The Country Mum
Last Saturday, after a searingly hot summer's day, we all decided to pop down the road for a dip in the river. We took the dogs, the baby, a picnic rug and a big jam jar full of water for the fish we knew my seven year old would catch. We didn't bother taking anything to drink. The pub is right there and they give us large plastic glasses to carry our Pimms down to the water's edge. When we arrived the sun was just sinking onto the village green and a cricket match was in full swing.
We whipped off our shoes and joined everybody else wading, with fishing nets, in the twinkling shallows of Tilford's River. Two horses joined us, right up to their knees – or whatever it is you call them on a horse. I may live in the country but I have yet to become an Equestrian fanatic. But you get the picture. And this is what we do every weekend when the sun shines.
One thing my husband and I agreed on right from the start was that we wanted our children to have a Huckleberry Finn style childhood.
I grew up in Fiji, bare-foot and feral, learning to climb coconut trees before I was ten. He grew up in a rather less exotic Wales, but we both share similar memories of early independence – traipsing across fields with a dog and an apple; riding bikes through streams; having adventures outdoors without an adult in sight.
It was these memories that drove us out of London shortly after the birth of our first baby. Along with the piles of rubbish we had to tread over on the pavements on a daily basis, the constant drone of traffic and fumes and the sinking reality that for our daughter to be safe in this urban world she would always need to be on guard and streetwise, looking away whilst constantly looking out. She'd have to deal with a barrage of cars, culture, human mess and sheer unrelenting mass day in, day out. Is that a good thing? Well you grow up fast. But I also know she can choose this way of life at any point in her future. You don't see many adults climbing trees and building dens in the woods.
Don't get me wrong - I love the city. And I know my children are missing out on museums, theatre, architecture and Dim-sum. But that's what school holidays are for. What I want for their everyday – and what I believe works best as a backdrop for childhood – is plenty of fresh air, open space and the freedom to roam.
Yes, the downsides are that we spend a lot more time in the car. In fact we drive everywhere - to get to school, see friends, pick up a pint of milk. If it rains there's less to keep them amused outside the house. And when they're teenagers they will inevitably hang out, bored, at the village bus stop wishing they lived somewhere more exciting.
But for now, we go for long romps with the dogs over the Downs enjoying views of breathtaking countryside. Sometimes the only buildings in sight are a glimpse of church steeple or curl of smoke from a cottage chimney. We breathe in great lungfuls of fresh, dewy air and wrinkle our noses at horse manure. The children release seemingly limitless amounts of energy by running, rolling down hills and hiding in the heather. And afterwards we head home, light a bonfire in the garden and sit outside in the evening dusk listening to the woodpigeons bedding down for the night.
Idyllic? Absolutely. I just wish there was a little less mud.
The City Mum
Written by Tamsin Kelly
I grew up in the country, in the heart of West Country. Forget those chocolate box cottages, winding honeysuckle laden lanes and vast beaches, living in the country - as opposed to spending two weeks there in the summer - is deeply, desperately, mind-blowingly BORING.
Yes, I had fields to roam, trees to climb, dens to make. But that freedom pales by the time you're 12 - especially when you only have two younger siblings to share it with.
This is what I remember most about growing up in the country:
The mud. We lived next to a farm. I'm not talking a little bit of dirt on your heel, I mean welly height mud for eight months of the year.
Watching the world from a car or bus window - for hours and hours. When your sister plays the cello, laid across three laps in the backseat, that twice daily journey becomes even more of an ordeal.
For two years at sixth form college, I had to walk - or wade - up the lane, stow my wellies in the hedge, switch to pointy town shoes, wait alone for the mini bus to arrive, change to a school coach (after more time waiting in a cold, bored cluster) to arrive. I left at 7.20am on the dot and arrived home after 5. The holy grail for country teenagers is learning to drive - so you can spend your evenings driving up and down windy lanes on 60 mile round trips to save friends from their isolation.
The dark. I left home in the dark and arrived home in the pitch black from October to March. You can't admire a view in the dark.
The cold. Becomes an obsession in the country. Constant background parental talk about ordering oil for the rayburn, chopping wood, stacking wood, damp wood, whether to turn the heating up a single notch. My children will never have to get dressed and undressed in bed to ecape the freezing cold.
No one else. If you live in 'splendid isolation', that means you end up feeling isolated and just a little bit depressed. Socialising is by calendar and arrangement. No one just calls in, especially as you'd be discovered wearing a lumpy combo of three jumpers, thermals and monster socks. No one just suggests a quick drink, a spur of the moment cinema trip, staying for tea. Instead there's just the same old monotony and routine - home late, homework, food, TV, bed - day in, day out.
When I was 18, I moved to London and life began. I married a Londoner. When we take the train back into Paddington, he exhales and says, " I love the smell of London." And he's not being ironic.
Now when I open my curtains, I'm greeted by a morning view I cherish. There's the familiar group across the road doing Tai Chi, the woman whose lost half her body weight over the years running the same determined circle, people walking their dogs and chatting, others rushing to work, teenagers loping to school.
This is life, in all its wonderful variety, and this is why I've never had any doubts about bringing up my children - one 12-year-old, twin 10-year-olds - in the city.
Living in the city offers everything a child could want. They have all the 'country' pleasures - long walks with the dog on Hampstead Heath or Hackney Marshes, tree climbing and pond dipping. But even better they've got a climbing centre on their doorstep, kayaking up the road, sailing another short walk away, a choice of swimming pools, they can be involved in Cubs, youth club and athletics.
Their friends live close by and my 12-year-old is now delighting in making arrangements to go swimming or on a shopping expedition, without needing a parental taxi ride. On school days her classmates congregate in our hall before walking the 15 minutes to school. Oh, and her school has just been named in the top 1% of the country's schools. So you can forget that one about moving out to the country for a better education.
A close friend joined the trickle of people moving out of the city a few years ago. Bravely, she returned a year later. 'This is the best place to bring up children,' she announced categorically, as we watched our children in the crowded, manic playground.
My children are 'street-wise', and by that I don't mean they're feral and hanging out on street corners. I mean that they are able to live happily and confidently with people of every age, character, culture, race and religion in this wonderful melting pot that is our city - and our home.
What do you think: town or country?
What are your experiences of bringing up children in the town or country, or of being brought up in either?
Have you found the perfect place to raise a family?