Magazine article The Spectator

Rural Hell

Magazine article The Spectator

Rural Hell

Article excerpt

WE'VE all done it - stared longingly at the ivy-clad cottages, Georgian rectories and converted shooting-lodges that beckon from the pages of Country Life and the Week and imagined ourselves to be their proud and happy owners. Even today, with the countryside facing the relentless horrors of floods, BSE and foot-and-mouth, there can scarcely be a townie who hasn't at some time dreamt of swapping the misery of city life for the joys of a rural idyll. I know that I have done - briefly.

Expecting our first child, my wife and I have been much exercised by the question of our living arrangements. Should we stay in our tiny flat in Marylebone or should we bite the bullet and move to the country? We both agreed that these were the only options - to be in the heart of the city or in the heart of the country. The neither-- one-thing-nor-the-other half-life of Balham, Clapham or Wandsworth didn't appeal.

We pored over maps, magazines and estate agents' details, and both fell in love with the idea of country life. I saw myself writing bestsellers in peace and seclusion, while Marina sat on the lawn in a large straw hat painting watercolours, pram at her side. We'd have a kitchen garden, buy a pony, get a dog, build a tree-house, make jams and chutneys, play croquet and my personalised pint mug would hang behind the bar in the local. Marina, thank God, urged caution, suggesting we did a trial run first.

Quite by chance, some friends of ours in Devon were looking for house-sitters while they travelled around South America. I told them to look no further. Their house is beautifully situated in apparently enviable seclusion on the edge of an ancient forest, and boasts dramatic views of rolling green hills which lead the eye to the distant prospect of a sapphire sea. I moved in with their imbecilic dog and two incontinent cats for a month, and Marina came down at weekends.

It was a pleasant novelty to see stars at night and to hear birds warbling sweetly outside the window, and I liked being able to yank things out of the ground, cook them, cover them in butter and eat them, It transpired, however, that these were scant compensations for the ghastliness that is country life.

I was meant to be working on a book, and the unnatural - to me - quiet of the country should have provided the ideal environment, had I ever managed to get started. I was constantly interrupted, not only by the chirpy postman ('I see from their postcard that James and Lizzie are having a high old time') and the handyman (`Kettle on? Cor, I timed that well'), but also by the neighbours who, polite and friendly though they were (just like Londoners, in fact), were impossible to escape. They wouldn't, couldn't and didn't use the telephone, preferring instead to `pop round, just to say hello'. They came either to borrow things - not cups of sugar, but trailers, horse blankets, golf clubs, pickling-- jars, jam pans, dinner jackets or my friend James's best ram - or simply to chat. They were incapable of saying in ten words what could be spun over a thousand, and the topics of conversation rarely strayed beyond lambing, creosote and the bellringers' summer outing.

Within days, everything else began to bug me too, be it the Aga, which operated only on scorch or incinerate - except on the day that it decided to go out - or the persistent localised snowstorms that plagued all the television channels. …

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