The renovation’s back on!


OK, so it’s been a while. Things have taken a back seat in the house, as Gav has changed jobs and we decided not to commit to any major projects until we had a clear idea of what the new role would involve. So whilst we apologise for the radio silence, it was because we haven’t actually done anything to blog about!

But with Gav starting with his new company in a couple of weeks, we’ve been able to work out a realistic budget and develop a loose plan of what to do and when.

Having spent a year in the house, the most important thing we need to do is find a way to make it warmer. This winter the electric blanket’s barely been switched off, I’ve worn at least one pair of socks to bed every night, and scarves, hats and gloves have been a regular feature while we’ve been relaxing shivering in the lounge of an evening. We’ve tried a couple of quick fixes on the main culprits, such as thermal curtains over the front door, and sealing tape around the windows. The latter certainly made a difference, but there’s been a noticeable increase in condensation, so now we’ve got the added problem of mould to contend with. And it’s best if we just don’t mention the gas/electric bills at all.

We’ve considered a number of options and come up with a prioritised list of all the things we want to do to the house this year in order to prepare for next winter. We’ve discussed the pros and cons of wet/dry underfloor heating, and considered our options for wood burning stoves or fireplaces. But the more we discussed it, the more we realised that it would be far better to concentrate on retaining, rather than producing, heat.

Here’s our plan so far:

  1. Insulate all the external walls
  2. Install insulation into the bay windows
  3. Install insulation into the ceiling in the cellar
  4. Use maximum insulation when replacing flooring
  5. Add thermal lining to curtains

These are all things that will hopefully help us keep what little heat we’re producing right now. Some will be undoubtedly more effective than others, but the overall theme is to identify all the places where heat is escaping, and do what we can to stop it.

Of course, we will still need to produce heat to some extent. The existing central heating system is serviceable, but fairly dated and inefficient. As we’re going back to bare bricks, the radiators will already be off the walls. We’re also planning to install an en suite and upgrade the bathroom in the next few month, so it makes sense to upgrade to a combi boiler and get everything done at the same time. This will also enable us to remove the immersion tank from the main bathroom, which will give us some much-needed space.

In the lounge and dining room, we currently have mismatched, super-ugly, old gas fires. We’ve had a number of discussions on what to replace these with. One of the options was to knock through between the kitchen and lounge and install a double-sided wood burning stove. We decided against this as it will involve a lot of structural work and the costs could easily run away from us. We spent a lot of time looking at the options for normal single sided wood burning stoves. They seemed the be natural option as they are more efficient than open fireplaces. They would also allow us to put carpet into the lounge, as we’ll be able to keep the door closed and prevent sparks. They do typically look a lot more suited to a country-style cottage than a Victorian house though, so I scoured Pinterest to find some inspiration:



Whilst they look beautiful, I’m still not convinced that they would suit the look of the rooms as well as an open fireplace. So I’m torn between prioritising the temperature, efficiency and look of the rooms. I think at this point in time I’m going to hold off making a decision until we find out just how effective the other improvements turn out. I know it’s controversial, but I don’t see the value in going for a stove if an open fireplace will provide enough heat. If all our other efforts are successful, we could end up sat with the stove on and the windows open. Or, more likely, never using the thing. In which case, I might as well go for the pretty option…


Project – homemade laundry detergent (UK adaptation)

When it comes to Pinterest, I’m one of those all-talk-no-trousers pinners, always saying to myself “I could make/sew/cook that”, but never actually bothering to do it in real life. This year I have decided to change that, and have now started to actually give things a go.

I wouldn’t normally write about doing these projects, but I’ve decided to break my rule on this occasion. The reason being that I really struggled to find the right ingredients in the UK and was forced to make a few adaptations on the recipe. So this is my review/amended recipe for Mom’s Super Laundry Sauce, from

Firstly – finding the ingredients. The original recipe called for borax. I’ve heard of this before, and I’m sure I’ve seen it around in the past. But after scouring all the major hardware stores and supermarkets, I was at a loss. I eventually discovered a small hardware store in Lincoln called Spurr’s DIY, which claims to have those items which you just can’t get anymore. While they didn’t have any in stock, they were really helpful and checked their wholesaler there and then for me, and had it in the store ready for me to collect a couple of days later.

What they actually had for me was borax substitute. It turns out that borax is actually on the EU list of Substances of High Concern. I’m not sure what the situation is in the States, perhaps it’s just assumed that borax substitute continues to be known as borax. Or perhaps the proper stuff is still available to buy. Either way, if you’re in the UK or elsewhere in Europe, you’ll have to make do with the substitute.

Now to the next item on the list – Fels Naptha Soap. What?! Again, I was completely stumped. I could find household soap in Spurr’s DIY and Boyes, but this seemed to be a more general purpose soap, not specifically the kind you would imagine being used with those old washboards. Again, I’m sure I used to see boxes of soap flakes in all the big supermarkets, but suddenly it had all disappeared. I eventually found some online from Boots. The final ingredient was soda crystals, also known as washing soda. But definitely not bicarbonate of soda! Fortunately, soda crystals are available in loads of shops, big and small, so at last I was good to go.

Detergent ingredients

Please excuse the bad photos – the kitchen is still very much in a state of upheaval!

The original recipe called for 1 bar of the Fels Naptha soap, but as I was using a completely different ingredient I had to improvise. Since the average bar of soap weighs about 3 to 4 oz, I just weighed up the same amount of flakes on the scales. The bar of soap has to be chopped up or grated, so using the flakes actually saved me a huge amount of time.

The first step was to mix 1 cup of borax substitute with 1 cup of the soda crystals.

Mixing ingredients

So far, so good!

Then I added the 4oz (100g) soap flakes to 4 cups simmering water.

Dissolving the soap

Soap flakes were much easier to use, compared to the faff of grating an entire bar of soap

Once the soap had fully dissolved, I added the borax substitute and soda crystals mixture.

Adding borax substitue and soda crystals

Here’s where it started to go wrong

The original instructions say that the borax and soda crystals will eventually dissolve into the mixture, after about 5 minutes stirring. I can only think that these substituted ingredients didn’t have quite the same properties as the original ones, as they were still really grainy on the bottom of the saucepan after over 15 minutes. No matter how much I stirred, the mixture still stubbornly kept the consistency of wallpaper paste.

Mixture looking like wallpaper paste

No amount of stirring by hand was going to cure my curdled wallpaper paste disaster

Never one to give up easily, I decided that technology would save me – cue the trusty hand blender!

Using a hand blender

Kitchen gadgets will make everything ok

30 seconds later – like marshmallow fluff!

After the blender

Now THAT’S what I’m talking about!

Now I’d got to this stage, I started to follow the original instructions a bit more closely. I divided the mixture into two, one-litre Kilner jars.

Mixture in jars

Two very messy Kilner jars with my concentrated detergent

Now I’m especially proud of this next bit – having recently bought a condenser dryer, I was finding that I had a lot of water that I couldn’t bear to pour away. So I used it to top up the jars. Now this water will go back into the washing machine – it’s the Circle of Life!

Laundry water

Dryer water, a step closer to returning home!

The mixture is a lot thicker than most commercial laundry detergents, so I think it could stand to have a bit more water added. That said, you only need to use one tablespoon in the wash, which means that this little lot should last me about 6 months. Given that the ingredients came to less than £5 and I have enough to make another full batch, I’m pretty impressed!

The only thing I would say about the substituted ingredients is that the detergent is completely odourless. I don’t know if Fels Naptha is scented, and it may be that an unscented detergent floats your boat. But I do like my clothes to smell like a fresh summer meadow, so I will probably pop in a couple of drops of essential oil in the next batch. But overall, I’m completely converted, and am now off to find more Pinterest projects to try!