Nice place to sit - but not when you're the seat.
We were invaded - not by builders, rubble and dust, which I was hoping for, but mice and flies. Now, I know that the country and animals go together, like bread and butter or Gin & Tonic, but I just didn’t expect to have to accommodate them at my house. When yet another mouse came to stay for B & B, originally I wasn’t fazed, at least it wasn’t like one of my friends, who had a residential rat playing tag in her guttering. And we have perfected our entrapment technique down to a fine art. Give us three hours to spare; two willing adults armed with plastic mixing bowls shaped like Madonna’s Gautier bra; two children waving fishing nets; one uninterested cat and two useless dogs and we can emerge red-faced, after catching our Bramley Hedge friends, at the same time as rearranging the furniture.
But this mouse was different. Not content to feast on cereal and biscuits from the shelves, he decided to take up residence, and have his own personal en-suite, in the door of the dishwasher. Whenever we were loading the machine, he would suddenly drop down as the door swung closed, hear us shriek and escape back to his hidey hole out of reach behind the kitchen cupboards. No amount of prodding, poking or abuse could encourage him to leave the five star accommodation he had at his disposal.
If that wasn’t frustrating enough, one sunny day I ventured out into the garden to be bombarded by an army of flies: on the grass, patio furniture, nearby hedge in fact any surface they could find, including us. Like in Hitchcock’s The Birds, for a week our lives were transformed as we watched the flies conquer the outside of our house.
So I telephoned the East Sussex Environmental Department for advice. Sadly, that was not what I got. Instead I was disappointed with the dismissive tone administered by a man who obviously didn’t think my enquiry worth his time. After being used as a public bench by all the flies, and their relatives yet again as I tried to take advantage of the weather, I decided I needed help and I needed it fast. So I contacted a local pest agency. Without further ado, traps were set up to catch the lodger in the dishwasher and some flies were caught and identified as Autumn or Face Fly, which apparently, just like us, like our south-facing garden in which to sunbathe. Unfortunately, we will have to wait until they leave of their own volition and hope that the females will be attracted next time to someone’s dung pile far, far away to lay their eggs. Alternatively, during the renovations we could strip the back of the house of its white cladding which the flies like so much in the hope that it will encourage them to pester someone else.
Our furry friend was easier to deal with - fed up with the wash cycle entertainment one evening, and feeling a little unsteady on his feet from dodging the traps, he decided to venture into the living roomto watch TV. Big mistake. The mixing bowls were ready!
The old advocado bath we inherited.
As in many things in life, planning is the key to success. For a girl who wants results yesterday, this is the hardest part of any project I undertake. Unlike Nick, who has been known to spend two years researching his next car, I almost have to sit on my hands like a child to stop me fidgeting as I try to take the more mature and of course, sensible approach to things and wait.
After we had settled into our new abode our next task was to tackle its renovation. It wasn't lack of inspiration that made us hesitate, my wish list knew no bounds but, as with all modern day life, the list of things to do ran ahead of the amount of time and money available to do it.
Although constructed in the traditional Sussex style, the house was built in the seventies; all too painfully obvious when you ventured inside and experienced the avocado bathroom suite and original Tricity cooker (which blew all the electrics when asked to grill and would stubbornly only heat one side of a pie.) The ancient boiler in the utility room needed to be replaced with something more efficient so that we could turn off the hot water immersion before I had to sell one of the children to pay the bills and I needed to redesigned the family bathroom above it to incorporate a laundry shoot. This would save the family and dog from having to dodge the jumble of dirty clothing that I regularly tumbled from the top of the stairs on its way to the washing machine.
On the positive side, the living room appeared as though it had more windows than the glasshouses at Kew, light flooded in so gloriously even on the dullest day any blues were chased away before they could materialise. All the rooms were of generous proportions, making the house feels spacious and with most of the bedrooms overlooking the garden, each of the three children were able to chose theirs without the usual infighting.
Being a townie all my life, I was in awe of the far reaching views from my bedroom window of the South Downs, the rabbits risking their lives to ‘silflay’ in the field behind our garden and the hedgehog taking its time, tantalisingly sauntering across the wet grass. But where to start was difficult. Was it better to extend the kitchen with an oak framed conservatory to give us the family dinning area we desired or concentrate on getting the bathrooms up and running? With two teenage girls, that question probably answered itself. Meanwhile, surely we should secure the garden to stop the dog escaping as he luxuriated in his new found pleasure of rabbit chasing?
With all this in mind I knew that the best way forward was to find a local architect with a vision that matched ours. After making a few enquiries in kitchen showrooms in Lewes I came to a full stop. I didn't just want to have a few plans drawn of an extension but needed someone to take into consideration the whole renovation project. Google beckoned me and flashed up the website of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Twelve Lewes based architects sprang to attention so I tracked their websites and decided on my favourites. Unfortunately for me, but not so for them, after my first few phone calls, it seems that good architects in Lewes were so snowed under that I would have an empty nest before they could fit me in. But I felt that if I went ahead and dismissed the architect stage of the process I would always have a nagging doubt that we had missed an opportunity of him going one step beyond what we thought possible. (In our last house a glass turret was suggested over the seating area of the single story extension which not only became a talking point, allowed the sunlight to chase shadows from any corners but made for great star gazing).
Not one to be defeated I persevered and eventually came up with a friendly soul who duly listened to our ideas. Sorted you might think - unfortunately not. I wanted to be inspired, excited and enthusiastic after our meeting; instead I reached for a large glass of Merlot and my trusty QWERTY keyboard. I was determined to find someone who could raise my blood pressure just by drawing lines on paper and talking details. Yes, I know I'm 'stubborn and hard to please' but I would rather call it 'persistent with high expectations'.
Out with advocado, in with a burgundy roll top.
Our local woods at bluebell time.
When I asked my neighbour, shortly after we had moved to our new house in Sussex, if the local woods were safe to walk in, it was not the fact that I might be mugged that crossed her mind but the dangers of my treading on snakes as she looked down at my open-toed sandals.
I am used to walking at night through bustling urban streets but to stroll through an isolated wood is out of my comfort zone. The next day a rudimentary map of the woods dropped through my letter box. My neighbour explained that she was sorry that she couldn’t dog walk and show me the woods but time was a little tight as she was due to go on holiday that morning.
Walks with the dog in my life before Lewes mostly involved lifting Alfie into the back of the car [he’s a Lhasa Apso, so vertically challenged] then driving a short distance and finding a slot in the car park. After ensuring we were well within the park gates so that there was no chance that Alfie could backtrack and cause a major pile up on the busy road outside, we would then take a turn or two around the grass, avoiding the children’s play area, muddy puddles or Skate Park. This would all then be repeated, but in reverse order, whilst I tried to avoid his four wet paws and very muddy belly.
Now I feel as though all my birthdays have come at once. We can choose between walking in the woods or Alfie’s favourite - the fields, where he can charge off with the energy of a puppy, chasing the rabbits that have quickly become his main purpose in life. I on the other hand can saunter, delighting in the view of the green topped Downs in the distance whilst stroking the tall grasses that parade at hand height along the hedgerows. The only obstacles we have to negotiate are the stiles that come in a variety of shapes. Most are familiar but some are more ingenious, requiring sitting, climbing or rolling to get over. Often there is a small dog size hole cut in the wire to enable us to pass easily so that I don’t have to make a tunnel through the undergrowth for Alfie to squeeze through.
If we venture to the woods, I can easily pass the village store to post a letter, pick up dry cleaning or a home made cake without having to battle with the world and his wife to find a parking space whilst praying I don’t get a ticket. We have been treated to a rare glimpse of deer before it leaps into the undergrowth without the need for a visit to Richmond Park, watched the bluebells carpet the ground with their deep, velvety blue display and I smile as I see a horse and rider coming towards us instead of having to worry whether my purse or mobile is on show. Only once did I catch sight of a small, lazy adder sunning himself in the warmth of an early autumn morning; my little piggies were safely tucked away in my trainers.
A bag full of fir cones or fallen sticks for the fire is all I may bring home and after a quick hose down (Alfie not me) outside the back door, I can put the kettle on without touching his dirty belly once.
I was standing at the edge of my neighbour’s field. The gate had just clicked shut behind me. I was late for school pick up and this was a short cut. Two sheep were munching in the nearside corner under a tree, as I strode out diagonally across the long grass. One of the sheep lifted its head and stared at me. Hadn’t anyone told it it was rude to stare especially with a mouthful of food? I’ve done my confrontation experience on the streets of London and know never to make eye contact. I ignored it and carried on another two paces. It didn’t have a knife; I’d nothing to worry about. The lanolin drenched jumper took a step in my direction. My heart rate quickened. Sheep don’t attack. Their legs are too short and they have a weight problem they try and hide under their coat. Sheep are docile creatures that run away when you say boo. I’ve watched episodes of One Man and His Dog.
It quickened its pace in my direction. O…my…god. Sheep aren’t supposed to run fast. They waddle from side to side in a sort of defunct, disco dance way. I stopped in my tracks. The far side gate beckoned me. Come this way to safety, it said. It is too far I answered. The speed in which this beast was moving makes me think that even without my bejewelled flip flops I’m not likely to make it. I turned and retraced my steps. Rather more hurriedly than before. The beast continued to chase me, getting faster as momentum took over. He lowered his head. He could smell the fear permeating from my pores. This must be the edited version from the relocation programmes.
This was what I moved lock, stock and barrel to my rural idyll for. Never once have I seen it mentioned that moving to the country might mean I have to run for my life from a creature, albeit a little dumpier than me, but nevertheless, vertically challenged. I had only one escape – if only I could reach the gate before my foe. I leapt the last metre and caught my ribs on the jutting latch as I prised it open and flung myself through the opening to safety, legs akimbo, screeching profanities. If only the beast had impaled himself on the metal gate, I would feel a sense of justification.
I am a woman who has tamed thirty, obnoxious, eleven year olds and still walked out of the classroom door with hairstyle intact at the end of the day. I am a woman who has leapt out of the path of black cabs as they make a U turn on Piccadilly. I am a woman who would stand tall and take it whilst a motorcyclist put two fingers up because I nearly stepped off the pavement without checking first to see if he was there. I am now the woman who is refusing to be beaten by a larger version of Wallace and Gromit’s Shaun. It should know its place; on a plate smothered in mint sauce alongside roast potatoes. My innate townie side took over. I was a woman who was leaning over the gate shouting ‘shoo, shoo’ whilst waving a stick to no affect, hoping no one could see her.
Shaun’s cousin stood his ground, head down ready to teach me another lesson. He was the rebel of the playground, the bully of the field, the bruise on my ribs. He was also, I heard later, called Bruno and destined for the slaughter house. We will meet again, but this time I will have the upper hand (or leg, or shoulder or shank).
View across the garden to the front gate last winter.
It wasn’t until my daughter shouted from the bathroom that her shower was cold that I realised we’d run out of oil. As far as I was concerned, my husband, Nick was the oil monitor, but he thought it was me so, of course, between us we’d forgotten to check the gauge on the tank as it slipped lower and lower towards disaster.
Whilst we were living in London this wouldn’t have happened as we were gas guzzlers. Being on the mains for our gas supply meant that we never had to give it a second thought, until the bill came in of course. The whole business of having to feed with oil the huge, silent beast that lurks behind the garage is foreign to us. When the weather turned colder, with the heating and hot water on constantly to satisfy the family, I hadn’t realised just how quickly it would slurp it up. So we made a frantic call to the oil suppliers. ‘Sorry’, came the reply. ‘We’re really busy at the moment; we can put you on the list for delivery on Monday.’
‘Monday!’ I shrieked when I heard. ‘It’s Wednesday, I’ll never make it that long without heating.’
‘Don’t panic,’ my ever optimistic husband announced. ‘I remember our neighbour doing the same thing and saying he’d got some barrels to tide him over. I’ll ask him where he got them from.’
Two hours later, I’ve borrowed barrels from our ever helpful neighbours, and Nick, after dashing off to the garage has overwhelmed us all with his new, eau de oil perfume after pouring the oil into the tank.
‘He did say he had to suck the oil through the pipe to get it started though,’ Nick grinned at me.
‘No one in their right mind would ever do that,’ I replied as we tried to fire up the boiler unsuccessfully.
Twenty four hours and five layers of clothes later, I was a desperate woman. ‘Find me the hose pipe to suck before I freeze to death,’ I demanded.
Luckily for me, Nick put his engineer’s thinking cap on and came up with a contraption that would have earned him a Blue Peter badge. When I walked into the utility room he was bent over an old vacuum cleaner, its hose pipe attached to the boiler by a piece of clear, plastic bottle that had been bent and duck-taped into place to form a connection. The liquid gold was gently trickling along the pipe and up to where it should be. Tentatively he pushed the red button to fire up the boiler. I’ve never been so glad to hear the hum of a machine in all my life.
We have learnt our lesson, believe me. I will be checking the gauge on the oil tank regularly from now on, but just in case you do the same as us and run out, we have the most marvelous, hand made, oil sucking machine to be found this side of the Downs we could lend you.