Milly the Builder’s Mate

Following on from my last blog I thought I’d expand a little bit on the non-standard DIY and why hanging a picture is almost child’s play. I say “almost” because it’s usually the simplest most straightforward things that we never get finished. Knock down a wall, you say? Move a radiator? Fit a window? Consider it done. Fix the wobbly door handle…. not so much. On reflection, it seems that we always go for the most impactful items on the to-do list. Why solve little annoyances when you can leave them and win big on something else.

Winning big is exactly what we had in mind when in late 2012 we embarked on The Extension.

The Extension, in it’s original form, was to be our kitchen. By the end of the project it had included the kitchen, the front porch, an ensuite, complete new bathroom, redecoration in every room, rainwater harvesting system, full external insulation and render, fencing, patio, garden, driveway and a fabulous Victorian tiled hallway. Barely a brick has been left untouched in this little house.

We had our planning permission and building control engagement, but with precious little else in the way of planning we approached it in true Bray style (although I was still a Smith then) – with an SDS drill, a crowbar and a lot of enthusiasm – and set about destroying the old front porch/hallway a few days before Christmas 2012. This left us without a front door so if you could navigate the muddy pit you could walk from the front garden into the living room.

Before sending you off into a complete panic on my young, naive behalf, I should highlight here that we weren’t completely without experience. Matt had spent a few years working with his brother as a general builder. Although singlehandedly completing nothing on quite this scale before, he was completely unfazed and completely capable of delivering. I was also extremely proficient with the kettle.

I think the porch foundations were poured on Xmas Eve, and on Boxing Day our friend Phil the bricky started with the block work. Early details are a bit hazy now – I wish I’d had the presence of mind to blog then! – but I do know that it rained. A LOT. For several days our entire electricity meter/consumer unit was wrapped in a tarpaulin and hanging outside in the elements. Late afternoon on a Sunday in January, it was zero degrees, and Matt and I put 2 tonnes of frozen ballast through the cement mixer by hand in order to pour the floor. You had to hand it to us, we were committed.

February 2013 saw the creation of the temporary kitchen in our bedroom, whilst we had relocated ourselves to the recently vacated “Jamie’s room”. It’s fairly normal to set up a functional kitchen space for a short period of chaos in order to feed yourself soup & toast or the odd pot noodle. Matt’s optimism was balanced out by my realism, and we agreed that we were likely to need this set-up for a few months at least. In order not to drive ourselves completely crazy, and still be able to provide some sense of family normality for Soph, we assembled a fully functioning kitchen, complete with full size electric double oven, fully plumbed dishwasher and washing machine, and more worksurface and cupboard space than we had in the old one. To be honest, compared to the old one, the temporary one was a massive upgrade. Glad we invested the time and energy into it though. Our “short period” lasted 10months!

It snowed in March 2013. I remember this very clearly because it was snowing when we started laying the blocks for the rear (kitchen) extension. Having already turned the entire back garden into a quagmire with the mini digger, a little bit of snow wasn’t going to put us off. Wearing almost all the clothes I owned, topped off by my bargain £10 Tesco sale ski jacket in cherry red, I got outside and got stuck in until the sun went down.

That pretty much sums up 2013, 2014 and most of 2015. For days and weeks and months on end the two of us grafted. Through our entire project, I think we only had the blocks, the plastering and the rendering done by tradesmen. We took the DIY very literally, and kept everything in house, relying a little on family and friends, but mostly beavering away with our bare hands. I joke that there isn’t an inch of this entire house that I haven’t touched, but if you called in the forensics I don’t think I’m far off.

I remember someone stopping by to talk to us when we were working outside once, and commenting on our progress. In fact a lot of people used to stop and chat, or wave on the way past. I felt like the whole neighbourhood was rooting for us to finish!

I could go through my memory archives and give you chapter and verse on the project, but that probably isn’t what you’ve come here to read about*

(Note*: We have a couple of years worth of fabulous timelapse videos showing all of the work. In case you want to see that, and the proof of my little red jacket clad form scurrying about, drop me a message)

I will summarise by saying that it was the hardest and most exhausting time (we were both employed full time throughout) but that I think it an absolute testament to the awesomeness of our relationship that we properly SMASHED IT. Despite having no real documented plan, and not following a budget :-0, we made well thought out decisions, were totally aligned in almost all of our thinking, didn’t fall out once, and created the most fantastic and perfect home we could imagine. Yay us.  Seriously. 

As well as working full time, I was – somehow – also juggling the care of darling Milly bear, alongside all this frenetic building work. We still walked, we still trained, we still cuddled on the sofa. I was completely exhausted, my hands, arms and legs were scuffed and bruised, I had brick dust in every drawer, pocket, handbag. How on earth I managed to be presentable enough for work I’ll never know. Maybe I wasn’t! But nobody ever said and I’m still there now…

Although very wrapped up in the whole project, because it was impossible not to be, I was still very mindful of the impact on Milly. There was tremendous upheaval – from the relocation of rooms inside, to using the side door as the front door, to having no fence, and a garden that barely offered a blade of grass for a bedtime wee.


For a few weeks I had to take her on her lead up to the pub field at the end of the road for the first and last toilet breaks of the day. On a few occasions we had to go out during the night as well. Didn’t seem to matter to her but I must’ve made a rather fetching sight in my PJ’s and rigger boots.


Despite all of this chaos, we managed, and most importantly, so did she. I know I’ve said it before but I really think this comes back to the point I’ve made about her just needing to be with me (or with us). I know by most that may not be considered wholly unusual – man’s best friend and all that – but given Milly’s extremely complex character and very sensitive disposition, I think it speaks volumes of the bond that her and I had.

I do have to make a call out here (again) to my incredible parents. During some of our toughest months they came through with literally everything. Hard manual labour, endless lunches and supplies, homecooked meals batched and left in the freezer, cleaning. The lot. What they also stepped in with was some respite care for Boo. They started having Milly overnight for one or two nights a week. I think they realised I was in danger of burning myself out, and if by having Milly they could allow me an extra 90mins in bed in the morning then they were happy to do it. Of course they also loved having her at their house (noting that they had previously made all required modifications to Milly-proof the garden etc). They used to drive the 70mile round trip to collect her, and then the same again to ferry her home a day or so later. Although we really missed her not being here, it just eased the pressure a little, and helped us to motor on at some critical points. Once things got marginally calmer we started sharing the transport a bit. We used to meet at the then newly opened Cobham Services on the M25. It was probably equi-distance and enabled us both to leave and re-join the motorway in our opposite directions. We would meet in the same quiet spot in the carpark, and hand over our precious cargo. Usually at the point of transfer my mum would, in exchange, hand us a bag of food. Either yummy dinners that she had cooked and frozen, or high energy treats to keep us going. We were so very lucky to have their support and we could not have done any of it without them.

There were plenty of times that I felt completely overwhelmed, often to the point of tears. At one time I had a complete meltdown that the Milly basically had NO GARDEN and it wasn’t fair – she might not live all that long – and we absolutely had to do something about it. I think I was ranting, crying, pacing and gesticulating. Matt would’ve been calmly observing whilst I got more and more worked up.

A few days later we had this… so he was clearly listening and planning all along

My panic subsided.  Matt usually has that effect.



Anyone who has been involved in any sort of project like this will understand and appreciate the stress we were under. Even living through it when you have builders in is hard enough, but being the builders was full on. When I look back now I wonder what on earth we were thinking!! I feel a little sick just thinking about it and can’t believe what we put ourselves through. However hard it was though, we stuck together, all of us. There were hugely challenging times when we thought it would never end, but there were plenty of smiles and laughter as we were building our home and making incredible lasting memories along the way.

We have bounced around the idea of moving – our home is absolutely perfect – there is not a single thing I would change or do differently, but the road is busy, our garden is small and we are very overlooked. If I could pick our bungalow up and set it down in 10 acres that would do just nicely. I know I wouldn’t be happy in another house until we had made it “just so”.. and I’m not sure I could do it all again! On top of that is the Bray family history (Matt’s dad was born in the Bungalow) and the love and energy we have invested here… I think we would find it very hard to let this place go.

For now we stay put and enjoy our home and everything in it. So many happy times have been had here, and although things aren’t so easy right now, the Bungalow, like us, will have to come out of mourning and open it’s doors to the world again. I know we must try to move forward, but when we do look back I am so pleased that we can do so with extreme pride at all we have achieved and how one very special bear took all this so seamlessly in her stride.

because Milly…


Blue sky ahead

The first Bank Holiday weekend of the year often means DIY for a lot of families, or perhaps some gardening and prep ready to fire up the BBQ at the first sign of a sunny Saturday. B&Q is always rammed. Normal folk have inspiration to decorate a room, maybe put up some shelves, paint the fence or jet wash the patio. Normal folk. Normal DIY-esque activities.

The regular benchmarking doesn’t really apply with the Brays. Matt has been using this Easter weekend to overhaul the Bungalow plumbing…. picture 200metres of copper pipe, no heating for two days, no mains water for one, four days of hands and knees in the loft with a head torch. This is our “normal”.

Similarly, in a regular house in a quiet cul-de-sac in Ascot, “DIY” doesn’t mean picture hanging. DIY this weekend has meant plastering a front porch.

Tracey Hall is my best friend. And I could just stop there right. Everyone knows what “best friend” means….. but to me, Tracey is SO much more than that. She is top of the tables, a World Class Best Friend. If friendship skills were graded she would be ELITE.

Tracey and I went to secondary school together, during which time we had a small close friendship “group” which saw each of us being closer to each other at different times, and during different phases. Not unusual I imagine. Fast forward 20+ years and we still have our original friendship group, plus the excellent addition of Schwester (Tracey’s younger sister – but known and loved by us all as our sister!) and a couple of her a school friends. As a full group we probably get together only 5/6 times a year… busy lives, busy jobs, family commitments & different priorities… it’s always a challenge to get everyone lined up at the same time.

Despite initially drifting a bit further away from the group when I moved down to Sussex in 2004 a few years later, when that chapter of my life ended and another started, I slotted back in as if I’d always been there, and during the next few years Tracey and I got closer than ever. Thankfully neither of us have finally settled too far from our home town, although in slightly different directions, and so we are only 45-60mins apart (M25 permitting). As a result, we still see each other quite a lot, and chat on Whatsapp probably every day. After Matt, she’s the first person I call/text with anything and everything important.

But Tracey Hall was not plastering her front porch this weekend! That job fell to Jon, Tracey’s husband. Tracey and Jon have been together for years and years and years, marrying on a picture perfect winters day in 2010. Jon is all things AWESOME. He is literally everything I could want in my best friend’s husband, both for her and for me! He is Tracey’s husband, but he is also my friend too, and has been for years. Just to top everything off, Jon and Matt get on famously and are like two peas in a pod… they too have a stand-alone friendship. Like Matt, Jon is an engineer, and they both have limitless topics of conversation, similar interests and share each others’ knowledge and expertise.

Tracey and I would be close anyway, but it just enhances everything that Jon and Matt are friends too and means when we see each other it is usually all together. There have been many evenings, weekends, NYE’s spent with Tracey and Jon. The boys are normally talking about geeky stuff, and looking up technical things online. Us 3 girls usually opt for a boardgame.

So after some extreme DIY on both sides, last night was one of those perfect evenings spent with the Halls. Given the heating/hot water situ here, we went up there for dinner, where Tracey had made us a mouth-watering chicken pie.

There are, however, two very important pieces missing from this mental picture… because Tracey and Jon are Mummy and Daddy to Ollie (6) and Sammy (3). Obviously I have known Ollie and Sammy all of their lives, but I would want to go further and say that I have been a part of their lives, adore them, and feel very privileged that I’ve been alongside them so far.

This is a conversation I was having with Ollie at bedtime last night, which I will come back to.

First, let me try and briefly describe these two little characters. To the untrained eye, two typical boisterous kids with bags of energy. Sometimes noisy, but always attacking everything with 100%. Lego, trains, cars… they love to play.

Whenever they visit us I dig out the bucket of matchbox cars that used to belong to my brother (although technically, I suppose they still do) and it usually keeps them pretty well entertained. Two energetic children racing round the bungalow was initially a bit of a shock to one little system although she very quickly got used to it, and could always be found in the heart of the action!

Having spent such a lot of time with Ollie and Sammy – and I mean actually with them, interacting with them, not just that they have been present when I’ve been there – I’ve got to know their little personalities well.

Sammy always greets us with big hugs and kisses. He says “I love you heather” a lot whilst wrapping his arms around my neck and squeezing like he isn’t going to let go, and last night was no exception. Sammy, nicknamed SamBam, can be very crash, bang, wallop, and looks you right in the eye with a cheeky grin before proceeding to do whatever you may have just told him not to do. Sure Tracey and Jon won’t be expecting me to say anything else (honest blog and all that) but there’s no doubt he can sometimes be a little bit naughty. But in a cute cheeky way, not a spiteful way. He’s a gorgeous little monster.

Ollie is two and a half years older so is naturally further ahead. From what I can see so far Ollie is going to take over the world. He talks of robots and plans and building things. More and more I’ve seen his vivid imagination shining through, and he talks about stuff with such enthusiasm and animation. Last night he was showing me the invisible robot that he built, and explaining how it was controlled by a remote control disc (a medal)… the robot had levers and lights and he was describing it with such detail it was so clear that he had a perfect mental picture of it.

When the apocalypse comes I want these little ones in my bunker. Sammy to tell me everything is going to be ok and Ollie to use his inventions to make it so!

Although we see them often, they are growing and changing and developing all the time, and every time I see them I observe something else. Watching them on their journey through childhood is so great. Watching my best friend be an awesome mum is also so great. Ollie and Sammy couldn’t have better parents than Tracey and Jon, and I am so proud of both of them for that.

Right, now back to bedtime. As we were late arriving and late eating, for the children it was pretty much straight to bed after dinner. Rather than story time it was snuggles with a little chat about the day, then lights out.

Having hoisted myself up into the top bunk next to Ollie, we laid down forehead to forehead on the pillow. After some more talk of robots and master plans, I told Ollie how as a baby we used to stroke his back and snuzzle his hand to try and get him to fall asleep. It didn’t often work mind… Baby Ollie had colic and sleeping was a challenge.

I told him how much I loved him and how lucky I was that he and his brother were in my life. Whilst stroking my hair, Ollie then looked intently into my eyes and said “I know you are really sad about Milly, she was a lovely doggie”…. His sincerity absolutely took my breath away. He asked me how she died, and how I knew she was dead. Holding back tears I managed to tell him that there was something wrong in her brain, probably because she was really old, and that I knew she was dead because she went to sleep in my arms. He seemed satisfied with that fairly loose explanation, and then he went on to talk to be about his Gandad, who is currently fighting cancer, who has had an operation and now sounds like a robot, but how absolutely everyone is hoping the cancer doesn’t come back.

After leaving Ollie with his torch, pencil and paper to draw up some more plans I snuck into the bottom bunk to say goodnight to Sammy. After several rounds of “I love you Heather”, to which I repeatedly replied “and I love you Sammy”, he snuggled down with Puppy, his soft toy, and we didn’t hear a peep out of either of them for the rest of the night (which is unusual).

After several cups of tea, some custard creams and a good game of scrabble, Matt and I left to head home. Despite the constant and now familiar ache of sadness in my heart, I felt happy and hopeful.

The whole point of being with good friends is to lift you up, and you them. I didn’t expect that, last night, it would be the genuine kindness and sensitivity from a 6 year old and his 3 year old brother that made my grey sky look momentarily blue.

because Milly…