It’s your move, or more likely mine. Week 2

I think it’s fair to say we all like to get value for money; not necessarily a bargain as such, but recognise the money we pay is commensurate with the goods or service we receive.

Which is why I weep at the amount of money we have had to fork out over the years with absolutely no prospect of anything in return.

One of my mother’s warnings (she had many) still rings in my ears.

“Renting is dead money”

We have been renting since we moved down here 12 years ago and during that time we have paid an average of £1,000 in monthly rent, which means we have paid £144,000 dead money.

It makes me scream to think with that money we could have virtually paid off a mortgage by now, but instead it has fuelled the lifestyle of the landlord/lady.

But it’s not just the rent that is dead money; letting agent fees have also run into the thousands because with each move there has been a different agent, each of them charging a different amount and all charging a ‘new tenant’ referencing fee.

At least the government has recognised the sometimes outrageous sums of money being charged and they have said letting fees will be banned in the autumn statement; too late for us and quite frankly, it is nothing more than lip service because all that will happen is the landlord will be charged more by the agent and hey presto, the monthly rent will increase to cover the cost.

So once again the tenant carries the can.

One particular agent charged us £125 every six months when the tenancy renewed despite them taking three weeks to sort out some faulty plumbing and thinking nothing of leaving us with a broken boiler during the winter months.

Another agent charged £288 and for that we moved into a house that still had scum on the bath fittings, no bath panel for the first month and a broken shower. We also had to have the front door lock changed because it was broken, the back door rehung and the garage door lock replaced because they couldn’t find the key.

When I pointed out several other areas that were substandard, their reply was

“Well you knew what it was like before you moved in”

To add insult to injury, just three months after moving in with two ‘property inspections’ already having taken place, we were sent a bill for £96 to renew the tenancy even though there were still three months left to run.

And of course there are the removal fees that have increased over the years; so far we have paid in the region of £6,500 and then there is the upheaval of it all and living for days surrounded by boxes. I would calculate it takes roughly two weeks each time to pack and unpack, so over the last 12 years we have been packing/unpacking for nearly 4 months.

So have we had value for money? It doesn’t even come close; the rent has gone to finance someone else’s nest egg; I was told by an agent:

“This is a business for them and a pension”

and there has been no pleasure living in someone else’s house where we are not allowed to hang pictures on walls, change a hideous colour scheme or have a pet without permission and then there are the ‘inspections’ when a complete stranger comes into the house and walks around checking everything.

No, my mother was right, renting is dead money and for many hoping to get on the property ladder, they come to a dead end and as I encountered face a ‘like it or lump it’ attitude:

“…for once, it would be nice for you to have something beneficial to say rather than complaining. How about giving us some valuable information we can do something with?”

No, for us renting has been a big black hole but I hope the chink of light I can see will be our way out.


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It’s your move, or more likely mine

Moving house is said to be amongst the most stressful experience second only to a family member dying.

I’ve moved 24 times.packing-boxes

By the time I was 14 years old I had moved house 8 times; it was sadly nothing as romantic as being a ‘forces’ family, no, it was a different kind of force altogether, that failing of human nature my father suffered from otherwise known as the grass is always greener and within months of settling into our new home and school, he would decide there was a better job opportunity so off we’d go again.

I promised myself that if I ever had them I would never subject my children to this nomadic cum gypsy style of living, but as Mary Poppins so accurately said, promises are like pie crusts, easily broken.

In my defence the middle tranche was during an entrepreneurial phase of refurbishing properties but since moving south we decided to rent until we had sorted out various aspects of family life. In the last 7 years, three of the moves had to be made when the landlord decided to sell the house we were living in and the only reason we haven’t bought our own home is because of the change in lending rules brought about by the few greedy financial fat cats who ruined it for the rest of us mere mortals.

The fact is it was those same fat cats who caused the housing crisis that started back in the 1990s; the consequences and fall-out of their selfish gluttony continues to be felt by the majority of the population who are left carrying the can.

Gone are the days when an understanding bank manager would treat a customer like an individual, so too the days when self-certification allowed the self employed to get a foot on the property ladder. Today you have to have a whopping great deposit, no loans or debts and earn in excess of £40k per annum.

With landlords becoming the new breed of greedy fat cats and rental payments often being more than you would pay for a mortgage, there is very little hope for anyone to clear their debts let alone build up a big enough deposit.

But after years of renting, lining the pension pockets of other people, having to pay £1,000s in agent’s fees, house removal fees and deposits, we have been thrown a life line.

I’m not going to make any promises, but 2017 will hopefully be the year we finally stop moving and this blog is going to follow our progress to see how easy or difficult it will be to start again at the bottom of the property ladder. I will give you a weekly update to plot our passage through the mortgage maze with some additional anecdotes on renting.

I have to accept we may not end up with the house I expected to be living in by now, but it has to be better than living in someone else’s house where you are under constant surveillance by the agent and regularly reminded it will never be your home.

So as the dull grey of January once more sweeps across my horizon, I will try to see beyond the bleakness and keep telling myself the outlook is sunny.



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An autumn walk on the wild side with spiders, squirrels & crocs


When the Marine Theatre team suggested a group walk along the Axmouth-Lyme Regis Undercliffs path, whilst I didn’t baulk at the idea, my agreement (to myself) was with the caveat that it had to be fair weather.

I could not have asked for a more perfect autumnal October day and to help me remember my rambling, as I walked I recorded a few observations on my phone. Listening to that now on a very wet and windy November night, that sunny golden day seems a lifetime away…


The entrance to this very beautiful walk is so unremarkable it’s a wonder anyone thinks it worth exploring; accessed from the corner of Holmbush car park Lyme Regis then along a short road of not particularly inspiring houses you leap from boring civilisation to the kind of undergrowth that would have David Bellamy quickly enthusing.


Just a short distance and a fairly easy stroll, you are treated to one of the most magnificent inland views of the Jurassic coast.


But I did not have the luxury of being able to dawdle so I walked on through the gate.

I passed a stagnant pond bordered by enormous gunnera plants and the impossible to eradicate horsetail plant.


Then came across a house that is being built, a house that will command one of the best views in the country, a house that seemingly has a bottomless pit of money available, a house that I wondered ‘how did they ever get permission to build something like that in a place like this’, but then as we all know, money talks.


On I walked into the heart of the reserve which is where my recorded notes take me.

There was hardly so much as a breath of air, just a gentle mother’s kiss of a breeze that barely touched my skin. The trees mostly have their foliage but they are starting to turn and some of the tall slender ferns are a chestnut brown. The path is very rough underfoot, as you would expect, with tree roots protruding from the earth like great varicose veins holding on tight to their upright limbs.


There is the quietest of background noise of which you are barely aware; I don’t think it’s the sound of the sea I can hear, it’s either the gentlest of winds blowing through the trees or maybe it is the sound of the sea echoing on the hill; it could even be traffic noise I suppose but whatever it is, it’s the calmest of sounds, like a stream running down from the hills.

There’s a great deal of birdsong and the oh so frantic chatter and squabbling of squirrels as they leap across the treetops.

An aeroplane breaks the spell; some sort of large jet that I cannot see, carrying people to who knows where, far far away. Whenever I see a plane flying overhead I often wonder where they’re going, whether it’s for a holiday or business, whether they’re pleased to be going or not.

The wind has picked up just a little and the branches are waving from side to side and the sun has broken through the cloud and is shining on the roof of the wooded canopy.

I walk through cobweb trails; spiders must be abseiling on the silken threads searching for prey. Perhaps they watch me in horror and anger as I break their line.


Brambles have secured themselves to trees, grown up using the branches as crutches then dropping down to become vicious barbed vines to catch you as you pass.

The leaves on the trees that are still quite green hang like inseparable twins and they slap together in the wind like clapping hands.

I can hear the aggressive crack-a-crack of the magpie, can’t see it so at least that’s not ‘one for sorrow’. It occurs to me I have seen very few magpies lately, perhaps the autumn is their nesting season.

I walk alongside a small lake that must have some sort of flow to it because it is quite clear; there’s a narrow path I follow where you have to watch your step or risk falling in. It’s the kind of lake where you would expect something ferocious to suddenly appear, a crocodile maybe or an alligator. Something scary anyway.


The flapping of wings tells me there are probably wood pigeons flailing clumsily in the trees; another aeroplane flies overhead.

I ascend a short but very steep and narrow hill and as I approach the summit and wonder how I’m going to navigate the downside given the muddy terrain, I am delighted to see someone thought about that and there are several wooden steps to help me traverse the way down. Of course heading back might be a different story.


Then I reach the midway point and another vantage point to enjoy the spectacular scenery; Pinhay Cliffs, where I was reliably informed by a passing rambler, that the tree there is the very same one that John Fowles mentions in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

I couldn’t possibly comment. But what I can say is the view was stunning.


And it was here that I met the Marine Dream Team and so I about turned and headed back along the beaten path, by which time the spiders had dropped another line and we all commented on the new-build.

My return journey took me back along the boardwalk, perhaps the swamp below was where the crocs and alligators lurked.


Then it was over all too soon and we returned to the civilisation of cars, car parks and houses. I suppose the spiders were glad to see the back of us but I will definitely be back, this time with plenty of time to dawdle.




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The Harvest Moon & the Low Tide

Apparently it’s not going to happen again for around a decade; that huge harvest moon we had on 17 September, if you were lucky enough to see it, was like an enormous glowing globe. It was a wonder to witness; but with it came an extremely low tide that we also wondered at and wandered along…

It had been sucked out to sea; the sea that is, sucked and pulled back from our shores to somewhere else

Exposing acres of kelp, rock pools and winkles that were being harvested by one family


But we walked on, past our usual rock-pooling place to a cove we had only once before visited because it is usually cut off

We reached the archway, the cathedral sized giant gateway to the other side that is rarely accessible, only at the lowest of low tides


We pass the scoured cliff face, softened by its grassy growth and on we go through…to the other side


I look back at the tidal portal through which we passed


Like enormous ancient ruins of long forgotten civilisations the pillared cliffs stand chiselled and worn


The gigantic slashed shifting cliff face like a conveyor belt that has seized up, looms over us


Bits are missing at the bottom giving way to caverns and caves with their dark mysterious pull

Others have been judiciously blocked by falling slabs or rising tides that shovel hefty heaps of stones into the gap


The rarely trodden beach cries for joy as trusting travellers crunch their way across its stony banks


Another slit in the cliff face where birds and bats nest safe in the knowledge they are unlikely to be disturbed


A thin doorway for a slim Jim, I could but I won’t, it’s too risky even for someone like me


The cormorants take a dim view of being disturbed, they’re not used to people passing close by


I look ahead to the next headland and wonder what lies beyond, the tide has turned but it still has a way to go before it cuts me off

The huge blocks of stone lie atop one another, carved by the sea and the storms, accepting their lot and self righteously remind us this is not the usual haunt of the beachgoer


But the more familiar and friendly limpets sit unmoved by the dominant influences around


And the seaweed fringes embedded into the long forgotten rock-fall hang freely


I look ahead to the next headland and wonder what lies beyond; I continue to wander

Until I reach the next beach. I think it’s Branscombe but the tide has turned and the cathedral watery doors will soon close

So I turn back, once more passing the placid limpets and hippy faced rocks

But the peace is suddenly broken as a small team of noisy motorised hang gliders appear from nowhere skirting around each cove


I bet the cormorants took a dim view of that

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Pam Ayres, the 1970s and shifting wardrobes

“Welcome to the canvas cathedral”


Just the most perfect description for the enormous marquee where the big shows will be taking place during the Sidmouth Folk Festival; our compere continued with his introduction,

“Ices will be available during the interval…” the audience (excluding me) erupted into laughter and all I can say is they have a pretty warped sense of humour. Seems the compere was similarly bemused for a few seconds until he twigged what ‘ices’ sounds like. So he rephrased it…”ice cream will be available…” to more laughter.


So it seemed the audience were well and truly primed for the main star of the show,

“I was last here in 2009 and since then I’ve had a knee operation” audience make sympathetic noises, “yes, I fell out of a ski lift…in Gloucester.”

The foundations were well and truly laid for an afternoon of laughter as the renowned and extremely funny Pam Ayres took the stage.


The last time I saw Pam was on the TV way back in the 70s and 80s alongside the likes of that other great talent Dave Allen; when comedy was hilarious without the need of swearing every third word or extreme sexual innuendo.

“I go into my office with my flatulent dog and throw open the windows”

Times change but I’m pleased to say Pam Ayres doesn’t and her comedic delivery was both fresh and funny with plenty of modern day dilemmas.

With a mixture of anecdotes, personal reflections and family memories, Pam chatted away to us in friendly camaraderie style inviting everyone to join her as she revisited places of old

“When I got married my mum gave me some advice – never let your husband know you can shift the wardrobe on your own”

and some of her latest trips

“The two BMW people ended up siting behind the horse that had evidently enjoyed a hearty breakfast that produced some paralysing methane…”

and jokes

“A horse walked into a bar and ordered a Prosecco, a glass of Chardonnay, a Bloody Mary (not too spicy) and a vodka. He drank each one then said to the bar tender ‘I shouldn’t be doing this with what I have’, why, what have you got? he asked. ‘Twenty five pence’ the horse replied.

The youngest of six, one sister and four brothers, Pam Ayres grew up in a council house in Stamford in the Vale and recalls her house was by no means scholarly and as for early poetic influences, there weren’t any; unless you include the Rupert the Bear annual they had (one of only three books she can recall owning) which she didn’t like because ‘everything was tormented by verse’.

There was however, an ash tray in the shape of a skull; you put the lit cigarette in the mouth and the smoke came out of a hole in the top and there was rhyme written on it

Poor old Fred smoked in bed

“That was my poetical influence!”

She recited some old favourites including ‘I wish I’d looked after me teeth’

So I lay on the dentist’s chair and gaze up his nose in despair

Then there was the trip she took to Newquay with her sister and family when she was persuaded to buy a wet suit and visited the surf shop where there was a young Australian girl working and when asked how you relieve yourself once you’ve got the suit on, the girl replied

“There are those who wee in them and those who lie”

With her unstoppable wit and insatiable desire to bring a smile to everyone’s face, I’m glad the 1970s are alive and well and just as an aside, it’s too late, it’s not just the wardrobe I’ve shifted, it’s the whole bedroom!

Pam signing2



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If you were sent an unsolicited bar of chocolate in the post, would you eat it?

You would? Really? Oh, OK, maybe I’m in the minority then but I wouldn’t and I haven’t and I don’t plan to.

But I do like the packaging within which said item was lurking.

And that’s the thing isn’t it, we all enjoy receiving something in the post; it makes us feel wanted, reassures us we haven’t been forgotten and that there are people out there who think about us.

So when I received a very plush, squishy and shiny blue padded envelope this morning, my curiosity was heightened. Who would go to such an extravagant length and I began to mentally go through my list of friends, which didn’t take long before anyone chips in.

I was certain it would be something quite special in there; the anticipation and excitement is often the highlight of receiving such surprise packages and I envisaged a long forgotten photo someone had come across that would become very dear to me or a special keepsake from a close and loving relative or perhaps I had won a prize, but this was the least likely answer as I haven’t entered any competitions.

I just couldn’t think who could have sent it or why.

So I opened it and peeked inside.

It looked like an invitation; an A5 sized card along with something more bulky.

So I tipped the contents out onto the table.

Which is when I discovered the bar of chocolate.


And the piece of card I thought was an invitation to some swanky affair requiring me to invest in a stunning evening outfit was in fact a promo card inviting me to

“Take a load off and grab a few minutes’ break with a bar of chocolate and our game #RunTheNet”


But the main purpose of the card was not to entreat me to attend some lavish affair but to persuade me to use HeartInternet as my web host.


To say it was anticlimactic would be an understatement; no heart warming family memento, no heartfelt outpouring from a loved one, not even an invite to a party. Just a bar of chocolate that I won’t be eating and a sales pitch I won’t be buying.

But hey! I have a very attractive plush blue padded envelope I can reuse; maybe I’ll find a special token of affection and send it to someone I know to remind them they are being thought about…I might even enclose a bar of chocolate!


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The English Civil War, the American War of Independence and a complete stranger

Lady Strode, brutally murdered either by a soldier or by the hands of a Strode from the Newnham, Devon side of the family who supported the Parliamentarians; the truth is unlikely to be known, but what is known is Lady Strode would not allow Colonel Fairfax or his men to enter Parnham House in Beaminster, Dorset in 1645 and it was this defiance that led to her untimely death.


Now just over 370 years later, I was delighted not only to meet a descendant of this feisty Royalist but also take her into the house, indeed, through the very door where her ancestor met her very bloody and violent death.

To say Paula was overwhelmed would probably be an understatement; from the moment we made our way through the electronically controlled gates and drove through the parkland that surrounds Parnham House, I think a final piece of her genealogical inheritance clicked into place.

Fortunately we chose the one and only day of the week when it wasn’t pouring with rain, indeed the sunshine added extra sparkle not just to the “small lake” that sits demurely at the end of the perfectly manicured gardens, but to the private mini tour we were given thanks to Hans, the Treichl’s butler who was more than happy to talk about the décor and ghosts that are known to inhabit this grade 1 listed Tudor mansion.


But how did this very unusual and wonderful opportunity arise?

It wasn’t so much a detective story as an online chain-link of events, starting with Paula Appleton who lives in New Mexico and who decided to research her family tree, having discovered she had links with early American settlers who had bought their own ship and sailed across the Atlantic from England.

This is what she discovered about her immigrant forebears:

“A Strode fought in the American Revolutionary War with General and President Washington.  A Strode also fought in the Battle of Monmouth (in Monmouth, New Jersey on the East Coast of the United States).  Also the War of 1812, the American Civil War as well as other battles.  The early arrived Strodes also travelled across the wilderness with Daniel Boone ending up in the State of Kentucky as it was later known.  The Strodes built a fort called Strode Station about 8 miles from the Boone’s fort in Winchester, Kentucky.  The Strodes have an elementary school named after them in Winchester as well as memorial markers in town about Strode’s Station.  The Strodes and Boones are considered two of the first families of Kentucky.”

It sounded like the family had greater than the average fighting spirit!


Anyway, back to the 21st century and how we came to be visiting the fantastic Parnham House; Paula found an article I had written about Parnham for Dorset Life Magazine that was on their online archive site and it was then a simple case of tracking me down via the wonderful world of Google.

So on her way to Italy, she stopped off to take a dip into her past and I was happy to help, any excuse to visit this fabulous house. There was the games room that may have been an ice room at one time, the sitting room where guests would enjoy their pre-dinner drinks, dining room with a walk-in fireplace and grand table to seat 30 guests comfortably. The walls were adorned with magnificent paintings, some harking back to the Treichl’s Scottish ancestry but all of them worthy of hanging in any London gallery.

The gardens were peaceful and we imagined the Tudor gentry strolling along the same paths we now trod. Then there were the vegetable and fruit gardens and flower beds that were alive with the harmonious hum of happy bees who were drawn in by the bright colours of the many different flowers.


Our tour returned us to our starting place and it was time to depart; Paula and her friend each gave Hans a big hug which he took with good grace – I stuck to the more distant hand shake and we parted company.

I returned to my life as  a freelance writer cum temporary tour guide and Paula went onto Bridport to enjoy that richly bohemian Dorset market town before leaving the UK the next day to fly down to Italy.

Thus through the medium of our online world, I was able to help a complete stranger make an important connection to another time and another continent, but I have a hunch that Lady Strode was keeping a close eye on her American side of the family, just in case there was another civil war in the offing…

“Dear Sophia,  Thank you so much for arranging the visit to Parnham House.  It was beyond my expectations. It was wonderful that you would set up the visit.  I am very grateful to have been able to walk in the footsteps of Sir Richard Strode and Elizabeth Gerard and their son, Sir William Strode Esq, who was born at Parnham.  Living history!!
You will always be welcome to visit New Mexico when you’re visiting the States.”


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