Where is Christmas best, in town or country? Actually I prefer Christmas Eve in town and Christmas Day and Boxing Day in the country. Christmas Eve at Midnight Mass in Westminster Cathedral followed by champagne with friends. Christmas Day Mass in the country followed by lunch and a country walk with my dogs and friends.
I used to hate the country. I think it may be that as children, my two brothers and I were squeezed into my parents’ small car for holidays in Cornwall and my darling Mum would say as I was nodding off, “Look at the lovely view, dear.” She never really could describe the view in a way that brought it alive, and for decades I found it impossible to appreciate the views of the country in a way that made it beautiful.
I grew up to be a very urban human being, seeing little point in the country. Friends would tell me that they were moving out of town to live in the country. “Don’t be so ridiculous!” I would say, and begin setting out all the reasons why London, or indeed any town, was infinitely preferable to the country.
I have had the good fortune to live near Westminster Cathedral for the past 20 years and every entertainment is on my doorstep. I can walk past Buckingham Palace and up the Mall to the National Gallery in half an hour or south to Tate Britain in 15 minutes. All the theatres are within 30 minutes as are more than a thousand restaurants serving cuisine from every part of the world. There are pubs galore and friends scattered at every point on the Tube network, easily accessible. I can walk the pugs off the lead in St James’s Park. There are churches with well executed liturgy and music of concert standing within minutes of where I live. And every type of liturgical tradition from twanging to Tridentine.
So what is the point of the country? Ten years ago, two of my best friends gave up the bright lights of Kensington High Street to move to rural Suffolk. They left busy jobs and settled into running a small mail-order business. The idea had been that the difference in the house values would give them some capital, and running costs would be lower in Suffolk.
Financially their decision has been a disaster, as the Kensington house that they sold is now worth three times as much, whereas their Suffolk house has hardly increased in value. Nevertheless, they say they would make the same decision again.
After staying with them for weekends I began to be seduced by the idea of the country life, and five years ago began house-hunting. This in itself is fun. You can walk through magnificent houses and see every detail of other people’s lives. One can rejoice and despair of the taste of the English. Family photographs reveal happier times, children and grandchildren and all so young.
It is true that you can buy a more interesting house, both architecturally and historically, out of London. Invariably it comes with some land, from a garden to acreage. So where to live? I have no attachment to a county, as Benjamin Britten or Maggi Hambling had to Suffolk. My friends who bought there chose the county for its lack of rainfall. I love Sussex and the downs but property there is so expensive. The South East and East of England had more appeal than the South West, where it rains a lot.
I started in Kent and found the most magnificent Georgian pile. Neglected for decades and set in dilapidated acres, it was untouched and perfect. There was just one small problem: the noise of the motorway. Actually it was a roundabout with about six three-lane carriageways converging and then exploding into the noisiest of roads. This was nearly a mile away and I convinced myself that, with creative use of water, the roar of the roads could be disguised. Finally I made a call to an acoustic specialist. “How close?” “And which way does the wind come?”
“I’m sorry sir. You can’t stop the noise with trees, and given its position you would hear the roads for 85 per cent of the year.”
Every other house I looked at in Kent I strained to hear the sound of the roads, and while Kent has the best communications with London it also has the most motorways. I could actually get back to Parliament Square in no time by car. There is no getting away from it, Kent is London in the country.
So I went back to my friends in Suffolk. There are some delightful houses there, all very rural with land, but mostly farmhouses. I found a lovely 17th-century house with beautiful gardens and no noise. True it faced north and needed a fortune spending on it, but it was magical.
I visited it endlessly and was just about to exchange contracts when my Suffolk friends warned me that the romantic view from the house was about to be ruined by two huge wind turbines.
Then Norfolk called in the shape of Hales Hall, my present home. When I sold my London home to a wealthy Danish businessman, he expressed concern that I wouldn’t be able to afford the upkeep of a country home. Hales Hall came with a wedding venue, the largest brick Tudor barn in Norfolk, if not Britain. While I share my home every Saturday in summer with wedding couples and their families and friends, it does mean that the gardens are always lovely and I don’t ever pick up a pair of secateurs.
Hales Hall was built by Sir James Hobart, who became Henry VII’s attorney general. His family remained staunch Catholics and continued their faith until the mid 17th-century, when they were fined £5,000 – more than £5 million in today’s money – and were forced to sell. The original house fell down in the 1750s and all that remains is a large service wing, where I now live, and the vast barn.
So how after four years in the country do I feel about it? My friends said I wouldn’t last five minutes here.
The country is a different way of life. I don’t need to work anymore so I get up in the morning and walk the pugs around the farmer’s fields which is lovelier in summer than in winter. I have egg and bacon for breakfast. I read the papers. The views out of every window raise my spirits. Roast food from the Aga is very cheering. I have lots of space, no noise and a healthy lifestyle until I give into a friend’s ciggy.
I still see a lot of my friends who come down cheerily with a bottle of wine for the weekend. I can’t decide if it’s better if they come for “a Dine and Stay”, as they say in the royal household as the beds need remaking with fresh linen after one night or if people stay longer, the rule being that fish begins to smell after three days.
But when a house in the country does come into its own is at Christmas. Roaring log fires, mistletoe from the garden, a turkey delivered from the local farm and lots of friends to stay to justify having a house in the country who all need feeding, entertaining and will pass judgment if they don’t have a good time.
Peter Sheppard is chairman of the Catholic Herald
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