It’s been a while since I did a post – not sure why.  Christmas and life intervened – which is just an excuse really.  Anyway the only way to break the duck is to get on with it, apologies in advance for a quick albeit belated Christmas review but I had to start somewhere!

So Christmas has been and gone – it’s such a funny time of year.  Such high expectations, such a lot of work, such a lot of competing demands and wants, such lovely things going on – it is a roller coaster of emotions all tied up in a Christmas cracker – well actually ours wasn’t as I forgot to put the crackers on the table this year!


Christmas cake

The best thing – having my children around – plus the food, although this year they were staggered, the children that is not the food, and in fact there was only 3 of us for Christmas dinner so for the first time ever I cooked Christmas dinner without a turkey.  Instead we went to the Suffolk Food Hall, a lovely food emporium under the Orwell Bridge a bought a Phill Truin chicken.  It was about £28 and fed us Christmas Day, then fed the rest of the tribe when they arrived – cold with baked ham Boxing Day, Chicken, Ham and Leek Pie the day after, soup and sandwiches in between.  It was delicious and the staff at the Food Hall were really helpful.

I made lots of foodie gifts this year – Beetroot and Ginger Chutney, Christmas Chutney, Sweet Chilli jam (from my home-grown peppers and chillies, pickled pears, fudge, and lots of jams.  Great stocking fillers and fun to make.

The one thing that says that it is Christmas for us is, maybe somewhat oddly, having sausage rolls on Christmas morning.  I can’t remember why I started this tradition and they are a bit of a pain to add into the mix of things that have to be done on Christmas morning, but it would not be Christmas without them.


My favourite home-made thing though was my Advent Tree.  Completely home-made – save for the baubles.  We found branches in the garden and cut them to size, tied them together with twine (a lot of swearing and a bottle of wine was needed for that), threaded Christmas lights around it and then added one bauble for every day of Advent finishing off with a fairy on Christmas Eve.  It was less calorific than the traditional advent calendar, cheaper than the designer ones (Star Wars, Moulton Brown, Liberty’s etc) and lots of fun.  Definitely something to repeat next year.  So that was a potted version of my Christmas.


Advent Tree

So now the decorations have been packed away again – except some of the lights which have somehow stayed in place in my kitchen – I seem to have creeping permanent displayitis!

How I have 10 boxes of decorations I do not know – and in fact this year I did not buy any new ones which is a first I think. They are all sealed up and labeled waiting to be unveiled again next year when somehow the lights will have managed to get themselves into knots, several baubles will have broken and the odd decoration will have disappeared.

January has limped along – it has not been dry despite my initial good intentions and it has in fact been a bit of a struggle –  the year has not seemed to have kick started itself – maybe it was the snow, maybe we are just too cold in our house without the central heating – but it has all been a bit ‘whatever’.  But February is just around the corner and although it is not my favourite month – it is tinged with ‘will winter ever be over’, I am determined that it will be a fun one and I am also determined to push the renovations on.  the house renovations have actually started although all we have achieved so far are a lot of pipes and mess, but our builder actually starts in March and my brother is coming over to help before then and the plumber and electrician are going to be here so things should start moving ahead.  I just have to order insulation, plasterboard, windows, bathrooms, skirting, doors, and decide on the colour of the render, how much boarding to have, location and style of radiators, flooring and position of plugs, sockets and lights – not much to do then!  I suspect February is going to pass in a blur of catalogues and decisions.  Somehow Christmas doesn’t seem so bad after all!





This is Ralph!  He arrived, unannounced at my house, in the arms of my eldest son a couple of weeks ago.  My son had been nagging for another dog for ages but my view was that since he was a fully fledged adult he didn’t need my permission to get a dog, and if I gave my permission I feared that somehow it would convey paternal rights on me in some way.   From experience when a child nags for an animal – ‘please can we have a dog/cat/rat/snake’ etc coupled with ‘ we will look after it, walk it, feed it, brush it’ it actually means ‘can you get a pet for us which we will occasionally cuddle when we are not too busy on Playstation and we may do you a favour and walk once in a while!’

So I just kept saying – it’s up to you – pointing out that both he and his wife and my other son who all live together, all work full-time with quite stressful, time poor jobs.  Evidently that is no bar to getting an animal as the dog can go to work with them!  How things have changed I thought – when I worked full-time I wasn’t even allowed my mobile phone on my desk!



Ralph at work

Well a  couple of months ago he called a family meeting – as he lives with his wife and our youngest son  he naturally felt the need to consult with them.   Continue reading




IMG_5905.JPGFollowing my rant last week I have just heard that permission for our proposed building work has been granted!  ‘Full steam ahead’,  I hear you cry.  Hmmm not really.   Whilst the plans were in the hands of the planning office they were something that was not really real.  Procrastination could be blamed on the planning office.  Now they are a real possibility and turning them into a reality falls squarely into our – by that I mean my, lap.  And quite honestly the thought of starting what is actually a large project feels me with dread – the thought of not starting also feels me with dread. Starting is probably the lesser of the two evils but only just.

It is freezing here – well really cold.  We have a log burner and an AGA and some electric heaters  which when on send the electric meter into a spin faster than a Catherine Wheel.  I keep hearing that its going to be the coldest winter ever since the last coldest winter ever.  There are only so many layers of clothes that you can put on.  So we need to start.


What’s stopping me?  Well the thought of the logistics of it all.  We need to get heating in and the electrics upgraded.  The top floor seems easy enough if you discount the fact that we have to replace the windows and build a shower room which requires a dormer window to be built.  Can’t do that until we get the scaffolding up which we won’t do until the ice age passes.  First floor needs new bathrooms, re-wiring, heating put in.  Ok until I try to work out how to get the bathroom in without moving the window at the moment and the heating in when the radiators in our bedroom are going to be fixed to the wall that we are going to build out to incorporate the balcony – can’t do that until the scaffolding is up and the foundation is built.  It all seems a bit chicken and egg – and we can’t afford to make any mistakes and we definitely can’t afford to undo anything.  And that leads to the next problem, the ‘disconnect’ to quote the lovely Charlie Luxton between our budget and our aspirations.  We have had quotes in for windows and doors which range from £33,000 to £65000.  The lowest quote is about what I thought they would be so our choice seems somewhat limited.  Both the electrician and the plumber are about £10000 more than I thought and don’t start me on kitchens.  Do people really pay £1000 for a tap?  I suppose I am hesitating to start as I am not convinced I can afford to finish.  I know it will be wonderful when I have finished but a half-finished house is not something I treasure – I have watched too many home improvement programs where the ‘Grand Design’ has turned into ‘Living the Nightmare’ rather than ‘Living the Dream’.

So what to do?  Well other than eat cake which is my go to answer for everything – (my children think it is drink more water – but that’s just for them ) – I am going to have a round table meeting with the plumber, electrician and the builder – I might even attend!   Continue reading



Call me old-fashioned – or an escapee lawyer – but in my world time limits matter.  You say you are going to do something by a certain date and you either do it or you agree a new date.  What you don’t do is either just keep your head under the pillow hoping no one will notice the dawn of another day and the passing of the time limit or just decide yourself to push back the date.  Or is it only people with a bit of power who can do that?

If the planing rules were that the applicant had to get something filed by a certain date or the application would be deemed refused and they didn’t do it, that would be it.  No amount of crying, shouting or begging would change the situation.  And you certainly would not be able to just send an email saying that you were going on holiday and would not meet the deadline but would get to it when you got back.  You can see where this is going.

So having thought that the deadline for deciding our planning application was the 24th October I spent all day waiting to hear.  Nothing.  Nothing from the planners – ok I get that I didn’t actually think she would call and confirm her decision, nothing from the architects who are liaising with the planners on this and nothing on the planning website.  Ditto the next day.  So I emailed the architects who came back later in the day saying that they had, the day before received an email saying that she did not get round to it before going on holiday and would finalise her report on her return.  Return to beginning of this post for a repeat of my rant!

Two things wrong with this – well three – firstly a deadline is a deadline and technically I could deem this a refusal and appeal immediately – costly, aggressive tactic not really the thing to do at this stage.  Secondly she should have got our agreement to the extension which of course we would have given but at least we would have felt relevant and thirdly when the architect received the email maybe letting us know would have been a good thing.  It would have saved me having the planning authority’s website on speed search looking for a change in our planning status from ‘ pending consideration’ to, hopefully ‘application granted’.


Winter is on it’s way

What to do to fill the void left by the non-decision, and keep myself warm in my ‘there is no central heating’ house while we wait.  Well firstly I had to contact everyone who I had been speaking to about starting the work and tell them that the deadline was not the deadline.  I then had to keep myself busy – idle hands and all that.

Ever since our chat with the lovely Charlie Luxton and subsequent conversations at the Grand Designs Show we have been a bit all over the shop with the look of the house.  We like the layout – we really think – well I really think that it’s the best that we can come up with without spending more money or getting to the stage of knocking down the house.  But how to dress the outside of the house is driving me insane.  Trying to visualise it – and hubby is useless at that.  All he can see is what is here already and not how it might look when altered – and he actually likes the strangeness of the outside of the house – the ski-chalet in Essex look which is very fashionable right now.

So we have been experimenting with the excitement of design tools!  Firstly we have used paper, pens, tracing paper and overlays.  All very state of the art! But actually very useful.

Emboldened with these new skills we moved on to the computer.  We tried an online design program which was helpful in getting the layout sorted.  But very frustrating in that all the add ons – furniture etc seemed to be in french.  Also it didn’t really give us the look of the outside of the house.  I then discovered Sketch-up, a much-lauded design program which evidently was intuitive.  As soon as I saw that word it was over to hubby as I am not intuitive at all – especially as I think that means that a 6-year-old could get a grasp of the program within 3 minutes and anyone over 40 (ok 50) need not apply.  To his credit my husband spent hours playing with the program – well at least I think that is what he was doing in the study – and he did manage to get a pretty accurate diagram of the house in 3D and manage to manipulate it from different angles.  What he could not do was figure out how to get different style windows into it, different cladding/render/brick combinations.  He also could not get a sense of the new design sitting within the space of the existing house.

Cue Blue Peter skills – that reference probably escapes anyone under 30 – although I understand Blue Peter is actually currently on CBBC although allegedly ( funny how people say that when they want to make a statement which they don’t really know is completely accurate) a recent episode got no viewers – but Blue Peter was great for teaching children how to make things with a Fairy liquid bottle, sticky backed plastic and some string.  Having grown up with those skills surely I could make a scale model of the house.  And that is exactly what I have done.  Huge amounts of fun, lots of sticking and pasting, use of a protractor and a bit of swearing but the results are a pretty accurate representation of the house.  Even better I managed to print out the elevation drawings to the same scale and stick them onto the model thus getting a 3D impression of the finished house.  I then copied the outline of the elevations and drew in different shaped windows, different finishes – it was genuinely really helpful and I recommend it to anyone thinking of renovating or building.  Plus you feel so clever when the model actually resembles the drawings!  I found the best thing to do once I had stuck on the elevation drawings in their various guises was to take photos then I could compare them easily.




Having seen the model we are happy with the outside of it, the actual shape especially with the flat-roof over the lounge extension and the covered seating area – thanks Charlie for the push and my friend Caroline for suggesting that a covered seating area would be an asset.  It is also confirming our view that the style of the house has to be reigned in a bit from disneyesque colonial to a country house with a leaning towards Colonial/New England to tie in with the barn.  So simpler windows, less fiddly bits – I’m even leaning towards a metal roof on some aspects – although I am not sure what the planning officer will think of that if she ever comes back to us!



View from my gate.  What’s not to love?!!

I have to admit that my meeting with the lovely Charlie Luxton unsettled me.  It made me question the house design and doubt the road that we were heading down.  I am very hard on myself and take everything very personally – note to self that I need to work on that!  So I have found myself a bit in the doldrums.  It was in this somewhat grumpy mood that I had a meeting with the planning officer.

Well I say I had a meeting – there I was at 8.45am on a Wednesday morning in my best casuals, discrete make-up on looking friendly but business like – waiting for her.  By 9.15 I was beginning to think she was not going to show.  9.30 had me reaching for my phone and calling her office.  I was told that she was ‘on-site’, great I thought only it was not my site!  At 10.30 she called saying she was sorry but she had forgotten.  So we re-scheduled for 2 days time.  I was not thinking too highly of someone who could not remember that she had an appointment especially as it was evidently in her diary and she had a post it note stuck to her computer screen reminding her. But that was the grump in me.

So 2 days later at 8.30 I was again ready, smart casual dress, discrete make-up.  A bit defensive.  And yes she duly arrived.  That was a good start I thought.  And actually we had a really good meeting.  She spent a lot of time listening to what I was trying to achieve and how we were trying to work with the house that we have.  She walked all around the exterior of the house and the plot and she genuinely seemed to like it.  She was very complimentary about our Architect, Andy Stephenson who she was already familiar with.  She liked the simple clear drawings that he had provided and appreciated that he seemed to understand the Planning Offices’ needs.  There was only one part of the roof that she was not very happy with but I stressed that we wanted to work with the planning office and would happily re-visit that – and if the truth be known we had been thinking about altering that area anyway.  She said that she did not see any real problems or objections and would speak to her superior and then get in touch with Andy.  It was a really good, constructive meeting and it completely lifted my spirits.  I think even if she had been more negative she would have been willing to  work with us to achieve a compromise.  She was the epitome of what I think a good planning officer should be – not judgemental, nor condescending, she was engaging and open to a discussion.  I was very happy by the end of the meeting.


So re-fuelled with enthusiasm we headed off to the NEC for the Grand Designs Exhibition.  One good thing about undertaking building works and writing a blog is that you can justify going to every exhibition there is!  I had booked 2 appointments with experts – one a heating engineer to help us sort out our underfloor heating v radiators conundrum and another with another architect.  We trundled up the M6 and found ourselves in the cavernous halls of the NEC. It was actually reasonably quiet in the main hall and we got there with plenty of time to spare.  So meeting number one.  We sat down and explained our problem with the UFH.  Firstly cost – it is a very costly exercise putting in UFH.  Our rooms upstairs are not huge and radiators take up space so we were leaning towards retro-fitted UFH.  There are 2 types – overlay and between the joists.  We have been advised by different companies to go along different roots – plus one of the plumbers wants us to put in radiators upstairs.  Downstairs we have a decision as to how we marry up the UFH for the existing floors with those in the new extensions.  Then added to that there is the question of what floor coverings do you use.  Evidently you can only use carpets and underlay which don’t have a combined TOG value of over 2.5 – I thought TOG values only applied to duvets!  Not true – evidently if the TOG value exceeds 2.5 then the heat transmission is not efficient.  I am a bit fussy about carpet and do not want synthetic – at this point unbeknownst to my husband I started a secret one woman mission to not have UFH upstairs!  Also downstairs we have to be careful of using solid wood as its a good insulator and so retains the heat.  We also have to find out if our existing floor slab is insulated otherwise the heat will be absorbed downwards – I think.  All this had me rushing for cake.

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All very exciting.  The plans are in and now we are in the waiting period.  Lots of planning and organising to do which is good as it will keep me busy why I wait for things to happen.  If I’m not busy I will be tempted to do things that will just have to be undone later just for the sake of having something to do!


Happy days!!

We have seen a shaft of electricians, plumbers and window suppliers.  We have produced specs for all of them.  Making minute decisions concerning a space that is not even passed planning yet is a challenge.  Where do you put the sockets?  Where should we have outside lights so as to provide security and ambience but not let the house look like a Christmas tree.  The answer involves a lot of walking around the house and sitting imagining things in my head.  And lots of scribbles on paper.  The answer to sockets seems to be that you cannot have too many of them.  The answer to lights is to reign it in a bit!  One of the sockets I forgot in our last house was in the bay window where I wanted to put my Christmas tree – we ended up having to trail extension leads which, even when bound in tinsel did not add to the designer look that I was trying to achieve.

Needless to say having managed to get the service suppliers to the house as of yet no-one has come back with a quote.  I have chased by text – less desperate I thought and now am calling them all.  They are all very busy – I get that, but if you don’t do quotes how do you get business going forward?  One guy said he would come back to me and have a look at the job when he got back from his holiday.  Well he must be having a lovely time as that was over 6 weeks ago and I have not heard from him!  I would much rather they just said that they were not interested, it would save the stress.

On the plus side the house plans have got a ‘no objections’ comment from the Parish Council.  That’s good as an objection could sway the Planning Officer or at least give them a reason to refuse.  We went to the meeting – all very odd really.  Firstly no one notifies you that they are going to discuss your plans.  You have to grab the parish magazine and hunt your address amongst the ‘ clearing rights of way’, ‘budget for the village hall’, and ‘teddy bear picnic’ matters on the agenda.  If you do attend then you are allowed 5 minutes to address the committee at the beginning of the meeting.  That means that you have to second guess what their objections might be and address them without giving them things to object about that they might not have thought about themselves!  I went for the ‘less is more’ approach.  Kept to facts – we needed to upgrade insulation, plumbing and wiring and had to replace the conservatory as it leaked and the glazing panels had broken down.  We wanted to alter the entrance to make it more appealing and all the extensions were single storey and not very large.  We needed a larger lounge as the house has 5 bedrooms – previously 6 – and when we were all at the house we couldn’t all sit in the lounge.  I also mentioned that I had shown one of the former owner’s sons the plans ( the family were very popular in the village) and he loved them.  Short and sweet.  I said that I was happy to answer questions.  Then sat down.

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The back of the house as it currently is

So it’s September and we have finalised the plans.  This is good as I think that the architect was about to kill me if I suggested any more amendments.  The plans have gone back and forth so much they must be giddy.  It got to the stage where I could feel the sigh when he realised that it was me on the phone!  I do still have some tweaks, for example I’m not convinced that we have to correct ratio of weatherboard to render, but I am keeping them quiet as I do not want to responsible for causing him a breakdown, leaving his profession and becoming a hermit in outer Mongolia!

So what did we end up with?  Well smaller and less ambitious than we had first thought – mainly down to budget constraints but also from having a better understanding of the house, the grounds and how we wanted to live in it.  Hopefully its a better version of the original – but  maybe that is for others to judge.  I look at it a bit like how I view looking after myself. Yes I go to the gym and I eat sensibly.  I put make-up on, try to look reasonably nice most of the time.  But I am savvy enough to know that with all the preening in the world I am never going to look like Cindy Crawford!  My legs are far too short to start with.  I just want to be the best version of myself that I can be.  That’s how I see the house.  It’s never going to be a Victorian Rectory or an imposing farmhouse.  It’s a 1960’s house that has the front door in the gable that sits on a lovely plot. I just want it to be the best version of itself that it can be using the basics that we have been given.

We have gone for a ‘New England’/’Colonial’ look to complement the barn that also sits within the grounds.  The front door being in the gable lends itself to this style as well.  So render and weatherboarding, wooden windows and a porch .  Inside there will be a bit of wow (hopefully) from the vaulted hall ceiling, the numerous patio doors leading the eye out to the views and the large open plan kitchen, breakfast room and snug.  On opening the front door you will be able to see straight through the house to the views beyond.  Lots of light and hopefully a sense of space.


Old front


New front


Old back


New back

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I love to cook.  Simple as that.  I don’t think I am an amazing cook – pretty competent is how I would describe myself.


The tomatoes keep on coming!

Whereas my husband maintains he has never cooked a bad meal – easy when you have only cooked about 10 in your life – I will admit to failures, so-so dinners and some great successes.  I am keen to try new things though.  Happy to try jams, ice creams, exotic salads, cakes, bread etc.  I am not so keen on the boring day-to-day stuff – the fill the kids up stuff.  All that shopping and cooking for a quick meal.  Although I am my own worst enemy because  I do make everything from scratch – we do not buy ready-made meals, except the odd soup and custard.  My food philosophy is ‘good food cooked simply’ and to that end having the kitchen garden has been wonderful.


One of the joys of having the kitchen garden is that I can pick a vegetable and have it on the table within 20 mins.  One of the challenges is to be a bit creative in order to cope with the gluts – courgettes, tomatoes, lettuce, beans etc.  So I thought that I would share a couple of my coping recipes!


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Having discovered that 1) we couldn’t afford what we had designed and 2) we didn’t really want it anyway, we were faced with starting again.  Round and round we went with ideas until a good friend, after being bored with me ranting on about the design and constantly saying that I was unsure as to what I wanted, said to me that one of her late Father’s favourite sayings was, ‘want what you need, don’t need what you want!’.



It took we a while to get my head around that but it actually makes complete sense.  Why were we trying to force ourselves to have what we thought we wanted simply because we wanted it.  We had moved from a huge house which we had built ourselves and which was beautiful.  Huge master bedroom and en-suite bathroom, lovely kitchen big enough for a breakfast table and sofa.  Family room, main lounge, study, 5 bathrooms etc.  I think I had not really got over saying good-bye to it – and quite honestly we really didn’t need all that.  Our children no longer live at home so why were we, i.e. me trying to re-create it here when we didn’t need all that to be happy and actually it was making me unhappy trying to afford it and fit it within our new house.

So we made a list of what we needed – well OK there was a bit of wanting as well!  So starting at the top of the house where we had already made 3 small rooms into 2 larger ones whilst doing our initial 9 days of mad renovations.  We decided that we needed a shower room on the top floor – something to serve those 2 bedrooms.  Easily achieved by hiving off a small amount from each room and a bit of the hallway and adding a dormer.  New windows to replace the mis-matched ones that were there – upgrade skirtings etc – done.  Great.

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I have discovered that you can become completely fixated with vegetables, especially if you grow them from seed.  It’s like having your own babies – and like young children they rarely do what you want, and take huge amounts of time and patience.

I have grown all my plants from seed except the onions and shallots which were sets.  I began with the simplistic idea that all I had to do was pop a seed into some soil and it would grow.  Yeah right!  They all seem to need slightly different conditions – some like being in the light, some the dark, some sprout within a couple of days and some like celeriac take for ever.  My bathroom which is the hottest room on the planet due to the fact that it houses our hot water tank which is run by the Aga and so is on 24/7 and has no thermostat, became one large hot-house.  Raising the toilet seat left the unwary in danger of being hit by falling plants.

Slowly – ever so slowly in some cases the seedings emerged.  Some with more success than others – I’m brilliant at courgettes and runner beans and beetroot – pretty rubbish at chillies and parsnips.  The array of shapes that emerged was fascinating – the number of failures frustrating.  But it was really, really exciting to see it all happen – not sure if that makes me a very sad person or just happy to have discovered a new love.



So my winners.  It seems that I am very good at courgettes – who isn’t? – beetroot, tomatoes, potatoes, patty pan squash and broad beans.  My favourites are without doubt beetroot, squash and a black bean called Blauhilde.    I have grown Boltardy Beetroot and a mix of coloured beetroot.  They are just so pretty and taste amazing.  Soups, roasted veg, salads – raw, cooked, peeled, grated, mashed.  All wonderful.  My favourite recipe is the beetroot houmous from Amelia Freer’s ’10 day eating plan’.  Completely yummy and really versatile.  I planted some more beetroot in late July and it is already on its way – it might not get huge but I bet it is tasty.


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