Wanting to live in beautiful countryside is a dream for many people – it has been for me since I left the rural world as a child. And now I’ve made it back to the countryside, I wanted to share some of my thoughts and experiences (plenty of ups and plenty of downs) along the way – which might be helpful to others keen to start their own adventures.
First up – what prompted me to make the move?
For me, it’s a case of moving back to the countryside because I first left it at the age of nine, dragged reluctantly from blissful endless summers in Somerset by my father’s much-needed new job in London. We used to return ‘home’ at weekends and this rationed rural existence only heightens my memories.
My uncle and aunt also had a smallholding in the Forest of Dean, a damp, charming ramshackle house on four acres of hill where, left for two weeks every summer, we mostly ate vast monoliths of cheese, roamed the woods, caught butterflies and chased escaped sheep. I can’t think of a time when I was happier in the moment.
By 18, I was a confirmed urbanite and for the next 10 years gained a life in London.
I blame Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall for awakening the latent countryman within. Sitting in my Holloway Road flat, I caught the end of one episode of his first series, Cook on the Wild Side. Here he bounds off in an old Landrover/camper and tries to fend for himself off the land. He shot stuff (including squirrels), fished for all manner of critters, ate nettles and met tremendous characters. It shouted freedom, self reliance, useful skills and happiness.
It may well have been contrived, I don’t want to know. I haven’t looked at its Wikipedia entry. For me, it was – and still is – magical tv. From then on, I had a niggle.
Then HFW really hooked me. River Cottage became his Dorset base for a new series on self-sufficiency. He kept livestock, had a great vegetable patch, foraged and fished, shot and brewed – and had a wonderful supporting cast of local salt of the earth experts and unruly animals. It was a rural dream but it reminded me of my uncle’s life in the Dean. And I felt this sort of life would make me happy, too.
I remember looking online at the time (it was new then) at one of the first property websites. There was a four-acre small-holding in the Forest of Dean for £119,000. As I earned £14,000 at the time, it was a little beyond my reach. That same property recently sold for £545,000. It might as well be on Mars.
Marriage and a move to Bristol six years later brought the dream more into focus. Bristol is a rural city – the countryside is close by, the lovely accent has a rural flavour to it and tractors drive through the suburbs.
My wife it turned out had a yearning for freedom, adventure and getting off grid. She had been ill for long periods and wanted to escape the intense stress of her working life (and compensation for being married to me!).
We set ourselves a four-year-plan that was interrupted by the birth of our son, another bout of illness and, paradoxically, me getting the job as editor on Countryfile. Four years became six years. But the niggle was still there – multiplied by two. And we began to start looking in earnest.
But where to start looking?