Many years ago, I spent some time with singer Bryan Ferry and his then wife Lucy Helmore.
We were at the couple’s beautiful country house in West Sussex, taking afternoon tea beneath glorious Bloomsbury Set paintings, sitting on sumptuously upholstered Howard armchairs, talking about furniture, ceramics and domestics.
The Roxy Music singer, fashion plate, potter, artist and lifelong aesthete (his friend Nicky Haslam once said that Ferry was more likely to redecorate a hotel room than to trash it) was telling me about his occasionally tempestuous relationship with his spouse.
What did the couple row about, I wanted to know? ‘Oh, curtains, mainly,’ sniffed Ferry. ‘Cushions, blinds, soft furnishings, that sort of thing. We’ve had some terrible arguments over sofa bolsters.’
As a man in his late 20s, still not properly versed in interior-design issues, I found this faintly ridiculous. You could fall out over pillows and ottoman fabrics? Really?
Simon Mills bought his 17th-century cottage in west Oxfordshire 11 years ago. He was forced to start renovation work after a flood two days before Christmas in 2020
Fast-forward 30 years or so and here I am, doing exactly that.
Except not in rock-star, Edwardian-country-house grandeur but in the reduced proportions of my tiny Oxfordshire sitting room, having a barney with her indoors about exactly which William Morris material we will be needing for a roller blind. All two metres and 200-quid-plus of it.
My girlfriend Annabel, an interior designer, has done that thing interior designers do, of leaving fabric swatches – at least 12 of them: pinked edges, paper labels denoting provenance, supplier and eye-watering price per linear metre – draped over the window frame like linen billets-doux for me to peruse.
There are now so many of these all over the house that I have lost all sense of taste, judgment and suitability. Still, I must make a choice. To be honest, I’d be happy to stick with white, off the shelf, possibly Dunelm, Stanley-knife-to-fit, DIY installation, all done for around 50 quid.
But that is not going to happen.
Instead, we must make the choice between the Ben Pentreath swag in electric pink or neon green (over £100 per metre!) or some stuff that looks like old French tea towels (because that is what it is) that’s even pricier.
‘That one,’ I say pointing randomly.
‘Really?’ she says incredulously. ‘I don’t like that one at all.’
‘So why did you put it there as an option?’
Then I say what I always end up saying. ‘Which one is the cheapest?’ Big sigh.
I go to the loo and log on to my mobile banking app. I now have less than £5,000 left. Across all accounts. In the entire world.
Simon and girlfriend Annabel, an interior designer. Simon says that Annabel has a more refined and grown-up approach to interior design, involving things like colour schemes, moodboards and paint finishes
This project – a small but ambitious three-floor cottage extension, adding a new kitchen, utility room, larder/cloakroom, an extra bedroom and two additional bathrooms – has eaten up all my meagre savings, obliterated the last of my (small) inheritance and torn through my cashed-in pension fund.
It is now reclaiming my possessions, which are gradually being sold off.
Anyone want an old 1970s Charles and Ray Eames lounge chair and footstool – original, not Chinese knockoffs? No?
Did I mention that we are still not done? We’ve been ‘snagging’ for more than nine months now, tweaking stuff, mending botched electrical work, filling holes, adding shelving (I am quite ‘handy’, by the way) and making endless visits to the municipal landfill site in my fully loaded Land Rover.
I am perpetually tired, all my spare time now given over to manual labour, spading, forking, bagging up crap for the dump or buying stuff at Screwfix or Toolstation or Wickes or Farrow & Ball that always costs twice as much as it did last time you went there.
And still having not much more to show for all the toil, heartache, tempest and hassle than an old house painted in something called Sulking Room Pink.
All this – the digging and plastering and painting and sanding and banging and shouting – has been going on for two years now.
I bought my house, a 17th-century cottage in west Oxfordshire, 11 years ago as a weekend place, then moved into it properly ten years ago when I got divorced.
Simon’s 17th century cottage became a building site for longer than he had expected as the work dragged on
People tell me it looks like the house where Cameron Diaz and Jude Law meet in romcom The Holiday.
I didn’t look particularly hard or long for it. I saw a picture one night while browsing Rightmove, arranged a viewing the next day and put an offer in that same afternoon.
Why? The house had ‘good bones’, as the design magazines like to say – fantastic, ten-inch-wide walnut floorboards, a large attic conversion, a wood-burning stove, a bread oven and an open fireplace, original doors and some sensitively executed carpentry touches.
It was also cheap because it needed ‘some modernisation’. That is to say, a loo that wasn’t in a lean-to at the back next to the tiny scullery kitchen on the ground floor, and about a five-minute walk from the attic bedroom on the top floor. (I would later discover that this was the last house in west Oxfordshire to get plumbing and electricity – no indoor WC until the mid-1980s!) And it was absolutely freezing. All the time.
Two-foot-thick Cotswold stone walls kept it see-your-breath Arctic during the winter and jumpers-on Nordic throughout the summer.
Other problems included tiny windows which kept the cottage mostly dark, even during the day, plus low, wood-beamed ceilings and door frames that my six-foot-one-inch frame banged into every 45 minutes.
The staircase, meanwhile, was so winding that my bedroom furniture had to be dismantled for vertical transportation and then glued back together once in situ.
There was not a single straight line in the house, anywhere, which made wandering its drunkenly unpredictable floors like being a three-sheets-to-the-wind pirate on a storm-lurching galleon.
Simon getting his hands dirty in the kitchen — a far cry from the pre-project days when he’d relax in front of the TV with a glass of malbec
But I loved it. Big telly, roaring fire, chicken in the oven, glass of malbec in my hand. Bliss.
Then the interior designer moved in. Cameron to my Jude. And she had plans. Lots of them.
We had drawings done. Went to and fro with the local council about the size and footprint of the extension (the house is Grade II listed).
Then builders – about ten in total –came over to give estimates, most of them carrying clipboards, wearing gilets and driving Range Rovers, all called Alexander or Giles.
We never heard from any of them again.
I gave up, hoped it would all go away, lit the fire and opened another bottle of malbec. Then, two days before Christmas 2020, we flooded. Dirty water up and over our wellies in the sitting room and kitchen, doors warped, possessions ruined, worst Christmas ever.
As the insurance man totted up my claim, I knew this was the chance (the excuse?) we’d been waiting for. I knocked on the door of a friendly local groundworks contractor who agreed to take on the digging and foundation work – we were off!
Suddenly, I found myself in new expenditure territory. I called it ‘Thousandpoundland’.
None of it was cheap. Money went through my callused fingers like wet cement. It was scary
When you are paying builders, chippies, plumbers, labourers and suppliers, everything now seems to cost at least a grand.
A massive Sherman tank-sized machine was hired to belch vast amounts of concrete into the big hole where the new kitchen would be (several thousand pounds).
We also had to get a crane to lift an earth digger up and over the roof from the front garden into the back (more thousands).
More workers arrived, more machinery, materials were over-ordered and then wasted, days written off because of foul weather or Covid.
None of this was cheap and money went through my callused fingers, in thousand-quid increments, like so much wet cement. It was scary. Constant worry. Cold sweats at night (mainly because the heating was off, the boiler having been removed).
Then there was the difficulty of getting anyone to actually show up. Managing a bunch of builders remotely is like being in charge of seven Asbo teenagers on a forced work-experience programme.
Oh, they promise to be there, and have it done ‘by Easter’, but if you turn your back for a second, they’re off, ‘called away on another job’.
What about my job?
Once, during the early, brutal stages of the project, we returned to the cottage from a ten-day holiday and bumped into our next-door neighbours.
Annabel’s approach is all contemporary countryside. I am more junk shop and animal heads
‘So sorry about all the noise,’ I offered, in case they’d be disturbed by the construction racket. ‘Oh, there’s been no noise at all,’ they said. ‘All very peaceful.’ The builders hadn’t worked a single day while we’d been away.
After 14 months (almost a year later than originally promised) the builders and the electricians and the plumbers had done enough, leaving us £150,000 lighter, with a place that still looked ready for demolition.
We were the proud owners of massively expensive, old-looking radiators that hardly functioned and a bedroom light that worked perfectly but only if you used the switch in the bathroom. But, oh god… anything to just be rid of them.
Now came the interior design. My way of decorating has always been to get all the chairs and tables and books and vases that you have, add a few more things you might come across on Portobello Road, Facebook Marketplace or Ebay, throw it all together and hope for the best.
Annabel has a more refined and grown-up approach involving things like colour schemes, moodboards, paint finishes and websites called Pamono and 1stDibs – aka the ‘Fivethousandpoundlands’.
She is all contemporary countryside, mid-century modern, referencing Rose Uniacke, the St Ives art movement and William Morris. I am more junk shop and animal heads. Ergo, we like the same things, but we also can’t agree on anything.
During the renovation work, Simon had to get a crane to lift an earth digger up and over the roof from the front garden into the back
For instance, the sitting room; once whitewashed but still dark, remember? We painted it Charleston Gray, aka ‘bin bag slurry’, a muddy grey/brown that made the room so dark that once the sun went down you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face without a torch. She despaired. I loved it.
The top bedroom? It was white, so we painted it a different RAL white, but that was deemed too ‘creamy’, so we repainted it again in Papers & Paints’ Andrea’s White, before settling on Quiet White. Yes, four different whites. All of which looked the same to me.
And it goes on. With the arrival of summer, we are coming to what might be the beginning of the end; we have a large sunny kitchen, a back-yard terrace, an extra bedroom and – yay! – a place to pee on all three floors.
The Bryan Ferry stage of the project, where we argue about cushions and curtains, is next.
We should be all done… by Easter.