Giles Coren Moves To The Country

Our man swaps gritty north London for a pile in the Cotswolds. What could possibly go wrong?

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All my life I have sworn solemn allegiance to the city of my birth. And not just to the city but to my own personal quarter of it. For the last 30 years, in pubs from Archway to Chalk Farm, by way of Hampstead and Kentish Town, I have shushed the chatter of the saloon bar with a finger to my lips, raised my (ninth) pint of Pride to the ceiling and slurred, "North London: Born. Live. Die." Then fallen off my chair.

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Because that is what I am: a Londoner. Sure, I'm an educated and relatively wealthy one. I'm not some cockney wife-beater in a dented van full of snide office furniture, with a season ticket to West Ham and the River Thames tattooed (back-to-front) across my chest, but I have lived in London all my life and it is where I belong. For all my private education and middle class airs and graces, I am the descendant and modern manifestation of a long line of grubby urban Jews, flung from ghetto to ghetto across Europe and finally, in the last years of the 19th century, into the East End of this great capital, where I have remained ever since, give or take a mile or two. Because this is where I feel safe, welcome and relevant.

But I harbour a secret regret. A tragic, self-deluding dream of bucolia. Of the forest of Arden, the English greenwood, dry stone walls and rolling fields where sad shire horses drag an iron plough, whole villages turn out to thresh and stack the hay at harvest time, Rosie drinks cider from a stone jug and parts her lips mysteriously… Oh God, I wish I came from the countryside.
It is all very well going to the countryside. Any fool can do that. Drive out there, look at it, have a shit pie in a moody pub, go for a boring walk along a B-road getting static off the pylons and then drive home again. It is coming from it that is so classy, and so unachievable for me. Owning a piece of it. A big piece. And having always owned it. A thousand acres of land around a 500-year-old house, where Mary Queen of Scots is rumoured to have taken a shit while on the run from Queen Elizabeth's dogs. With staff and a walled garden and a bluebell wood and ancient topiary and a yew tree in the graveyard of your family chapel with runes carved in its trunk that date from before the Conquest.

For all my having done OK in town, having a house and a car and a job and a bit of telly exposure and not being a virgin anymore, I labour under the deepest, deepest shame that I am not the 14th Earl of Somewhereshire.

I didn't always feel this way. It first came upon me in my late twenties when it turned out that everyone I know shoots, apart from me. And I mean everyone. They kept it quiet for a while, embarrassed because they were young and the world was still against that sort of thing. But gradually they started whispering about it, then talking about it more loudly, then shouting about all the fucking partridges and grouse and widgeons and ostriches or whatever-the-fuck they had blown to crap that weekend at each other's places in Shropshire. And suddenly, that's where people always were at weekends. Shooting real live animals dead. And riding horses. And fishing. And knowing the names of trees and birds and butterflies and which fly to tie when the trout are rising just so in the half-light.

The cunts. Why can't I have that? Because I come from the ghetto is why. Whereas 90 per cent of you lot don't. You come from here. And if you come from here then at some point you came from there. You weren't necessarily posh. Your people might have been emaciated tenant farmers, traditionally raped on the eve of their marriage (lucky boys) by the evil squire and doomed to die of rickets in their thirties. But at least there is a green place somewhere that you can claim. And you can feel deep down a right of eventual return.

Not me. I'm an urban grunt from some Middle Eastern cesspit by way of Hungary, Russia, Poland and the gas. No wonder you don't invite me to your houses for the weekend to eat kedgeree for breakfast and sleep by the fire under a giant dog and have a go on your gun. You know I'd shoot your fucking face off.

So, when I decided it was time to stop feeling sorry for myself and buy a place of my own, and start something now, for my descendants to be wankerish about in 1,000 years, I had to pick an area at random. The North is easy to get to from my place because I'm five minutes from the start of the A1. But the North is a fucking pisshole. Sussex is nice but you have to go either round the M25 or through Croydon to get there. And it's full of City commuters. We country types abhor commuters.

I decided on the Cotswolds. I was at university in Oxfordshire, so I know the way, and as long as the North Circular is clear I can do the journey in 90 minutes, wearing a stocking mask and carrying my wife's driving licence. Best of all, AA Gill famously hates the Cotswolds. So I knew Uncle Dysfunctional wouldn't be coming round to tap up my daughter on her wedding night. We started buying Country Life for the property section, but all the places I liked the look of were ten million quid, and the "girls in pearls" were very rarely worth a wank, so we scratched that and hired a property finder called Frank whom we met over lunch in Chelsea for an initial briefing.

On the way I told my wife that we should be prepared to consider anything, from a big Georgian rectory to a Victorian folly. Or possibly a handsome Queen Anne pile, but with no more than 16 chimneys, and only if it was in good nick. We'd want some parkland, ideally a lake…

"In the area you're looking at," Frank said genially, "and with the budget you've given me, and your desire to not be anywhere near a village because 'it will probably be full of dreary old racist shits with silly accents', what you're looking at is a barn conversion."
"Sorry. What?"
"A barn conversion."
"You mean a building originally intended for chickens?"
"Well, not usually chickens."
"Usually what?"
"Usually grain, hay, straw. Sometimes cattle. Occasionally pigs."
"Well, I didn't drag myself out of the ashes of the Holocaust to go and live in a cunting pig sty," I said. "I want something beautiful. I want history. I want character. I want mullioned windows, stone floors, oak panels. I want a priest hole. I want a bloody ha-ha. I don't want a fucking cattle shed."
"You might get lucky," said Frank. "Other things do come up. I'll keep you posted."

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That was back in May last year and as the country house market wound up to full steam over the summer, Frank took us to see quite a few pretty, old houses with well-kept lawns and mature herbaceous borders, just like I wanted. But they always had some small downside or another. Like the noise of the eight-lane motorway that separated the house from the garden, or the vibrations from the express line into Paddington going through the kitchen. Or the smell of the sewage treatment facility next door. Or being in the middle of Milton Keynes.

And then he told us to meet him at a recently converted ox barn in the middle of the middle of nowhere. It took an hour to find from Stow-on-the-Wold despite being no more than six or seven miles away (Stow-on-the-fucking-Wold! Turns out it's an actual place!) and sat at the end of a long, tree-lined drive through its own six acres of paddocks and stables. It was on top of a hill, protected on two sides by mixed woodland, and from the front opened out onto a view that seemed to stretch forever across a vast patchwork of fields down into a wooded valley, then up the other side and on forever until it hit the pale blue, cloudless sky.

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The only drawback was the house itself.

"It's a fucking Barratt home!" I said.
"It is indeed a recent conversion," said Frank. "It's two late 18th-century cattle barns, one of which was taken down and replaced brick by brick, joined with modern additions and completed in 2002."
"2002," I repeated. "Wow. From those walls, 670 weeks of history gaze down upon us. It's awe-inspiring."
"But at least the heating will work," said my wife. "And the windows will close and there will be hot water and level floors and proper plumbing and the roof won't leak and…"
"But I don't want those things," I said. "It's all very well for you, you're Welsh. Your mother grew up on a hill farm with a dirt floor and sheep for in-laws. Your family has had wonky windows and leaky roofs and draughty corridors and water from a well and kettles boiled on an open fire and all that marvellous old shit. But the Corens have never had that. The Corens had mansion flats. If people come here and it's all warm and comfy and modern and convenient then they'll… they'll… they'll KNOW!"
"Know what?" said Frank.
"That he's a Jew," said my wife.
And she was dead right.

But we bought it just the same. Borrowed money off parents, sold jewellery and comic collections, told terrible lies on dozens of forms ("More than a million a year, easily, like most journalists"), mortgaged ourselves to the absolute arsehole, and just scraped over the line by swearing never to buy food or clothes again.

We exchanged at the end of August (with the ominous completion date of Halloween, 2014) and now that the deal was done we thought we might as well go back and have a look at our new home. We set off bright and early, reckoning to be there by 10am, have a squiz around and be back to get Kitty from nursery by lunchtime.

Four-and-a-half hours later we arrived. Roadworks on the Oxford ring-road. We walked silently through the huge wheat fields surrounding the house. I hadn't noticed there was so much big arable. We peered into the nettle-filled, whistling woods. We walked up onto our paddocks to have a look at the stables and pace the perimeter of our land.

"Well, this is all right, at least," I said. "Six acres to do as we please with. Soon as we've saved some cash or one of our remaining parents has had the decency to clock out, we can do a tennis court and swimming pool. And there's water and 'leccy to the stables so we can turn them into a pool house and bar. Make it a proper pleasure dome."

Esther pulled the freehold contract out of her handbag and riffled though it.
"Nope," she said.
"What do you mean, 'nope'?"
"It's not domestic curtilage. It's registered as paddocks and stabling. Can't build on it, can't grow crops on it."
"Well, what the fuck can we do on it?"
"We can keep horses on it."
"What the fuck do we want horses for?"
"I don't know, darling. You're the one who wants to be a country gentleman. I suppose we'd have to ride them."
"Where?"
"Up and down?"
"That's insane! Jews don't ride horses. Cossacks ride horses. Mainly for herding Jews. If I see a horse anywhere round here I will literally vomit."
"Then don't look over there," she said, pointing to where six people wearing green quilted gilets and mounted on giant brown mammals were clomping past our kitchen window.
"What the fuck is that?" I said.
"That's a public bridleway," said my wife. "It's marked quite clearly on the map."

The front rider raised his stupid velvet crash helmet in our direction and said, "Morning!" I gave him my best Halloween pumpkin smile, and turned my back.

We walked round to the small back garden, which we hadn't bothered to look at when we looked around before, to see if there was any room to put a swimming pool there. Luckily, there was. As long as people didn't mind using it one at a time.

We bumped into the gardener. We'll need to keep the gardener, of course. That'll be expensive. I know, because we have a gardener in London. It never occurred to me before that I'd end up with two of the perishers.

"Bit bleak today," I said to him, turning my collar up against the driving wind and unseasonal sleet.
"Oh, I wouldn't say so," he said cheerily. "We consider this is a good day round here. Remember we're pretty high-up. And we're facing due north which is where this wind is ripping in from. You'll notice in spring, when there aren't any flowers till June, that we're a few weeks behind London with the seasons."
"What about the shelter from the woods?" I said.
"Well, I suppose on warmer days they shelter you from the sun, if there is any, because they block out the southwest. But your weather here comes straight from the North Pole with nothing in between. Lovely and brisk."
Already late for Kitty, we climbed back in the car and headed home.
"I suppose for a shade under two million you expect to have your tits and bollocks frozen off 11 months of the year," I said.
"I suppose," said my wife.
We drove on for a while in silence. I say, "drove". What we did was sit on the A40 outside Witney for three hours on account of the digging up of the Wolvercote roundabout that will add two hours to the London–Cotswolds run until late 2017, meaning that we will spend more time driving to our house at weekends than sleeping in it.
Black sleet lashed the windows.
"Quite spooky, those wheat fields," I said to my wife eventually.
"Not half as fucking spooky as that wood," she replied. 

Next month: Giles and his wife move in and realise they have no furniture (where the fuck do you buy a bed at 11pm on Christmas Eve?) Four-year-old Kitty is abducted by gypsies in the woods, while two-year-old Sam drowns in a bog.

What do you think?

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