The good life? It wasn't for us

Plenty of city dwellers dream of shifting into the country. But what happens when a rural idyll turns into a nightmare? Robert Nurden tells some sorry tales of country living gone wrong
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The Independent Online

Before moving into my rented accommodation in the village of Blatherwick in Northamptonshire, I'd heard three of the barking dogs next door, but I reckoned they'd quieten down. What the letting agents omitted to tell me though was that "next door" was a kennel, where no less than 13 canine creatures filled the rural air with their whelps and cries.

Then the boiler packed up and the smoke from the wood fire in the sitting room seeped through a hole in the brickwork into my bedroom on the floor above. It was during a cold snap in November that the wind blew in a pane of glass in the bedroom. One particularly sleepless night, I opened the window and bellowed at the dogs. The next morning my neighbour came to the back door and threatened me. That was it. I'd had enough. I was getting out, my rural dream in tatters.

Townies making the move to the country, whether they're buying or renting, seldom appreciate just how extreme the differences are. Those who have seen the error of their ways advocate rigorous homework before taking the plunge. Patrick and Jane Harland, with eight-month-old Holly, moved from Surrey to Lynton on the north coast of Devon to realise their dream of a life in the country. They sold their three-bedroom home in Guildford and bought a sprawling seven-bedroom house on a hill overlooking the Bristol Channel.

All seemed to be fine at first, with Patrick training to be a teacher in Exeter and Jane carrying on with her work as a beautician. Then the tourism season came to an end and the world closed in. People were friendly but, not knowing any other young couples with children, the couple never felt part of the local scene. "We missed our friends, and it was on a drive back down the M3 that Jane burst into tears and said she couldn't carry on," said Patrick. "We put the house on the market, and within a year and a day from our first move we were back in our new Surrey home, more experienced and wiser."

The chastened couple said they should have gone down there several times to see the area in all weathers. "Because of the greater distances and the narrow roads full of tractors, shopping takes half a day," said Patrick. "Luckily, we came back just in time before the prices shot up, so financially we didn't lose out. But it's probably a good idea to rent first. Interestingly, the couple who bought our Devon house are themselves giving up, too."

The exodus made by editor of The Idler Tom Hodgkinson, his partner Victoria and their two children, Arthur and Delilah Rose, from west London to a rickety farmhouse in Martinhoe on the Devon coast was a disaster from the start. They swapped nine to five, commuting and commercialism for mud, freezing temperatures and illness.

First, there were the mice that munched their way through their newly arrived library. The two cats they got saw off the mice, but now they pee in every nook and cranny. Then there was the reprimand from the farmer for leaving the gate open and letting the cows out. The herd trampled on to their front garden, leaving it looking like a rugby field after the England pack had been to work on it. When they went for a walk they got told off for trespassing, the pipes froze up and they had to collect water from the stream. "It was miserable," said Tom. "And it didn't stop there. My mobile doesn't work unless I go to the top of the hill, the fire keeps going out because of wet logs and when it is alight, it shoots sparks so the rugs get singed. Because we have no central heating, the children get frequent coughs and colds."

While "the scenery is stunning", in order to stay sane, they make frequent trips back to London - at least once every two weeks. "We miss our friends and all the parties," said Tom. "We're sticking it out for now, but we know that when the children get older we'll be spending hours every week ferrying them around, so we'll probably return to London. If we'd known it would be like this we wouldn't have done it. Perhaps the one sensible thing we did was to rent, so we still have the house in London."

Urban folk eager to escape the rat race often make the mistake of lumping all countryside together. But just as Liverpool is different to London, so Powys is to the Pennines, and it makes sense to choose an area that suits you. Max Webb and his partner Maggie Hunter moved to a three-bedroom cottage in the tiny village of Stonesby in Leicestershire. Even though the shift has been a success, some aspects of rural life have taken them by surprise.

As green sympathisers, they would be happy to use public transport, but there is only one bus a week into Melton Mowbray, and they are forced to run two cars. They also point out that one myth about the countryside is that only people with rural interests - the huntin' and fishin' fraternity - live there. "Our village is full of different kinds of people, it's almost as culturally mixed as a town, so it's been easier for us to fit in," said Max.

They did, however, make a faux pas when, with the aim of getting to know the locals, they tried to put on a Seventies disco in the village hall. They failed to sell any tickets because, they realised later, they hadn't booked the venue through the chairman of the appropriate committee. "Out in the country you have to be more sensitive to the social structures," said Max.

And it may seem like stating the obvious, but it would help if potential downshifters actually liked the rustic lifestyle and all that goes with it - the walks, animals, birds, the changing seasons and views. If for years they've never ventured out of town on trips, one wonders why they're moving to the country at all.