‘It’s awful, but you are going to love it’. Richard’s text arrived as I was clambering up a sand dune, trying to locate a picnic, on my Experience in Wales in May. The message was accompanied by a photograph of comedic, china dog sat in front of an old fashioned gas fire, its plastic surround singed by years of use. This was the first glimpse I saw of the inside of the house I already knew would become our new home.
We’d decided in the New Year that we would move, that we would leave our beloved Primrose Hill. We’d lived happily in our two-bedroom flat for seven years but now that the boys are both teenagers it was becoming cramped and stressful. We were craving some space, some separation from each other, for our collective and individual sanity. Our only stipulation for location was that it needed to be easy for the boys to get to their school and we quickly settled our search on finding a smart, spacious flat in one of the elegant Edwardian mansion blocks in Maida Vale.
I’m not quite sure how it was that we instead ended up buying a neglected, dilapidated terraced house in Camden, but I do know we saw a lot of dreadful properties along the way – around twenty five, I think. We trudged around a cast of badly carved up Victorian conversions with odd-shaped rooms, and a whole heap of garden flats with brutal, thoughtlessly designed extensions. We learnt that there is a dispiriting amount of low-quality astro-turf in North London and that hyper-glossy kitchens are all the rage.
We had a few ‘almosts’: a wonderful garden maisonette in central Camden that we couldn’t afford, and a light and airy mansion block apartment in Maida Vale that we didn’t realise we could afford until it was sold. There were a handful we eschewed, being unable agree on whether to buy them: a cosy attic flat in Maida Vale that I adored, and a maisonette in Chalk Farm that Richard would have settled for. And then, after five months of searching, just as we were considering throwing in the towel, we found the house.
The house was not on the market, it was a probate sale and the executors didn’t intend to sell it until the legalities were complete. But our estate agent, Peter, convinced the executors to let us take a look. There were no floor plans and no photographs, and all we could see was what we could interpolate from scrutinising 3D digital maps on our computers. It was enough, though, for me to be convinced that this was our house. The keys didn’t arrive for an excruciating three weeks, by which time I was in Wales and so Richard went to view the house without me.
The house sits on a hill on the edge of a conservation area in Camden. It’s tucked away in a secret grid of streets that nobody seems to know exists. A black cab driver told me last week that he’d not been there in twenty years and I’ve not once told anyone where it is without having to show them on the map on my phone. There are no pubs, no shops and little in the way of parks. But it’s quiet, deserted, peaceful and pretty.
It’s in a sorry state. It’s missing a staircase and almost all of its admirable original features have gone. The sashes have been replaced with casements, there are boiler vents protruding from the brickwork, and there is concrete absolutely everywhere. The lower floor has been shut up for thirty years and is riddled with damp and the upper floors are filthy. But it is structurally sound, despite its appearance, and has more promise than a Cambridge graduate with a double first.
We bought it, and so began the long, tortuous road to completion. The Japanese knotweed in the garden caused all sorts of legal problems and the probate delayed exchange for weeks. We spent five tumultuous months terrified an unscrupulous developer would get wind of the house and whip it out from under our feet like a magician with a tablecloth. Our eventual exchange of contracts earlier this month was accompanied more by sighs of relief than squeals of excitement.
Since then we’ve been planning furniture layouts in our heads and have troubled over where to put the shower room. We’ve hired an architect and have decided where the Christmas tree will go. There are rumours of a pizza oven and I know my desk will overlook the beautiful, South-facing garden. I’m excited about having a bathroom with a window and not having to eat in my sitting room. I’m very much looking forward to exploring a new area and having a new project.
We are incredibly sad to leave Primrose Hill, it’s been our home for a long time, but it’s time for a change, to try something new. The works are extensive and we can’t live in the house, so we are evacuating ourselves to Kent to live with Richard’s parents for the duration of the building works. We aim to move into our house at Easter, ready to spend the summer in the first garden I’ve had since I left home at the age of eighteen.
Christmas shopping in London can be an enjoyable and fun adventure, far removed from the stressful crowds of Westfield or Oxford Street. You just need to know where to head for. Here are my favourite destinations.
My guide to the most stylish and atmospheric things to do in London this Christmas to make the most of this magical festive period in our beautiful city.