Country Mouse Mary Killen
In the late 1920s, Evelyn Waugh was staying with the Sitwells at Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire.
Standing on the terrace, Sir George Sitwell stood silently, gazing out across the valley. Eventually, he turned and spoke to Evelyn ‘in the wistful, nostalgic tones of a castaway, yet of a castaway who was reconciled to his own company. Ignoring the settlement in the mining valley nearby, its streets packed with terraced housing, Sir George declared, “There is no one between us and the Locker-lampsons.” ’
The story used to resonate, not only with snobs who found themselves ‘marooned’ in the country, but also with artsy former Londoners who were desperate for intellectual communion with others on their wavelengths.
And for these former Londoners too, even in the Home Counties, there was invariably no one between them and a single soul mate 30 miles away.
Yet country life has changed since Giles Wood – my husband and the customary occupant of this page – and I swapped stimulation for space, fresh air and lower outgoings 30 years ago.
We were in the privileged position of being able to work from home, since Giles was, in theory, an artist and I a writer – so we didn’t need to go into London. I, however, with my insatiable social appetite, actually did need to go there to satiate it and so I did, at least one night a week.
When we first came to Wiltshire, businesspeople had to live in the city, except at weekends. Forty years ago, one man commuted from Pewsey Station into London. He was known as ‘the commuter’ and was the laughing-stock of the village. Two decades later, preCOVID, when inner-london traffic had got so bad that it took as long to get into Mayfair from Pewsey as it did from, say, Balham, suddenly Pewsey Station platform was standing-room only.
Meanwhile, Faversham in Kent, with its 500 buildings listed by English Heritage, has been colonised by artists and musicians who were formerly ‘swinging Londoners’.
The last train to Faversham leaves London at 11.25pm – so the vieillesse dorée who have colonised the town can have their social cake and eat it.
Just before COVID, 40 per cent of property sales in our local town Marlborough went to Londoners. Since COVID, the demand is so high that the local paper no longer runs its weekly property section. If anyone local is thinking of selling their house, they already know someone who will buy it from them.
Marlborough, which already had a Waitrose, has become dramatically more fashionable with a Rick Stein restaurant, whose public-spirited landlord let them off the rent, costing £200,000-a-year, when they couldn’t operate during COVID. We have the White Horse Bookshop, an Oxfam bookshop, two schools (which offer classical concerts to the townspeople) and a jazz and literary festival.
A luxury cinema is being built in the shell of an old Methodist chapel, where cinemagoers will loll back in first-class airline-type seats with a glass of wine in their hands. No longer any need to take the treacherous A345 to the freezingly air-conditioned cinemas in the Swindon Hellplex. The cinema was the only thing missing in Marlborough; now, in theory, there’s no need ever to go to London again.
Moreover, whom would we see there, now so many have relocated to the country to work from home? We live in an urbs in rure. My husband’s hermit status is endangered. With the new influx, there will soon be too many people between us and the ‘Locker-lampsons’. Will these relocators ever go back? Taking a straw poll of myself, I will certainly go back when COVID is fully over. I attended three London parties in July. At each one, the atmosphere was positively euphoric – almost like an evangelical church service.
An uber-oldie interested in socialising will do well to own a London dwelling with a spare bedroom than to live in the country, beautiful or not. There will always be other oldies passing through London with a need for somewhere to stay overnight.
Still, a chartered surveyor we know advises those who own commercial property to think again before assuming that working from home is the future. He warns of arrogance.
Yes, the better-off may well enjoy working just as efficiently from their spacious country houses. Why commute if you don’t need to?
However, although working from home is a nice idea, it doesn’t take account of human nature. Anyone with office experience knows presenteeism trumps competence.
The complacent classes on their high salaries may prefer to work from their pools in Farnham, Surrey, but the junior, more dynamic employees don’t want to work in their suburban bedsits.
They want the space of the office and the ‘vibe’ of central London and they want to socialise – even if flirting is now banned in the workplace. These juniors will work as many days as possible in the office. There they will band together and plot the overthrow of their smug-married seniors working from rural homes.
Giles Wood is away