Why we made the move

After many years at the top level of government, including a key role in Northern Ireland, plus constituency work and personal illness, Mo Mowlam and her husband Tom have bought a peaceful retreat in Kent. She relates her moving tale
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As the television property programmes show, it is many people's dream to move to the country. Well, my husband Jon and I have just done it, and it is marvellous, though not without difficulties.

As the television property programmes show, it is many people's dream to move to the country. Well, my husband Jon and I have just done it, and it is marvellous, though not without difficulties.

For some years now we have dreamed of moving to the country, and consolidating all of our possessions in one place. Having been an MP, I had always kept a house in the constituency, in Redcar, up near Middlesborough in the north-east of England. A beautiful Edwardian house on the front overlooking the North Sea and, it has to be said, the major steel works and nuclear power station further on up the coast. But Redcar is a lovely place and we both loved it a lot.

After I left government and parliament, we tried to keep it on. Neither I nor Jon have to work regularly in London so it had been our intention to spend at least one week a month in Redcar and three in London. The problem was that it's a five-hour drive between the two places, if you are lucky, which tends to knock out an entire day. This does not encourage you to make the journey. We found we were just not getting up to Redcar as often as often as we had intended.

In London we had a great little house in Hackney, the converted Victorian stables of the Mayor of Hackney's house, where we were very happy.

We had occasionally been looking at houses in the country for a couple of years, getting excited visiting them, and then finding a very good reason why it wasn't right. It kept the dream alive, but we didn't have to make the leap; a not uncommon trait, I think. Then one day Jon was looking through houses on the net and he found our new home, Little Murston Farm in Kent.

We looked through the details and it seemed to have everything we were looking for. Enough bedrooms for people to come and stay, a fair bit of ground, some outbuildings where Jon could have a studio, and something we hadn't been looking for - a swimming pool. On reflection this looked like a good thing. I don't really like exercise but leading a very sedentary life I do need to do it, and I actually enjoy swimming.

We went, we looked, and we fell in love with it, despite its isolated position, and we made an offer. A deal was done, we looked as though we would be moving.

Help. This was when we had to face one of the major problems we had identified early on. We were moving from two houses to one, and the house we were moving to was about the same size as our Redcar house, except that the farmhouse, parts of which date back to the 15th century, has low ceilings and many beams. It also has nowhere to put books (we own about 3,000) and very little wall space for pictures (Jon is an artist).

I began throwing stuff away. In Redcar I had kept all my constituency mail, letters of support about my tumour, all the ones from people in Ireland when we began to make progress. Numerous enormous cards from children at the schools in my constituency and Northern Ireland that I had visited. I couldn't throw them all away, I had to make difficult choices. Then there were all my school books, from primary school through to university...

Apart from throwing things away (more than 20 black bags full of papers in Redcar alone), we auctioned things we knew we would never need again. Our other plan is to turn the barn at the farm, 70' x 25' into a studio and a games room-cum-library, but first we could use it to store all our excess stuff before we have to make more painful decisions to chuck and sell. Amazingly, we managed to sell both houses very quickly and almost ran into the problem of both buyers wanting to complete on the same day. How do you supervise the move from two houses on the same day? Fortunately, we managed to stagger it by a week.

First came the London move. Idyllic weather. We left the men still packing and drove down to Kent. We were a little concerned because the van didn't seem quite big enough for all our stuff. It wasn't, and we had to leave behind nearly all our potted plants.

The difficulty in packing the van meant it arrived quite late, not helped by an accident on the M2. The men tumbled out of the van, loved the house, loved the pool more but hated the stairs. Smallest stairs they had ever seen etc, and the windows didn't look too big either.

Why is it that removal men are some of the friendliest and jolliest people in the world. When you look at the tasks they have to perform on a daily basis, it makes me feel quite weak at the thought. But they laughed and joked as they manoeuvred weighty furniture about.

Our move came just as I went down with bronchial flu, for which I had to keep lying down. This is difficult without beds, and at one point I was forced to push back the seat in the car to get a rest, as the removal men lugged our furniture out of the van. I felt I was not pulling my weight but could do very little about it.

I did wonder whether I would have a bed to rest my flu-ridden body on that night. Oddly, the double bed went in but one of the singles failed. That was the good news. The bad news was that the barn already seemed to be full of stuff when the removal van disappeared down the lane. It was seven o'clock, we had had enough. We poured ourselves a couple of whiskies and decided to relax in front of a real fire. Logs were brought in from the garden and arranged in the inglenook. Our country house dream was coming true.

As the evening wore on we noticed that the fire was not quite drawing as well it might and we reckoned that it probably needed a bit of coal to give it heat. Next time, we would use coal as well.

Suddenly the burglar alarm went off, but before we had much time to worry about this we saw outside the house the blue flashing light of a fire engine, and six large firemen knocking on the front door. Almost at once our dream fire was hauled from the room, and then one of the firemen came into the room and hurled water into the inglenook. "We have to ensure the fire is out before we leave," he said. The chimney soot had caught fire. Welcome to the country.

A week later we moved from Redcar. We were both very sad to leave, but I was particularly miserable. This time the removers had brought two vans. When they arrived at Little Murston I could see that they were both nearly full, but by some miracle all the boxes were stacked into the house and barn. One day we will have to open them.

I knew that Jon really wanted to live in the country, and after I had taken us to Belfast, I felt it was only fair that he should have that choice. I knew how much he loved it when I saw him in the garden chopping wood for our wood-burning stove; we have avoided the main fireplace since the first night.

Moving is both good and bad, but it is very beautiful here, with views over fields, lakes and the river Swale. And, just like Redcar, if we look one way we can see a factory.


Whole Farm Oast In a county known for its converted oast houses, Whole Farm Oast near Tenterden is one of the prettiest. A four-bedroom, single-kiln oast, it has half an acre of gardens, adjoining farmland, with rose beds, lawns, kitchen garden and a summer house. It's for sale at £485,000; details from Phillips & Stubbs, 01797 227338.

Linton Hill Five miles south of Maidstone, is a 17th-century listed cottage with latched doors, beamed ceilings and Georgian panelling. Set in mature cottage gardens, the house also has a drawing room which has an inglenook fireplace and granny seat and French doors to the terrace and garden, a separate sitting room and 13ft kitchen. Upstairs, there's a galleried landing, five bedrooms and two bathrooms. For sale at a guide price of £555,000, details from Jackson-Stops & Staff, 01580 720000.

Sand Pett Seven miles from Ashford is Sand Pett, a delightful 15th-century black-and-white Wealden Hall house. In six acres of land, including stabling, paddocks, woodland and gardens, it has a heavily beamed farmhouse kitchen, period doors and fireplaces, drawing room, sitting room-cum-study, dining room, six bedrooms and two bathrooms. Outside is a coach house with a large room above. It's reached via a country lane. For sale at £750,000, details from Calcutt Maclean Standen 01233 812060.