Rosemary Goring: When the great escape to the country goes wrong…

There’s a helpline for those who moved in a panic to the country during lockdown last year, and are now going nuts. Or at least, if there isn’t there should be. Stories abound of city escapees who arrived in the shires with a fleet of removal vans – letting their children loose as if they were rewilding wolves – only to find it’s not for them. As I speak, they are either seeking to return, or going quietly crazy to the background growl of tractors and the stench of slurry.

Their predicament reminds me of a friend who moved to the depths of the countryside. Her cottage was surrounded by trees and fields, and she thought she had landed in paradise compared to her Edinburgh tenement. Her toddlers were thrilled to see cows grazing at their garden gate, and she lifted the youngest to get a better look.

“Wave to the farmer,” she said, as he strode across the field, mallet in hand, but he did not notice them. Moments later, he had felled a calf with a blow to the head. Hurrying the children back indoors, she didn’t know how to answer their horrified questions.

It’s not usually the brutality of farming or the harsh laws of nature that trigger buyer regret. More commonly it’s an accumulation of small factors that eventually grow too much to bear. One Londoner was so aghast, however, that he was packing his furniture back into the removal vans eight days after moving in.

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What had happened in the intervening week is unclear, although I would hazard a guess that it was nothing to do with hostile villagers, or an infestation of mice. I bet the very first night, when he lay in bed and could hear nothing but his own breathing, gave him the heebee jeebees.

Few are in a position to undo their error so swiftly, but the latest property trend, especially in the home counties, is for 2019’s escapologists to beat a hasty retreat to the metropolis. There’s a steady trickle of returnees who, after the thrill of renovating an old rectory or weaver’s cottage waned, found themselves unnerved by the demands of country life and wondered what on earth had possessed them.

How could they have swapped urban sophistication for the wilds, where it’s an hour to the nearest outpost of civilisation, they spend half their lives in the car, and there are too few middle-class children for their brood to play with? We caught a glimpse of urban paranoia when a London friend arrived with an orange in his pocket, for his evening tipple of vodka. We explained that fresh fruit was available in these backwaters, but he hadn’t dared to risk it.

Townies who realise they have made a huge mistake are the source of much schadenfreude. No wonder most of those who confess how awful they find it living at a distance from Harvey Nicks do so anonymously. I suspect they are less afraid of reprisals by straw-chewing yokels than the mockery of their urban peers, with whom they hope soon to be reunited. By the sound of it, they have barely met their neighbours.

That’s the problem with being well off: buying the only big house in the vicinity, once owned by the local toff or minister, usually means living on the edge of a community rather than its heart. And while there’s a lot to be said for a pile that comes with its own moat, orchard, paddock and fishing rights, there’s comfort in having people nearby.

To those of us already in the boondocks, it sounds like a huge joke. More fool panic-buyers for being seduced by the myth of the back-to-nature delights the country offers. Hardened rustics could have told them that there’s nothing glamorous about splitting logs in sub-zero temperatures, or being bullied by a bull when the dog gets off the leash.

Yet their predicament is anything but funny. It’s noticeable that those who loudly complain are wealthy and can spend their way out of this mess. We don’t hear as much about the less rich: parents who were climbing the walls in cramped town flats while home-schooling their kids, or people feeling trapped who simply craved fresh air. They are keeping schtum.

Perhaps – one hopes – they are loving their rural reinvention, and have no regrets. Or maybe, even if they pine for cafes or pubs at the corner of every street, they accept they have no option but to acclimatize, and hope eventually it’ll feel like home.

When I first moved to the city, I couldn’t get used to concrete, traffic, and the feeling of people all around. It took me years to settle. The first night we spent in Hoolet Cottage the quality of silence and darkness were astounding. No cacophony of bottles being tipped into Brewdog’s recycling bins. No banshee cries in the middle of the night, or early morning buses telling you it was almost time to get up. I grew to like all of this, and much more besides, but there was never any doubt in my mind that one day I wanted to leave. When an owl hooted from our bedroom chimney in the early hours, I knew we’d made the right move.

Some folk are urban to the core, others shrivel when separated from the great outdoors. Most of us are probably somewhere in between, depending on age, circumstances and location. Driving past one of the houses we looked at years ago, I doubt we’d have lasted as long as eight days if we had been rash enough to buy it. We were mad even to contemplate a place so far from other habitation that birds flying in from Norway would have been our only company.

A moment’s impulse, generated by a national mood of alarm, has led to countless house transactions that, in better times, would have been made more rationally, with closer scrutiny, not to mention a full structural survey. Even so, the flight from town to country will continue, regardless, a constant wash back and forth that has gone on for centuries. But if it’s not for you, there’s no shame in packing it in. If nothing else, Covid has made all of us think harder about where we are most at home, and why.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Herald.

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