London: Town house, country home

You dream of escaping to a rural idyll but can't bear the idea of quitting the city. Chris Arnot finds peace and quiet in the metropolis
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The Independent Online

Working as an actor in the West End and living south of the river, Graham Bickley is used to problems with London taxi drivers. It's not so much that they won't go to where he lives - "not at this time of night, guv" - more that they can't find it when he rings up for a cab to pick him up at home.

"Never knew this was here," is the usual comment once a driver has rung back for detailed directions and then finally located a narrow lane off the busy Kirkdale Road in Upper Sydenham. Driving up that lane is a novel experience for any Londoner, let alone a cabbie. He might have a vehicle that can turn on a sixpence in a busy Soho street, but here he might have to back up when faced with a four-wheel drive coming the other way. All these ivy-covered walls, birds warbling away from the branches of mature trees, spring flowers bursting into bloom. "It just ain't natural, guv."

It is, however, extremely pleasant here in Mount Gardens, SE26, on a sunny Saturday morning. We've passed white picket fences and twee signposts for Oak House, Ash Tree Cottage and The Orchard before arriving at Hazeldine Cottage where Bickley lives with his wife, Peggy, a playwright.

They're putting their home on the market for £400,000, thereby offering somebody else the opportunity to sample the country life while being a 12-minute train ride from London Bridge. There are two stations within easy walking distance.

The cottage was built in 1832 to accommodate a gardener within cap-doffing distance of the "big house", clearly visible beyond the branches of a rare cork oak tree in the garden.

Ironically, the cottage garden itself was a wilderness when Bickley moved in 12 years ago. He has not only tamed it but also installed a suntrap courtyard just beyond the patio doors of the immaculately refitted kitchen-dining room. In fact, the whole building has been restored with style and integrity, with sash windows and cornicing retained and original fireplaces opened up. A Victorian pillar-box has been installed by the front door.

"The local kids post letters to Santa there every Christmas," he says. "We have to pass them on to the parents. Everybody knows each other in the neighbourhood. Coming back here at night is like leaving London."

And that, of course, is the dream of many Londoners. They want the facilities of the big city without having to travel 40 miles to find a bit of peace and quiet.

More romantically inclined Londoners like to think of the Great Metropolis as a collection of villages. In truth, most offer about as much greenery as Greenwich Village. Exceptions include Wimbledon and Wandsworth Common, Blackheath and Barnes, Hampstead and Highgate. Catford is rarely mentioned in the same breath. Yet Catford, SE6, harbours the smallest conservation area in London. You'll find Stanstead Grove just off the South Circular, round the corner from a row of shops that includes a bookie, kebab house and Afro-Caribbean barber.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic suddenly gives way to an unmade road lined with mature trees. Daffodils are blooming at the base of their gnarled trunks. There's a former coach house, converted into a garage. And halfway along a row of early Victorian terraced cottages is the home of Martin Thompson and Gemma Bukowska.

He's a builder and she's a classical composer who now yearns to live by the sea. An unlikely alliance, you might think, but Thompson's skills have transformed a rundown property, untouched for 60 years, into a stylish modern home on three levels. Original floorboards have been sanded down, cast-iron fireplaces opened up.

The view through the dining room window is decidedly rural - spring flowers, tangled strands of mallow and tall lime trees. Robins, wrens and blue tits congregate around the birdbath.

"Yet you can catch a bus to Victoria from the main road and be there in 40 minutes," says Ms Bukowska. "Or Catford Station is a quarter of a mile away, which means you can be in Blackfriars within 15 minutes." The house is up for sale for £365,000.

You'd need rather more to buy Old Wyldes - more than £2m more. The leasehold asking price is £2,750,000. But it is a Grade II-listed farmhouse overlooking Hampstead Heath and set in two-thirds of an acre. It dates back, in parts, to 1593 when Shakespeare was wielding his quill in what was then distant London. Dickens apparently came here to finish writing Oliver Twist.

Blake stayed as a guest of the painter John Linnell, according to a blue plaque attached to white weatherboarding of the sort more commonly found in Norfolk than north London.

Inside, there are five bedrooms, inglenook fireplaces and ancient beams low enough in parts to require stooping posture from anyone over 6ft.

All this on a winding, unmade road seven minutes' walk from Hampstead High Street - London rural living at its most expansive. And expensive.

For over £2m less you could have a four-bedroom Arts and Crafts cottage in Temple Fortune Lane, NW11, not far from the Heath and the Big Wood yet close enough to Golders Green Tube station to be whisked into the West End. Taxi home?

"No problem, guv."

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