The ‘mafia’ mirror

This is another ten pound ebay purchase (if only that was always the upper limit!), sold as a ”handsmade’ Russian mirror over 100 years old’

Russian mirror
Russian mirror

I just had to have it and friends were kind enough to collect it for me. I warned them to take care because the glass was already broken and I explained that the guy had limited English and a strong Eastern European accent and was very hard to pin down over the phone, but they went ahead and arranged a pickup anyway

The mirror is huge, way larger than I had realised, so it took both of them to carry it. I got a call to say that the mirror shifted within its frame on the way to their car and almost dropped out, and at that point the door of the seller’s house was firmly slammed in a ‘your problem now, not ours’ kind of way. We have an in-joke that there may be Eastern European mafia connections as we are unsure whose mirror this actually was or whose house we collected from, and because the guy claimed it belonged to ‘my friend’ a la Borat

back surface of mirror
back of cracked mirror

The first thing we did was to chisel off the bodged wood and plywood backing, which was (clearly) not supporting the weight of the glass. There are no signs of any money or illegal substances stuffed down the back, which is sort of a pity. The glass itself is very heavy with hand painted silvering and it has a nice age. There’s also a lovely deep sinuous bevel which it may not be possible to re-create so we want to keep it despite the huge crack.  I’ll work on the wood frame and we’ve cut cardboard to provide a cushion between the glass and the backing plate. We will try using a windscreen repair kit to stabilise the crack. At least we’ll have a stable template for a new mirror if we really cannot live with the break, but just think what this mirror may have witnessed in its lifetime!

Love in the time of avocado suites

tube-lined tile from Conway Road
tube-lined tile from Conway Road

This is one of my most cherished items. The Edwardian tiled bathroom in our family home fell victim to an avocado bathroom suite in the early 1970s, complete with blue and purple floral vinyl on the walls. Prior to this there were a mixture of highly glazed white and green tiles, and a cast iron bath, installed when the house was built as a show home in 1911. The standout tiles for me then and still now were these colourful tubelined ones just below border level and I was completely fascinated by them. Some of the glazing was crazed, some were chipped or broken and I had my favourites which I used to run my fingers over as I was towelling off. Yet this bathroom was designated for destruction. The chipped and stained bath with its loudly gurgling plumbing was in need of replacement, and we all wanted a bath with a shower rather than the miserable rubbery hose-thing that fit onto the taps. I couldn’t wait to say goodbye to the broken and perished brown lino which disguised the frequent movement of large spiders across the floor, and the single-glazed window with its emergency winter plastic sheeting held in place by drawing pins was by no means warm. The only thing I couldn’t accept as a small child was the loss of all these sumptuous comforting tiles with their stunning colours which I drank in on a daily basis. Life was about to change – the 70s had arrived

When the tiles were removed I begged my parents to save me at least one of them, and I have kept this – the only complete one we salvaged – ever since. I have this tile on display, and as a single tube-lined tile it remains elegant, fluid and organic, a thing of great beauty. As a part of a complete scheme it was hugely stylish and gorgeous

The tile still fascinates and inspires me, and is a design that I haven’t seen since. That bathroom is a constant source of inspiration. It’s not that ours was any more beautiful than anyone else’s bathroom, but it was cosy and homely in a way that bathrooms used to be, with its Lloyd Loom-style linen basket and red spotty curtains. The backlash to the 1970s bathroom suites is the current tasteful trend for clean functional lines and beige tiles. There is nothing wrong with that of course, and I admit that I succumbed to it at home when we replaced our existing 1980s pale pink suite, but our bathroom in France has to be the perfect place to indulge myself with beautiful tiles and a roll top bath. I actually hope it gurgles when it empties!

‘Little bird’ mornings

Saturday was one of those mornings at home when all the little birds were out in force – sparrows, tits and robins – flitting around in the dappled sunlight under the box tree. There must be plenty of seed heads in the garden for them to enjoy, and I was pleased to see that the grass is recovering after the neglect of a busy August, and that this year’s frogs are starting to look for winter hideouts

The chickens have finished the last few blackberries in the front garden. We haven’t eaten many of the berries ourselves, as the girls love them so much and it’s so much fun to watch them indulge in a healthy delicacy. They’ll enjoy some warm mash in the mornings this autumn as the temperature drops

Percy says Relax
Percy says Relax

Percy is happier now that it is not so hot. He picks his way over the pebbles at the pond’s edge to lap up the water, a proper tiger who doesn’t mind getting his feet wet. Charlotte and I watch him when he’s asleep on the sofa, snoring and dreaming, even though it makes us feel slightly stalker-like

The brick shed now has a new window and paintwork, though I still have the rotten door to replace. Baz says the cheerful green gloss on the windowsill (‘Garden’ by Little Green) reminds him of Granny Dale, his maternal great grandma who would from time to time choose to paint everything the same colour, an outrageously loud pink or a bright green like this. I think I would have liked her

Any more dry weekends will be used for mowing and tidying the garden, painting the windowsills and the front door and fixing guttering etc. There’s just nothing better than a borrowed autumn day spent getting the house and garden ready for winter …

Cosmetic reconstruction at 50

In my mind I am still an irresponsible young thing. Sadly, in reality I am an irresponsible middle aged woman, and this is what the rest of the world sees. Sunday was my 50th birthday and Baz says that the house in Quillan was my birthday present (!). It really is the most brilliant timing, purely accidental, to have completed just a week or so ahead of this milestone birthday

The IT people were messing with my computer at work on Friday and there was nothing useful I could do. Some people might book a relaxing birthday facial or manicure, something to make them look great and feel confident for such a grown-up celebration. I went on ebay and found myself a birthday present, this 1930s sunburst cupboard, which I couldn’t resist and which will have a new (and hopefully, exhausting) life as a cocktail cabinet in our snug

A few bottles of Hendricks would look well in this
A few bottles of Hendricks would look well in this

So, is this a mid-life crisis? When I buy things that are older than I am – things that need restoration and repair, the equivalent of reconstructive surgery – am I trying to reassure myself that their age (and therefore mine) doesn’t matter and that it is still worth moisturising and dressing up?  Of course not. I have liked pretty much the same old things since I was a toddler and I’m just indulging myself. And yes, it cost less than a facial!

Formica – it had its place

I promise I will not normally post EVERY day, but this week is an exception.

Quillan is a town haunted by the loss of major industry – and amongst those in recent memory is Formica. Many people remember this particular product with horror, but one local lady is leading a crusade to collate memories of Formica from local people, and she was one of the lovely characters we met this weekend. When I told her that our kitchen table was made of Formica she asked me to send her some jottings, and I was surprised by how happy it made me to remember, and how clearly and easily it all came back. Indulge me:

Late 1960s in Southgate, London. Our kitchen table had a pale red Formica top with white flecks in it. It had a metal trim around the edge with various dents and scratches. We ate all our meals together around it unless we had guests, when we would be in the dining room next door. My mum sat at the end to my left and my place was next to my dad, opposite my brother. It was quite snug. My favourite meal was Sunday lunch, when I would help my mother to make sauces and desserts and she would serve up a plate of meat and dishes of vegetables along with my favourite part – roast potatoes. I was the youngest and I had my own smaller plate and set of cutlery but I had a huge appetite. My dad and I would share the last of the potatoes after everyone else was full and as a ritual after dessert I would sit on his lap, squeezing his arm muscles and practising joke-telling.

It was my favourite time of the week. The table top is etched on my subconscious as clearly as any other element of my childhood. Whenever I see a similar table it takes me back to this time, when I could cuddle up to my father whenever I wanted and when eating a big meal was something to be congratulated.

My dad worked at the London meat market and we would always wait for him to get home before we had dinner during the week. He would bring the cold into the kitchen with him after walking a mile and a half from the station, carrying bacon, lamb or gammon in a cardboard box tied with string for the next night’s meal. As soon as he had taken off his coat and kissed my mum I would call my brother and sister down for dinner and they would thunder down the stairs, starving. After dinner it was my job to clear the plates and push the chairs under the table.

My parents remodelled the house in the early 1970s, my older siblings became teenagers and mealtimes became less rigid. The table may have been used later by my brother in his bedroom, where he dismantled car and motorbike engines at weekends. I think he possibly took it with him when my parents moved away soon after 1980 and we all moved apart. I asked him the other day if he still has the table, but he doesn’t remember what happened to it.

While I realise that discussing the Formica table was only the catalyst for all this, I see how the dinner table was central to our family, and when I picture the colour and finish of the well-worn table top, it also brings back very exact visual pictures of the coloured napkin rings, which my mother still has, and the serviettes we used to have. I can actually feel the atmosphere and the steam in that kitchen, see the ginger tom who often sat at the sash window and our own black cat with her basket in the corner.  I can see the old grey and blue vinyl tiles on the floor, the floor to ceiling white painted units with the (1950s?) pull down sections and the coke-fuelled Aga. It is a sense of well-being and childhood that I rarely think of, and I am grateful for the unexpected meeting that led me to revisit that time

Wine, Weather and Woodworm – 4 nights in Quillan

All 3 of us camping together in one room was the practical solution as none of us knew what to expect from a night in such a large and totally empty old house. Even the slightest noises we made echoed, so we assumed that we would all get fairly spooked during the night. In fact, we were surprised that there was no creaking and no strange sounds at all overnight, other than on Sunday night when some drunken neighbour played his music until 3 am and occasionally added heartfelt vocals

the Jewel Room - chaos
the Jewel Room – chaos

The house definitely has a sunny disposition. Because of this, even the enormous spiders didn’t freak us out. I tried to sweep our bedroom using the broom which was in the hallway, but my heart wasn’t really in it so Baz took over. As he swept the handle snapped off and we saw that it was riddled with woodworm….

Note to self - get a plastic broom
Note to self – get a plastic broom

We slung a line over the stairs for our wet clothes and towels from the swimming pool. Luxury it wasn’t, but there was nowhere else clean enough to put anything, so we felt it was excusable

the courtyard was converted into a slum
the courtyard was converted into a slum

On Saturday we all pitched in and scrubbed the floor of a smaller bedroom and we moved our stuff into there on Sunday so that we could start removing the filthy artificial silk fabric off the walls of the Jewel Room. This took us to a whole new level of grime, as we were engulfed in filth. I was gagging, desperately trying not to vomit. Some of the electrics have been positioned over the fabric so we could only do some of the walls, but clearly there is more wallpaper than plaster underneath. We have found patterns from the 50s and the 30s so far, and it is something of a miracle that the chimney breast had not caught fire at any time, because the entire thing appears to be charred and brittle throughout.

Yes - she's wearing pants as a mask
Yes – she’s wearing pants as a mask
Lumps of plaster fell off, but the jazzy papers remain
Lumps of plaster fell off, but the jazzy papers remain

In other news, the cellar is flooded. Baz and I ventured down the worn stone steps on Saturday morning to trace where the strong ‘damp’ smell was coming from and Voila! – several feet of standing water. It doesn’t seem to be effluent and it can’t have been flooded too long because someone has been in there to replace joists below the ground floor within the last few years.

Now this might all sound a bit doom and gloom, but it’s really not. This was an initial fact-finding mission and were will re-group and return to face up to the problems. The important thing is that Baz and C have now seen the house – and they love it. It’s summer now so they didn’t care about the lack of home comforts or the inches of dust everywhere, just the sun and the atmosphere in the town. And they know, as I do, that this house has a beautiful bone structure – despite the inevitable osteoporosis

Bienvenus et bon camping!

The three of us have just returned from our first visit staying at the house. We owe a huge thank you to G and T who ensured that we had electricity and collected us at Carcassonne. The estate agent promised that water would spring forth (albeit through condemned lead pipes) as soon as we opened the water meter within the garage or just outside the front door. We hunted high and low for this meter, but it was getting late and we chose a room to blow up our camping mattresses, knowing we would have to manage until the next day without. T handed Baz an unopened envelope from the estate agent, which he assumed was the purchase ‘attestation’.
The next morning I opened the envelope and found that it was actually an estimate from the water company (495 euros), for pipe replacement at pavement level. I asked the gentleman in the office next door if he knew where our meter was, just so that we could use the loo etc over the weekend, and he very kindly called his friend at the water company, who knew all about us and explained that the water supply along the entire road had been condemned and closed off some years back and a new supply had been installed in its place in the road at the back of the properties. Because our house had been empty for so long it had not been connected. In other words, I had bought a house with no mains water, despite it being on the main road in the centre of a main town, and the estate agent had apparently just been covering this up! Still, the man from the water company could not have been nicer, he is getting us sorted out, and no doubt we will laugh about this in the years to come.
Anyway, we had a great weekend. We got the front door open, found a public tap, chucked buckets of water down the loo and showed some enthusiastic locals around the house. We were grateful to be 5 minutes walk from the outdoor swimming pool, which meant that we could clean up and bask in the 35 degree sun as well. The people of Quillan made us feel incredibly welcome, coped brilliantly with my rusty French, and reassured me that we have done the right thing. It felt as though every time we opened a window or showed someone round was breathing life back into the poor old house. We even had a visit from our lovely Dorset neighbours, R and E, who made a point of ‘passing by’ on Monday to see our project before we returned to the rain and the boring old functional plumbing of the UK.

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