Country Living: If you go down to the woods today

Urban escapees who go in search of a rural life may find the isolation disconcerting at first. But as long as your expectations are realistic, there is much to enjoy in a life away from it all
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The Independent Online

A move into the country always carries high expectations and the family being shown around by an Exeter estate agent seemed to have found their ideal home. It met the criteria of beautiful house, grounds and stabling, and an offer seemed imminent.

But within minutes, the two teenage girls marched back to their car and sat there, arms folded. All prospects of a purchase crumbled as the pater familias explained that he couldn't possibly buy a house where his daughters were unable to get a mobile-phone signal.

At least this was one family who were not going to be buying a rural dream in haste only to repent at leisure. A small inconvenience to one person is a huge stumbling block to another and Robin Thomas, the Exeter estate agent at Strutt & Parker's Devon office, encourages people to consider the changes in lifestyle that follow a move from the town.

Some 75 per cent of their country-house sales are to people from London and the Home Counties looking for a better quality of life. It is not that Thomas is in any doubt they will find it - simply that some services cannot be taken for granted. "In some places public transport is virtually non-existent and you have to rely on cars. At first it may not matter whether the doctor, shop and library are within walking distance, but it might after a while. People also need to remember when they are thinking about taking on a huge garden that gardeners can be pretty hard to find in the country."

Despite the drawbacks to seclusion, the dream of finding a house surrounded by at least 30 acres of land is what drives many buyers to the country. "They don't want manicured, suburban gardens but wildlife, bluebell woods, coppices, and marshy areas for lakes and ponds," says Thomas. And they will pay a premium for a property that has these elements. Last week demand took a house that needed work - but had the requisite ring of land - to 10 per cent above the guide price.

These are buyers who above all want privacy and silence. Unlike those who are uncomfortable with the all-enveloping darkness of nights without street lights or near neighbours, they are more likely to be star-spotting and listening for owls.

If this seems romantic, then Stephanie Mock, who has lived in mid-Devon for the past 20 years, has not outgrown it. "In the early morning if I see the heron in the river looking for fish, I still stop to look. I remember when I first came to the West country from the Midlands I thought 'wow' - and it's still the same."

Lower Wotton Farm at Yeoford, five miles from Crediton and 15 from Exeter, has been in her husband's family since 1918. A listed thatched farmhouse, with outbuildings and a cider barn, orchards, woodland, a river and 70 acres of arable land, it is picture-postcard Devon. The house is reached along a half-mile drive down the centre of the valley and there is little to disturb the wildlife, which includes hare, otters and deer. "It also meant we could hold huge parties with an orchestra and hundreds of people, without disturbing anyone," says Stephanie. She and her husband, Terry, are moving to Spain and the property is for sale through Strutt & Parker at a guide price of £575,000.

Anyone tempted by Devon's latest accolade as the most beautiful county in England, will find the broadest range of properties on the market for seven years, according to Graham Adam of property consultants Knight Frank. "There is a strong spring market and certainly sellers are conscious of the fact that prices cannot keep rising."

The property with scope for improvement still inspires a core of buyers, regardless of the scale of the challenge. Edward Heaton of Colvilles, chartered surveyors, puts them into two categories: those who go about it sympathetically, preserving the character of the building; and the ones who leave a modernised horror in their wake. A run-down farmhouse near Newton Abbot, dating from the 17th century recently sold after huge interest and a guide price of £325,000. "But those who go for true isolation often find they cannot cope. They have a glamorous view of life in the country, but the reality is that their friends are miles away, they are in the middle of nowhere and nothing is within walking distance. Some give up within the first year."

Driving older children around can be a strain for families with demanding teenagers with busy social lives. "And you have to forget the idea of lounging around in bed on Sunday with delivered newspapers or calling up for a takeaway. A meal is bound to involve a drive to a pub or restaurant" adds Heaton, an ex-Londoner himself.

For anyone with a taste for spectacular isolation, Colvilles is shortly bringing to the market a house in the middle of Dartmoor. At the end of a two-mile moorland track, the picturesque house with outbuildings has complete privacy and will have a guide price of around £400,000. Its nearest neighbours are at Princetown, best known for its prison.

In fact, neighbours generally do become more important in the country and one newcomer said she made the mistake of thinking they would be more tolerant of her boisterous family than their urban equivalents. They do disapproval well in her village, she observed.

However, Thomas finds the cliché of city types complaining about cows and cocks crowing and church bells are all too true. He didn't quite say it was a matter of love me, love my sileage, but points out that moving to a house in the country and then trying to change things that may have gone on for hundreds of years is not a good way to make friends.

Colvilles: 01392 426550; Strutt & Parker: 01392 215631

So you want to live in the village shop

How rural are we talking?
Very. The property is in the tiny village of Avonwick, Devon and boasts a church, a garage and a pub. It has also been designated "an area of outstanding natural beauty." If you are looking for more action, the nearby village of South Brent has its own bank, library and amateur dramatics group.

Who are the locals?
Avonwick is predominantly a farming community, although in recent years the population has been swollen by professionals, looking for a more idyllic existence.

What am I getting?
A picturesque, 19th-century, three-bedroom, stone-fronted cottage. The shop takes up a small part of the ground floor and comprises a small trading area and a post office counter. Included in the sale is a T-reg Renault van, for deliveries.

Sounds like hard work
According to the owners it's ideal as a first business, especially for those wanting to escape the rat race. However, it should not be seen as some sort of easy-option retirement project, as the hours can be fairly long (the existing owners get up at 5am and don't usually close before 6pm) and it requires two people to run the shop and its numerous sidelines.

So what are the benefits?
Community spirit. Everyone knows everyone else and the shop is a focal point for the community, performing a vital role that the residents would be reluctant to lose. The surroundings are beautiful and the work itself is more of a lifestyle than a job.

How much?
The property is on offer for £39,950 on a 12-year lease, with a rental charge of £4600 per annum. Training for the post office and a handover period is offered upon completion. Contact the owners on 01364 72235 for further information.

Adam Jacques