Property: What's so splendid about isolation?
Sunday 18 January 1998
We're talking services here - the roads, pipes and wires that connect your dream home to the outside world.
First, roads. Naturally, you want to be as far away from a busy road as possible, but what happens in the extremes of winter weather? Your drive should be well drained, frost proof and easy to clear of snow. If getting out at all costs is essential, then this means a proper concrete surface. And that's just to get you on to the road. Your best bet is to live on a road frequented by milk tankers; they have to get through every day, so the snow plough will keep the road open.
Electricity and the old-fashioned telephone are usually available in the countryside, which is just as well, because you will be very dependent on electricity, and your mobile phone is unlikely to work. Both services will probably reach you via overhead cables, which are prone to damage from falling branches, winter gales and stampeding combine harvesters. Think about back-up systems.
Country cottages are a lot colder than town houses; this is because cities are warmer and because country cottages have more exposed outside surfaces. (A mid-terraced house loses heat only through two outside walls, front and back; in the country you are more likely to be on your own.) So heating can be a significant expense.
Gas in the countryside is rare. You can have your own propane gas tank in the garden, filled by tanker, but it will be expensive and unsightly and has to be some distance from the house in case it, er ... explodes. Or you can have oil in a tank next to the house, which, again, can be a bit of an eyesore and will always have a slight leak. If you see a country house with a gas or oil tank, it probably belongs to ex-townies who could not conceive of life without central heating. Cynics say the gas and oil suppliers - usually one and the same - are waiting until enough townies have moved to the country to quadruple the cost of these fossil fuels, overnight.
The locals heat their homes with electric night storage heaters. These have improved remarkably in recent years, and the latest ones have thermostats controlling the electricity input as well as the heat output, so you no longer have to phone the neighbours to switch them on the night before you arrive. They run on off-peak electricity, which is a by-product of the nuclear power programme. (Atomic piles have to run all the time, so the generating companies have millions of megawatts going to waste through the night. That's why they sell it cheap.)
If you don't approve of nuclear power or fossil fuels, you can always have a wood-burning stove. These are a lot of fun and good for roasting chestnuts. You can also heat food on them during power cuts (see above). Wood-burning stoves or even open fires can be fitted with back boilers and the heat piped up to feed radiators in the bathroom and bedroom. In my view this is more sensible than using them to heat the hot water cylinder. But a slightly more sophisticated system, using motorised valves, can do both.
Sewage in the country is interesting. The septic tank is the traditional system; the solids collect in the bottom and have to be sucked out by a sludge gulper once a year; the "liquor" overflows into a soakaway and you can grow tomatoes on it, to sell to tourists. If you don't have about a hundred square metres of sandy soil for your soakaway, though, the Environment Agency will not allow you to discharge your liquor, and you have to have a more expensive sewage treatment plant. These break everything down by aerobic fermentation, and do not like having to deal with foreign bodies or toilet cleaners. A friend in the country has a notice in his bathroom which reads "Do not flush anything down this toilet unless you have eaten it first". Makes you think, doesn't it?
Piped water is available in most villages, but don't count on it in isolated farmhouses and cottages. Those in complete isolation may have to extract water from a spring or borehole. This is not as daunting as it sounds; a surprising number of buildings in London have always had their own private water supplies - Harrods and the National Gallery, to name but two.
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