The Ongoing Personal Cost of the Pandemic

On the 12th November I got a letter from my home insurance company telling me that my insurance policy had been cancelled on the 23rd October! WTF I knew nothing about this.

The letter was dated the 5th November, it had taken a week to get to me, such is the speed of the post as we continue to live with the pandemic. Naturally I phoned them immediately, to find that I had missed a payment at the end of September. Again I knew nothing about this – although I certainly did know I was having trouble with my bank at that time, but more on that in a minute.

The very pleasant minion on the phone told me that they had written to me to tell me I had missed a payment – and I hadn’t seen the letter. I checked my emails. One from the 15th October directing me to their website, a generic marketing type email, so not personalised alerting me to a problem, just telling me that I could defer payments. And that was it, no other contact to see if there was a problem they could help with, just the chopper dropped on my head – without my knowledge. This is my home, my second biggest asset, how the heck would I cope if I had an accident/emergency/act of god (and in this crazy year it’s hard to say you can rule that out) without insurance to cover it?

I was mystified, but over the last five months I have had a lot of contact with my bank and all that marketing hype about being there to look after you is a load of BuLLS**T.

I have no qualms telling you who it is – or how they have behaved – HSBC (now short for Horrid Situation Borderline Conscience) have deferred all contact with the ‘needy’ (such as myself) to minions who have no authority to act on a case by case basis.

In June, after I had had no income for nearly three months, I put my flat on the market. I contacted the bank to arrange a small loan to cover six months which was about the time I thought it would take to sell the flat given the current climate. (Oh how wrong I was, who wants to live in London when the death toll is high and the weather is great??) So assuming that the bank would take the value of the flat (high) and the size of the loan (small) as being in their favour, I was dumbfounded when they said no.

Apparently if I had been wanting to get married, take a holiday or buy a car, they’d have been ‘happy’ to lend…. I applied to increase my overdraft facilities and they said no to that as well.

I now have tenants in the flat, but at the time I was part way through the contract with the estate agents for the sale and a minimum tenancy term was too long to bridge that income gap without jeopardising a potential sale. There were no AirBnB guests either – so no income. And I watched as my account balances dwindled.

At the end of September the crunch came and HSBC started to reverse my direct debits. They would text me and essentially bully me into bringing my account balance within the overdraft limit. But with what? I had no income. They had known since June that I had been adversely impacted by the pandemic and I had told them I needed help. I had asked for Help. HELP. HELP, DAMN YOU.

I’ve been a customer with HSBC since 1988, since before they became HSBC. I’ve paid them thousands of pounds in fees over the years because I’m constantly in overdraft. But I’ve never had a problem with that because I always felt they had my back. When I was first separated, they were really supportive – and that mattered because I was scared and uncertain of the future. So I rewarded that by putting the proceeds of my house sale in 2016 into an account with them, which they had access to for nine months in its entirety. I’ve put all my rental income through my HSBC accounts as well. They’ve had nearly a £1M of my money in the last five years – it’s quite beside the point that because of the pandemic I now have none.

Where the F**cK is their loyalty to me?

The banks have not changed their lending criteria. In the middle of a pandemic they don’t have any interest in small investors like me – even though we are the ones who pay the fees – premium account holders pay no fees – so those who can afford to pay don’t and those who can’t are thrown to the wolves. And in this topsy-turvy world it is very difficult to say now who is able to pay and who isn’t.

So while I was sorting out putting tenants in my flat in London, HSBC were cutting off my source of finance, they froze my linked credit card (so I couldn’t even pay for groceries or fuel) and turned away my insurance policies. They sent me text alerts but these were automatically generated, I couldn’t tell who they were reversing payment for – and they already knew I couldn’t resolve this, yet emblazoned on their website was ‘ASK us about a TEMPORARY extension to YOUR overdraft.’ I wasn’t even offered it.

If it weren’t for some very dear friends, my 55th birthday and a proactive financial advisor, I would have gone under. I mean emotionally as well as financially drowning, literally nowhere to turn. Luckily because I was turning 55 I could access my pension fund. My financial advisor was brilliant (Zest Financial Consultants) the money to clear this ‘debt’ was to be transferred after my birthday in mid October. And then good old money laundering protocol raised its head. Money coming from an account already in my name, being transferred to an account in the same organisation, also in my name, was frozen. WTF? I mean what the actual?

In a world that has had change forced upon it, where are the changes to the systems that support those of us who live in it? The platitudes and marketing campaigns don’t protect people who have lost everything. The organisations we depend on are not interested in the individual. I have assets to sell which means I am a lot better off than millions of others, but with no income it is a very steep slope, even with assets, because you can no longer afford to keep them –  and I can see exactly how people end up on the street. The relentless bullying of HSBC has been nightmarish because as we all know this situation hasn’t been caused by the individual. This is global and those minions who said no were sitting in their ivory towers (with jobs, yes I know it must be so terribly stressful saying no all the time) and no idea of what life is like in the UK right now, because I hate to say it none of the lending team I spoke to were in the UK. I thought a global bank would understand what it meant to live in a world of diversity and change but clearly in this situation it just makes it easier for them to ignore what is happening on foreign shores.

As for the insurance company, I haven’t yet had my complaint heard so I’m reluctant to dish the dirt, but what I would say is that if a customer has had an account with you for nine years and has transferred you from home to home during that time – and never missed a payment – then suddenly in the middle of a pandemic this happens, perhaps checking that things are ok as soon as problems arise might be helpful. That first letter the minion mentioned was dated the 9th October – not the day after the missed payment. And allowing for the week that things are taking to arrive, it actually arrived closer to the date when the account was cancelled – but I was given no warning of that. Writing on the 5th November about something that happened on the 23rd October is inexcusable. We are in the middle of a pandemic. If you want me to know something – and it’s urgent – why choose the least efficient means of communication? Lessons to be learned? This is not difficult, it costs less to email or text and I’d have known that there were problems. Pretty well immediately.

Covid is a Personal Demon – for All of Us

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on life this year because I contracted covid in March. In the run up to lockdown, as a family we did everything we were told not to: travel to other cities to collect children from university, transfer their stuff from one car to another, say goodbye to their friends, help them load their cars, stop en route and then travel to be with the family so we could go through lockdown together. In five days I travelled 750 miles and little did we know that when we arrived at the family home, one of us would already be showing symptoms.

I was next to succumb, then my son and two days later, my daughter. The kids bounced back quickly – they’re now 22 and 20. Their dad, who had the fever the most severely of us all, was pretty well normal three weeks later but I’m still struggling. It’s been seven months and I get to 90-95% recovered and then have to do something more ‘normal’ and I suffer a relapse. So my life is about resting and during that time I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.

Covid is hitting us where we hurt because we’ve been living very unbalanced lives for a very long time. I rush, rush, rush around because I’m busy, busy busy. I take on far too much, find it hard to say no – or ask for help – and then drive myself into a frenzy of not being able to get everything done. I have months where there are so many things happening (I’m looking at you June) that it’s like a treadmill to get to the end. There’s no time to unwind, or to appreciate the why’s, let alone the who’s. And this year that has all come to an abrupt halt. I can only do one thing at a time right now and perhaps for me this is the point of being ill. To reassess the way I live my life, to make the changes needed – and because I’ve got long covid – to internalise those lessons so that they become second nature, so that I don’t try and do things the way I used to.

I can’t run up and down the stairs any longer. But did I really get there more quickly when I did? Often I would bump myself, trip up, bruise an elbow or a thigh, even bite my lip all because I was distracted and not actually present when I was on the stairs; my mind was elsewhere, planning the next thing/job/event to be done.

I have been forced to live for the right now; to make decisions that are right – for now. I have had to make the distinction between body and mind and what my body needs is not necessarily what my mind wants. Learning to put my body first has taken months of careful listening and that started with changing my diet. In the early days when I couldn’t taste or smell anything, it was hard to know if my body was unhappy with what I was eating or because I had covid. Now, I realise that I should have removed all the trigger foods immediately. But doing a full on diet change when you have neighbours doing your grocery shopping because you’re all in quarantine meant that at that time, it wasn’t practical to put myself first. I couldn’t read either in those early days (too much eye movement caused vicious headaches) so learning a new way of eating wasn’t possible until I could open a book.

Since June I have been vegan + fish – sugar, wheat and caffeine. I have to treat my body as if I have a severe food allergy. My last relapse was caused by a gradual reintroduction of sugar, that I hadn’t even really registered I’d been doing. The headaches were so bad that I felt like someone was driving a knife through my eye. Last week I took a calculated risk and had a piece of vegan flapjack at a cafe (it was my birthday) – it tasted great, but the next day I had what I can only describe as a hangover. There had been no alcohol consumed, it was the sugar. So when my body needs me to do something: rest, have a different food intake, not do too much, I do it. Our bodies put up with a lot from us, this virus means we have to put them first. Your mind will have to take the back seat – and so will the other things in your life because without your health, you have nothing.

Being locked down has meant that everyone has had to change their lifestyle. That in itself is a demon for some, not being able to go out, but there’s a clue in this. Enforced change surely means we need to take notice of what we personally need to change. If my demons are doing too much, not putting myself first and saying no, then the very things I needed to change were thrown right back at me simply by being in lockdown. Perhaps for those who live for their social lives the balance that lockdown presented was finding pleasure in being at home? Finding is the key word. You have to look for what it is you need to change. Our lifestyle choices are so ingrained that you may not even know what that is, but lockdown was a mirror, a chance for us to get to know ourselves better. Anyone who has had therapy will tell you getting to know yourself – warts and all – isn’t an easy process. Being able to understand your failings is as much a part of what makes you you as the parts you like the best. And those failings present you with the opportunity to make changes, because if you don’t like that aspect of yourself, the people closest to you probably don’t either.

If we needed a demonstration of the impact of human processes on our planet then the clean skies and lower pollution levels of lockdown have surely provided a clear example of the damage we’re doing. Using that as a metaphor, our lifestyles are damaging our lives. Since August last year I’ve earned the bulk of my income from running my flat as an AirBnB. I really enjoyed meeting the guests and having the world on my doorstep while I was finishing my studies. But the driving to and from London was the pivot of my week. I’ve never washed – or ironed – so much bed linen in my life and in my small way I was contributing to the environmental damage that I’m wanting to stop. Aside from my personal demons this is something I can’t sustain, either consciously or physically – and certainly not now that I have long covid. So this change has been made for me, not only are there no guests, I just can’t look after them.

For too long we have had a stoic attitude to being ill. That winter cold, ‘it’s nothing,’ and off we go, sharing it with colleagues and friends alike, the workplace dictating that we are to put productivity ahead of health. If lockdown has taught us anything it is that when we are ill – with the slightest sniffle – we should be at home, because NO-ONE ELSE NEEDS TO GO GET THIS. It’s an important lesson in self awareness understanding that if we don’t stop when our body tells us to, other people will also get ill. And that is what this pandemic is all about. Track and Trace is all about awareness. We need to be aware of where we’ve been, what we’ve touched, who we’ve met and how we’ve travelled. We need to be personally aware – not just because the authorities need to know – but because we have for so long been unaware.

Prior to lockdown did you ever wash your hands before you ate food you picked up on the go? That muffin, or bag of crisps? Did you ever avoid touching your face after you’d been on public transport or used a public restroom? Did you every wash your hands after putting fuel in the car?? These are the every day practices that expose us to risk. Think back to days of old when etiquette dictated gloves as essential items and it was not deemed ‘polite’ to touch ones face in public. Think back too, to the early twentieth century when there was no penicillin or antibiotics – it makes sense of the more formal lifestyle when disease can so easily kill. As late as the 1960’s trendsetters wore gloves as a fashion item and we were all told as children to wash our hands before we ate a snack or a meal. When did this all change?

We have had a very casual, informal lifestyle for too long and that has given this virus an easy access. In learning to listen to what our body needs we also need to understand that hygiene and diet are linked. This too is a demon because the point of eating from the mind’s perspective, is the pleasure it gives and this has been a big part of lockdown – the need to enjoy some part of the experience. The point of eating from the body’s perspective is nutrition and energy and many of the lifestyle choices we make in relation to food speak of culture and up bringing, reassessing this is a big ask. But enforced change means our choices are limited anyway. If we don’t do the hard work now, when are we actually planning on facing those demons? Finding balance in the age of covid needs to be a conscious experience which puts what the body needs first – because this will potentially save your life. Just thinking about it won’t.

Making Money from Rental Property

As you may remember, I have a flat in Fulham that I have tenants in. Right now, while I work towards a masters in Architectural Conservation, it’s also my only reliable source of income and back in May I had to make the difficult decision to evict the tenant that moved in at the end of January. On paper it all looked completely fine, the tenant was an older woman in a wheelchair who was moving to London to be closer to her family. My flat is modern and complies with all the regulations for disabled users, so no problems there, no wild parties. One careful lady user. Or so I thought. All the negotiations between the estate agents and myself were done with her son and everything went smoothly – but with every tenancy there are teething problems, little niggly complaints and questions because the manuals for various appliances have been misplaced. There was none of that. He also asked to have a key safe fitted to the front of the building so that her carers could let themselves in. I knew she needed help so this seemed a reasonable request, but I should have known this was a bad sign!

I emailed several times to ask if his mum was settling in ok and then thought I really should meet her and ask her myself. So in May I arranged to visit and was met by a carer who presented me with a list of problems and things she wanted me to sort out. Then I was handed a pile of post that hadn’t been forwarded – and then I spotted the dining chairs, you can see one of them above. Three of them, collapsed in pieces on the floor. The post was the council taking me to court for non payment of council tax! By this point I was barely able to breathe.

She had lived there for three months.

Luckily the dates of the tenancy agreement proved that I was not responsible for the payment of the council tax. The son – who by the way, is a barrister – was most apologetic, but pleaded ignorance over the dining chairs. What he did explain though, was that his mother had five carers a day: the first helped her out of bed and gave her breakfast, the second gave her lunch, the third (the only one they had a constant relationship with) spent the afternoon with her, the fourth gave her dinner and the fifth put her to bed. Oh and she also suffers from vascular dementia. My tenant wasn’t capable of toileting herself or of opening the front door, so to sort out the ‘repairs’ I had been told about, we had a complicated arrangement between myself, the contractor, the third carer and the son (it’s starting to sound a bit like a film title…) because the contractor refused to go into the flat alone – no surprise there. How could he take responsibility for the welfare of a disabled woman he had never met and be on site alone with her? He could be accused of anything!

He did have a good look round though and told me that my ‘careful lady user’ had taken the kitchen cabinet doors off the hinges and ruined the carpet in one of the bedrooms! And here’s the crunch, she wasn’t causing the damage because she was confined to a wheelchair. All the damage was being caused by her rotation of carers, who clearly sat down on chairs so hard that they collapsed and slammed doors so hard that they came off their hinges. And here’s the next crunch, they had no obligation to me as their contract was with the person they cared for.

So, I evicted a granny in a wheelchair.

The check out inventory showed damage that included needing to replace the mattress, the carpet and the kitchen sink. What? They’d broken a pendant light fitting and of course, the three dining chairs. They also removed four pillows and an ironing board and for some unknown reason, put a passcode on the tv which now needs to be reset by the manufacturer at the cost of £179. AND didn’t use the shower for six months – my tenant was given a bed bath every day (hence the new mattress) – so the valve had seized and that too needs replacing.

We won’t go into the decorative order…

To date – so more than two months on – I have had no response from the barrister son. No acknowledgement of the the check out report – or the request for retention of the deposit – and bonus, a bill for non payment of the utilities bills (which I can luckily prove are not my responsibility.) Yesterday I found out that to raise a dispute on the deposit I have less than one month to apply. The estate agents have contacted him on my behalf and get a very charming response about how busy he is. Clearly the legally binding tenancy agreement isn’t worth the paper its written on when you’re a barrister.

Clearly he is swatting at me as if I’m a fly.

Clearly I am taking advice from a solicitor.

And clearly this guy can fly off.

I will report back.

Inside van Gogh’s House

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to spend time in a room that was once inhabited by a famous artist? I’m not talking about a museum or a stately home, but about a private family home not normally open to the public. How atmospheric would it be? Would you feel the presence of that past inhabitant?

Vincent van Gogh aged around eighteen

Ramsgate was home to Vincent van Gogh in 1876, he was twenty-three and taught at a boys school located in Spencer Square. He, another master and four boys boarded at a house further round the square and it is his room, in this house that I was given the opportunity to style.

Vincent was a prolific letter writer – the letters were published some years ago – so the homeowner could pinpoint very easily from his own words which room had been his and I had a hunch that if we opened the room as a fundraiser and part of a wider event celebrating van Gogh being held in the square, people would be interested enough to want to see it.

The homeowner was really enthusiastic about bringing Vincent’s room to life and we spent quite a bit of time analysing his letters to decide what we needed to highlight and what we could downplay. As the room no longer has a fireplace and has modern fitted carpet, there were certain aspects of the bedroom that were definitely not true to period, so we had to work with those and create something that would enable people to see past the current family use and back to a time when the property was a boarding house for a boys school. There would have been no electricity, possibly gas lighting and possibly running water to the scullery in the lower ground floor. Each room would have been heated by a wood/coal fire. Other than the views described by Vincent in his letters from his window “looking over the rooftops,” that would have been it for creature comforts. His bed would probably have been narrow and the mattress thin. As he was a young man when he resided here, perhaps this didn’t matter and was just part of the experience. We know from his letters that, “these are happy times, these days in Ramsgate,” it’s nice to think that for someone so troubled by mental illness in his later life, for this time at least, he enjoyed where he was and what he was doing.

This is the first time this house has been open to the public and as I spent time quietly in Vincent’s old room, dusting picture frames and polishing glass, I felt a real sense of sadness that this great artist is remembered more for his turbulent life and ‘cutting off his ear,’ than for the relationships he had with those he held dear – and for the skill and knowledge he had of his medium.

Being in this room, Vincent’s personal space when he was just starting out; there are only two pen and wash drawings from his time in Ramsgate, made me feel that we’re doing him a huge disservice. As we all become so much more aware of the invisible pain of mental illness, I think it’s important to remember that van Gogh, like all suffers, was more complex and diverse than just the fragility of his mental state. His use of colour and the landscape around him was joyful and intense, he created what he saw from the inside of it, it wasn’t just a casual observation. He wanted to express the way those things – colour and subject – made him feel. The body of work he left behind is not just the product of a troubled mind, but of an analytical, technically gifted paint experimentalist.

To call him and the other modernist, impressionist and post-impressionist painters artists doesn’t acknowledge the way they pushed their medium to its limits. Only a couple of decades earlier, painting was about faithful representation; the skill of the artist was in creating the accurate likeness of the subject. That changed in the mid nineteenth century when artists wanted to express what they thought about the subject matter by making the texture of the paint part of the visual honesty of the painting. It was challenging to the viewer and it wasn’t immediately popular – but it opened people’s minds to the idea that paint is a component of art; it is not invisible and the way it is manipulated is a skill that should be celebrated in its own right.

Van Gogh more than celebrated his paint, he revelled in it. We can feel in his work the heat of the sun, the sparseness of the bedroom, the shade from the brim of his hat. It is this translation of feeling to canvas, the directional movement of his brushstrokes and the quality of his paint colour that makes his work universally recognisable and for that courage of purpose, we should remember him.

The Make-Do Kitchen Makeover

As you know getting refurbishments done in a house that you live in takes time. And in my case with having to re-wire the house as part of that process, there is an order to the schedule that I can’t do much about. The kitchen, which is the last piece in the puzzle – and a space that annoys me intensely – is all about being patient. Which of course just adds to my annoyance!

So to refresh your memories, the kitchen is a melange of textured fake plaster on the walls, fake terracotta tiles on the floor, pale blue mosaic splash back, (which has the potential to be nice but because they’ve been really badly fitted, just isn’t) maple effect shaker style cabinets and fake black granite work surfaces. It’s a dated and challenging space because there is very little natural light, no heating and things are just falling apart a bit. Funnily enough this kitchen is the same one as I have at the flat in London – there, I ripped out the work surface, the flooring, the splash back and repainted the cabinets, which just goes to show you how quickly things age (it was only fitted ten years ago.)

This kitchen is in marginally better nick but it needs to last until I redo this area – which is the major part of the refurbs because it involves realigning floor levels, flattening the poxy little porch, excavating the ground to the rear to create the foundations and extending across the whole of the rear elevation to create a studio space for me to work in that will give a better connection to the garden and double as a spare bedroom. It will bring in more light and give the house a much more flexible lower ground floor. When we’re all at home we often have visitors and it’s the living space that gets hammered. Reconfiguring the kitchen/dining area will also create a space for an additional relaxation area. At the moment there is nowhere to play music (and as my son owns seven guitars, two synthesisers, a mandolin, a zither, a ukulele and a zazz (not sure of the spelling!) the lower ground floor would really be fantastic for that. But that is down the road a bit, not least because I’m studying right now.

The first part of the process was the messiest and I still have a bit more to do – stripping off the horrid textured fake plaster, you can see it above on the opening around the cooker… In some areas it was just a wallpaper but in others it was a plaster effect, so the stripping was pretty slow going, but oh my, the walls look so much better without their rough texture.

There was a lot of filling and sanding to do afterwards, which is really worth taking the time over because a smooth, flat wall updates a space so much. I have the contrast right now of walls that are smooth in the kitchen and walls that are still textured in the dining area and it is incredible to see how much more considered and calm the smooth walls look in comparison to the textured. They also bounce light around now which is much needed in this space.

It would be easy to assume that the texture would reflect light, especially because it is coated in a shiny paint finish, but it does the reverse. It draws attention to each ridge of plaster so the affect is one of shadow and imperfection – not of a surface that acts as a reflector. The walls have been painted Slaked Lime Mid, by Little Greene which is a soft dove grey. It’s a warm but fresh off white and in any other space I’d probably love it. In my wretched kitchen the lighting plays a big part. Grrr.

Next up was painting the cabinets and I went all around the houses with what colour I was going to go for. To unify the splash back with the rest of the scheme I initially thought I would go for a pale grey-blue. But then the floor would still be a complete contrast – and I did not want to draw attention to that! So I opted for a grey-white.

I also experimented with how I prepped the surfaces.

Rubbing alcohol! Who knew!

So easy, it removes all the airborne cooking grease immediately, no hard rubbing and no horrid fumes. This is the same stuff as used for massage and clinical tests (to clean the skin) so as I had some in the cupboard, I thought I’d give it a try. It worked a treat, what a revelation!

And I also experimented with spraying the unit doors and would say that you really need to put time into getting the consistency of the paint right. My mix was too thin. It went on beautifully and then slid straight off! The finish would have been lovely but in the end I opted for brush painting because I didn’t want to waste paint in experimenting with how much I needed to dilute it by.

It’s not been the quickest of jobs and to all my friends who have seen the kitchen without drawer frontals and in its two toned state, thanks for bearing with me, but I have to say it’s transformed the look of the room.

It’s certainly lifted the space and created a much lighter room, but with the very harsh lighting I have in the kitchen, the cabinets, painted in a colour that I usually love, (Strong White by Farrow and Ball) look flat and a bit clinical. Obviously when the end wall is finished this will give a different look to the overall room, but the two colours which on paper swatches (big A4 sized swatches) looked great together, don’t quite hold hands the way I thought they would. On the cabinets I used the acrylic eggshell finish and found it really nice to work with. It is a water soluble paint which actually has an oil base; the oil is water dispersible like bath oils, which makes it a little bit more robust. I’m hoping in a kitchen this will last the distance.

All I need to do now is get rid of that horrid fake crystal drop pendant fitting and update the light bulbs in a bid to make this space go the distance. Other wise I’ll end up repainting the walls and the cabinets in a never ending quest to find colours that work in the room when it’s the space that’s the problem and I just have to be patient until I can change it!

A Quick Cloakroom Update

The bathrooms and cloakrooms in this house clearly never got the love they should have done. Another small area that I haven’t photographed is the lower ground floor cloakroom. It didn’t even have a sink! I was shown the ‘room’ when I viewed the property but it was used for storage, so the fact that there was no sink wasn’t obvious until I got the keys. I assumed they’d taken it with them, bizarre – but if people can take light fittings and fridges, why not sinks? When my solicitor asked them to provide a replacement, they said that it had always been like that! So, no pictures of that room and for several months it has been the receptacle of step ladders and paint tins, but no more!

I bought a wall hung vanity and hand basin online and a tap to go with them for the princely sum of £93 and yesterday it was connected up! I wonder how long it’s been since that room was plumbed? If it’s never had a sink, then this means it’s the first time it’s actually been a proper cloakroom. In a house that is 152 years old (or thereabouts) it’s quite funny to think this is a first! I’m chuffed.

As with my ensuite this is essentially a temporary measure – but this will be in place for much longer as I won’t be doing the lower ground extension for another couple of years. It will be a complete reconfiguration involving both the kitchen and my studio, so I’m not able to take that on yet. I don’t have the funds right now and I’m also studying so my workspace is doing a double duty.
Because I do spend a lot of time at my desk, I want to enjoy being in the space – even if it’s a short term fix – so the walls in the kitchen and dining area are being stripped and this cloakroom update is a part of that process – getting things the way I want for right now.

Let’s be honest, I did not want to spend any money on it at all! But I didn’t have a mirror I could move from somewhere else in the house and with no sink or tap, there were things that had to be considered, so the online research was all about size, cost and style – the least offensive, the best price and the right size for a room that is 610mm x 1650mm. The lighting is harsh and as it is off the utility area, it isn’t what you’d call welcoming, but it is close to the kitchen and my desk – and the closest WC to the garden – so I wanted it to be functional. Another thing, because the pipework was capped off with gaffer tape, there were a few nasty niffs from that area which I didn’t care for! So, spending even a tiny amount to get rid of stench had to be considered a good thing.

The paint colours went through several incarnations. I had some pink that I’d bought for a different property and then *chickened out* decided not to use, so that was first put on the walls, I mean I had 2.5 litres. But, I didn’t like it here either, I think this colour just needs more natural light and both areas I’d tried to use it were lacking in that. Then in the process of finding a vanity I found one that was supposed to be black (of course it isn’t, it’s a dark wenge effect) so decided to embrace the idea of high contrast and realised I had, as always, several dozen tester posts in various off whites and earth tones. The tongue and grove paneling became an off black and the wenge effect vanity and oak mirror add a little warmth to the deep tone. I got out the spirit level and measured a random grid on the walls and then just brushed each patch on in a different colour. The lines aren’t completely straight but nothing in this house is, so I decided to embrace that too.

What I’ve ended up with is a cloakroom with character, that I managed to pull together for about £150. It won’t look anything like this when the reconfiguration is done, but spending a small amount to make a space functional over the next two years or so, is money that has improved an area that wasn’t usable before. I could have ignored it completely but the idea of nasty smells just wafting out from time to time didn’t thrill me either. On balance it’s one small improvement that actually pleases me a lot.

A Small Room Reveal

On the top floor of my house there are three bedrooms; the two belonging to the children and a tiny single room that I thought they could use as a study – the room with the mango custard floor. It was relined at the same time as the children’s rooms were redecorated and rewired, so technically it is finished.

lined and rewired

preparing the walls

Except that I couldn’t decide how I wanted to decorate it. Other than painting the walls an off white, I hand’t given it much thought! Except for getting rid of the mango custard floor, of course. You will have heard designers say this before “it’s really hard being the client,” there’s so much choice and I can be decisive for my clients in a way that I can’t be for myself. So the decision making process has been slow for this little room. That and the fact that I didn’t really want to spend any real money on it. Then we had a string of guests and needed an extra bed, so a sofa chair was purchased to be housed in the little room. The desk that had been in my daughters room at the previous house also needed a home, so that too is in the little room. Then we needed some shelving (thank heavens for the summer sales) and all of a sudden this little space was getting dangerously close to becoming the unwanted objects corner.

A decision had to be made because the more stuff going in there meant the less space to manoeuvre when the decorating was finally planned. So while the children were on holiday I moved everything out into their bedrooms and got cracking.

My guilty pleasure over the summer of house moving and unpacking has been a programme called ‘Escape to the Chateau.’ Oh how I love Angel’s decorative style – and it got me thinking, I’d thought of doing something very similar to one of her schemes, but had never had the right space to do it in…

Enter the box of wallpaper samples.

Over the years I’ve amassed hundreds of wallpaper samples for clients and the rejected ones all ended up back in my studio. In the moving process I had gotten rid of quite a few samples that I knew I would never use (dated, not to my taste and probably discontinued by now anyway) but none-the-less there was a sizeable collection of many different colours and patterns. I started sifting through and found that I could gather a collection of blue/grey samples that was a good start to a feature wall. I calculated that the wall was twelve samples wide and seven samples high, but here’s the annoying thing, they’re not all the same size, even a standard A4 varies from one supplier to another. Was I going to cut each one so it was exact? Groan.

As I pondered this I realised that the walls weren’t in any way regular; neither the ceiling nor the floor were level, so I decided I would just go with it… and cover up any messy joins if I needed to.

The tools I used were a cutting mat and Stanley knife, wallpaper paste and a brush, a damp sponge and a printing roller to smooth out any air bubbles. I also used a spirit level to set my plumb line and I did this one column into the wall. I decided not to start in the middle because of the varying sizes of the samples and felt that there was enough going on for it not to look anything other than a part of the design to have a narrower column at the window end. This will also be covered by a curtain in time, so I really didn’t focus on that the way a professional decorator would have done.

I pasted each sample individually and worked two at a time so that one was softening while the other was being put up. The paste allows for quite a bit of repositioning and straightening, so any real unevenness could be moved gently. I then sponged each piece to get it smooth and rollered from the centre out to remove air bubbles. There were some joins that were really off which I could do nothing about, so I cut out flowers from other scraps I had kept and used those to cover the gaps.

It’s a very bold wall. But now this tiny room has an identity and is the patchwork room, it’s a bit of a time capsule too because papers that we’ve used in other homes are also on this wall and various childhood books and some toys have also found their way in there. The colours have been the unifying link and that’s fun as well, because I’ve popped in to find that the children have added a few things to the space. The curtain will finish it in the same faded blues and greys – but I have to get out the sewing machine yet!

Glass – The Great Divider

Ask anyone about what they think of glass used as a material or finish and you will get very divided opinions – traditionalists consider it too modern; modernists too minimal and up-cyclers too clean. It’s never going to tick every box but I think we can agree that one thing glass does fantastically is let light in. Earlier in the year I mentioned clients who I had ‘talked into’ putting a wall back in their downstairs living space, which had been carved up by an architect some 17 years ago and was now not meeting the family needs.

I persuaded them that a glass wall would allow the space to have an element of privacy as well as maintaining a connection throughout – it would allow the space to function as three independent areas while still being linked visually by the wall itself. Happily they loved the idea and we reconfigured the entire downstairs – moving the kitchen to the rear and creating two reception areas to the middle and front which the glass wall would enclose. The tv snug is the central space which takes advantage of the lower light levels and it is this area that is formed by the glass wall – but it the front room into the bay window that has really been transformed. Previously the kitchen, this space is now a grown up and relaxed place to sit and read or chat. It’s taken back a sense of the grandeur of the architecture (very high ceilings) without any of the stuffiness that some Victorian buildings seem to possess.

What it’s also done is allow us to re introduce the stairs – which had been consigned to a ‘coal chute’ by the architect in favour of over sized doors. It was so interesting to see how they used the space before the wall went back in – the middle area was the dining room and the furniture was against the wall, the kitchen was to the front with the units against the walls. The space was incredibly limited in what it could do and the architect had only added to this; the ‘space’ was only used for movement. And here’s the thing, if a building is already tall emphasising this will make the rooms feel narrow; when people walk through a space like this they follow pathways – even if there isn’t one – they don’t venture into the space because the height is telling them that it’s not generous enough for them to walk wherever they want.

People don’t trust space that they don’t understand. Weird but true – I’ve put walls back in before because the space (another downstairs) had been opened up completely and no-one ever used the middle of the room (the junction point between the original rooms) – ever. Just putting back in the piers where the walls ended and creating an opening with a column effect gave the entire downstairs a sense of structure and all of a sudden the space became more relaxed; it felt like it could breathe again.

With putting the glass wall in, the rooms now get walked into and around because the furniture is arranged across the space and not just along the walls. This makes the space more visually interesting and also more flexible – there are now two seating areas as well as the kitchen-diner. Nothing feels cramped but there is definitely more furniture in the space than there was before.

The interesting thing for me as a designer is how this space will look in 10-15 years time. Might they feel then that a solid wall would be more practical? It’s possible – and because of the way it’s been constructed, they could certainly do that, if they wanted. But think about glass internal walls in office spaces or hotels. It’s that element of curiosity that makes them interesting, the fact that you can glimpse what is happening 5 or 10 metres away adds a drama to an otherwise blank canvas. And so it is here, because the wall is also a window it both contains and disappears. Best of all, with the lights on, the furniture glows and the space looks a bit like a jewel box – or a glass bauble. Your every day solid wall doesn’t do that. So I’m willing to bet that because the wall is glass, it’ll still be looking good.

From This – To This

After much hard work I can finally reveal the transformation that has undergone the flat I purchased in June. I’m thrilled – but it wasn’t without its stresses – I have learned many lessons as ‘the client!’

If anything progress was made more difficult by not having a buffer between client (me) and contractor. Reflecting on the process has given me a totally different understanding of my role as designer. I find it quite straightforward to be decisive for clients; for myself, not so much; the agony of not having quite finalised something and knowing that my indecision could potentially hold up the workforce. I never do that for a client!

When I viewed the flat and decided to buy it, it was a bland and ‘generic’ space; lots of cream and beige, very inoffensive (such a damning word!) What that really means is whoever did the initial design for the space sucked all of the individuality out of it and turned each flat in the block into an identikit replica. I genuinely believe that it is possible to create a space with personality without a high price tag, so this mass-produced look is one that feels like the designer has lost interest and isn’t actually invested in giving the end users an interior that a) looks good and b) functions well. All of the finishes were low cost – and after ten years looked a bit rough around the edges. It was light and spacious though and that was the element that sold it to me – as well as the location very close to the river and the sense of tranquility in an area that is quite heavily trafficked.

looking toward the front room

What I wanted for the flat was a look that had personality and warmth, I wanted to add more individuality and to create a space that related to a more design led aesthetic. I earmarked the ‘big ticket’ items (flooring, appliances, carpet and work surface) and decided to use finishes that would age well, I want to see if in ten years time the place still has a more considered feel to it. I don’t mind if the floor is a little scuffed and the carpet a little scruffy … in some spaces it is this lived in feel that adds to the success of the design. And this is my challenge to myself, how will the flat look when it’s been used for ten years?

So, what’s been the biggest lesson? A bespoke finish isn’t going to be quick, so I was unrealistic to think it would be achieved on a short refurb schedule.

I specced a herringbone wood floor – it took two weeks to fit. I specced hexagonal tiles for the bathroom – it took six days to tile two walls ( a space 1.70cm x 1.90cm!) Each straight edge (into the corners and trim) had to be cut, that was 200 cuts which took almost a full day. I specced black tap-ware for the bathroom and kitchen and due to changing specs I couldn’t get them without ordering from Italy and waiting for their summer hols to end, so no plumbing until the beginning of September. Needless to say the tap-ware isn’t black.

I got really frustrated with myself at having to have fall back options for the fall back options (the work surface is plan d!) and that meant the work force were critical of my choices – not that it was any of their business, but it dented my confidence – for a client they would never have questioned it. I discovered that the bedrooms were longer than the largest size of carpet (a 5 metre width) and so had to order nearly double the amount to finish them. I looked at ordering more wood herringbone but in terms of cost there was no saving and that would have added another ten days to the fitting dates (so additional labour costs) – the carpet went down in an hour and a half.

The most stressful part of the process was doing a job I don’t normally do and measuring the space for the tiles. Needless to say I miscalculated (in the teeny tiny bathroom) and ended up short – the handbasin wall short to be precise. I went back to the supplier to find that the whole shipment had gone to a developer and they weren’t getting more stock until September. ARGH. NO No no. The suppliers were amazing and tried to track down an alternative (which wasn’t quite the same colour white) and we had about a square metre to finish on one wall that would stand out like a sore thumb. I sent them a photo and effectively begged them to check the warehouse…THEN miraculously they found enough to finish our job just lurking somewhere in the back of their football stadium sized warehouse. What? The week before they had nothing left. How does that happen?? That was an awful week.

The thing I have learned from this as a designer is that it’s the build process that absorbs the lead times of the order schedule. We weren’t doing any building works, so there was no buffer between ordering and delivery. They guys needed everything on site immediately and for the most part we had an easy time with the delivery process, but some things we just didn’t allow for. The work surface for example. I was going to use a quartz (plan a) but the cost was way more than I expected (and I spec this for clients frequently) so we looked at Corian (plan b) and the colours weren’t what I wanted, so I looked at an acrylic surface (plan c) and found that as supply only it was more than the quartz when we factored in the labour costs. So I ended up settling – very halfheartedly – for a laminate. I have never specced laminate in my entire career as an interior designer. Who knew what a steep learning curve that would be! The width we needed wasn’t standard and it had to be ordered in. It took two weeks, which meant that the kitchen was the last room to be done; we had no running water for about four weeks, just a bucket under a stopcock. Joyous!

But it’s all over now and the place is being marketed for tenants. I’m also going to list it on Airbnb – let me know if you’d like to stay sometime!

Simple Structures

There’s something so charming about miniatures and scaled down versions of everyday domestic products. I can’t say why I’m drawn to them but even something as simple as a miniature bottle will have me cooing, so I’ve got a bit of a confession, I have a thing for cottages.

While I recognise that I would quickly run out of space in a traditional farmhouse cottage, I just love that simple pentagon shape that kids draw when they’re asked what their house looks like. Of course, most houses don’t look remotely like that especially in the UK where much of the built environment is terraced and long rows of residential properties share walls with their neighbours. Nonetheless, we all know what that square with the triangle on top means – home – shelter and privacy; a refuge, a haven.

It is this same simple shape that gives agricultural buildings their reference point, pared back and stripped of any detail they make quite a statement of their silhouette. Picture the skyline with a stark building rising above it, projected against the setting sun. See what I mean? These simple shapes are powerful.

While on holiday recently in New Zealand I was really smitten with a number of homes that have taken their design references from their agricultural neighbours. The scale was modest and the rooflines key to the overall impact, but what these buildings achieved was the relationship between the surrounding countryside and the simple proportions of a cottage. I was charmed. And I took lots of pictures.

Set within an orcharding area in Hawkes Bay, this is a permanent residence and the building has more solidity with its pebble dashed walls than the other images. What they all have in common though is the honestly of the architecture; uncluttered shapes, simply expressed.

This is the only two storey example, but what I like so much about this one is the relationship between the roof lines and the way the materials chosen create areas of contrast.

These are both waterfront properties on the edge of Lake Taupo (and available for rent through I’ve walked past these properties so many times and have either not had a camera with me or been pushed for time, so it’s actually the first time I’ve ever seen the second place with its front gate open. To have so much privacy on what is often a very busy walk way – and then to reveal the view when they open it – the best of both worlds.

The modernity of these two is what appeals; the colour and the choice of materials is a very conscious expression of the architecture, considering steel and concrete are more often in the supporting role; (literally) here they take on a feature element.

Again a waterfront property in Lake Taupo, this cottage is built up to a retaining wall. From the other side, you have no idea that a building is tucked in below.

Where the view is undeniably the key ingredient, what I see with these homes is a connection between the past and the type of buildings that were used on a lakefront – boat sheds – the sister of agricultural buildings. They sit happily on the shoreline and ‘mind their own business.’ They don’t try and compete or relate to the landscape, what they do is offer the view as the focal point – they are there because of the location. Even more, they serve the age old purpose of providing shelter in a way that connects the past activities of buildings along the shoreline with moderns needs. Timeless.