It was a wet Sunday afternoon in autumn 2014. We were driving back from a long, child-free weekend in the Cotswolds and the concrete began to rise up either side of the M4 as we were absorbed back into London’s congestion.
I loved my job, editing a glossy magazine from the Vogue House offices in Mayfair. I loved our house, a four-bedroom detached Victorian villa near Kingston-upon-Thames. But I had grown tired of the sheer mass of people, weary of battling the daily commute and the long hours associated with a job that required breakfast brainstorms and client dinners. In our twenty years in London, we had lived beneath a Radio One DJ who was forever planning her playlists, a computer analyst who worked shift patterns and was collected by taxi at 5am each morning, engine running, and a woman who argued any hour of the day and night with her partner. I needed silence and solitude.
We arrived in the Cotswolds the following summer. The house was a former housekeeper’s cottage on a sprawling estate. We had views of Hereford cows to the front and Cotswold Lion sheep to the back. We were blissfully happy.
I can entirely understand why Londoners bought almost 74,000 homes outside the capital in 2020, the highest level in four years. I empathise with potential buyers who have flocked to Rightmove causing a 126 percent increase in people looking for village properties. That was me once, long before I knew the full reality of living in the countryside. When I wasn’t so blinded by all its benefits.
Even with my new three-hour round commute to London four days a week, I felt true contentment. We settled, made new friends with an exciting mix of people whose lives were refreshingly different to our own – a racehorse trainer, estate owners, a pilot, landowners.
For a while I even managed to ignore the rumblings on the village WhatsApp group complaining about another Airbnb party booking that meant the surrounding homes got little sleep again all weekend. In the immediate vicinity of our home there are half a dozen holiday rentals that are let almost year-round and, of course, the larger the house, the bigger the group, the more noise. We’ve seen mobile cocktail vans pull up outside for hen parties and cars thoughtlessly blocking shared driveways. If you are unfortunate enough to buy a house next to one, there is little you can do about it, since the owners typically do not live locally themselves.
Perhaps this is at the heart of one of the biggest misconceptions about living in the countryside: that it is quiet.
Just as in any town or city, people still do building work, they still sit in their gardens drinking, laughing and playing music late into the night, there is traffic, sometimes lots of it, and farm vehicles are far noisier than your average run-around. Come summer, everyone who owns a motorbike seems to descend on the Cotswolds in large convoys, ditto vintage cars.
The one vehicle we would love more of is the local taxi. We have one taxi driver who serves our village, he needs to be booked a week in advance and he will tell you what time he can collect you. Sometimes this is 9pm, sometimes it’s 11pm, but invariably we are offered one time slot, take it or leave it. The minimum fee is £15, even if your journey home is one mile. The stop for the once-hourly bus is a mile away and ends at 7.30pm. It’s a cruel reality that we are surrounded by some of the finest pubs in the country but whenever we visit them, one of us will usually be driving.
Then there were the personal challenges that prompted my second thoughts about idyllic country living. The headteacher at my daughter’s school, one of those inspiring education enthusiasts who was the primary reason we had picked the school in the first place, decided to retire. Her replacement fell way short of her predecessor’s high standards and one by one parents started removing their children, as did we.
The question was, to go where? The school in our village had about thirty pupils and we could walk to it in under three minutes. But one brief visit revealed it would never work for her. A school that size means three different year groups share one classroom and there was only one other six-year-old girl in the entire school. What if she and my daughter didn’t get on? Undoubtedly in London we would have had more choice of larger schools. Had we simply swapped one set of problems in London for another in the countryside?
The following year, our most serious oversight made itself known to us. My youngest daughter, by now two, developed recurrent croup. We were a 45-minute drive to the nearest accident and emergency department in Cheltenham. Her croup, defined by a barking cough and difficulty breathing, would always attack in the early hours of the morning. After several attacks we were advised by our local GP, never to wait for an ambulance, but to take her to hospital ourselves. It would be quicker. Cue four years and some terrifying car journeys down pitch black country lanes at speeds no parent wants to travel at with a child in the car.
Then our lovely elderly neighbour put her house up for sale. A young couple bought the place and understandably set about modernising. It hadn’t been updated for decades, including the oil tank. I remember sitting in the garden one afternoon when my youngest shrieked ‘what is that smell?’
A few days later it was much stronger. Then it was waking me up at night and giving me headaches. Fast forward to an environmental survey discovering that an accidental leak had caused oil to transgress under our house. We would have to move out. For six months. In the middle of a global pandemic. But move out we had to. Half the footprint of our house had to be excavated and all the contaminated soil removed. Internal walls were knocked down. Our house interior was unrecognisable.
We moved four times in as many months and the second property we stayed in was haunted. Yes, really. I was yanked from sleep as my name was shouted loudly by a female voice. Windows opened of their own accord. Our cleaner refused to enter the attic room – because it ‘just didn’t feel right.’ Showers turned on at 4.30am in the morning and, my husband told me only after we had left, a rather gruesome suicide story lurked in its history.
If this all sounds like an account of one unlucky woman, I’m afraid it can’t be dismissed that easily. As I started to share tales of the hauntings with local friends, they offered up their own ghostly anecdotes. Unsurprising really, given the age of the properties in this area. It sounds so wonderfully obvious now, but older properties come with very different considerations. In its most basic terms, if you have a septic tank you will have to police the amount of loo roll your children throw down the system – or suffer the indignity of a plumber arriving to flush everything out into your garden, when they block it. Yes, this has happened to me too.
So, the rural dream has evolved. What do we wish for now? Perhaps it is in fact the reverse of what many people desire. A life where we are in the countryside Monday to Thursday and then we relocate to a Cheltenham townhouse at the weekend. A world of fashionable retail, medical facilities, theatres, restaurants and, as my eldest daughter put it when I asked her what she wanted to experience as soon as lockdown allows. ‘Somewhere there are loads of cars and a massive shopping centre, please.’
Jade Beer is the author of The Last Dress From Paris, publishing by Penguin Random House USA, Spring 2022.