Over the summer I have moved to Norfolk. Apart from a week’s holiday and a couple of weekends, it’s completely new territory for me, and I am enjoying getting to know my new habitat. Here are a few pictures from recent trips out. Norfolk is well-stocked with some of my favourite things (beaches, ruined monasteries, interesting medieval churches, nice places to eat) so I’m having a good time!
Last month I bought a record player. I had been meaning to do this for a very long time – years – but was daunted by the prospect of nursing a vintage record player which might be quite poorly, when I had only a hazy recollection of how they work. The only new ones I had seen were by the kind of brands that have showrooms rather than shops, and where I could probably just about afford a stylus.
But then, to my great joy, I found that I could buy new, inexpensive record players! OK, the online reviews made it clear that the sound quality wasn’t going to be fabulous, but hey, it’s not about the sound quality – if you want perfection, play a CD. An exciting box duly arrived and was unpacked. In anticipation of its arrival, I had gone down to my local junk shop where I’d recently seen loads of vinyl records, and bought a small selection – LPs, 45s and – new for me – 78s.
In honour of a recent trip to Paris, it seemed appropriate to inaugurate the machine with a 78 of Edith Piaf. Wow. Sure, there are crackles. And a hiss. And a bit of sound from the turntable. But – wow. There is a depth, an atmosphere, a living quality to this music that I had forgotten. Entranced, I played record after record.
A few weeks on, I am a little less giddy. But most evenings I will pour a drink, set up the record player, and listen to a few records. This is the main difference to playing a CD – I really listen. I don’t do anything else. I give it my full attention. Playing a record is an event: opening the lid, removing the cover of the stylus and the catch of the arm, turning up the volume knob, selecting the record and carefully sliding it out of its cover, centring it on the turntable, placing the stylus, standing back to listen in anticipation to the hiss of the first few revolutions…
Not only is the nature of the sound quite different from what a couple of decades of CDs and downloads has accustomed me to, but so is the nature of listening. Listening to music is once again something to do, not just as background but as the main event. It is considered, not casual, done mindfully and attentively. It restores music to being a thing of value for its own sake, not as a mere soundtrack to my day. And what has it cost me to acquire this thing of value? £35 for the record player, and I haven’t paid more than £1 for any record – most at 50pence each from junk shops or charity shops, many free via Freecycle. I am aware of the current resurgence in interest in vinyl, and no doubt prices will increase accordingly, but while there continues to be little demand for these unregarded trifles, I shall continue to explore a whole new/rediscovered musical world.
So – the move is done. I have been in for a few days, the unpacking is almost completed, and I am (after many years of living in 1960s and 70s houses) reminding myself of the joys of living in a 150+ year old house, with not a straight line in it! Almost every piece of furniture upstairs has had to be sured up with wedges to make it even vaguely level. My miscellaneous vintage home wares and country furniture actually look like they belong here, rather than being an anachronism. The cat has moved in and seems to approve of her new abode.
What have I learned, as the detritus of my life has emerged out of boxes?
I have too many shoes. No, really, I do. Because I have never seen them all out at the same time in the same place, I never realised just how many pairs of very similar shoes I have. I haven’t depressed myself further by counting them – I just know I have too many. I understand why – I have difficult feet to find shoes for which are both stylish and comfortable, and therefore I tend to stockpile when I do find suitable ones, even if I don’t actually need shoes at the time. But this is ridiculous. I would have ample for most eventualities even if I gave half of them away. Which is what I shall do. The hospice shop at the top of my street is in for a surprise! I have already sent half my handbag collection their way…
I have too much stuff relating to projects which I shall never finish. Freecycle is helpful here – gifting my stash of fabric which I know I shall never make clothes from, and the things which were in job lots which I purchased for one or two pieces which I have used. More challenging will be the process, which I must undertake, of getting rid of a proportion of of my yarn and fibre stash – realistically, much of it is in colours I now know I am unlikely to use. I can make a couple of nice bundles and donate them to my local Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers for someone else to enjoy.
For the moment, I must set aside training as a traditional upholsterer. In this much smaller house, I do not have the room for the supplies, beyond my toolbox, or for pieces of furniture waiting to be worked on, and in a mid-terrace house it’s not realistic to do the amount of hammering involved, without seriously annoying the neighbours. If I can find a workspace away from home, I can re-visit this, but for the moment I must leave it, and not beat myself up about it.
I have too many books. I must admit this is a surprise – as I had already culled several boxes of books (to Oxfam) over the past few weeks, I didn’t expect this to be an area that would cause me problems. But I have realised that as well as the books on the shelves, I had nearly as many again lurking in piles beside my favourite armchair, under the desk, under that pile of magazines that I never seem to get round to finishing, on the windowsill…I need to assess whether it is realistic that I will read them in 2015. If not, it’s Oxfam again…
It really is possible to declutter, even things that have been around for years through umpteen housemoves, without feeling bad. I have always had guilt about getting rid of things which were, long ago, gifts or which have some association with someone or some event. I’ve been able to ask myself, as things emerge from the boxes, whether I am keeping something just through habit, or whether I am making an active decision to have it in my home. Things (of no great value, but nice, and often recollected from my childhood) which I have inherited from my beloved grandparents, I have kept – a vase, a rug, the child size chair which they brought back for me from a holiday in Spain in 1973 and which now provides a suitable home for my very grown-up bear. I have allowed myself, also, one small storage box of ‘nostalgia’ items. Interestingly, it’s only half full. The one area where I will have to put in some time is my office – I seem to have reams of paper and piles of files kept in case it ‘comes in useful’. Going through several years’ worth of work output will be tedious, but should free up several shelves as I think it’s likely that very little of it will be relevant in the future (and most of that is probably on computer/backed up anyway).
Moving to a much smaller house has been a great discipline. There simply is no argument with not having anywhere to put it! The world really won’t come to an end because I only have a few tupperware food storage boxes rather than twenty. If I can’t store it, I probably don’t need it.
I stockpile things as if I am expecting a siege. The reasons for this, I know, go back to my childhood, but I must accept that in 21st century England it is unlikely that I need to stockpile groceries, ironmongery or toiletries. At all costs I must avoid multibuys. Any possible financial saving must be set against the costs in terms of my tranquility at home as I struggle to find houseroom for things I won’t need or use for ages. What price turning my home into a warehouse for things I can buy any time I need them, just by walking up to the shops? Is a few pence of saving really worth the aggravation of the item falling out every time I open the kitchen cupboard?!
Fitted kitchen cupboards hide a multitude of sins. Or, in this case, stuff. My kitchen here has few cupboards – four small wall units, one base unit plus a corner unit with a carousel for pans. But it does have three open shelves running the length of the kitchen, which I have used to display/store my crockery (including vintage tea things) and vintage enamel bowls and jugs. I now know exactly what I have got. Duplications have become apparent, and have been weeded out. I can see that I have enough – plenty – and will not be tempted to acquire more. The cupboards contain only consumables, and some cookware. I only have what fits comfortably in the cupboards (less than half of what I had before). So far I have managed to cook a range of meals without feeling the lack of any vital piece of kit. My surfaces are largely clear, and the kitchen feels very tranquil.
At the end of the first week in my new home/olde worlde cottage, I am keen to pare down my possessions even more. I want to have even more space around me, to reduce the visual noise of my stuff. I realise that I only really tolerate the ornamental in my home if it also fulfills a function – my ceramics are bowls or tea cups, regularly used and not merely gratuitously ornamental. Even the cat is a vermin-control operative!
Regular visitors to this blog may have noticed the absence of new posts recently. This reflects a time of upheaval in my life, both professionally and personally. I have left the security of a permanent day-job for the challenges of working freelance (need a facilitator/writer/researcher? You know where to come!). But also, after 25 years together, my partner and I have separated. As we live in a tied house which comes with his work, I have had to look for somewhere to live, as well as rising to the challenge of setting up home by myself for the first time in a quarter of a century!
Well – the cat and I have found a delightful character cottage to rent in a small town in Somerset, near to the M5 and mainline railway whilst not far away from the friends and contacts I have made since we moved here from Wales in 2012, and at the heart of a thriving community with shops and services. I wanted to find somewhere that would be a real home (rather than just somewhere to live) as I embark on this new life, so I was delighted to find somewhere which was not a soul-less new-build on an anonymous estate.
The cottage comes with a nearby garden, complete with potting shed, and there are already two big vegetable beds and scope to grow-my-own on a significant scale. There is a wood-burning stove to supplement the gas central heating. And a lock-up garage/wood store across the road. I appear to be all set up for The Good Life…
We live in a large house, and so I haven’t needed to get much in the way of furniture as there is enough to share. However, living in big houses for the last several years has inevitably resulted in Too Much Stuff, and this has been a wonderful opportunity to galvanise me into action – the biggest decluttering exercise of my life is underway! Ebay, Gumtree, charity shops and the dump have all been involved in my campaign to reduce my Stuff by at least 30%, and preferably 50%. Fortunately, the timing coincided with the Christmas and New Year break, which has given me time and space to do at least a couple of hours’ decluttering every day, and make significant inroads into my Stuff.
I have before me, therefore, a challenge and an opportunity. I may not have actively chosen this whole ‘life begins at 45’ experience, but I am determined to embrace what it offers me, and the first thing it offers is choices. What do I want in my new home? How do I want to live my daily life? I am being offered the chance to live much more simply, which (as readers of this blog will know) is something which has been exercising me for some time. This is my chance to make a fresh start in the way I live. I have often said that I aspire to William Morris’ maxim to ‘have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’, and now I have the opportunity to put it into practice.
The white goods do need to be bought new because I really need them to be under warranty. The other bits and pieces I am consciously buying mostly vintage or second-hand. I acquired a handsome day-bed on Gumtree, and a leather armchair on eBay. My bedroom curtains are being re-purposed from a pair of 1950s Welsh wool blankets. I am now the proud owner of a very beautiful Deco chest of drawers, which I expect will outlive me. And I am being very disciplined about how much furniture, and how much Stuff, will fit into a small cottage and still allow me enough space and order to actually live in it. And work in it – the second bedroom (with stunning views!) will be my studio and office.
So – over the next few months, I hope this blog will chronicle my first steps in my new life, and I hope you will accompany me as I make choices, face challenges, and work out how to live simply in my new home.
A friend of mine has recently opened a shop in Wellington, Somerset (3 Mantle Street TA21 8AR), selling painted furniture, Autentico chalk paints, and offering workshops in paint techniques. I must admit to a little ambivalence about painted furniture (I’ve seen it done badly too often, in my view wrecking otherwise perfectly nice pieces of furniture) but when it is done well, and on appropriate furniture, it can be delightful. I am very impressed with Cato Cooper’s paint technique, and also with the paint she sells and uses (personally I prefer the finish to Annie Sloan), and she doesn’t distress everything to within an inch of its life!
But talking to Cato, and encouraging her to use Facebook and especially Twitter to promote her business, has made me take stock of how I use social media and how it has benefited me. I must admit to not being a fan of Facebook. I use it (as an individual, not for my business) to keep in touch with a few friends, but keep it fairly compartmentalised. My Twitter account, however, is indicative of my passions – art, heritage crafts, vintage, rural. Through Twitter, for example, I have sourced rare breed fleeces for felting and spinning, I have found out about a living willow course (and enthused about it afterwards), booked myself onto a print-making course, found stockists, and I have come into contact with a huge, overlapping community of like-minded people with shared interests.
I have particularly enjoyed discovering the thriving online community of vintage enthusiasts out there. March will be the first anniversary of #vintagefindhour, which has expanded to an hour and half because it has been so successful! It takes place 8.00-9.30pm on Wednesdays, and is the brainchild of Sarah-Jane at www.vintagehomeshop.co.uk (see my earlier blogpost about meeting her). Using the hashtag #vintagefindhour, Tweeters from all over the country (and beyond) share their vintage finds and treasures, things they have just bought/found/inherited/restored, and show things they have for sale. The feedback is prompt and enthusiastic, and all manner of conversations and connections are started.
It is especially nice when people who have got to ‘know’ each other on Twitter actually get to meet up in real life! My first ‘TweetUp’ was last summer at the Giant Flea Market at the Bath & West showground, where vintage Tweeps from Somerset, Bristol and France got together – some stall-holders, some just visiting. The next #vintagefindhour TweetUp is planned for Easter Saturday, when many of us will be converging on the Vintage Bazaar to be held at the Cheese and Grain in Frome, Somerset. Plans are already being made for buying and selling (saves on postage!) and putting faces to Twitternames.
Meanwhile, I have encouraged @CatoCooper to engage with Twitter to raise her profile in the online vintage community, and have been re-tweeting pictures of her shop and furniture. Already, because of Twitter, she is selling handmade bears produced by another vintage Tweeter in Devon! I had been concerned, when we moved to Somerset 16 months ago, that it would take a long time to find people who shared my interests, and that I would be quite isolated for a while – not a bit of it! A few minutes a day on Twitter give me access to scores of interesting, funny, clever and inspiring people who are ‘into’ to same kinds of things that I am.
A couple of weeks ago I found myself in North Devon with a bit of time to kill and decided on the spur of the moment to take the turning to Barnstaple – somewhere I had never visited. I had no particular expectations, but thought that at worst I could have a cup of tea somewhere warm, even if the shopping was disappointing. I just hoped I could find somewhere to park, as this is often a challenge is small towns.
Imagine, therefore, my delight at finding there is a park-and-ride facility in Barnstaple. Situated improbably behind what appears to be a school, it has a bus service into the town centre every 20 minutes and costs just £1 per person. The friendly and helpful driver told me not to get out at the bus station but to stay on until the post office, as that would put me right in the middle of the shops.
On our way into town, I spotted a promising-looking vintage and collectibles shop, so once the bus set me down at the post office I walked back a hundred yards or so to Eclectic in Queen Street. Eclectic (www.abygoneera.net) is something of an Aladdin’s Cave, with cabinets packed with all manner of vintage and antique goodies. I spotted a late Victorian sterling silver salt spoon with a gilt bowl which I thought would be a great addition to my collection, and had a discussion with the owner about possible ways of displaying such tiny spoons.
From Eclectic it was on to the main shopping streets, which sweep round the centre of the town. This really is the British high street at its best – not only the big multiples like M&S (incidentally a much better stocked store than the one in my – larger – nearest town of Taunton), Primark etc, but countless independents, including no fewer than two cookshops selling more kitchen gadgetry than my imagination could conceive of, a traditional (and competitively priced) gentlemen’s outfitters, and a surprising number of jewelers, who as well as new stock also sold an impressive collection of vintage and antique pieces.
Perhaps Barnstaple’s highlight is the Pannier Market, which dates back over 150 years and which has general, craft or collectors’ markets most days (see www.barnstaplepanniermarket.co.uk for details). On the other side of the road is the picturesque Butchers’ Row, formerly a series of butchers’ booths but now also home to a coffeeshop, a greengrocer and a couple of delis.
I am astonished that it has taken me so long to discover this great little town with its varied and interesting shops – why is this not a shopping destination in the South West? Why is no-one talking about it? It’s really not far from the M5, and more than worth the drive. From where I live, it would take me roughly the same time to get to Cribbs Causeway, but I know where I shall be going back to! In fact, I can’t wait to go back and explore more – there is apparently an antiques centre, as well as a couple of antiques shops, and several more streets with shops which I did not have time to visit on this occasion. All of which gives me a great excuse to return to Barnstaple soon, and celebrate this wonderful example of the British high street.
Last week I had a thoroughly enjoyable morning visiting Sarah-Jane, who trades as Vintage Home Shop (follow her on Twitter @VintageHomeShop). Based at her home in Somerset, she presides over an Aladdin’s cave of vintage goodies. Her main passions are 50s Meakin and Midwinter china, vintage mirrors, and also luggage – I have never seen so many vintage suitcases and trunks in one place! Other vintage home items find their way into her emporium too, such as curtains and textiles and kitchenalia.
What made my visit particularly enjoyable – apart from drooling over the vintage treasures, of course! – was Sarah-Jane herself. Vivacious and articulate, she is genuinely passionate about vintage, striving for a slower, more considered pace of life, and a more sustainable lifestyle. Her period home has been adapted for contemporary family living with a deep respect for the form and features of the house, without being too precious or formal, resulting in a space that is homely and welcoming while also giving more than a passing nod to the generations whose home it has been before. Having known Sarah-Jane for some time on Twitter, it was a real pleasure to meet her in person, and to have a glimpse of the person behind #vintagefindhour (Twitter, 8-9pm on Wednesdays) and the stream of interesting vintage-related tweets!
The items she has for sale are high quality and in good condition. She has a genuine eye for the quirky, the pleasing and the usable, and it’s easy to see how her pieces would look fabulous as feature items in a modern home, or as part of an all-over vintage style. For example, the luggage looks great as it is, but could also be used for its original purpose, or as stylish storage (and who doesn’t need more storage?!). Vintage kitchenalia is eminently practical and usable, generally much better made than the modern equivalent, as well as making an attractive display in your kitchen when you are not using it. And everyone knows that food tastes better when eaten from gorgeous vintage china!
Sarah-Jane has a website at vintagehomeshop.co.uk (new shiny website coming shortly) but if there is anything in particular you are looking for, it is worth contacting her as her Aladdin’s cave is so extensive that inevitably not everything makes it to the website! And if you are in the area, Sarah-Jane welcomes visits by prior appointment. I had enormous fun meeting her – it’s great to spend time with people who have a shared passion for vintage – and yes, of course, I bought something! This delightful wooden chest is now storing wool in my textiles studio – Sarah-Jane had tweeted its picture and once I saw it had my mother’s initials on it, I just knew it had to be mine!