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Life in the big smoke

Finnish forests and London forests

I grew up in a small town in Finland, there was a woodland a couple of blocks from my house. Forests surround the city on all sides, except for in the west, where the land meets the Gulf of Bothnia.

When I was little my family spent a couple of weeks at the summer house in June and July. This is nothing special in Finland where most people have a summer house or a summer cottage . It’s a big country with not that many people, there is a lot of space and 75 percent of the land is covered in forest.

The woods around the summer house were great for playing in. My brother, my cousin and I used to go on make believe adventures, finding trails among the blueberry bushes and the moss, scrambling up big granite boulders and finding the courage to jump down again.

We trekked through what to us seemed like jungles of reeds and fire weed to find new ways to the road on the far side of the forest. We walked around the old swamp that had been filled in with ballast from the ships that once docked in town. According to my grandmother the soil had come all the way from Africa.

In the old swamp we found and collected rocks that were red and brown and sometimes inky blue, some had been hollowed out by foreign waves revealing a milky colour underneath a darker surface, some had holes in them, some were smooth and polished. My grandmother called them moonstones. There are still several of them sitting in a bowl on the veranda at the summer house.

When my grandad was still alive he made my brother a bows from the juniper bushes and arrows out of sticks. In the autumns when the forests turned soggy and soft my granny took us mushroom hunting in the forests.

She taught us to look out for grönkremlor and smörsoppar, the yellow-orange mushroom which according to her had to be fried in lots of butter. Often the mushrooms were slug eaten and hosting at least a couple of worms. The worm infested parts were cut away and returned to the forest. Sometimes my grandmother sliced a sliver of a gilled mushroom with a brick red hat. She tasted it, making sure it was a tegelkremla and not the one that would burn your tongue.

It’s more than fifteen years since I went out into a forest to forage for mushrooms, but I can still recall the smell of wet soil. I didn’t realise how precious and special this was until I moved away. I miss the forests now and I seek them out whenever I can and wherever I can found them.

I feel very lucky to have landed in a place in London surrounded by two forests – Oxleas Wood and Bostall wood. Some parts are over 8000 years old, there are oaks, hornbeams and hazel. The forests are split by the A2 and other roads. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but to me it seems like the constant hum of traffic is dampened by all that green.

When I walk to the forest it feels like the crinkles in my soul have been smoothed out. I promise myself I should go more often, but the first time I made it there this year was a few weeks ago.

There are several bits I still want to explore, but Gerry and I have already established “our” regular forest walk up to Bostall Wood. Apparently (according to the internet) the word bostall means “a secure place” in Old English. It couldn’t be more fitting.

 

The shipwreck at the studio

When Gerry and I moved to Thames Side Studios we often had to pinch ourselves. It had everything we had been looking for. It’s right next to the Thames, there’s a great community of artists and makers, a print-studio, an on-site sauna and the site has its very own shipwreck.

I remember walking around the place on a sweltering day in July several months before we knew we’d suddenly get kicked out of Hoxton, looking at the river and the shipwreck thinking, “wow, imagine working at a place like this”.

And now we’ve been here for two years. When it’s not too cold outside we take mugs of tea and stand on the sea wall, looking at the planes taking off from City Airport, the cormorants fishing in the river, the dredgers humming along and the occasional seal swimming by.

The shipwreck is still there, hosting an impressive colony of pigeons. When we moved in she used to float, now she sits on the riverbed at high tide like a stubborn old lady, the water lapping over her deck.

The man who owns her occasionally cycles in and uses an improvised drawbridge to get on board. Two years ago we still heard a generator whirring somewhere at the back. A year ago I spotted a group of people in camo-gear playing paintball on the ferry. Now there just seems to be more and more pigeons.

Once the Royal Iris hosted the Queen and the Beatles on trips across the Mersey. People at the studio have told me visitors from Liverpool have stood on the sea wall crying over the state of her now.

The Royal Iris sailed on the Mersey for 40 years and was decommissioned in the 90s. She came to London in 2002. The new owner found a spot for her in Woolwich and had planned on turning her into a floating nightclub.  It appears not much has happened since.

Although I’m told she once managed to escape, floating out with the tide. After that they cut out her engines and left a hole in her hull. Perhaps she too sits there watching the planes.

Five things I’ve learned renovating a Victorian house

We have a new kitchen. It feels like quite an achievement to have come this far, although the walls still need to be painted, the floor sanded (or treated somehow) and the sink drains into the washing machine. (The picture above was what it looked like before the work began)

After intense weeks of things being drilled through and various strangers coming in and out of the house every day, I could almost taste the silence when the work stopped. We’re not even half way through whole redecoration project, but we’re taking a short break. So, what have I learned so far?

1. There will be hidden problems

No house building, renovation programme ever reveals how unexpected problems can lead to delays and escalating costs. No tale about a house redecoration ever mentions “it was all going fine until we found the …”.

So it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that everything should go smoothly and that there shouldn’t be any nasty surprises. Ha!

2. There will be lots of tiny, but very important decisions to make NOW

Suddenly you will find yourself faced with, say, a door-frame that has been made narrower by a previous owner just wedging lots of pieces of wood into the frame and then putting kitchen cupboards over it to hide the mess. And when you have a stressed out plasterer subcontracted by the kitchen fitters telling you he doesn’t know what to do about it, that the plaster will crack if he plasters over it, that the door frame can’t be widened because of stuff that is too boring to go into now, then you will have to take charge and make a snap decision without knowing anything about plastering or carpentry or much DIY stuff in general. There were tons of situations like this.

3. Every big decision is a silo

For each decision you take, there will be a myriad of smaller decisions to be made. You think you’re redoing a kitchen and that feels somewhat doable, but it’s not just redoing a kitchen, within that lurks a myriad of smaller jobs.

The wiring is a world of its own, where do you want sockets, when should they be fitted, what faceplates should they have and so on. What about the door frames, what happens when the architraves (new word bingo!) are suddenly flush with the new plaster, should they be ripped out, if so what should the new architraves look like? Taps, door-handles, colour-choices, every decision contains thousands and thousands of tiny choices that all turn out to be vital to the final result. No pressure at all.

4. There will be dust

My parents and my in-laws have done their fair share of renovating and re-decorating in their time. “There will be a lot of dust”, they said. Somehow it didn’t compute. We thought, “yes, of course there will be a lot of dust. We can live with that, things get dusty and then you just mop it up”. And then both Gerry and I seem to have suppressed this piece of information.

So when the very friendly boiler fitter arrived with a huge drill to install a new boiler in the kitchen we had just removed things from the one corner where he was going to work. He drilled the hole. There. Was. Dust. Everywhere. It was a dustocalypse, fine, particles that just went pooof up in the air and then hung around for days, slowly settling on every surface like someone had dumped bags of icing sugar through a hole in the roof, except this dust tasted like old cement.

We coped with that. Then the kitchen was ripped out and the plaster was mixed and one of the kitchen fitters cut up the wooden worktops indoors. The dust is winning. When my phone charges at night a new fine layer of dust settle on the screen. There is no point fighting it anymore. It’s taken over.

So remember this, when people tell you things are going to get dusty, just laugh and completely ignore it because then at least you don’t have to worry about it before it happens. Then you just have to learn how to live with the dust. Forever.

5. This is an amazing thing to be able to do

Even though its stressful and we lived in total chaos for about a month when the kitchen was being redone (with the occasional night without electricity or hot water) I’ve enjoyed most of the journey so far. I’m learning new things, I’m challenging myself. We’re turning this old, loved but neglected house into a beautiful place to live that will work for us.

The hardest part has been letting go of perfectionism. I’m the sort of person who thinks that I need to get everything right from the start. I’m trying to tell myself that I’m not a failure if I make a couple of mistakes, I’m just learning.

*I wrote this post in May, just after we had re-decorated the kitchen, but the whole experience was probably still a bit too raw since I didn’t post it then. We’ve moved forward at a snail’s pace during the summer. And that’s another lesson… sometimes it’s worth taking a time out, even if that means living with unpainted walls for a while. The electrician comes back this month to rewire upstairs and then it all starts again. Wish me luck!

Why I’ve been lying about the house

“I’m actually enjoying the mess, thanks for asking, it means I don’t have to worry about tidying”.

This is my stock answer when people ask me about the house. But I’m lying. The plaster on the walls is cracked and splotchy, every surface is covered in a fine dust, most of our belongings are stacked in randomly packed cardboard boxes behind the IKEA sofa which is missing its cover and has a fine collection of random stains. The kitchen is held together with tape. The bathtub is still full of random bits of wallpaper.

The biggest untruth is the word “enjoy”. A better description of my state of mind, underneath the sort of chirpy and cavalier “isn’t this an exciting adventure” type of attitude I tend to adopt in these situations, would be stressed, jaw-clenching, shoulder-aching, forehead-scrunching, stressed. Because this is the week when it all starts to happen.

Somehow I had managed to ignore it. The notes in my calendar saying “boiler fitter” and “kitchen arrives” were always going to happen at some point in the future. Well that future arrived sooner than expected. And the British prime minister has decided to call a new general election at the same time. So in between kitchen furniture getting stuck in our narrow Victorian hallway and men climbing up on the roof to drop down a flue for the wood-burning stove and the kitchen having to be emptied out and more things packed into more boxes (where are we going to store them!?) I’m keeping one eye on the UK political press on Twitter where there is also chaos and confusion. And it dawns on me that there won’t be any hot water for a while. And no hob, oven or washing machine. Where are we going to eat? How is it already the middle of April?

Perhaps I should just have titled this post first world problems. Perhaps I should try to figure out why everything always seems to happen at once in my life. Perhaps the answer is that underneath the stress there are bits I enjoy. These are the sort of days when there isn’t time to think too much and just about the right amount of time to act, it’s a kind of tunnel effect, a sharpened focus, or perhaps I’ve just had too much coffee and should have a little lie down. In a couple of weeks I can start worrying about tidying again. Now that’s something to complain about.

Photo by Martin Wessely.

The old yew tree of Runnymede

It sits in an ancient woodland near the river Thames and the meadows of Runnymede. It’s where the Magna Carta was signed over 800 years ago. It could be the place where Henry VIII proposed to Anne Boleyn. It’s old. Very old. Perhaps even as old as Stonehenge.

There are several places I want to visit in the UK. The list grows for every year and a recent addition is the ancient Ankerwycke yew west of London.

I discovered it in a book I’m reading about Anglo-Saxons, “The real Middle Earth – magic and mystery in the Dark Ages” by Jungian psychologist Brian Bates. Why did I buy a history book by a psychologist? Well I’m suspecting I confused it with historian Michael Wood’s “In search of the Dark Ages” (the covers are a bit similar) during one of my many Amazon binges. I also struggle to resist subtitles that contain the words “magic” and “mystery” and I quite like Jungians.

I’m yet to be totally convinced by the book, it seems to have been written to piggyback on the Lord of the Rings and the author tries to draw parallels between Britain in the dark ages and Tolkien’s middle earth. But, I wanted to start reading more about early British history, this is sort of a start.

In the book Bates attempts to explore the Anglo-Saxon mind and he visits the Ankerwycke yew to investigate why the old inhabitants of these isles regarded trees as sacred.

Runnymede, England

According to Bates the Anglo-Saxon word “treow” meant both “tree” and “trust or ”truth”. He mentions an old belief that walking or crawling through a tree that had been hollowed out, split by lightning or grown two separate trunks was to receive some of the nature’s power and protection.

On a recent trip to the forest near the house I found an ash with two trunks and decided to try this theory out. I climbed through the gap and gave the tree an awkward pat as I stepped over to the other side. Nothing magical happened, but I’d like to think the tree recognised the gesture. If trees can communicate with each other, perhaps they also have some kind of ancestral memory.

According to Bates the fields around the Ankerwycke yew were once a place where runes were cast and old kings came to listen to fortunes being told. Rune-mede became Runnymede. This is apparently completely false. Even so I’m sure the old yew tree has an interesting tale or two to tell.