Monday, 12 February 2018

A week of firsts.

It's been a good week. And when I have a good week, these days, it's often worth writing about. I have, after 6 months of agonising Rhuematic pain in my hands and wrists, finally been able to use them to some degree, to be productive, to get things done. So it has been a week of firsts.

I have been able to paint my kitchen cupboards (yawningly slowly with my left hand mostly) a pale blue grey, or Paris Grey as the colour is called. I'm not sure what it looks like in Paris but in my kitchen it looks rather lovely, certainly better than the 1980's magnolia that was there before! In fact, the magnolia cupboards weren't the worst design fail in my cottage. The previous owners last decorated in 1981 (bravely admitting that on my second viewing) and was a hotch-potch of hideousness... in the sitting room, one wall was a light pink terracotta, the opposite wall peach, and the two end walls pale yellow. The ceiling was white, the floor was covered with a dusky pink threadbare carpet and the curtains were navy blue. In the kitchen, magnolia loomed large, from the cupboards to the walls, with faux brick linoleum on the floor and wall tiles in a confused palette of dark brown, beige and tan. The hallway was bright yellow and the downstairs bathroom a sky blue with pale avocado sink and loo. Luckily, I was able to see through this nausea-inducing decor and imagine what it could be.

The first thing I did was to knock down the wall between the sitting room and the kitchen, which opened up the space and allowed the gorgeous morning and midday light to flood both rooms. The carpet and linoleum were replaced with oak wood floors throughout, I got a lovely decorator to come in and whitewash the whole of the downstairs, replace the skirting boards and paint the tan mdf doors. The boiler was moved upstairs and suddenly, after 2 months of chaos, the downstairs resembled something quite beautiful. White wooden blinds hang in the front window and gorgeous vintage curtains of soft blue and oatmeal are in the kitchen. This week, I finished the cupboards and I have finally been able to unpack some boxes and start living in the space.

I used my oven for the first time this week and cooked myself a fried egg on toast. That may sound rather disappointing for a first meal but you cannot imagine how vile microwave-cooked eggs are, so it was divine. I had my washing machine delivered and washed my clothes for the first time rather than taking them to the local laundrette which is a complete pain the arse, not only because you always lose sock and knickers in the dryer but almost always end up with someone else's pants as a bonus! I have a fridge for the first time too, having used an old ice box outside for the last 3 months to store everything... fine in the winter when everything is cold enough, not so pleasant when it's pouring with rain and everything in the ice box gets waterlogged. I painted the kitchen tiles myself and for the first time, I have been able to unpack and display all my kitchen things, from toaster and kettle to vintage cake tins and cook books. For the first time, my cottage is beginning to look like a home.

Being a home for the first time also means that I want friends and family to come and see it. My parents and sister all came round for tea last week and were able to all sit in the sitting room, in relative comfort, while we chatted. I was able to have my first dinner party a few days ago. It was only three of us, not a grand affair, but I cooked a chicken casserole and some fluffy baked potatoes, we had chilled prosecco from the fridge and we sat on chairs, like normal people, around the kitchen table for supper. It was divine and it was the first time I felt truly settled.

Now that downstairs is almost finished, I look at upstairs in horror. Upstairs has soooo many more problems than downstairs. Rotten windows, bare chipboard floors, massive holes in the walls, a mouldy bathroom with no shower, dodgy stairs and a loo that sometimes regurgitates its belongings up the bowl!!! I need to make a sign saying "Please be modest with your 3 P's", warning people not to put too much pee, poo or paper down the loo. It's terrifying. I am sleeping on a mattress on the floor even though I have a new bed leaning against the bedroom wall because it seems redundant to construct the bed when I will have to deconstruct it again when the floors are done. I can't unpack anything either because I will simply have to pack up again when the painting starts and that seems ridiculous.

But my week of firsts has been very very rewarding and it still continues. I have gardeners here today for the first time, cutting back my first ever wisteria, a job that needed professionals as it had been left for 15 years to grow wild and resembles an intricate 8 foot high web of 5 inch thick branches that span the length of the cottage and the 20 feet of wall beyond. There is beautiful old stone behind it apparently, which I can't wait to see. Later, the gardener Sophie has promised to show me how to prune the roses, another first for me. And later still, I will be going to my first ever Owl life-drawing class. Yes, it is as bizarre as it sounds but that's Frome for you, a town I'm discovering is full of the wild and wonderful, the beautiful and the bizarre!

I am turning 50 this year, and as exhausting and challenging as the last 2 years have been, mentally and physically, I also know that I might never have had the chance to do certain things the way I have, had I not been ill. It's forced me to slow down and appreciate things. It has shown me that a little can mean much more than a lot, and that the smallest act of kindness from a friend, new or old, can mean the world. I am never too old to do things for the first time and I hope to have a lot more firsts for years to come.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

My home... the money pit.

Yes it's official, my new cottage is a money pit. I was aware of many of the problems when I had my survey done. They were duly pointed out to the (then) owner of the property and the price was reduced accordingly. However, no one ever prepares you for the hidden problems. The ones that show their faces only when you have already spent a fortune fixing a previous problem. I call this the chain of crappy events, if you will.

When I first moved into the property at the beginning of November, the first thing my plumber suggested was that I buy a Carbon Monoxide Alarm so I wouldn't, "Pop my clogs the first night!". He had basically condemned the current 30 year old boiler and unless I wanted to, "Freeze my tits off," with the heating off, then it was a good idea to monitor the toxic fumes it was emitting. Great. Instead of just buying a replacement boiler, I decided to spend a bit more money, free up the space on my kitchen wall where the old boiler was sticking out like a sore ugly bulbous thumb, and move it upstairs and into the cupboard where the old water tank had been. Before they could move the boiler, the electrician was summoned to check the wiring in the bathroom cupboard to make sure it would work, and there he discovered that the electric shower and lights were arcing and smoking every time they were turned on. All the wiring was burnt out in the cavity wall and up into the attic, a blackened mess of melted plastic, wires and wood. He was amazed it hadn't started a fire! Upon further investigation, he explained that the whole house was a bit "dodgy" and basically cut off my supply until he could return! So what started as a simple process of moving the boiler, resulted in a complete re-wiring of the kitchen, hall, bathroom and upstairs cupboard, the shower was thrown into the tip and now I have a gigantic hole through the bathroom wall and in the ceiling. And no shower. Hurrah.

What the plumber also failed to mention was that he'd re-directed the external gas pipe from the kitchen up to the bathroom, so where I had been excited to get a gas cooker re-connected, I now have to have an electric one. He's also, very kindly, left the gas pipe in the kitchen as an annoying reminder of what could have been, sitting there, completely useless, giving me the V-sign, and I now have to find someone to cut it off the wall! The plumber has also left a bloody great hole in the kitchen wall through to the external wall, where the boiler was, and has only filled it with a few bricks and some rough cement, so "I don't get the rain coming in" which means I now have to get a builder to re-plaster the wall. 

And this is where my builder enters the scene. His name is Tim. I can mention his name because I doubt very much I will be sending him this blog, nor will he see it on Facebook as he will never be a Facebook friend! I really like Tim but he seems to bring calamity with him. I first contacted him when I discovered he was the same builder who'd put up a partition wall in the house about 15 years ago, and thought he'd be the perfect person to take it down again. He was very obliging, removed the wall in half a day and only charged me a £100 cash. As he seemed to be the perfect man to do all the other jobs I needed, I hired him on the spot. We agreed he would work for cash and fit my jobs in when he could. That meant turning up willy nilly after he'd finished his normal days work... he even arrived on a Saturday morning at 8am once, which I was slightly less pleased about, as were my neighbours!! 

The first thing Tim did for me was to remove all my skirting boards. I needed this done because I had arranged for beautiful, achingly expensive, oak wood floors to be laid throughout the downstairs. The reason I needed achingly expensive wood floors laid was because I had asked the previous owners to remove all the carpets. I had requested the removal of the carpets because there were signs of carpet moths, and as anyone that's had carpet moths knows, once you've got them, it is very hard to get rid of them. But I was quite happy because I naively thought that even though the cottage was built in the early 80's, there might be some lovely old floorboards lurking underneath which I could buff up or paint. Of course there weren't!! Downstairs were concrete floors and upstairs were chipboard. So my new plan was to put oak flooring in downstairs and replace the carpets (with anti-moth ones) upstairs. If you haven't had oak wood floors installed in your home then you might be surprised to learn how costly they are. Let's just say that I could have bought a secondhand car and gone on holiday for 2 weeks to the Caribbean with that sort of money. 

Tim began removing the skirting boards and it was only when I heard him say, "Oops" a few times that I thought I should have a look. The skirting board was coming off fine but it was also taking half the wall with it. He casually remarked, "Bloody hell, it's like sandstone!" which wasn't helpful. He also said it wouldn't be a problem because he would just fill the holes and re-plaster after the wood floor was laid. If that sounds a bit backwards, it is. The floor should always be the last thing to do when you're renovating so it doesn't get damaged, but I had no choice. The wood floor guys could only fit me in to their hectic schedule because of a cancellation, otherwise I would have had to wait until March! And I couldn't bear another 3 months of concrete floors because it was kicking up horrible dust and was freezing cold to walk on, so needs must. Just as Tim was leaving he looked back at the floor and said, "Hmm, that's weird." Oh no. He had noticed that where the partition wall had been removed – between the kitchen and the living room – the floor seemed to rise up in the middle. He laid his spirit level down and saw that indeed, the floor was not level. You can't lay a wood floor on to uneven flooring so the next day Tim retuned with a jack hammer and a mate of his, and they began digging up the floor in order to re-level it with compound. The noise was so horrific that my neighbour from 3 houses away came round to complain!

With the skirting removed and the concrete floor now level, the wood floor guy came to do his part. Three days later it was finished and looked stunning. Beautiful wide planks of oak with a matte oil finish. Of course, even though I was over the moon with it, paranoia kicked in whenever someone came to visit. Could I ask complete strangers to take their shoes off? Amazingly, I didn't even have to ask... every builder, decorator and carpenter immediately removed their boots and wandered around in their socks. But after about a week, I noticed a strange creaking in the middle of the kitchen floor and one plank in particular seemed to see-saw from one end to the other. I filmed it and sent it to the floor guys. They didn't seem too worried and said, "Oh that's fine, it happens sometimes, we'll come back and fix it in 3 weeks." Three weeks!!! But I knew they were busy, I said it was fine, and spent the next 3 weeks tiptoeing around the area in case I made it worse. They did come back and they did fix it, so the next thing was to put the skirting boards back on. Of course, because of the hold-up fixing the floor, everyone else in the renovation chain was now put back and I had to wait until after Christmas for work to progress again. 

In the meantime, I launched myself into the January sales and managed to buy a washing machine, cooker, extractor fan and fridge/freezer for under £900, saving myself £350... bargain! Or so I thought. Stupidly, I had to forgotten to take the additional height of the 3cm wood floor into consideration when ordering my washing machine, and realised, with horror, that it would no longer fit under the countertop. Oh God. My builder suggested cutting out a section of wood floor and sitting the washing machine into the hole, which sounded awful. The carpenter suggested raising the height of the kitchen counter by 3cm because I was, "tall for a woman" and it, "might stop you getting back ache when cooking and washing up!" Thanks for that Mr. Carpenter. I am now waiting for the washing machine to be delivered this week and hoping for a miracle. Perhaps the manufacturers measured it wrong and it will fit just fine, if not, then my savings of £350 will be spent on raising my counter tops! And I can't even plug my cooker or fridge in until the other work has been done!

As I am writing this, my builder Tim is downstairs and re-attaching the skirting boards. He is also filling the holes in the wall created by him pulling off the original skirting boards and the plumber removing the boiler. Tim is a good builder but with a short attention span. His love of tea breaks, fag breaks and talking means he frequently forgets what he is doing and it's then my job to go round the house at the end of the day and point out where a nail is missing or a hole hasn't been filled. On careful observation I have noticed that he simply cannot talk and work at the same time. I have always known men to be a little rubbish at multi-tasking but Tim takes it to a whole new level. Even if I ask him if he wants a cup of tea, he has to lay down his tools, scratch his head, and then give me an answer. He cannot just say, "yes please" and keep working. Thank God he charges by the job and not by the hour otherwise I'd be broke.

Tim also loves to tell stories, usually about other workmen or local residents, so is a proper little village gossip. He's a natural performer with a wonderful lilting Somerset accent, a deep tobacco-tinged voice and the ability to keep his audience (me) on the edge on my seat! But as soon as he starts talking I know he won't be able to keep working so I sigh, take a seat and listen. He tells me about things he's witnessed on building sites and in client's homes, from botched jobs to dead bodies to affairs, but the best story (today) was about a Curry's delivery driver he knows. Not the best story to tell me when I'm actually waiting for a Curry's delivery, but it's a good one. According to Tim, it is common practice amongst delivery drivers to damage items themselves, so they don't have to deliver them... especially late in the day. He told me of a guy he knew who was supposed to deliver a big American-style fridge to a large house in the middle of the countryside. It was dark and rainy Friday afternoon. The driver was tired and knew it would take at least another hour to get to the address which meant he wouldn't get to the pub until late, so he tipped the fridge off the back of the lorry, rang the depot telling them the fridge was damaged and that he would have to deliver a replacement the following week, then reloaded the fridge on to his lorry and went to the pub!!

I love Tim and his storytelling but I also can't wait for him, nor all the other workmen, to leave. I'm so sick of cleaning and dusting and generally living in a building site. I have never made so many cups of tea in my life nor bought so many packets of biscuits. I am fed up of putting the toilet seat down and always being cheerful when they show up at all hours of the day. I adore male company but my God they are irritating! I have been camped out in one room upstairs for 2 months, sleeping on a mattress with everything I own still in boxes... and the list of things to do for some strange reason, keeps getting longer not shorter. With very little money left, I might have to try Crowdfunding because I have no idea how I'm going to pay for all this: Decorating the house, carpeting the upstairs, buying new interior doors, replacing the front door, buying new blinds and curtains, putting up shelves, buying a bed, installing a shower, re-tiling the bathroom, replacing 3 velux windows, mending the porch and fitting a downstairs loo. And that's just the inside, don't get me started on the garden! 

I love love love my new home and everyone keeps telling me to be patient, that it will be worth it in the end... but what is a home unless you can have your loved ones round for dinner, to hang out or to stay the night? I'm hoping that by Spring I can at least have a few friends round for a meal, so please form an orderly queue, and maybe bring a paintbrush and some cash with you.

Friday, 22 December 2017

2017 in numbers

My year...
4 months living at my parent's house, plus the whole previous year of course (thanks M & D)
12 visits to Airbnb's
4 nights in Premier Inns
7 months living at my friend Katie's cottage (eek, thanks Katie)
4 mice caught while living in Katie's cottage
9 months house-hunting in Somerset
19 properties viewed and rejected
2 visits to new cottage before putting in an offer
9 weeks from initial offer to moving in
6 weeks living in my new cottage in Frome (hurrah)
4 other terraced cottages in my row
1 converted mill on my road
4 big Georgian houses on my road
1 bigger Georgian manor house on my road (with swimming pool to boot... hello neighbours!)
2 Dachshunds, 1 Schnauzer and a King Charles Spaniel living on my road
7 visits from neighbours since moving in
3 weeks waiting for internet to be connected (BT... what a surprise!)
2 days having my electrics re-wired
2 days having my plumbing sorted out and new boiler installed
1 week waiting for plumber to come back and fix strange noises coming from new pipes
3 days having my oak wood floor laid
3 weeks waiting for oak wood floor man to come back and fix oak wood floor
8 visits from builder
1 wall removed
1 visit from decorator (eye-watering quote only)
3 visits from carpet fitter (sample books only)
1 visit from landscape gardener (to talk about fences)
2 hours carpenter spent fixing rickety stairs
2 more visits from carpenter (to discuss my designs for shelving and other odd jobs)
30 minutes carpenter took to explain he was now unavailable to do the work for me
2 hours spent sulking after visit from carpenter
9 different white vans parked outside my cottage (on different occasion I hasten to add)
50 cups of tea made for workmen (at least)
8 packets of biscuits consumed by workmen (at least)
13 boxes, 2 suitcases and 5 bin bags left to unpack
1 week spent in Wales, writing my book, on my own
2 weeks spent in Thailand, on holiday, with girlfriends
5 birthday parties attended
8 drinks parties attended
5 BBQ parties attended
7 dinner parties attended
23 new friends made
12 visits to the theatre (3 in London, 4 in Bristol, 3 in Bath, 2 open-air in Somerset)
38 visits to pubs and restaurants
21 films watched at Babington House (blimey)
1 drive-in film watched at Babington House
11 creative workshops attended at Babington House
8 people (at least) who have got bored of me talking about Babington House
23 books read
14 blogs written
3 trips to the seaside
5 months ill with Rheumatoid Arthritis (hideous)
3 months not working because of Rheumatoid Arthritis (even more hideous)
5 visits to Rheumatologist
3 visits to Occupational Therapist
7 visits to Physiotherapist
12 visits to GP
3 visits to knee surgeon in London
14 blood tests taken
1 visit to Dentist
7 visits to Acupuncturist
12 visits to Pilates rehab
1 foam roller class attended
3 meditation classes attended
101 consecutive days spent doing at least 20 minutes meditation
24 pills taken daily (holy moly!)
3 hair cuts (not enough)
2 manicures
3 massages
12 Congratulations on your new home cards received
18 Christmas cards received
1 Nativity play attended
2 Carol services attended
17 presents wrapped
107 minutes spent writing this blog
12 words and 1 letter to say: Have a wonderful Christmas and a very Happy New Year, love Jules x

Monday, 11 December 2017


The last 9 months of house hunting has taken its toll on me mentally and physically. I began looking at properties armed with a huge checklist, great expectations and oodles of enthusiasm but as the months passed and I saw nothing I liked or could afford, I grew weary. My priority list got shorter, my patience dwindled and I began to dread looking at property websites. The butterflies in my stomach stopped fluttering when I answered the phone to estate agents and I began to ignore the "For Sale" signs as I drove around Frome. I was down in the dumps.

So, when I first viewed the property I have now bought, a cottage that was way above my price range and didn't have many of the things on my checklist but was, very importantly, in one of the most beautiful areas of Frome, I didn't hold out much hope. But as soon as I walked through the door it felt good. It had prospects. It was hideously decorated, had terrible light and was in need of a lot of TLC but I knew I could make it beautiful. So I made a ridiculous offer, £20,000 under the asking price and crossed my fingers. My position helped... I had nothing to sell, all my stuff was in storage, I was renting a room at a friend's house, I had a large cash deposit and I had a pre-approved mortgage, so I could potentially move really fast. And that's exactly what the sellers wanted. After a nerve racking 24 hours wait, they said yes.

It took only 10 weeks from my initial offer to me moving in on November 10th, an incredibly short period of time that surprised even the estate agents. My brilliant solicitor discovered a number of shortcuts, from paying Mendip Council a private fee to speed up paperwork (£30), to getting cancelled appointments for surveys and buttering up my mortgage provider, so I was moving in before I had time to catch my breath. By then, of course, I had been living with this damn Rheumatoid Arthritis for 3 months and was finding everything very difficult. Having no energy and in pain all the time makes a somewhat stressful period even more so and the hardest thing for me was relinquishing control and asking for help!!

My sister and I were brought up to be resourceful, practical and independent women... my parents wouldn't let us leave home until we were capable of at least changing a tyre, unblocking a loo, re-wiring a plug, painting a wall, building a fire, reading a map and working out our finances so I have always managed to do things on my own and have not had to rely on anyone to help with day-to-day things. 49 years later and I am physically unable to do anything that requires lifting, carrying, hammering or screwing, so I had to get friends, family and removal men to move me in and shift things around the house, I've had to get builders in to knock down walls and rip up flooring and I will have to get decorators in to help me paint the house. It's terribly frustrating because I'd usually be doing all that stuff myself and now I have to stand around and watch someone else do it. Arghhh. I never knew I was such a control freak!

Thank goodness I have had recommendations for all the amazing workmen I am using and they have been brilliant. One friend who lives four houses away has pretty much imparted her whole tradesman database to me, from tree surgeons to wood floor specialists. Thank you Lizzie! Frome is a small market town with a large community spirit and many passersby have stuck their heads round my open front door or peered through my window to: A, have a good nose or B, offer opinions, suggestions or impart local knowledge. After the first few days, I had already met almost all of the neighbours on my road and have been round for coffee to a fair few. 

My small stone-fronted cottage is at the end of a row of 5, halfway down a narrow lane flanked by dry-stone walls. Although it was only built in the early 80's, which is certainly not very old for this part of town, its clever design means it blends in well with the surrounding Georgian houses and converted wool mills. Location is everything too, and being in a conservation area means nothing hideous can be built and no additions or alterations made without strict consent. It is a beautiful spot... I overlook several grand Grade II listed houses so my views aren't bad, and it's a quiet too, most of the time, which as my family and friends well know, is high on my list of priorities. The only times it's not that quiet is first thing in the morning when kids are going to school and dogs are having their first walk of the day, and in the afternoon when kids are being picked up. As my road is a cut through for foot traffic it can get a little boisterous. At the back, the gardens are mostly walled which is very pretty to look at but which can also amplify noise upwards and outwards, so again, at times it sounds like a distant barking dog is actually in my garden but I can't say I wasn't warned... many months ago I was told that if I didn't like children or dogs, then I shouldn't move to Frome! Fair enough.

After 4 weeks, I am still camped out in one of the small bedrooms upstairs. I haven't been able to unpack because there is still a fair amount of dust and chaos. There is still dust and chaos because the floor was bare cement until last week and had to be levelled, a wall had to be knocked down and a boiler had to be removed. I can't unpack more than immediate necessities because I have to decorate and that means trying to keep everything covered and only moving it from room to room as one gets finished. I need to re-plaster some walls and ceilings, put in a new downstairs loo and sink, put in a new upstairs loo and sink, re-tile the bathroom, install a shower, replace 3 windows and 3 doors, and then decorate. And only when I have decorated can I lastly, but not leastly, lay new carpets on the stairs and upstairs. Phew. 

Of course I need furniture too. All that remains from my London flat is my mattress, a chest of drawers, a sofa and a bookcase. I also need a cooker, a fridge and a washing machine and this would all be fine and do-able if I had the money to pay for it all, but again, due to this buggery Rheumatoid Arthritis, I haven't been able to work, therefore I haven't been able to earn money and so I can't pay for anything but the immediate and the crucial. I considered heat and a floor to be essentials so the rest is on hold. Even my amazing builder agreed to work cheaper for cash but he can only squeeze me in between his other more important and better paid jobs. So I sit and look around me and have an every-growing list of things I could and should do, but when I attempt to do them, get beaten back by the pain. Or I work through the pain and then can't move the following day. Neither is a good option.

But I will get there. My cottage will be finished eventually and my doctors will find a drug that works. I am forever hopeful and I suppose that's all that matters. It goes without saying that once I do have both these things figured out, I will then be able to invite my friends and family to stay. I miss having people in my home, laughing, chatting, eating and drinking, because that's what keeps me sane. I love entertaining and I love hosting so not being able to that right now is frustrating. But keep your diaries free for Spring 2018... hopefully by then my body will be fixed and my home will be open.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Beds, bugs and Bruno.

Due to circumstances beyond my control, last week I found myself with nowhere to stay. For the last few months I have been living with a friend in her gorgeous cottage in Somerset but as her boyfriend was coming to stay, we agreed I would vacate the premises for the week while he was here. I had arranged to visit friends and family in Yorkshire and Cumbria but at the last minute I had to stay in the area rather than head up north, and suddenly realised I was a bit stuck.

I am quite used to scrabbling around trying to find places to stay while I've been house-hunting. Over the last year I have stayed in practically every Airbnb, B&B and Pub in Bristol, Bath and Frome. Some have been more expensive than others because they've been conveniently positioned to wherever I've been working, others have just been cheap. But I have never had to find somewhere with only a few hours notice that would be ok to stay in when ill. My RA has been particularly hard to deal with because of the chronic fatigue, nausea and pain... it leaves me utterly incapable of doing anything for more than a few hours and I have spent much of the last 8 weeks in bed. My lovely cousin had offered me a bed but her household had come down with flu and because my medication lowers my immune system, that was out of the question. So it was a tricky one. I could hardly ring up some of my newer friends in the area and ask to stay when I would have immediately turned up at their house, said hello, and then needed to sleep. Not the most social of things to do. I also needed to be close to Frome because of some appointments so it narrowed my search somewhat. After some panic googling, I found a place near Shepton Mallet, a town I have subsequently learnt is referred to as 'Shit and Smell it' by locals as it is often said to be one of Britain's worst places to live. No wonder the pub I found had rooms available.

For £35 a night I was offered a double room with ensuite bathroom and breakfast was included. Now I have never stayed anywhere that cheap that wasn't utterly horrific. It didn't disappoint. The pub itself was next to one of the areas busiest roads and in order for the guests not to be kept awake by the constant stream of traffic, the windows were painted shut. It made no difference, in fact, because there was also the constant hum of the kitchen extractor fan just below the bedroom window, extracting, by the smell of it, old cooking oil. I also found myself being jolted out of bed every 5 minutes by a loud hollow bang that reverberated around the room and made the bed shake. I discovered what was making this loud bang when I bravely entered the main bar downstairs, a few hours later.

There was only one man working in the pub, who seemed to be responsible for not only manning the front desk but also serving drinks, taking food orders, and probably cooking the food itself. I use the term 'food' loosely. The extensive menu (4 pages, large bold type) consisted of things that had once been frozen and would now be fried... Chicken and Chips, Fish and Chips, Chicken nuggets and Chips, Fishcake and Chips, Deep fried Camembert, Deep fried Prawns... you get the idea. In fact, the only thing on the menu that wasn't going to be engorged in boiling vegetable oil was Sausage and Mash, so that's what I ordered, careful to request that my sausages be cremated (I didn't want to risk food poisoning on top of everything else!). Were there any vegetables I asked? The man frowned and said, "Well it comes with mash". O-kay. What worried me was the speed in which my meal arrived. Yes, I was the only one in the pub, but still, to cook sausages from scratch in under a minute was a bit of a concern. Maybe they too had been fried. The sausages did not taste like any kind of meat I'd ever had before and the mash, well it took me back to my school days... watery, cold, lumpy and drowned in lukewarm gloop that I guessed was gravy. It was utterly revolting but at the eye-waterning price of £10.95, I felt obliged to at least have a few bites. I could hardly complain and send it back because it really wasn't that kind of place. It would have been replaced with something equally horrific anyway!

I did discover from the receptionist/barman/cook what the banging noise was, however. "Oh, your room is above the men's toilet," he said. "It's the door banging every time someone goes in for a pee". Oh how lovely. "But it bangs every few minutes," I said, "and there doesn't seem to be anyone else here but you and I." "There's everyone in the kitchen," he replied, gesturing to the door with his thumb. Everyone in the kitchen. Surely everyone implies quite a few people. What on earth were they doing in there? Certainly not preparing gastronomic delights for everyone in the pub!

My night was not spent sleeping. I had become used to the traffic noise and once everyone in the kitchen had left for the night, the banging loo door also stopped but what kept me awake were two things; The stifling heat and the motion sensor light outside. The heating was kept on high throughout the night and as anyone knows from staying in a cheap hotel, the sheets were also cheap, which meant polyester, which meant sweaty. I couldn't open the windows so lay there suffocating. Then there was the incredibly bright motion sensor floodlight that was triggered every few minutes and invaded the room like a spaceship, glowing menacingly through the very insubstantial paper-thin curtains. It meant that there were either creepy Shepton Mallet low-lives walking around, about to break in and attack me, or there were wild animals! Listen, I was ill and sleep deprived so my imagination was slightly overactive. The lights also attracted a myriad of giant moths and insects which hit the window with such ferocity, I thought they would break the glass.

Safe to say, I felt and looked much worse in the morning than when I had arrived, but I was hungry, needed to force down a bit of breakfast so I could take all my medications, and only then could I try and sleep again. Breakfast was served between 7am and 8am, an incomprehensible time slot that definitely did not appear to be designed for the average tourist or holiday maker. And guess what... that's exactly what was not in the breakfast room (I say breakfast room... it was in fact the same room I'd eaten in the night before). Four of the tables were occupied with pairs of big burly men in workwear. I don't mean that in any derogatory manner, it's just a fact. Overalls, boiler suits and jeans, covered in an array of paint, plaster, earth and god knows what else. They all stared at me as I staggered over to a vacant table... not in an appreciative "Ooh it's a woman," type of way, more of a "Jesus, what has the cat dragged in!" kind of way. I was not looking my best. Matted hair scrunched into a topknot, dark circles under my bloodshot eyes and a deathly pallor that normally would have put the average person off their hearty breakfast, but not these chaps. A cursory glance and they went back to shovelling great forkfuls of baked beans, fried eggs and sausages (probably mine from the night before) into their mouths! But where had they all come from? They certainly weren't here the night before... or maybe they were, and had been the ones triggering the light through the night. I didn't really care to be honest, I just needed food. There was only one thing on offer, a Full English, which didn't surprise me because it's fried after all. I managed a few mouthfuls of molten lava-hot beans and a few bites of burnt cold toast before the queasiness took over and I departed as quickly as I'd arrived. I headed for my room, collapsed on the bed and amazingly managed to sleep for the rest of the day. And then, even more amazingly, I slept through the night.

It's a fantastic feeling to wake up and feel better. Well, not better better, but I had managed to sleep on and off for more than 18 hours and the never-ending fatigue had suddenly lifted slightly. But I knew I couldn't do it for another night, not with the prospect of banging door, the bright light, the heat and disgusting food, so I decided to go upmarket (upmarket meaning anywhere but here) and booked myself into a Travelodge. Basic, clean, quiet. The only slightly off-putting thing when I checked in were the two ambulances parked outside the front entrance. I asked the receptionist what was going on and she just pulled a sad face. Oh God. She handed me a key, then took it back, pulled another face and scratched her head. "I'll put you on the top floor, right at the end of the corridor so you won't hear anything." Oh God. I walked to the room trying not to imagine what on earth was going on elsewhere in the hotel, and just to be on the safe side, dug out some old fluff-covered earplugs, drew the curtains and fell asleep. I didn't hear anything, I didn't see anything, and I didn't feel anything.

I left the next morning feeling a little more revived but halfway to Frome, realised I had left my hot water bottle in the bed. Now I don't care about the rubber hot water bottle itself, it is the hot water bottle cover that I care about. It is a very old, very shabby-looking, brown, furry, hot water bottle cover that all my friends know about because it has traveled with me for the last 20 years. His name is Bruno and he is a dog. Even boyfriends have had to fight Bruno for space in my bed, sometimes a little bewildered when a foot meets fur instead of skin. Bruno is there all year round you see, through spring, summer, autumn and winter and I don't care who knows it. But now I had left him behind and wasn't going to be back in the area for a few days. My Mother urged me to call the Travelodge and get them to keep him safe for me. I felt a little idiotic but I rang and spoke to the same receptionist who had checked me in the previous day. "Yessss, we found it," she said laughing, "But the cleaner had quite a fright when she stripped the bed. She didn't know what it was." "Yes, that's happened to me before," I said, remembering similar scenarios. "But then again," I added, "You must have had weirder things left behind." "Oh my God yes," she said, "But we don't talk about those!" I laughed and then remembered the ambulances. "Was everything ok with whoever was ill by the way? The ambulances?" There was a slight pause, and then she said, "What ambulances?" I guess they don't talk about those either!

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Hidden Illnesses

Over the years I have had a lot of different illnesses and operations, and I've noticed that people react very differently to ones that are obvious or visible, like a knee replacement or a bug that might leave you pale and sickly-looking, and those that are invisible, such as depression or something affecting your insides. The hidden illnesses may not leave physical scars or change the way you look but they can be far more debilitating and have more of an impact on both your daily and future life.

I have many physical scars from surgeries but I also have the physical memories of get well cards, letter and emails. The hidden illnesses certainly don't get the same level of attention and I think it's mainly because they aren't obvious and therefore probably not talked about as much. Unless you walk around with a sign most people are oblivious.

I was diagnosed with severe autoimmune disease 8 weeks ago, a hard-core, life-sapping illness, often referred to as Rheumatoid Arthritis. It is not, as many people think, quite the same things as having a few swollen joints after eating spicy food, or having a crooked finger or toe. When it is severe, it is a chronic and progressive disease that causes inflammation throughout the whole body. Yes, it affects the joints and is incredibly painful but the reason it can be so debilitating is that your own body's immune system starts attacking itself. A normal immune system attacks outside invaders in the body but due to a bizarre re-wiring, the immune systems of people with RA fight themselves, which is a bit silly, and a bit crap.

A few months ago I woke up with a shooting pain in my right hand and wrist. It was very swollen and hot to the touch and I couldn't move it without screaming in pain. I thought back to what I'd done the previous day and realised I had attempted a bizarre new manoeuvre in my Pilates class and hung upside down on a trapeze for several minutes, alternately gripping the bar with my hands or feet... I thought maybe I had ruptured some tendons. I took myself off to A&E, they took an x-ray and agreed that as nothing was fractured, then it must be torn tendons. On with a soft cast, and 2 weeks later, a visit to my GP. My GP was puzzled. She didn't think it was tendons. In fact, she didn't think it was anything that I'd done physically and immediately sent me off for blood tests. A few days later she rang and told me to come and see her. I made an appointment and she very slowly explained what the blood tests had revealed. Acute Rheumatoid Arthritis. I, like many people, thought that Rheumatoid Arthritis was a few painful joints and I simply shrugged it off, thinking it would get better in a while.

I remember my father suffering from RA around the same age when we lived in America, and he had been treated, very successfully, with gold injections! I had never talked to him about it at great length because I had been away at University and by the time I was back, his symptoms had almost disappeared. He never spoke of the initial diagnosis and how it had affected him. My mother never spoke of the months spent helping my father get dressed because the pain was so awful. My sister never told me how shocked she had been, seeing my father bent and crooked and walking with a stick, aged 50. I was oblivious to it all, until now.

Unfortunately, the gold injections my father had are not the most common form of treatment used nowadays (as you can imagine) but as Rheumatoid Arthritis has no cure, it is one of the most heavily funded and researched illnesses. As a result, there are many ways for it to be treated with different drug therapies. You are never actually cured of the disease but most people do go through stages of remission and can have years where the disease lies dormant. The first 3-6 months are the worst I am told. The Rheumatoid specialist I saw a week after my initial diagnosis was very clear about that. Be prepared because it spreads through the body like an out-of-control wildfire, getting much worse before it gets better. It swells your joints and heats your body and feels like flu most of the time. A dull ache in the bones, an ever-present roaring headache, nausea and dizziness and a chronic fatigue I never thought possible. Without doubt, I have never felt so ill in my life. But it is hidden in my body, and apart from the lumps on my wrists, the puffy hands and knees, a bit of a limp and the red flush from the steroids, I look fine. Tired but fine. Rosy cheeked but fine. And because I look fine, most people think I'm fine.

I haven't been able to work for 4 weeks now. My doctor said I should stop working for 3 months but as a self-employed designer that is simply impossible. If I don't work, I don't get paid. If I don't get paid for a period of time, then my whole life falls apart. Initially, I thought I could strap up my hands like a boxer and carry on as normal but this illness has caught me by surprise. The exhaustion is overwhelming. By the time I have showered and dressed (very slowly using my left hand only), I feel as if I haven't slept for a week. Many mornings, I have barely been able to get out of bed as the pain soars through my body. Some days I can't move my fingers and other days I can't move my hands and some days I spend the morning with my head in the toilet bowl. My wrists are in soft casts much of the time, so I don't accidentally bend them and cause torturous lighting bolts to shoot up my arms and down my fingers. I have an additional complication and that is Sjogren's disease, an irritating infliction which causes extreme dry mouth and dry eyes. I hate it, and hate that if I don't constantly chew gum or suck a sweet or have a litre of water at my side, my mouth feels like a desert and my eyes itch and burn.

The pills are a work in progress too. I have no idea at this point whether the numerous medications are causing ill effects or it is the disease itself. The side effects, from what is essentially a low dose of chemotherapy, are horrendous... mostly nausea but with the added fun of vertigo and ringing ears, something that I can only associate with clubbing in London! It's impossible to try and describe how all this feels to someone that has no experience of it, and I hate myself when I text friends and moan about how shit I feel. Poor me poor me is one of the traits I despise but if someone asks me how I feel, I can't lie about it. The worst things is having to try and do anything for myself when my left hand is the only functioning one. And I am not left handed. I can no longer clean my teeth, brush my hair, pull up my jeans, do up buttons or make food with my right hand. I cannot grip you see. So imagine how long things take. I end up with toothpaste by my ear, my hair in knots and my shirts skewiff. It's ridiculous. And apart from people who have damaged their wrists, fingers or hands in the past, the only people that can relate to this are other RA sufferers.

I was advised to join an RA community online by my rheumatologist. Not only are there thousand of people that have gone through, or are going through the same thing but they can offer support, suggestions and advice that you might not get elsewhere. My family have been amazing which goes without saying and I truly cannot thank my mother and father enough for their hospitality and the offer of a bed and love whenever necessary. But the timing is shite. I am in a new chapter of my life, working for new clients and meeting new friends in Somerset and it really isn't the easiest of things to explain. I have had to cancel bookings and nights out, weekends away and dinner parties. I meet new people and wince when they shake my hand. I go to the cinema and can barely keep my eyes open. I try to go swimming and can't swim... treading water for half and hour like an idiot because I can't use my hands. I do get peculiar looks I must say. Some friends have been amazing, always there, always asking, always offering and always there at the end of the phone. Some have gone beyond... offering beds, bringing round food and books and cards. And others have problems of their own, their own health to look after, their own pain, their own suffering, and we trade paragraphs of support and  love via our phones.

Let's just hope things start to improve. It has been 8 weeks so far and the latest blood tests aren't so good. Worse inflammation, worse pain, worse. I have been at my parents house for a few days each week, and know I can relax here without worrying too much. I'm not asking for sympathy or even empathy, I'm simply asking for understanding.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017


I surprised myself by humming this morning. I literally stopped in my tracks when I heard the slightly tuneless noise being expelled from my lips and thought, how interesting, I can't remember the last time that happened.

I equate mindless humming or singing in the morning with being happy. I was so surprised by it happening to me because for the last few years I have woken most mornings in pain and the first thing that enters my head is how many pills I have to swallow. The next thoughts are where I'm working, how far I have to drive, or the endless quest to find a home.

So, why was I suddenly humming? My circumstances haven't changed but there is something I've been doing for the last 2 weeks, upon waking, that seems to have completely altered my early morning mood. Meditation. Ok, I know what you are thinking... another person banging on about finding inner peace, omm-ing their way through life without a care in the world but I swear to God, it's the only thing I can put my altered mood down to.

I've tried meditation before without much success. When I was in Sri Lanka in 2004, I sat for an hour every afternoon with a local Buddhist monk from the village. I desperately tried to sit still, to stop my mind from wandering, and every single day I would get utterly bored and frustrated after about 10 minutes. I would get distracted by anything invading my senses... a dog barking in the distance, the shouts of the fishermen, the smell of cooking, wind blowing my hair in the wrong direction, even an ant crawling across my toe. I remember twitching my toe to get rid of it and it just kept crawling higher up my foot. I opened one eye to spot it and kill it, only to find the monk staring calmly at me, sightly shaking his head. I squeezed my eyes shut again and let the pesky ant continue its journey until I could bear it no longer and shot my leg out, shaking my trouser leg with a squeal. The monk did nothing. He sat there is such a state of focused bliss that I wondered what it would take to make him react. How did he do it, hour after hour?

A few years later I went to a meditation class in London. A group of about a dozen of us sat cross-legged facing a statue of Buddha, with some lit candles and an incense stick burning. I was fine for the first 5 minutes, focusing on my breathing and feeling quite calm. Then I got annoyed by the smell of the incense... it was too strong. The background music of chimes was increasingly irritating and the woman next to me was breathing so loudly it sounded as if she was gong into labour. No this wasn't going to work. My mind was too restless, I had too many things to think about, and once again I gave up.

In recent years, mindfulness has taken over from meditation as the thing to do. But it really is a clever re-brand of an ancient practise. The only difference really is that mindfulness can be practised anywhere at any time. It is simply being aware, being in the moment. You can practise mindfulness drinking a cup of tea, for instance. Instead of having a couple of sips whilst thinking about what you have to do next or what plans you have for the following day, simply focus on drinking the tea... the smell of the tea, the taste of each mouthful, the sensation of the warm liquid in your mouth, of swallowing the tea. Many people have moments of mindfulness when they taste something utterly delicious and have that Mmmm moment when all your senses are heightened by the taste. It sounds ridiculous but that is what mindfulness is about. Taking a minute to just be in the moment. Mindfulness is a form of meditation therefore. Meditation being the ultimate practise of being able to calm the mind, slow the breathing and concentrate.

So I began trying to be more mindful, to focus on the things I was doing, rather than letting my mind race all the time. Going for a walk and not talking, eating and really tasting the food, slowing everything down. And then I was told about an app for the phone that did guided meditations. You didn't have to sit for an hour in total silence, you could listen and be guided into different forms of meditation to help you keep focused, which I have to say, sounded a bit more like it.

So for the last 2 weeks I have been listening to a different guided meditation each day, for at least 20 minutes, as soon as I wake up. I do not leap out of bed and thrown myself into a lotus position on the floor, I simply rest my phone on my chest and lay perfectly still. The app is called Insight Timer and is a global community of experts with over 12,000 meditations. I do have my favourites already because there is nothing more annoying and distracting than a voice suddenly telling you what to do if they have a horrible speaking voice. So that is number one for me. A lovely calm voice. Secondly, I like ones that focus on breathing. As soon as you slow your breathing down, the effect on your stress levels is overwhelming. I also like visualisation ones although some I've listened to end up making me laugh. There was one I tried a few days ago, where you imagine yourself on a white sandy beach, waves lapping at your feet. That was fine, nice slow breathing to the sound of waves. But then suddenly she told me to get into a boat and float over to a deserted island, to get out of the boat, find a path and walk through a rainforest. In the rainforest was a clearing with a pool of deep water. She told me to take my clothes off and get into the pool of water. And then I started giggling. Of course my brain could not ignore the questions that came into my head... were there sharks in the water? How did the boat know how to get to the island? What if it missed the island on a weird current and floated out to sea instead? Who else was on the island and could they now all see me naked?

So, you see, not every single one does the trick of calming and focusing but I'm very much enjoying experimenting. The latest one, that I did this morning, involved me picturing bright balls of light, zooming and spinning around my body. That was quite nice. I actually felt a tingling sensation for at least half an hour afterwards... but that might have been my new medication instead!!

Monday, 14 August 2017

A left-handed diary entry.

I am currently typing this with my left hand and I am not left-handed. It will take me much longer than normal to write my blog but as my car is in the garage today, I am housebound with nothing better to do.

I am not one to drone on and on about my ailments. I only really talk about it to my family or to friends that know that I'm not going to drone on and on about it for too long. If people ask, I tell them but most of the time my pain is recorded in my writing. My pain diary. It is not a happy read. In fact, it would be silly to ever read it back because it is page after page of pain and painful thoughts. I get it out, every few days, and write about what hurts and what doesn't, what treatment I'm having, what pills I'm taking. I write it down and get it out of my system so that I'm not consumed by it and so that I can lead a normal life most of the time. It is my therapy.

I have kept a diary since I was a young teenager. I wrote about growing pains, wanting a nose job after someone called me Concorde, about having knock knees and pigeon toes. I wrote about being so flat chested and skinny that people still thought I was a boy at 14. I wrote about certain horrible school teachers, being annoyed with my parents and being more annoyed with my sister. I wrote endlessly about trips out with the family and how long the car journey took. I wrote in ridiculous detail about lunches and suppers and meals out, recording what each person had ordered and if they'd enjoyed it. We had a VHS recorder and the first video shop had opened in town so every single video we rented was written about and analysed, from storyline to enjoyment factor. As I got older the diary entries became longer, my writing became smaller and extra pages were inserted and taped in place. I had started writing about boys!

My mid-teen diaries bulge with information and are held together with elastic bands and string. I wrote about fancying boys and wondering what it would be like to kiss them. Ten pages about a particular boy, listing what he wore and how he looked, writing down every word he uttered to me. And then, only days later, that boy would miraculously disappear from my diary, to be replaced with a new crush, a new name. I was at a private girls school at the time so interactions with boys were sparse. We knew the local village boys but they were just irritating. We had family friends but they were like brothers and then we had the all-boys school that we had monthly disco's with. I can feel the awkwardness with such clarity when I read these diaries back. Excruciating verbal exchanges, embarrassing slow dances and nervous wet kisses. I wrote about my first proper French kiss after a night out at a roller disco and being caught in my parent's car headlights as they came to pick me up. I wrote about meeting my first proper boyfriend and being allowed to hang out in his bedroom. In my house, boys weren't even allowed upstairs so many pages were devoted to this brand new territory. But the pain was always there too. Of being let down, being disappointed and being lied to. My girl friends, a very tight group, began to split apart when boys became more of a focus. I wrote about betrayal for the first time, of how hurt I could be by my friends.

And as the years went on, I wrote about more serious boyfriends, about music and bands, getting my first car, going to pubs and weekends away. But the pattern of my writing started to change. There were no longer daily entries, logging my every movement and thought, I now wrote in chunks of time, of particular upsets, of meaningful events. As I entered my early 20's, there were months of blank pages and then suddenly an eruption of emotion would appear, a flurry of hurried angry words, written with such speed and angst that the paper is ripped and tears have blurred the words. Pain and emotion became the focus of these entries. Why became my most overused word. As life became busier, larger gaps appeared. No diaries for 1988, 89 or 90, when I moved to America. I began keeping larger sketch books with beautiful hardback covers and writing would be interspersed with drawings, lists or memorabilia stuck into the pages. Odd sheets of folded paper will sometimes fall out of these books, as I pack them in boxes when I move from house to house, and I will unfold them and find a sad paragraph, written on a whim. There are also letters and cards I've written that remain unsent, and they always unsettle me a bit. I re-read them and wonder if I should send them to the people that hurt me, now, after all these years? I don't.

Someone once told me, my surgeon I think, that people don't remember pain. Your memory of pain subsides, it's something the brain does to cope. Your memories of happiness remain though, and I know, between all the gaps in my diary entries, the hundreds upon thousands of days where no words are recorded, that I was, and am happy. There is no pain in the blank pages and those days far outweigh the painful ones I am relieved to say. I still write about loss and pain and frustration but I also write about love and life and adventure. There must always be some light in the darkness I think. Writing is my catharsis, even today, when I have only one working left hand and six paragraphs have taken me 3 hours. It's ok though, I don't mind. Maybe at the age of 49 I can teach myself to be ambidextrous. That would be handy.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Country members clubs and the hunt for a home.

I knew of Babington House before I came to Somerset. I had heard of the grand old manor house sitting in 8 glorious acres of woodland, surrounded by manicured lawns and peaceful lakes. I had also heard of the all-year-round outdoor swimming pool and the grass tennis courts, the croquet lawn and the cricket on Sundays. I had heard of famous rock stars and actors flying in from London by helicopter and the car parks filled with Bentleys and Jaguars. I also knew it was a members club, a members club I wanted to join. Ok, so my 30 year-old gold Toyota with its coat-hanger aerial and numerous dents might look a little out of place amidst the shiny supercars but I’d heard someone say, only last week, that, “Driving a new car in the country is so nouveau riche, the older the car, the better darling.” Well that’s all right then.

The application process, for such a house, is quite lengthy. You have to fill in a very detailed questionnaire and then write why you think you would be a good addition to the club, something I am terrible at. Self-promotion in general is very un-British and I have never been able to tell someone how brilliant I am, even when I’m trying to woo prospective clients, so I simply wrote that I was very friendly and liked meeting strangers, which on reflection, could similarly describe a family Labrador. I did, however, get nominated by two wonderful friends who wrote glowing recommendations and said things about me which I didn’t even know. Whatever happened in the committee meeting, they liked what they read and I was in. Hurrah. I was notified officially, a few days later by email. I was also notified that the application fee and my first month’s payment would be taken from my account the following morning. Let’s just say I hadn’t properly done my research and was unaware of a joining fee. Let’s also just say that I will never divulge exactly how much this fee was, only that it still gives me palpitations knowing that I may possibly have been able to upgrade my car for a similar amount.

But I have already – only 2 weeks into my membership – found it to be worth every penny. I am swimming most days and have signed myself up to pretty much every film screening and event that is on offer. This morning I did a life drawing class in the library. All the rooms are beautiful, a sort of upmarket shabby chic, but the library for me is a dream of a room. I live and breathe books so being surrounded by thousands of ancient and modern tombs whilst drawing a beautifully-lit nude model, draped over a chaise longue in the middle of the room, was really rather wonderful. There were only 5 of us and the teacher, who is also a brilliant local artist. I hadn’t done any life drawing in over ten years and was a little nervous where to start. Committing dark charcoal to white paper is scary but with his guidance and suggestions and his very astute understanding of what I wanted to achieve, I just let go. I would have paid a lot of money to get such focused teaching for 3 hours but this was free.... part of the perks of membership.

I could go on and on about how wonderful this place is but I won’t. I think it’s very easy to become a Babington Bore and that would be very tedious. It has, however, influenced me in a way that I hadn’t expected. My search for a house.

When I began house hunting in January I had a list of about 15 things that I wanted in my new home, everything from wood-burning stoves to garden sheds. Subsequently, my wish-list has been whittled down to 3. I call them my 3 P’s; Parking, privacy and peace & quiet. It doesn’t sound like much but you would be surprised how difficult it is to find. Here in Somerset, those 3 little P’s seem to be asking for the world. I am also exhausted with people telling me I have to compromise. Surely I can’t compromise on my 3 P’s, it’s all I have left.

Take for instance a property I saw yesterday. The estate agent had already warned me that he wasn’t sure it would be right for me because it was on a busy road in Frome. I wanted to see it anyway because with that damn C-word buzzing in my ears, I thought maybe a busy road could work as long as the bedroom was facing the back and the garden was quiet. The house was lovely and it ticked all my boxes... wooden floors, original sash windows, butler’s sink, a bath (don’t get me started on how many properties only have a shower room!) and there was even a wooden studio built in the garden. Ooooooh. I began to get excited. The bedroom was unfortunately road-side but maybe I could wear earplugs and get used to it. The owner asked me what I would compromise on and I rolled my eyes. I told her my 3 P’s and she looked crestfallen. I explained that I could probably deal with the road noise and she sighed and shook her head. “Do you like animals?” she asked. Oh God. I imagined she might begin telling me about noisy dogs or chickens but it was worse. The next door neighbour had turned the back room of their house into an apiary for their 4 parrots, and said parrots had a habit of imitating different mobile phone rings. Just then I heard a ‘Brrr, brrr” like an old fashioned telephone coming from next door. The owner said it took her 3 months to stop dashing inside to answer the landline, when it was in fact the bloody parrots. Again, to show willing I said I could probably get used to it until I heard a weird humming from the other neighbour’s garden. This humming was the sound of 3 large filter pumps attached to their 3 ponds. It sounded like a loud generator and was on, according to the owner, 24 hours a day. “Would you get used to that as well?” she said glumly. Only if I pretended I had permanent tinnitus.

I now think that my 3 P’s might have to go too. Having seen over 2 dozen properties in 6 months, it seems that none of them have even my basic needs. I’ve only had butterflies in one cottage which I offered on immediately, only to find out they’d accepted the offer right before mine. Timing is everything here. You need to see the properties before they are even listed to be in with a chance. So I’m going to slash my list again to only one thing. Parking? No. Privacy? No. Peace & quiet. No. My only requirement is that it’s close to Babington House.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Grand houses, heavenly gardens and chilli knees.

While I am house hunting in Somerset, I am lucky enough to be sharing my friend Katie's cottage. Her cottage is a gatehouse cottage at the entrance of a long treelined drive leading to a grand Georgian Manor House, surrounded by ancient woodland and rolling green fields. Katie is a great friend of the family that live in the big house and so is in the privileged position of being allowed to wander their impeccably kept formal and romantic gardens, stroll the long avenues of wisteria and lime trees, visit the walled gardens and orangery, and swim in the swimming pool. Her own cottage garden is a little sanctuary of calm. Apart from the occasional car, a honk or two from next doors goose, the cluck and caw of the chickens and a few quacks from the ducks, it is pretty much silent. After being here for 6 weeks, I am officially ruined for anything else.

To buy a property like this would cost a fortune. To be lucky enough to have neighbours as lovely as hers would be miraculous and to be surrounded by such beauty would be unimaginable. I was brought up in a stunning village in Hampshire so the countryside has always been in me. I knew I wouldn't live in London forever and many of the people I've talked to, who have made the same move from urban to rural, wish they'd done it years ago. I have an inexplicable happiness here that is only achieved by nature. Last night, Katie and I took advantage of the early evening sun and went for a swim in the pool, and as I floated on my back I looked up at the blue sky and watched the tops of the tall lime trees sway in the breeze and I honestly thought, could anything be more blissful. The swallows were diving close to the pool's surface, chasing mosquitoes and midges, and there was not a sound apart from birds chattering and the buzz of bees. The only colours were the intense yellow-green of the rustling leaves, the soft blurred blue-green of the surrounding fields and the solid block of cyan sky. What a lucky girl I am, I thought, remember these moments.

Earlier in the day I had tagged on to a garden tour given by the head gardener and learnt a bit more about the family and history of the house and garden. I was at least 30 years younger than the group of white-haired garden lovers, hobbling with sticks and Zimmer frames around property, but I was totally swept up in their passion for everything they saw, asking the Latin names for mysterious wild orchids as they touched the petals with gentle knarled fingers, rubbing leaves and holding them to their noses, telling me stories of their own gardens. I want to grow flowers and watch the birds and bees enjoy my garden but sadly that is one of the trickiest things to find in my search for a home. Many of the period cottages in Frome used to share a space behind their houses, using the communal large courtyards for pigs and chickens, growing vegetables and washing clothes, and subsequently, these spaces have been divided into a warren of allotment style gardens, often displaced from the house. I have seen at least 8 cottages where I have looked out of the kitchen window to a beautiful sunny terrace to be told that it does not belong to the house, but the one next door. On several occasions I have walked out of the back door and found the property's garden 50 feet down a shared walkway. I love community but I don't want communal and I don't want to compromise on my four essential P's: Prettiness, privacy, peace & quiet and parking. But the longer I stay in this heavenly cottage of Katie's, the harder it gets. Sun and summer will only make it harder to leave so I have to stay positive and I have to keep looking.

And now from one extreme to the other, I go from nature to science. Actually its the science of nature. I have, once again, been used as a guinea pig for a new pain treatment. A new pain treatment for us in the West but I think it has been used for centuries in tribal communities around the world. It is the glorious chilli. To be more accurate, it is using the chilli pepper's intense hot and spicy qualities as an analgesic. It has been used for quite a few years on surface pain but now some of the more experimental hospitals have been trying it on deeper nerve pain. One of these hospitals is the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, a hospital I spent weeks in last year, and even now, seem to visit more frequently than my friends! My knee surgeon suggested the treatment might work for the nerve damage in my leg. The big surgery I had a year and a half ago was successful in relieving the pain of the misalignment of my knee and lower thigh, but now I am left with the pain from the surgery itself... a few areas of intense sharp pain that I cannot seem to get any relief for, no matter what pain medication I've tried. I don't like the idea of having steroids and cortisone injects under my kneecap every few months so I decided I would agree to the chilli patches.

Who knew that chilli could be classified as a deadly weapon. The medical strength capsaicin they use is scary. It is one hundred times the strength of a habanero pepper and has to be applied to the patient in an operating theatre. The clinical nurses wear masks, goggles and 3 pairs of surgical gloves, as well as scrubs... just in case a drop of liquid escapes. And this is going on my knee? Okay then. I was prepped and pre-warned of what was going to happen. I would be given a hospital gown and socks to wear and the application would take place in a chilled room (to lessen the intense burning feeling of the capsaicin). Apart from the area being treated, I would be covered in warming blankets. Then the capsaicin would be applied to the painful area, it would be wrapped in bandages and I would be left for an hour. During that time, the intensity of the chilli would increase to almost unbearable but not to worry, morphine was close by. Oh good. Allergic reactions were common, swelling was normal, and the leg turning red or purple also happened a lot. If I went into anaphylactic shock, they had adrenalin ready as well. Good to know.

Everything happened as they described but just before I was wheeled in to the treatment room, they said they'd had a call from my surgeon, asking if they could apply the capaiscan to both knees. What? They explained that it might also help the pain in my right knee, the one that hasn't had surgery yet. The nurses explained that with both knees being treated, I would be very uncomfortable indeed. They hoped that was all right, and I duly signed my consent. Here's where it went weird. Both knees were treated and I waited for the burning to start. 10 minutes went by and I felt the merest tingling in my right knee, nothing in the left. 20 minutes, holy crap, hot right knee, nothing in the left. And so it continued. By 50 minutes, I was grabbing the bed as my right leg swelled, turned red and felt as if someone had poured burning oil over it. My left knee felt nothing. It was extraordinary. I mean I knew the nerve damage from surgery had left some areas numb but this was just odd. No reaction at all.

The nurses were absolutely bewildered as they took off my dressings. My right leg had almost doubled in size, it was bright red from mid shin to mid thigh and was on fire. On fire! My left leg was the same size and colour as before and I felt nothing. What does that mean exactly? Well, that's just it, no-one really knows. It's an experimental treatment for my type of pain but to see one leg react and the other not, has flummoxed the medical staff. 7 days later and there's not much to report I'm afraid. There doesn't seem to be any relief in pain which is a bit rubbish but will I be a guinea pig again? Of course I will. Squeak.