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  • Writer's pictureAlexandra Venkova

Stories and Spaces-Chrystine Payjack

Updated: Aug 21, 2019

Earlier this year I finally completed one of my long-awaited dreams and moved to the madness of London city. Needless to say, although the excitement, a lot of stress and anxiety was involved in the process of finding a good place to live in. And of course unlike any fairytale, nothing was easy or perfect. With the help of people and some overly strange circumstances, which I will not overflow you with, I found Chrystine. A sweet and lively Canadian lady, that cooks amazing by the way! I fell in love with her pancakes and of course house immediately. I just had to share it with my small world of readers. This quirky and unique mixture of periods and styles inspired me to introduce you to Chrystine and her amazing life story.

Hi Chrystine! Tell me a bit about yourself. Who are you, where from and what do you do?

I was born in Canada in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was a capital city but we had lots of extended family that lived in the rural parts of the province. Holidays would be spent there. My parents were of Slavic origin and their parents came to Canada by boat through Buffallo New York as economic refugees after the war. My maternal grandparents from Poznan in North West Poland, and my father's parents from what was then Austria /Ukraine borders .

I can remember as a child whole groups of extended family gatherings from the old to the young. Men played cards and drank beer, meals went on forever... Huge platters of home made and home grown food and then the table would be cleared and the women would look at seed catalogues and choose seeds to plant in the spring. Playing cards would then be produced and more food: sandwiches and homemade pickles, home baked sliced cakes were laid on until we all piled in cars and went home, kids fast asleep with the drive from exhaustion running around the farm.

Families were large and quite poor and fresh vegetables in the summer and canned in the winter would stretch a meat bone to make a hearty soup with home made bread far to feed young hungry growing kids and men who laboured hard all day. Meat was hunted in the winter or we would buy half a pig from our farming relatives and make sausages and stew. My favourite meat is wild rabbit and venison stew. There was a strong interest in craft; knitters, guilters and sewing and wood craft. I used to spend time hanging around my father's construction camps as a young child quite in awe of his intelligence. He left school at primary school age to work but he could still do my math calculations in high school but could not tell me how.

My fondest memory of my mum as a child was running home after school to the sweet smell of fresh bread dough ends that were not large enough to make into a loaf so were fried in the frying pan until crisp and eaten with jam. Plastki they were called. In spite of hardship my mum worked hard to be warm and provide and give us as much comfort as she could. Small things like hanging our clothes on the rail of the wood fire when we got up for school in a freezing winter house (where winters could be -40 F) stick now in my memory of her kindness and love of her children.

My fondest childhood memories of my dad are of smells of wood sawdust when my dad sawed wood for the wood stack or he built things as we was by trade a carpenter. The smell of pine sawdust always brings him back to me. From these root experiences of plenty and poverty I have always had a keen interest in food, gardening and making small things and thrift into larger more beautiful things. I am a keen preservationist and struggle not to waste things, always on the look out to recycle things, give abandoned things a new lease of life and a new home.

My grandparents were some of Canada's first refugees, so I grew up with a sense not quite fitting in, having to struggle, and hardship, being different and that instilled in me a strong sense of interest and compassion for dealing with difference and social injustice, which lead to my training and career as a social worker for 40 years of my life. My first trip 'abroad' was to Athens for six months. Rural Canada to Athens Greece was a real eye opener and culture shock which injected me with travel lust. I returned again for another six months of Island Hopping and teaching English as a second language. After that I wanted to see the world.

Why did you move to London?

I moved to England in 1974 after I graduated from University to join a Greek boyfriend I met in Greece who was coming here to study Maritime Shipping Law. I helped him prepare for his Oxford English board exams. Because there was a shortage of trained social workers in England, it was easy to get a job. London seemed a good base to travel Europe. I intended to stay three months on a working visa and return home, but life sort of unraveled out of control like a ball of string dropped to the floor.

Needless to say, the holiday Greek Romance ended but I continued to soldier on, I was used to struggle and poverty, housing and salaries were low here. I lived in what was know as 'digs' : one room in large shared housing and my Canadian family thought it was appalling 'How can people live in so little space?' Food and housing was dreadful in general in this country, but was stubborn. I was determined to stay as long as it took for Britain to give back to me what I was putting in. I lived in single seedy let rooms in multiple let houses, which after years progressed to rented shared flats or tied flats ( flats tied to jobs such as caring for an elderly couple in Kilburn) and then I had family and children. I lived in rented accommodation for a long time and finally managed to procure a ground floor flat from social housing in North London.

It was my first secure home in this country and was practically derelict with dilapidated decor, smelly flea-ridden carpets, wall to wall wood chip wall paper, a gas fire stuck in the sitting room fire place as the only heat and a garden with weeds as high as me. But I set out to make it my first real Home away from Home, slowly and painfully and finally purchased it in in 1992. My two children were born and raised there and I had three loving cats and a rabbit (that thought he was a cat) buried there. I converted to Buddhism in that community and built a community life through my faith that started to resemble the closest thing I had known as connection since I left home and family in Canada. Life here was a long hard struggle.

Why did you choose this exact area?

It sold my home in North West London at the height of the last property boom in 2006. My eldest was at college. I was getting older and like for many, my home was a source of investment to me and I knew I needed what capital it held as part of my pension. Fearful of a drop in the housing market I sold and moved to a market town in Northamptonshire with my youngest. Country life was beautiful but we both longed for the buzz and diversity of the 'big smoke.' and our friends . I did not feel like I had grown up and belonged in 'small town life' in England and it was hard to fit in.

North West London was where my kids grew up and I worked the first 10 years of my career. I felt intimate with its streets and ways. When my youngest graduated from school and decided to embark on a five year jewellery degree which culminated in studies in North London, my heart sank. I started to property search in North London. The river Thames is a dividing marker for London. You get used to your community and there is North London ( north of the Thames) loyalty and South London ( South of the Thames) Loyalty. This loyalty is thicker than blood. North West London is my home.

Buying back into London was tough so like many I had a hard time finding anything that matched the area I had moved out of with the same physical space that my first home offered on my budget. After two years searching the best to be had was a flat in the Haringey ladder and finally a house in Wood Green Noel Park Estate.

It was not the area I wanted, but it was the closest I could get to where I had lived and

still near old family and friends . I lucked in on a sale that dropped through and a desperate seller accepted my offer.

I hated the grubby busy High Street with its endless pound shops and betting shops but I bought into an small turn of the century Victorian Community Housing Estate built by employers for their artisans workers in the city turn of the century. It was made a conservation area in the 1980's. The workers houses were built and crafted to a high standard, and even though they had been slightly ruined by the second world war and a history of council ownership post war and social housing conversion their character still stood out.

The house was about the same floor space as my previous large Victorian flat. Though the rooms were smaller it still shone with 'good bones': Original sash windows, high ceilings and I still managed to retain my original stained front door whereas some had been replaced with modern doors.There was a strong neighbourhood support group campaigning to protect against future destruction of original features by private land lords and I felt I was buying into a life style of community involvement and an area that would transform and blossom in time. But bottom line it was the nearest I could afford in the best area I could, rather than where I really wanted to be (NW London). And that sadly, is the case for most home buyers in London

What inspired you or which was the inspiration behind the design of the house interior?

My family did not have permanent housing as a child in Canada until I left home and long after I graduated and moved to England. I longed for my first home and to put my stamp on it. I must have inherited some of the creative 'crafting ' and flower growing genes from my heritage. Every home I lived in England I left a better place than it had been when I came and I taught my children that as well. Does not matter if you rent. Be grateful for having a home and leave it better. Create good home karma. I have had a lot of bad luck in life. But I have never been without housing and my housing has always improved. So good home attitude is behind finding a home.

My youngest's father was a French architect and he had a love of old buildings and antiques but taught me how to buy salvage and rebirth it. My two girls are creative, especially my youngest .Her studies to be a jeweller brought me in close touch with a lot of designers and we frequented good shopping haunts .

Much of my decor is done with a good dollop of ''needs must '' ( i.e in Early Poverty rather than Early Victorian), second hand furniture, charity shop finds make overs and recovering. I took an upholstery course and my years of watching dad hanging around his work space just seemed to leave a lot of skills 'soaked' into my life. Really your genes, your history and your environment and your life experience leaves its mark and sort of spills out in your creative endeavors. I have a lot of junk buys banked to be reconverted 'one day when I have time'. I read a lot of DIY magazines as I am happiest working with my hands, have purchased and read house decorating magazines for years until pinterest arrived. The house is eclectic. It does not have a style other than cluttered love.

How long did the construction works take?

Forever. far too long. I bought in 2008 and finished it in 2016 ( but do you ever finish a house?) I still have the patio to do. The house was done in slow stages whenever I had savings and for two years we lived on floors with no Central heating and only a copper pipe running cold water out of the kitchen wall and into a large plastering bucket. The refuse water was used to throw down the toilet which was not fully plumbed in. We had no bathroom and showered at work and college. Our kitchen was a hot plate. We ate out a lot. We slept on blow up mattresses on the floor with electric heaters. My daughter Louise used to go to University and talk about her living conditions and parents and peers at uni events would look at me like I was a weirdo.

We lost a major part of the restoration through a burglary. My father died in 2006 . I went home to Canada for a month. I arrived back ten days after the Tottenham riots to have been savagely burgled . Having lived without heating for two years the newly installed boiler and copper pipes, tools and a new chandelier with stag heads (that reminded me of dad and was sourced privately from Europe) was stolen.

I am not an economical project manager because I cannot be anything but hands on and I never leave for a builder or tradesman what I can do myself. It is not just about saving money for me. I love that hands on stuff. I Iove to look at wounded and decayed floor board and see it stripped back and gleaming and say and feel; 'I did that'. I love knowing it is in the original not a copy or replacement . I have done things that workman thought were simply not restorable or a waste of time and have then come back on site after a weekend and their jaw drops to see it done. Houses are not just an investment to me. They are homes and I have to put my love and my blood into them or they are not mine.

Where did you get the furniture from?

Everywhere : junk shops, antique shops, charity shops, French markets, market stalls , off the street dumped or from end of year sales. Ikea revamped, ebay second hand and repainted. This is not a minimalist house.

Couldn't help but notice all the mirrors in the house. Tell me a bit more.

I think prints and photos can date. I love mirrors for their light reflection and there is much need of that in the grey of winter and in the long dark corridors of narrow Victorian houses. I like to mix and match them and put then in patterns on the wall. I have so many to restore and put up. I have two lovely Victorian windows in my back yard that I want to strip, guild and put mirror glass in ( in my second life of course).

What is your favourite thing in the house?

My kitchen. I love galley kitchens. They are so easy to work in. And I love how this one looks out on to the garden. The pear tree flowers in spring and is lovely and in the autumn the pears hang like jewels through the double doors.

I also love the tall door to the bathroom. I wanted a long lean look down the hallway from the master bedroom.

What do you consider beautiful?

I often buy bits of antique for my daughter or she finds things . Beautiful is if you cannot part with things because they give you too much joy. Looking at them makes you feel better every day.

What do you love about London?

It is a city of such diversity and history . Nothing gives me more buzz than to see the city lights and historic buildings lit up as I drive over Waterloo bridge. It is majestic.

Each neighbourhood feels like a new town to visit with its own character. There is so much to discover and try.

Can you share a few favourite places in London? Or may be favourite things to do?

  • Browse the Stalls in Camden Market, Caledonian Market for flowers and Borough Market for food.

  • Cocktails at Hoxley and Porter Islington after window shopping in the High Street Hampstead Heath.

  • The Tweed Bike run and picnic in May ( ride through London on old bicycles in period costume and Tweed).

  • The view of the city at night from the Shard.

  • Jazz at Jazz cafe Camden or the Forum for music.


  • The view of the city at night from Alexander Palace.

  • Eat upstairs at Fatisa's Green Lanes- great family all round restaurant with good pasta and pizza's and other Turkish foods see the garden designs at Capel Manor Park.

  • Brunch or a burger at the Jam and Jar on Sunday, Music at The Jam and Jar on Friday or Saturday night.

  • Green Lanes Music Thursday night at the Ranleigh Bounds Green.

  • Ice skate at Alexander Palace and visit Queen Alexandra for tea.

Thank You, Chrystine!


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