So did Felicity Everett – but she soon discovered that it takes more than an Aga and some new wellies to fit in.
‘Mark, I don’t know if I can do this.’ My husband turned around and stared at me, baffled. He had been grilling toast on the Aga in our newly refurbished country cottage, which we had moved into just six weeks previously. Through the window was a stunning view of fields and wooded hills. It was the rural idyll millions dream of, and that we had spent months pursuing.
There was a pause. The toast caught fire. Mark tried to rescue it, burned his hand and a row ensued (one of many to come). Why hadn’t I said anything earlier? Did I realise how much it had all cost? The amount of money we’d be out of pocket if we had to move again? I cried and told him I was being silly – that it would all be fine.
I was lying.
Our cottage was nestled in a picture-perfect valley in a hamlet outside Stroud in Gloucestershire, and we had fallen in love with it on sight. It was a big move for us – we had spent the previous four years in Melbourne, Australia, where Mark had a job in consulting that enabled him to save up for an early retirement. Before that we spent 25 years raising our four kids in South London. When the time came to return to the UK, in our early 50s (I’m now 59 and Mark is 58), I felt invincible. This relocation thing was a doddle: in Melbourne I got out of my comfort zone and made great friends – I could fit in anywhere! Going back to London seemed a retrograde step, and it made no sense to return to a big semi when three of our children had left home. What we’d never tried was living in the country, but I reckoned now was as good a time as any to try it.
We did our research and Stroud, a market town in the Cotswolds, ticked our boxes: it’s lively, not too chocolate-boxy and has a reputation for being a bit alternative. It’s full of writers, and I’m a writer. It’s well-connected to London, near Bristol and Bath, and it’s gorgeous. What could possibly go wrong?
Erm, how long have you got? I quickly realised it was a town of cliques and tribes and, somehow, we didn’t seem to fit into any of them. There are the properly posh, in frayed shirts and smelly tweed, who love their dogs more than their children. The rainbow-haired women in linen smocks and sandals. The born-and-bred Swindon-Town-supporting Stroudies. The ‘down from London’ Boden and Barbour brigade, some second-home owners, others relocating baby boomers wanting a bit of peace. I suppose if we were anything, we’d have been in that last category – probably the most loathed in the town for pricing the locals out. I didn’t blame them.
The first time we went to the local pub, a picturesque ramblers’ retreat with cask ales and a real fire, the welcome was tolerant rather than warm. When we sat in the corner, it quickly got chilly. People muttered and raised their eyebrows. We deduced, by the end of the second drink, that we had inadvertently sat in a ‘regular’s’ spot. He wasn’t in that night, but that wasn’t the point.
Desperate to fit in, I joined a writing group. The people and the writing were eclectic, but among the members was a group of women around my age who I hit it off with – or thought I did, until I walked into a local coffee shop one morning to see them all having a cosy natter without me. The looks on their faces when I said a croaky ‘Hi!’ and hurried off with my flat white to go were a sight to behold.
We decided that if we were doing the country, we’d do it properly – so we chose to live in a spot two miles from town, reached by a winding lane, overhung with trees. By day, it’s a walkers’ paradise; by night it’s a slasher movie waiting to happen. The only sound you can hear is the hooting of owls, or, if you’re home alone, the creak of an axe-murderer’s footsteps. One Sunday, I got back from a trip to London around teatime. Mark was away and the taxi rank in Stroud was deserted. It wasn’t yet dark so I decided to walk. I set off marvelling at the beauty of a Cotswolds sunset, but by the time I was halfway home it was getting dark and every creaking branch was giving me the jitters. Passing cars were few and far between and, glancing over my shoulder, I wasn’t sure if there was someone following me or if my eyes were playing tricks. I walked faster and faster until I got home, almost hysterical, and had to pour myself a drink to calm down. I wouldn’t be doing that again in a hurry.
My marriage started to suffer. Mark and I like our own space. Suddenly we were together 24/7 in a town where we knew no one. Combine this with a menopause that hit me hard both mentally and physically and you have a recipe for a reality show, but it’s not Escape to the Country.
Six months in, things weren’t getting better and I was convinced that it wasn’t just teething troubles but a huge mistake. I wished I’d taken notice of a few early, niggling worries, but I’d brushed them aside – I’d had the same misgivings about the move to Australia, which had turned out to be brilliant.
But by now it was winter and dark before four. The local cinema was showing Alvin and the Chipmunks. The kindling was damp and I couldn’t get the woodburner to light. We had a lot of early nights around then, and not in a good way. I did all the right things – went to evening classes, joined a yoga group. But after holding a couple of those dinner parties when you know, as you’re handing round the olives, that none of these people are going to be your friends, things were unravelling.
I was beginning to miss things about London you shouldn’t miss – the crazy drivers, the rowdy kids spilling out of takeaways, the bin-raiding foxes. I resented Mark for not minding the isolation as much as I did, even though I’d happily signed up for it. We both knew I was miserable but I just withdrew and our relationship suffered. We ended up doing that awful thing of tiptoeing around each other, which is even worse than fighting.
Old friends muttered ‘I told you so’ and advised: ‘go on dates’ (where to?), ‘do things separately’ (what things?), ‘come back to London’ (can’t afford it). In desperation I saw a counsellor. With her help I realised that there was more going on than just a move to the country. I’d been dealing with the menopause, my children leaving the nest – but blaming all of my unhappiness on the move.
I suppose I’d seen the countryside as a comfort blanket; a place in which life was slower-paced and friendships more meaningful. A tight-knit community that would welcome me in and fill the void left by my dispersing family. Now I could see it was a real place full of real people with problems of their own. I could adjust my expectations and stay, or cut my losses and leave.
I decided on the former. OK, so no one ever dropped in for a cuppa – but I could use the peace to my advantage. Since moving here, I’ve never written so much – and I’ve got a new book to show for it. I’ve never walked so far or in such beautiful surroundings. I’ve also never soul-searched so hard or been so honest with my husband. Eventually, we figured out where our differences lay. For him, retirement was a holy grail at the end of a gruelling career. For me, it was tied up with menopausal angst about ageing. We negotiated new terms for our marriage, agreed what we’d do together, and what apart; how we’d fit hobbies and holidays around my late-blooming writing career. And if I haven’t found my clique here in the countryside, at least I’ve restored the clique that Mark and I have been since we met at university in 1981.
We are nearly five years in now. I’ve made a few good friends and started to participate more in the life of the town. I’ve even befriended the odd newcomer myself. When a woman moved in a few doors down, I invited her for a drink in the local – yes, that one. Despite our early faux pas, Mark and I had persevered with it because the food’s good and, well… there’s nowhere else to go. This time we were greeted with the odd smile.
‘What a gorgeous little place,’ said my new friend, looking around. ‘Isn’t it?’ I said.
I can’t quite believe it, but the countryside is starting to feel like home.
The Move by Felicity Everett will be published on 23 January by HQ, price £12.99