hot tips for new weekenders

As the temperature rises, urban creatures turn to that most durable of fantasies: the rose-clad cottage. But buyer beware.
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The Independent Culture
as we rage around the overheated city, trying to function in air like dirt soup, many minds will be hothousing that lush fantasy - a place in the country.

For early summer is the time when second-home hunters become frantic, trying to find the right rustic pile to see them through glorious weekends. A place where kids can go free-range, where dreamy fields greet you in the morning, where you can have indolent Sunday lunches with friends.

"This time of year is very busy," says Stephen Jeffrey, country house director for estate agents Allen and Harris. What the punters hanker after, he adds, are the old "character" houses, preferably restored and appointed with all the country doodahs: Agas, paving stones, beams upon which to pin dried flowers and a site for a maggoty dresser. All within what Jeffrey calls "the magic two hours' drive" from London, of course, for second-homers measure life by motorway junctions.

"I have become a total traffic expert," says architect Mark Tinker, who has a flat in Brixton and a house in the Chilterns, off the infamous M40. "I order my life around tailbacks. The house is only 40 miles from London, but on Fridays, you have to leave London before 2pm, or at about 9pm."

An estate agent with a second home in West Sussex, strictly anonymous lest he seem a traitor to his trade, says: "The traffic is horrendous and when you finally get home at midnight on Sunday you have to double park outside your flat to unload." Not to mention the horrors of the slash and spew pitstop at Harvester and Little Chef.

Driving, therefore, is the number one gripe of the second- homer. Number two is where to keep belongings. "You can never keep track of anything," says Tinker. "I am always leaving indispensable things behind, like computer discs or books.

"You have to have two sets of things. You start with two sets of cutlery and plates, then you move on to two sets of duvets and vacuum cleaners. I'm now at the stage where I'd like two washing machines. At the moment I'm always cramming the car full of dirty washing." He also warns that a brace of telephone bills somehow manages to be far greater than one, despite the fact that one isn't actually making any more calls.

Weekenders take it as gospel that food shopping is better done in cities and supermarkets. Most shop in town before they leave, on the basis that one is more likely to find fresh produce on Holloway Road than in the village shop, where vegetables come crinkle-cut and in cans. "We find it much better to do a big shop in Waitrose on Thursday night," says a weekender with a house in Hampshire, recoiling at the thought of the shrink- wrapped pasties and Cup-a-Soups in her nearest country deli.

Local liaison is another perilous activity, and woebetide those who blithely sit in Reg's chair down at the old Cock Inn or refuse to pay the ancient tithe to the local gardener-cum-extortionist. Hilary Hastings, a private caterer who recently bought a 19th-century cottage in Suffolk, decided on a strategy of "proactive integration" and introduced herself to her parish councillor. Coffee and contributions to the local fete ensued - all very delightful. But she has still been faced with a Manon des Sources- style wrangle with the chap next door, who is disputing her boundary to the nearest centimetre. "It's a common problem in Suffolk," she tactfully demurs.

No longer are the warriors of Cymru torching second homes in north Wales, but there can still be rueful feelings towards those Johnny-cum-lately picturesques who colonise villages, force house prices up, and leave them like the Marie Celeste during the winter weeks. "Second-homers usually want the old quaint cottages that would have belonged to an agricultural worker," says Janet Hart of the Rural Housing Trust. "Now they are bought and improved by wealthy people, and prices become too high for locals. Second-homers can bring money and employment into a village, but it is important that the social and economic balance of the village is kept stable."

Most second-homers, however, are more concerned about having country fun with their friends, and one of the first things the nouveau weekender does is invite all his or her mates to stay, but the appeal of that rapidly wanes. "We now think it is only polite if they leave after Sunday lunch," says Hastings. "It takes two hours of winding up time, and it really is better if they are not around." She has also taken the precaution of having practical furnishings: anything too frou-frou would surely be destroyed by some hapless visitor all too soon. For their part, guests should always bring a gift: it immediately gets the hosts on your side and may even avert punitive washing-up sessions. Conversely, many second-homers turn into hosts from hell who generously invite you down then put you to work as soon as you arrive.

Location snobbery can be as exacting as it is in the city, and unsurprisingly, second-homers geographically sub-divide. Rockers traditionally hang-out in what has been dubbed the ''rockbroker belt'' of the home counties: Virginia Water, Weybridge, Epsom - distant enough for a breather not too far from the dealer. Publishing and literary types, due to price and predilection, prefer a more raw environment Norfolk and Suffolk, Somerset and Devon. Stockbrokers like glossy hunting country: Berkshire, Gloucestershire. But some second-homers don't care as long as it's ''out of town''.

"For quite a few people the area isn't important," says Dawn Carritt of the country division of estate agent Jackson-Stops & Staff. "It's the distance, the house and the walk to the nearest nice pub." Suffice to say that second-homers prefer real ale and horse brasses to game machine fun-pubs beloved of country folk themselves.

The second-home phenomenon is primarily southern but people in the big northern cities also escape at weekends, Mancunians tending towards the coastlines of north Wales, and Leeds folk to the coast at Scarborough and Whitby. Often the area of the second home can be motivated by rootsy yearnings; thus Melvyn Bragg has a home in Cumbria, and Alan Bennett in Yorkshire. Recently Molly Parkin decided to rediscover her Welsh roots by buying a home in south Wales. "I'm a typical product of the valleys and it seems like going home," she says. "It's only two hours on the train and I'm buying it with my grandchildren in mind." Parkin has lived in 43 houses in her adult life, but is now content to divide her time between three: London, Wales and - slightly too far for a weekend - a winter residence in southern India. "They are alternative homes rather than second homes, I suppose. My feeling is that whenever I go to one I'm going home."

Second homes need not necessarily be in dinky villages. Jack Tinker, the Daily Mail's theatre critic, has a second home in Brighton, Keith Waterhouse one in Bath. Nor do people necessarily want honeysuckle-clad half-timbered jobs. Architect Brian Johnson owns a 1973 vintage second home on the East Sussex coast between Hastings and Rye. "It's not picturesque," he says. "In fact, you could imagine it on a housing estate. But it has all the advantages of a modern house: it's clean, open-plan and low maintenance. And it's right by the sea, which makes it all rather Cape Cod-ish." Indeed, Johnson's stretch of coast is becoming a bit of a corridor for ''visual'' types, with photographer Fay Godwin and designers Gary Wright and Sheila Teague, who have a beach house in nearby Camber Sands.

The upkeep may be gruelling, the drive terrible, the food noxious and the locals like extras in Straw Dogs. But the second home may have unanticipated benefits. The weekender in Hampshire, who has small children, says: "It relieves the pressure of the family visit, and I have become much more easy with the folks." For this is the true value of the second home: to promote simplicity, conviviality and relaxation. "I want to commune with nature," says Tinker, "even if it's only mowing the lawn".

The second home may be a mockery of authentic country life, but there is scarcely a city dweller who doesn't dream of owning one - irrespective of tailbacks, Scotch eggs, mud and territorial neighbours.