Sunday, 29 July 2012

She's Here

July 2012, the most eventful month of our lives, is almost at a close. But what a month! We’ve had Sarah’s birthday, Rose’s birthday, we’ve moved out of our home of twenty-three years to live in a caravan, Paul and Josephine have bought their new house, we’ve celebrated our thirty-sixth wedding anniversary in a Premier Inn, we’ve criss-crossed the country and driven almost three thousand miles, and to top it all, yesterday we welcomed our new granddaughter Catherine into the world. 

So, a little over a year after writing about Rose's arrival on the blog, here we go again with Catherine, another beautiful baby. I’m not posting photos yet as Paul and Josephine would like to be the first to share their lovely daughter with the world and aren't yet in a position to do so. But watch this space for photos soon.

We’re staying in this super little cottage in Rochester for a week to be on hand if help is needed. They've got Josephine's mum Jenny on hand too - she's done an amazing amount of work in helping them with their move, packing, unpacking, cleaning and tidying and she put me to shame with the weight of boxes she's been shifting.

In case you missed the blog and wondered where we’ve been, (as if), we’ve been on the road again since Tuesday morning when we left St Andrews and headed down to an overnight stop in Bury St Edmunds before meeting up on Wednesday morning with an interior designer who is helping us with our new house in Framlingham.

It was a long drive (over seven hours) but we shared the driving and arrived in time to do a little sightseeing. We’ve never been to Bury St Edmunds before but it’s a beautiful little place and we relaxed for a while in glorious sunshine in the grounds of the ancient abbey before heading for Mothercare for some last minute stuff before the arrival of the baby.

We met up with the designer in Framlingham on Wednesday and then headed another hundred miles south to Rochester to Paul and Josephine’s house.  All the overnight stays of the past couple of weeks have started to impact on the bank balance (and the waistline) so it was great to be able to stay in some accommodation for free for a change. The house is starting to look very homely although there’s no WIFI, radio or TV installed yet (hence the lack of blogging) and Marion and I (with Marion doing the greater share) have kept ourselves busy cleaning and tidying up before the family moves in. As baby was having none of that inducement nonsense, the cleaning went on for three days and the house is probably cleaner now than at any time in its two hundred year history.

We took a break for the Olympic Opening Ceremony on Friday night and headed into Rochester where we were able to watch the spectacle from London on a big screen set up in the shadow of the spectacular castle. There’s no point me commenting on Danny Boyle’s mad event, I’m sure you’ll have seen it, But it was great to enjoy a family atmosphere in this small city where Paul and Josephine will be setting up home. It rained a bit so we watched the finale in a friendly pub on the high street and left just as Paul McCartney showed that his performance at the Queen’s jubilee concert was not a one off. And speaking of the Queen I was gobsmacked when the audience in Rochester rose en masse and stood for the National Anthem – every one of them! I thought I had better do the same to avoid sticking out like a sore thumb. I couldn’t see the same thing happening in either Southport or St Andrews.

It’s been a memorable month so far but with just two days left there can't be any more momentous happenings in store - I'm not sure that we could cope.

You’ll be pleased to hear that there’s WIFI in the cottage - hence my blogging again.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Some "Me Time" At Last

After a hectic two weeks that feel like two months we both finally got time to have some "me time" yesterday. We started with breakfast with Duncan, Sarah and Rose and were even able to eat in the cafe garden at Balgove on the edge of St Andrews in brilliant sunshine.

Marion then went with Sarah to Dundee for a few hours shopping (a trip that was unfortunately marred by a car breakdown) and I managed to get in not only an hour's cycling but also two or three hours out with the metal detector.

The bike ride blew away the cobwebs of the last fortnight's sedentary lifestyle and I then drove to the field a couple of miles away from the caravan where, in May, I took the call from the estate agents advising me that they had sold our house. It's in a lovely spot and, with the sun still shining brightly I was out on the field in a few minutes. 

And it wasn't very long before the detector sprang into life with signal after signal.

And pretty much as last time I visited the field I dug up plenty of pre-decimal pennies ranging from Victoria through to Elizabeth.

But I also found couple of artefacts. A nice old shoe buckle, a tiny padlock locket, a gilded stud and what may be the wheel from an old toy.

A George V silver threepence and sixpence also surfaced as shiny as they were on the day that they were lost.

And I found what looks like the end of an old spoon and an old Girl Guides' whistle lacking its mouthpiece.

I know that none of this will qualify for a spot on that treasure programme that ITV is running at the moment but it was great to get out in the fresh air and to uncover some stuff that's been lost for over eighty years. There's a very old building in the field so there's still a chance of something older turning up next time.

We've had another day relaxing with the Sunday papers today and more relaxation planned for tomorrow before we're back on the road again on Tuesday in anticipation of the arrival of our second grandchild.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Well that’s the first few steps of our great adventure over.

Amazing how much you can get in a Prius
Premier Inn Ipswich

We completed the sale of the house in Southport last week and headed down to Suffolk with the car heaped high with all the essentials for our next four months whilst all our non-essential possessions headed into store. We felt like a couple of tramps turning up at the Premier Inn in Ipswich after a first night stay at a Days Inn on the M6. But we had little choice as we needed to appoint a builder for the work in Framlingham as quickly as possible or risk pushing the start date for the renovations back even further.

We got the builder appointed by Friday and made good progress with the kitchen, windows, outside office and interior design so we’re looking at the work starting in less than three weeks when the house will begin getting knocked about. Before then we’ve got to try and come up with some bathroom ideas which is not easy as the rooms are very small and we’ve little scope for mistakes.

The beautiful art nouveau frontage to Norwich Royal Arcade

We even found time to do a bit of sightseeing at the weekend and visited the renowned Anchor at Walberswick for a fabulous fish lunch before taking the rowing boat ferry across to Southwold where we enjoyed a walk down the pier and around the town. On Saturday we had a look around Norwich – what a great city!  There’s a great variety of shops, a wonderful market, a castle, loads of places to eat, modern shopping malls, old shopping lanes, independent bookshops (and a good Waterstones) and so much more. We’ll certainly be making regular visits when we finally get to live in East Anglia.

After the relative peace of the weekend we sorted out the giant Leylandii in our new garden that was offending our neighbours; we had it felled at a cost of well over £300 and we hope it’s earned us a foot on the ladder of acceptance in our new neighbourhood. There’s no longer any chance of the tree causing us future disputes. Leylandii have been at the centre of so many huge rows between neighbours; I’ve seen it referred to as “the tree at the centre of suburban warfare” and it’s no surprise – they grow to phenomenal heights.

After that it was back on the road again and that meant another Premier Inn; this time it was Rochester where Paul and Josephine have just bought their new house. It’s a super old Grade 2 listed building with lots of big rooms (their house that is not the Premier Inn) and it’s a perfect new home for our furniture that either won’t fit in our new place or won’t suit its more modern style. It was fortuitous that Paul and Josephine’s purchase came within a few days of our sale so the Rochester house will be furnished and ready for them to move into as soon as yet another huge event (the birth of their first baby) happens.

After we oversaw the delivery of the furniture (well done McDowells Removals – can’t recommend them highly enough) Josephine and her mum Jenny came and we spent some time together getting things unpacked.

Marion Jenny And Josephine At The Rochester House

It was our thirty-sixth wedding anniversary and we got this super bottle of champagne from Paul and Josephine. Although they bought us some picnic flutes to drink it from, the Premier Inn rooms don’t run to a fridge, so we’ve saved it for this weekend. It was strange being within a stone’s throw of where we got married (Chatham) on our anniversary. We didn’t feel up to going out as we were tired and our clothes were starting to look a bit of a mess so we dined in the Premier Inn. It was only regular chain restaurant stuff but it was served with a smile and was perfectly acceptable.

That night we had the chance to check out Premier Inn’s good night sleep guarantee. We were in one of those rooms that links to another by way of a door. And behind that door was someone who managed to snore loudly from around 2am until we got up at 6.30. I told the receptionist and within a couple of minutes my £65 was refunded with no fuss whatsoever (I managed to record the snoring on my phone but although the receptionist listened to the recording I am sure that he would have taken my word alone). So, well done Premier Inn. We stayed with them for seven nights in all and if you are looking for a budget hotel chain with clean rooms, friendly service and okay food you don’t need to look any further.

After our sleepless night we took delivery of a bed at the Rochester house and then set off back up north – after a delay when we witnessed a minor accident and stopped to help out. We made a brief stop at a kitchen showroom in Ipswich and then headed to St Andrews where we managed to get our head down in the caravan before 1am.

As we unpacked the car this morning the car seemed to groan with relief and it finally looks like a car again. Now we're looking forward to some quality time with Sarah, Duncan and Rose.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

A Couple Of Reviews

Although we've been on the road for almost a week now we've still found time to do a bit of reading and get to a film so here are a few words on what I've enjoyed recently.

It would be ridiculous for an unpublished writer like me to give this novel anything less than five stars as it is a work of literary genius that I expect to see nominated and shortlisted for countless prizes. Written in the voice of its protagonist Louise (or Lulu or any one of a number of aliases that she acquires in her extremely eventful life) Mountains Of The Moon records her troubled childhood, adolescence and young adulthood in a series of flashbacks that jump sometimes apparently at random from period to period.

The brilliance of the book is in the storyteller's exceptional use of language; turn to almost any page at random and you will find beautiful images "our legs cut through stripes of sunshine", "the corridor is dark, wooden, fitted together like a puzzle". One of my favourite authors Caroline Smailes writes with this artistic flair and Louise's use of "flip flop" to describe her walking echoes the narrator in Smailes' Like Bees To Honey and makes me wonder if I. J. Kay is also a fan.

The development of the voice from child to teenager to young woman is expertly done - the vocabulary expands, the words become more properly formed and sentences more coherent and logical as she grows up. In short I can only admire the author's skill in creating this novel.

Having said all that, I have to say that the novel did fall down for me on the story. As I said above, it is the story of a troubled life; our protagonist is from a broken home and she is hardened to life although she has a softer side and yearns to visit Africa's Mountains Of The Moon and the Masai Mara (places she has learned about from her beloved Granddad's book and recreated in her childhood on wasteland near her home). I had problems in finding certain scenes credible. I won't spoil the book for you but  these included an adolescent period in an institution, an encounter with a taxi driver and an incident with a horse. I can cope with one or two things in a book causing a raised eyebrow but I did feel that there were a few too many times that the author stretched my credulity. 

Don't let this put you off reading it though. As a piece of art it is truly a tour de force.

I like to think that I've a broad range of tastes; I'm equally at home with La Boheme as I am with an episode of X Factor and Mel Sherratt's Somewhere To Hide is Coronation St to Mountains Of The Moon's Othello. Following on from her highly successful Taunting The Dead - a police thriller set in Stoke On Trent, Somewhere To Hide has been described by the author as "Grit Lit" and I think that's a very good description.

The somewhere to hide of the title is both a derelict pub where the novel opens as a psycho predator instals himself waiting for a date with his destiny in August and a safe house for young women run by the matronly and amiable Cathy. She takes in teenage runaways Jess and Becky and battered wife Liz and the novel charts their experiences on the notorious Mitchell estate in an anonymous city somewhere in northern England in the time running up to the aforementioned date with destiny.

Mel Sherratt writes in good plain English which is compelling to read and she has the rare knack of making the reader want to turn the page. There's an element of chick-lit in there with the customary girly get togethers complete with pillow throwing, wine drinking and appreciating a fine pair of male buttocks. There is an underlying love story in the background as well as the story of several troubled lives as the younger girls are dragged into a seedy underworld, Liz is stalked by her battered husband and Cathy lives with a harrowing secret looming over her.

It's a very good read and certainly five star entertainment as the story builds into an explosive climax.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

On The Open Road

You know those homeless people you sometimes see pushing all their worldly goods around in a shopping trolley? Well we're a bit like that at the moment except that, instead of a shopping trolley, we've got the car. There wasn't time for us to take all the possessions that we need while the new house is being done up, and everything else is in store, up to the caravan in St Andrews for safe keeping so we had no option but to cart it around with us.

Things are progressing well with the building project. We got three tenders back from builders last Friday and, after studying them carefully, interviewed two of them at the house in Framlingham on Thursday. We then followed up their references and spoke to satisfied customers. The tenders were within a whisker of each other on price and the references were excellent for both so it was a very, very difficult decision for us to make a choice. We eventually opted for the one who is located closest to the property. He seems to be a really nice bloke and we're looking forward to the work starting in early August.

Earlier, on Wednesday, we visited a kitchen showroom in Bury St Edmunds and came away with a great design for the kitchen diner and just need to agree on a price before we give them an order.

Yesterday we had a visit from the suppliers of garden studios and put in an order for one of these. There's not a lot of room in the new house and we wanted somewhere that I could use as an office and a base for my writing and my metal detecting stuff. We checked out loads of companies and visited a few stands at both the Ideal Homes and Grand Designs shows and decided on Studio Plus from Finnish Log Homes which seemed to us to be the best value for money.

Talking of Grand Designs, after the salesman left we headed to Woodbridge to visit an interior designer to talk about the interiors of the new house. Although her address included the word "cottage" you could have (without a word of exaggeration) fitted about six of our new house inside the magnificent new building that would have merited an entire series of Grand Designs. It was an absolutely fantastic place and the very charming designer told us it had won an RIBA regional award. We felt a bit out of our league with our little place but she's going to give us a quote and we'll see how it goes.

We paid a quick visit to our new neighbours yesterday. They are very nice and have fitted their house out beautifully which was encouraging for Marion as ours is currently such a dump. That big tree in our garden is a Leylandii  and it completely blocks the light from the back of their house. I am amazed that they hadn't got into a big dispute with the previous owner of our place as it really is a blot on their landscape. I've asked a tree surgeon to come and have a look at what can be done for them. It may score us some Brownie points before we start to live in our new location.

And speaking of our new location, we still love the little town of Framligham and hope that we feel the same way in twelve months.

We’ve spent the last few nights (and will probably be spending the next ten too) in Days and Premier Inns and have eaten in the sort of places that normally gravitate to them – Vintage Inns, Frankie and Benny’s, Nandos, Ask – you know the sort of thing, we treated ourselves to dinner in the fabulous The Salt House hotel on Ipswich Waterfront the other day. I sampled the local seafood and it was delicious.  

Oh well, better get on the move. Today’s Saturday so that means we’re off to look at new bathrooms.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

In Praise Of Our Estate Agent

As the dust settles and we wake up at a motorway service station on the first day of our new life we’ve time to reflect on the events of the past couple of months.

It’s just 76 days –only eleven weeks – since we arrived back from the caravan to find Karen Potter’s For Sale board outside and, in the current housing market, that has to be something of an achievement.

They say that selling houses is a matter of the 3Ps – Price, Preparation and Presentation and we followed that philosophy with a vengeance with the Preparation involving researching what had been happening in the local housing market of late and which agents were selling the most houses. A few years ago For Sale boards around our area were rare sights and went down almost as quickly as they went up; but over the last couple of years they have been going up and staying up resulting in a forest of boards around Churchtown and very much a buyers’ market.

Preparation involves Presentation. We paid a handyman to tidy up all those little jobs we meant to get around to. He came and re-grouted tired tiling, he fitted brand new taps in the kitchen and cloakroom, he repainted a couple of rooms, he repaired a damaged front door (first impressions matter) and worked for us for about a week. Marion bought new towels for bathrooms and specimen plants for the porch and conservatory to create a wow factor. We bought new external lights to fit by the front door and colourful new kitchen storage jars and a coffee machine to brighten things up. We de-cluttered by removing most of the family photos to make the house neutral.

As further Preparation we needed to research prices and, using Zoopla, RightMove and many other sites we checked out asking prices and sold prices over the past few years. It was scary as, not only were asking prices way down on their peak, the number of houses sold in our price bracket was miniscule – we realised we were facing a challenge.

So now we were all set to choose an agent. We drove around the area to see what names where cropping up on the rare SOLD estate agents’ boards; and one name kept cropping up regularly – Karen Potter.

We then looked at the quality of all the local agents’ websites and narrowed it down to three. Karen Potter was in the three so not only did she have the most SOLD signs but also had one of the top three websites. We asked all three agents to visit. They all loved the house (and though I say it myself, it is a lovely house) and they were all keen to sell it. Two agents were convinced that they could sell it easily; Karen was realistic and felt that, whilst it was a great property, we had to understand the market. Three valuations duly followed. Before they arrived Marion and I had come up with our own price. Karen’s valuation matched ours. The others were £10,000 and £25,000 higher. None came close to recovering what we had spent on it but we spent it to enjoy the house not as an investment.

When you have the chance to receive an extra £25,000 there’s always a temptation to run with it but we’d bought a property in Suffolk and didn’t want to be stuck with two and, however confident that agent was, we didn’t see many of his SOLD boards around.

So we gave the sale to Karen Potter and I have to say that we were extremely pleased with the results. She took over what seemed like a hundred photos and included plenty of them in the selling particulars. She was extremely professional in her presentation and (a very nice touch I thought) sent around her sales team to get to know what they were selling.

But it’s a buyers market and buyers are thin on the ground. We’ve spoken to sellers who have told us they’ve had just a couple of viewings in a year and we didn’t expect a flood. But we did get a trickle and, while we were away at the caravan in May, one of Karen’s team showed our eventual buyers around and the rest, as they say, is now history.

I can’t praise Karen Potter and her team of efficient young women enough. They presented the property well, they followed up every viewing with feedback, they contacted us every week to discuss progress, they showed people around the house and sold it, they were there to act as go-betweens when we had some trivial legal snags holding things up and were even there for a sympathetic hug when I handed the keys in having left our lovely house for the very last time.

If you’re selling in Southport you really don’t need to look anywhere else.

Monday, 9 July 2012

And We're Off

Well, almost. We've one more night here in Southport before we begin four months as nomads and have just booked our first (of no doubt many) night in a Days Inn on the M6 and five nights in a Premier Inn near Ipswich. I know they aren't the most exciting places for us to stay but we've got to be sensible about the budget and the cost of every night spent in a hotel could pay for something at the new house. In honesty both the places we have chosen have good write ups on Trip Advisor and if that life was good enough for Alan Partridge it will be good enough for us.

The removal men reckon that they will have finished by lunch time tomorrow. That will leave us an hour to do a final tidy and clean before we hit the road with the car laden down with everything we might need for the next three weeks - after Ipswich we've an unknown stay in Rochester for the anticipated arrival of our second grandchild. After that it will be a return to a sort of normality with a period in the caravan in St Andrews.

We've just got back from a week there. Unfortunately it rained almost constantly so we were unable to get out and about on the bikes but we did enjoy the week. We celebrated our first granddaughter Rose's first birthday with a super trip to Edinburgh where we stayed at Tigerlily - our room was almost as big as the ground floor in the new house. On Friday we visited the wonderful Taste Edinburgh. This was a brilliant show and we were able to sample some fantastic food from some of the best restaurants in the city. My favourite was the desert from Chez Roux - a wonderful bread and butter pudding style of sweet that was one of the nicest things I've ever tasted. What a tragedy for the organisers (and exhibitors) that the weather caused the cancellation of the final two days of the event as it was a truly excellent show.

Just part of the suite at Tigerlily
Sarah, Duncan and Rose enjoy a taste of Edinburgh

Taste turned out to be a good show for wellie sellers
After Taste we headed back to St Andrews for Rose's birthday party on Sunday.

We helped Sarah to put on a lovely spread for family and friends.

Sarah made Rose's super Very Hungry Caterpillar cake.

It's hard to believe that she's one already.

That's all for now. WIFI permitting I hope to keep updating the blog with our big adventure as it develops.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

We've Sold The House

I suppose that if you've read our accounts of packing on this blog over the last couple of weeks it will hardly come as a surprise to you to hear that we've sold the house. When we put it up for sale I said that I wasn't going to report how things were going on here as I didn't want to risk jeopardising the position; after all, it's not over until the fat lady sings (or in this case exchanges contracts). And, although we found a buyer four or five weeks ago, the fat lady took a long time to arrive on stage.

We had an offer for the full asking price on the day that the house went up for sale. But the buyers had not sold their own house and we had to decline. Over the next couple of weeks we showed three more couples around and they all made very positive noises and clearly liked the house but maybe I'm not too expert a salesman in pointing out the one or two minor flaws instead of concentrating on the hundreds of positives in the property and it was the first time that the estate agents showed the house while we were away that our buyers' offer came. 

The buyers were perfect for us having sold their own home and moved in with parents so we were not faced with the horrors of "the chain". And, as we have bought a house and have no upwards chain, we were also the perfect sellers for them. We agreed to move out - although that means living in the caravan until November - and the deal was done and dusted.

And, if it were not for the black art that is the world of conveyancing, things could have moved quickly. We responded to all the enquiries immediately and were ready to exchange contracts two weeks ago but then, as late as this Monday, the buyers' solicitor raised five enquiries. Why did this take so long? The enquiries were simple to answer but one related to restrictive covenants that were placed on the property in 1930 and under which we had to have permission to carry out some alterations. We researched these thoroughly fifteen years ago and the owner of the covenants told us that they were no longer interested in them but now, within 24 hours of the planned exchange, we had to sort it out. Being hundreds of miles away and with virtually no mobile reception and WIFI that works at less than a snail's pace we had no option but to grant an insurance indemnity at a cost of £218. If the enquiry had been raised two weeks ago we could have saved that money.

We were desperate to exchange as we were being asked for a firm booking from the removal company and, as we are giving most of our furniture to Paul and Josephine who are also moving next week, we didn't want to let them down and leave them with none of the things we'd promised them.

We were finally all set to exchange yesterday morning having agreed to the insurance. We decided to go to the pictures and see the new Spiderman movie. I switched on the phone after the film expecting a message to say it was a done deal but instead had an enquiry about whether the lounge curtains and pole were still for sale. As we offered these four weeks ago but heard nothing we got a man in last Friday to take the (very expensive hence getting a man in) pole down - now we've got to put it back up again.

Oh well. It's all done now. The removal van arrives on Tuesday and we're off to Framlingham to try and sort out a builder (or Rochester if Paul and Josephine's baby decides to make an early appearance). Poor Marion feels like she's been to hell and back again. People do say that moving house is one of the most stressful events in life. If it wasn't for our peculiar system I think it would be much simpler and far more relaxing. Let's hope we don't have to do it again.