Are you all sitting down? Don’t be scared – but I live outside London. I know! How crazy is that? A whole 30 minutes on the train – that’s, like, so far away!
Conversations tend to go like this when you have the temerity to live outside the capital: Friend who is scared of the countryside “When can we meet up? Haven’t seen you for ages .” Me: “I know. Not down for a bit, why don’t you come up here? I can pick you up from the station, it’s really easy.” Friend (dubiously): “It’s a bit of a way.” No, it’s not. It’s the same distance as it is for me and I do it several times most weeks.
I live in what I will call the magic village. It’s a bit like Shangri-La – no-one ever wants to leave, and if they do it’s because they are either dead or they need to move somewhere nearer a school or transport. Yes, transport. We have two buses a day from the magic village, and they will take you to Luton. So everyone has to have a car, which is one of the downsides to living in the country as the only amenities in the magic village are a phone box, a post box and a pub. Mind you, that’s not really a downside.
This morning, I was sitting on the step in my courtyard listening to the birds. “Oh but we have birds in London/Manchester/insert city of choice here” Yes, but we have birds. Everyone has garden birds, but we have the avian equivalent of the Big Five. Red kites, buzzards, sparrowhawks, kestrels, tawny owls, barn owls, skylarks… Not golden eagles, but I bet if they were anywhere in Hertfordshire, it would be the magic village. If I don’t hear an owl at night, I feel that something is missing. When a skylark sings from above the wheatfields, it is a moment of utter bliss. When I want to go for a walk, all I need do is step outside my house and there are hills and fields and ancient trading routes and burial mounds and springs.
And seasons. You know about the seasons in the magic village – it’s a bit like living in a children’s book. Looking for the first snowdrop or daffodil, watching the rape fields turning that incredible eye-searing yellow, spotting the first poppies lining the edges of the fields and the blackberries appearing in the hedgerows…
I was born in London and lived there until 2002. Mostly North London – Golders Green, Stoke Newington, Leyton and the clincher, Bethnal Green. I loved Bethnal Green when I first moved there, having been lucky enough to have bought an ex-council flat five minutes away from Brick Lane and Columbia Market. Buzzy, vibrant, dirty, full of every ethnic group imaginable, I even went to Reggie Kray’s funeral – or at least stood outside the church with everyone else, gaping at the scary blokes in their suits and shades and their over-made-up and Botoxed-up wives and girlfriends.
I didn’t really notice the gangs and the Yardies and the stabbings and addicts – or rather I did, but they didn’t encroach on my flat, until I made a mistake. The mistake was helping a neighbour and after that, I did notice all these things, because I became the target of systematic intimidation and harassment for the next 18 months. Shit smeared on my door. My lock superglued up. Coming home from holiday to find he’d tried to set my flat on fire.
If you want to read all about it, I wrote a piece for the Observer and the link is here: http://www.theguardian.com/money/2004/mar/28/property.homebuying2
In the middle of this, knowing I had to get out but not knowing where to go, I rang my friend Chris who suggested Hitchin. “I don’t know where that is,” I sobbed (see, Londoner). “Look it up,” he said with a sigh, having recently moved to North Wales. Thanks to him, I arrived at the magic village on a blazing May day. I stepped out of my car and knew I had to live there. It was paradise. My neighbours were, and are, fabulous. They still laugh at me for putting a lock on my car at night (born and bred in London).
“But what about things like cinemas and music and theatre? And food?” Well, funnily enough, Hertfordshire does have those things (well, maybe not a decent theatre). One of the best folk clubs in the country is in Hitchin. A brilliant independent cinema is in Letchworth. A coffee shop featured in the Independent’s 50 best in the country is in Hitchin (Hermitage Rd) and we have farmer’s markets, an amazing artisan baker who works from home (Hitchin Bakehouse) and oh I could go on but you get the picture.
As for theatre – remember what I said about London being 30 minutes away on the train? I have still managed to get to galleries and opening nights and the Proms, and also work, quite a lot, without having a nervous breakdown.
“But isn’t it quiet?” I love the quiet. I don’t miss the sirens, the screams, the psycho neighbours. But you think the magic village is boring? When I moved in, a world-famous TV writer and his wife lived in the big ‘ouse next door. When they sold it and moved, it was rented out first to a brothel and then to a cannabis factory. Who needs London?
However. There are downsides, as I said. Being snowed in is a nightmare. The first big snow year, my friends and I walked for miles across pristine fields and my dog leapt in and out of snowdrifts and after gritting the road (we are supplied with our own grit in the magic village! Such fun…) we all went to the pub.
The second snow year I was doing a theatre job in the West End. I spent almost three weeks staying in London because the road down to the magic village (three very steep hills) was pretty much undriveable without a 4×4. Then I cracked. I needed to be home and the snow had vaguely stopped. I went to sleep in my own bed, with my own owls, and woke up to another 5 inches of snow having fallen. I rang the Company Manager who was understandably pissed off and in something of a panic, I dug my car out and prepared to drive up the undriveable hill in my amazing, battered, beloved Nissan. Down the bottom of the hill, waiting to rescue me, were my neighbours, armed with shovels. But my beloved car got me up the hill and back down to London. I used to love snow; I don’t any more. Bit of a shame.
And it’s cold. Oh my god it’s cold. The magic village isn’t on gas, so it’s electric heating, wood burners and oil filled radiators. I have one night storage heater in the living room along with a wood burner. And that’s it. Most people in the magic village spend winter in more layers than an Inuit. We also have cess pits instead of sewers. It’s a thing
And travel is frequently utterly shite and prohibitively expensive. To do eight shows a week in town costs me around £120 a week in train fares. Off-peak (with a railcard) is currently £16.35. So even before I start with the theatre/gig/meal out, I’ve already spent that.
But it is the magic village. It is beautiful. I am so lucky to live here. I am not tired of life – I merely grew tired of London.