Could you make the move?

Fed up with grimy city living, and dreaming of a peaceful life in the country? Dan Roberts is glad he took the leap but says it doesn't suit everyone
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The Independent Online

One morning recently I woke up in my cramped two-bed house in Plaistow, east London, as I had every morning for the past three years. But by the end of that day, I fell asleep in a spacious three-bed Victorian property in Staplehurst, Kent, a very happy man. My wife and I had discussed making the big move for years, and finally we bit the bullet and did it. For me, every day since has been an affirmation of this decision - I love it here. No more urban ugliness, either architectural or spiritual; no dodging dog crap or looking over your shoulder as you hurry home from the station at night; no choking on carbon monoxide, road rage, cattle-truck Tubes, predatory traffic wardens, ludicrous property prices... need I go on?

One morning recently I woke up in my cramped two-bed house in Plaistow, east London, as I had every morning for the past three years. But by the end of that day, I fell asleep in a spacious three-bed Victorian property in Staplehurst, Kent, a very happy man. My wife and I had discussed making the big move for years, and finally we bit the bullet and did it. For me, every day since has been an affirmation of this decision - I love it here. No more urban ugliness, either architectural or spiritual; no dodging dog crap or looking over your shoulder as you hurry home from the station at night; no choking on carbon monoxide, road rage, cattle-truck Tubes, predatory traffic wardens, ludicrous property prices... need I go on?

We could never have afforded a property like this in the capital - it boasts a 100-foot garden and cost just £225,000, which many of our London-dwelling friends have paid for garden-less, cramped two-bed flats. In addition, our house is two minutes' walk from a mainline station, so we can be in London Bridge in an hour for work or all the good stuff - arthouse movies, restaurants, bars, gigs, galleries - that the capital has to offer. We also live 10 minutes' drive from glorious countryside, valleys swathed in apple orchards, mellow country pubs, excellent state schools - sounds blissful, right?

Yes and no. As my wife Claire has found, it's not an easy transition. While I wax lyrical about the joys of the countryside, she has found it much harder to settle. She misses the big-city buzz, the sense that she's at the heart of things. Her friends are mostly in London and she's much keener than me on the shops, cinemas, restaurants and galleries that, although only an hour away, seem much further. Another big difference is that I'm London-born and bred, so have had my fill of it, whereas Claire grew up in a small town, so hates the thought of everyone knowing her business, rather than the protective anonymity of urban life.

So is moving out for everyone? Is there a right time to do it, or a certain type of person for whom the move will be a success? I spoke to some property experts to find out. Mark Lawson is a partner at Knight Frank estate agents in central London, and specialises in finding country properties for well-heeled Londoners. In his experience the right time for many people is when tiny feet start pattering in their heads: "Many people think about moving out when they decide to have children. They want a higher quality of life and space to run around," he says.

In Lawson's experience, most people are happy they made the move: "I don't think any of my clients who buy in the country have said: 'Oh God, I've made a mistake.' I've heard of people who have moved before they're ready and moved back in, but that's a pretty small percentage.'

Jonathan Haward, managing director of County Homesearch, helps people find rural homes across the UK. He concurs that most clients find a better life away from the urban grind, and believes that the few who struggle haven't timed the move properly: "When people leave it too late to make new friends, the move is very difficult," he says. The other problem he often sees is "holiday romance" syndrome: "The challenges of moving to the country are immense, and I think some people visit an area and think how lovely it is. Then they move and realise there are no streetlights and they have to make their own entertainment, and the reality dawns on them of what they've lost."

In addition to a healthy dose of realism, it seems that moving either too young or old is problematic. Statistics bear this out. From the mid-Nineties up to mid-2002, the net outflow of people from London was of those aged 25 or over. The net inflow was of people aged 16-24, including asylum-seekers and immigrants drawn to London's employment opportunities.

Of the former age group, those exchanging a city life for a rural one need a positive attitude and a willingness to join in, according to Teddi Carlson of the Derwent Rural Counselling Service: "Whether people fit in to a community very much depends on the individual. Finding people to click with can take longer, but a willingness to join in with local activities, like quiz night in the village pub, helps you get accepted by the local community."

Interestingly, Carlson finds that many former urbanites have the financial clout to avoid traditional rural problems: "We do see people here with problems relating to rural deprivation, which involves isolation and depression. But people who have moved to the country are able to avoid many of these problems because they can afford to travel freely," she says.

Before you exchange your trainers for wellies, though, think long and hard about whether rural living is right for you. A combination of sufficient funds for the occasional escape to big-city delights, a positive attitude, careful planning and choosing the right life stage seem key to a happy conversion to country life.

If you can tick most of those boxes, I strongly recommend leaving the concrete jungle behind. It really is a green and pleasant land out here.

'The quality of life here is all about space'

Michael Wolf, 45, a marketing director, lives in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, with his wife, Deborah, 43, and daughters Hannah, 20, and Emma, 15

I moved out of London 15 years ago. My first daughter was born in London, and we didn't want the children growing up there. She was just starting school and that was a major determinant in our move. Also, the pressure on the NHS in London was horrendous. My wife had a tough time with Hannah's birth, and the difference when Emma was born here was huge in terms of the resources available. We were living in Leytonstone, in a typical east London two-bed terraced house, with a handkerchief-sized back garden - the only place we could afford. But we made a lot of money on it in the mid-Eighties property boom - its value more than tripled in a few years.

When we decided to move, I think Deborah was less keen, as she was a teacher and had to change schools. But I was desperate to get out. I grew up in Dorset and really wanted to get out of London. And I think Deborah really appreciates teaching in the school she's at now, near Reading, as it's much better resourced than her school in east London.

We initially bought a house close to the railway line near Didcot, so we could look locally while I was still commuting to London. We lived there for a few years until we found the house we wanted. Our next property was a large Edwardian semi with four bedrooms, two bathrooms and a 150-foot garden, right on the Thames - we're still living in it now. In London a house like that would be well over a million, which we could never afford.

And there are so many other benefits. I'm a keen canoeist, and I can canoe from the bottom of my garden, whereas I used to have to trek all the way to a lake in Essex. And one of my main hobbies now is hot-air ballooning. I love it, and I would never have been able to get into that if I was still in London.

The schools here are great, too. Having a school playing field and not just an asphalt playground was brilliant for the girls. And that's the heart of it, I suppose - the quality of life here is all about space. Having a big garden instead of just a back yard, being surrounded by green countryside and breathing fresh air, is fantastic. The only downside was that I had to do a lot of ferrying Hannah around to clubs and pubs, whereas in London she'd hop on the Tube. But that's about it, really.

The locals are great here. We met a lot of parents through the girls' school and that was our way into social acceptance. Overall, I am an optimist, which has definitely helped made it a success. But it's also about the people you meet. We've been lucky in that way, and that has been a big factor in our being happy here.

'It was impossible to meet another partner'

Tony Weston, 43, is head of public relations at the Vegan Society. He has a son and a daughter

In 1988 we sold our flat in Hounslow and bought a crofter's house on the shore of a loch near Ullapool, in the Scottish Highlands. It was a rundown shack of a place - just three stone walls really. It needed a new roof and a huge amount of work, and we were living in it with young babies while we did all the work, which was tremendously stressful. We didn't even have running water, we just got it from a pipe!

It's so beautiful there and you go up full of optimism, but it's never how you imagine it to be. Nevertheless, we managed to get all the work done and had a really successful business running a vegan guest house, which won loads of awards.

There wasn't even a road to it, so you had to get down the side of a croft to reach it. All the heating was from solid fuel, and we had to drag coal down the hill in a fish box with a bit of rope. The council hassled me to pay them business rates because I was renting out bikes, so I stopped renting the bikes. Then they had problems with where the guests parked, they just kept hassling us. I'm sure the fact that I was an outsider had something to do with it. It is very cliquey up there. We bent over backwards to fit in and respect all the local traditions, like not making noise or working on a Sunday. They tolerate you if you're an "incomer", but if you're not born Gaelic you'll never be a Gael and they don't like change. And being a high-profile vegan in sheep-rearing country isn't easy! Also, it was a 90-minute round trip to get to Ullapool, where the nearest facilities were. The kids were really bored and just wanted to be in the city with shops and things.

But we stuck it out and got a Land Rover, so we could actually drive along the beach to our front door, we had loads of business, and things were going well, then my wife left me and took the kids. She said she felt isolated and like she was always at work, whereas I felt I was always at home. I picked myself up after she left and kept the business going, and even wrote a cook book.

But the prospect of finding another partner up there was pretty impossible. Then the isolation really started to kick in and I thought "how will I ever find someone else?". I had a breakdown in the end and just couldn't get out of bed for a week. I had to close the business because I couldn't run it on my own, and it was impossible to find a job to pay the mortgage. When I was offered an escape route I jumped at it and moved to Manchester, then ended up in Croydon. You think it's such an idyllic place to live but for a lot of people who move up there it all falls apart.

Is rural life for you?

If you're considering making the great leap, here are some of the things you must consider first

*Will you need to commute? If so, factor in the drive to the station and figure out the worst-case scenario - trains are not renowned for their reliability. It'll be expensive, too.

*Can you really live without easy access to restaurants, bars, cinemas and general cultural diversity?

*If you have children, how will they adapt? Teenagers dragged to the country often end up hating it.

*It's essential that you research the area first. Could you really live in a tiny village or isolated farmhouse, or would a small town suit you better?

*Do you have friends/family in the area you're moving to? If not, it can be lonely and isolating.

*Spend time in your target area in winter. Everyone loves the country on a sunny summer day, but it can be grim in mid-January.

*Talk to local people who've made the move. Did it work for them?

*Can you work from home, at least part-time? That helps avoid the onerous commute.

*Are you keen on walking, riding and general outdoorsy stuff? If not, stick to the odd stroll on Hampstead Heath instead.

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