Location:United Kingdom

An avid tea-drinker who likes nutmeg in her coffee and warm lavender-scented quilts. She knits, crochets and partakes in random acts of craftiness (and kindness). She likes obscure works of literature, philosophy and the idea that her mind exists separately from her body. She enjoys moving furniture around, literary criticism and baking bread. She writes haiku about nettles, would like to swim with seals and become completely self-sufficient. She writes as if her life depends on it, listens to beautiful music, and loves her darling husband Mr. VP.

Find out more.


recent | random





Friday 19 December 2014

December Beach

It looks just like a June beach, doesn’t it?

Thursday 18 December 2014

Stove Life: Esse 200 review

As we have had the stove for just over a month now, I thought I’d do a review of it and what it is like having it as our main source of heating.  We’ve discovered a lot about fires, fuels and heating since we got the stove and we’re still learning.  I thought it’d be a good place to share some thoughts and advice that we’ve picked up since ours was installed.  This might not seem interesting to those with no interest in stoves, but it would’ve been very useful to us when we got ours, so I’m going to put it out there!

The stove:

As I mentioned in a previous post, the stove we settled upon is an Esse 200 XK SE and is rated at 8Kw, though the heating output depends wholly on the type and amount of fuel being used.  We chose this model not only because it is large and we had an inkling that we’d have a large space for it (we ended up with a full inglenook), but because it is one of the only Defra-approved stoves that would allow continuous burning and that was very important to us.  Most stoves will say in the manuals somewhere that they’re approved by the manufacturer for occasional use only, which means a couple of logs in the evening rather than a belly full of fuel going day in and day out.  As we were looking to the stove to replace almost all of our gas use, this was a necessity for us.  I also particularly liked the look of the Esse as we wanted a traditional stove rather than a modern one.

The airwash of any stove is important if you’re wanting a stove to provide ‘entertainment’ as well as heat.  The general gist is that the more you pay for a stove, the better its airwash will be.  Esse stoves are definitely not cheap and thus the airwash is second to none.  The glass does fog up when left damped down overnight with solid fuel, however a quick wipe over with a damp kitchen towel and the glass is like new again.  Even burning wood, which is notorious for sooting the glass, ours is as clear as a bell, which is something that other stove-owning visitors have commented on.

Lighting the stove is really easy and, after a few abortive attempts at the very start, I now have it sorted.  Depending on what’s being lit, you need different ratios of kindling and scrunched-up newspaper.  Because of the size of the stove’s fuel-box, to light a smokeless fuel fire I use almost all of a tabloid-sized newspaper (the free local ones they stick through the door are ideal!) and quite a bit of kindling.  If you don’t use plenty of kindling when lighting a solid fuel fire, it simply will not get up to temperature and will smother the fire out again.  Wood is much easier to get going and needs only a handful or so of the kindling with plenty of newspaper.  Remember the task is to get the flue gasses it to their best operating temperature (on most stoves between 115º and 245ºC) to avoid creosote/tar deposits on the chimney.

Our stove did come with an official Esse mitten, however because it is a mitten, it doesn’t work very well to pick big logs up with or do many of the tasks that I need it for.  I thus bought a pair of £3.50 welder’s gauntlets online and have been very pleased with how well they have worked for loading coal and protecting me against the fierce heat of the embers.

I can’t recommend stove thermometers enough!  It will make sure that you’re on the right track when it comes to starting a fire and getting it up to temperature.  There are three zones for stoves: ‘too cold’ – your wood will form creosote in the chimney; just right – your stove is operating at the best temperature; and ‘too hot’ – you’ll either cause a chimney fire or disfigure the casting of your stove.  It is vitally important that you pay heed to your stove thermometer as it is the only way you can know that you’re burning efficiently and safely.  For around £10 it is an investment that will last indefinitely and will save you time, effort and money in the long run!


Over all, we have been using a roughly half smokeless solid fuel (a 25% petro-coke 75% anthracite fuel) and half kiln-dried wood (hardwood and softwood*).  This was mostly because the place I was buying my wood from was fairly expensive, however I have just found another local company online which sells excellent quality kiln-dried hardwood in bulk at a much better price.  Since finding a good source of wood, we burn mostly wood and a little bit of the smokeless fuel when we need a long-lasting fire at night.

There are pros and cons to both and in general we prefer wood as it is a carbon neutral, locally felled (and a very pretty!) source of heat.  Wood also produces minimal ash and doesn’t need to be cleaned out of the stove like solid fuel does.  If you need instant heat, wood is your fuel, whereas solid fuel takes a good hour to start throwing heat out but lasts much, much longer than wood (~12 hours per load compared to wood’s 2 hours).  If you’re looking to burn wood, please make sure that it has a moisture content of less than 20%.  Buy a cheap moisture-meter online and test your fuel before you buy it and burn it.  Kiln-dried wood should be around 10% moisture, which is great and means a long-lasting, low-soot and high-heat fire.

On the other hand, solid fuel is good if you’re not around to keep chucking logs into the stove (out at work etc) however it is messy to clean out and difficult to get lit.  Solid fuel, depending on the type, can work out to be cheaper than wood, however it depends on what sort of wood and how much you use.  We’ve worked out that 1.3 cubic metres of kiln-dried wood is equivalent to the cost of the solid fuel and should last us 3-4 weeks.  If you can get a load of green logs, stack them and season them yourself for a year, then you will have a very cheap fuel source.  However, if you don’t have the space for that, then buying pre-seasoned or kiln-dried is the way to go.

Due to the Defra restrictions, no Defra-approved stove can be fully choked off as it increases smouldering and smoking, so fuel doesn’t last as well as it could, but solid fuel definitely does last until morning, whereas logs tend to last a few hours longer than usual and then burn out.

The average temperature of the downstairs is 25.5ºC when burning either wood or solid fuel.  If we were heating the downstairs to this temperature with gas, there is no way we’d be able to afford it at the price gas is currently!  I have never been in a house so warm, and the warmest we’ve got the living room is 26.7ºC – practically tropical!  Upstairs, the temperature happily stays at around 20ºC and the wall in our bedroom that the chimney passes through works like a huge storage heater and traps the heat, becoming toasty warm.

*The general consensus for many years was that softwood (pine, spruce, hemlock etc) were not good to burn because of the amount of pitch (resin) that they hold, which creates creosote in your chimney.  Whilst this is true if the wood is not dry, if your softwood is kiln-dried, you then have a fuel which is easy to light, burns hot and fast and creates no more creosote than anything else.  It is the steam that creates creosote, which is removed by kiln-drying.  Most stove manufacturers say it’s fine to burn softwood as long as it is dry.  All the Scandinavian countries use softwood as that is their main wood fuel type and they’ve been using stoves a lot longer than we have ;-)

Cleaning and Maintenance:

I have spent quite a while perfecting the best way to clean the stove and it seems that a good shovel, a Henry vacuum cleaner and a metal bucket with a lid is the way to go.  Be very careful lifting ashes, even if you think they’re cold, as they can retain their heat for more than 24 hours and remain a fire hazard.  I have a covered metal bucket that sits outside and gets brought in when I de-ash the stove, and even in the cold of winter after 24 hours outside, it can be hot to the touch!

I let the stove go out completely around once a week, so that I can give it all a proper going over.  Once cold and the ashes have been removed, I make sure the inside is very cold with my hand and then use a Henry vacuum cleaner to remove the trapped ash and charcoal/coal that I haven’t been able to remove by riddling or shovelling.  Don’t try to do this with a bagless vacuum as they simply can’t handle the small particulate matter and will clog.

I wipe down the glass with a damp paper towel and vacuum the outside of the stove with a brush attachment.  I make sure that the vermiculite bricks are all okay and in their proper places before laying the kindling for the next fire.  When not in use, make sure that you clean the stove out and leave the door cracked open, so that the chimney can breathe, otherwise you risk your stove rusting due to condensation.

For the sake of your house insurance, you will need to have your chimney swept at least once every 12 months by an accredited chimney sweep.  Do your research and ask around locally for one that is reputable and does a good job.  Ours came highly recommended from everyone we spoke to and having had my first sweep I can tell you he is worth his weight in gold!


The only downsides for me is the time that it can take to clean it out and the sooty hands you will get for the first few weeks until you perfect your own way of cleaning and de-ashing the firebox.

If the outright cost of buying wood every 6 weeks or so seems expensive, consider that you will only likely be doing this for the worst of winter (November to March or April) and during this time, you will use very little other heating.  This means that you control the bills and can alter your usage to suit your purse, though.  Other than that, there are no downsides for us.  The average medium-sized house’s heating bill is £954/year and we’re on track to be considerably less than that even with the cost of wood.


  1. Research, research, research before buying a stove.  Use the wonderful WhatStove website to read reviews from other owners before you decide on your model.  Prioritise what is important for you – cost, type of fuel, continuous burn, cast iron, good airwash, smoke exempt?
  2. Find a reputable dealer of stoves.  Not all sellers and installers are equal and it will save you a LOT of headaches if you find a good one.  Ask questions and ask to see examples of their work.  Search online for reviews and ask people who have used them for their thoughts.
  3. Remember you don’t have to line your chimney.  If you live in a house with a patent chimney, and as long as you don’t have any draw problems, you should be fine without a liner (this info comes from both installers and chimney sweeps!).  Any good sweep worth his salt will be able to do a smoke test for you for very little money.  At best, liners last only the amount of time they specify then you will have to replace them, however they can control a chimney’s draw if that is a problem.
  4. Make friends with your local chimney sweep.  They are the most wonderful source of knowledge for all things chimney and stove.  If you’re new to the stove lark, ask advice and if they’re as good as mine, they’ll spend time explaining anything and everything!
  5. Find a good source of fuel before you get your fire.  If you’re planning to season your own wood, consider buying some well in advance so that you can begin the process cheaply.  If you want ease, look for recommended suppliers of kiln-dried wood or people who have seasoned it themselves.  Never buy without testing it with a moisture meter (it must be less than 20% to burn) and never buy wood sold by weight – it is illegal for merchants to sell by weight as weight is usually water.
  6. Buy a stove fan.  They work by the heat of the stove causing the blades to turn, which convects hot air and draws in cold air.  This moves air from your chimney nook and raises the efficiency of your stove for very little outlay.
  7. Consider buying some spares for your stove.  Vermiculite baffle bricks, baffle plates, door seal ropes and door glass are all ‘expendables’ and not covered by the warranty.  For our Esse, to replace all of the above, would cost about £130.  This isn’t something you will have to do regularly, but make sure you know where to get your spares from and buy official parts when necessary.

Most of all, enjoy it.  I guarantee that as long as you get a good stove, you will love it for many, many years to come.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Fenwick’s Christmas Window 2014

Oh, how I have missed doing these posts!  Each year, the Fenwick’s store in Newcastle puts on an amazing window display.  It has been all sorts of literary and themed windows in the past, from the ‘enchanted forest’ to Gulliver’s Travels.  This year it was Alice in Wonderland and it was very well done.  I particularly liked the spinning room around Alice and the detail that had gone into the whole window.  If you’re in Newcastle, do make sure that you pop by and see the whole audio-visual spectacular of the Fenwick’s Window.  I also added a couple of photos of Newcastle’s lights, as they have been nice this year and look brilliant against the background of the European Christmas market that was on in November.

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Frosty Winter Walk

Saturday morning loomed bright and glorious and I knew that I had to make the most of every moment of sun we get at this time of year.  Mr VP was feeling the after-effects of his night of raucus festive celebrations with his company, so I jumped in the car with my Wellibobs, camera and warmest coat, collected Mum and her dog and headed off into the countryside.

The drive was a little ropey at times, as this far out in the ‘sticks’ they don’t always grit the roads, and being more northerly, they’d got the worst of the snow we’d had the other day.  The roads were cold and snow lined the verges and covered the hills in the distance.

By the time we got into the woods, the temperature had ‘risen’ to 0ºC and the whole place had been transformed into an icy wonderland reminiscent of Narnia.  Ponds were frozen over, the snow had refrozen into thick sheets of glassy-clear ice.  Everything was eerily quiet as the low winter sun glinted through the trees.

Not a single thing had escaped the icy fingers of Jack Frost.

Look at that low sun glinting through the trees. The rich red colour of the forest floor and the deep Christmas green of the evergreen needles.  This woodland is mostly pine and spruce with the odd hardwood and yew thrown in.

The paths were not always easy to traverse, but the trees had kept a lot of the paths clear for us.

At every turn, I imagined Mr Tumnus to jump out and say hello.  There’s something about snow that turns everything into a magical world of fantasy.

We headed off to a wildlife hide, partly to get out of the cold and partly to see what wildlife was taking refuge on the feeders.  We weren’t short of birds to watch.  Chaffinches, blue tits, robins, nuthatches, blackbirds, coots, moorhens, woodpeckers, coal tits and all manner of birds were flying around the feeders, desperately trying to fill themselves up to keep warm.

It was a veritable Piccadilly Circus of birdlife.  In amongst the hustle and bustle of the smaller, more plentiful birds, I noticed this woodpecker.

The nuthactch wasn’t a persistent feeder; she kept taking small morsels of food and then flying off.  Soon after, you could hear the tap, tap, tap of her pushing the sunflower seeds into crevices in the bark of nearby trees.  What an amazing little bird!

One of my favourite oaks.  It has the most perfect oak-shape, don’t you think?  By this time, my feet were achingly cold and I’d lost sensation in the tips of my toes.  The dog had begun to shiver, too, so we decided to head back.

Just before we got back to the car, we noticed that we were being followed by this little fellow.

Saturday 13 December 2014

Where to Begin?

Many apologies for this lack of blogging.  Usually at this time of year I am positively gushing about all of the wonderful things I have lined up; the tree I have decorated, the lights I have oooohhhed and aaahhhhed at, the Christmas cooking but alas this year everything is a little topsy-turvey.  I think this is going to be easier to explain in list-form:

  • Mum moved up here, which was stressful and tiring in both camps, but very exciting and lovely too.  We no longer have to make epic trips to Lincolnshire and I have her (almost) on my doorstep for a daily cup of tea and a chat.  It has been really nice to be able to return the favour, too, and Mum has been round to ours for her evening meals and a nestle in front of the fire.
  • After moving back in, we found out that flooring couldn’t be laid (and thus our furniture can’t be put into its rightful places and we can’t unpack) because of a damp problem only discovered when the old flooring was ripped up.  I panicked – damp is no laughing matter, especially in an old house like this one.
  • Thankfully, after four different damp-proofing specialists looked at it, they said that the problem is likely only a small one.  One that can be fixed fairly simply, and according to a couple of the men optimistically, by myself!
  • Unfortunately, the flooring man now said that he’s fully booked for Christmas fittings…  So even if I get it all done, the chances are that he won’t be able to fit it before the beginning of January anyway. Sigh.  Concrete and Edwardian floorboards it is.
  • I got a horrible cold that left me shivering, snotty and unable to unblock 3/4 of my nasal passages.  Thankfully, it wasn’t too bad (who am I kidding, it felt horrid) and it has long since passed, but it did make me feel pretty ghastly for a while (colds really are dreadful, aren’t they?).
  • I had my first eggnog latté (minus the coffee) of the season and it was heavenly.
  • We now have a small tree (I picked one in a record three minutes!) which has lights but no decorations.  I feel so overwhelmed by a lot of things going on that I don’t really feel able to do much at all in the way of decorating it – I do not feel in the Christmassy mood at all, which is both very sad and very unlike me.  :-/
  • I’m really proud of Mr VP who won an array of awards from his new company at their annual Christmas party/ awards ceremony.  I am unbelievably chuffed for him.  He also came home with two hampers filled to the brim with wonderful foodstuffs, which was an added bonus!
  • We finished our raku pottery ornaments and I will eventually get around to sharing them with you!
  • Winton Marsalis’ version of O Come All Ye Faithful.  It makes me well up (video below).
  • I have also fallen head-over-heels in love with Over the Rhine’s new LP Blood Oranges in The Snow.  The title track is achingly beautiful (video also below).
  • Everything’s a bit strange at the moment, but I know that once we can unpack properly, all will feel much better and I will return to feeling like my usual self and will be able to move from one room to the next without taking on a full assault course tripping over.

Monday 1 December 2014

The Last of November

It has been so long since I have done any form of exercise other than decorating, cleaning or hefting boxes backwards and forwards. It has been even longer since I last got out and went somewhere for fun rather than necessity. Yesterday we decided to make the most of the sun (the first sun we’ve seen in almost a week) to get out early and go for a brief walk in the woods. The sun hadn’t long risen and there were very few of us walking there, which made the morning all the better.

We’ve only had one brief frosty night so far this autumn/winter, but the smells on the air and the chills we get in the evenings fortell of the weather we have to come. I managed to bypass autumn altogether this year, managing only to capture glances of the leaves falling through windows and on car journeys as I beetled between our rented house and this one. Suddenly though, autumn has disappeared and what was golden yellow, brown and ochre has been swept away by winds and rains and replaced with dull greens and browns: the only colours we will see  until April or May.

The rains we’ve had recently has been a reminder of how much more rain we get up here compared to the desert-like conditions of the south-east.  The river was running high, much higher than the last time I was here, and we watched as labrador, golden retriever and collie all leapt from the banks chasing sticks and balls that their owner had thrown.

There is a sort of wildness here that I’ve written about before.  Each time I visit here and smell that strong old-earth, musty, leaf-litter smell that was missing when we were down south, I realise that I had come to take it so much for granted.  I know that this smell, which is not to be found in any other woods outside of Northumberland, will become the perfume of my winter, as I promise myself that I will be focusing on making myself healthy with long, rambling walks in these (and other) woods.

I also realised that I have been neglecting my photographical pursuits recently, too, so I will be endeavouring to get re-acquainted with my camera.  I cannot wait to show you all of the lovely things that I’ll be cooking up in the kitchen over the festive period and beyond.

The musty smell is made by fungi and we found lots of different types growing on deciduous hardwoods and in the woodland floor.  The black and white-tipped fungi above are antler fungi, whilst the other lobed bracket fungus is an unknown bracket (any ideas?).  It was vahuely tinged with the colour of lemon bonbons and growing on hardwood.

The only trees with their leaves left intact were the beech trees and the odd small oak; everything else was bare.  As we walked under these huge beeches, leaves began to fall and for all the world it felt like it was snowing leaves – it was lovely.  As soon as both Mr VP and I tried to photograph the leaves falling, the wind slowed and the leaves stopped falling.

As we haven’t had any frosts yet, some of the tender plants were still blooming.  This little red campion wasn’t at all bothered by the fact that it was almost December!

Finally, I washed my very muddy boots in the river and found a little bit of tranquility with it.  I’m now eager to get back out into the world and make the most of any spare moments I get.

Friday 28 November 2014

Home Renovated Home

Well, we moved.  Again.  It was a frantic run-up to the main event, as our moves usually are.  It seems that as often as we have moved (5 times in 11 years), the amount of stuff we have accrued has increased and each time we seem less prepared for the move itself.  Thankfully, we haven’t had to give the keys back to our rented house yet, so I’ve been able to clean it and also go there for meals and such as the new kitchen is still covered in a layer of ever-present brick dust and renovation crud (despite numerous cleanings).  Due to unforseen circumstances, the downstairs flooring has been delayed and isn’t due to be fitted until early next week.  This is fine, except that we’re living on very grotty (again, despite being cleaned to within an inch of its life) laminate in one half and bare concrete in the other!  Argh!  But this move has reinforced to Mr VP and I that we won’t be moving from here for quite a while and that suits us stability-craving homebirds down to the ground.

It is odd being back in the house, as it is familiar and yet completely new all at once.  The noises of terraced life are back; road noises, now much reduced thanks to new windows and doors, are a familiar rush-hour reminder and the sound of our neighbours’ plumbing going every now and then is also something we’ll have to get used to again.  I haven’t had much time to sit and get my head around the whole thing yet.  I spend my days running in circles, trying to avoid tripping over the bags and boxes and trying to get things done as quickly as possible.  The move has made me realise that we have a LOT of stuff and that we desperately needed to thin belongings out and de-clutter.  We have to clean and clear so that we don’t get bogged down by objects that we no longer need or want.  That will be my New Year task.

The stove is going as I type and the living room is a balmy 24ºC – we haven’t had to use any central heating yet.  I have been amazed at the change in our lives that having a stove has brought about.  Every single tradesman (including all of our removals men) have stopped to make comment and even the surliest, un-talkative tradesmen become nostalgic chatterboxes at the sight of licking flames and glowing coals.  We hadn’t anticipated this effect, but it is a welcome one indeed and I have learned a lot from people giving advice about the best way to light a fire or keep one going.  Yes, I have to spend time cleaning it out and lighting it (and there are occasional moments of kippering when the house smells of smokeless fuel or wood smoke when I re-fuel it), but the heat and the joy it brings is second to none.

In the coming weeks we can start to go through things properly and unpack, but for now, with all of the chaos, it is nice just to be home…

Next Page »