Friday, 12 August 2016

The Heart of the Home- A Country Cottage Kitchen

When we viewed our cottage for the first time, I absolutely loved the kitchen- even with its orange pine units, serving hatch and graphic wall tiles (the 1970's had a lot to answer for!).  It had a lovely homely feel, partly from the warmth of the 70 year old Aga but also because its a proper cottage kitchen and you can imagine that it has not changed much over the years.

We think that the original part of our cottage dates from the 1700s and would have consisted of two rooms on the ground floor (now the kitchen and dining room) and two rooms above (Harry's room and the smallest bedroom). The kitchen would have had an inglenook fireplace (which now houses the Aga) and the original stairs would have gone up to the first floor from this room (we found their former location when we took the carpet up in Harry's room).

Eventually I would like to have a beautiful traditional painted wooden country kitchen with reclaimed wood worktops and a butler's sink, but in the meantime we decided to give the kitchen a bit of an inexpensive makeover so it looked a bit better and would see us through a few years.  I decided to go for quite a pale colour scheme with accents of pastel green, blue and pink. I didn't want anything too dark as the quarry tiled floor is a bit light sapping and the windows are quite small and face north.

We kept the walls white and repainted the old pine doors (the orange varnish was unsandable!) in Farrow and Ball's 'Elephant's Breath'- a nice warm grey.  Choosing paint colour for the units was  a nightmare as everything we tried looked far too dark or just too modern in the space.  Eventually we opted for Farrow and Ball's 'New White' which looks quite cream on the units and 'Mouse's Back' on the shelves which is a kind of greeny/khaki colour.  We would have never picked those colours, but you always end up choosing something totally different than planned.

I wanted antique pieces of furniture to enhance the cottage's character (which we are trying to put back) and managed to find a table, four farmhouse chairs and a dresser from an antiques centre in Warwickshire.  I painted the base of the table the same colour as the units and the dresser was already painted in Farrow and Ball's 'Bone' which matched really well.  I love the rustic wood finish on the chairs so decided not to paint them.  I also have a tiny blue vintage stool (complete with chippy paint) which I love and is very useful for helping me to reach the top shelves!  Antiques fairs and flea markets are great for finding inexpensive cottage/farmhouse style furniture and its lovely to think that someone owned them before me all those years ago.

I wanted traditional country style curtains (but not quite as full on as the chintzy ones we removed) so opted for Laura Ashley gingham fabric in Heath Green which looks really pretty at the little cottage windows.  I already has a pale blue polkadot oilcloth table cloth from our old house which looked great and our big black clock (a wedding present) fitted in perfectly over the table.

I absolutely love vintage style kitcen accessories (I think 'kitchenalia' is the correct term) so really enjoyed sourcing bits and pieces for the shelves and dresser.  In fact I have now been banned from buying any more as in all honesty I would never stop (enamelware is a particular weakness!).  They are a mixture of genuinely old finds from antique centres and flea markets plus repro stuff mainly found online. I love Emma Bridgewater, Cath Kidston and Susie Watson for crockery, teatowels, aprons etc..  And I had to have a bit of bunting, as it is a cottage after all!

I should probably mention the Aga, as it is the heart of the kitchen. The former owner told us that it dates from the late 1940s and as it still runs on coal it has remained unaltered for 70 years.  The fact that this had a fire in it that we needed to keep constantly lit slightly terrified me when we moved in.  But its fine once you get used to it and we even manage to clean out the flues (with a 'spoon on a stick' and hot ash vacuum cleaner kindly left by the former resident) without burning ourselves.  In an ideal world I would keep the old Aga and have it converted to electric (we don't have oil or gas)  but I think it may have to be replaced eventually.  And in terms of cooking on it I generally just bung things in and hope for the best and usually everything turns out fine.

If you walk past the Aga and through a low door, this leads out into our boot/utility room, which is an extension of the kitchen really and is used a lot.  We think this would have been the old scullery, its a very cold room  on the northern side of the cottage (freezing in winter) so its great for keeping things cool as the kitchen gets quite warm from the heat of the Aga.  We have not really done much in here as the units can't be improved so we have just repainted the stable door and put up some vintage signs. I would love to have an old sink on a brick plinth in there...maybe one day.

So that's all we are doing to the kitchen at the moment, just a bit of a makeover. I love the result and feel a bit sad that we will have to change it eventually but the units are falling apart and I am not overly keen on the faux marble worktops (made of finest plastic!).  One relic of the 1970s that we will keep is the serving hatch, which more than anything is really useful but also gives us open plan living cottage style!

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

A Country Cottage Escape- following your heart

I knew that the draw of the countryside would pull me back eventually.  I grew up in a village in Warwickshire and I absolutely loved it.  My fondest childhood memories are of walking my beloved golden labrador (Muffin) through the corn fields, collecting conkers on the village green after school, making toast on the Aga and the crackle of the open fire in winter.  I was always outdoors with my sisters making 'dens', mixing mud pies and climbing trees.  We had lots of pets (dogs, cats, ducks) and I knew that if I had a child of my own this was the life I wanted them to have too.

We were living in the suburbs when we had our son Harry, but were spending most weekends driving out to the countryside and I always felt a little bit sad when we returned home.  So we decided it was time for a change of scenery. The plan was to move to where I had grown up, but the high property prices meant a rural idyll was unlikely and also there was nothing on the market.  We were a bit disheartened but decided to start house hunting the following spring and hope that some miracle property would appear.

A couple of weeks later I spied a property that set my heart racing.  It was in Worcestershire though, so not an area we knew well at all. But on paper it did look perfect- pretty white cottage, rural setting, country views, a stream in the garden, it was old with beams and the crowning glory (for me) was that it had an Aga.  But best of all it was just about in budget!

We went to view it and absolutely loved it, although it needed loads of work.  Originally a two up two down 18th century worker's cottage it had been extended in the 1800s and later in the 1960s (thankfully sympathetically).  The inside had not been redecorated for 40 years and it lacked the luxury of heating but we loved it.  As a chartered surveyor I would say its unwise to buy an old cottage built into a hillside, with no damp proofing, a leaking roof, a 70 year old coal fired (yes coal!) Aga and antiquated electrics, but the potential was amazing. The fantastic views from pretty much every window made our mind up really.

We came back a week later for a second viewing with our son and my mum, and seeing Harry in the cottage and garden was all we needed as reassurance really.  The lovely lady who owned the cottage had lived there for 40 years, raised a family and reminded me of my grandma.  The cottage also had a lovely homely feel that made you want to put the kettle on and stay for another cup of tea.  After the viewing we stood at the gate of the barley field across the lane looking at the lone oak tree in its centre and it already felt strangely like home.  The only problem was we weren't planning on moving yet and hadn't even had our house valued.

It was all a bit of a whirlwind, as two weeks later our existing house was sold and our offer on the cottage was accepted, so that was that, we were moving and I was very excited (and slightly terrified).  Some thought we were a bit mad to take on such a big project but we figured we would never get the home that we ultimately wanted unless we bought something and did it up ourselves.  We were a bit worried about moving out into the sticks with a small child, to an area we didn't know, away from the support of our family and friends but just went with our hearts and decided to go for it.

So on a frosty morning in November 2014 we moved into the cottage. It looked a bit forlorn in the winter light (and the render had turned green!), and I did have one of those 'what have we done' moments. We had an exhausting day moving all of our belongings in, and annoyed the local farmer by blocking the lane with the removal van (oops). We put Harry to bed that night in his pink bedroom with its leaking roof and springy floor and settled down on our mattress on the floor of the end bedroom.  We lay awake in the pitch black (I had forgotten how dark it is with no street lights) and listened to the sound of mice scrabbling around in the attic.  The next morning Harry said he had seen a ghost in his room, we hoped this was a bad dream (luckily it was!).

We then slowly began to settle in to our new rural life. The first task was to keep the 70 year old coal fired Aga lit, involving riddling and filling it with fuel twice a day and taking the ash out (I learnt early on that wind and hot ash do not mix and its best to walk out of the door backwards!).  The thing I found hardest was how dark it was. The driveway is some distance from the cottage and I was leaving home in the dak carrying bags, a two year old and a torch in my mouth so I could see where I was going.  After falling flat on my face a couple of times the heels were ditched for flats.

But the weekends were just fantastic.  I spent lots of time in the garden with Harry (before it got too cold) collecting conkers and acorns and teaching him about the plants and animals we could see in the fields.  He loved being in the garden and paddlling in the stream in his wellies.  The sight of a tractor ploughing the field next to our cottage is any vehicle obsessed little boy's dream.  We found out quite quickly that we have a lot of wildlife in our garden- pheasants, deer and rabbits to name a few.  There is a little muntjac deer that comes into our garden most evenings who we have named Monty!

We did wonder how on earth the previous owners coped without proper heating for all those years. There were two open fires (the lighting of which required some skill we found), a couple of old 1960s storage heaters plus the Aga, which combined did not keep the cottage that warm.  Luckily it wasn't a cold winter and we had lots of hot water bottles.  The new heating system was one of the first things we had installed along with two wood burning stoves.

We have now lived in the cottage for 18 months and have had quite a few interesting moments along the way- the mice, a leaking septic tank (unpleasant), a hornet in the house, moles digging up the garden, an infestation of carpet moths, a flood in the kitchen where the rain came through the wall and wasps nests in the roof.  We generally spend the winter months trying to keep the cottage waterproof and the summer months trying to stop things from eating it.  The quality of life that we now have is well worth it though and Harry already has a 'den' in the garden.

Other than the more technical stuff we have done most of the work to the cottage ourselves and are becoming proficient DIYers and users of powertools (as well as experts in pest control).  Harry has a lovely redecorated bedroom and the 'ghost' has not made a reappearance. He is really excited about starting at the local nursery school in September, which has a lovely rural feel to it with its own chickens and vegetable patch.

If anyone is thinking of doing this kind of move but is hesitant about the upheaval of moving to a new area and not knowing anyone or juggling doing up a house with a small child (maybe with a job as well), I would say just follow your heart and go for it.  It has nearly killed us but my goodness its worth it. Golden labrador and ducks are next on the list!

Thanks for reading my first blog post. The next one will be about revamping our country kitchen in a cottage/vintage style on a limited budget.