Far from the madding crowd

It's a common daydream – to swap city grime for rustic tranquillity. But moving to the country can be fraught with difficulties. Will the locals accept you? Will your friends forget you? And what about those bats? Brian Viner, who has just moved from London to a rural idyll, reveals all
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The Independent Online

Until three weeks ago, I lived in an Edwardian terraced house, in Crouch End, north London, next door to a telecommunications executive. We had a garden 40ft square, which was once visited by an urban fox, which ate our pet rabbit.

Until three weeks ago, I lived in an Edwardian terraced house, in Crouch End, north London, next door to a telecommunications executive. We had a garden 40ft square, which was once visited by an urban fox, which ate our pet rabbit.

Now I live in a Victorian manor in Herefordshire, next door to a farmer, although "next door" is misleading; Martin Truelove lives eight fields and three miles to the west, towards Hay-on-Wye. He keeps bullocks in the field next to our house. But never mind the bullocks, we have a magnificent Muscovy duck squatting on our back doorstep. The children call him Egbert. We also have sparrows nesting in our porch, and woodpeckers, goldfinches and swifts nesting in the garden, not to mention bats. Yesterday, we saw a buzzard overhead, which makes a pleasant change from a Boeing. We have bought a golden retriever puppy, too, with whom we are all falling in love.

I can feel myself already being seized by the zeal of the convert, which is ironic, not to say hypocritical. I have always been disdainful of city-dwellers who move to the country and overnight become fiercely evangelical about their new lifestyle. A couple of years ago my wife, Jane, and I scoffed heartily when an old Crouch End friend rang us from her 200-year-old rectory in 12 acres of Devon (bought for less than two-thirds of the cost of a five-bedroomed house just off Crouch End Broadway), and broke off the conversation saying: "Must go now, a friend has just dropped by with some freshly-picked blackberries."

It seemed to us that she was trying too hard, that next time she called it might be to tell us that Jemima Puddleduck and Miss Tiggywinkle were on their way round with a new recipe for nettle soup. We also noted the loaded use of the word "friend". Before she and her husband had crossed the Rubicon – a classical reference meaning the M25 – we had listened to them agonising over whether they would find kindred spirits in the country. Here she was, studiedly assuring us that she had. But frankly, we doubted it.

And now, here we are, going through exactly the same experience. As I write these words, I can hear Jane on the phone telling her sister that I am bonding madly with anyone who so much as makes eye-contact with me. It is true, I confess. And I waited only three days before inviting Farmer Truelove and his wife for a pint at the King's Head. There had been Trueloves in the parish, he told me, since 1710. Blimey, in Park Avenue South, N8, we were old-timers after eight years. He also said that he dislikes the hustle and bustle of... Hereford. Kindred spirits, possibly not. But I liked him and his wife enormously.

In fact, all my negative preconceptions about countryside folk have been shot down like grouse. In London, I had a hotline to MR Systems, Apple Mac suppliers based just off the Holloway Road. When I had a problem with my Mac, I phoned them. In extremis, they would send round a service engineer for £70 an hour. What, I wailed inwardly, would I do when my computer misbehaved in Herefordshire?

It happened on day one. My Mac had been disconnected by the removals men, and I couldn't work out which wires went where. With a heavy heart, I phoned a computer supplies shop in nearby Leominster. As I'd expected, they told me they didn't make house calls. What, I wondered, would Errol from MR Systems charge for a trip up the M5?

But the man on the phone suggested I call Ross at In-vision, the telly shop. Forlornly, I did so. Ross said he thought he could reconnect me. I asked when he might be able to come out from Leominster? He pondered the situation. "I could probably be with you," he said slowly, "within the half-hour." He was. And not only did he sort out my computer, he also retuned the telly and got the stereo working. Two cups of tea and two hours later, I asked what I owed. "Let me see," he said. "Is £25 OK?" I would have kissed him, but I didn't want word getting back to the King's Head.

So far, we have had lots of encounters like that. Far from country life underlining the conveniences of city life, it has been the other way round: what we thought was good service in London, now seems both inefficient and expensive.

Of course, it's early days. And it's summer. We've already had the water cut off for a couple of hours, which I gather happens pretty frequently hereabouts, and must get a trifle taxing in mid-February. And the insect life can be a bit overwhelming. Nobody told us we'd be sharing our house with 800,000 flies, and moths built like prop forwards, with big, leering faces. But regrets, no. Doubts, no. Yellow ragwort, yes. Apparently it's jolly poisonous, and it's been spotted in the neighbourhood. We've been asked to look out for it, something else that never happened in north London.

I still feel, as I survey my few acres and bat off the flies, as if I've meandered into someone else's life. For six years we dithered, on and off, over whether to leave the metropolis, and never truly thought we would. On occasional weekends beyond the North Circular Road we found ourselves lured by the plaintive siren call, "come... this is what you can get for your money out here... come...", to the window of Scylla & Charybdis, estate agents. Or perhaps it was Knight, Frank & Rutley.

One weekend, we went to Bath. "We could definitely live here," we thought, and signed on with Jennings & Co. But property in Bath is scarcely less expensive than in London. Then Jennings sent us some details of a Georgian house in Frome, Somerset. That's what happens when you leave London. You identify a nice, commutable location – St Albans, say – then find houses are much cheaper 10 miles north of St Albans. And 10 miles north of there they're cheaper again. Before you know it, you're checking out schools in Auchtermuchty.

Anyway, Frome. At £275,000, the house cost more than we hoped to spend. But it had a glorious garden and, ye gods, a swimming-pool. Then that metropolitan snobbery kicked in. Who would our friends be? Was Frome a bit, you know, yokel? We casually mentioned the house to a friend who lives in Bradford-upon-Avon. "Oh Frome," he said blithely, "the incest capital of Europe."

Naturally aware that our friend's remark was an appalling slur on the good folk of Frome, we went back once more to look at the house. But we knew it could never be ours, from the moment we found ourselves joking that on entering the town we would pass a sign that read "Welcome to Frome. Twinned with... itself".

A year or so later, for reasons I forget, we got the hots for Cheshire. This time, at least we knew who our friends would be; I had a schoolfriend, Pete, who lived in Wilmslow. So we signed up with three agents, and asked for details of properties at the very edge of the Manchester commuter belt, or perhaps just beyond, and were tickled to read about a place in Buxton, Derbyshire, on the market for £100,000 less than the value of our house in Crouch End. It had six bedrooms and four reception rooms, including "a majestic ballroom". We made the painful decision that we could do without a ballroom.

Eventually, we made an offer on a charming old farmhouse in the village of Broken Cross, just outside Macclesfield. Our London friends thought we were mad. There was a lot of uncomplimentary talk about the "Cheshire set". Shell suits were mentioned more than once. If we learnt anything during our rather public dithering about whether to leave the capital, it was that north London liberals are smug bigots.

I can say that because we were too. Oh, the hours of fun we had at dinner parties, at the expense of friends who had settled in rural Sussex. "The highlight of our weekends there is the visit to the bloody village shop, which they talk about practically from the moment we arrive," we chortled. And: "They say they left London to escape the traffic, but every two minutes a gigantic truck rattles their mullioned windows."

We began to have second thoughts about our farmhouse in Broken Cross, especially when we considered the outlay required to update the place. Again, our choice of destination was undermined by a friend. "You'll end up broke'n'cross," said James, at another dinner party, this time in Clapham. Everybody roared with laughter. We pulled out of the deal.

A couple of years later we got itchy feet again. We loved our house in London, loved the street, loved (some of) our neighbours. But the garden was titchy, my office was titchy, the kitchen was gloomy. And by now there was another factor: Eleanor, the eldest of our three children, was at junior school. If we were going to leave the city, we wanted to be established somewhere by the time she hit secondary school age.

We rather randomly earmarked three areas, Suffolk, Gloucestershire, and Worcestershire, and before long, property details were dropping through our letterbox by the metric tonne. We became fluent in estate agent-ese, and took great pleasure in the unnecessary details intended to make a house more saleable. Our favourite was the old vicarage near Bury St Edmunds, "occupied by the niece of John Logie Baird for more than 100 years".

Eventually we found a Georgian townhouse that seemed to suit us perfectly, in Pershore, Worcestershire. We made an offer, which was accepted. The garden, in particular, was magnificent, stretching down to the river Avon. Never mind the flooding potential, there were fishing rights and a landing-stage.

And no matter that I get queasy in a pedalo, I began to fantasise about chugging along the river in a little motor boat, looking for a suitable picnic spot. It was not a fantasy I could ever entertain in north London. Apart from anything else, the rowing-boats at our nearest lake, in Alexandra Park, looked as if they'd last been used at the evacuation of Dunkirk. Jane irreverently said she'd buy me a peaked naval cap and a pipe for my next birthday. We started making plans.

But we couldn't sell our house in Park Avenue South, despite the best efforts of the man from Benham & Reeves, who gave us the impression that it would go before he could say "compact, manageable garden". Then we heard that there was another party interested in the Pershore house. Bizarrely, it turned out to be the former punk star Toyah Wilcox, who would surely look even stranger than me standing on a landing-stage in a peaked cap, smoking a pipe.

Toyah beat us to it; we were gutted. Friends and family told us it would turn out for the best, but we didn't believe them. We were wrong not to. On 12 July, we finally moved out of London. We have a handsome house, four acres, three holiday cottages, and an uninterrupted view of the Black Mountains. When we want to eat out, Ludlow, 20 minutes away, has more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere outside London. The food at the King's Head is pretty good, too. And I don't think I'll ever tire of the children alerting me to the fact that the dog has done a poo-poo in the ha-ha.