One of the reasons for my recent absence from the Blogosphere is that I have been moving house. So far, so ordinary, but it has certainly been educational for me.
So what have I learned by abandoning inner London in favour of Suffolk (in fact, a village just the other side of Ipswich)?
First, the move-to-the-country logic you read in the weekend papers (bigger house with more space for the brood, a garden that is probably eligible for EU subsidies, and maybe even some change left over) is all true. But there’s more to it than that.
I have lived in London most of my life and went native with it years ago. More materially, I have always been an urban dweller, being born and living near Liverpool before college in Newcastle and then shoving off to the (really) big city. Like scousers in general, I love the countryside as a place to visit. But the idea of living there never occurs to us. And I certainly fell on my feet by moving to London. I have watched it turn from a bit of a mess, competing unevenly with cities around Europe, into the global city where everyone wants to be, ahead of New York and out of sight of Paris. There are downsides, like the way even unlovely parts of town are becoming millionaires’ row, but they are far outweighed by the benefits. I could never have had the modest career I have had, met the people I have known, or in general developed as I have, in a different setting.
But all things flow, so…
The first thing you notice in the countryside is that the economy is more visible than in London. Agricultural equipment goes past the house, and builders’ and repairers’ vans seem to be everywhere, along with an unaccountable number of vehicles to do with food and catering. There’s a local incinerator. There’s an egg factory and a lot of industrial estates. So you can see what goes on. If you wander about London, any given building might be full of financial analysts, journalists or medical researchers, but you could never guess which was which.
Next, moving to this underpopulated backwater (one of the least densely inhabited places in the UK) does not get you out of the globalised world. A railway line runs a few hundred metres to the west of the house. It has some passenger trains, including the little rattler that takes my wife to work in Cambridge. But its main use is to shift the thousands of freight containers coming in and out of the big ports at Felixstowe and Harwich. There’s also a main road, the A14, which has the same role, as the big freight artery from the east coast ports to the English midlands. The classic five flows of globalisation are the movement of goods, services money, people and ideas. We can wake at 2am any day and be sure of hearing the first of these flows in full swing.
But for someone with my modest work profile, running a micro-business with global reach from a tiny office, how big a hassle is this rural dwelling thing? It’s certainly true that I can’t just set off to a meeting in London on a whim, like I had grown used to doing. And I need to leave the house about 90 minutes to two hours earlier than I might once have done to get to the airport or to a London railway station.
But the real issue is to do with small journeys, not long ones. If I am going to Taiwan, as I did recently, it’s no hardship to set out a bit earlier than before. But in my recent past, I have also worked regularly in Liverpool, Guildford, Newcastle, Bristol, Swindon and other places in the UK. If you live in London, these are all an easy day trip provided some other organisation is paying for the train. If you start in Suffolk, it gets a lot more complex, and overnight stays get trickier to avoid.
Part of the problem is the sheer amount of thought and effort involved. The village has not got a station, so all sorts of lifts, buses and taxis have to be thought about, putting a time step in the way of any sort of graceful logistics. Dropping off a suit at the dry cleaner, or getting a haircut, become serious planning issues. Both of these, you may be aware, are prime concerns of mine. People who live here regard this as obvious, I daresay, but it’s a learning curve for me. It also shows that while the UK has passed Peak Driving and Peak Car years ago, there is little substitute for the car in wide areas of the countryside.
But what’s it like? First, noisy. Between the A14 and the busy side road outside, the traffic noise is far more non-stop than in Tooting. There too, we saw aircraft on the Heathrow glide path, but never heard them. The Army flyers at nearby Wattisham airbase are far more audible as they pass overhead in their weapons-laden Apache and Lynx helicopters (the three-year-old finds this very interesting).
Next, it’s enjoyable. The bad news is that you have to spend a lot of time driving, but the good news is that doing so is painless. And what about this stuff they apparently call “countryside?” Well, I am becoming quite a fan. The sheer hassle of settling into the house is an endless consumer of energy and time, so we have not had much chance to get about locally on foot just yet. But I am enjoying the walks we have done, the villages we have seen, and the way I can take a lunchtime stroll in the woods. There seems to be some wildlife – foxes are rare, compared to inner London, but geese fly by in vast v-shaped formations and deer are an ever-present road hazard.
I’m also struck by how isolated this place is in some ways, and how connected in others. The village is badly off for shops, perhaps because it is halfway between the better-resourced fleshpots of Ipswich and Needham Market. It has one-vehicle-wide roads with passing places, something I thought you only found in the Highlands of Scotland or the west of Ireland. It has no fibre broadband (copper wire 8Mb/s download, 1.1 upload, since you ask). I am fine with this as I mainly make Word documents, spreadsheets and PowerPoints. If I made video, or did anything else involving serious connectivity, it would not be feasible to work here. On the other hand, the snailmail is lovely. We get our post at 8am. In SW17, we got other people’s post at 3pm.
I also get a very definite sense that I am only starting to work out what the place has to offer. In the past I have thought that the UK consists of two places – London and not London. The first has a huge percentage of the people, the money, the cleverness, the big jobs, and all the other good assets. The latter has all these things too, but on a far lesser scale. However, it turns out that not-London is a variegated place. Here, for instance, we have the sea, and great rivers, but no mountains. The sky is pretty dark, and the nearby Orwell Astronomical Society has a big telescope. There must be local business circles, local fitness setups, and all the other machinery you’d expect, waiting to be tapped into if I concentrate on the region a bit. It certainly has some vigorous local politics, and there is a lot of cycling going on. People seem about as friendly or unfriendly as in London, and the community (despite my initial fears) has at least some ethnic variety. So all in all, it’s a success and looks set to be a yet bigger one in time.
The house? That’s a story, like the giant rat of Sumatra, for which the world is not yet ready.