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Life in the big smoke

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!

Peeling away the layers

After a week the bed bugs came back. They were a surprise left-over from the previous occupants of the house. The mysterious rash that could have been a bite, the inky spots on the wall in the spare bedroom, the bug we saw scuttling over a pillow on the sofa. None of these things seemed like a problem until a late night Google binge told us they were unmistakeable signs of a bed bug infestation.

It was becoming difficult to sleep. So we decided to rent a steamer and buy bug killing products off Amazon. Gerry tackled the industrial steamer, a blue robot from a seventies science fiction movie. I wore a mask and big gloves and followed him with the bug spray. Then we set off some smoke bombs. A couple of nights passed. No more bites. We thought might have won.

Then they came back and it was time to phone a man with access to more potent poisons and pesticides. The man recommended stripping back the carpets as it was something we’d intended to do anyway. That was last Saturday. A brief conversation over a cup of coffee. “We’ll just take this carpet up”.

The green, sticky mess crumpled in our hands, the rubber fell off the bottom and left mounds of fine sand-coloured dust on the floorboards. We tore up more carpet. More rubber sand. The floor boards were a pale grey underneath. There were gaps and holes, patches and some blackened bits. A mysterious dark shape revealed where a piece of furniture had once stood.

The floorboards clashed horribly with the salmon pink wallpaper. We peeled off a small corner. A big sheet came loose, like a sail catching wind. It felt good. I could almost sense the house shaking off the weight of the years. Another corner, another sheet of wallpaper and then small finicky bits that didn’t seem to want to come off at all.

Gerry used a screwdriver to pry loose one of the polystyrene ceiling tiles. It came off in one go. The next one was a bit more difficult, but he hacked away at it. I kept peeling wallpaper. After a couple of hours the first layer, the one they must have added in the sixties and seventies, was gone.

We found the local dump and drove past HMP Belmarsh, where the UK detained people without charge or trial after 9/11. The road that runs past it is wide and fast. It’s difficult to get a glimpse of the prison. Then there is scrubby industrial wasteland, low warehouses, a large garage full of wrecked cars. This London is a different London.

Back in the house we keep peeling away the layers. We’re now down to the plaster, once painted a dark forest green. The last layer of wallpaper, a yellow geometric pattern with ghostly imprints of large white flowers, is the most difficult to remove. We sponge it down with a mixture of hot water and fabric softener and scrape away at the stubborn bits.

It takes time, the peeling and scraping, but in those moments there is nothing else than the wallpaper. Thoughts of work and worries and the political situation slip away. I can feel the room sighing with relief, the walls can breathe again. The bugs have stayed away for a week. We will keep peeling.

The first Saturday in the new house

This first night in the house we hammered through the plaster in our bedroom. Big chunks flying everywhere. There was a hollow-sounding area on the lower part of the chimney breast and it seemed like a good idea to find out what lay behind it. An old fireplace, full of rubble and ash. The draft from the chimney stirred the dust. We covered up the hole with a small piece of thin plywood.

This is the first Saturday in the house. The old boiler is roaring next to me. It’s quiet outside. I’m sitting in the office looking out over our garden. The words still seem alien to me. The office. Our garden. Yesterday two cats walked across the lawn, the short-haired tabby one sat on the roof of the shed for a long time, staring at the garden on the other side of the fence where a lady appeared regularly to smoke fags and check her phone. The neighbour on the left has placed plastic tubs full of seeds on top of her fence. The only birds that seem interested in them are the pigeons. When they’ve finished their meal they swoop towards our house, wings outstretched, looking like World War Two bombers. This is my new life.

There has hardly been space for anything else than the new house during the last seven days. We moved on Tuesday and it feels like half a lifetime ago. It’s a steep learning curve of boiler-lingo and electricity-lingo, getting locks changed, issues checked, reading up on asbestos. It’s an old house, the carpets are threadbare, the wallpaper is peeling, everything smells very strongly of curry. I love it.

Not much has been done to this house since the seventies. During our first night here, when everything was still very chaotic and dusty, we discovered that the old doors had been covered up with cheap boards. We prised away the boards and found mustard yellow and pea-soup green four panel doors underneath. There are several different holes in them where previous owners have moved the handles around during the last century.

Is this what middle age is like? Will I now bore people to lip-chewing despair talking about doors and floorboards and all the other stuff we discover when peeling away the layers that have been added to this house since it was built?

The floorboards creek, the boiler roars, but otherwise it’s quiet like London’s never been quiet before. I wake up surprised. No trains outside the window, no traffic, no sirens, no airplanes in the sky. I’ve never realised how much spaciousness there is in the quiet. I feel at home, I feel at peace. So bring on the mess and the chaos of ripping everything out and starting again.