I dream of Arcadia but what I really want is an almshouse in London

To my amazement I found myself an apostate just at the moment perfectio n seemed at hand
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The Independent Online
THE PLAN was that about a dozen of us would buy a large old place in the country which we could share in our old age.

I entered into the project enthusiastically. Almshouses have always seemed to me the ideal arrangement for old age - almshouses, or a room in college at Cambridge, which is a kind of luxury almshouse arrangement - because they offer elements of both community and privacy.

So we would look for, if not a set of almshouses, a place cheaply priced because no single family would want it, and divide it into units keeping one or two communal rooms. The grounds would be shared although we might have small private gardens within them. Twelve of us would be able to afford luxuries none of us could ever contemplate singly; a swimming pool for instance.

In the group there was a majority of hard-headed, sensible people who saw the importance of legal advice, consultation with other groups who had set up similar projects, sound architectural plans and clear financial arrangements. We were nothing if not practical.

At our very first meeting, one particularly cool member spoke of the desirability of having a flat for a resident nurse to deal with the first of us to suffer an incapacitating stroke or other disaster. For an instant her words tolled like a warning bellover the whole scheme. We were still in our fifties, the rest of us objected; time to think of that sort of thing later.

At these early meetings, each of us spoke of what we hoped for and what we couldn't bear the thought of. Some wanted a considerable degree of communal living; although none of the women, I seem to remember, would contemplate sharing a kitchen. Most of usagreed that we should like to be near, if not in, a village and have easy access to a decent town. Motorway noise was intolerable. We must not be more than three hours from London. But of course we would compromise.

One bold suggestion was that we should pool our books to make a splendid library. My immediate instinctive and outraged response to this perfectly sensible idea gave me another warning jolt. Yet I was caught by the project as a whole and full of enthusiasm. I think I suggested naming it Arcadia, identifying myself as a romantic member.

The group's meetings were consistently agreeable, not least because the meetings had an agenda and a point. Although we were all roughly of an age, we were diverse in our backgrounds and interests. I had not previously known half our members so there wasthe pleasure of making new friends; and old friends revealed themselves in a new light. However practical we were determined to be, we were to a degree all self-confessed fantasists. Looking at estate agents' blue-skied brochures together, we could allow ourselves to dream preposterously without shame.

In due course we began to visit real houses. We went singly or in small groups, reporting back to the others who might or might not then follow.

I remember driving off on a particularly wintry Saturday to meet a busy estate agent outside a huge stately pile with a jumble of Elizabethan rooms - some exquisitely panelled - and what seemed like a mile of Victorian extensions, wings of servants' quarters built during the heyday of country house entertaining. Some of our group saw great possibilities, but it seemed mournful and grim to me.

On another day we visited a once-perfect Georgian mansion carved up to make a boys' school, now abandoned. The partitioned rooms and bleak rows of showers had a Dotheboys Hall atmosphere.

There were Lloyd's loss houses in plenty too, where tight-lipped, scornful wives made their loathing of us plain as they whipped us round their homes - and who could blame them? And there were, the saddest of all, family houses with exquisite gardens tended by lately dead parents; their children loved the places and you could read in their eyes how much they wanted someone else to love them in turn, only now they were too big, with creeping housing estates or thunderous traffic blighting them. Doomed houses destined to be . . . well, geriatric homes of another kind probably.

The months went by and became years. I looked forward eagerly to our meetings and expeditions. Sometimes we all went off for a day together with no object but to look at bits of England we enjoyed. We got no closer to buying a house.

Then, last summer, a place finally came up that seemed about the right distance from London and the right price. Five of us took a train and then a short taxi ride and arrived outside a house so beautiful I could hardly believe my eyes.

The colour of the stone was perfection, the back facade was as perfect as the front. The grounds, simply laid out, had grassy walks, great trees and a small river. A private lane ran to the nearby church and village. The owner (a Lloyd's victim again, weguessed) gave us all the maintenance figures.

It seemed as though it might really happen. We talked and talked. We could raise the money. Even our chief sceptic was touched and tempted. There was still the nagging problem about the proportion of private accommodation to shared space - something we repeatedly debated and changed our minds over. Still, things looked possible.

Then something happened to me. Face to face with the real thing, forced to concentrate rather than dream, I thought harder than I had ever thought before about what the Arcadian-like house would really mean. I asked myself, what would I actually do in that idyllic place? And the terrible answer came that the thing I would actually be doing more often than anything else would be setting out for London.

London is where I have to be for most things - work, libraries, committee meetings and so on - and in London I can jump on a bus or even walk across the park to where I need to be. Arcadia is three hours away, whether by train or car.

To my own amazement I found myself an apostate just at the moment perfection seemed at hand. I had to withdraw. Although the group was forgiving, it was a bad moment. No more meetings, no more expeditions, no more estate agents' brochures. I snatched at crumbs of information of their meetings and visits to other hopeful sites. I even dreamed of proposing that we set up Arcadia in London, if we could only find the right site - a mansion block perhaps? Because I still think it is a good idea.

Growing old, we become more and more like ourselves, each set in our own view of how things should be, resistant to other views and people - group living might prevent us from ossifying completely. The friendships of old age can be calm and tolerant. It is good to mourn losses together. We should not depend on our children. The resident nurse seems less absurd as the years go by.

But even for the rest of the group it hasn't happened yet, mostly perhaps because of the intractable question of how much to share, how much to hold in common. So perhaps it does go back to architecture. None of these country houses is really meant to bedivided, at least not fairly divided; they once divided owners from armies of servants but that is something different.

I return to the almshouse model. Perhaps there are architects even now thinking how to update it. I hope so because it seems a really promising idea for us, the growing armies of the old. And if not, I urge it on them.

Neal Ascherson is away.

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