Town or Country living? You decide

Country VillageThere can be few people who at one time or another have not entertained the thought of what country living would be like. The yearning for a rural idyll like a hidden Shangri-La.   For some who are committed urban dwellers the notion will probably not stay in their minds long. Others will hold the thought a bit longer before it fades into the obscurity of practicability. A much smaller minority will continue to nurture the thought weighing the pro’s and cons in their minds until some are suddenly motivated by thoughts of “Why not? Let’s do it”.

After a lifetime of urban living, that is the decision my wife and I made well over twenty years ago when we moved from East London to rural Somerset. It was a move I have never regretted but it did take an initial short period of adjustment. In our case it was the pro’s that far outweighed the cons and I suspect many others may have some lingering doubts about what are the realities of country life. The vistas from our new home were one change we could readily accept. We exchanged a view of houses on the opposite side of the street coupled with the view of backs of house in the adjoining street for one of open rolling countryside. Cadbury Castle, Glastonbury Tor and the Mendip Hills can all be easily seen from our new location. Apart from the new vista, opportunities to explore an area of the country steeped in myth and legend also abound.

Certainly to myself, living in a village was a case of moving back to a meaningful community life. A sense of community which once abounded in East London but sadly started to fade into a form of isolationism as the nature of the populace changed, be it new people with different outlooks moving into the area or younger generations growing-up but possibly not with the same degree of neighbourliness that their parents may have once fostered. Whatever the causes the saying about the loneliest place in London is the middle of Piccadilly Circus certainly began to arouse feelings of truthfulness in our particular quarter.

For young parents and their families, country living is something of a bonus. Not only because of the fresh air and lack of urban pollution but because similar families in the same village always seem to gravitate towards forming their own interest groups and blossoming friendships. Gardens tend to be much bigger as well.

That is one positive aspect on one side of a many faceted coin, the opposite side of the coin while not being negative does present differences that require some adjustment. My own village has neither a public house or shops so transport is an essential requirement. In most villages a school bus service obviates the need for the dreaded “school-run”, but travel to shops and stores usually in a not too distant market towns usually requires personal transport. In urban areas despite complaints, public transport is usually available even if sometimes delayed. In rural areas it can sometimes be either scarce or even non-existent. In my own village for example, a few buses run in the mornings on two days of the week only. No street lighting exists in my village either but it does make for magnificent star gazing of a nigh time due to zero light pollution. Silence is something else we have in abundant quantity of a night time, a point which guests always remark on when they awake fully refreshed the next morning. Because the mind tends to filter out noise pollution, it’s sometimes hard to appreciate just how insidious and constant it is.

The bonus is how far and quickly it is possible to travel in a car from ones home. Traffic is usually very light when compared with urban areas and most country roads still have a 60 mph speed limit which is safely achievable. Using the one mile-per-minute rule of thumb, it does mean it is possible travel anywhere within a 40 miles circle from my home in about 20-30 minutes. A 40 mile circle roughly equates to the size of Greater London. Apart from a variety of easily reachable and good shopping venues, it also means we have a greater choice of entertainment and sporting venues of all descriptions than we did within my London locality and at a fraction of the time. Numerous public houses with good restaurants usually modestly priced also abound within an area like this.

Country Village 02Rural rail services tend to be something of a spiders web, At the centre of the web, rail lines and services tend to become concentrated while the further out from the web one travels, the lines become further apart. Before I retired I used to commute to London by rail which meant an early start and a twenty five mile drive to the station to board a reasonably rapid train for the next 95 miles. While the journey to the station could normally be safely and legally completed in 30 minutes or less, (an impossibility in London), account had to be taken of weather conditions. Heavy fog or mist in the Autumn and ice during the Winter. Heavy rain with surface water can create additional problems. I always found it somewhat galling having struggled to work through appalling weather conditions to sometimes find others where I worked  in London and living only a few miles away, not reporting for work due to adverse weather conditions.

Service utilities like gas taken so much for granted in most urban areas are frequently non-existent in rural areas with the likelihood they will never be supplied. Heating is normally by oil-fired boilers and is very effective. Unlike gas available at the turn of a tap, oil has to by purchased i advance and in bulk which can be expensive. It is also subject to day by day price change dependent on the vagaries on the international oil market.  Onsite oil storage is another requirement. One of the adjustments to life is ensuring oil tanks are full before the onset of winter and maintaining an adequate reserve as it is consumed. If you run out of oil there is no gas tap to turn on, you simply go cold and delivery of new supplies may take several weeks.

Extra-fast broadband may be a factor individuals need to consider, especially if they intend working from home. Somerset was an area scheduled by the Government several years ago to have extra-fast broadband in rural areas. However from my own lay-persons point of view, information on what is happening appears to be almost non-existent and once again I suspect that except for villages on the peripheries of urban areas, it simply will not be installed no matter what the Government promises. I did check on anticipated broadband speeds should a guardian angel ever decide to bestow it on us and it appears the so called speed rapidly drops away with the distance of the home from the street telephone junction box. As our telephone junction box is situated about a mile outside the village, anticipated speeds will be little different to what we already have. It does make one wonder how vast countries like India already have broadband speeds everywhere that are much faster that what this country is hoping to achieve in the future?

Most market towns have a full range of shops and supermarkets found in their larger urban counterparts with most of the supermarkets providing ample free parking due to their reliance on customers needing to use their own transport. Car parking charges where they exist tend to be modest in comparison with larger cities.

All important employment opportunities do tend to be lower but clearly do exist. Many rural dwellers know they have to be prepared to commute longer distances to work often using their own transport. As a form of compensation, the urban traffic jam does not tend to exist.

Market towns frequently provide a pleasant medium between city and rural life with the added bonus that the countryside is literally on the doorstep. One striking aspect I have noticed in both urban and countryside housing developments is the newer larger housing schemes tend to feature deserted streets while areas which have developed more naturally positively abound with street life.

I suppose in the end it really is a matter of personal choice governed by individual circumstances that dictate which lifestyle we wish to lead. But as they say, where there is a will, there is also a way and anyone wishing for a more rural lifestyle should not feel they are forever trapped by the clutches of urban shackles. Provided there is a willingness to adapt, then anything is possible.

The one common feature I have noticed amongst of people like myself who made the move from town to country is the overwhelming desire never to go back.

Cadbury Castle – Home to King Arthur and Camelot?


Site of King Arthur’s grave, Glastonbury Abbey


I am fortunate to have an unbroken 180 degree vista from my home. One location I can see quite clearly is Cadbury Castle located alongside the picturesque village of South Cadbury. Cadbury Castle is an ancient hill fort with built up earthen ramparts similar to many others in the West Country. Excavations have revealed occupation since Neolithic times until the Roman invasion of England. In  keeping with similar sites, due to ideal military and defensive locations, the Romans took over these sites to aid their governance of England. Following the withdrawal of the Roman occupation, little or no documentation for this site exists until it was mentioned in a letter by John Leland in 1542 while undertaking a survey of England. The letter states that local folklore by villagers mentions King Arthur and Camelot. The site is also on part of what has become known as the Leland Trail, a 28 mile footpath that follows John Leland’s steps between Ham Hill Country Park in Somerset, (another hill fort), and King Alfred’s Tower in Wiltshire which is close to the source of the River Stour and nearby Stourhead.

It is unknown whether a King Arthur existed or not although much legend and myth pervades English folklore. If he did exist, it would have been in the period known as the Dark Ages due to the lack of documentary evidence and knowledge of that period. One of the earliest references to King Arthur is in the nearby Glastonbury Abbey where the supposed body of King Arthur was discovered and re-interred in the knave in 1278 in the presence of King Edward I and Queen Eleanor.

As an aside, many geographical locations take their name from the death cortege of Queen Eleanor when she died in Nottinghamshire. King Edward I transported her body back to London and at every location the cortege stopped for the night, King Edward I later erected an ornate stone cross. These crosses known as the Eleanor Crosses gave rise to such locations as Banbury Cross, Waltham Cross and Charing Cross to name but a few. The Abbey close to Waltham Cross is where King Harold who was killed by Norman invaders at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 is now known to have been secretly buried.

Although King Arthur is supposedly buried at Glastonbury Abbey, it is also thought possible the entire reburial exercise was part of a ruse to attract additional revenue and tourists in the form of Pilgrims.

The excavations at Cadbury Castle certainly revealed the presence of a former Great Hall and local place names like the River Cam which flows close to its base along with nearby villages of Queen Camel and West Camel help to reinforce the local legend of Camel-ot.  Other locations in England most notable Tintagel in Cornwall also lay claim to King Arthur. Whatever the truth, if King Arthur never existed then he certainly would have been invented as a necessity of historical prestige. Most countries of the world have their own King Arthur figures whether actual or mythological. It is however quite nice to sometimes fantasize that King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table in their shining armour once rode past my front door. The only problem with that fantastical notion is my home at that time would have been a wattle and daub hut.

Map picture

Site of Cadbury Castle

Somerset Arrival


 

What a wonderful county Somerset is. I moved here with my family over 20 years ago after living all my life in the Big Smoke otherwise known as London for 45 years. The 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys once wrote “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”, however I am not so certain he would have come to the same conclusion if he lived there today. In Samuel Pepys day, London still comprised the two small cities of Westminster and London with fields in-between and with a population of only about 250,000. Today London and its suburbs measure about 40 miles across East to West with a population of  just over 7.5 million and matching horrendous traffic.

The outer London suburban street we lived in was originally highly sought after by house buyers. It was a street where most people knew each other with a friendly atmosphere pervading the local environment. I suppose like many places, with  the passing of the years, people either died or moved on, car parking and consequential ensuing traffic problems grew. These coupled together with an increasing population all led to the gradual deterioration and erosion of harmonious relations. It was almost possible to feel growing tensions as neighbours with more than one car per household vied for increasingly limited parking. Eventually neighbourly knowledge and friendship became limited to adjoining households or less. It was not long before the Local Authority stepped in with managed traffic schemes coupled with the usual promises of “free parking” outside your own house, only to be rapidly replaced by ever-increasing priced parking permits. The local authorities always overlook that parking outside ones home was always free anyway before their intervention.

I always recall of experiments I once read on social harmony. Scientists found rats living in a colony under controlled conditions are quite sociable creatures. However the scientists gradually increased the number of rats within the colony without increasing its physical size. The scientists found that as with many human conurbation’s, as population size grows within the same environmental area, social harmony rapidly breaks down. Sometimes I find it possible to get a clearer perspective of potential problems by standing outside of the problem and viewing it as an onlooker. It was not difficult to see that the already lost sociable harmonious environment I originally knew, could only continue to deteriorate with the passage of time.

It was clear to my wife and I that it was time to leave the London I had known since my birth. The West Country, renown for its myths and legends, is an area we know well and where we have many friends. Rural Somerset being an area that particularly appealed to us. One of the problems in moving home is not only selling your own house but also finding one that suits your own particular requirements. We did not want to live in an estate type property but rather an individualistic property in both character and style. It was hard to be specific what we were looking for, we just knew we would know the property when we saw it. Estate agents can only advise buyers of the properties they have on their books at the time. We also knew that if we chose a property we were not completely happy with it is much more difficult to move yet again. In the end my wife and I spent 18 months house hunting travelling between London and Somerset before we found our ideal home. It was a long task but well worth it.

Work wise, I had already worked out the feasibility of commuting to London on a daily basis and found it more than possible and practicable. Although work colleagues kept advising it could not be done, I knew it could and surprised them all by eventually doing so. One of the problems of living in London is that minds become rapidly attuned to traffic conditions and consequent travel difficulties. On occasions, it can take several hours to drive only a few miles and consequently the mind seems to incorrectly accept that travelling any sizeable distance will be at the same slow pace. Very often it is people’s own minds that stop them moving from London rather than any practicable obstacles. It may seem strange but I found many of my work colleagues spent longer behind the wheel driving to and fro every day than I did catching a train direct into Central London.

I still recall the day we first arrived at our new home. We had booked two weeks holiday to give us time to settle in and as we opened our front door for the first time, we were welcomed by a plethora of greetings cards on the mat from neighbours throughout the village and who as yet we did not know. The village itself is only slightly larger than a hamlet with about 50 properties and the local geography dictates it cannot grow larger. With a population of just over 0.5 million for the entire county of Somerset, overcrowding is never and issue.

My wife was also fortunate in finding new employment as she is a highly qualified operating theatre scrub nurse with many years of experience in all types of surgery. A few weeks before we moved she saw an advert in the Nursing Times for a theatre nurse in a local district hospital. A scrub nurse is the person who ensures that patients do not go home with the hospital cutlery still inside them as well as being the person responsible for handing the correct medical instruments to the surgeon. She applied for the position and was accepted for an interview which took place on the day after we arrived. There were many applicants for the position but fortunately my wife’s knowledge and experience must have shone out like a beacon. That afternoon we received our first call on our newly installed telephone. It was the hospital administrators advising her that she had won the position hands down and also enquiring how soon she could start. The hospital really was desperate for a qualified and experienced theatre nurse.

Traffic in Somerset is normally light and road connections good. The speed limit on most roads is 60 mph with a few 70 mph making for easy travel within Somerset and the surrounding counties. In practice this means that within a 10 minute drive, we can travel anywhere within a 20 mile radius or a 40 mile radius within 20 minutes. The Jurassic Coast, North Somerset coast, Exmoor and The Quantocks, Glastonbury all are within easy reach. Both Glastonbury Tor and Cadbury Castle can be viewed from our home. Cadbury Castle is one of the legendary locations for King Arthur and Camelot. Although no such location has ever been established in fact, with a River Cam flowing nearby and with nearby villages with exotic names like Queen Camel and West Camel, Camel-ot does not seem to be a too far-fetched possibility.

In practice it means we are able to travel to more supermarkets, cinemas, theatres, beauty spots, interesting locations or any other facility we require than we could in London and in a fraction of the time. There is no frustration either caused through bottlenecks or traffic jams.

If I were looking for an analogy to compare countryside living, I would suggest trying to recall one of those few perfect days we all have in our lives. The sort where one goes for a countryside picnic, the seaside or whatever. The only blight on the day is that we have to come home. To us, everyday is now like one of those perfect days with the exception that we do not have to journey home again.

On the social side, we now have many more good friends than we are likely to have made if we remained in London plus all the numerous countryside activities that go on throughout the year. The old saying that one of the loneliest locations in England is Piccadilly Circus certainly appears to ring true. I wonder what Samuel Pepys would say about London if he were alive today.

As I said at the beginning, What a wonderful county Somerset is.

 

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