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A moving dilemma: town or country. By Andrew Gimson

Blog | By Andrew Gimson | Jul 10, 2024


James Boswell once wondered whether, if he lived in London all the time, the ‘exquisite zest’ with which he relished it on occasional visits ‘might go off, and I might grow tired of it’.

Dr Johnson gave his famous answer: ‘Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’

Yet many Londoners do decide to leave, boldly defying not only Dr Johnson but the Rule of Moving to the Country established by James Pembroke, publisher of The Oldie, according to which one invariably returns after three years.

For the first year, it is so exciting to have all that rural space and gaze at the sea or the fields. In the second year, country life becomes a bit boring, but what about that sea and those fields! In the third year, it is so boring, and you couldn’t care less about the sea or the fields.

My wife and I split up in October 2020, during the Covid pandemic. In September 2022, we sold our house in Gospel Oak, London NW5, where we had lived since 2002.

At this point, various friends urged me to move to the country. They said that, for the money I got from the house – £600,000 – I could get a lovely place in the country where I could have them all to stay. To prove their point, they sent me the particulars of picturesque cottages surrounded by idyllic gardens.

I was not keen to take on an idyllic garden, which would remain idyllic only if I worked in it even at those times when I would rather read a good book, or try to write one.

I detest driving. But in the country, it is pretty much impossible to get by without a car. I earn my living by writing about politics, and from Gospel Oak could reach the Palace of Westminster in half an hour on my bike.

And what about the parties in London? Worth going to if you’re already in town – but would it be worth catching an afternoon train and wondering how to get home afterwards?

Still, the price of property in London is ludicrous. Things were bad enough 24 years ago, when we returned from the then quite cheap city of Berlin. After renting a couple of appallingly expensive flats in north London, we managed to buy that scruffy house in Gospel Oak – or, in fact, to induce the Portman Building Society to buy it on our behalf. The situation now is about three times worse.

It has long been conventional to move further out into the London suburbs, to find a cheaper and larger place. On my bike, I went to look at about 25 different properties in increasingly distant districts. One day, I was excited to learn of some small streets just north of Finsbury Park named after the novels of my hero, Benjamin Disraeli.

Let me end my days, I thought, in Lothair, Endymion, Tancred or Coningsby Road. But others had already had the same idea, and those nondescript streets had become prohibitively expensive. I could bicycle many miles from central London – so far that you might wonder whether you were really still in London – and still not get much more in the way of space.

What do you really care about? That is the question the prospective buyer must answer. To me what matters more than space is the windows. The trouble with the ‘purpose-built block’, the euphemism used by estate agents to indicate a former council estate, is not that it used to be in public ownership, but that it was built at the wrong time to have good windows. The last people who could be relied on to make proper windows were the Georgians.

London is fortunate enough to have a lot of Georgian houses, standing unobtrusively amid vast structures of later date. I looked in Bloomsbury, found it was too expensive. So I walked north and, in an estate agent’s window in Camden, I had my eye caught by a small first-floor Georgian flat with three beautiful windows. Alas, it had already gone but, some months later, the agent rang me and said the flat below it in the same house had come on the market for £550,000. I was enchanted by its two plain Georgian windows looking straight down Prowse Place, which runs through a great brick railway arch.

At the age of 65, I have decided I would far rather have a small flat in Camden, in a jumble of buildings between the railway and the canal, than a rose-girt cottage in Devon.