After pulling out of my flat sale and U-turning on the idea of moving to the Cotswolds, it took me a while to realise why.
But there is a reason I can never seem to find what I’m looking for. No matter where I go to house-hunt for the cottage of my dreams, nothing is ever right, be it in Cobham or further along the A3 or, giving up on the south east altogether, in the Cotswolds. And the reason is not that I am a hopeless flake.
The reason is that I have not really been looking for a place in Cobham, or Ripley, or ‘down the Hog’s Back’, as tempting as that may sound, or, more exotically, in a village on the Surrey-Hampshire borders, or even in Cameron Country just outside Chipping Norton.
No. I realise now I have not been looking for a place in a place. I have been looking for a place in a time. I have been house-hunting for somewhere in 1956.
This kind of house-hunting is, of course, problematic. Estate agents don’t tend to sell houses set in eras. Set in three acres is tricky enough. Set in its own grounds is just about possible on my budget. Set on a larger than average plot is more than likely. But set in the ’50s — not so much.
This is a great shame, because I think if one could house-hunt for somewhere set in the time of one’s choice the housing market would be a lot more buoyant.
As it is, you go to see a house which looks idyllic and conjures just the quality of life you were aiming for, in the pictures. But when you get there the quiet, friendly, civilised village you were hoping for reveals itself to be a village set in 2015.
There is no shop, there is no post office, and when you stop to talk to someone ‘local’ they look as though they would very much like to punch you, because they are so tired from commuting that when they are around they haven’t the strength to do anything more neighbourly than click open the electric gates and disappear up their driveway.
In fact, the only true villages that exist anymore are in London, where thriving neighbourhoods have survived in spite of people who would love to hate each other if they had enough money to but they don’t.
If I want local, therefore, I would be better off staying in Balham, where there is a Cosy Corner newsagents, an Italian deli, a Costcutter with a post-office counter, a filling station and a hairdresser all within a few minutes’ walk of my house. And where people talk to each other because they have to. Because they can’t get away from each other up a long drive.
But the idyllic cottage in the Surrey Hills is quite another matter. It has a spurious connection to E.M. Forster, all right, and sure enough it is near a shop with children’s fishing rods for sale outside, but when you pull up and park there to buy an egg sandwich an old couple scream at you that you’re in their personal village parking space, which is costing them the better part of £1,000 a year so get the hell out of it or they’re calling the police — and the old man’s vein bursts through the side of his head.
As for the Aga-ed up house with three acres and stables near Dummer in Hampshire, which turns out to border the M3 with the nearest place to buy milk a Sainsbury’s so large it takes me five minutes to drive round the car park to a car parking space within hiking distance of the door and even then it’s 20 minutes’ walk to the milk aisle.
I want to live in a village where people pull up outside shops without sparking a public inquiry, and where old people are like Miss Marple. And where there is pest control and country sports, and everyone is honest to their kids about meat being a creature that has died, and where hypocrisy is a mere twinkle in the eye of the animal rights brigade.
Let’s face it, I am not going to find this on Rightmove. For sale: exceptional example of an interesting, secure period set in beautiful standards of human behaviour. From the lack of aggression and impeccable manners of citizens generally to the ability of everyone to stand together in the face of adversity, this truly will be the time of your dreams. Social cohesion and moral consistency are complemented by full religious tolerance and legal rights for all, including those in the majority. Non-violent, interesting culture. Space race, Golden Age, rock’n’roll, Elvis, Hitchcock, Fellini, Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe complete the stunning feel. Planning permission for Kim Kardashian denied.