Long country walks along winding, flower lined lanes, chocolate box cottages, the sound of church bells chiming on a Sunday morning and an evening in the village pub drinking wine around a crackling fire. The rural idyll which so many of us dream of and from the outside you may even think I have.
I consider myself to be very fortunate to live in the stunning Kent Countryside. We live in a small, but beautiful cottage on the grounds of a large country estate complete with manor house, sprawling gardens and tea room. (And many many tourists!) I love it here although it is far removed from my original home.
I was born in Hertfordshire and spent the first 13 years of my life living in a little council house in Hemel Hempstead. I was surrounded by the hustle and bustle of traffic and people and we even had shops within walking distance! So when, as a 13 year old stroppy teenager, I was told we were moving to deepest darkest Kent for my father’s work and to be closer to my Grandparents, I was furious! My life was turned upside down, I had to change schools (from a huge comprehensive in Hertfordshire, to a small independent school in Kent), I was miles away from the nearest towns and all of my friends were further away still. It was “JUST NOT FAIR!”
It took me a long time to become accustomed to this new way of life, but I think that my transition was made easier by my familiarity with the natural world that was now on my door step. I grew up with a father who is absolutely passionate about the natural world. From fishing to ornithology and all creatures’ great and small we have always been surrounded by elements of this fascinating world even in a council house in the middle of a town.
We would often be found wandering around reservoirs, forests and nature reserves. It was not uncommon for us to pile into the car on a Sunday and drive for miles to see some sort of rare bird or animal. It was fairly normal for us to have moths in pots in the fridge awaiting identification, pet pigeons (Wilbur and Columbus) that needed a bit of TLC, living in our bedrooms, fish in a bath in the shed (don’t ask!) and on one occasion I awoke in the middle of the night to find my dad sitting at the end of my bed with a hedgehog he wanted me to see. It’s fair to say he is somewhat enthusiastic about these things!
So I believe that my love of all things country living has certainly stemmed from these beginnings.
Like many people who share my country life dreams I buy all of the beautiful lifestyle magazines which depict how my life ‘should be’: oh how I love them. I gaze longingly at the glossy pages … Then I look at how my home actually is and I find myself to be somewhat lacking.
The reality of country living with three young children in a tiny cottage is not quite as perfect as the magazines would have you believe. For a start white carpets and cream sofas are not a good combination with muddy boots, pet worms and a toddler who has a fascination for make-up and sparkles! We’ve gone for more of a soil/raisin toned colour scheme since the arrival of the children.
Having thought about this long and hard I have complied a list of a few misconceptions I have found in the pages of my aspirational magazines.
All country homes are huge, immaculate and have a boot room, a utility room, a spectacular “heart of the home” kitchen and an enormous garden with room for a pony.
Unfortunately for me this is not the case. When we moved to our little three bed cottage there were only three of us, the youngest being just 18 months old and not taking up much room at all. We could have had a bedroom each!
Now however, there are five of us (I don’t know how that happened!) and trying to fit us all in is becoming increasingly difficult. We climb over the double pushchair in the kitchen to make a cup of tea, every cupboard and shelf in the house is full, (Storage boxes are my friend). The “boot room” is a muddy plastic box which sits on the floor by the back door full of filthy boots which often fall out scattering mud across the kitchen.
There is no dining room with a table large enough to seat 12, we only have our small kitchen table with just enough room for us all to fit around if the pushchair is wedged against the back door. Mealtimes require several yoga techniques in order for us all to eat together and I am often quite impressed at my husbands’ nimbleness!!
We are very lucky to have a reasonable sized garden with room for a vegetable patch/ action man tank track, several “My little ponies” and not one, but two pools. (Of the paddling variety!)
In the house also have a few holes in the roof, leaky chimneys and gaps around the exterior doors that are so big you don’t really need to open the doors to leave the house. We like to call this our “air conditioning system”. I often look for these features in my magazines, but I get the impression that they are probably just out of shot!
Another delight of the county cottage is that there is no mains gas and the electricity supply can be somewhat haphazard! We have a Calor gas cooker which I love, but the trouble with it is you never know when the gas might run out, so we are always playing a game of gas roulette. It could be midway through making a birthday cake or making Christmas dinner, but more often than not it’s at 5pm when I have a house full of hungry children and a half cooked pizza. Luckily, we have the most amazing neighbours in the world and I can run next door with dinner on trays and they will cook it for us. I LOVE them!
As for the electricity, this is very weather dependent. If the wind blows the power goes off. If it snows, the power goes off, if like last summer on my daughters 2nd birthday it gets to 37 degrees, the power goes off. These are not minor hour long power cuts, these are 20 hour + power cuts. So over the past 15 years we have learned to become very resourceful people, a brilliant life skill to have!
The Great outdoors stays outdoors:
Hmmmmm, not quite! As I flick through my magazines I see not one cobweb, uninvited creature, twig, stone, muddy foot print or pile of “special finds” freshly dug from the archaeological dig that the children are undertaking in the garden, in the middle of the kitchen table.
I see freshly baked bread, vases of beautiful flowers, immaculately clean floors and clear surfaces.
In my house the cobwebs and resident spiders play a functional role controlling the numbers of flying insects that venture into my home through open windows and doors. For the past few years we’ve had honey bees nesting in the eves, which has been lovely (apart from the little buzzing noises they make all night!)
We have ladybirds that hibernate around our window frames in the winter. (Coincidentally I caught the baby eating one yesterday. It had been long deceased… I think!) And we once had a cricket sitting on the kitchen table.
Rodents too have a liking for old country cottages and we often have mice in the attic and the odd one in the kitchen. I’ve found them in the oven and the tumble dryer. And when I was decorating for the arrival of our second child I must have disturbed a family of shrews in the wall cavity because later that day I found them in my son’s bed hiding under the covers. This is all fairly standard stuff for real country living!
Then there is the birdlife. Usually our feathered friends remain outside where there is ample room for flapping! However, sometimes the temptation of the missed bits of food hurled under the table by small children is too much and they venture inside.
We have a blackbird named Gladys who visits us and our neighbours daily. She is quite partial to a grape or two and in the summer she is often found under my kitchen table clearing up the debris from lunch. It’s a bit like that scene from Snow White where the animals do the washing up!
It’s not just small birds that sneak into my home. One lovely warm summer’s day shortly after the arrival of my beautiful baby girl, I was in the living room feeding her enjoying the breeze blowing in through the open back door, watching the cobwebs gently swaying when suddenly I heard a strange fluttering sound followed by a lot of banging and crashing.
I cradled my new-born in my arms and peered around the door to discover a rather large and slightly ruffled pheasant sitting in my bathroom. “Oh!” I thought.
I tried to move closer in an attempt to herd the giant bird out of the door, but this caused a lot of flapping and pooping (from the bird) and I had to retreat to rethink my tactics.
This was going to be a two hand type of job. Baby secured in the moses basket I returned to the bathroom with a bag of bird seed and made a little trail across the floor towards the back door. The pheasant sat on my windowsill watching me in disgust! We both knew what he really wanted, but he was a bird and what he really wanted was locked away in my bread bin.
I returned to the safety of the living room to watch. He was not impressed and showed his displeasure by flapping onto the edge of my sink in pooping all over the toothbrushes! I was livid!
I decided that for the benefit of all concerned I would have to give in and resort to plan B. (B for bread!) Armed with a chunk of Hovis I returned to the bathroom and the pheasant watched as I made a second trail out of the bathroom and out of the back door. Low and behold, down he hopped and headed for the exit gobbling gullets full of bread as he went!
After a lot of bleach and some new tooth brushes the bathroom was at last restored to its former state.
Everyone who lives in the countryside owns a 4X4
Oh how I wish this was true! We have our trusty rusty old Renault Scenic which is covered in mud and full of sweet wrappers, toys and “finds” from various outings. However, it is perfectly good for driving around the Kent countryside, unless it’s snowing…then we just stay at home!
Although last winter this was a bit of an issue as baby number three was due in mid-January! As usual our lovely friends stepped in to help and Steve the Log man was on standby to rush me off to hospital in his 4X4 log truck should it snow and we were stuck!
By the way a person who has a clean car in the countryside either a.) Doesn’t live in the countryside or b.) Has their own personal valet!
We have given up washing the car. In the winter it gets covered in mud and in the summer it gets covered in dust, so it remains a dusty/mud brown colour for most of the year.
Everyone who lives in the Countryside lives “The Good life”
I can’t deny it, life in the countryside is good and I certainly think it is beneficial to my physical and mental health. Before we had children we loved nothing more than getting outside come rain or shine to dig the vegetable garden and pick tomatoes in the greenhouse. There is something so therapeutic about the smell of tomato plants in a warm green house.
We would eat veg from the garden, pick apples from the trees and we even grew our own flowers for our wedding. However, since the arrival of three small people in our lives, the time we have for such pursuits has become somewhat limited. Currently the vegetable patch is a track for remote cars and army tanks and the greenhouse is a hanger for a large aeroplane that my husband built for our eldest son. I have to confess that online grocery shopping is temporarily our main source of food because our nearest supermarket is 25 minutes away and with three children in tow shopping is NOT a pleasurable experience!
Fortunately my lovely neighbour is also the former head gardener of the country estate and he keeps us in a constant supply of fresh fruit and veg in the summer and his wife makes the best sausage rolls and cheese straws in the world! Another friend in the village gives me fresh eggs from her chickens. We have considered getting some chickens of our own, but at the moment this is slightly beyond us. Maybe one day…
We are determined to re-claim the garden this year and I am going to get some seeds this very weekend. But in the meantime I think that it’s perfectly OK to cheat in such matters!
I guess what I really wanted to say in this blog is that real country living is so much more than farm shops and 4X4’s (although we also have a beautiful farm shop not too far away!) It is beyond the pages of my beautiful magazines.
It is standing in my garden on a summer’s night and being able to see every star in the sky. It is the connection to the natural world. It is the pleasure of just being ‘at home’ and the honour of being engulfed in England’s green and pleasant land. It is the joy of watching our children engage in their surroundings and having the space and freedom to play, climb and run.
And most importantly it is our amazing friends and neighbours in the village who would do anything for us.
No I don’t have a pristine country home. Yes, there is mud on the floor and up the walls and I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is our home.