We completed the purchase of The Cattle Barn on Halloween 2014, which was spooky, considering the mortal horror I felt at now owing the Halifax building society (crooks little finger to lower lip in the manner of Dr Evil out of Austin Powers)… one miiiiilllion pounds. Furthermore, at that sum, and at an affordable interest rate, the only kind of mortgage I could get was a capital repayment one (fucking bastard post-crisis banking laws designed to protect over-reaching losers), which meant a monthly direct debit of £4,500. On top of the £2,000 a month on my London house. After tax. Now, I don't know how much you think a freelance journalist and occasional presenter of factual entertainment formats on BBC2 gets paid. But it isn't enough for that. Or, at least, it isn't enough to have anything left afterwards for luxuries like food for your children.
But, fuck it, if rickets is good enough for the orphan toddlers of floodplain Bangladesh then it's good enough for my pampered little private school poodles. And if Kitty and Sam get hungry, they can always eat each other.
The thing is, it doesn't stop there. Normally, when you buy a house, it is because you have sold a house and so, on completion day, you just move all your shit out of the old place and into the new place. But if you're not leaving the old place then you have no shit to move into the new place. And by "shit" I mean beds, tables, chairs, televisions, computers, fridges, lamps, rugs, cushions, frying pans, spoons…
This shit is all available in shops, but at a price. And that price seems to be something like £50,000. Now, over five years of home building, that's OK. But in a week, from a starting balance of minus one million pounds, it's fucking terrifying.
We weren't going to do a load of basement digging, mini-cinema, pool and gym-type Arab stuff to the place. It was basically fine. But you've got to repaint, haven't you? Just bog-standard Dulux off-white, but two coats and a lot of walls: five grand.
And there's 4,000sq ft of carpets full of other people's jizz, sweat, skin cells, turd flecks etc, which you've really got to replace. Just biscuit-coloured plain stuff from Carpetright: five grand.
You need a climbing frame, sandpit and trampoline in order for the kids to have something to do: a grand.
You need a telly: a grand.
You need a king-size bed and one for guests and four children's beds. And you're 46 years old so you're not going to fucking Ikea: three grand.
You need guys in to connect up 'leccy, phone, satellite TV, broadband, Wi-Fi, burglar alarm, electric gates, fill the oil tank, service the Aga, boiler and heating: four grand.
There's council tax in the top bracket: three grand.
There's council tax for the dingy hovel bedroom over the garage, which, for some reason, is registered as a "cottage" and has its own rating: a grand.
You need pictures for the acres of wall space painted really cheap and ugly. Nothing nice. Just a load of hunting prints and crappy pressed flowers from local junk shops: five grand.
Rugs to cover the horrible carpet you've laid: five grand.
The gardener says you need a tractor "for topping the upper field", whatever the arse that means. So, you look into it and even secondhand tractors are like, 20 grand, so you go, "bollocks to that," and buy a Japanese ride-on mower instead: five grand.
And the gardener is happy with it, but says you'll still need a tractor eventually. But you just hope you'll be dead by then.
You bring the old wooden kitchen table up from London to save money but then have to replace the one in London with — says your wife — a fashionable, zinc-topped mid-century refectory bench: three grand.
You need chairs: a grand.
You get a pair of old sofas off your mum but have to take her and her boyfriend out for dinner to say thank you: three hundred.
You need pots, pans, plates, bowls, cups, cutlery, bed linen, towels — you're going shopping every damn fucking day with a list that says, "doormats, bucket, Hoover, string, toast rack, scales, trowel, fire guard, soap…": just fucking thousands.
And then you're poking about in the garage — or "cottage", as Gloucestershire County Council would have it — and your wife says, "We were going to get a 4x4, weren't we?" And you remember that she had her heart set on a rusty old Land Rover Defender with a vertical exhaust in army blue for tooling around the country lanes. That was how you sold her the idea of the house: she was going to get this sexy, old, soldier's car. So, you go down to the Land Rover garage in the village and there's a proper beaten-up, old, fucked one with 1991 plates that you can probably afford and you ask the guy and he says: "Ten grand".
And you laugh and go, "No, but seriously…"
And he says, "Seriously. Ten grand. You won't pick up a Defender for less than that. They've stopped production. It's a heritage car. A fashion piece. They don't come any cheaper than this. And this one hasn't got an engine. It's 15 for one that actually goes."
And 15 grand you really do not have. So, home you go. On the way, you stop for a loaf of bread at the baker in Stow-on-the-Wold.
"One pound twenty," says the lady. "Unless you're local."
"I am," you say. "I'm just the other side of Lower Swell."
"Oh well, in that case you get local discount," she says. "One pound eight."
And at last you have saved money. At this rate, in 14m years you'll be even.
It's our first night at The Cattle Barn. There's a storm blowing outside, rain falls hard on the roof, there is the crack of trees falling in the woods, a boom as lightning strikes not all that far away, and the occasional screech of terrified horses.
"This is what it's all about," I say to Esther. "Serious proximity to nature. Actual exposure to the elements. You don't feel the weather like this in London. This is properly Stone Age."
There is another thunderclap and my four-year-old daughter, Kitty, comes pelting down the corridor from her room, springs on the suitcase at the foot of the bed like a gymnast on the pommel horse and lands smack between us.
"I'm scared!" she says, and dives under the covers.
"Don't worry, darling," I say. "It's just, um, God being in a bad mood and smashing the place up a bit."
"I don't want to be smashed up by God!" she says and bursts into tears.
"Nice one," says Esther.
They're not like rabbits. Rabbits are shit. They were brought in by the Romans or the Normans or something, and just sit there nibbling on their own turds and looking at you, and then potter off when you move in for a close look. But hares. Jesus. You're walking across a bare stubble field on a bright autumn evening, minding your own business, admiring the vast skies and a lazy buzzard heading home to its family with that extraordinary speed and straightness of trajectory that marks it out among prey birds… Oh, it's an Amazon delivery drone… when suddenly, FLASH! A young hare, as big as a deer, leaps up from the bed it has made for itself in a dip in the field, its huge ears, its kangaroo-like legs, that shape silhouetted on horizons across this land since long before the first humans, and then ZOOOOM! It's off: 0–60mph in zero seconds in a flat sprint, not bobbing and weaving and hopping like a stupid rabbit, but straight, like a bullet from a gun, like a… like a hare, in fact, on the electric circuit at the dog races. It does three sides of a ten-acre field in what seems like seconds. Swift and contemptuous as Usain Bolt. Awesome. Just awesome.
Everyone in the country wears a flat cap and a wax jacket. That's just the rules. With trousers there's a bit of leeway, except nobody wears jeans, because they are difficult to walk in when wet (apparently). And then there is a certain sort of stout hiking shoe that I just wouldn't know where to start looking for (Lesbians R Us?).
Wellington boots seem to be OK but only if it's really, really muddy. It's no good putting them on to go shopping just because it looks like rain — people will literally shout, "poofter!" You may wear wellies only to traverse areas of such deep, slippery mud and mammal shit that the Defender you can't afford couldn't even go there. And they mustn't be cheap and plastic-y. But then, they mustn't be Hunters because that's what chavs wear to Glastonbury.
Luckily, what I have is Hunters where the brand name has been inked out with a Sharpie because they were costume for a BBC2 show I did and the compliance department didn't want the brand name to be visible in a close-up of my feet. So they're OK. They're not even slightly media-wanker-down-for-the-weekend.
I do have a wax jacket, a Barbour that was given to me by Barbour when I did a different TV show and they sort of hoped I would wear it on camera, but I didn't in the end because the soundman said it made a funny noise on the radio-mic. Initially, I left it in London because I didn't want people in the country to think I was taking the piss. But then I got soaking wet whenever I went for a walk because I didn't dare wear my pale blue anorak, either, in case people thought I was an elderly tourist on a walking holiday. So now I have it down here and will put it on when I pluck up the courage.
As with the business of not having any furniture when one moves into a second home, one also doesn't have any clothes. You can't go schlepping a suitcase backwards and forwards from London every weekend because that would defy the point of having a "second home". If you're going to do that, then you might as well go on holiday to a hotel every weekend. Which would actually be much cheaper. And nicer. But you don't want to think about that, so you divide your wardrobe in two.
And when I say "divide in two", I mean you dig out all the clothes that you have kept for sentimental reasons but never wear in London because they: (a) Are madly out of fashion; (b) Don't fit; (c) Were ugly in the first place; (d) Make you look fat; (e) Have moth holes in them; (f) Were free from when you worked at Ralph Lauren in the early Nineties and were a bad enough pastiche of English clothing then, but now look truly ridiculous.
And you put them all in cardboard boxes and send them to Gloucestershire, along with a dozen pairs of your not-best pants — all threadbare and browned in the gusset, with elastic showing at the frayed waistline — and you lay them all out in your new walk-in wardrobe (which the estate agent's prospectus had down as "Bedroom Four") and stand back and consider the job a mighty fine one.
And then you get invited to a Christmas party by the big local landowner and you go to your walk-in wardrobe and concoct a pretty damned excellent outfit for such an occasion: baggy yellow flannels, a pair of oxblood brogues from a charity shop, an old mauve school shirt, a novelty golfing tie, the waistcoat of a three-piece suit in Prince of Wales check from which you've lost the coat and trousers, and your father's old chocolate brown elephant cord jacket, labelled "Dandie of The King's Road, 1967".
And you go downstairs and there is your wife, wearing a black dress and boots and carrying a Marc Jacobs clutch, and chortling quietly to herself. And you think, "I don't know why you're chortling, you look completely wrong for the country."
It's raining, but you don't take your Barbour because, you say to your wife, you do not want to overdo the country look. And she nods her agreement while apparently unable to speak due to having to suppress something, possibly vomit.
At the party there are a lot of men who, despite being country people, seem to be wearing plain shirts and slacks. There is a roaring fire, it is hot. In your multi-layered squire's kit you set to schvitzing like a rapist. You swallow lots of cold Champagne very fast, to cool yourself. The room swims a little. You hear people muttering names like "Rupert" and "Toad" and think how quaint it is here. People ask if you're permanent or just a weekender and you realise the correct answer is "permanent", so that's what you say. Then they ask where in the countryside you were brought up, and you think you'd better lie but don't want to say a real county in case they know it and catch you out, so you make one up. You say, "Borsetshire!" And then remember that's a made-up place from The Archers.
So, you swivel round and a man says, "Coren, isn't it? I remember your father from The News Quiz. Never liked him. You a shooting man?"
"Not really," you say, honestly. But not wanting to offend, you add, "Although I'm keen to start…" But he's lost interest now, so when the next old boy says, "You a shooting man?", you reply, "Fuck, yes. Shoot everything to shit. Pheasants, ducks, pigs, cows, those ones that look a bit like horses with antlers on their heads…"
And then your wife is leading you to the car and on the way back you say, "I think that all went rather well, considering…"
But your wife is just fucking laughing like a mad, crazy bitch now, and when you get home you finally shout, "Whaaaaaat? What the fuck is it? What is so fucking funny?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, darling," she says. "I don't mean to laugh, but look at yourself."
And you turn and look in the hall mirror — £490 from a junk shop, when it would have been £40 from Ikea and actually have a visible reflection — and in the dim light (must get some wall lamps put in), you see yourself: the brogues, the yellow bags, the Prince of Wales "weskit", the tie, the big jacket, the weird parting you hadn't even remembered putting in your hair…
"You look like Toad of Toad Hall!"
"I mean, what on Earth possessed you? You look like… no, not Toad of Toad Hall, like Rupert Bear. Like Rupert of Toad Hall. Like…" And she collapsed again into laughter.
"Really? But this is the countryside. I thought that…"
"It's the countryside, darling, but it's not Mars. People actually live here. They don't think of it as requiring fancy dress. Did you see? They were just wearing normal, modern clothes. Their eyes were on stalks when you walked in."
"Why didn't you say something?"
"Well, I was going to. But you came down looking so pleased with yourself I just didn't have the heart."
"I see," you say. "Well, I hope you die in your sleep tonight."
But she was so sick with laughing, it was all that she could do to squeeze out a "Poop! Poop!" And you go to your bed. And do not leave it until well into the New Year.
Next time: Giles has an overdose of chard, grows to hate horses even more, discovers that in the countryside gypsies are an actual thing and tries to keep a nature diary, but can't really be arsed.