Second-home truths: Desire for that 'little place in the country' has outlived owner-guilt and recession, reports Helen Fielding

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Indy Lifestyle Online
'THERE'S a certain kind of guest, often agoraphobic, who becomes infatuated with one item of food - a bun, milk, a lump of butter - and ends up practically sobbing: 'You must tell us where you got it', expecting the answer to be a cow in the forest with whom we're on Christian name terms. It's hard to break it to them that it came from Harvey Nichols on Friday afternoon.'

For commercials director Mike Russell Hills, like another 200,000 or so British second home-owners, the cottage crawling season is underway - and the cottage crawlers, the eager guests who are too sensible or poor to have a cottage of their own, are at large in the motorway tailbacks, hungry for a game of rural idylls in the sunshine, plenty of food and atmos and not too many walks.

Like chicken vindaloo, chop suey and the ploughman's lunch, the country cottage experience is a tempting feast of bogus authenticity, strongly emotive, redolent of another place, another time, but actually something which never existed in the first place.

Who were the original rustic peasants, who insisted on the red Aga, the oblong kitchen table, the property at least a century old (preferably with water frontage) within two hours of the nearest city (if you're going against the traffic) and five minutes of the nearest pub (which ideally should not have patterned carpets, repro tables or the louder electronic games), who tied little bunches of straw to the backs of their kitchen chairs? Ye olde farmhouse media types and merchant bankers back in the 1980s, of course.

There was a dreadful scare last week that the weekend cottage experience might have lost its charm. Nicholas Coleridge, Managing Director of Conde Nast publications, declared in the Spectator that he'd given his up and so had three of his friends. He wrote movingly of packing-the-car misery, tailbacks on the A20, the hell on the M4 approach at Heston, pricey Mattesons processed ham in the village store versus the long drive to the hypermarket, and the less interesting programme range of local ITV stations. 'Unless you are an MP . . . or unless you own a helicopter it is hard to see the advantages of weekending,' he said. A bad business. Surely not a trend?

Ho, no, far from it. It's still just too much fun to wake up on Saturday morning and find yourself actually in a spread from Country Living magazine. Demand for country cottages has positively surged over the last year, according to Stephen Jeffrey, Country House director for estate agent Allen and Harries. We are not in the lunatic situation of 1988 when there were 100 potential buyers for every red aga with the right surroundings. But the cloud of recession which hung over the thatched roofs is lifting, spreading outwards from the urban congolmerations like, as Jeffrey beautifully put it, 'ripples from a pebble in a pool of water'.

Berkshire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire are doing splendidly out of Londoners buying in the pounds 150- pounds 200,000 range, with Wiltshire coming along pleasantly. North Wales and Derbyshire are buoyant with weekenders from Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham.

All over the British Isles are the picturesque pockets, where feature writers from rival broadsheet newspapers greet each other across the hedgerows, commodity brokers compare carrot patches, literary giants say 'after you' to TV presenters over the last cellophane packed pork pie.

But why, when the embarrassment factor alone is so great? One Gloucestershire weekender begged sheepishly, 'Please don't use my name. I feel so guilty for not being there in the week. I spend my entire time apologising to socialist friends and shrieking, 'Do use it] any time]' '

Packing cars, sitting in jams, waking children on arrival who never go back to sleep again, and spending the entire weekend cooking for guests, isn't the worst of it. Mike Russell Hills describes the problem, in Suffolk, of 'frenzied leisure syndrome'. 'There's the feeling that you must try to squeeze hunting, shooting, fishing, boating and horses all into one day. I've got a neighbour who cleared all the topsoil round his house, bought in imported leaf mould from somewhere or other and built a tennis court, a children's playground, a clay pigeon shoot and added a selection of boats. He sits there looking drained, exhausted.'

The journalist Henry Porter, who weekends in Blockley, Gloucestershire, the same village as Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian, speaks of the physical discomfort which can spring from rustic one-upmanship - 'The upright pew and protuberant spring are considered social assets,' - not to mention conversational black holes: 'Agas. 'Ours burns on wood]' F*** the Aga. I hate Agas.'

Then there's the expense. Mark Henriques, who runs a courier business in London, and - reluctantly - a weekend haunt in Gloucestershire, reckons '400-500 quid for a weekend' taking everything into account. 'Unless you can fork out for two sets of everything you always end up with one child with no trousers who has to spend the weekend wrapped in towels,' says Russell Hills.

Cottage crawling, where etiquette is ill-defined, further adds to the expense. The truly skilled, and thus consistently welcome crawler, will realise that turning up for two lunches, dinners and breakfasts is not quite the same thing as being invited to dinner. They will therefore come laden with as much wine as they plan to drink, smart food-hall carrier bags, a gift for really getting into those awkward corners on a grillpan, and for bathing in two inches of hot water in under four minutes.

Far more common are those who, not wishing to make their hosts feel as if they are running a hotel, make no attempt to pay their way and turn up with a couple of bottles of wine, a fat novel and an extremely empty stomach.

'It's such a nice way to spend time with your friends, you get to know people in a way you wouldn't over dinner,' says 'Guilty of Gloucestershire'. The downside of that is a return to the petty irritations of student communal living, getting hate-ons over people who disappear to the loo when it's time to wash up, use all the hot water before daylight, and leave socks in the inglenook.

The greatest danger of all, though, is that of interior decoration. 'I'm controlling myself,' says 'Guilty', 'But I'm afraid I've started to want the New England look. I know it's stupid, with the fireplace and the smoke - but I can't help it. I'm afraid I want to paint the whole place white.'

Creating rustic simplicity is far from simple. It's very important that wherever you are should suggest somewhere else - a Long Island beach house in Oxfordshire, a Tuscan peasant's hovel near Newbury, or the spartan simplicity of a medieval monk's cell, nicely handy for Scratchwood services.

Unfortunately, the aspirational somewhere else keeps changing. The Eighties yuppie enthusiasm for brown embossed leather riding accessories, tartan bows on the Christmas tree and lightly faded chintz, while still around, has been eclipsed by the clapperboard interior painted pale blue or green, and the smooth coloured woods of the Amish.

Entire counties can suddenly lurch out of fashion. It's quite tricky trying to capture that airy maritime New England simplicity with 4ft high ceilings, an inglenook, beams and a thatch overhanging the window. Could that be why, according to Allen and Harries, Gloucestershire doesn't have quite the cachet this year as it once did?

There is a north-south divide at work here. The country cottage as fashion accessory is very much a feature of the area in a line south of Birmingham, where, no one, but no one, wants a modern house for a weekend retreat. Picture the embarrassment of asking someone down to the country and confronting them with a Sixties bungalow with no fireplace]

'Generally, the further north you get, the fewer weekend retreats there are, as people's first homes are closer to second home country,' says Barry Pearson, North and Midlands Director for Royal Insurance Property Services. 'People become less keen to translate their lifestyle from town to country. They're into practicality, and comfort. In the south, a buyer will consider any one of eight different counties if the cottage is right. In the north, location comes first, they want to be near the right mountain or bit of sea to sail on.'

Everywhere, though, the access to hobbies, fresh air and space does much to counteract the misery of eight-hour games of I-Spy a lane closure. But the real country cottage compulsion goes deeper. It's to do with strong and rather, ahem, embarrassing emotional longings for escape, simplicity, freedom, goodness, security, innocence. 'It's amazing how many merchant bankers look for cottages near where they went to school,' said one estate agent.

As Professor John Burnett, author of A Social History of Housing, explains, the syndrome is nothing new but a growing by product of industrialisation and urbanisation. 'A hundred-and-fifty years ago people were building 'Picturesque' villages and cottages in 'The Old English style' and some were being used for recreation by people whose main home was in the town.'

The industrial revolution, road and rail travel, the decline of the rural economies, growth of an affluent white-collar class and drift to the cities, have all added to the urge to drift out again at weekends - to the point where a survey last year claimed deliciously, if slightly unbelievably, that urban housewives spend 25 per cent of their time fantasising about living in the country.

Everyone knows that the country of their fantasies is not the real country - where piles of tyres lie in farmyards, electric bar fires melt the edges of plastic dog baskets in kitchens and ancient anoraks are teamed with shell-suit bottoms and rather short, black wellies. But it does have an odd sort of validity of its own.

As we move towards a 21st century where more people in the world will live in towns than on the land, it will probably take more than a mild irritation with packing the car to halt the search for that moment of emotional epiphany that is produced by a Harvey Nichols butter-pat on just the right oblong farmhouse table.

(Photographs and graphic omitted)

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