The curious incident of the cat in the night-time

Aberdeen rooftops in the sunshine

When we are in Aberdeen, our lives could not be more different from home. Our green and quintessentially English village feels a long way from this imposing Scottish city. We stay in a top-floor flat in the centre of the city, surrounded by granite tenements similar to our own, with rooftop views and largely untended shared gardens below. Unlike home, where we have to get the car out even to pick up a takeaway, here we have everything on our doorstep with all the associated sights and sounds of city life.

Unfamiliar noises fill our nights – traffic, sirens and the ever-present seagulls who barely seem to sleep. One more familiar sound, however, disturbs us each month. Although central, our area is largely residential and so we see a number of cats about. One family, in particular, fascinates us – a young couple (we think), with an adventurous pet. They wake us at least twice during our week, often more. We have never seen them but we weave endless tales of their adventures.

It seems their cat, like our Princess, likes to be out exploring, no matter the weather or hour. When he comes home, he calls loudly to them, to let them know that he is home now so they had better open the door and the Felix too. The cry is loud enough to penetrate my dreams, and I toss and turn, dreaming that the Calamity Cat or the Princess is calling to me and I can’t reach them. Usually, eventually, the noise wakes me up altogether and I lie there hoping that they will hear him quickly and let him in out of the cold.

Just as often, the boot is on the other foot, though, and they are out looking for him. We often hear them out calling his name, sometimes him, sometimes her, sometimes both. They walk the streets and we listen anxiously for their relieved “There you are! In you go” when he finally turns up. Sometimes a couple of calls does the trick but more often they can be out for half an hour or more. We don’t know where the cat goes to – is he close by, listening to them call and thinking, “Naw, I’ll wait a wee while, just to make the point” or is he urgently hurrying home from a distance, having picked up their calls from afar?

It isn’t just the level and the pitch of their calls that keeps us awake. We have spent months trying to work out the name of this cat. I’m not sure if it’s the local accent which confuses us or the way the sound bounces around between the tall granite buildings but it drives us crazy. For some time, I was convinced he was called Neeman, although it seemed like a strange name for a cat (or anything else for that matter). Last week, however, we both decided we had finally cracked it. “The cat’s called Nemo”, D announced triumphantly the morning after a particularly lengthy search the night before. This does seem more likely, I admit, but it wasn’t what I had heard. “No, I heard it right this time, I’m sure,” I replied. “He’s called – wait for it…” I paused for effect. “He’s called He-Man!”

D’s face said it all …

 

 

Hello 2018!

Ceramic tealight holder with meadow design

And so Christmas is over for another year. The presents have been opened, appreciated and in many cases used already, such as the beautiful candle holder in the headline picture above. The dinner was cooked and eaten, TV watched and family visited. Finally, this week, we took down the tree and put everything away for next time. It was good to get the house back to normal, clean and tidy ready for whatever 2018 may bring.

The garden, too, is in need of a spring clean. We pulled up a lot of veg for our Christmas dinner – carrots, leeks, the last potatoes, parsnips and sprouts – so there are a few empty beds to clear and make ready for the new season. The sweet peas, foxgloves and poppies which have germinated in the greenhouse from seeds I collected last year need thinning and potting on and there appears to be a large amount of pruning to be done. One of D’s gifts this year was a good quality pair of secateurs and matching knife, so he has been out cutting down the roses and tidying a few climbers which were making a bid for freedom via the guttering on next door’s shed. After last year’s attempt at pruning the apple tree, though, we may leave that to the professionals this year.

I had planned to cut back the herbs, too, but the smaller birds appear to be loving the seeds on the lemon balm, so I have left them alone to be enjoyed. Fortunately, the cats don’t seem to have noticed the sparrows and the brightly coloured goldfinches so far. The Pampas flowers are already being stripped for nesting material too and, as usual, we are sharing our home with some variety of feathered friends, who are living in the eaves. I have also left the hydrangea flowerheads intact and their intricate structure has brought me much pleasure through summer and winter alike.

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We haven’t had much snow here, much to our relief, but both the cats did go and play in it for a while when it was here. The Calamity Cat particularly enjoyed it, leaving a trail of paw prints in the previously untouched snowfall and pouncing on imaginary prey which was hiding in the strange white stuff. Once she had had enough though, she returned to us complaining vigorously that her paws were cold and her underside wet. It was fun for a time but could we make the nasty white stuff disappear now please?

Beyond the tidying and nurturing the start of this year’s plants, we are starting to plan for the coming season. We are going to concentrate on the flower garden this year. It’s a mature garden and we don’t want to lose the structure that we have but we want to put our own stamp on it in the same way as we have the kitchen garden and the house itself. More colour, more scope to experiment and play and more variety is our aim – it will be fun to see where we can take it as the year progresses and I hope you will stay with us for the journey!

Sketch pad with pencil plan of a garden
Rough plan of the current structure of the flower garden
Pencil detail of plan of garden
Detail of one area of the current layout

 

2017 – a year in review

Naive pottery nativity 3 piece tealight set

After my reminder last week of how precious our life here is, I thought that this, my final post for 2017, would be a good time to think back over the year and take a moment to really appreciate everything that has happened, good and bad, before we embrace whatever 2018 may have in store for us.

It was certainly a busy year. In the garden, we had all sorts of visitors, from bees to birds to frogs and even, so we are told, a rat or two. I admired its winter beauty, although preferably through a window in front of a warm fire, and embraced the spring once it arrived.

We developed our roofing skills on the woodstore, enlarged the vegetable patch and had a go at pruning the apple tree in the orchard. As well as a new shed, we bought a proper greenhouse. We sowed and planted – asparagus, sweetcorn and parsnips joined our more usual crop of potatoes, carrots and leeks. I made plum jam and roasted tomato sauce and many of the veg on our Christmas table next week will be home-grown. I got my gooseberry bush (although it hasn’t thrived so far – I am keeping my fingers crossed for next year) and planted a blueberry and strawberries too.

In the flower garden, we planted a rose bed and created a trellis for tomatoes. We pruned the hydrangea and the buddleia and, in spite of their age and my fears, they both responded well. Even the Pampas grass survived D’s enthusiastic trim.

The cats have also had a good year on the whole. When they weren’t sunning themselves on the new woodshed roof or supervising us in the garden, they were exploring cupboards and making a bid to eat all the food we bought in for them in the shortest possible time. The Princess has fortunately recovered fully from her suspected poisoning although sadly, it didn’t stop her from hunting for the rest of the summer.

We did the things that most couples do through a year. We holidayed, partied with family and embarked on home improvements in the form of a new boiler and bathroom refurb. We mourned with the nation after the terrible attacks which have occurred throughout the year. We faced my stress and anxiety together and together we are making our plans for the year to come.

Most of all, we are feeling blessed, to be here, to have each other and to be looking forward to a cosy Christmas, just the four of us. I will leave you with a few photographic memories of 2017 but first, let me wish you all a very happy, safe and special Christmas, full of whatever Christmas means to you. I’ll see you all again in the New Year.

A Precious Moment

Cream primroses with a yellow centre, surrounded by deep green leaves and spotted with raindrops

Some of you may remember that, during a difficult time in the summer, I learned about being more mindful and taking time out to just be. Inevitably, as I regained my perspective and went back to my normal routine, my mindfulness slipped a little. However, I do still notice more – about how I feel both emotionally and physically and about the world around me. The garden is a big part of that – the roses are still hanging on in there, in spite of the heavy frosts we have had and the primroses in the patio pots make me smile every time I see their flash of colour.

Sometimes, though, it is the ordinary things which strike me and take my breath away. Last week, we were enjoying a cup of coffee after our lunch when there was a knock at the door. We knew what it was – D had ordered our online bulk buy of cat food to keep our ever-hungry pair happy for the next couple of months. As he went to open the door, a sudden wave of pure happiness swept over me. Something as mundane as D opening the door to the cat food delivery man suddenly symbolised everything about our lives here. Nothing special, lives similar to millions of others and so often taken for granted. And yet, in that moment, I was acutely aware of how incredibly lucky the four of us are to have found each other and to have created our little family. There are so many ways we could have missed each other – if I had not moved to Scotland, if another family hadn’t selflessly sought to rehome the cats so that they could be happy again, if my friend V hadn’t wanted to go to the dancing class where I first met D. Lots and lots of decisions, some small, some large, but all leading to our New Simple Life and that fleeting moment of pure joy as I sat at the dining table, waiting for the cat food to arrive.

Some things are meant to be.

Grey and white cat curled up in a ball asleep
Happiness is …

Here comes Winter!

Traditional carousel

This past week winter really seems to have arrived. We have had a couple of heavy frosts and there has been a real nip in the air. The cats are going out less and less every day, popping out to make sure that all is well in their world and then darting back in to huddle under radiators or sprawl in front of the fire. The Princess has taken to sleeping either on my pillow with her head resting on mine or, when it’s really cold, she slides under the duvet between us and snuggles into my side.

Frost covered geranium leaves
The frost accentuates the shapes and texture in the geranium leaves

On the positive side, we have also had a lot of crisp autumn days, with plenty of sunshine and a freshness that I wish I could bottle and inhale on murkier days. The cows in the field across the road appear to be enjoying this late sunshine and don’t seem to notice that they are sharing their space with the huge flocks of birds which are gathering daily on the meadow. Both cows and birds graze peacefully most of the time until something imperceptible to me disturbs the birds, who rise as one and swoop about the cows in a spectacular aerial display before coming back to land and resume their foraging as if they had never stopped. I can only assume that they are gathering in readiness for their long flight south and that they will all too soon disappear.

The fact that winter is upon us was brought home to me at the weekend when we made our journey north to Aberdeen. The hills across the Pennines were white with snow and the vast expanses of mountains, farmland and forests in southern Scotland formed impressively snowy chessboard vistas as we made our way up the motorway. It was truly beautiful but I didn’t think the other motorists would take kindly to me getting out of the car to take photos, so I am afraid I will need to leave its splendour to your imaginations.

And in Aberdeen, the breeze brings new meaning to the word “Baltic”. Here, it is literally true, as there is little in the way to slow down or warm up the winds which travel from the east to hit this coastal city. We came prepared, with hats and gloves and scarves, but it is easy to forget that the wind can take your breath away, until we return to experience it anew each month. We even had some snow peppering the rooftops overnight.

A dusting of snow on grey granite buildings
We woke up to a white world this morning

 

The Christmas lights are lit, the huge tree donated by Aberdeen’s Norwegian twin town each year is up in the Castlegate and the Christmas Village is in full swing, full of cheesy Christmas music, the smells of mulled wine and cider and delicious food from around the world and the excited laughter of Aberdonians on the helter skelter and the carousel. Even though I usually resist Christmas until the middle of December, just walking through it gives me a happy Christmas glow, and I am relying on this to keep me warm until we are curled up with the cats, safe home again.

Watch out for Maleficent!

Vivid pink hydrangea flowers amongst yellow green leaves

Last week, we became aware of the change of the seasons, with the first frost making its appearance. The leaves are really starting to change now – the beech hedge in the flower garden forms a multi-coloured backdrop to the roses, which are bravely clinging on as long as they can.

We took advantage of some mild weather and some autumn sunshine over the weekend to do some much-needed tidying up. D started with the tall evergreen hedge which separates us from next door. Getting out the old hedge trimmers, he made a start. It is not a job he enjoys – it is time consuming, the trimmers are heavy and the results are never as good as he would like. Clearing up afterwards is hard work, too, raking and shovelling leaves and branches from the lawn, just praying it will all fit into the brown garden waste bin.

Man on a ladder trimming an evergreen hedge
D gets stuck in with the old hedge trimmers

This time, disaster struck, Before he got very far, there was a smell of burning and black smoke started to belch from the trimmers. The thick hedge had finally broken them. Cursing, we made an emergency dash to Screwfix for a new set of trimmers. Well, it made a change from B&Q, I suppose.

Regular readers may remember that garden power tools are not my field. The summer D spent cutting my grass in Scotland using a mower with no blades in it was a case in point. As the hedge trimmers were even older than that mower, it should have been no surprise that replacing them was one of our better decisions. We got back in time to finish the hedge, which D did in record time. The new tool is lighter, sharper and far more effective than the old one. In what felt like a few minutes, we had a neat hedge which looked better than it ever had before and D was finally happy with the result.

In the meantime, I had weeded and tidied, dead-headed and dug to remove remains of summer annuals from the rose and hydrangea beds. All that remains to do in the flower garden is to tame the herbs (again!) and clear the bed near the Pampas grass, which regularly becomes overrun with an insidious, mat-forming and foul-smelling weed. We have no idea what it is, just that it is impossible to get rid of. We decided to save all that for another day, though.

Buoyed up by the success of his new toy – sorry, power tool – D was keen to carry on the next day, turning his attentions to our much-neglected front garden. It is intended to be a low-maintenance space, but it is amazing even here how quickly nature reclaims its own. The privet hedge creeps higher and fuller every year, almost without us noticing, while the ivy spreads its tendrils, taking a firmer hold of the hedge and spreading outwards across the gravel towards the house. The holly which grows through the yellow forsythia (itself reaching ever higher towards the sky) becomes denser and spikier and guests climbing out of their cars on the drive find a treacherous welcome as the decorative grass trips them up, intending it seems to lure them into the arms of yet another holly. This one is ludicrously shaped into an overgrown lollipop and appears as innocuous as the Ghostbusters Marshmallow Man, while being just as dangerous. And everywhere, curling its stems through everything it can, there is bindweed.

Large variegated grass
The grass is just the beginning of the battle to reach the front door

In short, without us realising, we were slowly being enveloped by foliage worthy of Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Unfortunately, though, I hadn’t slept as well as her the night before, so I was not in the mood to face it. D, ever-sensible, talked me round. “Half an hour,” he promised. “Just to get the hedge cut, that’s all it really needs.” Longing for a bath and a nap, I reluctantly agreed.

It is remarkable how gardening restores a tired body and a lethargic spirit, recharging batteries better than any nap could. Two hours later (so much for D’s half an hour!) we had tamed the wilderness, at least a little. The hedge was cut, the bushes trimmed to an even height and the ivy thinned. There wasn’t much we could do with the grass – it desperately needs moving further away from the drive but it is so huge, we wouldn’t know where to start (and even we know that November is not the month to try). I was determined, however, to reduce the lollipop holly to a more manageable size. I certainly did that, but I think we can safely say that topiary is not my strong point.

Standard holly tree pruned into a lollipop shape
Hmm, don’t think I’ll be winning any topiary prizes but at least I can get out of the car!

There is still a long way to go to make the front garden into a space we will be proud of. Nettles are still threatening the plants we bought earlier in the year and the bed near the front door is still terribly untidy and eye-catching for all the wrong reasons. However, the space feels twice the size that it did and, for now at least, we can go bed without fear of waking up in a hundred years, with the house totally smothered in forest.

 

Remind me which century we are in again?

Black gloves hanging from a metal plate on a wall with no plaster

Our recent heating crisis led, as is often the way in old houses, to yet more work needing to be done. The need for a new shower has effectively meant a whole bathroom refurb. As a project manager (albeit in IT), sorting this out should not have been too challenging for me but I forgot about risk management so, of course, nothing went to plan.

In theory, it was straightforward. “We’ll get your shower,” the heating engineer told us. “When we’ve installed your boiler, get a tiler in to retile the wall, then we’ll come back to flush the system and fit the new shower.”

D and I both hate baths. I know people who relax for hours in their baths – glass of wine, candles, maybe even a book (although the librarian in me shudders at that particular thought). I have tried over the years to embrace a bath. Taken the wine, the bubble bath, the candles and climbed in, thinking that this time maybe I will get it. Invariably, I am bored within seconds. D just finds the whole experience unpleasant. However, it was only for a couple of weeks. Surely we could manage that long?

We decided to use the tiler who did such a good job on the kitchen. Unfortunately, he had come with the kitchen fitter and so wasn’t local. However, he agreed to do the job and we set a date. “Just one thing,” he said in a casual tone worthy of Columbo. “Because the tiles run behind the toilet, you will need to remove the cistern. You’ll need to flush the loo with a bucket.”

A bucket!! This hadn’t figured on my radar at all. Still, it had to be done so we agreed to go ahead. After an abortive attempt to find a plumber, my mum and her husband stepped in to help, they removed the cistern and we found ourselves a bucket.

Bathroom with no wall coverings or toilet cistern
“What do you mean, I need a bucket??”

The next day, the tiler arrived fresh from his 90 minute journey from Hull. The plan was for a three day job, with the heating engineer due back on Day 4. The schedule fell apart – literally – on Day 1, when all the plaster fell off the wall along with the old tiles. All of it, down to the brick. So, instead of removing the old tiles and preparing the wall, our helpful and handy tiler spent most of Day 1 plastering.

Getting it to dry was another matter altogether. On Day 2, we talked nicely to it and put a heater in the bathroom to keep it cosy, to no avail. On Day 3, we bought a dehumidifier still with little noticeable difference. We had damp plaster on the walls and the tiler had to stay at home – just as frustrating for him as for us. On Day 4, the tiler still couldn’t come but at least the heating engineer was coming back to flush the system. Or was he? He rang first thing – his van had broken down so he couldn’t come, and it would be another week  before he could get here again.

Bare plaster wall
Will the plaster ever dry?

So, where did that leave us? Over a month after the shower came out, we had no shower and no flushing toilet. We didn’t want the plaster to get even wetter, so we couldn’t even use the bath that we had started by hating and now dreamed of using. We have resorted to what my grandmother used to call a Good Wash Down. (Funny how those three words always have capital letters, even in my head).

When we moved to achieve a simpler way of life, this wasn’t quite what we had in mind! Remind me which century it is again?

Garden Round-Up

Pink rose

While we have been caught up in our heating drama, autumn has crept up on us outside and suddenly we are into November. We haven’t forgotten the garden though – it hasn’t let us.

Up in the kitchen garden, the sweetcorn was our shock success this year. Last time I mentioned them, they were wearing silly wigs and the corn was just starting to form. We watched carefully over the next few weeks, unsure how we would know when they were ripe. As time went on, it became a race against time – would they be ready before the warmth and sunshine disappeared? As we weren’t sure and we didn’t want to lose the crop, we harvested it in early October. It wasn’t all quite ripe to the ends but what was ready was absolutely delicious. We are converts and will definitely be growing it again.

Corn on the cob
We are so proud of our sweetcorn crop

We also left the cauliflowers with their brand new heads starting to peep through. We have definitely had more success with them this year. Last year we sowed them too late and had nothing to show for it. But we now have several caulis safely chopped and frozen, ready for the traditional Christmas cauliflower cheese. Cleaning them was a nightmare though – the dirt gets into the tiniest cracks and we had to cut them into quite small florettes in order to get them fully clean. It made us wonder about the beautifully white cauliflowers we buy from the supermarket. Where are they grown to be so white and pristine and are they cleaned with a Karcher?

2 cauliflowers in close up
Hooray! Proper cauliflowers!

The first frost took us by surprise, although luckily we had already harvested everything which would have succumbed to the cold. We are told that parsnips need a frost before harvesting so we are happy to leave them where they are for now – Christmas dinner is going to be truly great this year! We still have some carrots and plenty of leeks as well. It seems a long time since we had to buy vegetables from the supermarket – and we are loving it.

One thing we may need to buy at Christmas though is potatoes. As you may remember, after the success of our early and mid-season crops, we got a bit over-enthusiastic with late potatoes in bags. “Plant now for Christmas!” proclaimed the packaging. Hmmm, and then again … They flourished in the greenhouse, growing far too quickly and then, when we needed to move the bags outside to catch the rain while we were away, they were hit by high winds and suffered as a result. We harvested the last bag last week and, although what potatoes we got were tasty, they didn’t match the earlier harvests. Next year, we need to try planting a little later and either growing them totally outside or start them outdoors and then bring them in later. Still, it’s all a learning experience!

Dead potato plants in a green plastic growing bag
Our poor potatoes

Another thing we are learning is that the planning and planting never stops. We planted several rows of garlic recently and they are springing up already, ready for us to harvest next year. In the flower garden, the patio pots are full of Sweet Williams and winter primroses, with spring bulbs nestled safely underneath, waiting for the worst of the winter to pass. And the seeds I collected at the end of the summer – poppies, foxgloves and sweet peas mainly – have germinated in the greenhouse and are waiting to be pricked out and turned into plugs. They will stay cosy in the greenhouse through the winter and then be planted out next spring. Well, that’s the plan anyway!

Patio pots containing autumn and winter flowers
Our pots are ready to provide a little winter colour

Also in the flower garden, the roses have been an unexpected delight. They flowered through the summer but have had a new lease of life over the past few weeks, even surviving the frost and providing a much-needed burst of colour as the rest of the garden settles into its pre-winter rest. And, best of all, the Pampas grass has survived its haircut and has flowered to bring us pleasure throughout the winter to come.

We are all too aware that we are fair weather gardeners, that the time is rapidly approaching where gardening becomes a quick dash to the greenhouse or planning and dreaming in front of the fire. For now, though, we may have a couple more weeks to enjoy getting out there and to have an autumn tidy up and we intend to make the most of any sunny autumn days we have left.

 

 

 

 

Warm again!

Green external boiler cupboard next to a red brick house wall

Last week’s post left us going back to basics, lighting open fires to stay warm when the boiler broke down. The following week, the heating engineers were back to start work on replacing the boiler and water cylinder with a new combi boiler. As our village has no gas supply, we rely on oil, which makes boilers large, complicated – and expensive. There was much discussion between the two engineers about the best place to site a new boiler and how to get the supply to the radiators with the minimum work and disruption as they both seemed to have their own ideas as to the best way to work.

Eventually, we agreed on an external boiler out on the drive, as the back of the garage (where the old one lived) was deemed too far from the hot water supply for a combi. The pipework then has to come up the outside wall and in through the bathroom, which caused all sorts of problems in itself. “We’ll have to slide the bath out”, one of the engineers told me cheerfully at the start, choosing not to see my panic at that thought, as the bath panel is made up of tongue and groove woodwork and so is vulnerable if disturbed. It was bad enough that our power shower had already fallen victim to the changes, as it was incompatible with a combi boiler. The other chap, possibly more sensitive to my obvious concern, disagreed. “We might be able to work around it,” he offered. As was becoming usual with them, a lengthy discussion followed, where they put forward a dizzying array of options, all with detailed and technical explanations. Not that they were trying to blind me with science – they genuinely wanted me to understand, so that we could agree the solution best for us – but they managed it anyway. In the end, I left it to their professional discretion and let them get on with it.

Having work done in the house, especially work causing so much upheaval, does not make it easy to work from home. D came home each day, impressed with the amount that they had done, chatting to them about progress (they rarely left before 7pm and were then moving on to other jobs for the evening) and noting with approval how tidy they left things each day. All that was true and I am glad he was there to notice it and appreciate their efforts, as they rarely took breaks and worked hard each day. However, living through it was a totally different experience. D saw the result of the decision to route the pipework under the floor without disturbing the bath after all. I was privy to the discussions which went on before that decision was finally made. I heard them as they removed the panelling as carefully as they could and the muffled curses that followed as they realised that the bath was solid enamel, huge and heavy and set into a wooden frame that kept it firmly in place. I listened to the conversations, as one argued for the need to move it and the other pointed out all the potential dangers of doing so, until I heard “maybe we should ask the customer?” Good plan, I thought. I was, after all, sitting mere feet from them in my office. After hearing the arguments for and against, my decision was clear. The bath stays.

Each day they assured us that the job was going like a dream, better than they expected for a system so out of date. Not exactly the impression I had during the day, when one of the engineers was complaining bitterly about having to cut imperial-sized pipes with a metric cutter, or trying to remove the water cylinder from a small airing cupboard with no space to manoeuvre.

And I won’t bore you with the complications of trying to use the toilet under these circumstances. Suffice it to say that I managed not to fall through the floor, in spite of there being no floorboards down. The engineers discreetly removed themselves to their van, as there was a large hole in the house wall at the time …

The poor cats suffered too. We had them locked in the bedroom all day, to make sure that they didn’t end up under the floorboards that were up in several rooms at a time. They slept through the mornings, but by lunchtime they had had enough. So, not only was I listening to the trials and tribulations of the heating engineers, I also had to cope with Calamity’s heart-breaking crying. “I want to get ooouut!” “You don’t love us any moooore,” and, true to form, “The least you could do is bring us something to eeeaat”. At the end of each working day, I slipped in to spend a little time with them and they both snuggled in, desperate for comfort and reassurance (as was I, if truth be told).

The engineers were with us for four days, that is all, although it felt like much, much longer. They have done a great job and we now have a heating system which comes on when it is needed and goes off when it isn’t, rather than coming on mindlessly between certain hours each day. I am warm when I am working, we no longer need to light a fire each evening and the cats have both taken to sprawling underneath radiators or in doorways where the pipes run under the floor. And we have a boiler outside which is so large that we are thinking of giving it a name and officially welcoming it into the family!

All that remains is for the engineers to return to complete the cleaning out of the system, which they delayed to give the cleaner time to work on the years of accumulated grime in all the radiators. Oh and to fit the new shower. Of course, as anyone who has renovated an older house will know, one thing leads to another and so a bathroom refurb is now imminent, bringing with it its own issues and expense. However, we love our home, which welcomed us all so generously two years ago (yes, it is two years since we moved our furniture in, if not ourselves – where did the time go?) and so we are happy to pay back a little of that welcome in maintaining and improving it.

Now, what shall we call that boiler …?

 

 

A chilly tale (or is that tail?)

Open fire in a brick fireplace

When we first arrived in our new home, we had the chimneys swept professionally, which was fascinating to watch. A sweep turns a dirty job into an art form, understanding what is happening in the darkness beyond the fireplace purely by sound and feel. They also show great skill in containing the soot, leaving the room as clean as before he or she starts the job.

Once the sweep had done the initial clean, however, D decided that he would like to keep on top of it himself. Following the example set by his father when he was growing up, he armed himself with a set of drain rods and a brush head and had a go. An old sheet was sacrificed to the cause, with a hole cut into it to allow the brush to go through and, on the whole, he has done a good job ever since. He tapes the sheet to the brick fireplace and then off he goes, adding rods as he pushes the brush further and further up the chimney. Sometimes the tape holds and sometimes it doesn’t, so I usually act as a backup, holding the sheet in place to prevent the soot billowing forth into the room.

Recently, our very old boiler decided that, at the ripe old age of 30, it had had enough. It valiantly carried on as long as it could, leaking water over the garage floor as it worked, but it became obvious that the time had come to say goodbye. The heating engineer who had ostensibly come to service it broke the bad news to us and ceremoniously switched off the faithful machine, leaving us with no central heating and limited hot water from the equally geriatric cylinder in the airing cupboard. “I don’t know how you haven’t been ten feet underwater long ago”, he told me sombrely. “The cylinder is nearly as corroded as the boiler – they both have to go.” Reeling from the news – not to mention the potential cost of replacing the system – we faced a cold and bleak couple of weeks until the engineers could return with a new combi boiler which would replace both boiler and cylinder.

The cats were less than impressed. The first week wasn’t too bad – we lit a fire each evening, which they quite enjoyed and, if they felt a chill in the air during the day, they could always come and snuggle down on my knee while I worked, sharing our body heat to keep us all warm. However, week 2 was our week in Aberdeen so no fires, no humans to snuggle. We did our best for them, creating tunnels under the duvet in the bedroom, igloos out of their blankets on the sofas and opening cupboard and wardrobe doors to give them somewhere safe from draughts. According to our cat-sitter, they ate voraciously through the week in an attempt to lay in more fat stores and were otherwise very subdued.

Grey and white cat sitting on a white lace mat
“I’m cold!”

We returned late Friday night, both suffering from colds and tired as usual from our long drive, to a cold, cold house and two cats who wanted us to know – in detail – just how traumatic their week had been. We all huddled together under the covers that night and, the next morning, we planned to light both open fires to try and warm the house through a little.

As the living room chimney hadn’t been swept for a while, D decided the next morning that he should give it a clean, especially if we were going to have fires lit all day. With his usual thoughtfulness, he gathered his tools and got started while I was still in bed, as I was still feeling ill. The first I knew of it, apart from the odd scuffling noise, was a heartfelt “Bugger!” carrying up the stairs. Dragging myself out of bed, I went to see what the problem was.

As D had worked, the tape holding the sheet at both sides had failed him, resulting in soot belching out in both directions out into the room. The fireplace, walls, floor and furniture were covered in black dust. When I lifted a leaflet that had been left on a chair, its shape was perfectly delineated, a clean rectangle surrounded by black. It also showed us how many cobwebs were on the walls, previously unseen and now leaving black tracks down the plaster-coloured walls. Fortunately, he had shut the door against the cats before he started, worried that they would try to “help” and be intent on climbing the chimney themselves. If he hadn’t, I am sure we would have had two black cats to go with the rest of the room and a series of black paw prints throughout the house as well. They did come to investigate as we cleaned up, although chiefly to demand why the fire wasn’t lit yet.

Two weeks later, we are still finding areas we missed during the clean-up. I suspect we will be finding soot for some time to come. And what of our heating, you ask? Are the cats cosy once more? That, as they say, is another story …

Grey and white cat asleep on a cream rug in front of an open fire
Warm at last!