In my last blog I talked about the need to make compromises when you’re buying a place to live. Even though the housing market has slowed recently, unless you really are rolling in it, making compromises is going to be a given.
So what compromises are you willing to make? Only a couple of years ago I swore I’d never move out of London. I grew up in Hackney, east London, and ended up spending most of my adult life living there or within easy walking distance. The part of Hackney I grew up in was so multicultural it felt like it had an identity all of its own. It gave me a sense that I had the whole world on my doorstep and I loved that.
In a way I’d always felt more Londoner than British. It was a part of me, my identity, my worldview. I was so London-centric in my thinking I found it hard to believe that people didn’t live in the city. I thought the population of the country was made up of people who lived in London and people who wanted to but for some unfortunate reason were not able to do so. This wasn’t rational. I have friends and relatives who live perfectly full, rich and happy lives in other parts of the country and have no desire to live in London; people who baulk at the idea of the crowds and the pollution and the crime. I could appreciate that - even if I found it difficult to fully get my head around. For me, city life always meant real life.
That all started to change when we began looking to buy a family home. The options in London were limited. A good-sized terraced house where we were living in Balham (yes, I’d moved south of the river - a huge deal at the time!) was easily over a million pounds. Around my old manor in Hackney, prices were closer to two million and often over. There are still parts of London which haven’t been so influenced by gentrification and where prices are more affordable, but as places to bring up kids most of these didn’t appeal.
So we began to look further and further afield, until we ended up in Hertfordshire - the town of Ware to be exact (pop. 20,000 approx).
When it came down to it, it was all about quality of life - and what that means changes as your life changes. In my twenties I could live anywhere - big, dirty, noisy house shares weren’t a problem and were often a lot of fun. In my thirties I lived by myself for the first time and swore I’d never go back. Now in my forties, married and with a family, I wanted a good-sized house and garden, peace, quiet and green spaces.
If we could have afforded all that in London we would have stayed, but in order to tick those boxes we needed to look beyond the city. A scary prospect! I’d honestly felt a kind of umbilical attachment to London, like I was a part of it and it was a part of me. I remember once going on holiday to the Cotswolds - I swear the moment I got off the train my nose started to bleed. I took that as a sign - I needed the city air. I needed the carbon monoxide; I needed the speed and the stress. Without it I began to malfunction.
But we took the plunge. Was it the right thing to do? Yes, certainly. As an example, we’ve just had a glorious Easter weekend. We spent most of it enjoying the garden - having picnics and barbecues, our daughter splashing around in the paddling pool. In our last place, with only a narrow strip of concrete out the back, that wasn’t something we could do. In our Balham flat we had neighbours upstairs and on either side, and there were flats upstairs from them. We had issues with all five of them at one time or another, be it over noise, mess or building work. Where we are now, all the neighbours we’ve met have been extremely friendly and welcoming, but even if they weren’t, we’ve got the space for it not to be an issue.
It might sound like a cliché but people genuinely are friendlier out here. They take the time to smile and make conversation. I’ve been surprised by how good the restaurants are and there are a bunch of good pubs. Yes, there isn’t the same kind of culture, the same diversity, but it’s not like that’s impossible to find if you want it. You just have to look a bit harder and travel a bit further.
As big a compromise as the move felt at the time, it’s actually broadened my horizons and given me a richer experience of life. It’s so easy to be insular when you live in the city and to think that this is where it’s at, that this is all that matters. But there’s so much more out there to explore.
If you are being priced out of the city, my advice would be: don’t feel like you’ve got to stay at all costs. Take the plunge and move out. These days with so much work done remotely you might not need to be in the office all week. Do you need to be within easy commuting distance? Like I did, you might feel like your identity is wrapped up in urban life, but I honestly think that’s unlikely to be true. The person you are and the things that are important to you go deeper than that. They aren’t going to change just because you no longer live on the Tube network or beyond Zone 6.
Guest blogger John Lucas is the author of TURF, a novel set on the streets of his hometown Hackney. His long overdue follow-up is almost finished and is set mainly in Los Angeles, some distance from his new home in Hertfordshire. He shares the house with his wife, one toddler and two rabbits.