Given that we’ve flipped back into the Narnian Winter (it’s snowing again as I write) there’s absolutely no point in talking about Summer clothes or outfits so it’s something completely different this week. I haven’t said much about our Newcastle adventure since last September so I’m going to talk about that instead and show you what’s been going on there. So here’s a Newcastle update – the story so far.

The story so far… why Newcastle?

You may remember it all starting last July when as soon as the first lockdown ended, we went over to Newcastle for a few days because the middle son was trying to decide whether to take up his deferred place at Northumbria University. The acting practitioner course that he’d chosen so carefully had changed to being far more theoretical than he’d hoped so we thought it would be a good idea to spend a few days there while he mulled it over. And mull he did, as you can see from his brother’s face here during the endless deliberations!

Midlifechic and sons

Of course we’re already familiar with Newcastle because it’s Mr MC’s homeland. After his dad died, his mum surprised us all by getting rid of a lot of her furniture, including spare beds – so for the last few years we’ve stayed in various places around the city. Even so, our time there has always been centred around family events so we haven’t had the chance to explore. This time however we took the boy on a reconnaissance and as Mr MC showed us his old haunts, we all fell in love with the place.

As it was the first weekend of things opening up again, a lot of AirBnBs were still closed and so we stayed in a different part of town to usual, in an apartment block on the other side of the riverbank. We’d booked in a hurry and hadn’t paid much attention to exactly where it was but we arrived to discover that The Baltic, one of our favourite art galleries, was quite literally on our doorstep. The Sage music centre was next door and just on from that was a micro brewery – so pretty much everything a wandering Geordie could wish for on his return home. Even better, the whole city lay at our feet – it was just a short stroll across the magnificent Winking Eye bridge and yet having the river between us and the traffic meant that the flat was sufficiently peaceful for a country girl like me.

Over breakfast the following morning I casually did a Google search to see how much apartments with such a great location would cost… and they were higher than the usual North East prices… but not unthinkable. For years I’d been squirrelling a savings pot, really with somewhere in Spain in mind, hoping that I could one day use the languages I studied at university. It was always my dream to live there properly which is why I chose the degree that I did but as all midlifers know, “life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans” and my destiny was as a Geordie’s ‘wor lass’ rather than a Spanish ‘esposa’.

Seeing the way that Mr MC’s face lit up when I suggested that buying an apartment in Newcastle could be a different option set me thinking in a new direction. With Brexit and Covid and a boy who by now had decided that Newcastle would be his place, as well as a strong family base and a mum-in-law who is needing extra time and attention, it seemed to make more and more sense. Plus there would be a new language challenge – in over 20 years of visiting the family I still haven’t mastered their Geordie lingo so I could work on that rather than recovering my Spanish!

How Covid-19 has changed our life’s path

We decided to mull it over for a while… but I noticed that in the meantime Mr MC had registered for Rightmove updates and was busily weighing up the pros and cons of the four different apartment blocks. Our holiday in Turkey came and went and while we were there we discussed the idea of buying a property somewhere warmer than the north of England. However crystal ball thinking suggested that travel habits could / should be about to change forever, even when the shadow of Covid has passed. And so when the dreaded university drop-off weekend arrived, we booked into another AirBnB in the block we liked, ready to view a number of different flats.

I suppose Covid and lockdown is bound to have changed all of our lives in one way or another. For us it gave us the chance to really spend time where we live rather than travelling to different cities for meetings all of the time. We’ve worked from home on and off for almost 20 years so we were well set up for that. However we discovered that we fare best when we have a mix of urban and rural life.

It’s the urban environment that keeps Mr MC in touch with new creative trends and it gives me the opportunity to appraise different retail environments and watch how people respond. Going forward though with the way that video meetings have so suddenly become an integral part of our lives, we can already see that we’ll be moving around for work far less. So as everybody else in the UK seems to be rushing to move to the country for more space, we’re going in the opposite direction and securing ourselves a base in a lively, creative city.

As well as being good for our work lives, it will make a difference to us personally too. We love where we live and it’s been a great place to bring up our family but when the youngest goes to uni and they all step out into their worlds this autumn, life’s going to feel very quiet here. As I’ve said many times, midlife is a time for appraisal, it’s a pause before the next half of our life begins and it’s important to step back and make sure that part two sets off on the right course. We have less time to drift about than we used to and we need to crack on with the adventures we hope to have.

Finding ‘the one’

So, back to the apartment. We dropped the boy off with an ache in our hearts and busied ourselves with looking at flats. As you may remember, we saw one in particular that we loved but it was way beyond our budget – and after that nothing felt quite right. We’d really hoped that we’d find somewhere that weekend so that leaving the city with our boy in it wouldn’t feel so hard but after a lot of walking and thinking, we decided to take our time and wait for the right place.

Midlifechic Newcastle

However as we were leaving, Mr MC decided we had nothing to lose by to offering up the amount we had and seeing what the seller said. And within minutes it had been accepted and it was full steam ahead.

Well not steam exactly because a process with no chains involved that should have been swift then went on to take seven months to complete. Part of the problem was Covid and the fact that every bureaucratic system was on a go slow. The other difficulty we had was that the building had Grenfell style cladding which had been replaced over the summer of 2020. The original builders and management company had footed the bill but there was no way of knowing whether they were planning to recoup it from residents – and that’s what took so much time to resolve.

Finally though, in the first week of April, I flinched as I watched my years of savings leave my account, not for my original Spanish casita but for a retreat on the costa del Tyne instead. There must be moments in all marriages when The Pogues come to mind and this was mine – and I should stress that there isn’t an ounce of bitterness as I pull out these words. In my view they’re emblematic of the way that people in long relationships work together and around each other in the course of a lifetime of love.

“You took my dreams from me
When I first found you…”

“…I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can’t make it all alone
I’ve built my dreams around you”

Newcastle update – the story so far – completion day

And so our new adventure began. Even though it was April we travelled through snow to pick up the keys so it was a long journey across the Pennines…

Midlifechic Newcastle apartment

… we got there in time for a beautiful but chilly sunset and I began to understand the prevalence of the word Baltic in Newcastle!

Newcastle update - the story so far

The apartment felt cold and unloved. It had been rented to tenants ever since the previous owner bought it in 2004 and a condition of the sale was that it came with all the furniture so here’s an idea of our starting point. Obviously it had been staged for the estate agent’s pictures here, they hide a few eyesores.

Newcastle update - the story so far

Newcastle update - the story so far

Newcastle update - the story so far

Newcastle update - the story so far

Our first task was to strip it completely and we were glad we had a strong student who was happy to help in return for food. We’d arranged to drop everything off with a local refugee charity in advance and we’d hired a van so that we could take absolutely everything over, all of the furniture, the white goods, even the crockery and the knick knacks you can see around the place. We didn’t stop until it was completely empty. We’d taken our own mattress to sleep on and spent the first night camping out in the cold because we couldn’t get the heating to work.

Newcastle update – the story so far – designing the interiors

Our next mission a couple of weeks later was to get rid of the magnolia paint on the walls. A few people asked about it last week and it’s a particular shade of paint favoured by builders because it’s foolproof to apply and easy to touch up. The problem with it is that its yellowy cast has a way of absorbing all the light in a room. It took us three days to paint every wall a chalky tone of white but then at least we could see how the light played in each room throughout the day and how the shadows fell. Then and only then were we in a position to really know what we wanted to do with it.

We’d initially thought the interiors planning would be the perfect lockdown project for us. We’d imagined having hours to spend on cold winter nights designing schemes and hunting down the right furnishings. The problem was that the purchase took so long that by now lockdown was lifting and work was suddenly taking off. We were back to spending our usual long hours at our desks again and there was no time left to think about interiors.

I was chatting about it to the team at John Lewis & Partners at our Spring catch up and they instantly suggested we try their Home Design Service. Although I’ve mentioned it on here before it isn’t something I’ve ever used; Mr MC and I are very confident in our design skills and we enjoy doing this kind of thing ourselves. However we were so busy that we could see it was going to take months to turn it around and we really want to make the most of the apartment over the summer so we decided to give it a go and see what happened.

In the interests of transparency I want to explain that the Home Design Service at John Lewis & Partners is free to all customers. However if we decided to go ahead with the plans, we were invited to choose a few (but definitely not all) of the items in return for an honest review of the service on Midlifechic.

How the Home Design Service worked

Choosing a stylist

We began by going through the Instagram accounts of a few of the JL&P designers to find a style that resonated with ours. The right person soon jumped out – we were very clear that we wanted bold use of colour rather than a muted Scandi interior and so Wil Law (@johnlewis_wil) was our chap. We arranged an online meeting with him and I spent the evening before it pulling together the mood boards that I’d started working on but hadn’t had time to finish.

The thing that was most important to us was making the most of the views. Our apartment is just below the penthouse and they’re pretty spectacular so we wanted our interiors scheme to pull the outside in. I knew I wanted to pick up on the brick colours in The Baltic Gallery and also to reflect the river and sky – which in Newcastle of course are always blue(!) We were also keen to mirror the Northern grit of the city with an industrial feel and to be honest we weren’t completely convinced that JL&P would have the right pieces to pull that off (and I’m not doing a Carrie here…).

We had a starting point for Wil. Knowing how long lead times are on furniture at the moment we’d ordered a navy sofa that we liked back in September and the retailer had been patiently waiting to deliver it since Christmas. We also had a rug that we bought on one of our first ever holidays together in Turkey that was a mix of orange and blue. And art – of course we’d already decided on art for the walls – always ones to get our priorities right!

The first online session

We were back at home when the meeting took place so we couldn’t give Wil a tour of the flat but we had photos for him to work from along with a floorplan and I’d taken a video walk through that I sent over to him. Even so, I wasn’t sure how it was going to work in lockdown with us not being able to sit down face to face but in the end I think it was better. In fact I’d actually do it online every time now because when we’re over there and we have a question about something, we can take him to the exact spot with our phones.

During the call he focused on teasing out our likes and dislikes, he then went away, looked through the video and my boards and came back with a few questions. He was very good at picking up on things even when we hadn’t articulated them. He quickly worked out that we wanted the feel to be urban and architectural in response to the surroundings but also as a deliberate contrast to the modern country style that we have at home. We were quick to tell him that we don’t like pattern but he dug a little deeper and found out that actually we do, as long as it’s either geometric or graphic.

The other two rooms that Wil would be working on were the bedrooms. I explained that I was keen for the master bedroom to feel quite opulent but I hadn’t got any further than that. The second bedroom is very bright and has the sun all day so it made me think of yellow… but I wasn’t sure.

By the end of the meeting it was a relief to hand it all over to someone else. We told him not to be too constrained by budget – we wanted to him to show us his best ideas and we trusted him as a Yorkshire man not to go mad. When the call finished I felt as if I’d seen a design doctor who understood us and would make the whole process quicker and easier.

The design schemes

A few days later I was out of the office when I saw Wil’s email come through with the first designs attached. It’s ages since I’ve felt as excited as I did about opening them but I had to wait until I got home so we could open them together on a big screen. The plan was that we’d look through them, digest them and then have a follow-up meeting with Wil.

This is what we saw as an intro and we knew immediately that he’d got the mood exactly right.

John Lewis & Partners Interior Design service review

Lobby and Hall

For a small urban apartment it has a decent lobby and wide hall. We wanted it to feel impactful as we walked in and Wil’s scheme certainly was. We’d never have come across the wallpaper by ourselves, even if we’d been able to wander around the store – and this is where using a JL&P designer comes in because they have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the options available. We agreed that it was so far from our comfort zone that we needed to let it settle – we’d end up either loving or hating it.

John Lewis interior design service review

Everything else in the lobby was a definite ‘yes’. The colours were slightly darker than we’d have chosen ourselves (that’s a deep blue, not black) but we liked them and the furniture was perfect. Wil had even suggested painting stripes to add interest to the hall. We already had plans for a monochrome art scheme in there (not the one in the mock-up) so we were happy to give it a try, knowing that we could paint it white again if it didn’t work for us.

John Lewis Home Design Service review

The living room

Moving into the living room, he’d worked around our navy sofa and orange rug to add the extra pieces we needed. We loved the way the colour scheme was flowing, initially we weren’t sure about the dark blue that he was suggesting for two of the walls but Wil felt confident that the light was strong enough to take it. Even so, he offered to mock it up in 3D to give us a clearer idea.

John Lewis Home design service reviews

I also questioned the curtain colour because although he’d gone for the same fabric that I’d selected before the project, his shade was much darker than my choice. As a lover of colour I’d gone for a turquoise blue but his was deep marine. At our follow-up meeting he had large boards of paint and swathes of fabric so he was able to hold them up to the screen and show us how much more sophisticated they looked when managed tonally rather than as a contrast. Like the lobby, the living room was a winner and while still staying within our design parameters, he’d pushed us on further than we’d have gone ourselves.

Newcastle update - the story so far

The master bedroom

The master bedroom was trickier for me. We’d briefed him to create a space that will make us feel far from the family home, somewhere that we can feel like grown ups rather than parents. He’d met the brief with a navy and ivory scheme but I found it hard to settle without one of my splashes of bright colour. Mr MC was all for ‘trusting the process’ but during the follow-up Wil detected that I’d been hoping for something stronger that would lift my spirits every time I opened my eyes in the morning.

Option 1

Home design by John Lewis reviews

We’d also decided that we’d prefer the architectural Bauhaus wallpaper that he’d initially put in the bedroom to go in the hall (replacing one he’d initially chosen) because we’d seen another that we preferred for this space. So he obligingly said he’d go back and work up some brighter options along with the new wallpaper so that I could see how they looked. Here they are and I instantly knew that apart from our wallpaper pattern change, he’d been right with his first colour scheme all along.

Option 2

Interior design John Lewis reviews

Option 3

Newcastle update - the story so far


Guest bedroom

Last of all is the guest bedroom. We’re having a large zip and link bed in there so it can be a huge double or two full sized singles depending on who’s staying. When we’re there we imagine using it for friends or the boys if they come over with us and it means that when we let it out to friends and family (and readers) it will work for families as well as couples. It’s an unusual shape with great light and fabulous views of The Sage but both we and Wil are finding it to be a conundrum. We’ve worked up both a yellow and a lime scheme. At the moment we’ve ordered the furniture but we’re waiting until that arrives before we finalise the colours.

Option 1

Newcastle update - the story so far

Option 2

John Lewis home design service is it worth it

Progress to date

So, there you have it, the plan so far. Last weekend we painted the blue in the living room, the stripes in the hall and papered the lobby.

Newcastle update - the story so far

Mr MC worked on the ‘smart’ element of the home, networking it so we’ll have a link to all of our office files and we can access the flat’s security system from home. We took a van filled with lovingly restored Ercol to see which pieces might work before we finalised what we were ordering.

When we did our first ‘back of an envelope’ calculations last July we worked out that we could easily do the whole place from IKEA for about £3,000. As we’ve slowly fallen in love with it (and the plans drawn up by JL&P!) we’ve decided to invest in it so we’ve spent far more than we initially planned, not all of it at JL&P of course but a lot. It will be worth it though and the Interior Design Service pushed it further creatively than we’d have taken it ourselves.

We had no idea that there was so much breadth in John Lewis & Partners’ Home Department. And of course not everything Wil suggested was expensive, they have the new AnyDay range that’s really designed for people who are just starting out but if you integrate it with investment pieces as Wil did, it evens the budget out brilliantly.

So would I use the Home Design Service again? Absolutely. You don’t have to do a whole house, you can just focus on a room or even use the ‘refresh for less’ service to brighten up a scheme you already have. It’s free, they give you a complete shopping list of suggestions with links and there’s no obligation to buy anything. You can see all of the details here.

A few of you have been in touch to ask when our apartment might be available to rent and we’re hoping that it will be from the second half of August. We don’t want to put it on AirBnB just yet so it will only be open to friends, family and you – the people we trust to look after it.

I’ll let you know as soon as I can and give you another update as the plans come to life.

The Telegraph

One last thing – I mentioned last week that I’d been interviewed by The Telegraph and the article appeared on Monday. In it I talk about the five point plan I came up with when I initially worked on rediscovering my style back in 2014. If you’re missing a clothes fix, here it is and I’m incredibly grateful to anyone who has the time to read it because if there’s enough interest they’ve said they’ll let me do more. And that would help me to keep on getting our collective midlife voice across to a wider audience, proving that style is ageless. It’s great to know that we have the ear of their lovely Senior Fashion Editor, Emily Cronin. And a big thank you to those of you who commented on there, it really does make me feel that you’re my friends now, not just readers.


Nikki Garnett, Midlifechic, Telegraph


Thank you. And in the meantime have a lovely weekend, I’ll be back with something completely different next Friday.

Disclosure: ‘Newcastle update – the story so far’ – thank you to John Lewis & Partners for collaborating with me on this post and saving me hours of interiors headaches

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