Chasing the Dream

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    Sunday is the ninth anniversary of the day we moved in to our house in South Wales. The first blogs I ever posted on the Word Cloud (four of them, if I remember right) were about how this came to happen, so if anyone reading this (still) remembers them I apologise for the repetition. But being confined to quarters has made me appreciate my home all over again, and dammit, the anniversary is worth celebrating – and don’t we all need something to celebrate in these challenging times? So let me reprise the story, from a different angle and rather more briefly.

    Chasing the Dream

    The cottage was at the far end of a row of three standing alone by a bend in the lane, with nothing around but fields, hedgerows and a few trees, and it was for sale.

    When you’re used to the vast sprawl of the London suburbs, it can come as quite a surprise how close the countryside is in smaller cities. Out for a bike ride on this summer’s day back in 1974, MrsB and I had come only a few miles north of the centre of Newcastle and we were not more than a mile or two from the A1, but the ambience was entirely rural. All was green and peaceful, and the only thing that betrayed the closeness of the city was the smudge on the southern horizon.

    We got off our bikes and took a closer look. The cottages had probably once been farm labourers’ homes, and were small, plain, and very basic, just two-up-two-down by the look of it. The end one, the one with the ‘For Sale’ sign, appeared to have been recently refurbished. Beyond the small garden behind it there was a ploughed field, where a flock of black and white birds was wandering about, pecking at the soil. I’d never seen their kind before, but after a moment’s thought I identified them as peewits.

    Both of us were thinking the same thing: what a nice little first proper home this would make, if only we were in a position to buy it. We weren’t, as I was on a course at Newcastle Polytechnic (as was: now it’s Tyneside University), but there’s no harm in dreaming. The next day I went to the estate agents and asked the price. It turned out to be surprisingly modest for one used to London property prices, probably within our reach if I’d had even a fairly modest salary. Such a pity…

    I never forgot that little cottage in the fields. It stayed in the back of my mind all through the years that followed, not so much for its own sake but for what it symbolised: that it’s still possible to live in the country on modest means if you don’t set your sights too high.

    For both of us, the dream went back a long way. When I was in my early teens our family holidays were spent for several years in a row at Salcombe, and for the first couple of years we stayed in a caravan on a site just over the hill behind the town. When we sat down to dinner in the evenings after a day on the beach or out touring in the car, the view from the windows was a panorama of the South Devon countryside, with the spire of Malborough village church on the horizon; and I’d think how lovely it would be to exchange the endless rows of semis and the ceaseless traffic of London for a setting like this: quiet and greenery, rolling hills and grazing cows. Sometime during the journey home my father would always say in a tone of gloomy resignation: ‘Here we go. Back to the bloody smoke!’ and I’d always mentally second the thought.

    The suburbs of Salcombe have long since reached out and swallowed the field where those caravans once stood, but the dream never left me, no matter how distant it became, no matter how deeply buried by the long years of keeping my head down, raising a family and working to bring home the money to pay the bills – though never quite enough of it, so it always seemed. If anyone had asked me what my ambition was during that time, my answer would have been elementally simple. Not to be rich, not to rise to the top in my job, not to achieve anything outstanding. Well, there was my writing, but I never talked about that. Rather than an ambition, success in that felt more like a silly dream – which was what it finally turned out to be. No, ‘To get out of London and live in the country,’ would have been all I’d have said.

    For MrsB, the yearning was even older and stronger. She’d spent her early childhood in a beautiful spot by the sea at the Hill of Howth, just outside Dublin. Nowhere she’d lived since had come anywhere near to comparing to it. More recently, she’d never forgotten the sinking feeling that had hit her on our drive back from Dover after our first holiday in France, when we’d reached the London suburbs and she’d caught sight, for the first time in a fortnight, of the monotony of those rows and rows of near-identical houses.

    But the unanimity of our desires hadn’t make them any easier to achieve. We never did buy that cottage just outside Newcastle. I failed my course, and we had to trail back to London, me with my tail between my legs. Thoroughly demoralised by my failure at what I’d hoped would be a congenial career, it hardly seemed the right time for pursuing dreams. And when I finally found a job and we were able to start house hunting, our income ensured that we were in no position to pick and choose: it was a question of taking whatever we could get. We ended up in an Edwardian end-of terrace house in Sutton, in the south-western suburbs of London, only a mile and a half from where I’d grown up.

    We were still there, thirty-five years later. At first, after living in six different places in the first fifteen months of our marriage, we were simply thankful to have a permanent home at all. Apart from the early flush of pride at owning our very own first home, we never had any particular affection for the place; but you can get used to anything in time, and we did, until living there became a habit, and finally a trap that had closed around us. My work tied us to London, and a better house or a more pleasant neighbourhood within the London area were both beyond our means.

    And then, in 2010, I lost my job. It took a while to permeate the fog of despair and worry, and it was MrsB who voiced it first. ‘There’s nothing to keep us here now, is there?’ she said. The ties had been broken. At last we had a chance to chase our dream.

    Actually, we didn’t have a lot of choice. I had a pension, but it wasn’t going to be enough to let us carry on living where we were. We had to find somewhere where living was cheaper, or face the prospect of financial meltdown.

    Which immediately ruled out the dreams of our youth. These days Salcombe is notorious for having the second-highest property prices of anywhere outside the West End of London. And the area where MrsB once lived at the Hill of Howth is now known as Millionaires’ Row, and is home to pop-stars and the like. The situation wouldn’t be a lot better in other well-known beauty spots popular for country retreats, such as Cornwall, the Cotswolds, the Yorkshire Dales, or the Lake District. In any case, we knew well enough how local people in such places were being squeezed out of the property market by the demand for homes for wealthy outsiders, and we had no wish to contribute to their problems or to be on the receiving end of their resentment.

    Now the lesson of that cottage outside Newcastle, the lesson that had been sleeping at the back of my mind for so many years, came back to me with redoubled force. Don’t set your sights too high. We could get a lot more house for our money if we could find somewhere a bit more off the beaten track, somewhere where the surroundings would still be pleasant but the prices lower. Anywhere reasonably quiet and green would be a welcome improvement in the quality of our lives.

    It wasn’t long before our thoughts turned to Wales. We’d had several holidays there over the years, and we’d seen enough of it to know that its famous beauty spots – Snowdonia, the Gower, the Pembrokeshire coast, the Brecon Beacons – represented only a fraction of its scenic delights. On one occasion we’d driven right through it from the North down to Caerleon, where my mother lived, and I’d never forgotten how strikingly beautiful the scenery had been nearly all the way. Surely we’d be able to find somewhere nice there. There was plenty of room away from the popular tourist areas.

    For me there were emotional ties, too. My father, though of London stock, had been born and brought up in Cardiff. And my mother in Caerleon was now ninety years old and, though still alert, getting steadily frailer physically. It would be a comfort to be a bit nearer to her than the 150 miles away we were at present. Accordingly, we narrowed the search to South Wales.

    When you go house-hunting in South Wales it’s no good expecting to find picturesque thatched cottages with roses and honeysuckle growing round the door. They don’t do that sort of thing in that part of the world. Even in the country houses tend to be of the plain and functional persuasion: stone and slate rather than half-timber and thatch. We’d seen enough in our previous visits to Wales, and in our recent Internet searches for properties, to be well aware of this. All the same, it struck me as a bit incongruous, on arriving for our first viewing, to find a single dead-end terraced street, that wouldn’t have looked out of place on ‘Coronation Street,’ sitting on its own in the middle of nowhere, with a wooded mountain rising beyond the end of the street like a wave about to break over the houses. This, apparently, was the village we were looking for.

    My first reaction was ‘Meh.’ I’d thought we’d come beyond the western end of the South Wales coalfield, but those terraces had an urban look about them that said ‘mining village.’ The house itself, an uncompromising rectangular block standing on its own just before the left-hand terrace, its outline softened only by a ground-floor extension to one side, had a dour look about it. The pebbledash that covered the building was greyer and darker than it had looked in the photo, and the black paint on barge-boards and window-sills didn’t help.

    But when the estate agent arrived to let us in things started looking up. The place had much more character than its outside appearance had suggested. In fact the layout was so eccentric (How many people do you know who have a corner of the dining room under the staircase?) that I kept losing my bearings as I wandered from room to room. The estate agent told us that it had been converted from two flats (we later found out that it had been the village shop before that), which explained why the stairs were at the opposite end of the building from the front door, and why there was a complete second bathroom, not just a toilet, downstairs, next to the kitchen.

    And when we went outside to stand in the cold, pale winter sunlight in the small garden, my mind flew straight back to that cottage outside Newcastle. After nearly forty years I’d found my house with fields at the bottom of the garden. Here were the same spacious views and wide skies, the same rural surroundings. Only more so. Here there was no city smudging the horizon.

    Instead there was a view to the north that stretched for miles, the land gently falling and then rising again in ridges and hollows, pasture and woodland, to the distant heights of the Brecon Beacons. Gazing at the panorama spread out before me, I thought I could quite easily get used to living here.

    Which was just as well, because that was where we ended up living. We viewed three other houses, but none of them quite suited. One was a nice new build, but it was in the middle of a real pit-head village in the heart of the Rhondda Valley and the surroundings were that little bit too grim. One was in a spectacular location right beside a river with a ladder of little waterfalls in sight from the garden, but it was damp and needed a lot of work. The third was already under offer, and in any case its front door opened straight out onto the pavement of an A road.

    Within days of moving in I knew that, for once in my life, I’d got something absolutely, resoundingly right. It wasn’t just that the profit we’d made on the deal (yes, though the house was bigger than our old one, in much better condition, in a far nicer location, it wasn’t much more than two-thirds of the price), together with the lump sum from my pension, had cleared us of debt for the first time in thirty-five years and set us up nicely. I’d been prepared to be realistic and compromise a little on my dream, but I didn’t have to. We’d found exactly what I’d been looking for.

    The Western Valleys, as the area is known, are not known as a tourist destination. Houses in former mining villages are not in demand among second-homers and country-retreaters. Yet we are in sight of a national park, and only a mile from its border. Most of the time the loudest sound you can hear if you go and stand outside is birdsong. I know a place no more than a mile or two away where you can walk for an hour or more without meeting a living soul.

    As for fields at the bottom of the garden, it’s actually better than that. The area behind the houses on our side of the street is where the mine used to be, but it closed back in 1964 and the land hasn’t been used for anything in particular since. Nature has been left to reclaim her own, and the result is a delightful shaggy semi-wilderness. There is a stream, the Camnant (‘Crooked Brook’) less than fifty yards beyond our back fence, even if it does run in a deep bed and can’t be seen from the house. Further off, and visible from our bedroom window, an open-cast coal digging has turned into a large pond or a small lake (however you choose to look at it), fringed with reeds and stocked with fish by the local angling club. There is a paved path around the pond (with stepping stones where the Camnant issues from it), and another path branching off it to climb through a stretch of woodland.

    And all this with views of the mountains as you walk. We are truly blessed to have this right on our doorstep. You couldn’t wish for a better place to take a stroll.

    Especially now. In the weeks we’ve been taking our daily lockdown exercise out there the trees seem to have been getting a little greener every day. The pond’s mallard population has been supplemented, as it is every spring, by a nesting pair of Canada geese. The daffodils are on their way out now, but the marsh marigolds are still a blaze of yellow on the margins of the pond. And when they fade other flowers will bloom to replace them, providing splashes of colour throughout the summer. I have never seen a place with more wild flowers.

    Oh, and those grazing cows? Well, this isn’t really cattle country, but you don’t have to go far to see plenty of sheep. And people keep horses in the fields either side of the village. Sometimes I think they go up to the western skyline at sunset on purpose, just to make an effect.

    Three or four years ago an old friend of mine was telling me, with a certain degree of smug satisfaction, about the cottage in the Peak District he and his wife were buying with the inheritance from her mother. ‘I don’t need a second home in the country,’ I said, possibly with equal smugness. ‘I live in my country retreat all the time.’

    And what does MrsB think of all this? Only the other day she told me, ‘When we moved in here I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven.’


    I don’t remember this blog in detail, but I do remember thinking what a lucky individual you were to find such a wonderful spot.

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