The Only Way is Essex
Is it? Quite possibly, for Mrs P, no longer across the pond.
Our life has undergone a major makeover. A year ago, we were tenants in a spacious New England style house in an upscale, upstate New York suburb. Now we are back in the UK, living in our own house, a small-scale Grade II Listed thatched cottage, on the edge of a rural village in Essex.
Back in Rye, we had everything we needed on our doorstep; a gas station, grocery stores, upmarket boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants, doctors and dentists just moments from our door. Now we live in an area with no mobile reception from which it takes fifteen minutes to drive to the nearest (village) shop.
Our little cottage is tucked down the end of a no-through lane. I am biased, but it does feel just a tiny bit magic here. As I sit here at the computer, my mind wanders and I survey the sight from my window: thatched roofs, trees loaded with blossom, expanses of green fields. Silence. Other than birdsong.
I am a basic creature. This is my natural habitat. Which is strange in a way, as we are not from these parts and only lived here for about five minutes before we were uprooted in 2015. But I grew up in the country and there is nothing quite like rural England.
Rural America was so different. I did sorely miss this green and pleasant land; I never learned to love the dense woodland that made up much of the New York countryside; could never comprehend the endless highways that always had to be negotiated in order to reach rural parts.
Coming back to four seasons has been something of a thrill. It’s true that in New York the seasons were wonderful – there was the magnificent fall, the winters were real winters, crisp and cold and the summers were searingly hot, but whatever happened to spring? There was no spring in New York, the seasons jumped from winter to summer almost overnight. It has been a delight witnessing the British seasons again.
Don’t be fooled though – the blue sky days pictured above don’t happen every day. Far from it. There are plenty of dank, drab, dreary days, with leaden grey skies so nondescript that you can feel quite despondent. And I had forgotten about the cold British dampness that chills you to your very core and for which the only cure is a lengthy soak in a piping hot bath.
But I had also forgotten that when the clouds lift and the sun shines – the effect on people in this country is nothing less than monumental – we all feel like we’ve been reborn.
Then and Now
We left London for Singapore in 2011 with one baby; we have returned to rural Essex with two school-aged children. Barnaby (8) and Rory (5) attend a lovely little primary school (Jamie Oliver’s alma mater) fourteen minutes’ drive away. Lunches are taken seriously by the school and enjoyed immensely by the pupils. The boys’ favourite lunch is something called mince boats – minced beef enrobed in pastry – highly dubious if you ask me – I wonder if they might be Cornish pasties, a foodstuff my boys never previously encountered.
The Voyage to Volunteering
I am currently a housewife or should I be thinking of myself as the more 21st century homemaker? It was early in the school year that I put myself forward for some ad hoc volunteering at the boys’ school. Little did I realise what a journey I had ahead of me.
Following a meeting with the headmistress, I was dispatched with a stack of forms to complete and asked to provide a character reference.
Next: a DBS check. In the UK, a Disclosure and Barring check (formerly known as a Criminal Records Bureau – CRB – check) is required for those wishing to work with or look after children. I whipped off a form online and received an immediate notification confirming that my application would be approved shortly. Easy.
Moments later, I received an alarmist message saying that my application was on hold – they had uncovered a black hole in my history. As I had spent time in America, I was to be referred to the FBI for further checks. After filling out an exhaustive form for the FBI and forking out a fee (for what, it wasn’t clear) I was informed of the urgent need to report to my local constabulary for fingerprinting.
Cue numerous calls to find out where our local constabulary actually is. Dramatic cuts to the UK police force mean that we no longer have a local police presence. Countless phone calls later and it was anyone’s guess where I could have my fingerprints taken. Eventually, it emerged that my nearest options were Hatfield, Stevenage or Welwyn Garden City, none of which were remotely near us.
One dismal Monday morning, I decided to bite the bullet and drove 45 minutes to Stevenage, which was marginally closer than the alternatives. All I knew about Stevenage was that it was Britain’s first New Town – I remember watching a video on Stevenage during my Geography GCSE studies. First impressions were unappealing.
Reporting to the reception window, I gave the vastly overweight man spilling out of his uniform and onto his desk a cheery Morning! and explained why I had come. I was met with a blank look. Who told you we do fingerprinting here? he asked. Nah, ye’ll ‘ave to go to Welwyn for that. Disgruntled, I ditched the offer of the Garden City and drove straight home.
Eventually, I discovered that there was a fingerprinting service offered at the police station in Harlow, so chose another dank day to chug the 45 minutes to Harlow in the Skoda. £75 later, I emerged triumphant with a set of fingerprints. I am happy to report that on receiving these through the post, the FBI confirmed that I had not committed any murky crimes while living in America and issued me with a Certificate of Good Conduct.
I have since been accepted into the fold and have helped out on various occasions at Forest School and in the classroom. Which is fine. Every so often. Once upon a time I thought I wanted to work with children. But then my mindset shifted – I’m not sure when.
Perhaps I did too much babysitting as a teenager; maybe it was when I had my own children and they put me off, perhaps I have just gradually become less nice a person over time. Who can say? It is a great shame that I don’t want to work with small people – how useful it would be having the holidays off, for a start.
But I remain, at the age of 41, unclear as to what I’d like to do when I grow up.
An English Country Garden
Our American back yard, which amounted to a square of lawn, has been replaced with a professionally designed front and back garden of which Henry and I have become very fond.
We returned to our garden last year to find that it had become a small jungle, with giant nettles proudly swaying in the middle of the flower beds, ivy coyly draping itself around the garden incumbents and uninvited duvets of ground elder blanketing the beds. Henry has become a zealous hedge slasher, while I have turned into a wild weed puller, making innumerable trips to the dump in Saffron Walden to ditch monstrous rubble sacks stuffed with garden detritus.
On our first trip to the dump we thought we had been transported back to New York, as there, parked by the railings, was an NYPD branded police car.
The Fifth Philip
We are now a family of five. It was always going to happen. Our family needed one more being in it. Just not a human one. Moments after we arrived back in the UK, I began trawling Pets4homes in search of a dog (a ploy to ensure we were not moved abroad again? – several friends wryly suggested).
The product of this search was the wonderful Plum, a Springador: a cross between Ruby, a Springer Spaniel and a Labrador called Turbo. Plum is my third child, the daughter I never had. She joined us at the end of August and I have been besotted ever since.
I love her more than I thought possible – until of course she rolls in something unspeakable, eats something unthinkable or decides to desert me in favour of a running cat, rabbit or deer – at which point I loathe her (briefly) and then she is forgiven. I will gaze indulgently at my little black friend with her oversized velveteen ears as though surveying my boys as newborns. Plum has fitted right into the family and as Barnaby lovingly put it the other day: Life wouldn’t be life without Plum.
The dog has begun to dictate my social life during the week. Dog walks are the new coffee. I can’t possibly justify the double luxury of indulgent dog walks and cups of coffee, therefore anyone interested in seeing me has to do so during a walk.
My family and other animals
In addition to a dog, we have also opened our doors to various other animals. We are currently playing host to swarms of ladybirds or ladybugs as the boys still call them and armies of tiny bodied, spindly legged spiders. The swathes of cobwebs draped around the house resemble ancient Christmas decorations. I must learn about dusting.
But the least welcome guests have been the rats. The thought of these disease riddled rodents living in our midst strikes a lightning flash of horror through my very core. Henry and I were first alerted to their presence when we discovered that avocados and apples were being left for dead in the fruit bowl. Then we started being awoken in the middle of the night by thunderous galloping above our heads.
An urgent meeting with Dave from Pest Professionals confirmed our worst fears. These were rats and they were emerging from the fields and somehow getting into the thatch and – horror – into the kitchen. I consoled myself briefly with the thought that they were country rats, but then I thought no. A rat is a rat and we need to be rid of them. Particularly as they have done more than just help themselves to treats around the kitchen; they have also guzzled their way through sections of electrical wiring and we are now wondering about the potential fire risks we face living in a thatched cottage.
This little beauty was recently recovered, dead, from the compost heap, having been poisoned by bait procured from one of Dave the Pest Professional’s bait boxes. Look at the beast: he stretches across most of the width of our garden table.
I can’t deny it – space back in the UK is a challenge. We don’t have any. It doesn’t help that I am a fanatical bulk buyer, snapping up the same amount during supermarket sweeps as I did when we were living in America.
The difference is that in America we had a cavernous basement and two giant fridge freezers, whereas we now have one small cupboard for food and an anorexic fridge freezer that was sold to us as an American-style one but is most definitely not. No self-respecting American would dream of owning such a slimline affair. It is full before I’ve even been to the supermarket – it only takes a jar of mayonnaise, carton of milk and a chunk of cheese and it’s virtually at capacity.
A couple of weeks ago, I did drive to a housing estate on the outskirts of Cambridge to pick up a small second hand freezer (complete with a selection of loose frozen peas and some stray oven chips). This extra storage facility has given me a disproportionately big thrill.
We are also in talks with an architect about the possibility of reworking the small amount of space we have. Our little house may be miniature but we do love it.
In America, we spent all our time with people of the same sort of age. One of the big draws of a suburb like Rye was the schools, so it was home to a fairly narrow demographic.
We are now finding it something of a novelty to be in a village containing people of all ages at all stages of life. Back in Rye, we rarely had anything to do with our neighbours, but here they are ever-present and will appear, seemingly out of thin air, in the house or garden.
There is Jane from up the lane, who, one day appeared unannounced in our kitchen calling for her dog and another day popped up in search of an egg. Then there is Ginny from next door who spontaneously appeared in the garden one winter’s day, announcing that she was building a snowman for the boys. Ginny is a keen gardener and enjoys dipping into the garden tools on display in our shed.
The other day Henry was having a rare day working from home in his office upstairs. Rory had a bad cough and was downstairs on the sofa watching television. Barnaby and I had gone out. Ginny snuck into the shed to borrow some hedge cutters, peering into the window of the sitting room en route and spying young Rory alone. The car was gone. Rory was alone.
Later that Ginny tentatively approached me, nervously asking where we had been without Rory. I howled with laughter at the idea of leaving my five year old to fend for himself. I confess that at times when he is being irksome I am tempted to, but haven’t done so yet.
We are lucky enough to have a wonderful family living moments from our door. With children exactly the same age as ours, the boys are spoilt with these terrific on tap play mates and spend hours communicating via walkie talkies and coded notes, leaping around on the trampoline, building dens and spying on people from the treehouse.
Lessons and logistics
Not everything is on tap in these rural parts, however. I have learnt the hard way that it is quite easy, and not advisable, to run out of gas or oil. A few months after moving back, we ran out of gas mid-cookathon (there is no such thing as mains gas here, only Calor Gas canisters) and oil (that was a fun eight days with no heating in the only cold snap of the winter).
There was a time when I nearly careered into a van because the Skoda’s brakes were unable to cope with a light dusting of snow and I dreamed of our trusty American Jeep which could plough through thick snow with ease.
Logistics are rather more complicated in the country. I do spend a lot of time in the car, ferrying children, the dog and shopping around and it is quite normal to drive half an hour to a remote pub for supper with girlfriends.
It is a sign of the times that I was genuinely thrilled to unearth, from a musty trunk left untouched here for the duration of our time in America, a pair of Fat Face travel trousers, bought in 2003, complete with five pockets per leg and various oddly positioned zips around the place. They are the perfect gardening garment. My wardrobe was always slightly suspect and it has deteriorated further.
Living in the country, one seems to need at least ten different coats. And accessories have changed too. Handbags have been replaced with dog poo bags, heels with wellies and I can’t imagine life without a head torch.