Property: 'We're going to keep chickens next': Why we live where we live: in the second of her series, Arabella Warner meets a family who decided to swap their small flat for a smallholding

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE NEXT time you cannot park anywhere near your house, or find yourself stuck in an overcrowded train, getting later and later for work, think of the Dobles. Like many young families, they got sick of the London hassle. Instead of swapping it for suburbia or some other commuter compromise, they plumped for the classic rural idyll: roses up the walls, honeysuckle around the porch, vegetables in the garden. And what they did, anyone can do.

Their house is at the end of a dirt track, four miles past the last sign of civilisation to the west of Wolverhampton. Although it is late autumn, the cobbled pathway leading to the door is hemmed with colour: hollyhocks and daisies, antirrhinums and clarkia, busy lizzies and nasturtiums. A huge holly tree is laden with berries. For the past year this has been the home of Lizzie and Simon Doble and their three children, Lotte, 4, Eleanor, 3, and Abigail, 17 months. It is not their cottage. They own a one-bedroom flat in London's West Hampstead, which quickly became too small for their growing family. Unable to sell it, they let it out - for twice the amount they pay to rent the four-bedroomed cottage in Shropshire.

'I was determined to find a really nice house to rent,' remembers Lizzie as she helps Lotte squeeze Playdoh through a plastic tube. 'It didn't matter where, so long as it had space for the children and a garden. We only had window-boxes in London. Then we came up here to stay with my mum. We were both brought up in the Midlands, and I never thought I'd move back. But we left our name with an agent and on the day we were due to leave, he rang us and took us to this place, which belongs to the Rudge Estate. We only saw the outside, but I knew at once I could live here.'

Simon has never had a 'profession' as such. He was an instructor on the London buses and now makes blinds. 'Both are jobs that don't tie me down. I think life is about getting things out of your system,' he smiles. 'Everybody has to brew their own beer at some time in their life, and everybody has to have a vegetable patch. That's the phase I'm in at the moment. Then there is having-the-chickens stage, that's got to be gone through in the spring. And I've always fancied keeping a pig, dabbling in a bit of smallholding. Everybody's got a bit of smallholding in them.'

Lizzie is a trained nurse but has given up working while the children are young. 'I suppose I have always been maternal and known that I wanted to be with the children,' she says, plonking Abigail on her knee. 'I think I would like to go back to work when the children are at school, but only part-time. I want to be here when they come home.'

But not in London. 'We have very fond memories of our early days in London,' says Simon, stretching out before the fire. 'But in the end I really began to dislike it. Of course, when we had children we weren't very sociable so we couldn't take advantage of the cinema or the theatre. But I think London has changed in the last five years. It's twice as busy and it takes you twice as long to get anywhere. I used to spend 30 minutes of pure drudgery every day travelling to work on the Metropolitan Line. Now I work above a granary and it's a real joy bouncing home along the country lanes.'

'And our flat was getting burgled all the time,' Lizzie adds to the list. 'And you could never get a parking space outside the house, so I had to juggle how I got the children from the car inside. Here I leave the car unlocked, and if one of them is asleep when I we get back, I can leave them in the car because I can see them from the kitchen window when they wake up. And little things like the washing. Here, when you bring the washing in, it not only smells wonderful, it's still clean.

'We're not country people,' she adds. 'But we're learning. The sprouts have been eaten by slugs, and we planted all the lettuces at the same time so we got 24 in one weekend. The onions were brilliant and so were the parsnips, but we didn't grow nearly enough. We'll know better next year.'

There are, inevitably, rules and regulations in a rented home, though they are far less intrusive than the Dobles imagined. They can do anything so long as it is not structural. They are not allowed to keep any animals larger than a dog; they are obliged to seek permission before they can install the Aga they have just bought for pounds 150. And there are little things that Lizzie reflects on as she goes round. 'I'd like to have a proper kitchen floor, some nice spindles in the staircase and get rid of that horrible plastic in the skylight,' she grimaces. 'But you have to remember it is not yours. So I put down rugs, and I'll take the Aga when I go.'

There are other, more serious, inconveniences in this rural idyll. Because all the pipes have eroded, the family has no drinking water until they are connected to the mains in the spring. Meanwhile, Lizzie ships in vast vats of water from her mother's house. They are completely reliant on their two cars, though Simon suggests they are not remote enough to qualify as hermits. And they are frequently visited by the local hunt, shattering the peace with its horns, not to mention the vanloads of hunt saboteurs from Wolverhampton Polytechnic that follow in its wake.

But Lizzie and Simon's philosophy is not to worry about these things too much. 'When we first moved in there was only a sink,' Lizzie remembers. 'There was no heating. But houses warm up when you live in them. I've got to admit it's harder work than I thought, though, which is partly why I want to change the wood-burning stove for the oil- fired Aga. But we are happiest when we are in our jumpers and jeans. I knew all it needed was a lick of paint and a fire.'

However shabby, the house does have a very homely atmosphere, with its enveloping sofa and chairs, family photos and embroidered samplers, fires in the grates and piles of rugs. Swatches of material cover boxes and cushions - 'I leave them there for weeks sometimes,' says Lizzie, 'to see whether they fit.' And old half-painted tool boxes which belonged to her grandfather, stacked high with magazines, are used as tables ('I'll get around to painting them or stripping them one day').

There are children's pictures on the kitchen walls, children's toys in the sitting rooms and children's books in the hallway. Even the children's bedrooms are decked out like mini-homes, with miniature ironing boards, sinks, buggies and dressers. There is a lone doll on the landing. 'They were playing schools yesterday,' says Lizzie. 'This doll has probably been sent out of the class.'

She admits her ideals of home come from happy childhood memories. 'My house is important to me,' she says. 'I couldn't live in a modern house. When I was a child we used to spend most holidays in a little stone cottage in the middle of a field. There was no electricity or running water. When it got dark, I remember falling asleep to the sound of my parents playing cards in the candlelight downstairs. It made me feel content. This house has the same feeling. Every time I walk in I think how nice the latch door looks, and how nice the click sounds. I suppose it reminds me of the cottage.'

Though the Dobles have never planned anything before in their lives, since they have moved to the Rudge Estate a flicker of organisation seems to have crept in. Lizzie is vice-chairman of the local nursery school, and now Lotte has started infant classes she wants to remain settled for the schooling years. They are even considering other things. 'We had the bank man over the other day to talk about pensions and life insurance,' smiles Simon. 'It was quite frightening, but I suppose these things have to be dealt with.'

'Every time I come up the driveway it gives me a buzz,' admits Lizzie. 'I just can't believe my luck. If we lost this place I'd be even more determined to find another just like it on the estate.'

(Photograph omitted)