so we parted company after a while but knew we’d probably bump into each other a bit later on in Ledbury. And, of course, we did. Phil Rickman, our local author, was signing his latest book (The Fabric of Sin) in the bookshop by the market house and I had my copy ready and waiting for his signature, in the back of the car. When I walked in, Bodran was already there and it was really nice, if a bit surreal, to see her smiling face 102 miles (she told me) from her home and twice in one day!

We clutched our signed copies and were chuffed to receive a free calendar too, with pictures of locations from the books. When I left, I thought of all the questions I had wanted to ask him about the locations which, of course, had flown out of my head. Next time……. He told us he has just started the 10th book……..

And now, I am back at home (yes, it IS home really – I’ve got the fire lit today and am snuggled on the sofa) waiting for our carpenter to come and measure up properly for the windows and the new staircase. The roof should be finished in 2 weeks at the latest and first fix electrics and plumbing will start straight after that. The quotes are coming in from the plasterers and we can now see the shape of things to come.

The budget has taken a hammering and the pounds are sliding out of our build account at a rate of knots. But right here and right now we don’t care because we can now see our vision starting to become reality. And we love it.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Getting above ground

Our poor little cottage is sulking. We are living in chaos, rubble and dust. All of our possessions have been boxed up and stacked in every available square inch of space. Making tea demands the skills of a contortionist as we lean over boxes and crates and we are permanently breathless from running up the stairs to fill kettles and wash mugs in a bowl in the bath.

The dogs have been remarkable. Three pairs of brown reproachful eyes follow us around as their bed has been moved and food/water bowls are carefully placed away from dust and bits of brick and mortar. They have soon adapted to the comings and goings of tradesmen and apart from a cursory sniff now, they largely ignore proceedings. Tilly, the cat, is far nosier and inspects everything with her tail high in the air and left her foot prints in the concrete outside the kitchen door.

We got up on Monday morning to 6 inches of water on the kitchen floor as our make-shift tarpaulin roof was no match for the heavy wind and rain. The water had seeped under the door into the dining room and we squelched as we stepped from the stairs.

I am writing this, huddled on the sofa. There are inches of dust everywhere, the carpets are ruined and now I am ready to cry. I gaze around, completely unable to see beyond the here and now. I gave up vacuuming and dusting every two days, at the weekend. It was a pointless waste of energy and I was becoming more and more disillusioned as the dust settled before I had turned my back.

The initial excitement and flurry of activity now seems a lifetime ago as the cold, stark reality of the can of worms we have unearthed stares at us full in the face.
“Never again!” and “Are you moving out?”
Oh how we laughed as our friends shared their past experiences – confident that we were made of sterner stuff and that it would be a breeze. Our laugh faltered slightly, only once, when our plumber asked where the caravan was going.

But things are looking brighter. We now have said caravan: a tiny, old touring caravan from a neighbour who has taken pity on us. This is why we are doing it. Apart from being totally and utterly in love with our home, this wonderful community that we live in is pulling ranks to support us in our hour of need. We have offers of cooking on M’s Aga (we go to mum’s, though, but lovely offer anyway), doing our washing at next door’s house (ditto mum), parking our cars on another’s drive, storing all our building materials on the farm yard opposite – the list goes on. We couldn’t think of living anywhere else and so we battle on with the disruption, trying to focus on the end result.

Yesterday afternoon, the rain returned and halted our joist work. We swept rain water out through the kitchen door into our longed-for “new hall”. The blue tarpaulin flapped above our heads and our wonderful chimney man was up a ladder trying to work out where to re-route the Rayburn flue pipe. After several cups of tea (no sugar, Milla and Jane!) the final verdict was we CAN’T move it. It joins the upstairs chimney and enters the wall at the lowest possible place. The flue can be boxed in and will just fit under our iron bed, but the joists will have to be spaced around it to meet fire regulations and insulated to protect the new floor boards. Technical facts and figures whiz back and forth between him and the builders, as I slink off to do some internet research to find out how hot the flue pipe gets.

And so, here I am, nursing my laptop. Another crisis sorted. But as sure as God made little apples, there’ll be another one on the way until the day finally arrives when Mr Building Inspector signs the build off and we open a bottle of champagne. I hope we don’t lose the box of glasses in the meantime……..

Tuesday, 25 September 2007


Headmistress, I did debate pretending that I'd missed the deadline for handing it in, but I have managed it in between making tea and taking delivery of another skip!


W is for warmth. I love the permeating warmth from the Rayburn. It gently wraps its arms around you and draws you in, enticing you to lean against its shiny chrome bar. The steam gently swirls from the spout of the kettle and crumpets sizzle on the hot plates. The heart and soul of our home.

O is for outside. Living in the countryside, being able to gaze from the window at undulating fields and listen to the uninterrupted sounds of nature. Whatever the weather, there is something beautiful and ever changing as the landscape moves through the seasons, bringing new delights to marvel at. From the first glimpses of Spring poking through the dark soil; the sound of birdsong; lengthening days with the promise of things to come: next is the full-on greenness and colour of Summer; casting off our heavy winter clothes and feeling the sun kissing our skin; the sound of buzzards calling in the thermals above the garden; the scents of cottage garden flowers; dining al fresco well into the lighter evenings: and then my favourite time of year – Autumn. Autumn sneaks up on you but then who can mind that when it brings presents of reds and golds to adorn our trees, followed by the crunching and swooshing of tramping through fallen leaves; the smell of log smoke curling up from the chimney and early morning mists. Then last, but not least, Winter – spiders’ webs glimmering in the frost or early morning dew, looking like they have been decorated with tiny diamonds; the stark silhouette of branches against the sky; crunching through newly fallen snow; being able to peep through lamp lit cottage windows at scenes of cosy country living and picturing the roaring fire, glass of red wine on the side and piles of throws, blankets and cushions. I am a terrible nosey parker and can’t help but glance in through such windows – they tease me and call to me to look in at the hidden domestic delights that only weave their magic at this time of year.

O again and back to outside. Oak trees. I know others have mentioned these trees for all the same reasons as me. These majestic trees epitomize everything English countryside. Living on the Herefordshire/Gloucestershire borders, many of the local houses here are timber framed and we live fairly near to the “Black and White Trail” which joins many Herefordian villages together, such as Weobley, Pembridge, Eardisley, Dilwyn to name but a few. We are using green oak to construct two porches as part of our extension works and I have been stock-piling clippings and down loading pictures of oak porches for our carpenter to get his chisel into!

Z. Oh, blimey. I guess it has to be zeal. I am often accused of being like an over-zealous puppy. I talk too much, wave my arms around and have a terrible habit of interrupting. Or Zester as I couldn’t live without mine and it gets plenty of use in our kitchen. We love to cook and whether it is on the Rayburn, electric cooker or barbeque, this little device has seen its way through a plethora of limes, lemons and oranges.

L is for lavender. I adore this plant and it is my signature scent in my Home Scents cleaning products. If you haven’t heard of this company, visit their website as it is full of wonderful products that do not contain ANY chemicals at all. Their bathroom cleaner is amazing and I can still smell it hours after cleaning.

E is for earth. I love my garden and one of the simplest pleasures is to feel the earth running through my fingers. It never ceases to amaze me that putting a seed or bulb into the earth and then, with the right conditions, it can yield a crop of wonderful flowers, cereals or fruits and vegetables. The earth can nurture and produce our food or, in complete reverse, you can bury something and it will rot away. How amazing is that?

And finally - 1967. No prizes for guessing it’s the year of my birth!

Friday, 14 September 2007

Yes, I'm still here!

Well, it’s finally happening. Our long awaited extension is under way and our feet haven’t touched the ground.

The floods in July caused chaos in our surrounding area and postponed our build as those suffering from the effects of the flood water were, quite rightly, prioritized for help. However, soon, it was our turn and our builders have not let us down. They have worked like Trojans and we are now above ground level and waiting for the brick layers to come to get us up to first lift: a builder term, I have recently learnt and am bandying around like a seasoned professional! To the rest of us, that’s up to bottom of first floor level for the joists and scaffolding to be fitted.

Our supplies of tea and sugar are vastly depleted; there are crumbs in the bottom of the biscuit barrel; our home looks like a bomb site and I am in my element (for the moment!). Today (Friday) we are having the kitchen lights taken out of the ceiling so that it can be pulled down next week. We are already in semi-gloom as the window has been taken out and a shroud of blue tarpaulin is flapping in the breeze. My beloved Rayburn is lying cold and silent, decommissioned until further notice. The Rayburn really is the heart of our home but the buzz and excitement is, surprisingly, filling the gap that appeared when it was turned off.

Next week, all of our hot water will be gone and the electrics in the kitchen will be disconnected as the roof is taken off in preparation for the new floor above. We will be using the camping stove for tea and coffee and to boil water for washing mugs, spoons and cereal bowls in a bowl in the bath. Oh joy!

My mum and dad only live 10 minutes away and have been feeding us for the last 2 weeks. We go for showers, food and clothes to be washed, and they have been absolutely golden to us. Without their calm and organized back-up, things would be so different and they are helping to keep this an enjoyable experience, rather than the nightmare it could so easily be.

We have had family traumas in J’s family during the last couple of weeks and this has threatened to bring us down. I won’t go into it too much right now – it is raw and hurtful for J, but one of his brothers is seriously ill and the effects are still rippling through the family. We have a long journey ahead but J is throwing himself into our build, although I see the pain in his eyes when he thinks I’m not looking.

I’m keeping this short but posting pictures of our wonderful chaos so that you can get a glimpse of the reason for my brief dipping in and out of the site at the moment. I think of you all lots and miss the rapport but my time on the computer is strictly limited now to keeping the spread sheet of costs up-to-date and pouring over delivery notes and cross referencing invoices. Please keep my desk free at skool and I’ll keep my coat on the peg as it doesn’t go with my overalls at the moment. I hope you are all keeping well and I would love to attend the get-together with the Welsh/Shropshire lot – thanks to Angel for keeping me in the loop. Much love.x

Saturday, 4 August 2007

Bakewell Show

The annual Bakewell Show held in the first week of August is my favourite show. There is something for everyone and I love to see the livestock, heavy horse displays, poultry collection and, of course, the horticultural area. There is a wide variety of stalls with sellers displaying their wares, offering services or just providing information, the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly and all surrounded by the heavenly Derbyshire countryside.

The sun shone, and occasionally the breeze picked up; spirits where high and, despite the glorious weather, we managed to sell a fair few brollies! The only down-side for me was this “robot” that came round twice a day to perform a street act. Even as a grownup (well, I like to think I am!) I found it very intimidating and felt my stomach lurch as it got up off the back of the cart it had been driven around in and started to move in the crowd. It was enormous and looked like something from a Terminator movie. Several young children started to cry and we even had a young teenage girl come and hide on our stall on the second day. I have to admit that it was very clever but I didn’t like it!

On the first day, Grouse came to say hello, along with her husband. She was sporting some very stylish sunglasses that she had just bought and I liked her immediately. Of course, she was nothing like I imagined but as soon as she came up to me, I knew it was her. And no, Headmistress, I’m ashamed to say that neither of us was wearing our skool uniforms! Please don’t give us too many lines! So, we gossiped a bit and giggled (that was me, as ever) and Mr Grouse stood patiently chatting to Jimmy while we girls didn’t come up for air (or was that me, again?). A lovely couple – but what else would you expect from our community? They were on their one day off a year and so they left us to get round the showground and catch all the events going on, but they came back later, on their way home, to say goodbye. (Confession to Snail Beach Shepherdess – forgot the flippin’ camera again as I didn’t get your message ‘til I got home!)

Thursday evening soon came round and we were packing up the stall ready for the journey home. We’d had a busy time at the show and I surprisingly managed to finish my Harry Potter book (I hid in the van, Grouse!) but my niece beat me to it, as I knew she would. Eventually, we were reversing on the drive and the dogs were going ballistic and then the tiredness hit me like a tonne of lead. Working these shows means that you have to be on the showground for 7.30am, as vans aren’t allowed to come in after that. And as I’m not an early morning person, by the end of the show I’m usually shattered. You’re on your feet all day and don’t pack up until 6pm, before driving back to the B&B, grabbing a shower and then going to the pub for dinner. On the last day, you also have to dismantle the stall and load that onto the van too, then drive 3 hours home. Cup of tea, bath and bed and the deep sleep of exhaustion.

Now that we are at home, sort-of-recovered, we have agreed that we would love to go back as “proper” tourists and explore the area. We only ever seem to go there for the show and don’t have time to take in the sights and make detours down tempting looking, dry stone wall edged lanes. We usually stay up at Monsal Head, which has amazing views and has whetted our appetite for this lovely county. Oh! and the natives are friendly too – what more could you want?

Monday, 30 July 2007

And the rain came.

And the rain came. I watched the news whenever I could and my heart ached in sympathy for those that had lost their homes to the water, and in one case that I saw, a lady had lost her two cats and her grief made me cry.

Tewkesbury and Gloucester aren’t that far away from me and I watched as the water levels rose, from the safety of my own home. Jimmy had to go down to London on the Friday (20 July) and as I was going away the next day, I spent the afternoon doing my housework and getting packed. The sky was leaden grey and I lit the fire when I had finished and sat staring into the flames, hoping that Jimmy was ok. He’d left at 5.30am and I hadn’t heard from him for a while and I felt the butterflies in the base of my stomach that I always do when he is on the road. The flames curled around the logs and I just sat and stared, willing him to phone me.

The sharp ringing jolted through me and I leapt up for the phone and felt the relief coursing through me at his voice saying “Hello, honey. I’m on my way home but it will be late. Probably around 11pm – traffic is hell and so are the roads.” I always say the same thing – it’s a bit of a ritual with me: “Drive carefully, love, please. Watch out for the nutters and stay off your phone!” He’s got hands free but I still think you’re not concentrating if your yacking to someone, and he hates been alone on long journeys as he is such a chatty person, by nature.

I knew I wouldn’t settle properly until he came home, so had a bath and put my dressing gown on. Dinner was an “open the fridge door and gaze inside” kind of affair, as I’d meant to be going to see Jess in her school play and having dinner at mum’s. The weather had seen the play cancelled and I didn’t fancy the fifteen minute journey in torrential downpours and mum had said to stay at home and keep safe. Little did I know how good that advice would be.

There was no letting up in the rain, and I could hear it running through the drain from the guttering into the soak-away at the front, praying that it could take that volume of water. We’re lucky that our cottage is on the brow of a hill and raised up from the lane. I stood at the bedroom window and watched the river of water flowing down the lane and knowing exactly where it would pool into a reservoir at the bottom. Time ticked on slowly and 11pm came and went. There was no way I could go to bed until he was in. I drank more tea and fed another log to the fire.

Quarter past midnight and he rang. He’d started off on the M4 (he usually gets off at Swindon and drives the rest of the way on the A419/417) but the traffic had come to a standstill. He’d found out there’d been a land-slide and managed to get off and go on the M40 to Oxford. More grid-lock. He’d grabbed a kebab (don’t go there!!) and then got on the A40 towards Cheltenham. He had no idea how fast the water was rising around him, and I told him the roads that I knew were closed from the internet and Ceefax. We plotted his journey home and I rang him with regular updates. Sod the “no phone” rule – this was serious.

Eventually, he got to Gloucester but, of course, this was flooded and he had to negotiate the back-doubles to get in the right direction for home. By the time he had arrived at Corse/Staunton he was faced with a sea of water and abandoned cars loomed out of the darkness at him. He turned around and tried to get across country but was faced with a pond of grey, swirling water wherever he looked. There was no choice but to go back to Gloucester and try another way – via Newent.

By the time he had reached Dymock it was gone 2am and I couldn’t face another cup of tea. The fire was holding on by its teeth and I refused to add more wood. He’d be home soon and all he’d want was a shower and bed.

2.15am and he rang again. The Leadon had burst its banks and taken the little hump-backed bridge with it. He’d tried to get into Ledbury to come around from the other angle but everywhere was closed. He’d come all that way and was stranded five minutes from home.

The wonderful landlords at the Beauchamp Arms had got the pub open all night and were serving hot drinks, sausage/bacon baps and offering the floor to anyone who needed it. It was packed with stranded travellers and locals alike, who just couldn’t get round the broken River Leadon. “I’m okay, love, try and get some sleep. Somehow I’ll get home in the morning – even if I have to swim.” Sleep? Yeah, right! But at least he was safe – in the warm and dry.

I was up early and rang mum. How on earth were we going to go to Devon today, with all this going on? I couldn’t leave without Jimmy being home. We couldn’t get out of the village last night, but I had no idea what the local roads were like this morning. Mum, being mum, got her beast of a Discovery out and said she would come out and see for herself. There’s no telling her. She’s ex-army and thinks she can take on the world, even if she is 60!

I was amazed when I heard her pulling on the drive. She told me the top road was clear now but that there were loads of abandoned cars. It was spooky – like the end of the world or some sci-fi film where vehicles littered the empty roads as if some great plague had befallen man-kind. The bottom of our lane was still like a reservoir, but passable with care in a 4x4. She’d spoken to a bus driver on the Gloucester route, and he’d said the A38 was clear so, if we went to Devon, that was the way to go. But there was no way we were going until Jimmy was safe and sound at home. If we could get out to go at all, that is.

Alfie barked and I shushed him, but then nearly fell over when Jimmy walked in. He was ashen but smiling his twinkly smile and we hugged. He’d set off on foot – trousers rolled up to his knees and tried to walk home. The Leadon was running far too fast and he knew he’d get swept away so turned back again towards Dymock. Then, he set off towards Ledbury, wading along the road past the golf club which was completely under water. A huge Somerfield lorry appeared from nowhere (well, Gloucester actually) and offered him a lift into Ledbury. This sized vehicle was probably all that could get through so he thought he’d go to my mum’s but once in Ledbury, he saw a farmer he knew out with his pick-up. To cut a long story short, he got a lift back to the village hall and was home.

We’ve been lucky. So many have lost their homes and some have lost their lives. But the community spirit that has come out from this leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy – a bit like in the war, I’d guess. People pulling together, working towards the same thing and offering shelter and help where they can. How it should be.

The job of cleaning up and rebuilding looms ahead. It won’t happen overnight and the scars will show for a long time. When I was in Devon, we went to Boscastle and saw the rejuvenated village, still being worked on but bustling once more. Jimmy had to go on his bike to collect the van as it was the only way round 2 days later, once the water had subsided enough to cross the broken bridge, with extreme care. The road is closed to motor vehicles so he had to go round to Ledbury to bring it home along the top road. By the time I came back from Devon, a week later, I still couldn’t use the bridge, but was able to get across at the next little hamlet. The bottom of our lane is scarred with silt and debris, but is passable once more.

The sun shone yesterday and is shining today. A simple thing, sunshine, as is the rain. Simple but powerful – too much or too little and countries can be brought to their knees. Whether you agree with climate change or not, one thing is for sure: Mother Nature demands respect and I hope that the “powers that be” take note of this latest reprimand and pull together to look after this wonderful planet.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

5 pick-me-ups and a week away

Ages ago I was tagged for 5 pick-me-ups and what with running the B&B with my mum, then house-sitting for a friend and being away in Devon…………blah, blah. So here goes:

1. Working in my garden and feeling the soil with my bare hands.
2. Having a soak in a hot bath with no light other than candles.
3. Having a foot rub.
4. Taking the dogs for a run over the field.
5. In the winter: curling up in front of the open fire and watching the flames with a glass of wine or cup of tea (depending on the time of day!!) – no music or TV, just the crackle of the flames and scent of wood smoke. In the summer: sitting out in the garden, listening to the birds and remembering how lucky I am to be here.

Five things aren’t really enough, though, are they? So many things can give me a lift – an unexpected visitor turning up for a cuppa and chat; curling up on the sofa and nattering to my best friend from “down south” always leaves me with a warm a fuzzy feeling after we hang up; catching sight of a vole or mouse foraging under the bird feeder when I’m stood at the kitchen sink; hearing the owls at night when I put the milk bottles out; watching my nephews and niece charging around the garden and swinging on the tyre in the eucalyptus tree; going for a cycle round “the block”; watching the buzzards and hearing their cry as they circle above the garden; seeing the flock of long-tailed tits returning to their roosting trees in the evening and listening to their delightful noise. I could go on and on – it really is the simplest of things that make me smile in delight.

I have just returned from my week in Devon with my mum, dad and niece. J stayed at home to do demolition jobs on the house as the extension works are finally due to start (weather permitting!). The weather wasn’t always the best but we got to take Jess to the beach for body-boarding and on the worst weather day, we went to see Harry Potter in Barnstaple. We stayed in a barn near Hartland Point ( and were delighted with the peaceful location and lovely accommodation. Each night we watched the barn owls returning and once we had a hare run past the French doors! We had a paddock to ourselves and sat out on a few evenings with a glass or two of wine and watched Jess hurling herself onto hay bales.

We went to the usual tourist places – Boscastle, Port Isaac, Tintagel, Instow, Appledore, and ate far too many cream teas (one of dad’s vices!). It was totally relaxing but I missed sharing it with J. We’ve been to all these places before together, but my mind kept straying to home and wondering how he was getting on, and just wishing he was with me. He’d have loved the barn and especially that you can take dogs, as we always leave ours behind with mum. We spoke twice a day (mobile signal permitting!) and he seemed a million miles away.

And then, suddenly, it was time to come home. I’d taken my own car down separately, as mum and co had luggage, body board, food and wine supplies (not much room left there then!) plus their large dog (a Chow), and also because I wanted some independence when we were there. So, we left a little apart (I hate driving in convoy) but the traffic was absolutely awful. I stuck it out for a while, but as soon as I could, I turned off and cut across country, through Exmoor. Familiar place names pulled me along, and soon I was back on the outskirts of Tiverton, ready to head back on the M5. I saw the sign to Dulverton and thought of Jane with a smile, knowing she had mirrored my journey on her way north last week. Eventually, I neared home but had to get off the M5 at Gloucester because it was grid-locked, and then had the fun of navigating around the closed roads, due to all the flooding. (I’ve got a totally separate blog to write about the floods, and J’s night on the floor of a local pub as our village was surrounded by a ring of water and he couldn’t get home.)

At last, I was reversing on the drive and could hear the dogs barking as they recognized the sound of my engine. They all came to the gate and J had to move them out of my way, a huge smile of welcome on his face. And then I was wrapped in his bear hug and he was telling me he’d missed me and I was so glad to be home. He’d vacuumed and done the ironing and the kettle was boiling for my mug of tea. I gave him a watery smile over the rim and sighed a contented sigh. It has been a good week but it's wonderful to be back.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Fawlty Towers - eat your heart out!

I have always wanted to run a B&B. It has been an unfulfilled dream for many years and when we moved to the country, as much as I adored my little cottage, there was a tinge of regret that it wasn’t a rambling farmhouse that I could open up to paying guests. And so, when the opportunity came, two weeks ago, to help my mum run a local “country house” B&B, I jumped at the chance. It was all arranged so quickly, I didn’t even have time to ask Headmistress for an absence pass!

Mum works there part-time helping the owners to get ready for large house-parties and weddings – preparing rooms, helping with breakfasts and even waitressing of an evening if a meal is provided as part of the package. She could now run the place blind-fold and the owners took the opportunity to slope off for a long weekend, knowing that mum would look after the 9 guests. My job was “support” – running the tea/coffee/extra toast in to the breakfast room, clearing up and making beds.

We arrived on the Friday, an hour before the guests came, and settled ourselves into the room up in the attics. The house is a romantic, 4 storey (including cellars) 15th century dream. There are paneled rooms, creaking, wide elm floorboards, nooks and crannies galore, a “servants’ staircase” complete with green baize door and a huge kitchen with a solid fuel, cream Aga. My idea of total bliss.

There are four letting rooms in the house, each complete with its own ensuite, two holiday cottages plus a further two letting rooms in the grounds. Two of the rooms are four poster and they are all furnished with antiques sourced at Tewkesbury auction rooms. The beds are traditionally made up with sheets, blankets and eiderdowns – just as I like them! And, of course, there is the obligatory tea tray and homemade biscuits or shortbread.

After we settled ourselves, we greeted the guests and showed them to their rooms. They had made dinner arrangements in Ledbury and so mum and I cooked our own supper and opened a bottle of wine (as you do!). It was a little chilly and the huge inglenook fireplace looked stark and empty without a fire, so we lit it and settled down to gossip and flip through the pile of magazines on the table – Country Homes & Interiors, Herefordshire Life, Period Living & Traditional Homes, Horse & Hound (oh, yes, really!).

We were a little perturbed when we heard some of the guests return, what we considered to be, a little too early. They went back up to their rooms and then as we shrugged and settled back down, we were amazed when the kitchen door opened and one of them was stood in the private lounge. They wanted water from the kitchen tap, but instead of coming down the front stairs and knocking at the lounge door, they walked around the back “servants corridor” and in through the kitchen and then into the lounge. We jumped out of our skin! This was to set the tone of the next 3 days.

Whenever we have stayed in B&B’s, it has always been that we vacate after breakfast and then go out for the day and return after 4pm, in order for the owners to do bedrooms, clean and prepare for next morning. Hotels are a different matter, but when you are staying in someone’s home it is polite to give them some space – well, that’s the way we have always viewed it. These guests, however, went out for about an hour and half after breakfast and then came back and hung around their rooms all day. We just had time to make beds, clean bathrooms, tidy up after breakfast and pop back to our own homes for half an hour, when they were wanting more hot water for baths at 2pm!

On our doorstep we have the Malvern Hills, the Wye Valley, the Vale of Evesham, the Cotswolds, Cheltenham, Worcester, Hereford, and a little further on (just over an hour) Stratford-upon-Avon. A tourists dream location – or so you would have thought. But, no, these ones just wanted to stay in, and the weather was nice then too!

Two of the bedrooms were just one night bookings and so on Saturday morning we had to do a full change-over after breakfast. We didn’t stop all morning and just had time to pop into Ledbury for some extra supplies before getting back to the house to be on duty for 4pm.

I knew it was hard work running a B&B, but I really had no idea how hard! By Monday morning, when we had waved the last of the guests off, we then did a full strip out and remake, clean, bedding wash and general tidy up before leaving to go home, eventually, at 3pm. We were both exhausted and felt absolutely no guilt at leaving the ironing for the owners to return to! Well, they do have one of those fandangly industrial press irons and they hadn’t asked us to do the washing, so that was a bonus!

That evening, I told J if ever I banged on about not fulfilling my lifelong ambition to run a B&B, he was to remind me of this weekend. I’m glad I did it. It was an eye-opener and my respect has grown ten-fold for those that embark on this venture. But now I am glad that our home is just that. Ours.

Friday, 29 June 2007

Five go out to play

Well, we finally did it. Bodran, Elizabethm, Country Craft Angel and Snail Beach Shepherdess and yours truly had our get-together yesterday.

The previous night, I didn’t sleep properly. I didn’t worry, as such, but nervous anticipation probably sums it up better.
Would there be any uncomfortable silences? Not on your Nelly.
Would we get on? Totally, absolutely and terrifically.
Would we have a good time? Didn’t stop giggling.
Would they notice I’m an air-head? Highly likely – I hold the Gold Award for “Dozy Mare”!

Angel’s house is totally gorgeous – a picture of calm and serenity. Just like her, in fact. Considering all she has been through, and is yet to share with us, you just would never know. She has this inner strength that has sustained her throughout her troubles and a graciousness that is hard to match. We were welcomed into her home and served a delicious lunch with home-made scones for afters, and it was all lovely.

I recognized Bodran immediately and no-one could fail to be charmed by this warm and funny person who instantly put me at ease. We giggled, and giggled a bit more and then just didn’t stop talking for the rest of the afternoon. Oh, but that girly car – I REALLY wasn’t expecting that!

Elizabeth glowed as she talked about gardening and you would never know she had been through what she has, to look at her. Yet another amazing woman – a privilege to meet and an inspiration to all who have hurdles to climb. And again, we laughed.

And Snail Beach Shepherdess……… well, one look at her and there were big smiles and our group really was complete. She brought us all a gift – The Snailbeach W.I. cookery book and already my mum is trying to blag it off me! She shares my love of Ludlow and has a wicked twinkle in her eye……..

The staff at Dobbies really did hoover around us, and the upturned chairs and baleful looks was enough to send us scurrying to the Little Chef. The time was passing so quickly and we had so much to say; so many of you other Purple lot to chat about and compare our perceptions of – we’ve probably got you all totally wrong! But it was fun and naughty and we giggled like teenagers.

I think I managed to convince them I was sane(ish) – I’m not sure I’ll get away with it again if, and when, we meet up again. I waved my arms around a lot (a REALLY bad habit) but didn’t actually break anything this time; interrupted too many times and generally had a fantastic time. I drove home with a seriously huge grin on my face – this site has managed to restore my faith in human nature and this lot had done nothing to alter that. I still owe Snail Beach a cuppa though, as I managed to fluff paying the bill. Next time……… if you’ll have me.x

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

History repeats itself

History often repeats itself, so they say. Well, whether you believe that or not, I am guilty of hankering after the times of my life when, as a child, I felt more secure. When I didn’t need to make grown up decisions, earn money, do housework and basically just be responsible. And so, I find myself repeating history in my home as I have unconsciously recreated aspects of my Nan’s old house and way of life.

I loved staying at Nan’s house and getting into cool, crisp, line-dried cotton sheets, in traditionally made beds of blankets, Durham quilts and eiderdowns, all smelling of lavender. I loved making toast on the open fire and helping to hang the washing to air on the Sheila Maid. The huge Belfast sink was a feature under the window and used for everything from scrubbing home-grown veggies, soaking white washing or bathing us as kids.

I have drawn the line at the 1970’s floral wallpaper which Nan put up in an attempt to modernize, and have kept to my beloved Farrow & Ball paint, but I did put in an original, overhead toilet cistern and, yes, it is as difficult to pull as my Nan’s was! Oh, and my bathroom is now upstairs and not the chilly replica of Nan’s that made you dash up the stairs with your towel wrapped tight around you.

But those times were amazing. The memories still bring a smile to my face. I remember the old apple tree that I used to climb and peep at the world through the pink blossom. Perched high up on a branch that had formed a natural child-sized seat, I would be a flower fairy, and chat away to my invisible friends. Mum and Nan would have to pretend to “eat” the delicious pies I made in the sandpit, or the boiled potatoes (stones) and vegetables (privet leaves). Their patience was unending and because of them I had the most magical of childhoods. A time of fairies, make-believe, love and laughter in a small little cottage this is indelibly marked on my heart.

At the foot of the lavender edged path was a concrete slab with a dog footprint embedded forever. Rex – Nan’s Heinz57 dog that used to jump on the number 11 outer circle bus, go around the route and jump off at the right stop for home. All the drivers knew him and he would sit upstairs with his paws on the ledge, looking out the window. Mum was still a girl then, so I never knew him, but I would lay lavender flowers in his paw print every week.

I have my own lavender hedge now and my apple trees are probably the same size as Nan’s but, of course, seemed so much bigger to a child. At pruning time, I climb through the centre of the trees and get as high as I can, and for a moment am transported back to those nostalgic times. And I also have my own weeping willow tree – a present from mum and dad for my birthday three years ago, but it is not quite big enough for me to sit cross-legged within and hide from the world.

When my nephew and niece come to stay, they do all the things in our garden that I used to in Nan’s, except they also get to collect eggs from the hens. Mum will bring them over to run riot and give dad some peace and quiet, and we will sit and chat over a cuppa. She always says that Nan would have loved our cottage; that she would have felt right at home and proud that she had inspired the “feel” of our eclectic home. She feels Nan has brought us two closer together now that she is not here, and that mum and I are doing the things that used to be in Nan’s domain.

It’s funny; I miss her now more than ever. She lived to see me married to Jimmy and I know she was ready to leave us. She was frail, tired and worn out. That was only 8 years ago next month but now I feel that, if she were still here, our relationship would have undergone a revival. Not that we were estranged, but I was excited and embarking on a new life miles away from her, down in Kent, and was busy forging ahead with our plans. But now, life has eased to the warm and comfortable pace we plod along at; we have found the place of our dreams and are happy to tweak and prune it to fit our needs. This is the time that she would have been coming to stay with us and kneeling side by side with me in the garden; teaching me and answering all the questions that only she could answer. But she is not here and I find myself talking out loud to her as I wander around the house and garden, making plans or marveling at a beautiful flower.

I read other blogs written by people “in tune” – Crystal especially, and wish I could “feel” Nan’s presence next to me like they do. I went to a highly recommended medium, years ago when my first marriage broke up (how many of us do that!?) and she was so amazingly accurate about so many things. She correctly told me that the “gift” was in my family (Nan had it, and her aunt before her) and that it was strong in me. She said that I wasn’t ready to take it on yet but when I was, it would come. That was 13 years ago and I am still waiting for some kind of sign or intuition. Anything. Maybe it’s because I have always been a little afraid of the “unknown”. Equally excited at the prospect but fearful and squeezing my eyes shut at the same time.

I used to have a regular, recurring dream about an old man in a flat cap stood at the bottom of my bed. He didn’t frighten me in as much as I felt he was going to hurt me, but it was disconcerting to dream I was awake and be looking at myself in bed with him stood watching me. On several occasions, I have woken myself up as I have nearly fallen out of bed, stretching my arm out to touch this man, as if to convince myself he isn’t there. I don’t recognize him – I don’t think I have ever met anyone remotely resembling him – and the dream is not linked to a place. I have dreamed the same dream in my last 3 homes. It hasn’t happened for a while now and I can’t see a particular pattern, although it did happen more frequently when my first marriage broke up. Stress? Very probably, but it has also happened when I haven’t been stressed.

I have no answers but as I have got older, the questions seem less important. Nan was a wise old girl and always seemed quietly in-tune and accepting of her life. A rare gift which would make the whole world a better place if more of us could achieve it.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

The extension starts to become reality.

So much seems to have happened over the last few weeks that my feet have hardly touched the floor, let alone my fingers touch any keyboards. We finally got our planning permission through for the extension and, after a little wrangling with the planners, we haven’t got to “drop” the roofline so that it is subservient to the older part of the house. Hurray! Our architect has been an absolute gem. He is from Kington and has done other work in the village, and he has just taken away all the stress of the negotiations. Wish he could just wave a magic wand so that the extension would be up by tomorrow, but now it all begins in earnest.

As soon as we knew we had permission, I started sourcing some materials (just can’t help myself, I’m afraid) and got our first eBay bargain of the project. We’d set our hearts on flagstone flooring in the new hallway and through into the kitchen but original flagstones would be a) too expensive and b) too thick to match up with current floor levels. The alternative was reproduction flags and there they were on eBay! An over-order at a house not too far off the M4 near Bath and, as luck would have it, we were off down there to visit my uncle for Sunday lunch. The lady was so lovely and took us in to see the finished product laid in her kitchen – all sealed and looking fantastic. They were from Classical Flagstones of Bath originally, so we had a nose on the website and were chuffed to bits when we found that our £100 would have been just over £1,100 if we’d ordered from them!

We’re now trying to sort out the bricks: we need between 5 and 6 thousand red bricks and would prefer reclaimed so that they blend seamlessly with the original part of the cottage. But the problem is quality – so many reclaimed bricks are very rough around the edges and damaged where they have been cleaned. However, reproduction “old” bricks can still look too new, unless the colour match is just right. Oh, what to do! We could probably build the extension just from the samples we’ve got already in the yard! And we need blue highlighting bricks for around the windows, doorways and along the corners, bull nosed, cant bricks and all sorts of things I’ve never heard of! We rummaged around Wye Valley Reclamation on Saturday and came away armed with lists and prices and heads buzzing with ideas.

And then there’s the roof tiles! Same thing all over again, but we’re 99% decided on new “brindle” handmade clay ones as they are such a good match and we had a few new ones mixed in with the originals when we did the roof 4 years ago.

The mess is going to be mind-blowing. I’m psyched up for it but reality is another matter totally. I’m off down to Devon on 20th July with my parents whilst Jimmy knocks down some of the existing structure. We didn’t get our pre-work break together due to unexpected orders for bookmaker’s brollies and so Jimmy insisted I get away to escape the dust and initial mayhem. I found it hard to agree because I know I will hate missing out on anything but I guess this is the boring bit, and at least I’ll be around when the new bits start to go up.

Today is our 9th wedding anniversary - I can't believe how the time has gone. Jimmy came into my life after much heartache had made me very cynical, and he won me over with his easy smile and vast capacity for love. He changed my life the day we met and this morning I lay in bed with my customary cup of tea, curtains and windows wide open to the fresh air and birdsong, and felt the calm and serenity of our home ease me into the new day. Make the most of it, my girl, the builders will be here in a few weeks; there’ll be skip lorries clanking along the lane; concrete mixers whirring; scaffolding and male voices shouting instructions over the radio which will, no doubt, be balanced precariously on a pile of a rubble. We are entering a new phase in our life together : we'll be eating beans on toast as we try to save every penny; we'll be living in chaos, but we'll be doing it together - I can’t wait!

Photo is of the floor as laid in the kitchen of our eBay seller– carefully stored in anticipation in a friend’s barn!

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

I've been tagged!

I don't know - I go off-line again for a few days and someone tags me!! I've had to sit and concentrate very hard but here goes........

  1. In the early 1970's my uncle used to be the roadie for Black Sabbath and the whole group came to my nan's house for tea. Ozzy Osbourne sat me on his knee and played with my farm set to make friends with me because I was scared of these strange men stood in the lounge with long hair........

  2. When I was 12 years old, the same uncle was living in New York and was, by now, quite successul in the music industry. He paid for me to go out to visit him for the six weeks summer holiday, and I went with him to the "office" and sorted fan mail for Michael Jackson while he had a meeting.

  3. I was diagnosed with Scleroderma (systemic sclerosis) in 1991 - a rare disease, similar to Lupus. Alongside of this, most patients (me included) get Raynaud's and, although now classed as "stable", I do have severe lung involvement (ILD-interstertial lung disease) caused by fibrosis and have had 2 lots of chemotherapy over the years when this part of the disease has been "active". But this doesn't stop me from enjoying my garden, DIY, cooking, sewing (a bit!), horse riding, bike riding and walking the dogs, as long as I can do it at my own pace!

  4. I met my lovely hubby, J, whilst on a ski-ing holiday with the girls when I was 28 years old. He winked at me in a bar and told me that same night he was going to marry me...... which, of course, he did.

  5. I hate liver, stilton cheese, the coffee and orange fondant chocolates and roll mop herrings.

  6. Since I was a little girl, Father Christmas has always brought me a Terry's Chocolate Orange at Christmas.

  7. I am 40 this year and despite the usual jokes about it, I actually am chuffed to bits to be reaching this milestone. A few years ago, I didn't think I'd make it and now every year is a wonderful achievement and every morning when I wake, I say "Thank you" out loud for another wonderful day.

  8. I broke my third toe on my left foot when I was eleven because my younger brother, who was then only 5 years old, dared me I couldn't climb the hall wall. My parents kept an antiques' shop and we lived in the Victorian flat above. There was a long corridor that joined the living and bedroom areas, and it was quite narrow. My darling brother used to put a hand on either side of the wall, level with his head, then jump like a star fish and put his feet on the walls too. Then he would "walk" up to the ceiling. I forgot that he was only half my height, and when I went to star fish my feet, I stubbed my toe and broke it and was too scared to tell my mum because she would have been cross at us climbing the wall.

Phew! Done it........ now do I have to tag someone else? If so, I'm way behind on blogs (again) and don't know who's been done already!! Wail, wail in anguish................

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Sunshine, soil and fate

Sunshine and warmth – there really is no better tonic. Two weeks of antibiotics have finally shifted my pleurosy but I am still coughing like I smoke forty a day (which I don’t!) and feel like I am hauling a ball and chain around with me, no matter what I am doing. But then the sun shines down and makes the top of my head hot, and the warmth spreads down my back and I feel the energy start to thread through my veins.

My garden is calling me – it always does on days like these. There is so much to do and I feel frustrated that my energy levels are so low. Strategically placed benches beckon as I pause for breath and it is a good excuse to sit back, gaze around and plan.

There are two beds that need to be completely stripped and started again from scratch. The previous owner of our cottage was a keen gardener but his choice of plants was too formal for a country cottage. I have made many changes but this garden needs time to become my “dream” and patience isn’t one of my finer qualities, I’m afraid to admit.

At the weekend, we hired a turf cutter for the front garden and have stripped out the lawn (clover bed really!) and I am going around the edges with a spade to clear the awkward bits before I rake it over, put a membrane down and cover with gravel. The recent rain made this an easy task for J – we thought we’d have to leave it until later in the year again as the ground had got so hard, and I did much foot stamping in frustration that another spring had gone by without this job being done. So, sorry folks, the recent rain was probably my fault but I REALLY needed to get this job done this year. I have been nurturing my box hedging plants for ten months now and they will go in a rectangular shape, with gaps along the long edges, and then a diamond shape filled with lavender in the middle. I’m not going for fancy shapes, like a Tudor knot garden, but using the box plants as structure and contrast against the gravel and hold the shape for the lavender. I’ve got a picture in my mind’s eye of the look I want to achieve, but it won’t be fully complete until the extension is done, as my porch is still on the “to do” list and there is only a sad bit of trellis, at the moment, for my beautiful rose to ramble on.

Back in the rear garden, I have been edging the lawn around the flower beds and that has given an instant face lift. Two of my Camelot foxgloves have failed this year and so it’s a trip back to the garden centre for replacements, and my white delphiniums have disappeared too. The stronger blue ones are standing proud, though, but I confess to liking softer, paler colours – so much more gentle on the eye in this garden.

I didn’t hear the cuckoo this morning – the first time in weeks. Each morning since the beginning of May, it has been the first bird to start the dawn chorus, and as I have been tending my garden, or sitting and drinking tea at the table, I have heard it moving slowly around between the wood and across the lane to the farms. But today, the thrush is serenading me and the blackbirds are trying to compete, and almost succeeding.

The aquilegia have been glorious this year and the penstemons are about to burst forth. And the roses! They all had a hard prune back at the end of last year and are rewarding me with blooms of frothy colour. I thought I’d lost one of my weigelas but it is in flower – just! Even writing the names of these plants is making me want to turn the laptop off and go outside to stand and look and dip my trowel into the earth. Red Herefordshire earth, not dark brown crumbly soil from other areas. But this earth is coloured the colour of blood and I know it flows in my veins now – wherever we have been and we come back home and see the ploughed fields of red earth, it makes my heart lift. And when it has rained, the colour deepens and I love to watch as it dries out and gets lighter and lighter.

We connect with the land if we let ourselves. Our fore-fathers knew so many things that modern man has forgotten as we have become disconnected through technology, urban living and pace of life. But when you take the time to feel the soil as it runs through your fingers, sit back on your heels and listen to the birdsong as the breeze tickles the hair at the base of your neck and along your forearms, close your eyes and breath deeply, the connection is soon repaired and the phrase “life blood” takes on a new meaning.

I have said before that we have put down roots here and this red earth has taken a hold of me and drawn me in tight. This isn’t where I wanted to be originally. No, we were going to move to Ludlow, had found the house around 3 miles outside of town and were set to move. But it wasn’t meant to be – we lost the house and then couldn’t find another one we liked as much in the area. We broadened our search area and ended up on the south Herefordshire/Gloucestershire border – 45 minutes in real time further south. A perfect location for us as we have to get around the country regularly as J is self employed, and we can be on the M5 in twenty minutes.

We go back to Ludlow regularly to visit Dickinson’s Period House Shop and other favourite haunts, to wander around the market and browse the antique shops. It still holds a special place in my heart but I don’t think I could live there now. It’s just that bit too far away from family and friends, that bit too far away for J to commute easily, that bit too hilly, and in the winter that wind blows that bit more coldly. At the time we were hoping to move there, we didn’t yet know these things. Funny how life turns out, isn’t it? For the best, in our case, but at the time we didn’t realize it: we moaned and wailed in frustration. It’s that connection thing again. The earth, the elements, mankind and a melting pot of circumstances - fate, if you like.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Catching up

Well, I feel like I’ve been away forever! The highlight of our month was, of course, the wedding, but then things became a little more mundane as I had to go down to London for my heart tests.

They weren’t anything awful – just a 24 hour tape to monitor my heart beat throughout the day and night, and a little diary to fill in when I did anything to exert myself and send my heart rate up. These days, because of my lung fibrosis, I do get out of breath when I walk either too fast or uphill. And, of course, the walk to and from Belsize Park tube station always leaves me a little ragged, so that was my first diary note.

The journey down on the Wednesday had been a nightmare – the M4 had been surprisingly good, but the good old M25 that takes me to my friend’s house at Orpington, didn’t fail to trap me, as ever. My journey can take anything from 3 hours upwards, and this day it took me 4 and a half. I eventually pulled on to the drive, slightly frazzled, and unloaded the car. It looked like I’d come for a week – I always do this and don’t know why I pack so much. But I’d also come bearing gifts of wine (several bottles!), home produced eggs and chocolates from The Velvet Bean in Ledbury.

That evening we spent catching up and drinking wine and, as always, it felt like only yesterday we last saw one another. This is my Town Mouse friend, I wrote about on the other site, and we are as opposite as two people can be. But we love each other and are friends in the truest sense – accepting each other for what we are and enjoying every second of each other’s company. We don’t see enough of one another since J and I moved here and, hand on heart, she is the only thing I truly miss from my life in the South East. But we text and email, run up extortionate phone bills and see each other whenever we can. And we always pick up where we left off.

The next day saw my journey in to London to get my tape fitted and then we had the afternoon and evening together, as her partner (also a J) was out with work. We cooked together, drank more wine and stayed up too late, but I also got to spend some time with her son, who is two and half and growing up so fast. The time always goes so quickly and I was due to go home the next day after my “stress exercise test”.

Friday dawned and my tape was returned and then I had to wait a little while for my exercise stress test. This just involved having a heart monitor fitted and then lying down for an echo of my heart while I was at rest. The fun bit came next when I was put on a treadmill and the speed was increased, along with the incline, to get my heart up to its maximum rate when I had to quickly jump back on the bed to have another echo of my heart, while it was at full pelt. Easier said than done! I was pleased that it took a while to get my heart to its full rate, but the problem was the technicians were really nice guys and we were talking too much. I have a problem walking really fast AND talking, purely because my lungs don’t function as well as they should and so fast walking and talking don’t mix! By the time they’d got me at full rate, my mouth was drying up and I thought my lungs were going to explode. And then they just stopped the treadmill and the sudden halt (even though they’d warned me) had me careering off the treadmill into two pairs of waiting hands that were waiting to haul me on the bed for my next echo. I was glad to lie down! They then scanned me and monitored my heart beat until the rate slowed to “normal” – which took slightly longer than it did to get to the peak. And that was it – I was free to go and the doctor would be in touch.

Visits down to my friend’s are always such bitter sweet affairs for me: it sounds so awful writing it down, but I really dislike staying down there for more than a couple of nights. I hate the sirens shooting past my window; the airlessness; the bright night sky; traffic noise; hustle and bustle and the crowds on the trains and tubes, with people afraid to make eye contact. I always want to giggle when I am stood on a tube with my head wedged under someone’s armpit and blowing at the corner of a page from The Times to get it away from tickling my nose – it’s so bizarre how we can be so intimately crushed together but if you don’t look someone in the eye or smile at them, it’s okay. I managed to restrain myself this time as the tube headed back towards Charing Cross for my train out to Orpington and my waiting car.

I phoned my friend to say I was on the train and she told me I should stay another night – she said: “you’re barking. You’ll hit all the Friday night traffic heading west and won’t be home ‘til late. Stay and go home in the morning after breakfast”. This is the one thing about me that she can never get her head around. She doesn’t understand my “need” to get home. When I know I’ve got that journey to do, I just want to get on and do it. What’s one more night? An eternity when you just want to get out of the city. And then mum rang to say she hoped I was staying because the traffic was horrendous on the M25 and the M4. Damn! They were right, of course, and then J rang to put his pennyworth in.

And so, I found myself reversing on the drive once more and unloading my car (bags lighter this time!), feeling like the worse friend in the world who wanted to be going home. She was waiting for me in the hall, arms folded and giving me her stern mother look. Well, trying to but a) she's 4 years younger than me and b) she’s not very good at it. But then, her gorgeous boy came and threw his arms around my legs and warmed my heart.

That night, I read him a story and put him to bed and we talked about them coming to visit us. He wanted to know all about the chickens that laid the eggs I’d brought and about the tractors in the field. Could they come soon, he wanted to know. He loves the countryside, my friend told me, and now he is bigger there are so many more things we can show him next time they come.

We went back down to the kitchen and decided on an Indian takeaway. Oh, and the luxury of it was that they delivered!!!!! Heaven. We got the plates in the oven and cracked open a beer and soon we were tucking in. Later, stuffed, we threw ourselves on the sofa and watched Jonathan Ross but my eyes kept getting heavy and I had to make my excuses and say night, night. I hauled myself up to the top floor guest suite and got ready for bed. A blurry conversation with J and then I was fast asleep. Yes, they’d all been right and I was glad I’d stayed. I was glad I’d fought my “flight urge”.

After breakfast on Saturday morning, we hugged and kissed and brushed tears from our eyes. We promised to see more of each other – proper quality time, not bits squeezed in around my trips into London for hospital. My car soon found the M25 and, of course, it was much clearer than the previous evening. I grinned. I missed her already.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

A country wedding

Saturday was the day the village had been waiting for – the wedding. Friday had dawned grey and cold and we’d all been a little worried at the prospect of partying in a barn. But as I opened the curtains, the sun was glimmering through the high clouds and the air was distinctively warmer.

We arrived at the church as the bells were peeling, and a crowd of fine hats, posh frocks and smart suits stood outside the village pub, next door. The groom was looking handsome in his kilt suit and soon we were moving to take our seats in the church. And then the bride arrived – a vision of loveliness beaming as she walked down the aisle on the arm of the proudest father in the neighbourhood.

Our next door neighbour is also the village priest and he has watched R grow up to become the beautiful woman she is today. It made the ceremony especially touching as he was able to recall firsthand memories to share with us as he conducted the ceremony with pride. R has three sisters and they made such beautiful bridesmaids, along with flower girls who are nieces and a nephew as ring bearer.

The church was decorated with hand-tied posies of flowers and wicker obelisks hung with wooden hearts and cream lilies. The obelisks had been made by the father of the bride, at home on the farm, and were truly stunning.

Soon, we were back out into the warm sunshine and the bells rang out in celebration as we threw home-dried rose petal confetti, collected from wicker baskets held by the flower girls, and wrapped in individual cones of brown paper, stamped with gold hearts. The photographer was wonderfully swift in his work and we were reversing on our drive before we knew it. The dogs had a quick run around the garden and then, after changing into my more comfy shoes (!) we walked across the lane to the farm.

Pink champagne waited at the gate and we moved though the line-up kissing and hugging and saying our congratulations. We emerged into the courtyard and R’s cousin was playing the keyboard softly in the background as we milled around and chatted. There were old wooden advertising crates filled with packets of our local Tyrell’s crisps and bowls of plump, shiny olives, along with plates of the most delicious home-made cheese straws. The whole atmosphere was relaxed and happy and we brushed past terracotta pots filled with rosemary and lavender.

We were called through into the barn – and what a transformation! Two weeks ago, it had been the cow shed and, as such, looked just like …….. a cow shed. Now, it was white-washed and draped with cream muslin – an indoor marquee. An old wooden farm gate was hung on the wall and decorated with wooden hearts, at each place setting was a brown paper name tag, tied with raffia and decorated with rosemary sprigs and dried rose buds and the table was adorned with terracotta pots of young rosemary plants, alternating with thick, cream church candles. Bottles with crock stoppers of home-made cider and perry, from their own orchards, were placed in groups down the table, along with wine and jugs of water.

The hog-roast was fantastic – Gloucester Old Spot (not their own!), with bowls of salad, potatoes, homemade pickles and chutneys, plus a vegetarian alternative of homemade quiche. Afterwards, there was a wonderful cheeseboard (provided by our neighbour – and, yes, there was Stinking Bishop!) and wedding cake. Not your usual wedding cake either. It was a tier of individual sponge cupcakes, decorated with cream icing and topped with a single rosebud. I really can’t describe how wonderful and different this was – and we each received our own individual cake with our champagne for the toasts.

Speeches were made and we alternated between crying and laughing hysterically – a rollercoaster ride of emotions. The best man was, in fact, a best woman and she did a wonderful job (of course!) and R’s father paid moving tribute to his daughter, the bride, as tears coursed down our faces.

Eventually, it was time for the two of them to leave and we all gathered as the bouquet was thrown and we cheered and waved them off. It was 7.30pm and we said our goodbye’s, hugging and kissing new and old friends, and then we wandered hand in hand back across the lane to our little cottage.

We changed out of our finery, put the kettle on and sat outside as the sun slowly sank down behind the trees. It had been a wonderful day. A true “country wedding” – simply stylish and full of honest, good old fashioned love and laughter. The very best kind of day.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

New Life

We had an unexpected phone call on Monday evening, from J’s aunt. It was to tell us that her brother-in-law (J’s last surviving uncle) had passed away last week and the funeral was on Wednesday (yesterday), up in Macclesfield.

Families. Mine is complicated, and has its fair share of skeletons in the cupboard! J’s, on the other hand, is VERY complicated, and his late mother’s paternal side is responsible for this!! That half of the family is not close with the rest of the cousins – they tend to be close to their own immediate units of parents and siblings alone. I suppose, this is quite normal for most families, but I am lucky in that mine is a bit of a “tribe” for want of a better expression. Don’t get me wrong, we are not in each other’s pockets, but there is regular contact, even if it is just by phone or email.

J’s paternal side is also close and in regular contact, but he was a bit taken aback to only find out about this uncle at the last minute. And more than a little sad.

And so, we were up at 5.30am yesterday to make the journey north. Unfortunately, I am NOT an early morning person and so I won’t regale you with tales of how wonderful the morning sunshine felt on my face, nor how uplifting the dawn chorus was. No, I was trying to nap in the front seat without smudging my carefully applied makeup or messing up my hastily blow dried hair. I’d calculated we would be there in 3 hours and so another hour’s kip in the front seat should leave me bright eyed and bushy tailed for giving J directions during the last bit of the journey. That was the theory, but unfortunately the sunshine DID wave its wand over me and so I stayed awake – highly irritating for a girl who needs at least 8 hours!

The journey ended up being a delight. We didn’t go on the motorway after we reached Lichfield. No, we headed to Ashbourne and Leek, rising ever higher and snaking through the beautiful Staffordshire and Derbyshire countryside, the fields edged with dry stone walls (unlike the hedgerows and trees of Herefordshire). And then we arrived in Macclesfield with an hour to spare. Enough time for a mug of tea and bacon sarnie at a cafĂ© on the outskirts of town. Replenished and revitalized, we met up with J’s middle brother and his wife, and went on to the crem. You know how these things go so, again, I won’t go into it, but suffice to say it was a humanist ceremony and I have only been to one other in my life. Different, but still incredibly moving.

Afterwards, it was back to J’s cousin’s house and we sat in the garden, soaking up the sunshine. Stronger bonds were forged that afternoon between this younger generation – our generation. Maybe things will be a little different for the family now. Enough business cards/telephone numbers and email addresses were exchanged; shy glances became forthright smiles; there was laughter in the air and many hugs were given and received when we left.

I drove home as J sat quietly reflecting next to me. Eleven years have taught me when to leave him be with his thoughts. This man of mine is many sided. He is the joker in the pack; the one everyone relies on to lighten an atmosphere and who can make anyone feel instantly at ease. He is also highly intelligent – not in an academic, certificates out of every orifice kind of way: his knowledge of social and political history astounds me. I am proud when I see someone do a double take at this man they have “judged” as a jack-the-lad. One minute he has been telling jokes or laughing with someone, and then he can turn and seriously debate this country’s history. His mind has soaked up names and dates for almost every event of importance (or not, as is often the case, when he can sprint to the finish line in a pop quiz!). I am frequently bemused that he can tell me who was prime minister in 1854 or who the lead singer of Blah, blah, blah band was and what their 2nd number 1 was, but can’t remember that I have asked him to hang the washing out!

And then there is his heart. The biggest and softest I have ever known. When you receive the key to the lock, it opens and enfolds you into its protective world, just as his arms wrap you in his bear hug. His quietness on our journey home spoke to me louder than he could know: he feels keenly the divide in his family and I know he hopes with all of his heart that those times are now gone. He WILL pick up the phone and reach out to these cousins who have been distant for too long.

As our journey entered its final stages, the Malvern Hills appeared to our right on the M5. Wherever we have been, we know we’re nearly home when they come into view. Our hearts lift and shoulders relax as they keep us company along the final fifteen minutes before they slip out of view as we turn towards the village. “It’s good to be home, love,” he said and he squeezed my hand. I glanced at him and smiled as I scanned his face. He looked tired and his brown eyes held a hint of sadness. I pulled in.

“Are you okay?” I asked him, concern making me frown. “Yeah, I’m fine. Sad. He was mum’s last brother – only auntie R left now and then the siblings are all gone. It’s just us lot then. I hope we do a better job of it. You, know, the family thing. It doesn’t seem so important when you’re kids – you’re just concerned with your mates and all that. Family stuff is just………. well, family. But now, you realize how important it is to keep it going. To get along. You know……” He shrugged his shoulders and looked a little embarrassed.

“Yes, I DO know,” I said and squeezed his hand tight back. He loves my family. I know he does. But Christmas and Easter………. all the major occasions, in fact, it’s always my tribe that gets together. “Let’s get home and put the kettle on,” I said as I let in the clutch and pulled off.

As we sat drinking our tea, watching the sun go down over the trees, I played the answer phone messages. It was my brother. Usual stuff, then an “oh, by the way, sis”…….. He’s going to be a dad again. Another new life is beginning.

Monday, 30 April 2007

An evening walk

J came home late last night, after a successful London Golf Show. He launched his Caddy Cover umbrellas there in 2006 and decided, last minute, to go again this year. Within minutes of him coming home, there were three pairs of shoes abandoned in the hall, dirty washing in a pile on the landing and opened post littering the kitchen table. Oh, I have missed him!

Today, we spent a lazy morning together and then he took me out to lunch. It was such a glorious day that we made a drive of it and ended up at a country pub near Pershore, serving traditional "Pub Grub".

Afterwards, with full stomachs, we took a leisurely drive home, via "Posterity", a reclamation yard between Ledbury and Malvern, to price up some of the things we'll need when we get planning permission through (!!) for our extension. We made copious notes and fell in love with a few things we'd need to live in a manor house to own, and then carried on home to our waiting hounds.

We quickly changed into our walking clobber and took the JRTs over the field at the bottom of our garden. On the "other site", I took you for this walk and have added some pictures as it has been such a gorgeous day today.

At the bottom of the garden, we have our own private stile into the field. Alfie hurdles it in one, the girls scuttle under the wire and we clamber over fairly gingerly as it is homemade by the previous owners and fairly ancient. We turn immediately right and follow the hedge line as it snakes along towards the farm; a traditional hedgerow interspersed with mature trees. Sometimes after high winds, I come along and collect fallen branches for the fire, and in the autumn sweet chestnuts can be gathered by the bag load.

The hounds races ahead, a blur of white as they snuffle along, scenting out the rabbits. Alfie makes me laugh as he often misses one and then, when he sees it out of the corner of his eye, he’ll turn his head and another one will run just out of sight. It’s like watching a game of tennis! I’m sure the rabbits are laughing at him!

This field is often left to pasture and when haymaking time arrives, the huge rounds of hay become personal look-out points for our mad JRTs. Occasionally we still get the big rectangular bales too, and these are more fun to climb as they are stacked higher. J and I have climbed them too and lain down at the top, soaking up the warm harvest sunshine and breathing in the smell of freshly cut hay. It is one of my favourite smells of the countryside, along with wood smoke curling up from the chimneys in the village, so distinctive from coal.

The field starts to dip down slightly and we come past a natural pond with moorhens and ducks, tucked away and surrounded by trees. Often, the buzzards and crows are flying around here and the crows pick on a lone buzzard, diving at it and calling out in their attack. The path starts to turn upwards once more and the hedgerow is littered with rabbit holes; some disused and swathed in cobwebs, others clearly in use. We come up to the top of the incline again and on the right is a field gate down to the farmhouse, but we go onwards and over another stile towards the trig point.

We have to walk through the middle of the next field, but countless years of ploughing cannot remove that permanent groove of the footpath, walked by so many. Whatever is planted there, be it crops or grass, there is always the mark of the footpath. This year it is rape - NOT my favourite! The farmer does clear the way through when cereal crops grow high, but they are always patchy in this area as if the land is denying them the right to grow on this foot trodden path. Sometimes we find broken pieces of pottery and clay pipe ends; remnants of another era when many hands toiled in the fields.

At the next stile, we usually stop for a breather and to admire the glorious view. Another of our local “big” houses can be seen, surrounded by its own land, sprawling and grey and slightly forbidding. This is The Hall, and when we moved in, it used to be a race horse stable too. We used to love to watch the horses on their daily walk out through the village to open riding, but they moved on shortly after. It is now a private residence once more and horses still graze the fields but not in the same number as before.

We cross the next field, again through the middle, along the mysterious, permanently marked footpath and there is an old abandoned water pump-house over to the right, near the edge of the field. It makes me sad to see it in such disrepair – the old quarry floor tiles are still there, many are cracked, and remnants of rusty machinery.

We enter the final field of our journey. Here there are large, old oak trees standing tall in the middle of the field: three of them in a line. The footpath goes to the left of the first tree, then to the right of the second and then the left of the third; snaking in between them. Here, I lean against the rough old bark and look up through the canopy to the sky. I would love to know just what these trees have seen over the years; how many labourers rested here to drink their cider from crock jugs; to see the teams of oxen or shires ploughing the field. From here we either turn back and return the way we have come, or carry on to the coppice at the end, over the next stile, along a thin wooden bridge (more of a raised walkway actually) and out onto the lane. Directly in front of us is a beautiful old house, dating back to the 1600’s. Local rumour has it that the steps down to the cellar are made from old tomb stones from the nearby church! They grow the most amazing display of sweet peas, which can be seen from the lane in the summer.

But today, we turn around and come home, to a nice chilled glass of wine and bowl of Tyrells crisps!

Friday, 27 April 2007

A trip to the dentist and the magic fairy tree

Well, by the end of Thursday I was totally exhausted. Up at 5.15am for the 7am train, arrived into Paddington at 9.45am and eventually at the Royal Free at 11am. For once, I got in to see the doc on time, as there is usually a terrible wait – it seems several of us are given the same appointment time and its first come, first served. So yesterday I got to the head of the queue!

I wasn’t there long but I do have to go back on 10 May to have a 24 hr heart monitor tape fitted, and so will have to stay down with friends as it has to be returned the next day. I’m also waiting for an appointment to do an exercise stress test, where they put you on a treadmill and alter the speed/incline while running an ECG of the heart. Great! Now there’ll be no hiding from just how unfit I am. The doctors were all really optimistic though and said they were 95% certain that I DIDN’T have pulmonary hypertension, and that my heart is under more pressure because my lungs aren’t so good.

So fingers crossed they can totally rule it out by these tests, otherwise they’ve got to do something similar to an angiogram where they put a camera into the actual arteries to monitor the pressure. Yuk, yuk and more yuk. I’m a total wuss when it comes to these things and still have to lie down for a blood test even though I have had them every month for the last 16 years! If they have to do that test, they’ll have to hit me over the head with a huge rubber mallet………

I managed to get an earlier train home and saw the muntjac near Charlbury – I see them most times and they look up as the train rattles by, but other passengers are buried in The Times and totally oblivious. Unfortunately, the earlier train only goes as far as Great Malvern and then there’s a half hour wait for a connection on to Ledbury, but the sun was shining and it was good to come home and listen to the birds instead of the throb of the city. We rumbled into Ledbury at 5.08pm and I walked to mum and dad’s, arriving as mum was just getting out of the car. A quick cup of tea, dinner for them (I’d eaten on the train courtesy of M&S Simply Food takeaway salads) and then mum and I came back here for the night. We were both so shattered we didn’t even drink any wine (!!) but managed to stay up until 10pm but then bed called.

Today I had to go for a scale and polish at the dentist in Bournville (Birmingham) and so was out of the house at 10.30am. It takes about an hour and ten minutes to reach the dentist, but we never changed to a local one because a) this is the dental practice I’ve used since I was a child and b) they WERE NHS until last year, but we enrolled on the budget plan and it’s fairly reasonable, so there we are……..

I was born in Bournville, the home of Cadbury’s chocolate, and the dentist is directly opposite a small wood – Maple Wood. As a child, we used to walk along the path parallel with the wood to go down to “The Green”, which is a village green with parade of shops and Post Office. When I came out of the dentist, I walked across the road to look through the fence at the wood – awash with a carpet of bluebells, and I took a photo on my phone for posterity’s sake. The memories came flooding back and I walked along the path to see if the fairy tree was still there.

The five year old Woozle would put a penny into a hollow of a tree and make a wish to the fairies both mum and nan assured me lived in the tree. At first I couldn’t see it but then, there it was! A holly tree had grown so large next to it that it was covering the front of the fairy tree and I moved some branches away to find the little hollow. It was still there and was full of water – just as it always had been. It made me feel funny – a nice funny and a little emotional. The fact that it was now well hidden made me kind of sad that no more little girls would share the magic of the fairy tree – maybe I was the last one who did. But then there was a part of me that felt glad – it was MY secret place and full of my old wishes to the fairies. I didn’t stick my finger in the water to see if my pennies were still there, and now I wish I had. Maybe next time I go to the dentist, I will.