Monthly Archives: October 2014

Eat, sleep, read, repeat

Life in the slow lane has almost come to a stand still this week as we spend the second half of our holiday at Diani Beach on the east coast of Kenya. The Kenyan government has been telling Brits that geographically they are closer to the Ebola virus in the UK than they would be in Kenya to try and encourage tourism, (something they’ve never really had to do) but the message clearly isn’t getting through as our camp in the Maasai Mara and this resort are both quiet. The threat of Somali pirates off the coast and terrorist attacks in Mombassa and Nairobi are also having an effect on a country that has been a tourist destination for Brits and many other countries for years. I remember being jealous of a classmate going on holiday to Kenya in the ’70’s when everyone else including me was going to Wales. We didn’t know where it was, we just knew it wasn’t in Wales….

So the lack of Kindle and other guests and the fabulous weather means a glorious cycle of eat, sleep, read, repeat, and a lot of daydreaming. It started with me pondering what I would do with the decor if I owned the place. The reason being the current decor is a strange mixture of African, Indian, Moorish and Persian. The accommodation is made up of 6 small cottages, half of which are thatched African style, as is the small hut occupied by the beauty therapist Alice.

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The thatched roof spa next to the beautiful (and empty) white sandy beach

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Inside ours is furnished with ornate carved wooden furniture, Moroccan style lanterns, and Persian rugs. But the day bed, ceiling fan and tent like mosquito nets are more reminiscent of India. The open air vaulted entrance is safari-lodge-like but is decorated with ceramics and ornaments that could have come from North African souks.

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Vaulted ceiling, ornate wooden doors and fountain in the entrance

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Four poster bed with mosquito nets and Morrocan lanterns. Each cottage had an Arabic name, ours was Assama

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The food served is equally varied with bruschetta, lamb tagine, octopus curry and beef and ginger stir fry all featuring on the menu which changes daily. At first I was a little perplexed, thinking perhaps it was the result of a series of owners making minor changes and a chef that had travelled extensively. A little more research into Kenya’s history showed me that this is actually a true reflection of the diversity of Kenya.

Arab traders first arrived in Kenya around the 1st Century, they were followed by Greek traders from Egypt, and then from 500 AD traders from Persia, India and Indonesia arrived. The East African Swahili Coast became a wealthy and advanced region consisting of many autonomous merchant cities. The Africans acting as intermediaries and facilitators between Arab, Persian, Indonesian, Malaysian, Chinese, African and Indian merchants. The Portuguese first explored the area in 1498, they didn’t want to settle, they just wanted to establish naval bases that would give them control of the Indian Ocean. Their presence here only lasted until 1730 when the Arabs finally evicted them. The Brits didn’t get a look in until the late 1800’s – it was 1895 when the British Empire formed the East Africa Protectorate, known after 1920 as the Kenya Colony, with British rule lasting until 1963.

The British presence remains, everyone speaks perfect English and the owner of our home this week is a Kenyan but sounds more British than I do. But I think it is the earlier visitors that have most influenced and enriched Swahili culture, making Kenya what it is today, a multi-ethnic and diverse country. And you know what it works. Who says things can only have one style to be stylish. We’ve been combining flavours in our cooking for years. Diani Blue (formerly Asha Cottage) is a real find. It’s advertised as a B&B but they serve fabulous food all day to residents and non-residents. The ginger beef stir fry on Monday night was one of the tastiest dishes I have ever eaten. The rooms are large, beautifully decorated, spotlessly clean, cool and quiet. The pool and gardens are lovely. Alice the beauty therapist gives a mean massage, and the view of the ocean from the beach side terrace, what can I say…

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But the best thing about this place is the staff, who mostly have very English names. Stanley, Lawrence, Willy, Peter and Seth (I kid you not) are the friendliest most eager to please genuinely nice bunch of barman and waiters I’ve ever come across. So apologies for the history lesson/travel guide but Kenya and Diani Blue were both worth a few hundred words before I head back to cold wet Cumbria brrrrr….

 

 

A Spanish finca in Leeds?

A Saturday night in the slow lane usually involves a Jamie Oliver inspired dinner and some good wine watching contestants being sacrificed to the pop god Simon Cowell on X Factor. But last Saturday I watched sacrifices of a different kind, wildebeest to be precise. Before I quit my city job I booked (and thankfully paid for) a holiday to Kenya including a 4 day safari and a beachside crash pad. So last Saturday we watched 2 female lions dine on wildebeest and some other ladies rocking leopard print, zebra print and ostrich feathers. We were staying in a tented camp of the luxury kind. I’m not really one for roughing it……and I think there must be a global standard for accommodation in game reserves, at least in Africa. Therefore ours had the mandatory polished dark wood floors, the Egyptian cotton sheets and the stone clad outdoor shower. It also had 200 hippo living in the river next door who liked to communicate at 3am, loudly. Believe me the excitement of living with wild animals wears off after a few 3am wake up calls….

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I think the only difference between properties in the Maasai Mara versus any other national park in Africa is the presence of the red and blue plaid traditionally worn by the Maasai themselves which was a nice touch. For a few dollars you could even take home your own Maasai shawl or plaid covered tissue box, and this is where the problem starts. When you stay in beautiful places like this you want to take a little piece of it home with you, or even recreate the look back in England. We’re all guilty of it. I’ve seen Greek taverna inspired kitchens in Stockport and Spanish fincas in Leeds. I’ll even own up to a little piece of Thailand in London. So the question is how far should you go?

If it’s just small reminders you want then there is no rule as to how many you can collect and display. However, anything with the name of the place you visited displayed upon it should really be avoided, unless it’s a t-shirt or tea towel. How do you think I avoid Mr W turning our homes into homages to our travels. If I didn’t keep him in check I’d have a house full of shisha pipes, bongos and wind chimes. The t-shirts keep him sweet. I know one couple whose house I could walk around for hours looking at all the things they’ve collected, but dusting must be a nightmare. I have another friend who has recently bought a new place and plans to buy a bookcase or cabinet for her trinkets – very smart. I’m somewhere in between. I have a relatively small number of things I’ve brought home and they’re currently discreetly placed about the house in London; a hippo from South Africa in the bathroom, some bookends from Cuba on the mantelpiece, a small pair of Thai figurines on the landing. Nothing too distracting. You should also avoid huge items unless you have a) the room, b) the ability to get it on the plane and through customs, and c) it won’t look ridiculous in your home. I love seeing couples at the airport with enormous well wrapped parcels so I can try and guess what they’re carrying back to their conservatory in Wales. I myself have carried back an ornate birdcage from Tunisia (for my sisters garden) and 2 hammock chairs from Argentina. I admit these were probably a mistake but they were only £20!

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(Items that didn’t make it back to Cumbria!)

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There are some of course who like to recreate the whole look in their homes, and this is where it gets tricky. Homes should have continuity, a style and colour palette that is carried from room to room bringing it all together. If you start creating standalone themes room by room you end up with an amusement park. Google the jungle room at Graceland, the home of the late Elvis Presley if you feel an urge that needs killing.

There is nothing wrong with bringing a foreign style to an English home, but my suggestion would be to tone it down and not go the whole hog. My little piece of Thailand in London wasn’t extreme. I had a large airy penthouse with a roof terrace visible from each room. I introduced dark wood floors and added Thai wood carvings to the large white walls and the odd figurine here and there and a few orchids. I built a roof garden and created vistas by placing large planters centrally wherever you could view the garden, and hid Buddhas among the plants. Over the 8 years I lived there that garden grew from nothing to a beautiful mature oasis. When I sold it the new buyer made me rip it all out. I cried when I came home to bare concrete. What an idiot.

So if you’re somewhere beautiful and want to take the memories home, do it, just avoid the 10 foot Maasai statue and the mock Ming vase….. And for those of you with strong stomachs here’s the lions eating the wildebeest – slightly ghastly but you can’t turn away, just like X Factor.

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Things are heating up at Holly Cottage

Swimming three times a week with the pensioners is starting to have a positive effect (11lbs to be precise), although sadly not on my social life, but I do have a new running buddy. He’s a little unfit from spending too much time in a cage, and takes an excessive number of bathroom breaks but he’s great company and loves getting out. His name is Teddy and he’s a local farm dog. Harold his owner hasn’t been able to walk him for health reasons so I’ve been taking him running. To be truthful he pulls me for the first 2 miles, then I drag him for the final 3, but we both end up tired so its mutually beneficial. I’ve also been getting a lot of exercise chasing Agata round the garden. She is the envy of the chicken coop as the only lady able to fly over the 6ft fence. She takes great delight in hanging around near the coop taunting the others with her freedom, until she spots me and legs it…..

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Agata the escapologist

As a result of 5 days without hot water or heating while Darren and his boys install my new cast iron radiators (and drink a lot of coffee) I’m also weight training with the daily trek to the wood store to fill up the log baskets for the wood burning stoves. I do love a real fire at this time of year, however, I am not cut out for the lifting and needed an emergency trip to the physio last week after I put my back out. It’s only when you can’t physically get out of bed and have run out of painkillers do you realise the downside of living alone. Thankfully the local Red Cross, aka neighbour Sharon checked in on me and swiftly delivered drugs and sympathy so I could get back to bossing the plumbers about.

My new radiators were worth the 5 days without a boiler and the bad back though. I appreciate that it was probably rising metal prices that resulted in all the ugly radiators of the 1980’s and 90’s but thankfully the victorian styles are now widely available again, although at a cost. If you’re lucky enough to salvage original ones from old buildings then you can save yourself a lot of money, and buying them from reclamation yards can save you a few bob too, even if you pay to have them cleaned and painted. But I’m always nervous about the internal condition of reclaimed radiators so forked out for reproductions. I used an online calculator to work out what size I should get for each room and ordered them from a company called Castrads who I’ve used once before. They have a large selection and can have them painted any F&B colour. They take roughly 10 days to arrive and their customer service is very good if anything does go wrong with the order or the delivery, or if you’ve miscalculated the number of brackets and valves you need as I did…. and look how beautiful they are!

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The change of season is influencing my design choices too. Everywhere I go I’m drawn to autumnal colours; rustic reds, oranges and greens. I popped into John Lewis last week on my way back from Grand Designs in Birmingham (FYI – a little disappointed with the lack of inspiration but I did save £200 on a new range cooker and 20% on stone flooring). I ordered about 20 different fabric samples most of which haven’t arrived yet but they were exclusively plaid, tweed and tartans like these gorgeous ones from Osborne & Little.

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These lampshades in Green & White and the range of Harris tweed cushions in T K Maxx also got my attention…

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But my only autumnal purchase so far has been this stunning picture by Jonathan Trotman which I found in a gallery in Ambleside. I didn’t really want to buy any art until all the messy jobs in the house are finished but I couldn’t leave it behind. The picture had so much colour and texture I thought it was a painting at first, but its actually a print on canvas.

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Anyway I must get back to work. The customer who wants her conservatory doing didn’t go for the 50’s diner but did like my coffee shop style design so I need to find the perfect table and draw up the plan for the L shaped bench for the carpenter to get started on. I’d better put another log on the fire…

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A 50’s style diner and my new pewter addiction

Autumn has arrived in Cumbria….Yesterday mornings rain and 70mph winds kept me firmly indoors, apart from a mad dash to the wood store to re-stock. It wasn’t a bad thing as I have a new client who wants their conservatory turning into a dining area so I spent the morning researching. She’s a bit of an Americanophile (I promise this is an actual word), crazy about Florida, Disney and NFL, so one of the options I’m putting forward is a 50’s style diner with checkerboard floor and retro furniture. I’m secretly (well now publicly) hoping she likes this idea as it would be really fun to do. I have a contact that can make a customised bench seat and I found these great swivel stools on www.whatever.co.uk. Coloured faux leather and formica is easily sourced, as are the retro accessories. Fingers crossed she goes for the idea!

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I also spent time searching online for kitchen fittings. I was getting concerned that my new kitchen design might be getting a little too traditional. I mean I want it to be in keeping with a period house but I don’t want to go all out country cottage. I think the answer is pewter. Chrome is too modern, brass is to twee, but pewter has just the right amount of class with a hint of edginess. And the great news is its everywhere right now. The style of tap I was looking is also available in Pewter (Bayenne duel lever bridge mixer). Second Nature has a great range of solid pewter and pewter finish knobs and handles. And I found these lights and stools online by Industville, a supplier of vintage, retro, antique and industrial furniture and lighting.

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If only I knew what had happened to my Dads pewter tankards after he passed away. He was a morris man and a pewter tankard clipped to the belt was mandatory. I bet I could find a few in my local charity shops, or is this turning into an addiction…..

My island dreams

I have lain on white sandy beaches listening to the rolling surf on many beautiful islands, in the mediterranean, the caribbean and the indian ocean, but these are not the islands I dream about. It’s kitchen islands that float through my head at night. In my most erotic dreams the kitchen island is situated in a basement kitchen with skylights and a dumb waiter (not the two legged variety). I once came close to living this dream in a house in Yorkshire but sadly the house was next to a busy road in a less than salubrious neighbourhood so we had to leave it on the market. But now thanks to the two foot stone walls in Holly Cottage and the extra foot of chimney breast in the kitchen I can push the stove into the chimney and create enough space for an island in my new kitchen. Even greater news is that when I chipped off the wall tiles on the chimney breast the original red sandstone lintels are still in place which I can move up to frame the new stove. They will need grit blasting (she says with a sinking heart as this creates a terrible mess), but it will be worth it as we found when we discovered the original red sandstone fireplace in the living room hiding behind a gas fire and plaster wall (which has to be an interior design crime).

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Sandstone – before in the kitchen, and after in the living room

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So it’s been all kitchens go for the last 3 weeks as I worked on the design and scoured the market (no pun intended) for products. I’ve settled on a painted wood kitchen from the 1909 range. It’s a beautiful shaker style “with a timeless quintessentially British feel” as they put it in their brochure. Perfect for my period property and a style that I can carry through into other areas of the house like the porch and the utility room. The kitchen is a dark room, despite the 2 windows. We have made it lighter by replacing the staircase that leads to the bedroom above and removing the wall that enclosed the previous one, but it’s still a little dingy at times which impacts my colour choices. I wanted to introduce a rich dark red as this colour will flow throughout the downstairs, but the room couldn’t take it so I’ve limited this to the base units and will be having cream coloured units at eye level. I mixed black and white units in an open plan kitchen in London and it was very effective. My local supplier will order the cupboards from 1909 in natural wood and have them painted in my chosen F&B colours.

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Half pencil and scalloped kitchen from 1909 and Farrow & Balls Rectory Red and Ringwold Ground

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It has to be black granite work surfaces as Mr W is a red wine drinker, but I am treating my island to a thick oak butchers block top. I can cope with occasionally re-sanding and oiling a small area but not the whole kitchen. The granite will compliment the black SMEG cooker I intend to pick up at discount at Grand Designs next week in Birmingham. The show is always worth a visit but it is even more worthwhile if you are about to purchase a pricey item and the supplier is exhibiting. Light cream metro tiles will finish it off nicely as you can see in the photo below.

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I spent hours trying to figure out how I could have more fridge space without installing a tall unit as I wanted the red below and cream above design to be consistent and a tall unit would scupper this. Jim at The Cockermouth Kitchen Company, my supplier, suggested a 2 drawer fridge by Hotpoint. No more squatting in front of the fridge for me! I can now put all Mr W’s beer, cheese and chilli products in the bottom drawer and all the useful stuff in the top drawer (i.e. butter and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc). By installing this in the island it will be handy for food prep, and allow me to maintain the triangle you need for navigation between the fridge, cooker and sink. We’re also installing a dishwasher which my current kitchen sadly lacks, and a decent under counter bin. This probably sounds like an obvious comment but after living for the last 4 years with one of those frames on the back of a door that you hang plastic bags on this is probably the thing I am most excited about, after the island of course…

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Lighting has been tricky to source as I really want  a double pendant light above the island but the fixed bars are too long for me low ceilings. But then I discovered David Hunt Lighting at Decorex last month, and they can manufacture bespoke sizes which means I can have this beautiful station lamp altered to the size I need, and get a matching single light pendant for above the sink. With a few spotlights and some under cupboard and in cupboard lighting we can say goodbye to the dingy kitchen.

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The only important feature I need to finalise before I get into the fun stuff, i.e. replacing all the Ikea kitchenware with new, is the taps. I’ve still got a little research to do but I’ve seen a few I like such as this brushed nickel colonial bridge sink mixer tap by Bristan.

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So the order will be placed tomorrow to ensure a pre-Christmas installation. I didn’t think the grit blasting would produce enough mess (!) so I’ve decided to install a wet underfloor heating system which involves digging up the existing floor. But there is nothing nicer than bare feet on warm stone flags, and it means I can remove the radiator to create space for a window seat with a pan drawer below it. So Scratchy the cat also has a seat when me and Mr W are seated at the island I can’t stop dreaming about.

Photo’s to follow when it’s all installed. In the meantime I’m off to scramble some eggs with one of the double yolkers my ladies keep producing. Must be all the treats I feed them. They go mad for corn on the cob. They were all chasing Margo round the hen house last week when she managed to grab a piece for herself. I might have to rename her Usain after her performance.