Who are we really trying to please by moving to the country?
"The kids would love this," I say to my wife as we sit looking out over the rolling hills. It's nothing new. She's heard it before. Many times.
We're at a wedding in the Cotswolds, and presented with yet another opportunity to fantasise about leaving the city and moving to the countryside. It is something we often talk about. Back and forth we go. Never with a decision. Maybe because we're both Londoners, we find it hard to make the break. But looking out at the undulating shades of green, I begin building the image of my perfect house, just down there in the valley near the old oak tree. A large, four-bed eighteenth century cottage, with beams of old and a barn in the courtyard, of course surrounded by a mature garden, the children running freely, a garage to potter around in. That's right, the whole lot; the real deal; the chocolate box. Everything we want from the country; everything we can't get from a small flat in the centre of London. Freedom. Space. Peace.
"But could you really do it?" she asks.
And that's what gets me thinking. Would I? Should I? Really?
The truth is that the children don't care that the garden is the width of a bowling lane - they happily play with their toys all afternoon without even thinking about it. Nor are they bothered by the wet laundry strewn over the backs of the kitchen chairs - they don't even notice it. Nor do they care that they have to share a room - on the contrary, the prefer sharing - they even ask to sleep in the same bed most of the time! In fact, on the whole, they care very little about a great deal many things which we, as adults, do. For them, the flat is plenty big enough - they have space to play, coffee tables to run around, and pirate ships to build on the terrace. What more do they need?
"But of course, there will come a time when we out-grow the flat," I remind my wife. This she accepts as true. At the moment the children are still little. They do not take up much room; their clothes are tiny, their bikes are small and so are their friends; they can't kick a ball further than a few meters, and one television is more than enough for a family night in with popcorn. Small children are cosy. They snuggle up tight. They fit.
But this will all run out. As they grow and expand, as they get older and want friends round, as they want to watch different things on television and listen to different music, they will need more space. What happens then? When their clothes become too big to drape over the backs of chairs? When their bikes are too big to store in the bedroom? When they no longer want to run around the coffee table? When we do not all fit on one sofa? Then what? That's when we need to move; then we'll need a bigger home. And that's when country living becomes appealing. Because then we can answer all those questions. We can have room for all their gear; we can have room to dry the endless bundles of over-sized, ultra-cool hoodies and long-sleeved t-shirts; we can have space for them to have friends round and blast out repetitive rock guitar chords. And, most importantly, have space for us not to hear them! And it all comes back to freedom, space and peace.
I am sure I am winning this argument.
"And do you think, as they become teenagers, they'll would want to be moved out of London?"
And she gets me thinking again. And, in truth, it's hard to fight the honesty. It would be a hard call. It's true, growing up in London - or in any major city - is a special experience. Having a neighbourhood that makes up your local streets offers an anchor of safety, as well as an identity; knowing the urban sounds, smells and dangers of the area around us builds our memories of childhood; getting our bearings in a city, and knowing who lives where, which alley is best, and which bus to get on, weaves a city into the blood, and never leaves. City streets form who we are, and who we become; and we meet up with old friends, and explore the city centre, and walk to each other's houses to hang out. Certainly, for a teenager, city life is easier. Places are near. And the transport is good. For my future teenagers, London offers a place of discovery and possibility; a realm of entertainment, culture, dynamism and excitement. In short, London offers London. My cottage near the oak tree won't. It's as simple as that.
And it gets me thinking. Who am I really trying to please? Is moving to the country really the best thing for my children? Or is a move to the country really for me? And so it remains a battle. Because I am also sure, somewhere deep down, that country living also has plenty to offer. I know it does. There's a whole, new and different world that needs exploring.
All I need to do is convince the children. And my wife. And myself.