It was ten years ago last month that we first came to live in this little corner of Lincolnshire. Prior to that we had spent eight years in the country, first in a hamlet in mid Devon and latterly on the western fringe of the Snowdonia National Park in North Wales. To say that I didn't want to come here was putting it mildly but we were running out of options if we ever wanted to get a foothold on the property ladder. The cottage we lived in was rented and although the rent was reasonable it really had become too small to house our growing family. Even uninhabitable hovels with trees growing out through the windows and an attic full of bats were beyond our pocket. We tried looking at other rural areas of Britain but the story was always the same; anything with more than a couple of bedrooms and a decent sized garden was priced beyond our reach. If it was in a particularly picturesque part of the country, if it possessed 'period charm' or if it had enough land for at least one horse then the estate agents started adding noughts to the price tag. Things were looking bleak.
Then one day, as I was lamenting our woes to my mum on the phone, she piped up that one of the houses across the road from her was for sale. It had been repossessed and the mortgage company had put an advert in the paper asking for offers. When we had first been thinking of buying, while we lived in Devon, Si had suggested that we would get more for our money if we bought a Victorian terrace in one of the nearby towns. We hadn't long been living in the country - my most cherished ambition - and although we rented there and went on to rent again in Wales, I wasn't prepared to give up on my rural dream without a fight. Eight years later, I was reminded of the Victorian terrace I had vetoed previously when the particulars for the house mum had suggested arrived through the door. It was big - five bedrooms - it had no major structural problems, no shrubbery sprouting from inside and no wildlife in the roof! What's more, if we got it for the guide price it would cost no more per month in mortgage than we currently paid in rent and our council tax would actually be cheaper. We came over to look. There were three floors. In Wales we only had a single story and a bit of boxed in roof space that served as a bedroom for our son, Angus.
The children were keen to move; they would be nearer their beloved Nan and Pops - and all the treats that would entail - but Angus in particular yearned for more varied social activities than our village could provide. He had started secondary school the previous year and had made new friends in other villages but many of these were not served by public transport and he was reliant upon Si' to ferry him around. What he really wanted was some independence. We put in an offer and it was accepted. Given that I'd had to concede that this was ultimately our best option, I told Si' I would only move on the condition that we took an allotment nearby for all my plants. The secretary seemed very pleased to see us and told us we could take our pick from amongst the many vacant plots. Being rather spoilt for choice, I selected one with two fruit trees on it that were currently in blossom. Only later did I find out they were both pears and two different varieties at that. We both got jobs within the first month of moving here, both in schools, but while Si's was forty minutes drive away mine was a fifteen minute walk. I walked the girls to school on my way to work and Angus walked himself to secondary school. After the first term, Carrie joined him at secondary school and they walked there with their respective friends. At first I fretted about moving to a town - about the noise levels, pollution, the proximity of other people and the possiblity of becoming the victims of crime. Gradually though, life settled down and I began to enjoy the benefits that a small town can provide.
The town centre is just a short walk away, likewise the twice-weekly market bringing fresh fruit and veg, some of which comes from other parts of our own county. More than this, the food cost much less than it had in rural Wales, particularly the fresh stuff. I could be on the main rail line to London in twenty minutes and arrive there in under an hour and a half. Previously it was an hours drive to Bangor to catch a train which took over three hours to reach the capital. And that was just one way! Our doctors is within walking distance, the dentist is next door and the vets across the road. Angus got into the school football team and began receiving free weekly guitar tuition. Carrie moved schools to join me after my school was granted Arts College status and went on to play the lead in the annual Christmas production just twelve months later. Lucy made friends with several girls in her class - a novelty for her since in our former village school she had been the only girl in that year's intake. I became involved in charity and fundraising activities both within and beyond my job and Si' became secretary of the allotments. When I gave up full time work eighteen months ago and told people we were downshifting to live more simply, it was widely anticipated that the house would go up for sale and we'd be moving back to the country again. There's not a chance of that now and this is really rather the point of writing this post.
We live in difficult times. We worry about the economic downturn and potential unemployment whilst being simultaneously concerned about the effects that stress, ready meals and long working hours are having on our health. It is easy to see why potential downshifters dream of getting away from it all and that many believe that downshifting and moving to the country are one and the same thing. If you look back to my very first post, Staying Put, it begins with a quote from Polly Ghazi and Judy Jones from their book Downshifting. It suggests that downshifting is primarily a change in how you view the world regardless of where you decide to live. It goes on to say " Life is what you do with where you are, and the resources and strength you can call on". The dream of a rural idyll is currently so powerful that I fear that some people will be disappointed when they can't achieve it and yet others will be disappointed who do. Prices of country property have not really fallen since we were looking ten years ago and so will remain beyond the reach of many.
But I hope this blog illustrates that elements of The Good Life are within the reach of so many more people than those in possession of a country postcode. The magazine Home Farmer, launched last year, hopes to encourage more people with their maxim "you don't have to live in the country to enjoy the good life" and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has received an enormous response to his Landshare project, designed to pair up people with land to spare with those willing to cultivate it. Although allotment waiting lists have become over subscribed in many areas, one thing that will guarantee you'll never get one is not to put your name down in the first place.
For those ready and able to make the leap to a rural life, don't go expecting a bed of roses. This is especially so since escaped livestock always make a beeline for your flower beds and seem to have a nose for just those plants you are particularly bothered about. Also remember that the flip side of peace, solitude and getting away from it all is isolation and feeling cut off. There are only eight hours of daylight in the middle of winter which leaves sixteen hours of darkness surrounding you when you have no street lights. Equally, houses snuggling together in urban areas tend to keep each other warm whilst loan country properties can cost more to heat. Many would-be country dwellers are keen on the idea of the greater community spirit of the country, where other people know who you are. By the same token, everyone will know who you are and the minutiae of your life will provide endless hours of entertainment for the local gossips, some of which may reach your ears in a form which bears no resemblance to reality! Further advice I can offer is to buy a sound vehicle and take good care to maintain it. Almost everything will require a journey of some sort - work, school, shopping - and not always in the most clement of weather.
There are fewer work opportunities in the country and commuting long distances is stressful and time consuming. In the last month I have read that two stalwart country dwellers - pottery designer, Emma Bridgewater and Country Living magazine editor, Suzy Smith - have moved, or are in the process of moving, to more urban areas to cut the time they spend commuting to work. Emma Bridgewater also said that her children - whose ages range from nine to nineteen - "wanted to be nearer the centre of things". Crucially, do not offer an open invitation to friends to visit. They will take you upon it. Frequently. You will get opportunities to sample the life of bed and breakfast proprietors without the benefit of being paid for your troubles! If the last paragraph sounds like an exaggeration, it isn't; it's personal experience. On the other hand, small market towns like ours have so much to offer. All the pictures in this post were taken within ten minutes walk of our house. Within fifteen minutes walk you can be in open countryside on either side of the town centre yet still have facilities right on your doorstep. We may like to think that our heart resides in the country but it doesn't mean that our body has to accompany it!!!