Real Homes: Home sweet second home

A flat in town and a cottage in the country? How frightfully posh. Not really, says KATE WORSLEY - it's cheaper than you might think
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It was the weekends that really made us decide to get a place in the country. Pottering about the flat after a hard week in the office used to be our way to recharge. Now, with both of us working from home, we thought we would go mad if we had to spend another minute in the place.

Shopping, the gym, the garden centre? Boring as hell. No, what we yearned for was a change of scene, but the glamour of weekend hotel breaks had worn off long ago. And too many Sunday drives out of town in search of amusingly named country places had crawled to a halt somewhere just beyond the M25. Of course, if we had a place of our own to go to ...

What a pipe dream. Only people with serious money have country places, and that's not us. Neither did we want to up sticks altogether.

Then one day I saw one of the little terraced houses in the next street was for sale. Maybe we were just outgrowing the flat, I decided. Time for the psychic space a house provides. Then I found out the price. An unbelievable amount. Something like four times what we had paid for our flat. We had obviously missed out on a major property explosion.

If we were going to have to spend so much more just to get a house we would probably hate, why not keep the flat we love, and get a place in the country we would love too? We had no idea how much a house would cost outside London. We knew a beach hut in Southwold costs pounds 10,000. So maybe pounds 20,000 to pounds 30,000 for a shack. It would have to be a shack, of course. In the middle of nowhere, with wonderful views.

This half-baked plan turned into a great excuse for more sight-seeing jaunts, only this time we were looking in estate agents' windows in country towns for real. One B&B lady in north Essex tipped us off about a secluded part of a nearby village where a terraced house was for sale, but we were sold on our idea of romantic exile. (It was too expensive anyway.) Estuaries looked promising. You would have your back against the sea, but weren't likely to drown in melted ice cream and chip fat.

One day we saw an ad in the Independent for a three-bed bungalow on an Essex estuary, private mooring, pounds 36,000. What about global warming, warned my mum. We forced the car down a potholed private road to find a shuttered wooden bunker, water lapping at its stilts. The owner, a builder, refused to take the shutters off. Was there no glass, we wondered? Security, he explained. He'd had all the taps nicked once, but not to worry, he knew the bloke who did it. If we were worried about flooding, well, the man next door had managed to raise his house three feet using 12 car jacks.

Out-of-the-way places were starting to look rather desolate and depressing. And they weren't even that much cheaper.

We had been looking for months now, so to keep us going we booked a weekend's holiday on an Essex island accessible by boat only at high tide in accordance with our principle of maximum isolation. The house the B&B lady mentioned in the summer was still on the market, so we stopped off to view it on the way.

As soon as we got inside we knew it was the one. Decent height ceilings, a brick-floored cellar, even a concrete yard so the rabbit couldn't dig her way out. And the view: across the green to the church, the cricket pitch and fields beyond. It also occurred to me that it might be a wonderful place to bring up children. All for under pounds 75,000. You couldn't buy a one-bedroom flat in Camden for that.

Our upper limit had been creeping up all along, but it was still more expensive than we had planned. We cashed in every last PEP, Tessa and endowment policy that financial advisers had talked us into over the years. My parents lent us pounds 5,000, and we finally moved in this spring.

We have enjoyed more hospitality from our new neighbours in three months than we ever did in London. Paradoxically we are closer here to a pub, a vegetarian cafe and a bookshop than we are in north London. The village we have ended up in is a quietly extraordinary place. A failed spa, it is part port, part industrial, part bucolic 18th-century rural paradise, with none of the over primped stuffiness you find in the heart of England. We are five minutes' walk from the estuary waters where a rota of local people feeds the flock of mute swans.

Now we treat the flat as an office, a base for serious work and play. We thought we would feel torn between two places, but in fact we feel less pressure because there is always somewhere else to go when things get too quiet or too busy. The only unforeseen consequence has been a renewed zest for London, which can't be bad.

The arrangement has been hard for our friends to take in. "But where do you LIVE?" they still ask. Both places, we reply. Now most people just call on the mobile (which works out there). Garden-hungry friends who still like to party are considering the same arrangement. Some people can't deal with what seems like the wanton profligacy of having two homes at our age. And I still feel guilty, until I remember that our two homes put together cost less than a three-bedroom house in Stoke Newington, north London.

Last Sunday night we walked up the hill and stood still while flat-faced cows breathed noisily into our hands. The next day we caught an early train back. That beats the South Bank Show any day.

WHERE TO LOOK

Around London

Parts of Norfolk and Suffolk are affordable (pounds 60,000 for a cottage). Try around Debenham, Wickham Market, and villages Earl Soham and Monks Ely. Forget Southwold and Aldeburgh, where prices are approaching London levels. (Abbots, tel: 01284 704815).

Around Birmingham

Try Ludlow or Bideford-on-Avon (Dixons, tel: 01789 266141).

Around Cardiff

Abergavenny is now hugely expensive; try around Usk instead (Taylor, tel: 01222 224 556).

Around Edinburgh

Spoilt for choice: north across the Forth Bridge for north Fife (East Neuc), south for the Borders (Real Estate Agents, tel: 0131 343 1997).

Around Manchester

Cheshire, Peak District (Property Shop, tel: 0161 747 1177).

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