THE LATEST change-of-address card drops on our mat. It shows children in smocks playing in a cottage garden and announces another family gone west, deserting the big city for the countryside. It is becoming a regular occurrence. Many of our friends with young families are leaving and moving to leafy villages, arguing that children need wide open spaces and country air.

A few months later, we visit our friends in their new house, perched on a draughty hilltop surrounded by ploughed fields. The children are hunched gloomily over an open fire, watching videotapes.

John and Rose are delighted to see us, thirsty for news from the city. They give us tea and home-made scones and take us for a tour around the garden. 'It's wonderfully peaceful,' they say, 'we are completely isolated up here.' We shiver and return to the house, our shoes covered in mud and chicken droppings. While the garden is full of cabbages, they are 12 miles from the nearest lemon.

On the way home we wonder whether our decision to bring up our children in the city is right. Smog hangs in the air and neon lights obscure the stars. I miss the darkness, but my seven-year-old daughter pipes up: 'Home, sweet home.' The city lights feel familiar and safe.

I was brought up in a village in the Wye valley. While it was very beautiful and we roamed freely everywhere, it wasn't all roses around the door. There were bullies among the village children whose stones and sharp words made us live in fear. It was hard to get away from them in a place where everyone knew each other. The nearest cinema was 10 miles away and the only place to conduct our ritual teenage courtship was the local bus shelter.

On the surface, city life seems to have little to offer young children. They cannot even walk to the park without braving rottweilers or stepping in something nasty. However, in their short lives mine have had experiences that I could only have dreamt about when I was small.

Despite government cuts, the London borough I live in organises some wonderful events, many of them free. The small local museum runs workshops throughout the holidays, making anything from boomerangs to moccasins. On Sunday afternoons we have seen Chinese dragons, carnival processions, stilt walkers and clowns.

The children can choose from ice-skating, go-karting, skittles and tap-dancing, all close by. Unlike the flea-pit I used to go to when I was young, which only showed family films in the school holidays, we can always find a good one to watch, whatever the time of year.

A walk to the supermarket is an adventure. We pass through a colourful street market, with displays of vegetables and fruits whose names I am still learning. There is a wildlife garden within walking distance, with a pond where we dip for beetles. A visit to the city farm reveals Myrtle the pig, a large Gloucester Old Spot, and her 13 piglets, and floppy-eared rabbits - giving the children an inkling of how baby animals are made.

In summer I can pack a picnic and make for the paddling pool in the park, and drink a cup of tea at the outdoor cafe under the wistaria while the children enjoy the water. If it is cold we visit a parent- and-toddler drop-in. Here I can have a chat or read a magazine while someone supervises my two hoodlums in those messy activities that you have to feel very brave to undertake in your own home. During autumn we pick blackberries with friends on the allotments, returning home with purple-stained mouths and hands.

Although our back garden is small, it is a safe haven. Our house is in a traditional Victorian terrace. The children clamber over the fences, making dens in each other's garden sheds and bringing the neighbours closer together. At the Chinese new year my children came in with gifts of oranges and good-luck charms. The Irish family next door teach them country dances.

Sometimes I worry about what will happen when my children are teenagers. Five minutes' walk from here there are drug dealers cruising the streets in shiny black cars. Young boys hang about, swigging from cans of lager. But at least our children will have been brought up aware of these dangers. A young country person can make many mistakes before becoming streetwise enough to survive in this environment.

A city childhood: deprived . . . or enriched?

(Photograph omitted)

Comments