The Unlikely Gardener

We have had a terribly British weekend. In true British style we planned our weekend around the atrocious weather forecast (then dutifully moaned when the forecasters were wrong and we actually had some sun). Not to be beaten, we carried on with said aforementioned plan and cleaned and tidied the house, worked on the van (more about that separately – that’s a long overdue post), and last but not least, some gardening.

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Now, Sam and I are not gardeners. We take very little pleasure out of it, with the only joy being that it all looks pretty at the end of the day. To get on and do it though, we really have to psych ourselves up.

However, not withstanding my long-held aversion to flowers and foliage, I’ve always wanted to grow my own vegetables. I have visions of being like Felicity Kendall in The Good Life, though if the last six weeks are anything to go by, I’ll probably be more like Joanna Lumley in Ab Fab. It turns out vegetable growing is actually quite hard.

Winding back six weeks, I excitedly bought a propigator to go in my potting shed. I knew that I didn’t want to grow any weird and wonderful vegetables, just wholesome vegetables that we use in our daily cooking. So I set about planting seeds to grow tomatoes, onions, peppers, chillies, peas, courgettes and aubergines.

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The peas grew really well, as did the courgettes, though the tomatoes were a little slower to take. Two weeks later we were going to Chicago for a fortnight, so I took

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the peas and courgettes (then only seedlings) out of the potting shed and planted them into my veg bed so that at least they would get some rain whilst we were away. I also decided to sow lettuce and carrots as it was the right time of year.

I will skip over the sorry tale about the remaining plants in my potting shed; a certain mother in-law neglected to water them often so they had keeled over by the time they saw my watering can again. I thought I could salvage a couple of tomato plants, but it didn’t work out.

Anyway, since we’ve been back from Chicago I’ve been monitoring the veg bed. The peas are starting to wind their way up the stakes, though I couldn’t for the life of me recognise the courgette plants from the weeds. Today I had a really good stab at de-weeding the bed – I hope the three plants that are in a line and have similar leaves are the courgettes! To be fair, the small weeds are not so much the problem, it was the whacking great 2-footers that I was amazed by. How come my vegetables don’t grow two feet but weeds can?! More worried that I had planted some weird lettuce hybrid, I consulted my parents for advice as they grow copious amounts of veg themselves. From a brilliantly blurred WhatsApp picture they confirmed the plant was in fact a weed.

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BUT THEY WERE WRONG. Today, whilst raking over my soil and making it ‘aerated’, my little fork got stuck in something at the root of the weeds. It turns out the weeds were potato plants and I had just skewered a medium-sized new potato!

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I dug around a bit more and couldn’t find anymore in that area, but then came across a few more stalks at the back with mini potatoes at the roots. I was so happy; potatoes were next on my list! I realised the potatoes couldn’t stay where they were as they would disrupt my lettuce and peas, so I’ve transplanted them into my second veg bed where I pray and hope they prosper and produce many potatoes. Fingers crossed!

I’ve also taken the opportunity this bank holiday to sow a few more lettuces, and get started again in the potting shed with more tomatoes, peppers, chillies and onions. Better luck second time round, eh? I have no more holidays planned, needless to say.

Anyway, if you want to take anything away from this post, here are a few tips (which I can by no means guarantee will work):
1. Wait for the potato plants to grow to c. 2 feet tall, flower and wilt and then your potatoes will be ready to harvest.

2. Use 6-foot canes for your peas; 3 foot ones will be overcome in no time at all and you will damage the roots forcing another cane in, even if it is in the same hole as the shorter ones.

3. Plant your carrots in rows/troughs, not individual holes. Even I can’t mistake a green carrot top for a weed.

4. Tomatoes and chillies like it hot, so get a heated propigator if you can (I don’t, so it takes much longer).

5. Get someone to water your plants if you are away for more than 3 days; and make sure it isn’t your mother in-law.

NB. I didn’t mean to write this post in such a sarcastic tone, but I am British and I am also too lazy to go back and re-write it.

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Converting our van – the hard part

The last few weeks have been a bit of whirlwind and things I’ve wanted to blog about I haven’t got round to doing. And then I realised that I haven’t written at all about our van and we have carried out so much work to it!

We bought the van in April and in just two short months it has gone from this…

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To this!

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Ignore the tape – the adhesive was drying!

From the beginning we have always wanted to do the work ourselves, and desperately wanted to avoid using standard VW conversion flat-packs. The one important thing for us was to optimise the use of space; I’m 5’10” and Sam is 6’3” and we didn’t want to feel over-sized as if we were sitting on/using children’s furniture! Pinterest has been a vital tool in our van conversion box. It is honestly amazing the amount of ideas you can get from that lil social platform, whether its space-saving tricks or different layout designs, it has it all. Plus a load of dreamy pictures of people on the road (us one day!)

I thought it might be helpful for those of you thinking of/in the process of converting a van if I broke down each step we have taken to get the van to the condition it is currently in.

Ripping it out

For those of you who have bought a van with an empty rear – great! For those of us that didn’t, there’s a two-day job in getting the back stripped out. For us, we had to remove the ply sideboards and floor, get rid of old and really worn glues and adhesives and take out the metal bulkhead separating it from the front cab. Once you’ve got down to the exposed metal, its time for the deep-clean. A bit of washing up liquid or car cleaner mixed with water works well on the inside, but be careful of any wires, plus the break-lights at the rear. FYI, even if your van doesn’t look like it needs a wash, it needs a wash.

Windows

Our van was a hard-grafter during its working life and had no windows in the back at all. When you are thinking about how you want to use the space, you really do need to take into account the amount of light. Some people only have windows in the sides at the back (whether that’s the front-section or all the way along the sides), but we have opted for windows in our barn doors too. Sam was a bit unsure about this as its not particularly common, but we are so glad we did it as it makes the space feel larger and like you are part of your surroundings when in the van.

Cutting the windows in is no mean feat, so if you are hopeless with anything technical then get a professional. I am terribly lucky in that Sam is an engineer and most at home with using power tools – one of the drawers in his garage is actually marked aggressive tools which basically means I should not go in there or I will hurt myself! We ordered the glass for the sides and back from CamperGlass, which is slightly tinted and offers some privacy. Because I am hopeless at explaining how he did it and with what, we filmed a video that you might find useful:

Insulation

Some people really go to town with their insulation, stuffing every tiny hole and using boards too. We took a ‘moderate’ approach and stuffed the walls and wheel arches, and then lined it with aluminium insulation roll and tape. We did the roof, and partially covered the floor too. This part can take quite long – its mainly sealing it all off with the tape that’s time consuming but stick with it.

Carpet

Once you’re insulated, its time to carpet! I will say from the beginning that this was a job neither of us looked forward to. The carpet is semi-stretchy and quite forgiving, but we had to watch several YouTube videos to understand how people were able to carpet an entire side of a van in one go. Once you’ve done one side though, it does make the rest easier. I do have a top tip: hold the carpet higher on the ceiling so you have equal amounts draping over the ceiling and the floor. As you start to glue it to the van, the massaging movements to get it into every nook and cranny can cause the carpet to start to fall, even though I was holding it as high as I could into the roof whilst Sam pushed it into the side of the van. You will need to use spray adhesive, and coat both the van and the carpet in it otherwise it will not stick that well.

We carpeted both sides of the van, the sliding door and the barn doors. So many people warned us against carpeting the doors, and especially up to the seal of the doors in case water leaks in, but we worked out a way round that. We have carpeted up to near-ish the seals, leaving a small 1cm gap. We made sure the cut in the carpet was straight and even so that it lines up nicely on the door. We have just bought a black strip seal, thinner than the one on the body of the van, which we will use to line the door. You can’t see the thin seal from the inside and it doesn’t prevent leaks either.

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We opted for a light cream/grey carpet as we want an airy feeling in the van. The most common (and maybe cheaper?) colour is dark charcoal grey but we didn’t fancy that. The marl white/grey is lovely, and its good quality.

Floor

Once the carpet was in we re-laid the ply floor (ours came with the van and was cut to fit). We then laid the flooring which we got from B&Q. It’s a wood-effect vinyl flooring but sticks down rather than being slotted together. Its so easy and also very durable and won’t move at all. I’m quite impressed with its quality as I am usually a stickler for using proper timber/untreated wood not laminate. So there you go!

Next steps

Now that the inside is as ready as it can be, we can start to build the bed and cabinets. Sam has just bought the wood from B&Q (costing £180) and will hopefully be hammering it all together in the next couple of weeks. We are going to be building the cabinets from cheaper ply, and then the work surfaces and doors will be made from old floor boards we already have to give it a sort of rustic look.

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The bed will go down the far side of the van opposite the sliding door. It will be a galley sofa essentially, and the bottom will slide out to form the double bed. We can then store the bedding underneath it during the day.

Best buys

It is so easy to spend a fortune when converting your van, but by doing most of the things ourselves we have saved so much money. Our friend has a van and has bought all the kits for it – he estimated he will have spent £11k plus the cost of purchasing the van by the time its done. Ours is on track to come in at £3k 🙂 Far more palatable!

Think about what is important to you and what you are like to use most, as well as how often you are likely to use the van. Its easy to spend £60 on a tap but ours is self-pumping (one push!) and that was £16. Instead of a £450 fridge we have an electric cool-box – same capacity for only £50 plus we can take it out for the day if we are going for a picnic. Savings can be made if you look into all of the options. I’ll post about these items and more once we have made some progress with the interior build.

Around & about in Illinois

As promised, I thought I’d do a quick post about a few of the things you can do if you’re willing to venture outside of Chicago. Chicago is a beautiful city, but there’s so much you can do out in the countryside! So here’s a few things to do if you have access to a car and a few dollars (for the toll!)

Starved Rock State Park
Located approximately 2 hours south/west of Chicago, Starved Rock is an excellent place to go hiking.The area acquired its name after some native Indians were said to have been driven up the rock and starved to death. Not a pretty tale, but truly a pretty place. The Park has approximately 18 canyons from memory, some of which you view from above and some of which you can clamber up and along and see the waterfall in its mouth. There are also some incredible views from atop Starved Rock itself, as well as its sister outcrop, Lover’s Leap. There’s a circular route around the Park which takes around 2 hours to walk, though the more adventurous have plenty of opportunities to branch off or do longer walks along the river. The second best part? It’s completely free to enter!

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Indiana Dunes
As the name would suggest, Indiana Dunes is situated in Indiana, not Illinois. However, given Chicago is only c.30 minutes inside of the Illinois border from the south, Indiana Dunes is extremely accessible. It takes about 1 ½ hours to reach by car, but is a lovely escape away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The Dunes comprises of 3 very large sand dunes, forested areas, marsh land and a long stretch of sandy beach, making it an ideal all-day destination. You can hike up and over the Dunes, the largest of which stands at nearly 200 feet tall. We accidentally did the circular route backwards, but were glad in the end as it meant we didn’t have to climb an incredibly steep hill at the beginning! Bring trainers, but you will end up with more sand then feet in them! But then you can say you have done the 3 Dunes Challenge! Then you can take a wonder through the forest on the way back to a relaxing afternoon at the beach. Be warned though, it’s $14 dollars entry per car (or $7 if you are an Indiana resident).

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Lake Geneva
An hour ½ north west of Chicago, Lake Geneva is commonly referred to as Chicago’s playground. The lake itself is very large – it’s a 20 mile trip around its edge – and a beautiful place to come on a sumer’s day. You can enjoy various boat trips and tours as well as renting sail boats. There is a small beach to the south and a handful of shops and restaurants and overall it very much has that holiday feeling. You can walk around the entire lake on the Lake Trail, though this does go through the back garden of many (posh) houses fronting the lake, so don’t wander off the path onto private properties.

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Further afield
If you have a bit more time , you could venture further north to Milwaukee, and on to Green Bay. Take a picnic and enjoy the countryside!

Illinois is a lovely state, flat as far as the eye can see with large parts of it put to agricultural use outside of the city. It has a calm, more reserved vibe to it compared with Winsconsin which is a bit more rough and ready in my opinion (I like that though).

Hope this is useful if any of you happen to visit!

Chicago: what, how and when

I haven’t blogged as often as I have wanted to these last few weeks, mainly due to time pressures and worries at work (that literally made me cry, no joke). Thankfully, we had a break to Chicago planned and it frankly could not have come at a better time. Sam and I were both exhausted so a little time out was really needed.

My brother lives in Chicago so I guess you can say that we’re pretty good at getting around; hopping on and off the metro and using buses, etc, is second nature. We’ve taken in all the sights this trip, but for those of you who aren’t au fait with Chicago and are thinking of visiting (it’s well worth it), then read on for my simple guide on what to see and how to get there.

Downtown Chicago
Famous for its skyline, shopping and sprawling parks, downtown Chicago is really the place to be. The metro system has a circle of stops known as The Loop, though the distances are definitely walkable.

There are a number of key sights to take in downtown. The John Hancock Centre is the second tallest building in Chicago and worth a trip up to the 97th floor. It has stunning views across the whole of Chicago and, being near the lake, takes in Navy Pier and Lake Michigan too. It costs $19 per person plus tax. The Willis Tower is the tallest building in Chicago and it does have a glass floor (for those keen on a selfie or two), but it’s away from the lake and close to the river and doesn’t have such impressive views.

From the John Hancock Centre you can really take your pick of activities as the city is walkable, (though do stop by the Cheesecake Factory at the foot of the building because it is literally the best cheesecake I’ve ever had). My suggested route would be to walk east a few blocks to the lake, stop for a bite of lunch on Navy Pier and then do an afternoon river boat cruise. The cruise goes up the river and takes in Chicagos’s architectural buildings and is quite informative and enjoyable, though it does cost $39 each (plus tax!)

If you head a few blocks further south you’ll get to Millenium Park, home to The Bean. The Bean is a famous metal sculpture which reflects the skyline of Chicago and is a must-do for a every first-time visitor.

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Depending on what time of day you visit, I would recommend that you stroll through the rest of the gardens at Millenium Park and take in the visual fountains before heading across the road to the Athletic Association and up to Cindy’s bar. This bar is great late afternoon on a summer’s day – and you don’t have to be dressed up, don’t worry, it’s suitable for all forms of attire including walking shoes. Prices are not high and you’ll thank me when you enjoy a cocktail overlooking the park and the lake.

Further south
Heading a bit further downtown you’ll reach Grant Park which features the huge Buckingham Fountain. If you’re visiting in early May, like we did this year, they hold a cute fete in the early afternoon with a countdown to the turn on of the water. The fountain marks the beginning of the summer season in Chicago, when there are loads of music and food festivals to enjoy.

From Grant Park walk west a couple of blocks to the Washington Library. It is an impressively large red brick building with some lovely arty ceilings inside.

If you fancy venturing south even more, get on the green metro line and hop off after Roosevelt in order to visit the Clarke House. This is the oldest house in Chicago and survived the fire that ravaged most of the city. Tours are free and take place twice a day a couple of times a week, so check before you go in case it is closed.

Whether you are staying in the north or south, I would recommend that you take a walk along State Street and Michigan Avenue for a little shopping! State street is best for footwear – there are literally a dozen different shoe shops in only two blocks near the Lake metro stop. Michigan Avenue is home to the Magnificent Mile row of shops, some on the more expensive luxury side.

Near North
There is not as much to do in the north of the city, though the roads are wide and lined with pretty houses so worth a walk about. We get off at Fullerton metro stop on the red line and walk east several blocks to Lincoln Park and the conservatory. Both are free to enter and from the south of the park there is a wonderful view across to the skyscrapers of downtown. The zoo houses a polar bear, which I don’t much like as he is often agitated and is in far too small an enclosure really.

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Whilst in Chicago you MUST take in a baseball game, even if you don’t understand the rules (we literally had no idea what was going on or who was winning when we went). The Chicago Cubs are based at Wrigley Field, at the Addison metro station (red line), whilst the White Sox are based down in the far south. You can get cheap seats only a couple of days in advance so don’t worry about booking ahead.

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Heading further north from Addison takes you to Evanston. This is a lovely part of the city and where we stay when with my brother. The university is worth a walk around, especially to see the hand-painted rocks along the lake shore.

Getting around
Getting around Chicago is easiest by metro and by foot. The metro is a mix of over and underground trains by CTA. It costs $2.50 for one journey, and an extra 25c if you travel twice more (called ‘transfers’) in a 2-hour window. The blocks in Chicago aren’t ridiculously big like in other American cities, so it is definitely worth walking as much as you can to see everything. To give you an idea, we walked from Grant Park in the south of downtown to the John Hancock Centre in the north of downtown and got on the metro at Clarke/Division and that took only 2 hours including photo stops and and some leisurely shopping. Though do wear trainers as I didn’t half moan in my beat-up Vans!

If your feet hurt too much you could rent a bike – a Divvy bike. It’s blue and you’ll find docking stations all around the city. I haven’t used one, but I think they are $3 for 30 minutes or $9 dollars a day, but don’t quote me on that!

I hope this has helped some of you decide whether or not you want to visit Chicago and some possible routes across the city. If you want more specific tips or road markings, comment below and I’ll happily help you out.

We’re heading out of town the next few days so I’ll probably do another post shortly about things to do in the surrounding area. Though I will say one thing, Americans love a toll road!!

My dressing room(!) – project #2

Having recently moved from a 2-bedroom house to a 4-bedroom house, our priority was to ensure that we had as much storage space as possible from the get-go, so that we didn’t waste time and money having to sort things out further down the line.

I was getting quite frustrated with our storage solutions in our previous home; under-bed boxes for gym clothes, jeans and holiday wear, work wear rammed in with other dresses and coats in the wardrobe and a full to bursting chest of drawers with everything else. I felt I wasn’t using half of my things simply because I had to delve in/move boxes around/upend the entire room to get to something. So when we bought our current house I decided it was only fair that if Sam got a double garage that I should have the 4th bedroom as ‘my’ room. And my dressing room was born!

We could have got a pre-fab kit or got a company out to measure up, but we like to do things ourselves and get stuck in. I say ‘we’, Sam did most if not all of the work. I just ordered a chest of drawers and made it look pretty.

The first step was to rip up the floor (some old pink carpet) and lay down laminate wood flooring. It turned out to be pretty easy as the length of the room was exactly as long as two floor boards. Plus this made it really quick for Sam to cut, so the whole room was laid in 3 hours.

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After the floor was down work began on the wardrobe itself. We spent over 2 hours in B&Q buying timber and paint (though they do cut the timber to size for you so that saved Sam even more time).

I should say, probably quite obviously, that we had already designed the layout of the wardrobe and Sam had measured each section of it to within an inch of its life so we knew exactly how much we needed of each item.

I thought it best to have a bottom board to give the wardrobe more stability and also so that it would look more like a wardrobe as opposed to seeing the grey floor at the bottom of it. It worked quite well and has made it look more like a unit and a bit more professional.

Sam began work straight away once we got home, and within a couple of hours it was already mostly together.

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He finished it off the following day by putting the ‘roof’ on it and securing each joint with a corner clip before painting it.


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Though getting into the bottom boxes to paint is not easy when you’re 6’4″!

He’s pretty proud of his work though (as am I):

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And here it is in all of its finished glory:

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The wardrobe will be covered by a curtain (we’ve just attached the curtain rail), though I need to choose some material for it. I’m thinking mostly white with a grey print of some kind – perhaps a geometric print. I’m not sure though, its something I’ll only be able to decide once I see the fabric in person. The window will have a simple white-ish roman blind on it.

I’m in love with the room! I can’t believe how much the wardrobe holds. And the best part is its all built to our height and the lengths of my clothes. Sam has done a truly wonderful job; not just a pretty face is he! ❤

We’ve joined the #vanlife club!

So I’ve been a bit tied up for a few weeks and haven’t been able to post what I’d wanted to. Work has really got in the way; I don’t usually stress much but there was this one client where I worried so much I didn’t sleep for a fortnight.

Anyway, that’s mostly over now and work is back to ticking along as best it can. Alongside that we’ve been busy round the house (I will totally have to share my new dressing room that Sam built for me – everyone is envious!)

And then this happened 2 days ago:

WE ARE NOW THE PROUD OWNERS OF A VW T5 CAMPER VAN!

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We’ve been talking about converting a van to go travelling in for some time now, well over a year. But vans are so expensive never mind customising them so I honestly thought it was a pipe-dream.

Anyway, on Thursday evening Sam received a message from a friend with this van listing so he drove straight there to look at it. I was a bit sceptical simply because there is so much round the house we need the money for, but I trust Sam’s judgement; he’s an engineer and we have a classic mini so any work that needed doing to the van would have to be done by him.

I was on the train home at the time and only had one screen-shot message to look at, and the van admittedly did seem ok. A few minutes later Sam called me, which was when I knew it was serious:

Sam: I’m seeing the van.

Me: Yes, I got your message. What its like?

Sam: Well, good. I want to buy it.

Me: *rolls eyes* bear in mind we still have a lot of work to do round the house and its my 30th birthday in a few months and we need to save for having children (we found out they are waaaaaaay expensive apparently!)

Sam: Its in really good nick and runs fine. There’s a few bits that need sorting, but its good. And for the price we can’t go wrong [that part was damn true].

Me: [explains he will need to sell the mini long-term as we don’t have money for everything]. I’ll leave it up to you. Just bear in mind the work has to be affordable and do-able by you.

Me to mum: I bet he’s going to buy it. I bet we’ll have to traipse up north this evening to go collect it. He’d better sell that mini.

1 hour later. There is a van on our drive.

AND IT IS BRILLIANT! If not slightly more compact than I imagined, but that’s all part of the fun right?20180330_185622

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So… instead of doing things round the house, my pinterest has exploded with #vanlife pins and ideas and I’ve even drawn out a rough lay out, though that’s probably a tad premature right??

I was supposed to be planting my vegetables this weekend so that’s gone right out of the window.

Anyway, I will probably post a bit on here about how we are getting on converting it, and any recommendation will go a long way, so do let me know!

TTFN!

*so excited!*

Project #1 dresser restoration

Pretty soon after we moved in I knew we needed somewhere to store some of our things; from the board games usually reserved to the under stairs cupboard to our wedding crockery. I searched the internet for a dresser, though finding one with glass doors proved quite hard and pretty much doubled the price. I also didn’t want anything too ‘fancy’ and intricate especially one that could be seen as old fashioned.

I’m quite new to the wonders of Facebook market place. We bought our dishwasher second hand from there so it was the first place I thought to look for a dresser. In the end though, a few weeks later, we found this one on Ebay for sale just up the road from us.

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The paint was sprayed on which gave it an odd effect up close, and whilst it looked white it was actually quite yellow. So we set about restoring it.

After dismantling it into sections and removing each shelf, the first step was to sand off the existing coat to give the paint something to ‘grab’ onto.

Then it was the most exciting part! Paint time! Though I have to say, I had not appreciated the amount of sides, inside and out, a dresser has. I’m pretty sure I developed RSI in my hand.

We did the top of the dresser first in Down Pipe Grey; a dark grey paint by Farrow & Ball. It took 3 coats top ensure the right depth of colour but I’m sure on other pieces of furniture 2 coats would be enough.

The cream came after; Winterbourne White by Farrow & Ball. This isn’t too white in colour, its an off-white without having yellow hues.

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The third and last step was to treat the wood. We sanded the surface to lightly remove the varnish before putting 2 washes of mahogany oil on it to bring out the colour.

The overall result is fantastic!

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& here is the before and after to show just how much went into the project:

I think the re-paint has given the dresser a new lease of life and suits our modern but comfortable family home.

The dresser is in the dining room, which we haven’t decorated yet. The floor will eventually be replaced with grey flagstone tiles with a light grey on the walls. Any guess what my favourite colour is?!

Sam & I absolutely love doing things to our home, but most of all we love doing things together. At the moment, we are redecorating my dressing room and Sam is in the process of building me a wardrobe from scratch. I’ll post about that as soon as its done – I’m super excited about it!

Mystery Blogger Award!

Thanks so much to A life of Vanity for this nomination! I’ve not been nominated before so this is quite exciting!

Go check out A Life of Vanity when you can – she posts about her #vanlife experience so if, like me, you’ve ever contemplated doing just that you’ll find her blog invaluable.

So this is how this works:

  1. Put the award logo/image on your blog.
  2. List the rules.
  3. Thank whoever nominated you and provide a link to their blog.
  4. Mention the creator of the award and provide a link as well.
  5. Tell your readers 3 things about yourself.
  6. Answer the questions you were asked.
  7. You have to nominate 10-20 people.
  8. Notify your nominees by commenting on their blog.
  9. Ask your nominees any five questions of your choice, with one weird or funny question.

Special shout out to Okoto Enigma for creating this v cool concept.

3 things about me:

  1. I’d give my right arm to have a dog. The bigger and fluffier the better. I’m that friend that points at every dog going and practically cries about how cute it is: ‘look at him, but just look at him, look at how he wags his tail..!’
  2. I go through periods of growing my hair long and cutting it off. It averages 3 years from between jaw-shoulder length and nearing my waist. I’ve definitely got the itch again, though this time when I cut my hair off I will donate it to a cancer charity who make wigs for young cancer patients.
  3. I’m currently trying to achieve a forearm stand before my 30th birthday. I’ve *tried* to take up yoga recently but its not going amazingly well…

Here are my answers to the questions A Life of Vanity asked me:

  1. What’s your all-time favorite movie? Probably Lord of the Rings – it is no exaggeration to say that I have watched each film in the trilogy in excess of 30 times.
  2. If you could have a shitload of money but a job you hate, or a job you love for v little money, what would you pick? I’m a happy medium which probably doesn’t answer the question! I’d rather be happy, as with happiness comes less anxiety which you wouldn’t get in a high-powered job.
  3. Dogs or cats? DOGS.
  4. Who should be our next president? I’m not American, I’m British. But I would suggest.. someone who isn’t Trump?!
  5. Who was your middle school celebrity crush? Johnny Depp, though looking back I’m not sure why. I think it was his pirate days that attracted me…

Nominees:

Fiercely Me

Little Van Ventures

Lovely 365

Absolut Lilac

The Chubby Mind

Georgia Beth Talks

Café Avec Christine

Catherina’s Creative Corner

The Half Arsed Runner

5 questions for you lucky nominees:

  1. Are you a Marmite lover or a Marmite hater?
  2. Would you prefer a heavy night out clubbing or a cosy night in by the fire?
  3. Which: an actual book or a kindle?
  4. Do you prefer to be behind the camera or in front of it?
  5. If you could have one super power for a day, what would it be?

Thanks for the nomination and I look forward to reading all of your responses!!

The 3 W’s

This is my first time taking part in WWW – a meme revived by Taking on a World of Words. So here goes, my 3 WWW’s!

What are you currently reading?

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey. Its written in a diary form which would usually put me off, but its so captivating! Ivey is quite an artist at describing the turmoil the expeditioners faced traversing Alaska and I’m enjoying every page so far. It’s a bit like a re-imagining of the Scott expedition to the Antarctic, but less like a present-day documentary and more a story of colonization and long distance love. Its beautifully raw.

What did you recently finish reading?

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. It was a brilliant read, but not as good as A Thousand Splendid Suns in my opinion (though many people think the opposite). I would definitely recommend you read both if you haven’t already as they really had an impact on how I view the current conflict in Afghanistan and other parts of the world; a more humane view point that the news is unable to portray.

What do you think you’ll read next?

I’m not sure. I tend to read whatever takes my fancy at the time, but Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey is on my list so I might give that a go. I have no idea what it is about (apart from, maybe, a girl called Elizabeth who goes missing?) so I’ll let you know how I get on with it.

What are you guys reading? Let me know if you have any recommendations!

Creative spurt

Anyone who knows me knows that I often lack imagination and creativity, despite being a dab hand at art and crafts when I get going. Now that we’ve moved into our new home 🙂 I’m so keen to get on and starting making it our own.

Pinterest is a great platform to gain inspiration, and I often find that an idea I initially began with starts to grow and expand into something more pronounced and beautiful than what the confines of my own mind could imagine. For several years now I have had an obsession with pallet wood and all the natural and bohemian-type designs that can flow from working with such a basic, rustic material. Pinterest has truly helped me to develop my little ideas into something that will suit a grown up family home.

My tastes are quite simple: I love wood, plants and grey hues with preference for industrial-type designs that incorporate dark metal over the more ‘twee’ cottage styles. One thing has become quite apparent over the last couple of years, and that is my love of texture, especially when it comes to home furnishings. Thick and chunky and hard-wearing, not fragile and delicate to touch. With this in mind I’ve enrolled the help of my mother to teach me to knit. I’m starting off with medium wool but hope to be able to knit with my arms in the near future; I have visions of a massive chunky bed throw or blankets piled on wooden crates. Wish me luck – my foray into knitting is still in its early stages but its probably fair to say it doesn’t come that naturally to me given the amount of hand-eye co-ordination required!Arm Knitting 5

Having help around the house – not just with my ideas but also on a practical level, is lovely. My parents are very hands on and love to lend a helping hand. Admittedly this is mostly around the garden as neither Sam nor I are particularly green-fingered, but it also extends to painting and helping us lay the flooring in the house too. It is a good bonding exercise but also gets the job done a lot quicker! My mother has always been into interior design so I think I have definitely got the ‘bug’ from her.

DIY has moved on these days. It is not just about wielding a drill and changing a bulb but now includes all aspects of home improvement work. Whilst I could get someone in to lay my wood floor and paint my walls, I enjoy doing it myself. If gives me a sense of pride, and the little knocks and imperfections don’t bother me. I would consider my work to be of a pretty good standard though I am by no means an interior designer or professional painter, etc. Sam is also keen to do as much as possible so we have agreed that he is going to be my builder! Of the non-masonry sense. Sam has basic carpentry skills and has worked with metal since he was a boy, so we are going to make my dining table and benches, as well as a bookcase, over-the-bath unit and toilet roll holders. He’s going to have to get cracking soon as my list is getting quite long…

I plan to share our little creative journey with you and would appreciate any ideas that you guys have too! For now, I will leave you with the following pictures of the type of home we hope to make for ourselves:

 

When only a chicken & mushroom pie will do

The last few weeks have flown by and it’s nice to finally have the opportunity to sit down and reflect. We had what felt like a rushed Christmas and New Year, covering nearly 1,000 miles seeing our various family members across the country. And whilst the festivities were lovely and it was nice not to be at work, our attention was somewhat elsewhere despite the busyiness.

We were let down on our house purchase only a couple of days before Christmas so, naturally, at my work Christmas party I hit the red wine with full force! Our agent advised us that whilst the market is always slow in the winter, there was definitely a downturn – and we could see that ourselves.

I was quite content to move back into rented, confident that we would find somewhere to buy within a few months and then we would be in a really good position as ‘first’ time buyers. Sam was more sceptical and even talked about doing up our house a bit more and staying there for another couple of years. I went along with that briefly, but ultimately had to ‘fess up that I simply didn’t have the heart to empty all of the boxes we had already packed (at that stage, the count was 32).

We arrived at my parents’ home on Christmas Eve and discussed the hells of the house buying process whilst baking mince pies and swigging mulled wine. We had a quick look online and I widened our search to include a village which was literally the furthest I would consider living. The house I had loved several months before was still for sale and both Sam and my mum loved it. We decided to view it over New Year. Since then it’s been 100mph!

We loved the house so much we put an offer on it, which was accepted 🙂 the best part was, as it had previously been rented we were able to move in and break the chain for our amazingly tolerant buyers. We are now renting the house for a month whilst the conveyancing goes through and then we will once again be home owners. But this time, of a much larger family home!

We’ve been here 10 days now and it feels like home, not a house. It’s fair to say I was a bit apprehensive on moving day as it felt like the end of an era and I wondered if we had made the right decision. Once our first little home was empty of our belongings it suddenly didn’t feel like a home, it was back to being a house again. It felt strange suddenly realising that it is not the bricks and mortar that make a home, but the items and memories that fill it.

Our new home is wonderful and I am so glad we made the move. My commute is better and that has made me so much happier; I am able to have an extra half hour in bed and still have a whole hour to get myself ready before having to leave, rather than rush about! I’m planning on using this time constructively in the morning to work on my appearance (I sometimes look like I’ve been dragged through a bush backwards) and to make my lunch.

To top it all off, I decided to make a pie today. It’s my favourite food and the ultimate in making me feel content and warm and squishy. This is the life I’ve always wanted; a home smelling of baked bread and cooking, the radio on in the background whilst I leaf through my bookcase and think about what the next novel should be. I’m sat at our breakfast bar typing this with a mug of earl grey for company and a big grin on my face!image

Part of my happiness is probably down to my cooker; it is a Rangemaster, a brand and type of cooker I’ve always wanted and the sellers are leaving it here for us for free! Life win, right there.

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So if, like me, you like or LOVE pies, here is my chicken and mushroom pie extraordinaire:

You will need:
Knob of butter
Half an onion, chopped
1 garlic clove
300g mushrooms
4 chicken thighs (boneless)
Dried thyme
1 chicken stock cube
200ml water (boiled)
200ml milk
50g flour
3 tbsp single cream

For the pastry you can either buy ready-made short crust (for the base) and puff pastry (for the top) or you can make it yourself. I’m hopeless with puff pastry so I used a ready-made block but it’s definitely worth making the shortcrust yourself if you can:
200g flour
125g butter
1 beaten egg
1 tbsp water

Bake!
1. To make the filling melt the butter in the pan and added the chopped onions and garlic. When golden add the mushrooms. Chop the chicken into small bite sized pieces and add.

 

 


2 Leave to cook, stirring occasionally, Add the thyme and salt and pepper as necessary to season and mix up the stock with the water.
3. Once the chicken is no longer pink, add the flour and slowly add the milk, Then add the stock and stir. You want to keep it on a low heat so that it is only simmering. 4. Add the cream and stir. As soon as the sauce is thick and creamy take it off the heat to cool.image
5. Now for the pastry. First make up the shortcrust base by either rolling out your pre-made dough or by making your own. Mix the flour and butter together with your fingertips until it looks like breadcrumbs. Add the egg and water and scoop up the flour mixture so that it it becomes a doughy ball. Now roll out so that it is just bigger than your pie dish.
6. Place the shortcrust base into the dish then spoon in the filling.
7. Roll out your puff pastry and place on top. If you are very good then you should be able to slip your knife into the outer edge of the puff pastry to loosen it. That will help it to rise and puff!
8. Then brush on some beaten egg round the edges and on top and bake in the oven for c.45minutes at 180-200 degrees.

Et voila!image

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Perfect pie if I do say so myself. I hope you enjoy it

Humanity. To be, humane.

Growing up, I was always quite a sensitive person. Worrying about people’s feelings and keen to ensure that those who were different or vulnerable were given equal treatment and included in activities. My social awareness was very limited at the time, given my age.

But I can distinctly recall that my feelings and thoughts at that time were not of an anti-bullying nature, but a wider sense of wondering why people were being singled out or referred to in a particular way simply because of a particular ‘trait’ (I use this term because the word ‘different’ may get cumbersome and repetitive). I was lucky to go through school without bullying being an issue; the popular kids mixed with the geeks who mixed with the sporty ones. We were an exemplary year group. But kids are not without their faults and many would throw around terms without really thinking about what the word/phrase truly meant and without meaning to be malicious or hurtful in any way. And often the name-calling wasn’t about someone else on the playground, it was a way of referring to other people in society; celebrities, the neighbour, etc. Phrases that I’m sure if I named them many of today’s youngsters would not know what I’m talking about as they probably use different terminology now.

Fast forward 15 or so years and my early to mid twenties were very different. I became quite judgemental – not about the vulnerable but about everyone else. I was still in the process of becoming socially aware and hadn’t quite worked out that people are shaped by their early life and experiences but that environmental factors also play a huge part. I was unduly angry by people who did not want, nor try, to better themselves but thought they were entitled to something automatically. I went through a period of several years wondering how some people had managed to mess up their lives so catastrophically – without having the information to hand to entitle me to even make that judgement about someone else.

The biggest factor in my way of thinking was my emotional detachment. I can’t pinpoint when this happened exactly, but I believe it was in the early years of university. As part of my training, I was exposed to a number of harrowing situations; domestic violence, extreme violence, death, non-accidental injuries to children. Pictures of this kind became ‘normal’. I had to be able to block out my own feelings in order to be able to act and advise objectively.

So I emotionally blocked out everything – to the point where I would see someone at face value only rather than putting myself in their shoes. An elderly person. A young person. The vulnerable. The homeless. To me, there was a reason and thus a cure for everything. You just had to find it.

I’m pleased to say that I have grown up a lot since then, though I think it is less about maturity and more about becoming aware of the world around you and having to actively try to imagine myself in someone else’s place emotionally, rather than it coming so easy like when I was younger.

The last 6 months have been a turning point for me. Whilst I no longer do care work, it has taken a long time for me to switch on my feelings – and it was only then that I realised I had turned them off in the first place. The little things in life have helped me to see that.

In sharp focus at the moment is the treatment of the homeless as a wider social issue. I work in a city which has the most funding developmentally outside of London. I love working here, it is a wonderful city, but it also has one of the worst homelessness problems I have ever witnessed. I see the same three people on my 4-minute walk between the train station and the office. Day in, day out, sun, rain and snow. Being moved on by the police from a doorway and having to roll up their bedding. Being on a street corner but told they ‘can’t’ be there. And that’s when I started to analyse my own behaviour (and of course, that of everyone else).home1

Because we walk by, don’t we? The vast majority do anyway. Pretend he/she isn’t there – not that they don’t exist as a person, but that they are not homeless as we are lead to believe. Keep your head down – if we don’t make eye contact then we won’t feel as bad. Can you hear them ask for some pennies, or a hot drink? Walk on by like you didn’t. Yet, the homeless always thank us anyway, even though we have done nothing to deserve it.

I always think as I’m walking along, ‘oh, maybe I could buy him a hot drink’, or if I was already holding food or drink I would give it to them. But I haven’t. I haven’t even gone out of my way to drop more than a few pennies into a hat.

Why? Homelessness is not an infection. It is a social disease, but not contagious. Are the few pennies/pounds in my pocket going to make me more happy than if I donated them to someone else? Someone who is probably in dire need of them.

I am deeply ashamed.

And in the same vein I am saddened for all those who, like me, can’t see what is in front of them.

I do not know what the long-term answer is. The cure. I don’t even know if there is one. I know that these issues are both due to individual circumstances but also part of a wider political and social issue. I am not educated in these matters. But maybe I don’t need to be. Maybe, what’s important is doing ‘my bit’. Stopping to gift what I can from my purse, offering a drink. Heck – buying a drink in anticipation that I will see that same chap I usually see further down the road.

I would like to think I am a kind person in all areas of my life, but maybe its time for more than that. Kindness is an act, a gesture. Being humane is way of thinking.

Definition: having or showing compassion or benevolence.

Its time for that. Realisation is but the first step.

And its not just the homeless. I need to extend this way of thinking to all areas of my life. Little acts of kindness that can help us go a long way.