Up sticks and back to the city

Life in the country is not all roses. Anne Spackman hears why some peop le prefer pavements to ploughed fields `Everyone comes to London and can pop in on you' `Old ladies don't just sit around. They lead interesting lives'
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Only a purist would accuse the pensioner who is tired of London of being tired of life. He or she would more probably be considered long overdue for the peace and quiet of the country or the fresh breezes of the coast. Many people do follow these well-trodden retirement paths to seaside towns and picturesque villages. But some are starting to see the benefits the city can bring.

Hamptons has just sold a townhouse in Bath for an elderly couple who are moving back to London. The lady is anticipating widowhood and would rather live alone in a city where she has friends and a social life. With women outliving men by an average of nearly six years it is an increasingly common prospect. After having spent their life moving to suit their husbands' careers and their children's school needs, it is for many women the first time they can choose to live somewhere that suits them.

Mrs Helen Fanshawe is living in her first London flat at the age of 79. She thinks Chelsea is an ideal spot to retire to. "It's very central, very good for buses and close to the hospital," said Mrs Fanshawe, who has a heart condition. "It's five minuteswalk to the post office and the chemist and Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Peter Jones are only a bus ride away."

She takes a stroll to the Chelsea Physic Garden most days or walks along the Thames. There are buses to the museums from the end of her road. "It is ideal for me," she said.

Mrs Fanshawe's late husband was in the Navy, so they spent much of their life on the move. She was born and brought up in Norfolk, although Wimbledon was for a long time the family base. "We had always intended to retire to the country," she said. "It sounds lovely - a little cottage with a rose-covered porch. But roses need pruning, gardens grow weeds, hedges need clipping. Once you're over 60 it's a lot of hard work. People said, `but you've always been used to fresh air and space'. But you must be practical."

Mrs Fanshawe is protected from some of the less attractive elements of London life by living in Elizabeth Court, the only private sheltered housing development in central London. It has a courtyard garden and car parking - a great bonus in Chelsea. One- and two-bedroom flats with a large living room, well equipped kitchen and lavish bathroom cost between £140,000 and £200,000. They are sold through Savills' office in Knightsbridge.

Jean Maddox-Smith, the resident manager of Elizabeth Court, said people had an image of old ladies spending their last years sitting around in shawls. "They don't," she said. "They play bridge, they lunch a lot, they go to the Chelsea Arts Club and the theatre. They are used to leading interesting lives."

Lady Muir Mackenzie is one of Mrs Fanshawe's neighbours in Elizabeth Court. "I did live in the country, but I can't sit in ploughed fields with the guns any more," she said.

"One of the good things about London is that everyone comes here. They come up for a show or they fly in from abroad. If you lived in the country friends would not have the time just to pop in."

Averil Good is a generation younger than the ladies of Elizabeth Court. She brought up her family in the Surrey commuter town of Chobham. Now, with her youngest daughter aged 16, she and her husband Charles are looking for a home for the rest of their lives.

They were converted to the pleasures of city life in Scotland. "When we were looking for a house in the Edinburgh area we started off by looking in the country," she said. "We saw a number of houses, but we found we were driving 50 or 60 miles between them. We thought, this is crazy. We are going to be so remote. And it would be doubly difficult for our 16-year-old to make new friends."

They opted, instead, to buy in Edinburgh's New Town. As a result they went to more plays, concerts and exhibitions than they had ever managed in the Home Counties. Instead of a three-hour commute every day, her husband was minutes from his office. Now, with her husband's work bringing them back south, they have decided to live in London rather than return to Chobham. "Most of our Chobham friends are very surprised," Mrs Good said. "When we say we don't want to commute they go very quiet."

But what of the down-side of the city life - the crime in particular. Didn't that put them off? "Crime is everywhere," Mrs Good said. "When we lived in Chobham every house in our road was burgled one night - except for ours, because I was up and down allnight dealing with babies."

Dirty air is accepted as a real drawback and will probably result in the Goods choosing to live somewhere like Clapham where there is plenty of green space.They are searching through Knight Frank & Rutley, who sold two of their previous houses.

"It is true to say that living in Edinburgh, which is small and clean, has transformed my view of living in a city," Mrs Good said. "I don't see my husband ever completely retiring, so it's good for him to be close to work. And I can happily spend days in my own company, doing art galleries and things like that."