{short description of image} Sunday Times Articles


During the renovation of St Curigs Alice Douglas wrote a series of articles for the Sunday Times Property Section - these are listed below and give a personal insight into the trials and tribulations of taking on such a project
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October 27, 2002

Headline: Conversion of my dreams


Lady Alice Douglas was looking for a graveyard to bury her newborn son when she fell in love with a Welsh church. After four years of roughing it there, she is turning it into a home.

Overlooked by the Glyders and Carneddau mountains lies a stone church, protected by a walled wilderness and a statue of St Curig, a child martyr. Oak doors open on to a red-brick interior topped by a vast, barrelled ceiling. Treasures lie within, among the sandstone arches. I remember clearly the first time my eyes gazed at the elaborately carved pulpit, intricate stained-glass windows and mosaic apse. The wonders of our home never cease to amaze me.

When I saw the church initially, I didn't only want to buy it; my very life seemed to depend upon it. It was one of those defining moments when everything changes. I'd just lost my newborn son, and until then I had led a fairly rootless existence, not understanding those who live frugally, investing in their house. Who needs a handmade kitchen or an attic extension? I didn't want to be dragged down by excessive monthly mortgage payments, and my husband, Simon, and I had imagined taking our young son around the world.

The reality - I needed a grave - devastated any preconception I might have had. We were renting in Deiniolen, which may have once thrived, but the slate quarry is now shut and all but two of the 40 shops have closed. We'd just moved there and although I'd often wandered past the cemetery, I had never paid much attention. Simon had another look and came back with reports of litter, beer cans and graffiti. I couldn't leave my son there.

Simon's grandparents were buried nearby in St Tudno's, a beautiful church on the cliffs above Llandudno. They had no space, although possibly something could have been arranged for Pounds 5,000.

During that bleak January week, our search for a graveyard led us to Capel Curig. The village had particular meaning as it is one of the first places we came to after Simon was released from prison. I fell in love when playing opposite Simon in a prison production of Macbeth. He was serving nine years for armed robbery, and during rehearsal would talk to me about the happy time in his childhood when he lived in Capel Curig. His father had been drawn to the village by reading I Bought a Mountain by Thomas Firbank, and his love of the book prompted him to knock on the author's door asking for a job. He got one, as a shepherd, that included lodgings in a caravan for his wife and young sons. For Simon it was the greatest adventure of his life, but the idyll ended three months later when their caravan was swept into the river and they had to be rescued.

We found the church where we wished to bury our son and met Jill Tunstall there. She had the keys and was part of a group raising money for its restoration. I liked her instantly. Instinctively she understood my need to live nearby, telling me that the big church through the trees was for sale, and taking me there.

We fought through brambles, spent ages fiddling with the lock, and then stepped inside. An eerie stillness came over me. I glanced down the aisle; hymn books were scattered along the pews. Then I looked up at the beautiful mosaic apse; a memorial to Georgina Sackville-West, who had died leaving young children, one of whom, Lionel, would later father Vita, the writer and gardener.

The mosaic was created by Antonio Salviati, a lawyer from Vicenza who started manufacturing glass and mosaic tiles. The firm captured attention with a prizewinning display at the London International Exhibition in 1862, and many important buildings, including the Houses of Parliament, still display his impressive work.

I gazed in wonderment at the ceiling, as the history of marriages, funerals and christenings flooded through me. Then I turned and saw the intricate stained glass windows; the sun shone, creating a kaleidoscope of colour. I breathed in the damp air. Jill felt certain that I would live there.

The day after the funeral I returned with most of my family. I sensed the excitement of my brothers and sisters, all equally carried away with the vision. My father was more practical and muttered under his breath, absolutely no. Mum hissed back: "David, she needs this, a project, something to work on." What either of them said made no difference. Simon and I knew we must live there and wrote to the Church of Wales to put in an offer the following day. They replied that St Curigs wasn't for sale. I wrote persistently, long passionate letters, and started applying for a mortgage, not easy if the property isn't a conventional house. Mum offered to sell hers, but luckily my father put his reservations aside and acted as guarantor to help raise the funds.

Six months later, in June 1998, the church was officially put on the market for Pounds 40,000 and we were told our offer would be considered. Christine, from the estate agency, by now knew me well and rang to say they felt it was only fair to market it for a month to give other interested parties a chance. I returned with a higher offer. At the end of an interminable four weeks, we were told our bid wasn't the highest but the Church of Wales would extend the deadline for another week. We upped the offer daily and were told finally St Curigs Church was ours.

We exchanged contracts and were allowed access to visit the site with builders. We didn't have the money to do any work, or even a guaranteed mortgage offer. I didn't let that deter me, however, and asked Simon to move a couple of pews to make room for a bed so that we could stay. He protested that it wasn't yet ours, but I won, and rather nervously we became residents. The day before completion we received confirmation of our mortgage offer. I was six months pregnant with our next child. We had no water, lavatory or heating.

We set about doing what we could, first buying some blue velvet curtains from the Liverpool Empire Theatre to put up as a temporary wall. Merfyn, our trusting builder, said he'd divide up one end for us so that we had a bedroom and bathroom, and that we could pay him any time. After six months we had to force the money on him, as he said it really wasn't a problem and we need only pay when we were sure we could afford to.

Four years on, we are settled enough to know that we can raise a further Pounds 80,000 and hopefully create the house of our dreams. Nothing, however, is going to plan. Having paid one lot of architects Pounds 7,000, we got quotes back on their drawings for Pounds 280,000. The architects then said they wouldn't do another stroke of work until we paid them their percentage of this sum. I threatened conciliation proceedings and they reworked their drawings, but have now dissolved the practice. The building regulations authorities informed me that we cannot use their work as it failed on every safety point.

I popped into the Snowdonia National Park offices for an informal chat with our planning officer only to find that the St Curigs Church file contained photographs of a sign on the gate saying "Antiques for sale". We have only residential permission. I muttered nervously that it was just a few bits and pieces, but quite rightly it didn't wash. It was an awful meeting and I dug myself in deeper as I discussed what we hoped to do. I felt such an intruder and wished my Welsh grandfather, uncle, cousins and husband were with me.

We then, thank God, met Dylan, our new architect. He seems to have the right combination of knowing where to curb my wild imagination, and sympathetic ideas that fit in with the building and the national park. He is also Welsh.

Work should have started in early summer but Dylan seemed permanently busy, the national park informed us we had to reapply for planning permission and, to top it all, the Woolwich refused the mortgage. Luckily it looks as though the Royal Bank of Scotland will come up trumps. Meanwhile, I am frittering away the small amount of cash we had set aside. I am preparing to move into the garden as the prospect of internal mayhem nears. Horrendous winter looms, but I can relax. We've bought a huge hot tub, with every conceivable jet, for the best massage imaginable. Bliss!

The hot tub is proudly perched atop a muddy slope and there I loll, viewing the majestic exterior of my beloved church, framed by the mountain Moel Siabod and the Snowdon Horseshoe. When our regular visitors arrive mistakenly for Sunday service, I watch them peering at me with disgust before they bolt for the gate. Their thoughts are written on their faces: women vicars, hot tubs, whatever next!


March 30, 2003

Headline: Losing faith in builders


Last October, Alice Douglas told Home readers how she fell in love with St Curigs, a remote church in north Wales, and decided to turn it into a home. Here, she continues her story…

Three months into what should have been my building project, not a cobweb had been disturbed in this gem of an old church at Capel Curig that is our home. It all began not happening last October, with my first excited call to the Snowdonia national park authority. I was to be told that in principle our planning application had been passed and forwarded to CADW (the heritage body for Wales), a slight glitch being that it had forgotten to advertise in the local press. Because of this I should expect a delay, but we would certainly hear by late November.

Finally, in the new year, we were informed that it had been passed. Eureka! Well, at least I had plenty of time to get four quotes in for the construction work.

Marty, who works with me, attempted to find builders. We were rather surprised by the lukewarm response she got to cold calling. Eventually, from more than 50 entries in the Yellow Pages, we had a shortlist of four willing to price.

First came the chap who does work for the National Trust. A big bear of a man, he was enthusiastic about our potential home. We were supposed to be joined by Dylan, our boundlessly enthusiastic but elusive architect, but I said he probably wouldn't arrive.

For once it was probably lucky Dylan was absent, as the builder balked at the lack of detail in the drawings and said any quotes from them would be unrealistic. He asked for a schedule of works and I decided to ring another architect friend for advice. He agreed that this was normal practice and told me that our man should be putting out a tender for various quotes; it wasn't supposed to be my job.

My meeting with the builder finished with an agreement to send him a schedule as soon as possible, but it took 10 telephone calls over 10 days to get hold of our Dylan, who questioned the need for such a document. A month later, he produced a schedule.

My next prospective builder was Marcus Leverton. My mother was insistent I get a quote from his firm as they had done some repairs on her house. It seemed mad to employ a company from Derbyshire, but after an initial chat with Marcus the idea was growing on me. The firm has high penalty clauses, meaning it finishes within a pre-confirmed timescale. I offered to house the lads while working on the project.

Looking around, Leverton smiled apologetically and said: "Alice, they are used to the Marriott. I don't think they'd be good at roughing it."

Marcus decided not to price the job. I should have scrubbed the house, worn some make-up and made the whole project more glamorous. I had no idea that builders were so hard to woo.

Next on my list was a local firm working at the National Mountaineering Centre down the road. I often pass the centre on my morning run or walking to the lake, bumping into courteous builders who are there from early morning to late and always hard at work, so I met the contracts manager. I hoped he would pitch a price close to our budget, but after six weeks of discussion and two days before the estimate was due, I heard the firm wouldn't be sending a quote after all. I was somewhat put out: it would have been nice to have been informed earlier.

Next was a one-man band who works with labourers. If we employed him it would be to do the internal structure only, and on top of this would come the cost of stonemasons, electricians, plumbers and joiners. Dylan suggested him and I might have had some faith in the idea were it not for the fact that he didn't want to talk to me, saying it would confuse the issue and that he'd report to Dylan - who is, of course, a man. Dylan then said the cheapest option was to employ specialists rather than getting in a bigger firm to subcontract. Perhaps he is right.

The one-man band's quote came in at Pounds 24,145 plus materials, while the big bear's building firm's totalled Pounds 140,685. I couldn't compare the two as they were broken down in different ways. The company is out of our price range, but I didn't think the one-man band would actually work out any cheaper, as Dylan said he would still need to get all the other contractors to submit prices too. Perhaps I should fire Dylan, I tell him, and start again? I feel defeated.

Rashly, I felt like giving the job to anybody who'd do it, just so that something started to happen. Let the hammer blows commence! At the outset I listened to sceptics ranting about nightmare builders but didn't fully take in the ominous tales of the horrors ahead. I imagined if I was prepared to dedicate myself wholly to the task, the job would get done.

I had come to a dead end. Should I get more quotes? I gave up and turned my attention to reading brochures for Smeg, Aga, Ideal Standard, Fired Earth and Nu-Heat underfloor heating, and had a meeting with a Laura Ashley designer who offered advice on interiors. I talked to the local builders merchants, and Jewson quoted some unbeatable prices.

The new year propels me into action and I finally give the job to the first building firm, with the instruction that the price needs to come down to Pounds 100,000. I am certain it will do a wonderful job, but am worried about starting without a finalised quote. The company agreed that my husband Simon and I should do some of the less skilled jobs to reduce costs. We called in a team of friends to help take out the wooden floor in the main hall, and hired a digger to prepare foundations. The man who will run the job has been around with stonemasons, plumbers and joiners. He seems excited to be involved. I love hearing them speaking Welsh.

And so we started. Four years of sharing a room with the children was nearly at an end. Then, disaster! Just three weeks in, and our chosen firm dropped a bombshell.

Its quote, far from going down, had gone up to nearly Pounds 200,000, which excluded bathrooms, the kitchen and floors. I had to halt all work. With a hole in the floor and a digger lying idle, what on earth am I going to do now?


May 09, 2004

Headline: A marriage left in ruins


If I had agreed to a cottage instead of a restoration project, would I still be with my husband, asks ALICE DOUGLAS

In January 1998, when I stood in my home for the first time, I was blind to the green damp engulfing every surface and the holes in the roof with puddles below. I saw only walls 3ft thick offering the security of a fortress. I had just been bereaved, craved physical work and felt that by turning a neglected Victorian church into the family home I would find my salvation.

I bought the 4,000sqft property in Capel Curig for Pounds 54,000 -crazy compared with the London prices I was used to. At the time it seemed a bargain but, as I have written in these pages before, the cost has never stopped spiralling. Gone is the Notting Hill flat I'd intended to keep for a rainy day (which come thick and fast in north Wales). The Pounds 100,000 profit was soon swallowed up, I have quadrupled my mortgage, a shocking Pounds 280,000 has vanished and I still don't have the home I dreamt of, just an ever-extending building site.

The project has cost not only in financial terms, as my marriage has all but fallen apart. It seems I wed not only a former prisoner and junkie but a serial adulterer. And what I wonder is: if I had bought the pretty little cottage in need of slight modernisation that my husband Simon wished for, would I now not be broke and contemplating life as a single mum?

When Simon and I moved in, we pushed the pews aside and pitched camp. I was six months pregnant and we had no running water or heating. Eventually we were able to start the work and impatiently watched the first trenches being dug. Six years on, I am still living among rubble and I can hardly bear to remember how optimistic we were a few years ago with our budget of Pounds 80,000 to convert the main hall.

I proudly showed prospective builders the drawings and glowed as I was told that it would look magnificent. We planned nine bedrooms, five bathrooms and a 30ft kitchen, so that we could do B&B should it prove necessary.

I found what I thought was the perfect building company, but within weeks of starting they'd upped their price by Pounds 50,000. I stopped work immediately and asked for an explanation, but instead of giving one, when we were out they collected their tools, taking some of ours in the process, and sent me a bill for Pounds 17,876.99. Its estimate for the completed work had been about Pounds 5,000 -a slight discrepancy!

I had to pay for a contractual-dispute quantity surveyor (Pounds 100 per hour) to independently value the work. Unfortunately I had signed a letter of intent, which I was told outlined responsibilities for the project. By doing this, I had effectively given the company an open chequebook. We met each other halfway and I forked out Pounds 9,000.

I was certain I would remain in control of the project but most of my friends have admitted they felt let down by a contractor at some point. An added problem is that in a rural area there just aren't that many people to choose from. You either take a chance to get the job done quickly or wait up to six months for one who comes with a good recommendation.

So I was back to square one. Who on earth should I get? To my dismay, Simon contacted his stepfather, Roy. On the few occasions that we'd met he'd seemed a nice guy, but he is family and I kept muttering, "This isn't a good idea." Simon, however, was reverting to his happy seven-year-old self, thrilled his dad would be about the place. What could I do but give in?

Progress was slow because Roy works full-time and comes at weekends or when he can. But so far the work has been comparatively cheap -and we've reached the top floor. After the early nightmare, it felt like divine intervention to see the walls rising slowly from the wreckage. The wiring is complete, as is the underfloor heating system, and most of the upstairs rooms have been plastered.

But any happiness I gained from Roy's steady progress was short-lived. The stress of building work and money worries have put my marriage under incalculable strain.

I have been constantly pleading with mortgage companies and using credit cards and loans to scrabble together more funds.

Simon began to resent me for working late into the night but it was the only way I could make ends meet. I pushed myself harder, promising that as soon as the church was finished I would devote more time to my relationship. When we discussed finance, Simon erupted like a volcano and so I tried to avoid the subject. I assumed we'd get there one day, while he imagined bailiffs and repossession.

I believed happiness was just around the corner, though with two young children and Simon having given up work to labour for his stepfather, things were strained.

My rose-tinted vision came to an end when I discovered Simon had slept with our au pair. I booted them out and sat weeping in my half-completed shell, wondering how I could possibly continue.

Simon's bliss was short-lived when he found himself living in a dingy bedsit. He came home for a while but now lives down the road in a caravan while we are trying to see if we can sort out our relationship. It is very hard, as I have since learnt he had three other affairs, but I'm trying to get motivated again and Roy has promised to stick with the job. I have to face the fact that my children may now grow up with separated parents and this has made me even more anxious to safeguard their home.

The last year will haunt me for ever. I cringe when I remember how I imagined myself floating out to the building site carrying cakes and drinks to a happy bunch of workers who joined our model family in a glass of bubbly at the end of the day.

Like childbirth, nobody can understand what a renovation project is like until they're in the middle of it. But by then it's far too late.


August 29, 2004

Headline: When a stranger calls



When I saw the church in the small Welsh village of Capel Curig six and a half years ago, I didn't only want to buy it.

My very life seemed to depend upon it. It was one of those defining moments when everything changes. Until then I had led a fairly rootless existence, but I had just lost my newborn son. Our search for a graveyard led us to Capel Curig. My husband Simon, whom I had met during a production of Macbeth -in a prison where he was serving nine years for armed robbery -had spent a happy time in the village as a boy.

My father was worried: I needed to bury a child, but did that call for buying an abandoned church to watch over the grave? I knew it might help fill the emptiness, however, and the protective stronghold of sandstone and brick was soon mine, for Pounds 54,000. I chose to ignore the lack of electricity and plumbing and the water running in streams down the walls. We camped amid the pews, an ex-con and a hugely pregnant aristocrat waddling backwards and forwards to the public loos with her sponge bag. Many friends thought that, addled by grief, I might as well be burying myself in Siberia.

But eventually I felt confident enough to borrow Pounds 100,000 and after searching for a builder, found myself with a choice between two. A chauvinistic one-man band unable to discuss anything construction-related with a woman, and some upmarket crooks (I learnt later). I chose the more sophisticated outfit, but almost immediately an acrimonious dispute halted work. It's hard to convince some people they are years too late to get their hands on the family money. At last count, the project has already swallowed Pounds 280,000 -although with the mud bath outside the front door, the forlornly neglected timber and gaping holes where windows should be, it doesn't look it.

After a series of disasters with builders, Simon decided he would do the work himself, but rapidly plummeted into depression and cheered himself up by sleeping with the au pair. I didn't regard his tonic so blithely and we split up, tried again, split up and tried again.

And that was the story so far. But life has a way of taking you by surprise, doesn't it? At first, life at the church was pretty uneventful. Salvaging our marriage took priority, and I was absurdly thankful for the sporadic days when a power tool was picked up (usually by our four-year-old son).

But I snapped when Simon said he was too busy to attend a meeting with the planners at Snowdonia national park. Whenever I have to see them, a blanket of fear and anxiety descends, as relations between us are hardly congenial.

So my husband and I were mid-argument when a polite chap came round. He explained that he was also renovating a chapel and had popped over to compare notes.

The handsome stranger was oblivious to the tension and began talking mullioned windows. As he strode around calculating weight-bearing loads, he seemed irresistible. I had my children and four others clinging to my leg, my hair was wildly askew and my clothes were smeared with jam: every inch the harassed earth mother. Ignoring the din, I fluttered my eyelashes to convey that I was approachable, knowledgeable and -under the jam -devastatingly attractive. He soon zoomed off in his convertible.

But a few weeks later he came back. I was home alone and we exchanged life stories over coffee. He'd spent the past 20 years yachting around the world. Why give that up for the noose of renovation, I wondered?

However, he seemed happy to look over my plans and that, coupled with workmanlike builder's hands and nice Italian shoes, made my heart skip. He said he'd help, and attempting nonchalance, I breathlessly replied: "That would be lovely."


September 12, 2004

Headline: Praying for peace from the planners


Last month, a handsome stranger walked into my half-renovated church to exchange tips on ecclesiastical conversions.

He was also walking in on a collapsing marriage, so when he offered to accompany me to a meeting with the dreaded planners at the Snowdonia national park which my husband, Simon, refused to attend -I was incredibly grateful.

Excitedly I gabbled to my friend Aliya that the handsome stranger even had a green file marked with the name of my house, St Curig's (God, it would be blissful to have somebody sort through all the chaos of my life, filing and shredding the debris). Aliya curtly reminded me that said handsome stranger had told me he had spent 20 years at sea, which equalled a hell of a lot of pretty female deck hands.

I countered that now, marooned on his building site, he wouldn't have the chance.

"Fine," she said, "Go to the national park meeting with him -but nothing else."

I had a grin from ear to ear. Since my marriage hit the rocks again, I have been overwhelmed by debt and any likelihood of reconciliation with my husband is fading. After sleeping with the au pair, being booted out and moving back in again, Simon has taken flight to the Alps to seek solace in the mountains.

As the probability of being single has magnified over the past year, I have taken decisive action -and applied for permission to turn four bedrooms into bed and breakfast accommodation.

I know, there'll be weirdos in the house and I'll be constantly washing yucky things off bedspreads, but what's a girl to do? If I can manage to plough the profits into paying the mortgage, I'll have my own place and be self sufficient.

When I have nights feeling low, I wander around among the breeze blocks and bags of plaster before climbing the ladder to what will one day be my sitting room. I gaze out of the window at Snowdon's silhouette over the trees. I think of all those friends now raising their eyebrows who will someday see that this house, my house, is the most special place in the world.

Anyway, back to the planning meeting. In March, the park had turned down the guesthouse application based on the concern of the Highways Agency that our garden wall is on a nasty bend. I thought this had all been resolved in 1993 when the Church of Wales decided to sell. Stipulations were put down at that time regarding access and we changed the entrance as instructed, but we haven't yet lowered the wall to improve visibility. In April, I got a man from the Highways Agency out again so we could explain our intentions, and he said it would withdraw its objections. Victory!

But when I rang the park back, they said I'd still have to reapply. Through gritted teeth, I tried to point out that this was what I'd done four months earlier. I probably didn't help myself by bursting into tears on the phone and pleading with Mr Planner to take pity on a wronged wife.

Deciding that rather than wait for the next rejection, perhaps a face-to-face meeting would clarify whatever was clouding the issue, I set off, accompanied by the handsome stranger -who was, I must admit, becoming less of a stranger.

The next hour passed in a haze of restful pleasure as both chaps rambled on, leaving me to stare blankly through the window. Eventually we got to what emerged was the real nub of the issue -the sacrilegious hot tub in my garden.

Various committees, it turns out, are scandalised, imagining toffs piling up from London for a rampant orgy in the hills. Rather than argue, I've agreed to switch off "the swimming pool", empty it out and shove it (somehow) in the attic.

I want my planning permission and will save that battle for another day.


September 26, 2004

Headline: Return of the husband


Oh God! Shouldn't say it so flippantly in a church, I know, but the roof is falling in on me both metaphorically and literally. I have been barred from climbing the stairs and enjoying the upper level as it turns out that Roy (errant husband's stepfather), who has been paid Pounds 38,000, has used insufficient load-bearing lintels to support the three attic rooms that the children and I are desperate to move into. The fault lies somewhere between builder and architect but the burden falls on me.

Though not completely, as I am being aided by the handsome stranger. He has been writing deliciously attractive letters to the technical department at Stressline, manufacturer of concrete and steel lintels, about the structural acceptability of my planned living quarters, which turn out to be bloody dangerous. What luck I let this stranger into my life -but not my future bedroom -as we might have ended up plummeting two floors below.

Anyway, we can't have any flirtatious dinners discussing weight-bearing loads because in a moment of madness I informed my husband, happily holidaying in the Alps, that I was rather keen on somebody else. Simon returned on the next flight and said I might come to understand the full meaning of the death slide in my garden if I have any nocturnal visitors.

I assumed that after his four affairs I might be given some leeway to explore whether I wanted to stay with him or move on, especially since (post the au pair fling) he snogged an old school friend in the local pub. Apparently, after such a public display of desire, the night was spent at opposite ends of the sofa.

Forgive my snort of derision. I must be getting cynical now that I'm a grown up 40-year-old but it did seem hard to believe.

Simon had arrived home after my bombshell announcing undying love and fidelity forthwith. Hadn't that been the deal when we got married?

And anyway, now I don't much care, I replied. I'm taking the six-month break that I'd always wanted and consequently asked him to leave.

Much to his horror I immediately got on with the divorce proceedings, and the speed with which the petition has whizzed through the courts mystified him. Simon was convinced it would take years and he would have plenty of time to win me back.

I must say, the divorce papers were a breeze compared with the complexities of renewing my working family tax credit. I felt compelled to do it quickly because my financial state is disastrous.

There are no assets whatsoever to split, although if he's feeling generous there are plenty of debts to share. The house was valued a few months ago at Pounds 200,000 in its current building-site state and the mortgage and loans more than swallow that up. I don't want to slave away building my dream home only to have to sell up in a couple of years to pay off his nibs.

To be fair, he always said he would never jeopardise his children's home but I'd like that to be legally watertight.

Simon is not the only one hanging around my gate intimidating me. The National Park Mafia turned up en masse to inspect the access and exterior of the property, and hovered on my drive.

I was told firmly that I need not be there and that they would not enter into any discussion. Five of them huddled under umbrellas in a gale and when I tried to casually wander past, it seemed my shrug and winsome smile were stonily ignored.

I retreated inside to loiter by the window, trying to reassure my paranoid mind that they didn't all absolutely hate me. The results of the meeting will be discussed at another meeting on October 6 -if all goes well and if they don't need another meeting to discuss that one. Then I might find out about my planning permission. At last!


October 10, 2004

Headline: Another phone bites the dust


No builder on site and even Handsome Stranger has vanished. Things took a wrong turn when we went out for dinner a deux.

Simon, my husband, was baby-sitting and when he grilled me on my return, I admitted my date hadn't been Jill. He flew into a frenzy and headed up the ladder to the attic with a rope. My shriek woke the children, who arrived, sleepily, below the hatch.

What is the protocol?

Should we all stand around beseeching him not to jump or could I take the children back to bed and pretend Daddy had lost something in the loft? I chose the latter and shepherded them away.

Once they were settled I sat at the kitchen table nervously flicking through the Fired Earth catalogue.

Simon reappeared; desperation had been replaced by fury and he smashed my new phone to ensure I couldn't indulge my new texting fetish. At the last count we had got through 11 house phones and so I gently pointed out that therapy would be cheaper. My quip renewed his rage and he demanded Handsome Stranger's number.

Simon rang and unfairly dumped the full responsibility for the collapse of our marriage at his door.

That seems to have had the desired effect because I have not seen Handsome Stranger since. Perhaps missions of mercy to sort out my building site were enough to make any potential suitor take flight. And I'm sure the Bank of Scotland would have been horrified to know that the very last few pounds of my mortgage money were spent on St Tropez tans.

Perhaps I was never cut out to be a sailor's girl. I found it tough being a sultry bronzed beach babe, particularly when the only sand I got near was mixed with a blizzard of cement dust blowing through my kitchen.

Aldo has been blasting a hole in the 3ft wall for the waste pipe. He is a godsend; a friend and plumber who lets me weep on his shoulder while he is busy fitting the bathroom and connecting the underfloor heating. And he doesn't mind taking on the job when I'm skint.

I am pushing forward with the plumbing so that I can move into new rooms - they will not only be warmer, but the sleeping arrangements will improve. At present I share my bed wedged between my delicious babies. Okay. I do know that at four and five, Hero and Tybalt should have their own rooms but there's currently just the one that is habitable.

When I told Roy (Simon's stepfather) that Aldo was going to finish the first phase of the plumbing, he announced he would walk off the job. The last Pounds 3,000 I paid him was to finish the heating and when the cash was handed over he seemed quite industrious. Not much time was spent tweaking the pipes, although he did keep mowing the lawn, which was very sweet. But as nothing ever got connected, I thought it was time for action.

Aldo started straight away and within a week we were up and running, but he made a few unsettling remarks.

Apparently the skirting board in the upstairs room isn't fixed properly and, as he said, what hope is there for the structural stuff? Knowing that the lintels supporting the upper level need to be replaced, I felt sick with worry.

Aldo suggested I rang Kevin, a respected builder who gave me grim news on the quality of work and said the building inspector needed to be called forthwith. He must have spotted the tears lurking because as he left, he said: "I'll be your knight in shining armour." I could certainly do with one of those.


October 24, 2004

Headline: Suddenly, I just wanted a man


Confirmation! I am an emotional imbecile: I have had sex with ex-husband.

It restarted when the building inspector, Dafydd, revealed grim news about the structural work in the old Welsh church we have been trying to convert into a home. First, we should absolutely not have progressed without his frequent site visits. It turns out that he and builder Roy -the ex-husband's stepfather -are not "old mates" and certainly there had been no pat on the back telling Roy to just crack on with the job because I was in such safe hands. Dafydd should have come out to check each stage. When he didn't hear from us, he assumed the project must be on hold.

Dafydd was charming but the list of what needs to be redone was overwhelming: "The RSJs (rolled steel joists) have been laid directly onto the breeze-block wall and need to be supported by large pad stones designed to carry severe weight.

"The underfloor heating pipes and electric cables have been put in together and need to be separated, which will involve redoing the wiring. "

Also, the wiring and pipes should have been drilled through the joists but were laid through roughly cut notches, which have weakened the structure so that the joists now need panels to strengthen them.

"The lintels are of an insufficient size and must be replaced by steel. Both staircases have to be restructured as they were not measured and have insufficient headroom."

Although the jobs are relatively small on their own, they will cost between a few hundred pounds to a thousand each to rectify. Other problems are the studded walls: the supports are too far apart, so that if anybody ever stumbled in the sitting room they would be likely to plough straight into the adjoining bathroom.

And the floating floor chipboard has been fixed in straight lines, rather than in a brick-like pattern, which will give a trampoline effect when one is pottering in the kitchen.

I felt so alone and desperate after my morning with Dafydd that I fell into arms of ex-husband. Suddenly he seemed attractive and manly. What is wrong with me? The past year has been spent going through a divorce and just when freedom was within sight, I longed for Simon to hold me and tell me it would be all right.

I can't understand myself, I haven't let him near me for the past six months but no sooner had the red-stamped decree absolute plopped on the mat than I had terrible gut-wrenching anguish and a yearning to be married again. Mad, passionate lovemaking ensued and to cap it all I proposed we head for Gretna Green. Luckily we had a row about the implications of Roy's work before we had time to elope.

However, the result is, I feel horribly confused. I am horribly confused.

I went out for retail therapy to Bogs & Basins in Llanfairfechan and bought the largest slipper bath in stock to cheer myself up. Simon wants to know what is going on but I have no idea what my dominant emotion is towards him. Love or hate?

He is convinced that a large proportion of our problems stem from living in a building site and the subsequent financial stress from constantly being broke. He is pleading for another chance and wants to head abroad to a place where he can get an exceptionally high wage, but only because the money is danger money. He wants six months to try to pay for the botched-up work to be redone and then to see ... see ... if that stress were removed, whether we might have a future.


November 07, 2004

Headline: Something to build on at last


Intimate relations with my ex-husband have ceased since he resumed his impossible behaviour. I was leaving to take the dog for a booster when he offered to go instead, but then they didn't make it to the vet because he went back to bed. It's not so much infidelity that ended our marriage, but stuff like this that gradually ground down a future together.

I was feeling a bit low when the BBC rang with the cheering news that Snowdonia national park has approved my planning application to offer bed-and-breakfast accommodation at my part-renovated church in Capel Curig. I was slightly confused how they knew, having thought the panel's meeting was to take place that day. But I remembered the occasion when a journalist announced my husband was a cheat. I told them ungraciously to f*** off, but should have listened. Although cheered by the BBC's call, I thought it best to double-check, and was fabulously impressed by the Beeb's cunning research. It turned out that a mole within texted out the decision while the committee was still locked in discussion.

I can't believe I'm finally going to be allowed to earn money doing B&B.;The only problem is that I haven't yet got any rooms to let and am still too broke to create them from the breeze-block shells. It seems I need a good Pounds 50,000 just to finish on the cheap.

So I rang the friendly mortgage broker, who has been away in Paris celebrating his 40th and refrained from reminding him that my big "four-0" party should have been in a fantastically finished house this summer, but had to be postponed until the location is glamorous enough to suit the maturity of my years. I couldn't have friends descend from far and wide only to find that the sum total of my conversion is still the equivalent of a student hovel.

However, am now pulling in every penny I can sponge. Hopefully the planning permission will help because I applied for a grant from the Welsh tourist board ages ago and with my exciting new approval, I should finally be eligible.

I've niftily found a new person to deal with at NatWest who thinks he can get me a Pounds 15,000 consolidation loan too. He's very charming, and sounds so young, reminding me of Jim Junior, who seemed to be my only fan during a sporadic acting career. Dear JJ spotted any appearance, however fleeting, and wrote long, flowery letters. With only the one fan, it was important to nurture the relationship so I sent photos and cards at every request. After six years of communication I learnt he was three times my age. Wonder if my new cute-sounding bank manager is as wrinkly.

Age is immaterial, however, if he comes up trumps and allows me spondulicks. The downside of this week has been the non-show of Kevin, the new builder, who was supposed to start on Wednesday. He didn't return calls. I should have known better by now than to expect him to.

The obvious answer is to find a lover and builder in one, if my ex doesn't want that role. When businesslike persuasion fails to get work done, perhaps an intimate dinner might get the job moving!

Somehow being let down again hasn't crushed me the way it has in the past. In fact I brushed it aside with the merest of shrugs and am tentatively starting to believe that I may actually finish this house before I retire, if that isn't too daringly optimistic.

As if in reward for my graciousness, things finally began looking up as my brother-in-law knows a great builder who may be willing to come and work for a week or so. The office next to mine is also about to be rented by some McAlpine boys, which is very exciting. I keep catching myself daydreaming about the Diet Coke advertisement where the girls gawp at the drop-dead gorgeous builders. That should be something to look forward to.


November 21, 2004

Headline: Is it okay to cancel Christmas


The Pounds 2,000 I borrowed from Dad must now replace the car and the stairs.

I'm haemorrhaging money and considering the impact on the children if I cancel Christmas. Perhaps if I avoid all normal houses with fairy-lit fir trees, my kids won't notice our lack of tinsel and mistletoe? I have nobody to kiss tenderly other than my ex, who, frankly, I would prefer to whack with a hammer. His latest contribution has been to write off my car. It's particularly infuriating as I'd taken him off my insurance policy.

I received a call from the army barracks whose wall he'd sailed through, saying not to worry, he was fine. Well, he'd better not come home or he might end up in intensive care, I replied. The Pounds 2,000 I borrowed from Dad must now replace the car and redundant stairs -which turned out not to fit. As the financial crisis magnifies, I have taken the excruciating decision to get the new stairs made in MDF. I reason with myself sadly at 4am, when wont to dwell on such things, that the horrid chipboard will be invisible below the carpet and all that will be seen are the spindles and banisters, which will be made in oak.

I spent an evening ringing dodgy-sounding blokes offering me unbelievable deals on maple flooring and Smeg cookers. All the conversations concluded with "just tell us what you want, love, and it's yours".

Next morning, after taking the children to school on the bus, my priority reverted to car-hunting. A fabulously nice dealer soon offered me a Merc. I rambled on about how nice that would be since I briefly had a lover with one, but as I'd mislaid him, I could make up for it by getting the car. Stunned silence. I cursed myself for not being in therapy -then I wouldn't need to pour out the details of my calamitous life at every opportunity -and agreed to buy the unseen car if he could deliver it now.

Kevin the builder had promised to show up later that day, when he would be needing 9ftx1ft finished pine. I rang the timber yard and asked whether it should be ordered as I'd have my young son in tow. Tybalt suffers a flood of testosterone in builders' merchants and starts lunging for drills and Bob paraphernalia. I was told it wouldn't make any difference, and to just show up. I did and was pleased to see six blokes loitering behind the desk. However, it took five minutes for them to acknowledge my presence and declare that they didn't have my wood in stock. It must be ordered.

I asked to see the manager, who eventually agreed to sell me window boards for double the price of the pine I wanted, as apparently that would get us both out of an awkward position. I needed five 2m lengths, which took the cutter 20 minutes.

One minute sawing and 19 coffee-swigging. He looked at my gleaming, albeit old, Merc, guffawed and refused to fit the wood in properly.

By this time I was so incensed by his peacock-strutting display that I snapped: "Just leave it sticking out the window." It poked out dangerously, so I reloaded, putting the planks into the passenger footwell, where they rested with a few feet to spare. I finally went to pay an embarrassed checkout girl and couldn't help wishing that the entire building trade was controlled by nice, reasonable women.

For other vital bits I decided to visit another supplier. Tybalt had been rather cowed during the whole woodcutting debacle, possibly sensing his mother's humiliation. As friendly Glyn bent down to say hello, Tybalt's repressed anger erupted. He spat: "I'm going to saw your willy off." At long last I got home with all the stuff, just as Kevin's wife rang. He was sick.


December 05, 2004

Headline: Addicted to sandblasting


Lying side by side, romance is in the air. It's 3am, Norah Jones is humming quietly in the background and we're stretched out on the grubbiest of dustsheets.

The bottle of wine has almost gone and we gaze at the newly sandblasted beams and the first painted room. I hop up to adjust the dimmer on the halogen lights, partly so we can absorb the honey glow and partly because of the novelty. Then I am hit by a pang of guilt. Why am I here with Simon, my errant ex-husband? Shouldn't I be reclaiming the house for myself and my future without him?

The evening hadn't started with such romantic overtones -I'd stomped off to start painting on my own. I lined up the Fired Earth paint pots and savoured the evocative names, opting to open Old Ochre. There was never so much expectation riding on a few litres of emulsion. With sleeves rolled up and hair tied back, I tried to prise open the tin. A knife wouldn't shift the lid, so I moved on to any implement I could grab until a pile of tools and utensils was littered around and the top still firmly in place.

A wave of self-pity washed over me as I suddenly felt powerless. I had to ask the ex to do it, which he did without offering to help paint, instead lecturing on whether I knew what I was doing. Later when he came to inspect, he loosened up and picked up a roller too.

I wanted to paint the entire house in Tusk, an inoffensive shade of off white.

When the children saw the paint card they were furious at my lack of imagination and roped their dad into a campaign against my decision. I think part of Hero's sense of injustice stemmed from the belief that it was made from pulverised elephants. We pored over the palette together. Despite my best efforts, both children reverted to gender stereotype. Hero chose Tea Room Pink and Tybalt Distant Blue. Actually they wanted much brighter shades but with bribery I managed to persuade them to tone it down.

I have become the kind of desperate person who adds items on my church renovation to-do list after they've been done so I have something to cross off. This week, "sandblast beams" was added and then etched out. It seems these contractors are the most industrious in the building trade. All the firms I contacted could do it straight away and one company came the same night.

Four men in big suits emerged from sealed-off rooms as though from a radioactive site. I hardly registered the Pounds 300 leaving my hand, so delighted was I with the gleaming woodwork. So much better than anything I produced after hours choking on clouds of dust from hand-held sanders and Pounds 100-worth of sandpaper. The belts whizzed around hopelessly before clogging up with black goo. Sandblasting might prove a dangerous addiction after they gave me a taste of what it could do to my brickwork. I think the attraction is down to immediate gratifying results.

But for now that can wait. After my late night with the roller -and Simon - followed by a day climbing Tryfan in the rain I became a delirious wreck, in bed with a temperature of 102. Not the best moment for portrait painter Kevin Cunningham to arrive from London to do a moody oil of me, Simon and the children for a forthcoming exhibition. I managed to drag myself, quivering, outside for a sitting. I hope he can perform miracles with my sunken eyes and red nose.


January 02, 2005

Headline: At last, we're making progress


We've had a week of pottering around in the new rooms and it was bliss. I feel like a normal person again -but if I am not to go bust, I must get the work restarted.

Flinching, I pulled on the diamond chain-saw cord as images of lying in a pool of blood flashed through my head. Simon, my husband, was to have carved a fireplace out of our 3ft-thick sitting-room wall; however, he'd slept late and then gone out.

The carpets were due to be laid and I was attempting rather feebly to do the job myself. Suddenly Simon loomed over me, eyes popping with fury, because I'd dared to touch such a male tool.

Freudian? I meekly handed over the lethal weapon. Sparks flew as he tore into the wall. Our self-imposed Christmas deadline of making our chapel conversion into a normal home had brought us to our knees.

Just when I'd virtually given up, things came together. I rang a builder friend from Dorset who came to help for a week. Expensive, as it was only fair that I pay his petrol and Pounds 10 an hour for the journey. Two days' wages then evaporated getting all the materials that he needed, which left only four to get the job under way. Nevertheless, it gave the project a good kick-start.

The local builder, Kevin, had been absent ever since I'd offered him the job, but no sooner had the mate from Dorset shown up than he was ready to work. Men are so like buses. Now that Kevin has had a taste of being usurped, he has become fantastically reliable. My confidence was restored when he put in two flights of stairs beautifully. Not easy as I kept running up and down them before the glue had set, entranced by not having to haul myself up a ladder.

Another friend, Sam, came in to plaster. This caused a bit of friction as Simon's brother had been doing the job, coming in to help on his days off. He doesn't have a car and so each visit involved a two-hour round trip and shoving a binbag of washing in the machine, plus hearty meals to show appreciation. Payment was lower but as he was available only occasionally, it became yet another constraint.

Now that phase one is coming together, I can see that we've hit on the only way to organise a renovation. Commit every second of your day and night to it and get in individuals for each job. Sam has whizzed around the three remaining rooms and the painting is being done by Puna, who I met in a cafe. He is a Sherpa, more used to lugging loads up Everest, but as soon as he told me he was looking for work I grabbed the chance to hire him.

A few days later he arrived with his sleeping bag. I can't help feeling sad that the skill used on international expeditions will go to waste, but in Nepal he can't earn a fraction of the Pounds 5 an hour he gets labouring over here. He turned up, cooked, hammered, painted and then cooked again. Delicious momos (dumplings) and noodle dishes were all prepared in a flash, while Tybalt, my son, was captivated by his tales of walking for four days as a small child to fetch shopping, which took six days to carry home.

The only slight hitch with Puna was his zealous tidying-up, which involved setting little fires in the rooms upstairs to burn bits of old rubbish. It would have been just my luck if the whole place had gone up.

Puna, Sam, Kevin, Simon and loads of friends helped, and we made it. The night before the carpets arrived even the children were up until two in the morning, painting away. Bim, my brother, who came for a fleeting visit to deliver presents, decided our new bathroom was so palatial it felt nice enough to eat supper in.

I didn't let on to a big disappointment -my beautiful slipper bath, which I'd bought months ago, was not the extra-long one I'd ordered but some miniature version. I didn't notice until it was all plumbed in that they had delivered one that even I, at only 5ft 4in, can't fully recline in. Bim went on to say that next time he was up, he'd be heading in there with all the papers to soak for an hour.

His knees would be stuck to his chin if he did that.

Anyhow, even if the bath isn't perfect, Christmas was. On the night of December 24, we moved, after six and a half years, from the temporary living quarters to our newly converted opposite end. On Christmas morning the children woke up in our bed and then discovered that their presents were fab new rooms.



Tybalt has a rather wacky space bed with a tower and slide, Hero a hammock swinging off one of her beams. We crept downstairs over warm, underfloor heated carpets to a blazing fire in the sitting room, a mound of presents underneath the tree and huge windows gazing out on to snowy mountains. We've had a week of pottering around and it was bliss. I feel like a normal person again and even Simon and I have been loving and affectionate, but if I am not to go bust I must keep up the energy and get the work restarted so I can launch my B&B.;

The ground floor needs 14 window openings made with sandstone surrounds. Then there are a mere six rooms and four bathrooms to create out of the breeze block shells. Oh, and then there is the indoor pool. Hey ho! It's 2005. Who knows, we might get finished this year.


January 16, 2005

Headline: What's the point if I look awful?


You can't put that there," I snapped as Simon slumped under the weight of a huge Victorian mirror. He looked puzzled, so I explained that although now living in partial luxury I had not yet arrived at the point of needing to examine my reflection.

Gone are my once-toned figure and blonde locks. I now resemble a paint spattered frump with artisan's hands.

The one asset I have retained throughout the chapel conversion works is my dinky feet, or so I thought. So I finally let Simon put up the mirror and rushed to the wardrobe to grab my strappy Manolo Blahnik stilettos, bought as a treat for finishing phase one.

Slipping on my coquettish heels, I was horrified; even my feet seem to have become fat. I collapsed on the floor wailing: what was the point in having a beautiful house when I have lost my looks? I then realised that the weight gain is entirely Simon's fault as he always lets me down on baby-sitting duty when I plan to go for a run. So I stopped weeping and made him commit to my re-joining the fell running club.

But truthfully I can envisage only another year of dedicated home-building if I somehow find the space to regain a certain sense of self. My work is constantly interrupted by having to visit builder's merchants or chasing up contractors. Time off during the holidays was fantastic and I now realise how much I miss pottering around. I enjoyed tweaking the children's rooms and putting up hammock swings on their sand-blasted beams. Hero's is a girlie paradise and I've taken to sneaking in to curl up beneath the fairy lights to read a novel before drifting off to sleep.

All the outstanding chores, such as painting a patch of missed skirting board and re-oiling banisters, are almost forgotten. I am slightly anxious since a friend told me about a pub that burnt down; apparently the CCTV footage showed an oily rag self-combust. Where would Puna, the sherpa who helped with my renovation, have stashed his flammable rags?

One job I might be forced to redo is the glass showpiece front door. At the height of my new-year blues a letter from the national park arrived pointing out that the custom-built glass and steel door installed six months ago was not to the approved design. The architect, it seems, never sent in the design that I gave him from the window manufacturer -his assistant sent in an old one. So far I've failed to track down the architect, but there is nothing new in that. Luckily even the park seems quite sympathetic to my plight and so I am going to apply for retrospective planning permission: the cost of having to change it is unthinkable at this stage, even though said door is so shoddily made that I would gladly throw it in the skip.

The good news is my tourist board grant is approved after almost two years. I am in dire need of a cash injection, but having read the small print realise I can get only Pounds 2,000 for every Pounds 10,000 spent. There are pages and pages of guidance notes, the gist being that I'll be under close scrutiny until the job is finished. I even have to go on a welcoming hostess course! Even at this stage of the process, each month will involve contacting my solicitor, accountant, quantity surveyor, architect and bank manager.

All in all, I think applying will cost about Pounds 3,000. Still, Pounds 19,000 is not to be sniffed at.


January 30, 2005

Headline: Awash with troubled waters


After a certain amount of toing and froing with the national park, we agreed on sandstone for the new window openings. I ordered Pounds 8,000 worth of hewn boulder and when asked who was fitting it, noticed that my breezy declaration of "us" was met with disbelief.

I rang my brother-in-law, a stonemason (though more in the Michelangelo arm of the trade), and told him the plans. "Out of the question," he protested, "have you any idea how carcinogenic sandstone is?" That's a matter of debate, but my conviction that our DIY skills would suffice was beginning to waver.

Then north Wales was immersed under water. Having driven home through mile upon mile of flooding, my car conked out. After a school fundraising day for the tsunami, my daughter Hero was shouting: "We're going to die!" Stepping into water up to my knees, I tried to reassure her that it was only a puddle. Remarkably, the car revived and we made it home -only to find a brook wending its way through the house.

We're on a hill way above the river, so why did I have to slosh out my home? Hero comforted me with "it's only a smelly puddle" and she was right. Water had flooded the septic tank and infiltrated the church.

Simon appeared from the garden, where he'd been digging a trench. I thought I'd get some help but he was off to the mountain rescue base to help other people in flooded houses.

Kevin, the builder who worked so relentlessly to get part of my church habitable before Christmas, has vanished; he was not due to start work for a few weeks but I'd got used to talking to him daily. Perhaps builders go to ground to avoid tiresome calls from clients wanting to know every detail of the next stage. When I track him down I can explain part of the ground floor needs tanking before we carry on.

The septic tank has always been a nightmare but so are the quotes (about Pounds 11,000) to join the sewers. As I swirled the mop around, I remembered the plumber warning us that it could erupt at any time, and suggesting a BioDisc. I scanned the web to investigate. The questions posed by the manufacturer, Klargester, reminded me of questionnaires in women's magazines. The kind where you proudly score 20/20 and find it means you are a neurotic hermit whose perfect date would be Shrek.

It asked: "Are there offensive odours? Do you have to empty it more than once a year?" Of course I had top marks. The BioDisc sewage treatment plant apparently breaks down solids to such an extent that the treated water can be safely released into the environment and would set me back about Pounds 4,000. The digging of a huge hole in the garden and installation will be extra. Still, definitely top of my birthday list.

Building work is slow as we await the return of Kevin. Simon has become quite proficient at plastering but it seems he isn't getting the recognition at home; he's rather annoyingly taken his skills elsewhere to help out a friend. This may be because when he started mixing up a bucket in the new kitchen, billows of dust began puffing under the doors onto my new upstairs carpets.

I told him to gaffer-tape all gaps and cover the place in dustsheets while I went to buy a vacuum cleaner for under Pounds 100. Somehow I spent nearly four times that for a Dyson. The children were not impressed and wept because they wanted Henry, the cleaner with a smiley face. I had to endure an embarrassing scene as they repeatedly ran back to kiss and hug an inanimate machine. Back home, the new machine struggled with the building dust, spluttered a few times and gave up. I might, too.


February 13, 2005

Headline: Will randy rabbits add value?


Make or break time. The surveyor from the Bank of Scotland is due and I am done for if he doesn't agree that the value of our conversion has gone up by Pounds 100,000.

I'm feeling vaguely delirious, having been up for two nights tweaking, scrubbing and at one point attempting to build a brick wall. Then I remember the stench of rabbit as I passed the entrance hall earlier. No way can I welcome him in through such squalor.

I must go against the vet's instructions and clean out the bunnies even if it means the new litter might be rejected. I discover a limp little body at the back of the hutch which is causing the smell. Harry is oblivious to my threats of impending castration and fiercely starts shagging Hermione.

Simon comes in to encourage the "lad" and I shriek at him to get back to work: each tidily-made bed equals a completed room and is therefore worth Pounds 10,000.

He protests that a pretty duvet cover will hardly blind the surveyor to half-constructed walls and trusts they don't send that weirdo from Rhyl again.

Luckily the man who has just opened the door behind Simon is from the Chester branch. I offer him a cappuccino, hoping he didn't hear Simon's comment or notice me whack Harry in a bid to silence his lovemaking.

As I show the surveyor round, I keep reminding myself not to list the various builder cock-ups that, because I'm so livid, I can't help but point out to friends. "Yes, the spare room is beautiful -such a pity that the floor level is a foot higher than in the drawings and one can only see through the window on bended knee."

I refrain from moaning and manage a gushing commentary on all the best features.

I can tell he actually loves the place and allow myself a brief bleat about how it is often undervalued.

"Consider the price of a three-bedroom box, which goes for a fortune round here, and surely our spacious airy rooms (admittedly half-built), hot tub and William Morris-stained glass windows are worth a great deal more? Even if there are a few ladders lying around.

" Simon comes in and diverts the conversation to an appreciation of the view. I become aware that the surveyor keeps glancing at me, then remember that at 3am, while trying to dust the top of our Welsh dresser, I had precariously balanced upon a gas fire. It toppled over and I hit my cheek on a stone step, leaving a bruise just below my eye. I must look like a battered wife and can't decide whether this will go in my favour or not. He leaves before I can draw a conclusion and I think instead about how essential this extra cash injection is, not least because sandblasting is bringing us to the brink.

After the amazing success of their work on the beams, the company came back to do some of the brickwork. The quote had been Pounds 250 for half a day, which I thought would mean four hours. No such luck. The man arrived at 10am, scoffed bacon sarnies, talked a lot and was gone before 1pm -and apparently some of the blasting he'd done was a present to me.

I wasn't overly grateful when he asked me not to forget to put Vat on top. Funny.

Last time the price included Vat, he'd brought four lads and worked very hard. He has since learnt that I have a title so must obviously assume that I am staggeringly rich. I certainly won't be getting him back for the ceilings.

Instead, I ring hire companies and ask what protective clothing Simon might need.

It sounds somewhat hazardous and so I check out flights to Paris for me and the kids to visit mum. We won't want to hang round in a contaminated zone. He looks slightly apprehensive about his ability when I find a company who can hire us the kit. I explained that they'd said it was as easy as watering the garden, so surely he can manage that.


February 27, 2005

Headline: First the crash, then the cash


Earn yourself Brownie points for green living when you buy a home with built in energy efficiency -and start saving money on your fuel bills, too

The planned mini-break has been shelved due to the arrival of 12 more bunnies.

Welcome to Teletubby land. Meanwhile, we were getting ready to sandblast the ceiling ourselves as the equipment was only Pounds 150 for three days' hire.

Delivery, however, would have been a whopping Pounds 230. So, wanting to avoid the extra cost -and having spent Pounds 1,000 on skips in the last few months -we decided a van might be a good investment.

It would also end the one-vehicle cost-cutting purgatory we've been in for several months since Simon wrote off the Mondeo in September, and we've been sharing my Merc.

Having made the decision, I logged on to Auto Trader and five minutes later chose an extra-long LPG-converted red minibus with 80,000 on the clock for Pounds 650.

It is now parked proudly on the drive and proving itself a very useful workhorse, having already made five trips to the dump.

I felt triumphant about my bargain vehicle, but it never pays to be too self-congratulatory. A few days later Simon borrowed the precious Merc, sailed off a country road and 15ft down a bank. He was fine but the Merc is now at the breakers and I am not much enjoying the school run in a battered old minibus.

Still, perhaps that bit of bad luck actually made space for a fantastic valuation and some more dosh to spend on the kitchen I dream about.

Just when the accident insurance forms had me weeping into my cornflakes, a letter plopped through the door to cheer me up. I'm ecstatic and love the Bank of Scotland surveyor. He valued the house at Pounds 375,000, more than even my most optimistic calculation.

I kept having to reread the paragraph and then rang to check, to really, really check it was true. So the value has doubled in less than 10 months. Striving for the lived-in look by putting carpets down and painting obviously paid off. It means my mortgage allowance has just been increased by another Pounds 85,000. I did a few sums and was slightly put out to discover Pounds 60,000 debt outstanding, mainly on credit cards. Nevertheless my purse is currently bulging with the Pounds 25,000 plus Pounds 19,000 grant. This should be enough to finish the job.

We immediately got on with the sandblasting and endured a week of absolute hell.

The air compressor fired a mixture of sand and glass through a hose and there were a hundred square metres of pitched-pine ceiling to do. The dust impregnated every inch of the house even with all the doors taped up, and apparently the dust lingers for months. There didn't seem much for it other than to abandon ship.

I went off shopping with the mortgage money (okay, only one Whistles dress and an incy-wincy top) and then to the tile shops. Everything is so expensive. I wanted a slightly distressed sand colour, but all the samples I took home looked too manufactured and anything remotely nice was approx Pounds 50 per sq m.

Then I came across Stonell Direct, who sell real stone, and once I'd touched a piece of their limestone I was a lost woman. The cost seemed irrelevant and I ordered half a cliff, weighing a staggering 4,000kg, which is apparently the weight of two minibuses and 36 children. As I was driving home it did occur to me I should have checked the weight bearing of our floating ceiling.

Rang Kevin the builder and -surprise, surprise -he actually answered and said he would sort it out. I've spent the past three months stalking him (in my opinion, the only way to keep tabs on builders) and had almost given up.

He must have been able to sense that suddenly I had enough coppers in the kitty.

His reappearance is uncanny since I have filled his phone with messages and even stopped at a few local building sites when I'd been tipped off that he had been spotted up a ladder, in the hope of cornering him. Anyhow, on Valentine's Day he showed up with his lads, winning favour in this girl's heart.


March 13, 2005

Headline: It ain't heavy, it's my kitchen


My shopping trip was supremely efficient and painless. Oh dear, I think I love Ikea

Nobody believed the cliff of limestone I'd ordered could possibly weigh four tons.

Opinion was that I'd misheard. But the macho men on my building site were washing away their words in sweat when the consignment was dropped at the bottom of the drive.

Carrying a cliff up the hill and in through the back door was quite an undertaking, even for all the testosterone that loiters at my place. The job was done in shifts over 24 hours. I made a feeble attempt to carry one large tile at a time. Kevin, seeing me huff and puff, downed tools and shifted half a pallet before being benighted.

The next morning I rang Steve, who comes in for odd days' labouring, and he arrived to work with Simon. Together they struggled up with the remaining loads and finished just as Rob arrived to lay them. Within five minutes a crisis was looming. Where is the plan? Simon asked. What plan? The one that shows the pattern.

I had no such sketch and tried ringing Liz at the manufacturer, Stonell. Then I remembered her saying she would be on holiday and if I needed any information I must contact ... Where I had written the name and number was anybody's guess.

Following some frantic calls, I was faxed details.

After due scrutiny, Simon decided we didn't have the tiles for this pattern. More calls, another design, which worked, but then the sections couldn't be interlinked. Eventually we had to scrap the planned repeating design and go for Rob's suggestion of a random pattern.

Having taken the decision to spend thousands on the floor and have a cheap kitchen, I sent a snotty e-mail to the company. However, the result was glorious and my house is proving my theory that a sensational shoe makes up for a ropey top half. The money I've spent on the floor gives the impression the pad is worth a million dollars.

Now I had a floor, all that was left was the kitchen to put on it. So it was that I found myself loitering in a heaving Homebase. Eventually an employee took pity and asked what I required. A kitchen, please. I could tell by his bafflement that this was not how it's done. Did I expect to just waltz in and buy one? Well, yes, but obviously an appointment is necessary for such a complex transaction, though, no, I couldn't make one today because nobody dealing with kitchens was in.

I headed for B&Q, only to find out they need an advance booking and the waiting list was more than a month long. I crept into MFI expecting rejection and more ridicule for wanting to just "buy a kitchen". Surprise, surprise, a representative was available so I had 15 minutes to explain my requirements.

The choice of plastic-looking units was really off-putting, but I swallowed my pride, knowing that I'd gone for the expensive floor because the kitchen can be replaced with much greater ease in the future.

I opted for the solid oak, which appeared to be covered in a veneer to ensure that it looked as close to vinyl as possible. A few days later, MFI faxed over the quote and, with appliances, the whole caboodle came to Pounds 10,000. It did seem pricey when their biggest ever sale was supposedly on.

So there was no escaping a trip to Ikea to compare the cost of a similar kitchen.

It was nicer, and even when I added on a few bits, the price was unbelievably cheaper -only Pounds 3,200. I dread my Ikea trips, but this was supremely efficient and painless -and thankfully kitchens are delivered and fitted. All I had to do was sit at a computer while a PC whiz-kid put in my wish list and then showed me the "look" from every angle.

After selecting my worktop and style, I sloped off for the obligatory meatballs in cranberry sauce while the price was calculated. I left within the hour having paid a third of the price of the MFI package and in the knowledge that within two weeks it would be fitted. Oh dear, I think I love Ikea.


March 27, 2005

Headline: Stage set for kitchen dramas


Maudie and my mother were staying -and in tones too colourful to repeat in a family newspaper, Maudie, an actress, said mine was the most fantastic kitchen she had ever seen. Later, her recollections of Toyah Willcox's drawing room got the same expletive-laden approval, but I didn't mind because I was lapping up her glowing admiration.

We were cooking our debut meal and I gazed dreamily at the reflection of the stained-glass windows in the cooker's steel splashback. The gas burned brightly, flicking up the sides of the pan, searing the monkfish. Heaven.

The kitchen installers have done me proud. They are a family firm and spent three long days fitting the Ikea units with diligence. When I bought the kitchen, the installation fee of Pounds 1,400 seemed quite a lot as I'd spent most of Christmas piecing together flat-pack parcels and felt rather a pro. I opted for the service, however, and seeing them at work realised it would have been a DIY disaster if I'd decided to go it alone.

The only gaping hole in the installation is the space for the super-duper fridge.

I had decided I couldn't live without having the American version with integral dispenser for chilled water and crushed ice, and enough space to freeze a cow. I went online until I found the cheapest price for the Whirlpool model that fitted in the designated space. Not only was the online retailer I chose the cheapest, but the blurb said they were a family business, which gave me confidence - misplaced, as it turned out.

I rang to check and was told it was definitely in stock. A week later they called to tell me it would be two to three weeks for delivery. Now, apparently, it will arrive within a month of my placing the order. I attempted to complain but the charming family matriarch slammed down the phone. Forget an apology. And now the threat hangs over me that I might not get it if the drop-off is too much trouble for the 40ft articulated lorry. I see that in this age of cut-price internet deals, there's quite a lot to be said for the old-style customer service offered by high-street chains.

Oh, I forgot to mention that I almost blew up my first dinner guests. I'd asked Simon to connect the gas hob because of my impatience to cater on a lavish scale and impress mum and Maudie. Aldo, the plumber, and his Corgi-registered mate had put in all the pipe work but Aldo was unable to link it up because he didn't have the qualification to connect it. So I badgered Simon to "just screw the little pipe into the socket on the back of the oven and link up the gas at the other end" and wore down his reluctance eventually. Neither of us realised there was a big opening left in the pipe and the reason the gas flickered so radiantly was because it was surging all around the kitchen. Luckily the high ceiling meant it evaporated or, as our builder Kevin so sweetly put it, he might have arrived to meet parts of my guests at the bottom of the drive.

My beautiful new sandstone window quoins are still on the drive and I keep experimenting on them with the children. So far we have tried painting little spots of lemon, yogurt and milk to discover the best way of ageing the newly quarried stone. It mustn't jar when slotted in below the old weathered existing sandstone.

We are dramatically moving forward with the job, at last. Of course there are still hitches, which mainly involve contractors but are sometimes the result of our own impatience.

We are ready to install the downstairs windows and Simon went off to the supplier near Telford to pick up a consignment of glass that was to be ready that evening.

He became irritated on being told he would have to wait, so decided to drive home without it. I had to repeat the journey the next day with the children. Far from pitying me for the inconvenience, Simon seemed to think I was lucky having their company.


April 03, 2005

Headline: From wreck to wonder


In 1998, ALICE DOUGLAS bought a near-derelict Welsh chapel for Pounds 54,000. She thought she'd do it up for Pounds 80,000 -and has now spent three times that much. But the sweat and tears are finally paying off.

My house is no longer just a wreck of a Welsh chapel. I can hardly believe we've come this far and have to keep stopping in the middle of the kitchen to gaze at the limestone floor, gleaming stainless-steel utensils and modern oak units.

Sunbeams reflect on every surface from the six full-length windows. It is amazing.

I'm cooking meals for friends who are lingering when once they fled. It was too inhospitable and absolutely bloody freezing to stay for anything more than a quick cuppa.

The downsides? Apart from the near-wrecked marriage, the meltdowns with builders and showdowns with the national park planning authorities, there is the debt.

Somebody asked me recently if I had moved to Snowdonia to do up a derelict old church in a bid to make money flogging it. They obviously had no idea how expensive a renovation is.

The budgets for doing up the not-quite-derelict church in half an acre of Welsh hillside long ago took on a life of their own. When we bought it in 1998, for Pounds 54,000, the plan was to convert the church into a five-bedroom house with a large open-plan kitchen-living room and two bathrooms, all for Pounds 80,000. This was swiftly revised to Pounds 100,000 -and I have now spent about Pounds 320,000, including the purchase price and Pounds 70,000 I put in from the sale of my flat in Notting Hill, west London.

A recent mortgage statement showing that our borrowing has leapt to Pounds 250,000 made me catch my breath. What if, having got this far, I can't keep up my monthly repayments? I could be forced to sell if I borrow more than I can repay. Until recently I had the comforting knowledge that few would consider living in such a wreck. Now my church, even in its not-quite-finished state, is desirable, meaning my safety barrier has gone. An estate agent told me it would go in a flash. The last valuation I had put it at Pounds 375,000, but that was before the kitchen went in.

The bags of cement still highlight the work in progress but the futuristic steel front door, contrasting with yet strangely sympathetic to the century-old architecture, is the first indication things have moved on. The porch retains the original tiles and enormous internal oak door, but once in what was a cavernous hall, used as a dumping ground for trampoline and muddy bikes, you now step into the planned library leading to four en-suite guest bedrooms.

This is the only part still resembling a building site, although the plan is for a swift finish. Isn't it always? Between the new rooms, a central corridor runs into the old kitchen that, until Christmas, was the hub of family life. Now it's waiting to become a spectacular entrance hall beside a swimming pool beneath the mosaic ceiling in the apse.

As more of the jobs are completed, it appears that workmanship and attention to detail improves. Perhaps a tatty house breeds sloppy work, or maybe I was lucky to discover Kevin when the finishing touches were called for.

Recently, on the internet, I bought a church balustrade and pulpit with a twin curved staircase from Robert Mills Antiques. I'd been quoted Pounds 10,000 by a joiner friend to have a Gone with the Wind-type showpiece. I thought I shouldn't be that extravagant, but I couldn't bear the thought of ugly modern stairs and so went searching online. Many of the architectural salvage companies had church paraphernalia and pulpits with steps up to them. I stumbled on the perfect one and got measurements of the risers to check that the building inspector would be happy. He gave me the green light. The pulpit not only has sweeping stairs, but enough panelling to cover the gallery wall below the kitchen: a bargain at Pounds 1,200.

When the new staircase is in, it will lead to my pride and joy: a 645sqft kitchen with pitched pine cathedral-like ceiling, sandblasted to a glorious golden colour.

The sunlight pours into this room through the stained-glass windows casting soft greens, reds and blues across the limestone tiles.

My office has at last moved back home and looks over the garden, towards Moel Siabod and the other mountains beyond. Across the hall, in the bathroom, the claw-footed slipper bath takes pride of place in the centre of the room. I have an unimpeded view through the windows arching from floor to ceiling framing the Pinnacles, where the snow has only just melted and every nuance of change in the seasons is visible. Mainly sideways Welsh rain. Wallowing here, I can listen out for the children banging on the old piano next door in the sitting room.

Having undertaken such a huge project with no previous experience, there are things I wish I'd planned differently and the sitting room is one of them. I wanted somewhere cosy to curl up in the evenings and shut the door, but underestimated the size and shape. No estate agent would call it generously proportioned, yet its funny L-shape provides the perfect sanctuary in the evenings.

Up another flight, the baby-pink garlands of feathers around the first door clearly belong to Hero, 6, whose bedroom is a fairy grotto. In her four-year old brother Tybalt's room, Action Man is suspended in death-defying stunts perched high on a beam. His plastic tools recreate the chaos left by the builders elsewhere. Between the children's two rooms, Simon and I have ours, containing a bed, two chests of drawers and exposed beams: my minimalist refuge in the eaves.

I've heard from friends selling houses how people had to have the function of a room spelt out for them. A bedroom was a bedroom if it had a bed in it and they couldn't see it might work as a study instead. Magnify that a hundred times and you have some idea of the reaction I've faced over the years from people (including professionals) who couldn't visualise the end result of my building project.

It felt incredibly disheartening to be faced with scepticism but finally I am almost at the point where nobody could mistake it for anything other than a beautiful family home.

Now that the church is looking fantastic, I had to have an impromptu makeover. I was in St John's Wood, never good for a girl with a Whistles fetish. Two and a half hours later, I'd blown Pounds 3,114 and couldn't even carry my stash from the store.

The trouble is, I've become used to dispensing large amounts of borrowed cash. Logically, what is a few thousand on clothes when I write cheques for Pounds 8,000 on heating, Pounds 18,000 for windows, and Pounds 14,000 for sewer connections? Even my timber bills are in four figures.


April 10, 2005

Headline: Still pained by window worries


The problem of new windows for my chapel has been bubbling away for two years now.

Ironically, it was one of the first tasks I grappled with. The national park stipulated steel double-glazed units, and as well as replacing 18 existing draughty arched ones, 12 new openings had to be created to provide light in the ground-floor rooms. I knew it would be difficult, but I didn't see the word catastrophe looming.

The sorry saga dates back to October 2003, when I found a company in Liverpool that promised to do the job for Pounds 22,000 and said half the windows would be fitted in a matter of months. Optimism waned when they removed a huge round window only to discover the glass to replace it was the wrong size.

It was a thoroughly bad time as Simon had just left with the au pair, leaving me with a gaping hole in the wall throughout the coldest months of the year. I boarded it up, but even with the heating on, the internal temperature never went much above freezing. After repeated calls, they eventually returned six weeks later, with yet another wrongly sized pane. Their solution this time was to hack at the sandstone sill to ram it in. They then demanded I pay three-quarters of the fee, although only a quarter of the job was done. What could I do but agree?

The fitter arrived to do the large entrance door, but again this turned into a shoddy job. Two glass panels didn't fit, the frame didn't match the sandstone arch, and they ground and cut the steel frame, thus rendering the 25-year galvanisation guarantee worthless. Rust spots duly appeared. Simon, now back on the scene, pointed out the faults to another of the firm's fitters. He pointed to our original William Morris stained-glass windows. "You wouldn't want a brick through them." Was this a threat?

There is something therapeutic about a real humdinger of an outburst, but after I slammed down the phone on the director of the company with the parting shot "bloody crooks!", I knew I could forget any amicable resolution to the dispute.

Once again I could only reflect on how employing a professional project manager would have made the job run more smoothly by detaching my emotional investment. By last autumn I wanted it sorted once and for all, but ringing to demand a breakdown of my account ended in another angry exchange of words.

I did discover, however, that I was not the only victim of the bodge-it boys. The directors were too busy to talk to me because of a hitch in finishing a posh London restaurant. Just as it was about to open, it was noticed that the insides of all the double-glazed units were marked with paint. If they can mess up a prestigious job, I thought, what chance do I have?

They had 14 of my windows and wouldn't agree to an arbitration meeting until paid in full. I had shelled out Pounds 18,000 (only Pounds 4,000 more to go), less than half the work had been completed and, in my view, none of it finished to a satisfactory standard.

A couple of weeks ago, Simon roused himself and rang them. Bloody hell, I panicked, he's threatened to "go round with the boys". Amazingly, he had done nothing of the sort. He was civilised and rational, something I'd spectacularly failed to achieve.

Somehow I repeatedly failed to keep negotiations professional and had become so emotionally involved that I couldn't enter into any conversation without feeling conned. Simon agreed to pay for the frames, for which they agreed to waive the fitting fee. He zoomed off to Liverpool with a Pounds 4,000 banker's draft.

Bingo! They slotted in perfectly with our capable builder Kevin in charge. Of course it infuriates me that I had to pay the full amount for such a bodged job, but on the other hand, by remaining calm, Simon achieved more in a single phone call than I had in a year of screaming foul play. At last I now have a downstairs with a view: and a spectacular one at that.


April 24, 2005

Headline: Why won't my men stand by me?


Simon and I are apart -again. It's such a commonly recurring situation around here that I hardly dare even mention it to friends, and when I do they just raise their eyebrows.

I should be incredibly happy -I am on the way to having all I ever dreamed of: an amazing house with a beautiful interior, and adorable children (apart from when Tybalt comes through the school gate and kicks me on the shin), but Simon and I still can't make our relationship work, even though we love each other.

Recent visitors, seeing the house so perfect, immediately assumed we now had the marriage to match, but like the drying plaster on the walls, cracks are never far from the surface. The crux of it is that Simon is unhappy and unfulfilled.

It was a nasty departure scene as Simon punched a friend of mine (after accusing him of being my lover: untrue.) Then he snapped the wing mirrors off his van.

After a fraught 48 hours, contact has become both cordial and sad. It was a crushing blow to hear him say I just kept him around as labour until the building work was completed before throwing him out. How could he even think that after I have tried so hard to forgive and turned a blind eye so many times?

And now Kevin the builder has left me as well. He has taken a job "between bank holidays" doing someone else's roof. I feel bereft and can't understand his explanation that there is not much for him to do. There is a swimming pool to dig, an entrance hall to create and four bathrooms to install and tile, but he insists the labourers and plasterers will be fine without him and he won't be missed for a few weeks.

Well, he will by me -and what about the free childcare I got in the holidays? Most days the kids leapt up to throw on their painting clothes and head out to help make cement. Maybe Kevin has taken umbrage?

I possibly pushed him too far when I asked him to feed the rabbits while we were away in London.

Kevin has the essential ingredients for a perfect builder: he is a workaholic and has a great sense of humour. He is always here by 8.30am and sometimes stays until 9 at night. His wife is studying to become an electrician, realising that she'll never see him unless she joins his team.

Kevin did all the stonework on the windows himself -just as well, as the cheapest quote we'd had for the work was Pounds 8,000 plus Vat. Stonemasons seem to be the snobbish arm of the building trade and justify their expense by making a big point of how specialised the job is. Well, what Kevin has achieved looks fantastic, and if it weren't for the giveaway gleaming sandstone, it would be impossible to tell that the windows aren't original.

I must now paint them with Baby Bio plant food, as I'm reliably informed it can add a century in a couple of days.

Since so many people have nearly catapulted through the antique balustrade that was propped rather than secured in the kitchen, Kevin decided he had better sort it out before he left. It turned out that my bargain antique stairs were a foot too short.

Ever ingenious, Kevin took an angle grinder to the font steps (currently still in the middle of the floor due to our inability to shift them) and somehow managed to separate and transfer them in one enormous stone section to bolster up the staircase. The end result is spectacular. The trouble is that each job when finished seems to give me a new perspective on the scale of the work.

Sitting on the top step gazing around in admiration, my eye was drawn to the stone arch that will lead to the swimming pool area. I'd never seen it from this angle before, but was that a huge crack across the top? Satisfaction immediately dissolved into melancholy.

After 12 years with Simon it's terrifying being alone, and vulnerability magnifies each setback. Eventually, I pulled myself together. After all, I've managed this project so far -I could tackle Wembley Stadium.


May 08, 2005

Headline: Taking a JCB to my marriage


Can it get much worse? No bloody builder (yes, Kevin, the man I lauded to the skies, has not returned), bitter squabbling over marital bust-up, a block on more credit from the bank, Pounds 1,500 fraudulent use of credit card (hadn't noticed, therefore liable), a demand for the return of Pounds 5,000 overpaid working tax credits and lump in breast that needs investigating.

In an act of desperation I got started on my B&B project to generate small amounts of cash as Kevin says he won't come back unless I pay him.

Back at the drawing-board stage, running a guesthouse seemed rather a novel short-term thing to do. How perfect to create a separate floor away from my living area as guest accommodation and then earn dosh simply by washing a few sheets. Now that I am actually at the stage of inviting strangers into my house, I have serious misgivings. There will be no jolly welcome. I will be eyeing them up and down beadily while analysing their dress and any possible weird undertones in their laughter.

But before I could contemplate a paying guest coming over the threshold, I had to embark on a marathon week of cleaning. There were cement and muddy boot marks on the Berber carpets through the hallways, grubby hand prints on the pale walls and splashes of cappuccino that had flown over rugs and curtains in the sitting room when I tripped over Tybalt's skateboard. I kept scrubbing with various expensive stain removers but couldn't completely get rid of the marks. However, I have found a new and most satisfying gadget recommended by an Italian friend: a Polti Vaporetto, which vacuums and steams simultaneously. I've zapped every speck of impurity from each surface.

But though I felt ready for business, a friend that called in was horrified to see no tea-making facilities in the room. She sent round sachets of coffee and a mini kettle. Another veteran B&B host horrified me with stories of knickers being boiled in kettles, sex on stairs, wee in the sink, plus nicked CDs and books.

However, on my opening night I waited and waited until I realised my very first guest was going to be a no-show.

God, I can't help feeling glum. I should be so happy with my dream house almost built. Without question, it will be finished at some point this summer. Or will it? All the biggest jobs are done. I've burrowed under the A5 to reach mains sewerage. This and the creation of new window openings had once seemed insurmountable obstacles, particularly the cost, which appeared out of this world, but I blithely paid the Pounds 35,000 for the new openings and a further Pounds 14,000 to tunnel under the road. I guess, a bit like a film star, I've got all the trimmings -but they don't make you happy in your heart. I can't escape being exhausted and damn lonely.

Still -crossing the road was a big task and it's done. Unfortunately, I managed to anger the entire village with my temporary traffic lights. On the contractor's first day, the Capel Curig community council was busy taking notes. I knew I should gush in a neighbourly fashion that all would be fine, but I couldn't help but feel got at, and so left the workman to confirm the road would be put back properly. Tybalt was given a fluorescent jacket by the foreman, and when I asked him if he was pleased to have a digger in the garden, he gave me a pitying look: this was no ordinary digger, we had been honoured with the presence of a massive JCB.

As I watched the smashing through the tarmac and dissecting of the road from the window, I realised my personal bust-up has been just as brutal. Knowing it's the right thing doesn't make me any less sad, and with this and the building to manage, I feel like an inexperienced captain in charge of a way too large ship.

Poor Sam the plasterer had me burst into tears seven times on a particularly bad day. Ho hum. Where do we go from here?


May 22, 2005

Headline: How can I woo my builder back?


I'm sending it," I told my friend Aliya, who sat across the kitchen table sipping a cappuccino. "Don't," was her advice, so I deleted "I H8 U" from my phone.

Kevin the builder was the intended recipient of my text message. He has gone to another job with "John" in Penmachno and, although I don't know who he is, I could text "I H8 U" to him, too.

Kevin finished working on some woman's roof (a grumpy cow who glared at me on the couple of occasions I stopped to chat to him, presumably aware that I was using all my feminine wiles to poach him away), then while Kevin was having a couple of days off over the bank holiday, this John rang. Apparently, having sold the one house, he now needs a whole lot of other work done. Why this late contender takes priority over me with just a single residence to finish, I don't know -and I bet he doesn't make such good coffee.

But the point is, I'm losing a potential Pounds 500 a week on my B&B;while I wait for Kevin to finish the work. And while I would never admit it to him, I don't want just any old builder, I want Kevin.

But wooing him back is tough. It is vital to get the right mixture of needing, pleading and vulnerability, and essential not to pass judgment. This way flirtation lies. Except I'm cajoling him to take out a wall rather than out to dinner and he's playing hard to get.

I don't understand how John gets him at the drop of a hat. Possibly because he's a bloke and therefore less complicated. Kevin claims that the more jobs he does, the more his reputation grows. I wish he could just be straight with me; evasiveness drives me up the wall. It is not as if he doesn't complain of the same thing himself. Kevin is a craftsman of the old school and sometimes bemoans the lack of commitment shown by his young apprentice Tom.

But knowing what Tom earns, I think he must be seriously devoted to his training.

Eventually Kevin did send a peace offering in the form of a mini-digger and driver. For a month or so, the waste pipes from the new B&B;bathrooms have snaked their way outside through one of the boarded-up window openings. This didn't bother me with Simon in the house. An intruder would be insane to attempt a break-in with him in situ. They'd get more than they bargained for coming head to head with my erstwhile husband, who happens to be an ex-armed robber.

Alone now, I'm relieved and grateful that Kevin has found somebody to bury and connect the pipework for me.

And I must be under a lucky star, because after the false start I have managed to secure a lucrative little number with my first B&B punters -social workers who are working in the village. They have proved to be perfect house guests: arriving quietly after 10pm, they don't want breakfast, don't mind the chaos and are police-checked for working with children. I'm told I can expect them for a month or two, which is a cushy way to start off.

So, overall, life is improving. The breast lump I'd been fretting over turns out to be fine, and I've even managed to find somebody to have flirtatious dinners with -who is handily local, too. He knocked on the door having found my errant hound Brecon wandering the hills. Or rather, he'd failed to shake him off as Brecon revelled in the unexpected company.

Aliya was unimpressed. Wearily, she rehearsed the list: was this one insolvent, a junkie, mad, a playboy or did he just have a criminal record? Triumphantly, I said new bloke was none of the above but the squeaky-clean son of a vicar. For the first time ever, she was speechless. Not only that, I continued, he is a fabulous cook, a brilliant dad to his two lovely daughters, a lighting designer, which may come in handy, and an enthusiastic sportsman (though that, after my attempt to run up the mountain alongside his walk, may not be a plus) and definitely single. Good God, she said, what is he letting himself in for...


June 05, 2005

Headline: Cracks appear in my bathroom


There was a man in my garden, frantically waving a stick. I gathered, between expletives, that he was about to whack me if I didn't lock the dogs away.

Apparently, Guinness, who belongs to Sam the plasterer, had been ready to savage him. I had been sitting outside when the man had arrived in his truck, and had watched the scene unfold. Yes, Guinness and my dog, Brecon, had bounded over, but they were boisterous, not aggressive. Nevertheless, I was hugely apologetic and shut the dogs inside.

I hoped the man might then relinquish his stick, but he kept on brandishing it as Sam and I positioned ourselves to receive the load he had come to deliver. I felt like Tim Henman on a bad day as a furious volley of items was lunged in my direction: baths, basins, showers and sanitary ware were scuffed as he literally kicked them off the wagon. I tried to refuse the delivery, pointing at the grazed ceramic, but I only managed to shove one basin back on board before he sped off.

I dialled the local Plumb Center, trembling with shock and rage, only to be told the delivery man was frightened of dogs and not good with people. Perhaps he is in the wrong job?

Now nobody at Plumb Center will call me back, and I'm missing a basin and a set of mixer taps. Still, the dispute with them has since paled into insignificance as I've had yet another bust-up with Kevin the builder. After he came back, I was on tenterhooks trying to make it all go well. I made him my best cappuccinos, kept out of his way, so I couldn't be accused of breathing down his neck, and immediately dropped everything when he felt like having a chat about our "to do" list. I can't tell you how gushingly sweet I've been, terrified that he might down tools and swap jobs if I caused him any hassle. But it all went horribly wrong when I saw the first bathroom he had tiled.

Kevin and I have been squabbling for months over what tiles would look best in my four B&B en-suites. I was keen on limestone, which he was adamant I couldn't afford. The next choice was mosaic, a look evidently akin to a second-rate swimming pool but still too pricey for me. Finally, I gave in and said I'd go for plain white, only to be told they'd make each bathroom look like a public lavatory in Rhyl. So when I went to Global Tiles to place my order for white tiles, for fear of making Kevin too irate, I chose some with a border in sea blue. And I hate borders!

Anyhow, he picked the day I was away to tile a whole bathroom. I arrived back and let out a horrified yelp. Apparently, they had been taking bets on my reaction - and the odds were on a negative response.

Kevin put on his "I am speaking to a five-year-old" voice: "What is the matter?"

"It looks like they are covered in oil," I said. Yet it seems they were exactly what I had ordered. Plain White Bumpy Tiles. Somehow I had failed to notice the bumpy effect. I smoothed my hand over the surface and all became clear. Each tile has a random raised swirl. Hard to spot on a solitary tile, hideous en masse.

Kevin was terribly cross and said anybody with class went for these, and he had installed hundreds of en-suites like this to thrilled customers.

Now he has gone away for a few days to do his mate's place in Capel Garmon and to whinge about that Lady Alice.

The next day, I went to the shop and begged them to take back the unused consignment. They were much more sympathetic than Kevin, saying it was the "in" look 10 years ago. So now I have one bubbly bathroom (it's too late and too expensive to rip it out) and one with leftover mosaic tiles. The last two are going to be plain white with honed slate floors. I am slightly concerned about having six mismatched bathrooms. A friend comforted me by telling me that the life of guesthouse rooms is shorter than that of pay phones in Brixton, so no need to fret -I'll be redoing the whole lot within a year.


June 19, 2005

Headline: Sex and the single renovator


I have been away for a few days so Kevin and his lads have been getting their caffeine fix on a self-service basis. I'm a useless waitress anyway. With builders I remember the first couple of cups and then forget my duties, unless they holler sarcastically up the stairs: "Well, thank you, yes, we would like a cuppa!" I'm finally beginning to find them a painful intrusion. I feel the very bones of my house violated by their angle grinders and drills, and increasingly I escape to the eaves to work cross-legged on the bed in some degree of peace. Even when I do force myself back downstairs, I can never be bothered to get their endless combinations of sugar-to-milk ratio quite right.

A chimpanzees' tea party appeared to have taken place during my absence. As well as the debris scattered around the worktops, muddy footprints covered the whole kitchen. I could have wept when, walking in late at night, I saw the trail of caked mud ground into the floor. Instead, I wearily picked up a broom, each sweep of the brush accompanied by a muttered curse on all builders. It was so filthy I half expected to find early revellers camping out under the table getting in the mood for Glastonbury. My tolerance is wearing thin and I just want the builders to sod off. Although, of course, I am very cross when they do. The problem with not having had a fixed price for the job is that dribs and drabs go on pouring out interminably. Every week another few grand get added to the debt, and I have no idea when it will end. Kevin has admitted he, too, hates finishing jobs. He says all the excitement is at the beginning (typical bloke) which is when the customer really appreciates you.

Now that he's so "bored", many of Kevin's days are interrupted by trips off site pricing up other jobs, fixing bits and bobs for clients and apparently spending all the money I give him at the bookies. He has some sort of system of tips, so I coquettishly fluttered a tenner; it was a one-off, though, as his technique foundered and I failed to win. Pity he can't work for free, since effectively all the money I give him is going in the bin. Our matey relationship has soured, probably because I'm in the doldrums and can only focus on all the stuff that went wrong (pre-Kevin) or ideas that won't materialise because I can't afford them. I think perhaps there has been a subtle shift in the way the builders regard me now that I am on my lonesome. As a single woman I feel I'm fair game, and ribald jokes echo around the house followed by outbursts of laughter. I'm no good at being one of the boys and preferred it when they shut up as I entered a room instead of catching the nudge-nudge, wink-wink. Apparently, Pete is too old for me, Kevin too married, Tom too young -which leaves only Sam, the single plasterer. I cringe at the non-stop innuendo and lines such as, "Did you hear the one about the woman who walked into a pub and ordered a double entendre? The barman gave her one ..."

Months of sexual jokes are relentless and no topic escapes their wit. Yesterday, I was whingeing on about the window in my room being hidden behind the king post roof support and moaning that we should have changed it for a smaller queen post.

The king post goes straight up, I gesticulated, arms above my head while the queen post is shaped like a "V". Kevin burst out laughing, insinuating that I brought everything back to sex. At least I'm not the only butt of their jokes. They got the poor girl in the shop across the road going when she told them they'd sold out of Cornish pasties. Pete looked appalled. "But I must have one," he said. "Look at that dog over there," pointing to Brecon sitting placidly in my garden. "The only way I can get past him is with a pasty to fend him off." The poor girl rushed into the adjoining cafe and snatched some sausages for the dog. Pete shortly reappeared with a grin and a mouthful of freshly cooked sausage


Headline: Do real men use hand cream?
Source: Sunday Times Issue Date: Sunday July 03, 2005

It's 10pm and I'm sitting on a plastic crate arguing with Kevin about the correct height for a loo-roll holder. I was too coy to sit on the lavatory seat, so he demonstrated. We couldn't agree, and I gave in, knowing that he can no longer tolerate my agonising over such minute details. He concludes with: "Nothing to do with me. Not my house." That's my cue to acknowledge he knows best.

Kevin has nicknamed the vicar's son (my new man) "boxer shorts" after finding him wandering around the house semi-dressed. "Boxer shorts" must care about me a bit as he's volunteered to talk to the skip company that dropped off a 10-tonner and flattened my 6ft-high gatepost. As soon as a man offers to help with building problems he becomes irresistible. The thing that worries me most is that he moisturises his hands and feet and cleans his teeth. I've never met a bloke who did that -can it be normal? A friend said she'd leap at such good manners. Her theory is that we all need three men. She thinks I should have kept Simon in the husband role (being controlled gives one a sense of security), maintained the vicar's son as the perfect lover (he treats me more like a princess) and found myself an inarticulate toy boy (for wild sex).

I asked Kevin's opinion -not about the three lovers, but on who was responsible for the damage to the gate. He's not quite sure but thinks that if something is in the way of a delivery, then the contractor can't be blamed. Certainly, when a digger cut through my television cable, I accepted responsibility as I hadn't told him we'd buried it. Surely a highly visible gatepost is different? And it wasn't in the way! Kevin watched the accident happen from the window: apparently his lads were directing the driver, and although Tom made a feeble "Stop" gesture, he didn't shriek.

I can't believe the devastation caused by one little prang. Now I have only a pathetic mound of rubble to welcome visitors. Bloody builders, I sighed. Kevin replied: "You'll miss us when we're gone." Of course, he's right. He came to discuss the job 10 months ago, leaving with the words "I'll be your knight in shining armour." And he has been. He has done a fantastic job, and although he occasionally vanishes when I put the pressure on, he always comes up trumps. He imagines life is going to be wonderfully simple when he moves on to the Newtons' extension. He's ready to leave, and I have to keep reminding him he hasn't finished here yet, as plastering, painting and tiling remain to be done. But this phase will be finished in a month or so, and I'll do B&B over the summer before getting him back to do the pool and finish the hall. I must run a guesthouse for five years or I'll have to pay back my grant. But having people in can be quite tricky, as my children metamorphose into mini devils when granted an audience.

Hero asked a guest if he'd seen the spots on my back (only one I hasten to add). In her opinion, it's chickenpox. When he laughed a bit nervously, she took it as an insult and with a piercing glare asked if he was the reason her daddy wasn't allowed to live here. Perhaps there is another way to get rich. I could use my new-found skills and be a property developer. It's worth a try. In fact, I'm on the lookout for somewhere derelict and a non-status mortgage. I'm thinking of raising extra cash on my place and getting Kevin to do it up. We'll split the profits. I can do a few and then I'll have enough lump sums to pour into the church so I own it outright -and then retire! Kevin said that before he can contemplate going into business with me he had to test my intelligence. Apparently Lady Isabella Hervey on Celebrity Love Island made him doubt the quality of aristocratic brain matter. He fired some trivia at me. What is the temperature of boiling water? Four times 12? -no fingers allowed. What is the currency of Japan? I scraped by, so he says he'll look at a barn with me. Headline: I get lucky with guests -again;

 

Spiritual Conversion; Property Byline: Alice Douglas
Source: Sunday Times Issue Date: Sunday July 17, 2005

Kevin the builder went into hiding as soon as I announced that my first proper B&B guests would be arriving any moment. I've occasionally had staff on call from a local children's home to stay, but they are very laid-back and don't have breakfast, or mind if I haven't had time to change the sheets. The new arrivals, on the other hand, were a couple expecting crisp sheets with hospital corners, a tea and coffee tray and a morning fry-up with triangles of toast. Kevin hid under the bath and pretended to tweak some pipes. "It'll be a nightmare," he announced, "like going on holiday to a Spanish villa and finding it only half-built. You'll be on one of those World's Worst Holiday programmes." He was in a bad mood anyway because I had a dinner party while he worked late. Apparently, I should have taken my seven friends out for a meal and not started cooking when he, his wife and son were working half the night just for me. "You've got such cheek," he said. "Nobody else would get away with renting out a room for Pounds 40 when it's stuck in the middle of a building site." Okay, I was apprehensive when a B&B veteran down the road told me she'd passed on my number to a couple wanting a room, but I desperately need some dosh. I rehearsed exactly what to say, so that potential guests would be aware of my "site still under construction" status.

Of course, when the time came, Tybalt, my youngest son, was busy kicking me because I'd ignored his incessant demands for real-life motorbikes. I quickly transformed my gruff "Yep?" as I answered the phone into the most charming of hellos when I realised it was a customer. In an attempt to come across as halfway professional, I kept the call brief and booked them in. Only afterwards did I remember I hadn't given them my apologetic spiel regarding the cement mixers and skips they'd need to dodge before getting through the door. When Jake and Ann-Marie hesitated at the top of the drive, I could see they were slightly shocked by the mounds of sand, cement, tiles and scaffolding. I whisked them inside as fast as I could. Safely in my vast kitchen, gazing at the mosaic apse, they were won over. They were even sympathetic, being midway through a loft conversion themselves.

My children surpassed themselves, their customary riotous behaviour pre-empted by my tactic of two hours of stories before bedtime. Jake and Ann-Marie went to their room, and I spent a restless night, anxious that they might walk out, denouncing me as a charlatan. Breakfast brought the real baptism of fire. First lesson to remember: don't get so absorbed in nattering that you forget about the sausages. I hovered over my guests anxiously as they ate, but they appeared to enjoy every last charred scrap.

I still felt sure I must have blown it somehow, so I was amazed when they asked to book to come back, and met their request with a mystified "Huh?" I'm sure they can't have missed the astonishment on my face. A few days later, they returned. That morning, my talents were stretched to new limits as Simon, my ex, failed to pick up the children for school, so I had to cook the full English, do the school run and pay for equipment collection, all within an hour.

I delegated outrageously by roping in my guests to hand over a cheque if the truck arrived while I was out. Then I went out with Kevin to view a gem of a chapel that has just come on the market. Obviously, ecclesiastical conversions are my thing -so without a thought, I put in an offer for Pounds 60,000.I assured the estate agent it was not subject to mortgage, adding that at that price, it was easy enough for me to cover it on my collection of credit cards. I don't think she thought for a moment I might be serious. I am. There is a possibility I might be starting this nightmare all over again. Headline: Scenes from my car-wreck marriage;

 

Spiritual conversion; Property Byline: Alice Douglas
Source: Sunday Times Issue Date: Sunday July 31, 2005

It is 9pm and I can hear the murmur of bed and breakfast guests downstairs. My ex, Simon, is with me in the kitchen threatening to chuck the fridge through the window. I don't know how serious he is, but he's desperate. I hand over Pounds 40, but any sympathy erupts into rage and I mutter "bastard". Simon makes a hanging himself gesture and leaves with a gurgling noise. I weep. My tears plop on to the new beech worktops as I wash them down. I'm so broke, and paying Simon off again means I'll have lost virtually any profit on the B&B room. I will make about Pounds 20, but a large chunk of that will go on the organic fry-up.I should use the value foods from supermarkets, but can't bear to serve waterlogged bacon. Simon drives away.

A few weeks ago I bought the car from him for Pounds 500. He no longer wanted it but omitted to hand it over and, when the clutch went, dumped it in somebody's driveway. I discovered this at 1am when the police arrived to ask if I was the registered keeper. I imagined Simon involved in a fatal crash, but no - it was just blocking access. The car is now on the roadside, but I can't get the keys back to arrange for it to be moved -and Simon is now using my van. The next morning he rings to say it has been daubed with the words "English c***" and the tyres slashed.

I cook my B&B breakfast and try to behave as though nothing has happened. I remember Simon saying he would eventually drive me from north Wales. Perhaps I'll buy one of those Cath Kidston floral tents, erect it permanently on a beach and live there with the children. I don't need the six bathrooms that I have spent years building for myself. I concede that at this stage it does seem crazy to take on a fresh building project. I haven't heard whether my offer on another chapel 11 miles away has been accepted. The auction is on Thursday, and I imagine the agents are waiting to see if there is competition. I have rung my old pals at Snowdonia national park and had a lengthy chat about the windows. I was informed that if I wanted to change them (which would be essential to make it a viable residential property) this could scupper any chance of planning permission. Perhaps I should withdraw my offer and reinstate it minus a bit, subject to planning, if nobody bids at the auction.

There is just too much clutter in my brain, and on top of it all it's my bloody 41st birthday. I decided to hold a kind of impromptu open-house party for anybody in the village wanting to see the progress. Also a cunning ploy to give Kevin the builder a deadline, as he has now left for other work. He imagines that he can do my bits and pieces on his occasional free evening. It doesn't bode well for the business partnership that we discussed for the new chapel. But he swears that if he is to be cut in on the profit, he will turn down all other work and be exclusively mine! I must stop believing what blokes say. It only ever causes me grief.

But Kevin has made downstairs look beautiful. I've gone for wonderful handmade four-poster beds from the Woodcarvers Guild and walls in old ochre, my favourite Fired Earth paint. It's the perfect colour. However, I have made one dreadful mistake -on the all-important 10 pairs of curtains, needed to pull the whole colour scheme together. A good tip is not to leave yourself only half an hour to select a floral pattern. I decided to meet an old flame in Chester for brunch, and the downward spiral began when I started to sip his beer mid-morning. The curtains finally beckoned at about 4pm. When I stumbled on ready-made, perfect-size curtains, I threw them straight in my trolley. The pattern slightly jarred, but in my tipsy state I imagined that it could pass for William Morris. It couldn't. The curtains were absolutely hideous and had to go back. How to explain to a steely-faced "customer service adviser" that the mistake was due to shopping under the influence?

 

Headline: A hammer blow at the auction; Spiritual Conversion; Property Byline: Alice Douglas
Source: Sunday Times Issue Date: Sunday August 14, 2005

I was running late for the auction, as for some odd reason my diesel car got upset when I filled it with petrol and selfishly conked out. On the upside, when I finally got there, I was chuffed to find a smoky bar room with alcohol flowing, instead of the panelled and pompous affair I'd been anticipating. This was the day when I might just become the proud owner of Bethania Chapel in Penmachno -or not. Spiritually, it's mine already: who else is so well equipped to take on that pile? Who else has been proved in the fire of building works for seven long years? The number has a mystical ring to it: seven lean years seven fat ones coming up!

I put in an offer of Pounds 60,000 weeks back, but the estate agents told me their clients wanted to see how the property would go at auction. Now the moment of truth: thank goodness for the presence of Phil and Hazel, the chapel's neighbours, saying how much they were behind me, really rooting for me to get it. With a crash Iwan Williams, the estate agent, declared the auction open. But was that speedy gobbledegook really necessary? For whose benefit is it anyway? Putting my bafflement to one side, I jumped in, flicking my arm up and down in a professional and knowing way. My legs trembled inside my cowboy boots. Iwan asked whether I was bidding or twitching. Much sweating under the collar as I led the price into the mid-60s, but who were my competitors? I had no idea because they were behind me.

Soon we were near Pounds 70,000 and I dropped out for a breather. I was willing to go higher, but had to find out who was pushing the price up. Traitors! Phil and Hazel were bidding. What had all that encouragement been about, when all along they were in it for themselves? Now I was in a fix. If I beat them, would I have to deal with clouds of ill will blowing at me from across the road? In the end, the chapel went for Pounds 83,500 -but not to me.

What desolation as I slunk out with my ally, Kevin the builder. Phil and Hazel pursued us hurriedly, but I was not in the mood to face them. I gave them a frosty look. Then all was revealed. They were bidding against a man who, they thought, wanted to turn the chapel into a scrap yard. They had to outbid him to preserve their beloved cottage's view. Once the sale has gone through, I can buy it from them direct - though they are keen to have a slice of the chapel's garden as they don't have one. From low to high in one bound. It would be fun if it weren't so exhausting.

None of this would be possible without my mortgage broker, James, of Lindon- Travers Associates. He has come up trumps yet again with another deal, this time with the Halifax. The rate is fixed at 4.9% for two years, which is good. The valuation on my own place was only Pounds 485,000, a couple of hundred thousand short in my opinion, but who's complaining? I'll have a hundred grand in the bank to buy the chapel and will then raise further capital on it for the restoration work.

I had to ask myself, though, am I morphing into an unscrupulous developer who buys up cheap rural properties only to flog them at four times the price? But it has been on the market for a couple of years, so I can't be jumping a queue of local people. Conscience salved. The B&B has gone less well. Some punters left early, owing me Pounds 80. Bastards! When they checked in they were happy with the price, delighted with the room and the four-poster. They did a bunk when I was out on the school run, telling Jaqui, who cooks breakfast, they wouldn't pay because of the building works -floor tiles were being laid in another part of the house. Had they failed to notice this for three whole nights? I'd had doubts about him, although his girlfriend was a teacher and inspired more trust. What will she be teaching at her school on the Isle of Wight next year? Top tips for shoplifting?

 

Headline: Almost had it with my builder; Spiritual conversion; Property Byline: Alice Douglas
Source: Sunday Times Issue Date: Sunday August 28, 2005

I'm bent double. Running a bed and breakfast has done my back in and brought me to my knees. Guests have commented that my beds are the most comfortable they have ever slept on. Well, if Pounds 4,000 can't guarantee a good night's sleep, how much do you need to spend? The mattresses are almost 1ft deep and sprung to perfection. Which is great if you're sleeping on them. Not so great if you're the chambermaid: these deluxe mattresses weigh a ton, and you can't get the fitted sheets on without hauling them on to one side. The result is a buggered back.

I groan as I wrench my creaking body from a crouching Neanderthal into something slightly more evolved and ask myself: "What is it with me and money?" Now all that lovely dosh from the B&B will evaporate on the osteopath's table. Still, life for my guests is rosy, and the mattresses must be good because the establishment has notched up its first engagement. When Arne and Cindy said they were going up Tryfan, I was worried to see them equipped with only trainers and tracksuits. They were happy to risk it without waterproofs, but in these parts sunkissed mountaintops have a knack of converting into Wuthering Heights in the blink of an eye.

Arne had wanted to make his proposal on the pinnacle rocks, Adam and Eve, but the best plans can go awry, and they didn't make it to the summit. Nothing daunted and armed with the ring, he sank to one knee while Cindy clung to a cliff face, shivering with cold, fear and pain (having wrenched her ankle), and extracted a yes. They returned bedraggled and all lit up with a lover's glow the spirit of St Curig's continues to weave its magical spells.

On the practical front, things are decidedly less romantic. I am on the brink of giving Kevin -builder and supposed business partner -the boot. With barely one week's work left to do, he has gone awol. Some of these final jobs are crucial to making the guesthouse fully kosher; to qualify for a fire certificate, for example, I need a fire door between my living area and the guest area. The entrance floor also needs to be sealed, the bathroom mirrors hung, the porch retiled, shelves put up and a safety rail fitted on the balustrade.

Kevin was supposed to be here on Saturday. But guess what? No show and no telephone call. He's not answering his mobile, and I've had other clients of his arriving at the church desperately looking for him. I'm done with stalking him all over the shop, and if he thinks this is a decent way to treat his prospective business partner he can sod off. The deal I offered him as per the new chapel (hopefully to be) was phenomenal: not only would I buy it, pay for the materials and for his labour, but I would also split the profit with him. I feel so hurt. I truly think that even were he to confront me in full charm mode, I wouldn't keep from telling him where to go, I'm that hacked off.

He's bound to turn up at some point because I owe him Pounds 3,000 -according to him. I say that because I never keep a tab on the hours he works or where the money is going. I function on trust -because I feel that's the way the world should be -so I'm sure that once I see him face to face my doubts will melt and our partnership will be back on track. In the meantime, thank goodness that Pete, who was sacked by Kevin when he didn't show up during a crucial week of painting, has agreed to return. He's not the most reliable or consistent of builders, but he did have a reasonable excuse in that he had come down with pleurisy and was hospitalised. For Pounds 1,000, he has agreed to clear the garden of boulders, build the gateposts and paint and repair the guttering. He is also finishing off certain little jobs that Kevin has left undone: like putting a cover on the internal manhole so that the bedrooms and the kitchen aren't graced by the smell of sewage every time it rains.

 

Headline: Harmony in the chapels; Spiritual Conversion; Property Byline: Alice Douglas
Source: Sunday Times Issue Date: Sunday September 11, 2005 Page: Home 10

My cunning plan was to become a specialist Welsh chapel developer. After all, seven years of experience with my own home should be put to profitable use on other defunct religious buildings. But it looked like it had come off the rails when the nearby chapel I planned to buy, renovate and sell on was bought by my prospective neighbours. In a nailbiting auction room drama last month, Hazel and Phil, who live opposite, paid Pounds 83,500 for the chapel I'd set my heart on. But then they asked me to buy it from them. All they were after was a slice of the chapel's garden, they said.

Somewhat thrown by this turn of events, I rang an estate agent friend in London, who reckoned that Hazel and Phil had artificially inflated the price and that I should knock them down at least Pounds 15,000. So I made my way to our meeting ready to hammer them down, but my sense of fair play niggled at me. By the time I got to Hazel and Phil's lovely house, thoughts of how, in truth, they'd done me a favour started to gain the upper hand. At the time of the auction my new mortgage offer hadn't come through and I was going to raise the deposit on credit cards. I'd then have spent an angst ridden month wondering if I'd get the full amount.

Now I'm in the enviable position of having all but Pounds 20,000 of what I need -a trifling top-up. I decided to offer the equivalent of what they'd already paid and to throw in the piece of garden they wanted as well -much the best policy to be generous and maintain friendship, I concluded. We congregated in Hazel and Phil's front room to discuss terms.

They want to put a covenant on the chapel to ensure I don't make it into a bunkhouse, restaurant or any such thing that would attract a high number of visitors. This is fine by me, as I intend to convert and sell it as a family home. They also want an agreed garden plan to ascertain how much will be given over to driveway and parking and what proportion will remain green. I said I'd be happy to keep the whole lot as garden, but apparently the Snowdonia national park will insist on off-road parking. We did a little tour and it was clear which strip of land should be theirs and which was the natural place for parking vehicles.

We went back inside and an almost Pythonesque scene ensued where they tried to make me buy the property for less and I tried to make them sell it for more. I offered to pay the same amount as they had originally, Pounds 83,500, and to add the land on top as a goodwill gesture. Hazel said they couldn't possibly allow me to pay more than Pounds 80,000, and we finally settled on Pounds 82,000. Both parties probably ended up with the best possible deal by doing the decent thing rather than battling like sharks.

Back at home, things are really beginning to swim along. Yes, of course, there are the odd teething troubles, such as the boiler not working properly, but the joy of seeing it all fall into place more than compensates.

This week has been more family and friends than business, and that's when the space really comes into its own. My father has come to stay with his wife, Chun, and my youngest little sister, Ling Ling, and dad's great friend, Beth.

Ling Ling and my daughter, Hero, look almost like mirror images of each other, except one is topped off with jet black hair and the other with white-blonde. They were hand-in-hand right from the off and have been inseparable ever since. Poor Tybalt, my son, found himself a little out in the cold so I arranged for his friend, Sam, to come and stay and maintain the balance.

On top of this, I've a couple of friends from Italy staying, plus my stepdaughter Keiley and, of course, Jane the au pair. Organising all this lot has been something akin to a military operation as I am determined they will not waste all their time hanging around the kitchen endlessly chatting, but will make the most of it. So, I've taken them to see the horses (Chun was thrown off one as a little girl and was temporarily paralysed, so she wasn't too keen), to the seaside and for meandering walks by mountain lakes. It's a case of, "We have ways of making you enjoy yourselves!"

In truth, I believe everybody has. Beth is a chef and my dad's a keen cook, so they arrived with mountains of food, and I haven't had to touch the cooker since. The kitchen's been abuzz with everybody chopping, nibbling and stirring pots. Chun, of course, has delighted us with the genuine Chinese article and Dad's Pimm's potions slip down much too easily. All great for that warm feeling of joie de vivre but not so great the next morning when you stand on the scales.

 

Headline: My new man is the hired help; Spiritual Conversion; Property Byline: Alice Douglas
Source: Sunday Times Issue Date: Sunday September 25, 2005 Page: Home 10

In those far-off days -about a month ago -when I was cutting my milk teeth at being a B&B hostess, I had, almost literally, a baptism of fire: 10 overnight guests had turned up in the kitchen simultaneously, all eager for their classic British breakfast. They found me in my striped pinny, pans at the ready.

The children, as yet unschooled in guesthouse etiquette, ran in and ran amok: Tybalt handcuffed the Christian headmistress to her chair, while Hero let go of her hamster in the cornflakes. Then, a frying pan spat fat into my eye and plumes of smoke issued from my crap toaster (a false economy) and set off the fire alarms.

Thankfully, I had an exceptionally nice bunch of people staying, who remained nice even after being forced into an impromptu fire drill to the accompaniment of tympanum-busting sirens. So when Steve informed me that my state of the art fire-alarm system was switched off, my eyes glazed as I cast my mind back to the fire-drill incident. As I returned to the present moment, and Steve swam back into my field of vision, it occurred to me I must have forgotten to reset the alarm.

Thank God for Steve. Life has drastically improved since he moved in. After three years, my beloved PA -who single-handedly sorted out my work life, not to mention my emotional one -has moved on. I was pondering what might be the best way to replace the irreplaceable, when a friend put me in the way of Steve.

I had been thinking it might be nice to have a bloke about the house, and talked the matter over with a friend. She laughed, tactlessly, saying she'd read an article entitled "Rent a Husband". Apparently, it's all the rage in the States, where women have been booting out their loved ones and replacing them with the professional article. A live-in fella: my mind's eye saw him rustling up exquisite meals, mending broken loo seats, putting up shelves and generally managing the place. Then Steve breezed in last Monday.

Now, not to put too strong a point on it, life is bliss. Within moments, he logged every outstanding household job and marked them all in order of priority. He is efficiency personified, gets on fantastically with the children and is lending a hand with the other chapel -the one I'm planning to develop and sell -as well.

Heaven must be missing an angel. Steve trained for five years as a chef at Bodysgallen Hall, a fab hotel and restaurant that's usually beyond my purse, and that first evening, as I ate tuna steaks on a bed of ratatouille (made with 10 vegetables), I thought of the concerted effort I would have to make to keep from getting too attached.

One advantage of this B&B lark is that it keeps me on my toes, socially active and is turning out to be fantastic fun. Once I found myself scraping together a supper for two head-masters who arrived at 10.30 in the evening. They imagined they could just drop their bags and head for a pub and a quick meal. When I made it plain that there would be nothing doing, bar a chilled sandwich from a petrol station six miles distant, they opted to go for whatever I could rustle up. We spent a pleasant hour downing beer and chatting.

Then there were the two ex-junkies who came to stay: one now works for the Home Office advising on drug-related crime, and the other is involved in funding rehab programmes. I could have happily talked to them for hours on end. The next day, they were even on cue to rescue me when my 40-year-old MG caught fire as I, the picture of cool in my sunglasses, was sailing down the Llanberis pass.

Dust in the braking system had caught alight owing to my riding the brake while going downhill. Luck with my guests, then, and with my new major-domo, but not so lucky with the scrap-metal merchant. He ignored my instruction not to take anything that wasn't on the skip and cleared out the garden, helping himself not only to the MG's rollbars and window frames, but also to a neat pile of cast-iron guttering.

Now, of course, the bugger has vanished, and there's not a scrap-metal yard within a hundred miles that admits to ever having seen my haul. Never mind. I'm pressing on with the new chapel and have met with the architect. It's quite daunting going back to that "blank canvas" stage. Kevin the builder and I agree (miraculously) that we should keep it as one property; the architect and the estate agent reckon the only way to turn a profit is to make it into three houses, or split it into flats.

I expect I'm being stubborn and short-sighted, but it would make such a spectacular single dwelling, and I'm really loath to scale down my vision. I'm fed up with cutting my dreams in half.

 

Headline: Will my chapel dream come true?; Spiritual conversion; Property Byline: Alice Douglas
Source: Sunday Times Issue Date: Sunday October 09, 2005 Page: Home 16

Something really strange has happened. Steve has moved in and, in return for a wage and his keep, his duties are running the B&B and getting the ball rolling with the development project on the new chapel. But instead of blooming afresh and bouncing like a spring lamb, I'm utterly washed out. As if by magic, he has floated the burden of responsibility away from my shoulders as though it weighed no more than a dream, and in consequence I feel knocked for six, totally knackered and can hardly get out of bed. He must think I am the laziest trollop that ever lived.

Ever since I've had children, I've had odd bouts of real exhaustion. Moving to the wilderness to spawn does have advantages, but it also means missing out on the help and support that comes of having extended family nearby. When I had help with childcare, I felt obliged to justify the expense and my maternal absence by doubling my mountain of other work. Even if I was ill, I had no choice but to get on with it. Now Steve has swept in, all is transformed. He's a turbocharged machine. I've never met a bloke so endowed with a woman's capabilities. Dirty crockery doesn't languish in the sink for more than a second and the washing is whipped up on the line before his lips have even brushed their morning cuppa.

Engaged to do 40 hours a week, he must be topping 60. In inverse proportion to Steve's dynamism, I grow progressively more lax. The more he does, the more incapable I become. Maybe I should ask the doctor if I'm suffering from clinical exhaustion, but I can't be bothered to ring up for an appointment. I've spent upwards of Pounds 90 on energising health supplements, but to no avail. Guests come and go without our catching a glimpse of each other.

Up in my garret of an evening, I hear Steve chatting away downstairs and guiltily think I really ought to drag myself out of my bed and be sociable, too. But I just can't do it. One reason for my depleted energy could be the task of pushing forward with the project to convert the chapel I recently bought. I had a meeting with Kevin the builder and the new Kevin in my life, Kevin the architect, plus the planning officer from Snowdonia national park, who has a politician's knack of never actually answering a question. Can we knock down the ugly pebble-dash extension and have glass doors opening from the kitchen onto a patio? Can we recreate the art deco-style stained-glass window pattern in the ground floor entrances? Would it be possible for the galleried seating area to be twisted around to make a feature of it as you walk into the chapel? Can we get rid of the organ? No. That was the only definitive answer I got, so I asked if we could incorporate the organ into the entrance hall and have stairs going up on either side of it. Ho-hum.

However, the burning question, of course, is: can we have planning permission for change of use to turn it into a residential property? But even that didn't get a straight reply. Architect Kevin must have said "good" in Welsh to the planning officer 300 times. Doubtless more sensible in the long run than the "Why the hell can't you say yes or no?" that was on the tip of my tongue. Finally, I was told that maybe if I found old photos of the chapel we might be able to revert to its original structure. Infuriatingly, they won't give any indication as to whether a plan will be approved until it has been drawn up in full detail, which means spending thousands on drawings that will probably be binned. It's all horribly reminiscent of my former dealings with the park, when the conversation went round and round in circles and I felt like I was bashing my head against a brick wall. Still, this little head has got a lot harder in the past year or so.

 

Headline: Spiritual conversion; Property Byline: Alice Douglas
Source: Sunday Times Issue Date: Sunday October 23, 2005

Three times I repeated my ex-husband's polite, "you can shove it up your hoop", response to my request to borrow the van, before I penetrated Georgina's incredulity. I could sense her at the other end of the phone line, aghast. I complained that it was I, after all, who had bought the van in the first place, on the understanding that I could use it occasionally to collect building materials and such.

Georgina a family lawyer ordered me to sever all links with my silver-tongued ex that left me in any way dependent on his good will. She's right: these spats lead me to grind my teeth in frustration, and I risk reducing them to powder - whereas there are good reasons to keep them. One of them cropped up that very moment, when my call was interrupted by Steve and I welcomed him into the room with my best, toothy smile.

My vow to maintain a strictly professional relationship with this paragon of masculine virtue is growing shakier by the minute. What is a girl supposed to do? I can hardly believe he's real and wait anxiously for Mr. Hyde to jump out at any moment, but he doesn't. Steve redeems his entire sex in one fell swoop. One look in his gorgeous eyes and thousands of years of history of man on woman oppression are forgiven at a blow. He treats me like a precious flower; is sweet, kind and attentive - and I love it! Trouble is my heartstrings are beginning to tug.

Steve was the bearer of good news. Speedy, the hamster had not been eaten by the cat. St Curig's had supplied the romantic, trysting place for a pair of transatlantic lovers - he American, she Italian - and Speedy had decided to make it a threesome at about four o'clock that morning. While the mistress of the establishment (me) swam, unwitting, and deep in some pleasant dream, her guests were woken by a chilling, female shriek. Thinking it must be a rat, the American manfully lobbed his shoe in the direction of the scuffling noise, but the damsel-in-distress suddenly decided the creature looked kind of cute - so they rescued the damn thing. At breakfast they reassured Hero by telling her that they'd made Speedy a bed in the bath and fed him crumbled digestives.

Steve is busy homemaking. He's a dedicated tweaker. Having someone run my household is my idea of heaven and arouses not a whiff of control freakery in me. Who could possibly object to two years' worth of clutter on their Welsh Dresser being sifted through and sorted out, or to reading the papers, drinking cappuccino and watching the furniture being tastefully rearranged? My bedroom - once a no-go zone - is no longer three-foot deep in chaos. Steve has waved his magic wand.

Thanks to my dad I also have a fab new bed. He generously gave me five hundred pounds when he noticed I was sleeping on the floor. The fact is I'd burnt my old bed with great glee. It felt like a pretty effective substitute for sticking pins in an effigy of Simon. Could this mark a new beginning? What was once a place for slumping in a state of total exhaustion now looks more like a love-nest; a place where something a tad more interesting than snore-filled oblivion might transpire.

Stupidly, I grovelled for the van again, and duly received a torrent of abuse. On the plus side, it was a salutary reminder of marriage hell, and brought solidly home that sad-and-lonely is miles better than having a bastard screaming abuse at you. I wanted to pick up a second-hand snooker table bargain I'd seen advertised in the paper. I knew it would be just the thing to get the games area I have in mind started. In the end I went to fetch it myself in the car. Happily, I made it home with the 7' slate bed table poking out the back and miraculously my suspension still in tact. I congratulated myself on the quality of my clientele as I watched some particularly hunky guests help carry it indoors.

Annoyingly, Steve is whiz at pool. I manage to break and then he clears the table. Probably is a sign that I must stop larking about and get down to work. I've had the mortgage money for the other chapel for eight weeks now, nothing much has been done and I blush to admit how much of it's already gone. When I rang James, the mortgage broker, in frantic need of a thirty five thousand top-up, he was horrified. He reminded me that raising a mortgage on a non-residential property is impossible. He advises me to keep what I haven't frittered away as top-up and apply for a commercial loan. He is ex NatWest and still has old chums back at my Knightsbridge branch that hail from his student days twenty years ago. They all used to live in halls of residence together and shared wild times. He's organised a meeting with my Nat West commercial mortgage advisor to see if I can't rootle out extra funds somehow. Mustn't wear Whistles collection as it might remind James of when I got the last mortgage increase and blew £3,300 in one pop! .



Other Articles by Alice Douglas:

The aristocracy, last bastion of eccentricity (www.guardian.co.uk)

It is universally acknowledged that the British aristocracy is peopled with inbred, chinless twits who range from the mildly eccentric to the utterly bonkers. Being a member of this illustrious class, I can categorically confirm that all of the above is true.
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The Family Challenge (www.guardian.co.uk)

When Alice Douglas agreed to take her children potholing, she had no idea what it was. She does now. So would she do it again?
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Relative Values - Mike Newell and his daghter Lizzie - Interview by Alice Doughlas (www.timesonline.co.uk)

The film director Mike Newell’s first critically acclaimed film was Dance with a Stranger. He followed it with Enchanted April and Four Weddings and a Funeral, which won numerous awards. He also directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Now 66, he lives with the actress Bernice Stegers in north London. They have two children: Lizzie, 25, and Billy, 13. Lizzie works for the talent agency Independent (formerly ICM), which represents actors, writers and models. She lives in east London with friends.
Click to view full article