Over the summer I have moved to Norfolk. Apart from a week’s holiday and a couple of weekends, it’s completely new territory for me, and I am enjoying getting to know my new habitat. Here are a few pictures from recent trips out. Norfolk is well-stocked with some of my favourite things (beaches, ruined monasteries, interesting medieval churches, nice places to eat) so I’m having a good time!
This week I have treated myself to a three day course on Media Skills for Creative Writers at the Manchester Writing School. This centre of excellence in all things writing related has a formidable reputation, and given the quality of the tuition I’ve received here, I can see why. Under the direction of unit leader James Draper, we have been taught by journalist and lecturer Rachel Broady. Rachel has grounded us in technical aspects of writing (especially features) and facilitated us in workshopping our ideas. Guest tutor Kath Grant gave us valuable input on working as freelance writers, and how to pitch our ideas to commissioning editors. The small group format means that we have had plenty of opportunities to ask questions, and to receive advice tailored to our interests and circumstances. Having a more journalistic slant on writing has been an especially good discipline for me. Watch this space…
I’ve recently moved to Liverpool – quite a change from rural Somerset! I had been visiting regularly for a while, so I realised that my Honda CR-V, while perfect for yomping across Exmoor and tackling fords was possibly not the idea vehicle for parallel parking in the city. So I test drove a range of ‘normal’ cars, which all felt like driving a go-cart by comparison, eventually settling on a middle-aged VW Golf. Moving to the city has increased my car insurance by roughly 60%. Cars up here seem to be much newer, much more likely to have chrome and tinted windows, and there is a conspicuous absence of mud…I am going to have to get used to the idea of spending money at the car wash if I’m not to be horribly conspicuous in my road-grimed car…
Today the sun was shining and I could justify playing hookey and going into the city centre. Public transport here is the best in England outside of London, but I am driving most of the time at the moment as it’s a great way to familiarise myself with the geography of the city. Today I parked near the Anglican cathedral, and walked down Duke Street to Liverpool One, passing the great gate or paifan of China Town on the way. It’s the largest outside of China, as befitting the oldest Chinese community in Europe. Nelson Street is garlanded with red lanterns in preparation for Chinese New Year this weekend.
Next stop was the Tate, on Albert Dock, where I wanted to look at the Tracey Emin/William Blake exhibition. The red brick of the older buildings in the dock area glowed warmly in the winter sunshine, and despite being off season there were still tourists from all over the world – in a few minutes I’d identified Korean, Japanese, French, Spanish and German being spoken. I love the cosmopolitan vibe in this city!
I had some Christmas gift vouchers to spend, so from the Tate I walked the short distance to Liverpool One and indulged in a little retail therapy. Midweek in January is an excellent time to shop – lots of sales, but relatively few shoppers. It’s fair to say that am not an enthusiastic shopper, but it’s a much more pleasant experience when it’s peaceful. To celebrate having successfully tracked down all three items on my list, I carried on up the hill to Bold Street in search of lunch. Bold Street is a hub of ethnic restaurants and quirky shops. To be honest, I generally feel a bit old and un-hipster when I go there, especially at today’s trendy lunch venue: Leaf. I’ve been there for tea before, but not for lunch. I opted for Moroccan chicken sandwich with broccoli soup on the side, and it was not disappointing – full of flavour and fresh ingredients. A nice touch is the tap water (I was being stingy). It comes with a tang of fresh mint, dispensed from a giant glass jar with a tap, which is on the bar so you can help yourself to refills.
Twenty minutes’ walk took me back to where I’d left the car, and I drove home in the sunshine, feeling glad to be in such a beautiful and vibrant city. There is so much more to explore: the range of world-class museums and galleries, the library (to research my father’s family who came here from Wales in the late 19th century), and the constantly changing panorama of the River Mersey.
After a brief Indian Summer, I am suddenly very aware that Autumn is here – the depth of colour in the trees is becoming distracting as I drive along country roads. It will not be long before I am sweeping fallen leaves out of my newly-constructed pond. This is, and always has been, by favourite time of year. Somewhere around early September, usually, I am aware that the year has turned, and that the torpor of summer (even a nasty cold wet one like we’ve had) is about to give way to the excitement of Autumn. At the other end of the year, the same thing happens in February as it suddenly becomes Spring. But Spring has lots of fans, and does not need enthusiasts for its beauty and vivaciousness. Autumn seems to have fewer acolytes, but I am definitely one.
Curiously, I find Autumn invigorating. Not only is it the new year for academic courses, which have, one way or another, been a major feature of much of my life, but there is a sense of nature getting ready. The swallows and the martins head off for summer quarters. There is the prospect of the murmurations of starlings on the Somerset Levels to look forward to. The boughs are laden with fruit and berries like a giant open-plan larder. It feels as if they year is gathering in its supplies for the winter to come.
I’ve bought logs for the wood-burning stove. I joined my neighbours in a collective apple juice pressing day which resulted in unfeasible numbers of bottles of wonderful juice. I have pureed apples and frozen the results, to liven up porridge on winter mornings. I have picked raspberries from the garden.
The garden – ah, yes. The garden was supposed to be like a scene from The Good Life by now, but sadly I got flu in the Spring and lost 6 weeks of gardening time at a crucial time, and then engaged two consecutive gardeners to help me deal with the resulting jungle, only to have them not get back to me for, literally, months. By high summer it was a seriously daunting project and way beyond me, but fortunately my lovely neighbour put me in touch with the delightful Jan from http://www.blueshedflowers.co.uk/ who has been doing her magic over the past couple of months, and I am now optimistic of being able to get the veg patch up and running for next year. This garden has all manner of hidden treasures, so the year has not been completely a lost cause as I have had the chance to see what is here already – moving in during Jan/Feb meant I hadn’t a clue what I’d inherited.
One garden success has been the pond – a tiny pre-formed liner, intended as a wildlife pond. I have to mention in dispatches here the heroic J who dug and installed it for me (with remarkably little bad language) on a muggy summer’s day. The tiny frog which has already taken up residence in it is very appreciative too! All manner of other creepy-crawlies have moved in as well, so I shall be interested to see what develops. I built a bench and got a table for the garden during the summer, so next year I can sit and watch pond life in comfort! I’ve been consciously planting for wildlife, with lavenders and buddleia, as well as for my own consumption in the herb bed. I look forward to sharing pics of the first pickings from the vegetable patch next year – I’m looking at growing broad and dwarf beans, chard, salad leaves, garlic, spring onions, possibly some carrots and potatoes, and whatever else takes my fancy when I peruse the seed catalogues. Meanwhile, in the next few weeks I need to plant up the big pots of tulips for the back doorstep, and alliums and fritillaria in the garden. I got a bit overexcited about buying bulbs this year…
Last month I bought a record player. I had been meaning to do this for a very long time – years – but was daunted by the prospect of nursing a vintage record player which might be quite poorly, when I had only a hazy recollection of how they work. The only new ones I had seen were by the kind of brands that have showrooms rather than shops, and where I could probably just about afford a stylus.
But then, to my great joy, I found that I could buy new, inexpensive record players! OK, the online reviews made it clear that the sound quality wasn’t going to be fabulous, but hey, it’s not about the sound quality – if you want perfection, play a CD. An exciting box duly arrived and was unpacked. In anticipation of its arrival, I had gone down to my local junk shop where I’d recently seen loads of vinyl records, and bought a small selection – LPs, 45s and – new for me – 78s.
In honour of a recent trip to Paris, it seemed appropriate to inaugurate the machine with a 78 of Edith Piaf. Wow. Sure, there are crackles. And a hiss. And a bit of sound from the turntable. But – wow. There is a depth, an atmosphere, a living quality to this music that I had forgotten. Entranced, I played record after record.
A few weeks on, I am a little less giddy. But most evenings I will pour a drink, set up the record player, and listen to a few records. This is the main difference to playing a CD – I really listen. I don’t do anything else. I give it my full attention. Playing a record is an event: opening the lid, removing the cover of the stylus and the catch of the arm, turning up the volume knob, selecting the record and carefully sliding it out of its cover, centring it on the turntable, placing the stylus, standing back to listen in anticipation to the hiss of the first few revolutions…
Not only is the nature of the sound quite different from what a couple of decades of CDs and downloads has accustomed me to, but so is the nature of listening. Listening to music is once again something to do, not just as background but as the main event. It is considered, not casual, done mindfully and attentively. It restores music to being a thing of value for its own sake, not as a mere soundtrack to my day. And what has it cost me to acquire this thing of value? £35 for the record player, and I haven’t paid more than £1 for any record – most at 50 pence each from junk shops or charity shops, many free via Freecycle. I am aware of the current resurgence in interest in vinyl, and no doubt prices will increase accordingly, but while there continues to be little demand for these unregarded trifles, I shall continue to explore a whole new/rediscovered musical world.
So – the move is done. I have been in for a few days, the unpacking is almost completed, and I am (after many years of living in 1960s and 70s houses) reminding myself of the joys of living in a 150+ year old house, with not a straight line in it! Almost every piece of furniture upstairs has had to be sured up with wedges to make it even vaguely level. My miscellaneous vintage home wares and country furniture actually look like they belong here, rather than being an anachronism. The cat has moved in and seems to approve of her new abode.
What have I learned, as the detritus of my life has emerged out of boxes?
I have too many shoes. No, really, I do. Because I have never seen them all out at the same time in the same place, I never realised just how many pairs of very similar shoes I have. I haven’t depressed myself further by counting them – I just know I have too many. I understand why – I have difficult feet to find shoes for which are both stylish and comfortable, and therefore I tend to stockpile when I do find suitable ones, even if I don’t actually need shoes at the time. But this is ridiculous. I would have ample for most eventualities even if I gave half of them away. Which is what I shall do. The hospice shop at the top of my street is in for a surprise! I have already sent half my handbag collection their way…
I have too much stuff relating to projects which I shall never finish. Freecycle is helpful here – gifting my stash of fabric which I know I shall never make clothes from, and the things which were in job lots which I purchased for one or two pieces which I have used. More challenging will be the process, which I must undertake, of getting rid of a proportion of of my yarn and fibre stash – realistically, much of it is in colours I now know I am unlikely to use. I can make a couple of nice bundles and donate them to my local Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers for someone else to enjoy.
For the moment, I must set aside training as a traditional upholsterer. In this much smaller house, I do not have the room for the supplies, beyond my toolbox, or for pieces of furniture waiting to be worked on, and in a mid-terrace house it’s not realistic to do the amount of hammering involved, without seriously annoying the neighbours. If I can find a workspace away from home, I can re-visit this, but for the moment I must leave it, and not beat myself up about it.
I have too many books. I must admit this is a surprise – as I had already culled several boxes of books (to Oxfam) over the past few weeks, I didn’t expect this to be an area that would cause me problems. But I have realised that as well as the books on the shelves, I had nearly as many again lurking in piles beside my favourite armchair, under the desk, under that pile of magazines that I never seem to get round to finishing, on the windowsill…I need to assess whether it is realistic that I will read them in 2015. If not, it’s Oxfam again…
It really is possible to declutter, even things that have been around for years through umpteen housemoves, without feeling bad. I have always had guilt about getting rid of things which were, long ago, gifts or which have some association with someone or some event. I’ve been able to ask myself, as things emerge from the boxes, whether I am keeping something just through habit, or whether I am making an active decision to have it in my home. Things (of no great value, but nice, and often recollected from my childhood) which I have inherited from my beloved grandparents, I have kept – a vase, a rug, the child size chair which they brought back for me from a holiday in Spain in 1973 and which now provides a suitable home for my very grown-up bear. I have allowed myself, also, one small storage box of ‘nostalgia’ items. Interestingly, it’s only half full. The one area where I will have to put in some time is my office – I seem to have reams of paper and piles of files kept in case it ‘comes in useful’. Going through several years’ worth of work output will be tedious, but should free up several shelves as I think it’s likely that very little of it will be relevant in the future (and most of that is probably on computer/backed up anyway).
Moving to a much smaller house has been a great discipline. There simply is no argument with not having anywhere to put it! The world really won’t come to an end because I only have a few tupperware food storage boxes rather than twenty. If I can’t store it, I probably don’t need it.
I stockpile things as if I am expecting a siege. The reasons for this, I know, go back to my childhood, but I must accept that in 21st century England it is unlikely that I need to stockpile groceries, ironmongery or toiletries. At all costs I must avoid multibuys. Any possible financial saving must be set against the costs in terms of my tranquility at home as I struggle to find houseroom for things I won’t need or use for ages. What price turning my home into a warehouse for things I can buy any time I need them, just by walking up to the shops? Is a few pence of saving really worth the aggravation of the item falling out every time I open the kitchen cupboard?!
Fitted kitchen cupboards hide a multitude of sins. Or, in this case, stuff. My kitchen here has few cupboards – four small wall units, one base unit plus a corner unit with a carousel for pans. But it does have three open shelves running the length of the kitchen, which I have used to display/store my crockery (including vintage tea things) and vintage enamel bowls and jugs. I now know exactly what I have got. Duplications have become apparent, and have been weeded out. I can see that I have enough – plenty – and will not be tempted to acquire more. The cupboards contain only consumables, and some cookware. I only have what fits comfortably in the cupboards (less than half of what I had before). So far I have managed to cook a range of meals without feeling the lack of any vital piece of kit. My surfaces are largely clear, and the kitchen feels very tranquil.
At the end of the first week in my new home/olde worlde cottage, I am keen to pare down my possessions even more. I want to have even more space around me, to reduce the visual noise of my stuff. I realise that I only really tolerate the ornamental in my home if it also fulfills a function – my ceramics are bowls or tea cups, regularly used and not merely gratuitously ornamental. Even the cat is a vermin-control operative!
Regular visitors to this blog may have noticed the absence of new posts recently. This reflects a time of upheaval in my life, both professionally and personally.
The cat and I have found a delightful character cottage in a small town in Somerset, near to the M5 and mainline railway, and at the heart of a thriving community with shops and services. I wanted to find somewhere that would be a real home (rather than just somewhere to live) as I embark on this new life, so I was delighted to find somewhere which was not a soul-less new-build on an anonymous estate.
The cottage comes with a nearby garden, complete with potting shed, and there are already two big vegetable beds and scope to grow-my-own on a significant scale. There is a wood-burning stove to supplement the gas central heating. And a lock-up garage/wood store across the road. I appear to be all set up for The Good Life…
I moved from a large house, and so I haven’t needed to get much in the way of furniture. However, living in big houses for the last several years has inevitably resulted in Too Much Stuff, and this has been a wonderful opportunity to galvanise me into action – the biggest decluttering exercise of my life is underway! Ebay, Gumtree, charity shops and the dump have all been involved in my campaign to reduce my Stuff by at least 30%, and preferably 50%. Fortunately, the timing coincided with the Christmas and New Year break, which has given me time and space to do at least a couple of hours’ decluttering every day, and make significant inroads into my Stuff.
I have before me, therefore, a challenge and an opportunity. I may not have actively chosen this whole ‘life begins at 45’ experience, but I am determined to embrace what it offers me, and the first thing it offers is choices. What do I want in my new home? How do I want to live my daily life? I am being offered the chance to live much more simply, which (as readers of this blog will know) is something which has been exercising me for some time. This is my chance to make a fresh start in the way I live. I have often said that I aspire to William Morris’ maxim to ‘have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’, and now I have the opportunity to put it into practice.
The white goods do need to be bought new because I really need them to be under warranty. The other bits and pieces I am consciously buying mostly vintage or second-hand. I acquired a handsome day-bed on Gumtree, and a leather armchair on eBay. My bedroom curtains are being re-purposed from a pair of 1950s Welsh wool blankets. I am now the proud owner of a very beautiful Deco chest of drawers, which I expect will outlive me. And I am being very disciplined about how much furniture, and how much Stuff, will fit into a small cottage and still allow me enough space and order to actually live in it. And work in it – the second bedroom (with stunning views!) will be my studio and office.
So – over the next few months, I hope this blog will chronicle my first steps in my new life, and I hope you will accompany me as I make choices, face challenges, and work out how to live simply in my new home.