Autobiographical house-moving tale. Funny but true
|The 'Nearly' White House
Moving to the country and having some land...
Chris- my husband of only two years- and I had talked about it endlessly. We met through some friends in a pub when I was very bristly following a disastrous relationship which ended acrimoniously. I had endured my partner of five years walking out on me one weekend after announcing that he couldn’t do it anymore – whatever that meant - and having watched him systematically removing every vestige of his existence from my house over the course of two days whilst trying very hard not to break down in front of him, had decided that, although living alone was lonely and desperate at times, I was not going to fall into the same trap again. Furthermore I was a professional woman and we don’t do that, so I was being fiercely independent.
Although I had descended into some deep level of depression which made going out very difficult, my friends did not give up on me. Donna and Clare are the oldest teenagers in the village who still do ‘dude’ things on a regular basis. I work with Donna, who always has something acerbic to say about the current trend of the day. They took me surfing in Cornwall for a month in the summer, even stuffing me into a wetsuit to try body boarding at St Ives, camping in the dunes and drinking far too much wine after a day in the sun; the next day doing it all again. Even when we all went back to work they did not give up on me. They dragged me out on a regular basis for a pub meal, including me in any conversation with local farmers who might widen my horizons. This also involved a 90 year old local who regaled me all night about how one castrated ram lambs with huge elastic bands…
Chris was a year-divorced, eating in the pub and lonely. I resisted the advances of this tall, well-built chap with a shock of thick grey hair for as long as possible. He was chatty in the pub, although I was very non-committal. He played naturally with my friend’s children and joked with us all about the ‘three little maids’ from school. The next time we coincided in the pub, little Skye, my three year old matchmaker turned out my handbag on the pub floor. She gave everything I had to anyone in the pub. My lipstick ended up with the landlord, purse and chequebook with the barman. Unbeknown to me, one of my business cards ended up being given to Chris. He pocketed it; Skye did the same with my mobile phone and mirror… I am lucky everyone is so honest, but the thought of the 90 year old farmer trying lip gloss on his lambs as he castrated them has given me some sleepless nights.
The first phone call Chris made was when I, wearing filthy jodhpurs and a muddy fleece, was on my way to another good friend’s house for a horse ride across the Lincolnshire Wolds, which was my way of getting out without having to socialise. My friend, who was also my deputy head and mentor, had a good listening ear and dispensed wisdom from horseback where we had many ‘non-conversations’ which helped me to deal with the pressures of school. So, I was focused on riding and chatting, not trying to put off this chap on the phone…
I was very evasive; according to me I had engagements every night for a month – not.
Hi, it’s Chris – I met you last week in the pub when you were there with your friends.’
‘Well, I wondered whether you would like to meet up for a drink sometime.’
‘I liked talking to you (joke of the year) and would like to see you again.’
‘Go on, it is only a drink.’
‘I can meet you there so that you do not feel trapped.’
‘Err (I was getting repetitive).’
‘I am on my way to ride a very large black horse.’
‘So? Just tell me you will come out for a drink and I will let you go.’
‘Then I have to do loads of work next week as we are marking mock exams’. (Partially true.)
‘Give me a date; I can arrange to be free.’
He persisted until my resistance broke down – when we did finally get together the next week it was as if we had been together for ever. He arrived in a white automatic Mercedes with leather seats; I had deliberately not dressed up too much for him and looked a little as if I was going to school. This appearance hid an hour of fussing about what to wear – the bedroom at home was strewn with sets of clothes that had been rejected in panic, which had to be hung up again after the date. Chris took me to a country pub-come-eatery which was popular for decor rather than quality of the food. There we discovered that we had the same sense of humour; sentences were finished by one for the other, we just clicked, although I was still bristly. The first thing which really broke the ice was our mutual distain over the fancy descriptions of the food. Frenglish was the only term I could put to some of the words used…when the food came it was just…pub food. That first dinner date was supposed to be two hours long; I got to bed at 2 am after we had talked until the restaurant closed with chairs on tables in the usual old movie scenario, then talked over coffee endlessly. Since that day we have been almost inseparable, although Chris is the one who needs me there rather than the other way around… We are an odd match which is sometimes stormy as we are both strong willed, but mostly good as we always make up...
We are both old bikers; he was impressed by my 35 year old 750 cc Suzuki which still needs work to the carburettors but has been a very sound and easy ride for years, I pretended not to be impressed with his Yamaha Dragstar which carries enough chrome to be a show bike but is ridden to work and back on fair days. Although we both grew up with bikes and parents on bikes, both of us now ride only when it is sunny and warm, enough long wet rides have been experienced by both of us to know when to stop for our health and sanity… Chris is nearly as mad as me; impetuous, silly, with a quirky sense of humour and between us we had all the skills needed for ‘doing-up’ somewhere. Life begins at 50. Lucky me, eh?
When we got together, he finally moved into my house after about four months, but due to too much furniture, tools and old memories we decided a new start would be best in a different house so it would be ours, rather than just mine. The garage was rather too full of Chris’s boxes, so somewhere with some space for his hobbies would be good.
We decided that we wanted a house in the nearby Lincolnshire countryside with some land, space to grow our own vegetables and possibly have a few chickens. Perusing the one local paper had little effect other than depress us, as all properties in our price bracket either needed a complete demolition job or were instantly snapped up by those who seemed to have the funds available. But we kept dreaming. In preparation, I had been keeping a few ex-battery chickens in the back garden of my semi-detached house, to the initial horror of my neighbours who soon came around and starting providing greens and scraps whenever we were not looking. The dimensions of the garden were not very generous, although folk in the south would have killed to live on a plot like ours. The original vegetable plot had been grassed over soon after I moved in eight years previously to ease maintenance so removing expensive turf and starting again really did not appeal. Anyhow, what would the neighbours think if we started keeping pigs and sheep in the garden?
They had been sniffy enough about the chickens until they realised that laying hens do not crow. I had enough sense not to acquire a cockerel although I was offered many. I wonder why?
‘Do your chickens eat snails?’
‘I don’t know, but we have none in our garden.’
Snail flying over fence.
Sounds of chickens fighting.
‘Yup, they eat snails.’
Cue regular flights of snails landing on our lawn to meet their end via chicken beak - less sniffy neighbours, no slugged vegetables. Green tomatoes and vegetable tops followed; my feed bill was minimal. The neighbours enjoyed a regular supply of very fresh eggs.
What did we want in a new house? Well, the problem was, we weren’t really quite sure. As with so many people who try to ‘live the dream’, we had half formed (some might say half-baked) ideas, great expectations and a distinct lack of funds. This left us looking at diverse properties which either had the land or the house but neither in the right proportions or the right location. We knew we wanted some land, but how much was a mystery; what is a hectare? We had no idea what one looked like, so often played the ‘guess the size of that field’ game with disastrous consequences. We chased local estate agents details to find ‘in need of some up-dating’ required a total gutting; ‘bijou’ meant no kitchen in existence; ‘access available’ was across a busy road, ‘gardens in need of work’ were an inaccessible jungle and the best of all – ‘some public access’ - a public footpath running through the field which would cost a fortune to insure against or fence off. We looked at old houses; (that was the one with no kitchen) houses with some design features, especially an architects place which had pine panelled walls, ceilings, bathrooms, kitchen and bedrooms; houses that seemed too good to be true and definitely were in the flesh; properties which had running water – down the walls - and a bungalow with windows to die for - literally. We saw little plots of land, huge fields and land which would never be good for anything other than rubbish dumps. We did know we needed 3 bedrooms and a big kitchen; a roof that was sound, but apart from that we were open to offers. Chris dreamed about a workshop; we accepted that it would have to be a shed or a garage rather than the real deal… Improvidently, that is where the local estate agents come in. We have some in the locality who have been in business so long that any property is only advertised as a fillip to excuse the fees; they have a list of builder contacts waiting to snap up anything that may be a reasonable price. We found a local independent estate agent who constantly battles against this old boy network to give poor souls like us a fighting chance. Sometimes he wins, others he loses, but he battles on. Having met us and had a good chat, he happily decided we were a deserving cause and passed everything he could onto us as soon as he heard an inkling of a possible sale.
‘Chris, its Mark.’
‘I have just got some details in.’
‘What is it this time?’
‘Well… there is some land, but not a lot…’
‘OK, forget it; I have someone else who will snap it up, not enough land for you.’
‘Well, how much land?’
‘You are right. Good try Mark! Bye.’
We gathered huge piles of brochures and free inserts from the local press until we looked like house detail hoarders. The hunt continued for several months from October to the following May with varying amounts of disappointment and frustration. Sometimes we actually stopped looking online or in the paper for a couple of weeks to give our brains and hope a rest. It did not stop us driving around the countryside either in the car or on two motorbike wheels on the pretext of looking for a good little pub. Often the pub was forgotten when we saw a property and did a little ‘trespassing’ to assess the possibilities. We found the motorbike was better for peering over hedges and looking through windows, although we often got very strange looks… We were sad, driven and getting desperate. I used to have some friends who drove around looking through windows and ‘criticising the decor’ – we now know what they found fascinating - we have done it ourselves.
SEEING THE WHITE HOUSE
I was happily choosing selections of cheap birthday cards from the market stall in our local town to send to my mother in Brighton who had a problem finding anything, when Chris, who had popped into the estate agency to kill time, came out waving a piece of paper which looked suspiciously like another of the useless sheets we had in piles at home.
‘Come on, we have a house to look at.’
‘Go on, you never know’
Being married to a large childish, impulsive, silly man is sometimes annoying, often quite exciting and always very breathless. Whilst driving the Lincolnshire lanes to the house, he tried simultaneously telling me about the property, making me read the leaflet and look at the map to find it. Now, being a teacher makes me very good at multi-tasking but this was an overload of information after earlier browsing through hundreds of awfully written and rhyming birthday platitudes in those cards I never bought. I also suffer from car sickness when trying to read on the go; queasiness was getting to me.
Take a breath and tell me in some sort of order.’
That’s the teacher in me –trying to create some sort of order out of chaos. By the time we had arrived in the area, I had picked up on his obvious excitement. That was the impulsive adventurer in us both. How many times had we been at this fever pitch of anticipation? Too many. I was resigned to disappointment and the endless chewing of the details afterwards. The what-ifs and hindsight filled many an evening of discussion. If The White House was anything like all the others, it would be a bungalow, a ruin and bright pink… Driving over a badly surfaced Lincolnshire road which had seen more tractors than traffic, we found the house, nestling behind three huge sycamore trees and some very dilapidated outbuildings. There were already two cars outside, were we too late again? We found out one car belonged to the executor of the estate which was selling the house; a pleasant man already showing a couple from Norfolk around; he was pleased to let us view at the same time. It was amusing to find that the other couple had already ‘moved’ their dog in; it was running loose in the house as we went in, unwittingly leaving the door open, so it escaped into the undergrowth that was the garden.
‘We found a dog in the garden.’
That is ours, she is just getting used to it.’
‘Ok. Is it an Airedale? ’
‘Yes. Is she still out there?’
‘Don’t know, we just came to look at the house.’
‘You want to buy this too?’
‘Yes – is that a problem?’
Paul, the executor of the estate, lived across the way and had obviously been looking after the place for a while, if that was what you could call it. He had a very quiet manner, a head of grizzled hair going from ginger to grey and a very determined manner about wanting to get the most for the property. We found out later that he was of a particular religious cult that prides itself on looking after older, vulnerable people, but we never did get to the bottom of his particular commitment to our previous house owner. He finally gradually faded out of our lives, principally due to us not needing his help one bit, so it seems strange he still lives 100 yards down the road but we hardly speak, although we do still acknowledge each other on the road.
The viewing man from Norfolk was measuring what was left of the kitchen up and tutting as he did so, muttering under his breath about how much work was needed; the woman was worrying about how they were going to get their friends to undertake a three and a half hour drive to come and see them. The house was empty, smelly and filthy. If you envisage a mixture of old cigarettes, sweat and mould, that would have about described the kitchen area. Upstairs smelled of cigarettes, urine and sweat, with more than a little faeces thrown into the mix. It had been owned by an old lady who died in hospital four months earlier; no furniture, no curtains downstairs nor any evidence of cleaning for many years. Even the curtains upstairs had a special odour which definitely did not come from a bottle labelled ‘perfume’. The floors, well, they left little to the imagination as we stuck to them like the old bar carpets in small, local pubs where good beer is more important than cleaning. The house was a good size though, with wheelchair access downstairs and loads of potential. Our imaginations were at full blast as we looked around – even with the cobwebs and odours, we could see how it might be. The wheelchair access came in very useful later in the rebuild…
We left ‘The Grumpies’ from Norfolk to their tutting and measuring to go and explore the garden. It was obvious that a long time ago it had been a good sized plot with many features; now it was an overgrown tangle of weeds, plants cultivated and wild; brambles, nettles and more brambles which were like trees. We pushed our way through all this overgrowth, bent double in places, covered in plant debris, to find that there were two paddocks and a very overgrown orchard area at the back. Turning the corner at the top of the plot, we fought our way round the other side of a huge wooden barn to find that the Norfolk people had already left, with their retrieved dog. It seemed that the journey was too much for the wife, who really wanted to have her own house in a different place; although her friends obviously did not want her to move, so that was the sticking point. The executor was happy to tell us the immediate history of the house, even better; he would consider taking an offer of the full asking price and removing it from the market. It transpired that he was a single man who dabbled in building and restoration work in the area; his idea was to tell us what needed doing and then do it for us – at a price. As Chris can do virtually anything and I am handy too, his offers were superfluous.
‘The old lady who used to live here depended on me for everything.’
I put all the surveillance cameras up for her.’
‘Do they work?’
‘No… but they look pretty good, don’t they?’
‘I supplied all the Keep Out’ signs too, perhaps you would like some more?’
‘Err, no thank you, we actually want to welcome people to our house.’
‘There can be some strange people calling you know…’
‘Yes, they are likely to be our friends!’
‘Well, I can do any DIY you might need – it does need some work?’
‘Actually, Chris and I are both quite handy at DIY thank you.’
(We would need to be…)
‘Well, I can provide you with roofing and building services, there are even some things on the garage you may want to buy from me?’
‘Err, we will let you know.’
We could hardly contain ourselves on the way home. The pair of us were two overgrown kids, laughing and screaming; looking at the details and translating the ‘agent-speak’ into real facts like the dank dark outside loo which was so classily described as the ‘gardener’s toilet.’ This edifice had the biggest spiders in it I had ever seen, huge hairy loungers which obviously needed feeding, but not by me. Driving back to our village, we interrupted each other, had wild dreams of the things we could do with the garden and decided we needed some help with our finances. We had no buyer for my property-had not even put it on the market. We were hopelessly disorganised. We desperately wanted The White House but did not even have the deposit money. Matt, our independent advisor money man had previously done lots of work for us and we had an idea of how much we could afford; but it would mean renting out our house and mortgaging it and having a mortgage on the new one. Having just paid off my mortgage and been free of money worries for a year, it was a frightening prospect. Not only did we have to find the money to buy it, we had to be prepared to spend a fair amount on renovation. Matt, the accountant, friend and fellow dreamer sorted it out for us; he worked late, weekend phone calls were normal and late night messages were expected, if not welcomed.
‘Oh, hi Matt.’
‘Sorry to call you so late…but I have just found you this offer…’
‘It is a three year fixed term deal with interest only on the one house, repayment on the other and an option to pay off either early or with some lump sums…’
‘Ok Matt whatever you think…Zzzzz.’
So, we officially offered the full asking price; and waited for the legalities to creak into first gear. Two days later, I met Chris and two good friends at the house to have another look around. As it was early summer, I came from school dressed in pale green trousers and a smart top. Bad move. Typically in Lincolnshire, the heavens opened as we struggled through the unwelcoming gates on rusting and saggy hinges with their ‘Keep Out’ signs and started up the muddy drive. Paul had agreed to show us around the house again; what we saw the second time nearly put us off completely. Walking in, the smell of old cigarettes, dirt and stale nicotine was so thick it caught the back of your throat and left that acrid taste lingering for days afterwards. Even on leaving we could taste the bitter extracts on breathing in. It brought a whole new meaning to passive smoking. The lino in the kitchen was pure 1970’s orange ditsy patterning, which hid all the dirt of ages which made us stick to it.
Later, we discovered that this lino was a lot less ditsy than we originally thought; there was so much old grease and mud engrained into it that it had become part of the pattern and stickiness. One filthy wall had a larder unit on it which was dripping foully stinking brown grease; the wall tiles had been white once, but needed more than the strongest cleaner – total removal with a chisel was the only answer. They were so engrained with dirt that the original white was only found when we took a wallpaper scraper to them which removed an inch of brown grease off the original surface. The whole kitchen area smelled of dirty grease and old fat frying – rather like a chip shop which has been shut down without cleaning for years. The few working cupboards were just as bad, sagging doors, filthy shelves and grease, grease, grease. Although it had originally been a huge working farmhouse kitchen, it had fallen into degradation and negligence. At the other end of this area, dark blue wallpaper covered one wall in the dining room; it had also been used in one bedroom, the upstairs bathroom and down the stairwell. There were three power points in the whole room... Walking into the interior, the inner hallway had incredibly rough walls. It also had no light as the one source of a window at the top of the lounge door had been painted over – badly. We discovered the walls were so badly plastered it was like outside rendering. They were also covered in grease and nicotine. That was another task to be factored into the costs…
A downstairs bathroom off the hallway had the most stylish walk-in bath with shower over – what a pity the bath did not seal nor the shower work. Filling the bath with inquisitive water, the doors spurted like sprinklers and completely flooded the floor while we laughed and called for willies or waders. We decided this fixture had to go; the bath was easy, the shower took a couple of days as electrics and water does not mix. No, not at all. In fact, if you know nothing about it, like me – don’t touch! You can tell from this warning that there was an incident; don’t go there. Lesson learned, enough said. Health and Safety would have a heart attack but they will never know - especially if it is not written about.
Both front rooms downstairs, which mirrored each other, boasted the most awful brick fireplaces with concrete feature floors. The left hand one, which we were going to use as a lounge, was to have this monstrosity knocked out and replaced, hopefully, with a log burner. The other one was to be blanked and made to look like a part of the wall. Both ideas involved lots of drilling, hammering and barrowing out of the back door. This was easier than thought as the whole downstairs was on one level – the previous owner’s wheelchair access worked for us with many heavy wheelbarrows. I had great fun with an SDS drill – don’t ask me what it stands for, but it vibrates far better than the washer on spin cycle – the left hand fireplace could not withstand my onslaught and we have pictures to prove it. The right hand fireplace was another story…
Upstairs, there was another bathroom, inhabited by the largest cobweb I had seen for a long time, a cast iron bath with some very suspect stains but good old-fashioned taps, a toilet needing a bucket under it urgently and an airing cupboard which had never been built to fit the immersion tank, so all the doors hung ajar like crooked teeth. This also had the dark blue wallpaper on one wall, although it was hung at a different angle from that downstairs, necessitating standing sideways so as not to feel nauseous.
The three bedrooms were of a good size but suffered the same sight and smell problems as the rest of the house together with Miss Faversham curtains and spiders. Unfortunately, there was not one wall on which we would have chosen to keep the décor as they had odd, miss-shaped wallpaper hanging from them, flowers of different colours and makes, odd flaking paint and the most awful curtains ever…
‘Where are you?’
‘In the front bedroom’
‘Oh, like the curtains!’
‘Thought we might keep them – integrate our colour scheme around them?’
‘Mm, not sure acid green and nicotine stain is quite our taste…’
OK, shall I take them to the charity shop?’
Paul, our nice but very persistent executor was enthusiastic about knocking one room into the other and making an en-suite bathroom –he thought he would be doing the work for us; I was counting the pennies; Chris was counting the joists and plumbing problems. After over an hour of Paul’s enthusiastic ideas designed to remove us from our money, we managed to get away from him by asking to look around the garden again, even though it was still pouring. The overgrowth was even bushier than it had been before; we ducked and pushed and struggled through what had been an herbaceous border which drooped all over us. Everything was in full bloom and heavy with water. We fought our way in, finding the possibilities of an orchard at the end of the plot although it was chest high in nettles and brambles. My smart school clothes soon became covered in a camouflage pattern of greens and browns necessitating a complete change when home again. The greenhouse looked even worse than it had the first time; the house could hardly be seen from the end of the plot due to the huge number of trees that had taken over. The rain did not damp our enthusiasm – we had all sorts of improbable plans for this place although we had only just begun the journey to buy it. Our friends were less than impressed as they could not see the vision of the finished article. Bidding us farewell they suggested a trip to the doctors as we were obviously off our heads.
Whilst the legalities cranked their slow way to completion, we kept driving past the house, which was not the shortest way home from any of the shops or work, but it intrigued us. Forsythia scrambled over the front gates, the sycamores were in full leaf and a dog rose clambered down the bank to the drainage dyke. The house just looked sad, with the very bad taste green curtains dangling crookedly in two rotten window frames and dirty walls visible in all the rooms. In the summer we ride motorbikes, one of those hobbies we had in common when we met. Not for us the sports bikes of the race brigade, no, we like to tour the countryside and smell the honeysuckle at sunset on the way back from the pub. It is one pastime I cannot take to school – teacher in black leather arriving on bike would not do the male teachers’ blood pressure any good, neither would it help in the classroom with pubescent boys. So, we keep the bikes for high days and sunshine, which was useful when meandering on the not-the-shortest-way-home to look at the house…
On one occasion we were on the motorbike, having just heard that all the paperwork was going through fairly smoothly, so decided to ‘break in’ for another look around. So, two hairy bikers in full lamb’s wool-lined leather Biggles jackets clambered off a large chrome-covered tourer; climbed over the rotting gates with their faded ‘Keep Out’ signs and very obviously cased all the windows, even leaving greasy nose marks on some, although they were so filthy nothing showed.
‘Ooh, look at that cobweb! I am sure it has grown?’
‘You don’t want to keep that one too?’
‘No, but the size is surely a Guinness Book of Records job?’
‘Do you want to call them now?’
The garden was as much in need of complete annihilation rather than the TLC we remembered from our first visits; we ploughed – literally – through the faint path marks where we had been last time, thankful for the protection of our leather outer gear and helmets as the undergrowth had turned into even more intimidating grabbing, tangling overgrowth. Where there had once been herbaceous borders we found a buddleia tree over 20 feet high, huge mock orange bushes on steroids and a potting shed which had virtually been annihilated by ground ivy. The nettles were chest height, the brambles at least 12 foot tall. The effort of walking through this non-tropical jungle got to us at the end, where, hidden from sight of the road, we both had to relieve ourselves so that the ride home would not be unbearable on bladders.
‘I’m busting for a wee…’
‘Where’s the nearest loo?’
‘In the house!’
Hysterical laughter and crossing of legs.
‘Will anyone see us here?’
‘Not unless they have been up a tree for 30 years’
‘I see no Ben Gunn!’
‘Sorry, nature calls and I cannot wait…’
We joked all the way home about ‘christening’ the land so we were sure to get this one… Luckily no one saw us, nor did we ever admit to it – perhaps until now... Calls of nature when on a motorbike have to taken at convenience, not always in one.
Then the undeniable facts nearly stumped us. The house had been built on clay with no proper foundations so had been underpinned for subsidence in 1993. Now it floated on a concrete pad with hundreds of steel rods embedded 10 metres into the subsoil, paid for by the insurance company used by our predecessors in the 1990’s. However, mention the dreaded word ‘subsidence’ to any insurance company and they did not just suck their teeth hard but try to put the phone down as fast as possible. In the meantime, we had already got a mortgage sorted from Matt’s multiple midnight meanderings through the financial institutions, so they had to insure it too – good move Matt. I learned to quote the technical terms sounding just like a civil engineer; the original blueprints for the underpinning had been passed to us so we could refer to them, although I did have them upside down during one long conversation.
‘Yes, I have all the paperwork here.’
‘…the engineers were Lacey Smith and Co.’
‘Ten metre micro-bore throughout.’
‘A concrete raft, yes.’
‘Guaranteed for 30 years’
‘Last flooded? Not within living memory. How do we know? The builder’s grandson is a friend and was evacuated to the house in the 1953 flood in Mablethorpe.’
‘No, the house was not flooded at the time…’
‘Anecdotal? Yes, but we can get a statement from him to prove it…’
‘Yes, he is still very much alive – and kicking.’
‘He’s a Governor of my school.’
Mutterings from the other end.
John was indeed a governor at the school where I worked; he was owner of the family hardware firm for many years, then retired but still does a lot for the local community. When I told him we were trying to buy The White House, he was intrigued and then informed me that his grandfather had built it from scratch in 1926. We knew the date as it is proudly carved in a block at the front of the house. Apparently John’s father and grandfather made the concrete blocks by hand on site; then built the entire house by hand. What a feat. We were hopefully going to reap the benefit of their labours. Our house was originally the blacksmith and wheelwright shop, which explained the barns. John clearly remembered being evacuated to the house in 1953 when the great East of England flood engulfed Mablethorpe. It always makes us laugh when we get asked if the place ever floods, as, if it didn’t then, it surely never will. John’s family sold the property in 1952 after his grandfather had died; the Wilsons moved in and made the plot into a small market garden, mainly growing flowers for the local shops. Mr Wilson was a contract painter and decorator, which not only explained the odd decoration inside, but also the huge drums of paint left in one of the barns. So, we were trying to be the third owners of this house built by hand with love. We hoped the previous owners had been careful ones… Little did we know.
The delay was a little more than worrying to say the least. We had already been moved in for two months before anything was insured; it seemed to us to be a superfluous extra by that time. Eventually it was Matt again who suggested to the building society who had lent us the money that it might be a good idea to insure their investment. Simple, eh? Now they renew our insurance every year without fail. It is no more expensive than any other insurance but we do have subsidence excluded from any cover, which creases us as our house is the only one in the road which does not shake when the big combine harvesters come down in the summer.
As we had no house to sell, it was easier actually moving than trying to coordinate an ‘in and out’ operation. I forfeited a week’s holiday in southern England to pack as much as possible into every shape and size of box I could blag from friends and shops. School came up trumps with some very big, very strong, and as I found out to my dismay, very heavy computer boxes. All the extra goods from Chris’s house were still packed in boxes in the garage; it looked like a very badly organised stock room for a furniture store. At least they were already packed, which reduced the workload. Every room in the house gradually got stripped, put into the blagged boxes and labelled carefully, so the house looked as if I was camping in it or had just moved in. I kept finding my old cat trying to pack himself into corners of open packing boxes. He was determined not to be left behind. He always has liked a good box, but one full of knives? It showed his determination.
‘Oh hell cat, where are you now?’
Search of all boxes in front bedrooms, landing and hall. (Much swearing.)
Caspar? (More swearing ensues)’
Cat found in plastic bag of towels in airing cupboard which had fortunately not yet been sealed.
We had already decided that the new house would probably need more than a whiff of a mop and duster, so I booked a firm of industrial cleaners to arrive the day after we ‘moved in’ and undertake a ‘nicotine removal’ clean throughout. They had visited and given us a quotation for the complete clean using acid and something called ‘Nicotine Neutraliser’ which, they assured us, would make the inside squeaky clean and odour free in no time. On the day, two men arrived, one really skinny youngster, who looked as if he was still at school and an old wizened chap in need of a walking stick. They walked in and then out again. What was the problem? This job was not what they had been led to believe it was. They were going to call the boss. Brian the boss came over in his van and talked at length, with much waving of hands and some stabbing finger movements, then left. The two – we nick named them Itchy and Scratch – wandered over to tell us the job would take longer than they thought. OK, so how long? About a week. This left us with a small problem, where were we to stay? As it was the summer and we are hardened campers our much loved big tent came into its own. So much fun.
‘Bend this bit please.’
Wiggle appropriate floppy carbon pole.
‘Where does it fit into?’
‘The loop at the end.’
‘Yes, that one. Now hold on tight I’m going to twist it hard…’
‘Ouch! That was my finger nail!’
‘…and stretch it…’
We finally had the big tent pitched in the front paddock before we moved over from the other house; a small storage tent, windbreaks, a gazebo and a bonfire added to the rock festival encampment. Some friends came up from Bristol, camped and helped for a week then we all had a few parties involving beer and silliness just for fun. Chris has joint custody of his son, David, who was ten that year, so he came over for the summer to ‘assist’ us with our move. His excitement at being let loose on bonfires, slashing weeds and living in a tent knew no bounds; it was as good as Alton Towers to him. All the men lived up to their reputations of being fire-starters, gaily flinging anything that would burn onto the heap. David lived an over-secluded existence with his mother which made me worry about his safety around naked flames but I had no need, he was naturally cautious, with a sense of humour much like his Dad’s, as he found a sign which proclaimed ‘No Naked Flames’ and planted it firmly right by the heap of ashes. We ‘christened’ the house again, with our own midnight shenanigans, including a rolled bale of straw that quite ‘inadvertently’ found its way from the roadside to our straw store…
‘Did you hear that?’
‘I think the tractor that just went down the road has lost a bale at the crossroads.’
‘What will it be?’
‘Dunno, possibly hay or straw…why?’
‘Well, finders’ keepers.’
‘Come on then…’
Much giggling, a boot full of straw, some spilt beer and an undeniable trail of straw from the bale to our house next morning. No one said anything and still hasn’t. David was picking straw out of his sleeping bag for days. Boys never have been clean workers, nor is his dad …
‘Can I throw this on the fire please?’
‘What is it?’
‘I’m not sure.’
‘Whatever – go for it.’
Muffled bang – shriek from David.
‘That burns then’
Itchy and Scratch moved into the disgusting smelly pit which we were hoping to inhabit. They brought big tubs of noxious liquid which had skull and crossbones signs all over them. This was the nicotine remover; the boys used it with bare hands and wire wool, which may have accounted for their appearance. I have always maintained that cups of tea keep a workforce going, but breathing in the first whiffs of whatever they were using sent me staggering for the door rapidly.
Indistinct shouts from inside.
‘Do you want a cuppa?’
Instant appearance of Itchy and Scratch. Both covered in white shards from the ceilings and smelling vaguely of acid. I would not have been surprised to see them gently fizzing and smoking. Spontaneous combustion never quite happened, although we were worried by the fumes leaving every wide-open window. They worked very hard for four days, even going over the bathrooms twice as the lime scale was as thick as cake icing. How they endured the fumes and abrasives without protective clothing I never have figured out but I am sure a Health and Safety officer would have been horrified. Still, we had our house back. It smelled so much better…
We decided to abandon the tent to David so moved our air mattress onto the floorboards of what is now our downstairs spare bedroom cum office. We slept there for a month until the rest of the house upstairs was painted. I must have been the only teacher to return to school whilst still camping.