It’s odd, speaking as a writer who is well used to working from home, to say that I felt cabined, cribbed and confined (to steal Mr Shakespeare’s patter) by lockdown. But during the pandemic, as the restrictions have tightened, eased, and then tightened again, there have been times when I’d give a great deal for a change of scene.
I am very fortunate to have a large garden and in the summer that provided a welcome refuge, but here on the west coast of Scotland summer is shorter than wee Jimmy Krankie, and since July, true to the form of the last few years, the weather has been very, very wet, driech and – one of my favourite words from my morning Twitter forecast – frankly minging.
So, with a ‘view’ to creating a new space indoors my mind turned, as so many others have done of late, to home improvement, and a project that I’ve been toying with for ages and never tackled: the Sunburst Lounge – aka the front porch! It’s an Edwardian addition to the Victorian frontage, and has the advantage of some spectacular views. I’ve always used it in the summer for coffee when the weather was wet, and for an evening aperitif too. But as the nights draw in and the weather changes, the draughty porch is just too cold and damp to sit in. The beautiful French-style windows wouldn’t open or close – and ditto the rather newer door. Underneath the ancient carpet tiles lurked some strange ceramic tiles that weren’t actually stuck down and underneath those – a lot of damp. Not the most salubrious of spaces, basically.
This, I decided, was going to be my new sanctuary, a place I could escape to without leaving the house. Great idea, but it proved to be a far bigger undertaking than I had imagined. First things first – I am not a joiner. So when our lovely builder was permitted to get socially distanced access he tackled the big things. He rehung the door and replaced some of the floorboards. He also managed to get the windows open – and much to my embarrassment, remove some of my many attempts to make them watertight, which included bathroom sealant, duct tape and (the biggest mistake) expandable foam, which didn’t so much expand as do a passable impression of Boris Johnston’s Barnet.
Next, the decorating. There are two storm doors, a front door, three fan lights and a number of window panes, so it was going to be painstaking. The preparation was also going to be very messy because the walls and the ceiling were all wood panelled and covered in very old, thick dark varnish. I spent days sanding for Scotland. The ceiling was especially tricky because it’s very high and I’m very short, so I had to stand on the top rung of my ladders with the sander (actually it’s my dad’s sander) angled upside down – don’t try this at home. There is a helpful little hook hanging from one of the storm doors that I kept forgetting about and which eventually gave me my first ever black eye – and it was a belter.
Before I started painting, I tackled the window fittings and the door handles, which were all black, but I suspected that they might be brass. I turned to YouTube (what did we ever do without YouTube!) and learned that a paste of vinegar, salt and flour would do the trick. I confess to being sceptical, but sure enough it dried bright blue overnight, and when it came off – yes, actual solid brass that just required a bit (well, a lot) of wire wool and some Brasso.
Finally to the painting itself. Two coats of undercoat took me two full days. The man in the paint shop had suggested I get it tinted – I didn’t know you could do that – and he was right. When it came to the top coat I used a lot less than expected. I’ve done loads of decorating in my time, so this job was finicky and time-consuming rather than uncharted territory. One thing I would say though – steer clear of Frog Tape. Because I was painting two contrasting colours I wanted neat lines. YouTube recommended that stuff and I dutifully bought it. Only when I peeled it off, big flakes of my brand new paint underneath came off in chunks. To say I was not pleased is a huge understatement.
Several days later, which is treble the time I had estimated, covered in cream and green paint (sorry, Calico and Dewy Lawn!) with a weird and wonderful variety of bruises from the ladders to add to my flourishing black eye, I was done. And very pleased with the transformation.
So onto the next, task, the carpet tiles – something I’ve never laid before but which the sales pitch on the on-line store assured me would take me no time at all. Armed with my Stanley knife, a measuring tape and my can of spray adhesive, I went into battle. You’d think that laying tiles in a small space that was basically two rectangles would be easy. Nope. Not in this house which, if it ever had anything straight or plumb when it was built, has long creaked and groaned its way out of true. There’s a myth that the Victorians built to last. My experience is that they built to give the illusion of grandeur and skimped and saved over everything. In the case of this house and probably most of the others around here, they decided not to bother with foundations or damp proofing. It’s also built on a slope. Add to that the fact that it was built around 1850 and so it’s been slowly sliding downhill towards the sea soaking up millions of gallons of water along the way, for 170 years – no wonder there’s no straight lines. But thanks (again) to YouTube and my very stubborn nature, I triumphed – adding a pair of very sore knees to my various other decorating injuries.
Floor down (though it took me almost a whole day), just the finishing touches to do. My fabulously talented brother-in-law made me a sign. I bought some of those little lights for bottles and transformed a couple of old demi-johns from someone’s wine making days into lamps, and added a set of twinkly fairy lights just for a nice touch of tackiness. The two wicker chairs which I’d painted and made cushions for, recovered from remnants, fitted in perfectly. I could have made the bean-bag footstool but by then I was running out of energy and bought it from Ebay.
At last, the Sunburst Lounge was open! And it’s been in almost continuous use since. I have my coffee there. I use it when I’m on zoom calls because it has such a fabulous backdrop. And at the weekends, it’s my local pub serving an excellent dry martini.
I know I’m making it sound like an ordeal, but I actually enjoyed the challenge and take enormous satisfaction when I look at the results of my handiwork. It really is transformed, my own little decompression chamber. And it took my mind off Covid for a few weeks, which has to be a bonus. I swore I was done with DIY, but you know, I’ve been thinking lately, that the boiler house would make a perfect sauna….