Sunday, 24 May 2015

Happy House Hunting


I’ve been looking at houses for the last four years.  Yes, really.  Nearly two years ago we actually did up sticks and move, but it was – for wont of a better way of describing it – a temporary move.  The house we currently live in was bought for many reasons – downsizing, convenience, wanting everything brand new so a bucket of money didn’t need throwing at the place – all this and more.  But the fact remains it is a temporary house.  When our youngest leaves the nest, it will be time to think about the ultimate move.  Now that Eleanor is on the threshold of going to drama school and getting digs, the ultimate move is starting to become a real possibility.
          However, as my husband wants an apartment and I want a house, we’re already off to a slightly difficult start.  Compromises are needed. I’m up for an apartment if it’s large, light and airy and on the ground floor, so I don’t feel like I’m imprisoned in some sort of ivory tower.  Then there is the location – it has to combine ‘Escape to the Country’ with an easy(ish) commute.  Prices in the South currently seem to range from ridiculous to outrageous.  What has happened to the property market in the last two years?  When we left our large five-bedroomed detached in 2013, we almost had to give the wretched thing away.  And yet now I’m ringing up estate agents to make a viewing appointment on something mediocre with an exorbitant price tag only to be told, ‘It’s just been sold.  Full market price too.’
          Last weekend we viewed properties in Speldhurst, Tunbridge Wells and Penshurst.  The Speldhurst property sported a gorgeous sun room that overlooked ten acres of arable land under a cornflower-blue sky.  Unfortunately the rest of the place wasn’t so gorgeous.  It was a ‘project’.  The last time we undertook a project I lost a stone in weight, lived in mess for six months, had to chastise workmen who wanted exorbitant sums of money - in cash if you please - and then chuffed off at half past three saying their day’s work was done.  I vowed never again to undertake a project.  So we took our leave of the Speldhurst property and went to Tunbridge Wells where some game souls had bought a project and done it up themselves.  The brochure sported shiny bang-up-to-trend photographs.  But the difference between Joe Bloggs doing up his property and a proper building firm doing it comes down to quality.  As we let ourselves into the beautiful grand entrance with its ceramic tiled floor, my stockinged feet instantly turned to blocks of ice.  Underfloor heating is usual in finishes such as this.  But not for Joe Bloggs.  Apparently that would have been too expensive, even though the price tag begged to differ.  Never mind.
          ‘Be careful on your left.  The balustrade spindles need fixing,’ said Joe Bloggs.  Actually, I’m going to rename Mr Bloggs Mr Cowboy.
          We pushed open a bathroom door which scraped and stuck half way.
          ‘Just a bit of snagging,’ said Mr Cowboy.
          As we progressed through the house, the snagging list grew, grew, and grew a bit more.  So we moved on to property number three in Penshurst.  Unfortunately the property went under offer before we had even arrived.  Frustrated, we took ourselves off to my sister who lives in the area.  Once ensconced on her sofa, my husband literally drowned his sorrows in a vast G & T (he finds house hunting traumatic at the best of times) and I fed the crisis by raiding my sister’s fridge.  It was at this point I had a brilliant idea.
          ‘I’ve just realised something!’ I beamed at my husband and sister.  ‘Last year we viewed a beautiful property not a million miles from here, but the elderly lady took it off the market before we could make an offer.  Do you remember?  She had a nasty fall and broke her leg.  Let’s go and knock on her door and see if she’s ready to put the place up for sale again!’
          ‘Brilliant idea,’ said Mr V.
          So off we set.  Upon arrival, Mr V refused to get out of the car on the grounds that I’m apparently ‘much better at this sort of thing’ and that his insistence on staying put in the car was absolutely nothing to do with listening to a football match on the radio.
          One minute later I was standing in a beautiful private courtyard with the house of my dreams, my ultimate move, directly in front of me.  To the rear was open countryside stretching as far as the eye could see.  And just five minutes away was the A21 which connected to the M25 straight into London.  The elusive ‘List of Requirements’ hovered in my peripheral vision and I mentally ticked them off one by one!  Taking a deep breath, I knocked on the door.  It was answered by a pleasant looking man.
          ‘Yes?’
          For a moment I floundered.  Who was he?  Ah, he must be the vendor’s son.
          ‘Hello!’ I beamed chummily.  ‘I do hope you don’t mind my knocking, but my husband and I viewed this property last year before your mother broke her leg.  We just wondered if she’d be remarketing soon?’
          The man put his hands together and gave a sad smile.
          ‘I’m so sorry.  I do hope you haven’t had a wasted journey, but I’m the new owner of this house.  I viewed this property last year too and, like you, had the same idea of approaching the vendor.  Except I approached her three months ago.  I moved in yesterday.’
          ‘Oh, lucky you!’ I gasped, feeling as though I’d just been punched in the solar plexis.
          ‘I know!’ trilled the man.  ‘I can’t believe my luck.  It’s so lovely here.  All this countryside.  And the birds singing.  And the garden is heaven.  And the neighbours are wonderful.  I’m just so happy.’
          ‘Marvellous!’ I responded, resisting the temptation to beat my chest and wail.
          ‘Best thing I ever did.  I felt very sorry for the old girl of course.  No fun breaking your leg in umpteen places and taking months and months to heal.  But the timing was perfect.  I just snuck in there, made my offer, and bingo!  Here I am!’
           ‘Yes, here you are.  Fabulous!  Well, I hope you’ll be very happy.’  I tried desperately hard to mean it and not wish him and his house a terrible case of rising damp and a plague of woodworm…if you can get such a thing.
          I drooped back to the car.
          ‘Well?’ asked Mr V, turning the radio volume down.
          ‘It was sold last Christmas.’
          ‘Ah.’
          ‘I’m devastated.’
          ‘Well on the plus side I’ve got a small piece of good news.’
          I turned to my husband hopefully.  ‘What?’
          ‘Arsenal didn’t completely thrash Manchester United.  It was a draw.’
          Does any other woman out there ever get the odd fleeting moment where they could happily bash their husband over the head with their handbag?  Which reminds me.
          A husband and wife spent all day house-hunting.  The final property they viewed was full of mirrors.  The husband turned to his wife and said, ‘I can see myself living here…’

Sunday, 17 May 2015

What's Up Doc?


Most people know my daughter is an aspiring actress, so nobody was too surprised when we set off to Cornwall to do a bit of filming on Doc Martin.  Neither Eleanor nor I have ever been to Cornwall, so we were doubly excited to make the journey.
          ‘How long will it take?’ asked Eleanor as I programmed the sat-nav.
          ‘It says here…four hours and thirty minutes.’
          ‘Okay.’  Eleanor looked thoughtful as she leant back in her seat.  ‘So, allowing for fourteen million wee stops combined with your driving speed, we’re looking at…what?  Six hours?’
          ‘Probably.’
          In fact it took six-and-a-half hours.  We were distracted by bladders that refused to synchronise and mesmerising constantly shifting scenery.  It was so good to leave behind a town and soak up a landscape of greens and yellows.  Like a vast tablecloth, huge swathes of fields embroidered with miles of hedgerow were spread before us.  Flowering rapeseed swayed next to freshly tilled acres.  Herds of cows grazed in fields adjacent to sheep nursing tiny lambs.  Not a towering office block or electric pylon blotted the landscape.  Oh, tell a lie, there was the odd field full of wind turbines.  Can’t have it all I suppose.
          ‘Just look at all this.’ I took one hand off the steering wheel and gestured at God’s countryside.  ‘I can almost feel the energy coming off the land.’
          ‘I can certainly smell it,’ said Eleanor, nodding at a pig farm to our left.
          ‘Oooh, look at all those lovely fat piggies rootling around in the bare earth and wagging their curly tails.  How can anybody bear to eat animals?’  Sorry, but every now and again the vegetarian in me rears up.
          ‘They are cute,’ Eleanor admitted. ‘But they do taste rather scrumptious slapped between two slices of bread.’  Every now and again the carnivore in my daughter rears up.
          When we came across a sign saying Exeter 165 miles I began to fidget in anticipation.
          ‘We’ve broken the back of this journey,’ I declared.
          Watching the sign for Exeter slowly reduce every twenty minutes became a fixation.  Well there’s not much else to do when you’re staring endlessly at a road.  By the time we sped past Welcome to Cornwall, I was in my element.
          ‘What a place!’
          ‘Isn’t it pretty!’
          We were enthralled.  Not so thrilling, were the roads.  They went up hill and down dale and twisted like a writhing snake.  Incredulously all the roads seemed to be set at the National Speed Limit.  A glance in my rearview mirror revealed a stream of traffic unimpressed with me driving at fifty miles per hour.  It was at this point that the journey became something of a white-knuckle ride.  I dared to edge up to sixty miles per hour (I’m no Lewis Hamilton) and hunched over the wheel.  Eleanor gripped the sides of her seat.  Together we leant into bends and willed my car to do the same.  It didn’t.
          ‘Mum, I can’t take any more of this.  Slow down.’
          ‘You’re right,’ I said, zipping into a handy layby ahead.
          ‘What are you doing?’ asked Eleanor.
          ‘Letting this lot pass.’
          ‘And now what are you doing?’
          ‘Chasing the buggers,’ I declared, accelerating after them.  Oh yes.  If you can’t beat them, join them.
          ‘Are you sure about this?’
          As the speedometer reached seventy miles per hour and the car wallowed around yet another sharp bend, I had to admit defeat.
          ‘I can’t keep up with them.’
          ‘Thank the Lord for that,’ sighed Eleanor.
          ‘The drivers down here are lunatics,’ I declared.
          ‘OH MY GOD!’ Eleanor shrieked.
          ‘What is it?’ I gasped, anxiously scouring the road for mad Cornish drivers and wild animals (we’d already passed a small deer with all four feet up in the air).
          ‘I HAVEN’T PACKED MY EYEBROW PENCIL.’
          Before I go any further with this story, I’d just like to point out that Eleanor is seventeen.  Eyebrow pencils at this tender age are a matter of life and death.
          ‘Do you want to borrow mine?’
          ‘But you don’t possess an eyebrow pencil!’
          ‘Well, no, it’s an eyeliner crayon.  But can’t that double up?’
          ‘Of course not! No offence, Mum, but you and make-up are, well, a bit slap dash.  And I’m not.’
          Tell me about it.  My make-up routine is ten minutes max, whereas my daughter’s is, at best, half an hour on a ‘looking natural’ day.  After all, this is a young woman who follows Zoella, the holy grail of make-up blogs, and never misses a new product being demonstrated.
          ‘I must buy an eyebrow pencil before tomorrow morning,’ said Eleanor.
          ‘Okay.’
          We were heading towards Port Isaac now, rocking along country lanes no wider than the car, surrounded by umpteen mooing cows, hundreds of bleating sheep and a very occasional outbuilding.  As the sat-nav led us into the grounds of our remote hotel, we both gasped with delight.  Fields continued to gently fold out either side of us but, straight ahead was a turquoise sea.  It curled around the coastline glittering with a million diamonds under the early evening sun.
          Eleanor was the first to recover from this glorious spectacle.  ‘Do you think there’s a Boots around here?’
          I would have blinked at her in surprise, but by this point I’d been staring at the road for so long and hard, my eyes had lost the ability to do anything other than remain wide open.
          We took our suitcases and trudged into the hotel.  And what a hotel!  Old elegance mixed with lashings of contemporary modernisation.  Dinner was superb.  We ate in the conservatory overlooking the same twinkling sea.  A low sun hovered on the horizon displaying colours of burnt orange and streaks of peach melba.
          Our bedroom was in a huge attic room with a picture window framing the coastline.  From this viewpoint we could also see the farm where the Doc Martin production team kicked off every morning.
          Suffice to say the filming was very interesting and the people absolutely lovely, including Martin Clunes who (not being a telly watcher) I could only remember from Men Behaving Badly.  What a lovely, lovely guy.  So patient and obliging, letting anybody and everybody be photographed with him.
          Two days later we had to drive to pretty Falmouth where Eleanor did a day’s filming with a German crew.  Oh how different they were from the Brits.  Aloof, unfriendly and egos the size of a house.  At least the scenery was lovely to make up for it.  The filming took place by the harbour with hundreds of boats bobbing in the background of the camera lens.  And action! A sixty-year-old woman with three facelifts and playing the part of a thirty-year-old berated her thirty-year-old lover for cheating on her with an older woman.  Cue older woman, who was all of twenty-five, rushing over to thirty-year-old lover and doing the sort of cheesy clinch that was all too reminiscent of Dallas.
          ‘And cut,’ said the director.  Or words to that effect.  They were German after all.  Whereupon the leading man and his ‘lover’ continued to snog.  Ooh-er.  Chemistry or what.
          I felt sad to leave Cornwall.  I’d talked to so many people – holidaymakers, film crew, actors, extras – and patted and cuddled so many dogs too, that departure was comparable to saying good-bye to a huge group of extended family.  It’s a magical place.  Go there and see for yourself.  Which reminds me.
          What is the Cornish seaside’s favourite brand of laundry detergent?  Tide… 

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Wonderful Woodstock


Having spent the last two months charging up and down motorways taking my daughter to various drama schools and universities for entry into higher education this autumn, one of our recent treks was to The Oxford School of Drama.  I left my daughter there and, as I had eight hours to kill, went off to explore nearby Woodstock. What a wonderful place!
          British weather in springtime can be a bit iffy, and at nine in the morning the sun hadn’t quite decided what it was doing.  Discovering a rare parking space, I locked up and set off on foot to find a post office – not because Woodstock’s post office is a tourist hot spot, simply because I had a parcel to post.  However, what Woodstock’s post office is extremely good for is a spot of eavesdropping.  Now if you’re anything like me, you’ll love a bit of gossip.  It doesn’t matter if it’s gossip with your best mate, gossip with your neighbour, gossip with your sister, or gossip with a total stranger.  It’s all eighteen-carat-gold gossip.  And Woodstock Post Office was abuzz.
          I ducked through the low door and went inside.  There was a sizeable queue of blue-rinsed ladies jostling for space while two women behind counters struggled to cope with Pension Day.  I say struggle, but it was nothing to do with irate old folk.  No, it was because the lady behind Counter One was having a bad day.  She’d caught her husband out.  He was having an affair.  And she didn’t care who knew it.  The lady’s woes were being relayed, top volume, to the lady behind Counter Two.  Naturally it is difficult to concentrate on counting out pension money when telling your colleague what you’d like to do to (a) your husband’s mistress and (b) your husband’s private parts.  Likewise it’s difficult to concentrate on counting out pension money when listening to your colleague telling you about (a) her husband’s mistress and (b) her husband’s private parts.
          In front of me were two old dears gossiping to each other about the gossip going on behind Counter One and Counter Two.
          ‘Poor Jenny. Looks like her Bernard’s been at it again.’
          ‘Oh dear.  But you have to admit, her Bernard is a bit of all right.’
          ‘Do you think?’
          ‘Aye.  Reminds me of Poldark.’
          ‘Oooh, Poldark.  He’s smashing, he is.  What’s his name?’
          ‘Poldark.’
          ‘No, I meant his real name.’
          ‘It’s…um…it’ll come to me in a minute…it’s…Captain Poldark.’
          ‘That’s it.’
          ‘I’ll let you into a secret, Phyllis,’ said the first pensioner, sucking on her dentures and looking furtively from left to right. ‘Captain Poldark can come and mow my lawn anytime he likes.’
          So there you have it.  Female pensioners in Woodstock are desperate for gardeners with brooding good looks and a big lawnmower.
          When I finally made it out of there, I moved on to exploring the shops.  Now this is Woodstock, not London, so the main street consisted of one ‘designer’ boutique with dresses that weren’t so much avant garde as ’aven’t-a-clue.  For there, in the window, in all its brazen glory, was a brown linen pinafore dress that looked like something I’d made from the sewing lessons of my schooldays. It was only the price tag that begged to differ.  Further on were several antique shops (the pinafore dress might have been more at home in them), four charity shops and a pub that looked like it had upped and come.  I started with the charity shops.  There is something about browsing tat and the possibility of picking up a bargain that is quite addictive.  My bargain on this occasion was Miranda Hart’s book, Is It Just Me?  As somebody who has many Miranda Hart moments in real life, I adore the woman.
          It was at that precise moment the weather changed.  Grey clouds gathered and the heavens opened.  So I set off to the pub with Miranda.  We had a pot of tea and a piece of cake together and, an hour later, decided to have an early lunch.  It was at this point I once again found myself listening to Woodstock gossip.
          Sitting on the table next to mine were two women having a ‘working lunch’.  Within seconds it became apparent the first woman, a heavily made-up blonde, was getting married for the fourth time, and the second woman, a satisfied looking brunette, was a wedding dress designer.  Demand after demand was being made from the blonde.
          ‘It has to be pretty,’ she insisted, ‘but also classic.  And you’ve absolutely got to come up with a design that flattens my tummy.’
          ‘No problem.  Now have you given some thought to accessories?’
          ‘Yes, leave that bit to me.  I’m going to pop over to New York for a darling little handbag I’ve seen.’
          Now anybody who can sit in Woodstock and talk about popping over to New York as if it were just down the road, is clearly not your average bride.  My ears went into full wiggle-mode.
          ‘And how is Steve dealing with the news of your marriage?’
          ‘Oh, Steve,’ the bride-to-be rolled her eyes and made a tutting sound. ‘Like all exes, he’s beyond jealous.’
          ‘Is he coming to the wedding?’
          I nearly choked on a carrot.  What bride invites the ex to her nuptials?
          ‘No, he’s declined.  Apparently he has a long-standing appointment with a chiropodist to get a verruca removed.’
          I stared at a potato with a black root sticking out, and decided to skip that bit of my dinner.
          ‘And has your husband-to-be decided what he’s wearing?’
          I’ll decide what he’s wearing,’ said the blonde firmly.  ‘I want his wedding shirt to have a pearl insignia around the collar.’
          ‘Very nice,’ murmured the designer.
          If I’d insisted upon my husband wearing a shirt covered in pearls he’d have walked in the opposite direction.
          ‘I think when all is said and done, it will be a beautiful day,’ said the blonde.  ‘After all, not many brides have a pagan wedding in Iceland.’
          I presumed she wasn’t talking about the British chain of frozen food stores.  It was at this point that I noticed the sun had come out.  It was time to take my leave.  So Miranda and I set off, ducked down cobbled streets, skipped past twee historical houses, and quite by accident came across Blenheim Palace.  Home to the twelfth Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, a wonderful afternoon was had exploring this monumental country house.  And as for the gossip in their tea room…well let’s just say I gathered some superb future novel fodder.  Which reminds me.
          A lot of ladies used to sit together every evening in their local park and talk non-stop.  One day they were sitting together very, very quietly.  A gentleman – who walked past the noisy group every day – was surprised to see them sitting so quietly.  He enquired about this, to which one lady replied, ‘Well today we’re all present.  So we don’t know who to gossip about…’