MY friend V loves coming up from London to “decompress”. We take the dogs for long walks across the moor, chop wood for the fire and barrow heavy loads of compost onto the garden. “It’s like boot camp every day,” she says with relish. I promise to save strenuous calorie crunching jobs for her next visit. It’s not difficult. Living remote and off grid entails more heavy work than my back enjoys. Lifting bulky canisters of diesel for the generator, great sacks of coal for the Aga, awkward baskets of wood into the house for the wood burners. It’s not unusual to see me wielding a chainsaw or an axe as I endeavour to top up our winter fuel supply. My back aches but I still fit into the same jean size I did in my twenties – it’s some compensation.
“People would pay for this,” she suggests. “We already are”, I say thinking of the considerable cost of our mortgage. A plot of land in a nice location comes with a hefty price tag in Britain today, regardless of the practicalities of actually living there. We discuss the possibility of setting up a business offering stressed out Londoners the chance to get back to nature and chop some firewood but I worry about providing clean laundered sheets and fresh towels – hot water being in such short supply I sometimes go swimming at the local pool just to be guaranteed a decent shower. V is not deterred. She talks energetically about building a Yurt in the field and practising Yoga at dawn. She has not yet experienced the midges that breed in their zillions in the long grass.
V and I go back a long way. We studied journalism together and then stayed in touch as we each struggled to build careers in a fast paced competitive world. I achieved some degree of success, working hard, smoking fags, and drinking with my colleagues most evenings. But less than five years at it, I got married, children followed and somewhere between getting a dog and an allotment, ambition left me. V is still working and playing hard in London, she’s not married and doesn’t have kids. We endlessly debate the pros and cons of the path life has taken us on. Who is happier, city career woman or organic mum-with-free-range-kids?
Now it is winter and I’m in the depths of despair. The sun doesn’t rise above the tree line and our cottage is in perpetual gloom. My husband and I take turns falling prey to winter coughs and sneezes which the children generously bring home from school. One of us must take on the burden of running the home (which takes more running than most) while the other collapses into bed with a spasm of coughing. The dogs must be walked, the fires riddled, swept and re-lit, the coal and wood brought in, the generator fuelled, the kids packed off to school…. There’s no day off, a sick note won’t work. Eventually the necessity of shouldering the jobs weakens the healthy one and they in turn take to bed sick – leaving no option but for the recuperating soldier to get back out on the battle field.
And here’s the thing. Even in the heady days of summer it feels like you have to run to stand still here. The sun lounger on the patio is for display purposes only. I thought I’d left the deadlines and stress behind me when I retired from journalism but the seasons press in on me demanding attention like a surly newspaper editor hungry for a scoop. In Spring it’s a race to dig over the beds, get the seeds in, prune the fruit bushes. In summer we brave midges and vicious horse fly bites to weed around our precious plants, tomatoes in the green house scream out for water, for staking and feeding and we need to get wood in for winter. Autumn is harvest time, not just picking but preserving too. Great vats of chutney simmer on the Aga, potatoes are dried, sorted and stacked in wooden crates. And has anyone swept up the leaves that turn our drive to a quagmire, block up the drains?
I juggle the jobs along with the daily demands of everyday family life – the washing and the meal preparation, cleaning the house (low priority until things get downright unhygienic), spending quality time as a family (high priority but a thorny issue).
On my first day up after being ill I complete all the morning jobs quickly because this is the day I too go out to work. One day a week I leave the woods and the muck and the dogs behind as I don reasonably nice clothes and go in for a day’s actual paid employment. It’s a novelty – and a luxury. I park the car on good solid tarmac and can walk unhampered by heavy wellies into a warm environment. Switching on the computer I marvel at the speed of the internet connection and settle down to working through whatever problems may arise from the warmth and comfort of my swivel chair. It’s pouring with rain outside and, for this moment, I can’t think of a better place to be. This, I decide is The Good Life.