20 August 2009

This Green and Pleasant Land

“Charlotte,” I hear my next door neighbour, Rachel, calling out to her small daughter, “go out into the garden and pick some blackberries for us, please.”

I hear the sound of tiny, wellington boots clomping through overgrown, summer grass. “Mummy!” sweet Charlotte calls back to the kitchen, “I will pick some for us, but I’m going to leave on enough here for Mrs. Blackbird and Mrs. Robin. Mrs. Blackbird and Mrs. Robin have got lots of babies to feed.”

Charlotte is completely adorable, in that way little, English children uniquely are. I am very often struck by her tiny, but astute sensitivity to nature. And I think this is very English trait.

“How are your tomatoes coming along, Alycia?” asks Jackie 1, during a short swimming break in the pool. “They’re struggling.” I confess sadly, fearing my less-than-green, American fingers had failed in their gardening attempts. “Oh, no,” Jackie re-assures me, “mine are dreadful this year, as well.”

‘The Brits and their gardens’ is a fascinating facet of life here. From the legendary and highly-acclaimed Radio 4 program(me), “Gardeners’ Question Time” to the weekly pilgrimages to the breath-taking gardens of the National Trust, Britons are utterly captivated by nature, landscape and greenery.

No matter the size, or lack of the size, of the plot, an English garden—even if it is merely a window box—is a must. The passion does not stop at roses and foxgloves, oh no. Long before the economic crunch, and eco-friendly, organic philosophies were all the rage, generations of Briton have been “growing their own” in allotment plots up and down the country.

Allotments are serious business here in Barford. Rumour has it that there is a 10 year waiting list for one of prized plots, just off Wasperton Lane.

I can see that in a terribly lovely, quintessentially English way, The D.E.B. longs for a garden of our own. He longs for a connection with the earth, time spent out in the fresh air, working with his hands. And I must confess, I’ve caught the garden bug, too.

I am quite, quite proud of my window boxes full of colourful pansies. And I, too, long for a back garden of our own, full of color and possibility. I think more than anything  else, I’d like to grow garden peas – that classic, English veg.

But, with thoughts of gardens, come thoughts of houses, which at this juncture is painfully sore topic.

What is it about English houses?

I mean, seriously, I’m not a very large person, by any stretch of the imagination, but when we go on property viewings, I walk into to some of these places and think (often aloud), “You have got to be kidding me, I had more room in my microscopic, one-bedroomed, New York apartment then there is here, in this ‘Cosy Cottage’.”

What is it with Estate Agents, anyway?

Do they happen to think we are all mindless, gullible buffoons? Who doesn’t know that buzzwords, such as ‘quaint,’ ‘cute,’ ‘cosy’ and ‘charming’ are all just code for: “This place is no bigger than a cat’s head?

And don’t get me started on architecture! It is as if British architects and planners of the 1960s and 70s, looked upon any vacant and available green space, and had one, insane directive: “Erect as many dwelling places in this one square foot area as possible!”

I will accept that it is a fundamental flaw in my American character that I do not wish to live like a sardine. “Terraced houses”, “semi-detached,” “end of terrace,” that’s all code for: “You don’t have space of your own. There is no breathing room between you and your neighbours.”

Yes, I am cranky about house-hunting in Warwickshire. (Could it possibly be the most expensive county in England?!)

I resent the fact that in America, somehow, even people with the slightest of means, and possibly even without any means or a steady income at all, seem to manage to have big houses, with big backyards. Land and space are practically birthrights in America.

Hyperbole? In some ways, yes, but not entirely.

Our wonderful friend, Sally, said something a few weeks ago. Sally, born and raised here in Britain, has lived great stretches of her remarkable life in the UK, USA and Canada. She reckons that in Britain today the discrepancy between the have’s and the have-not’s is greater than it has ever been. And the tightest squeeze is on those in the middle. I think she may be right.

Someone tried to explain the English property situation to me: “Britain is an island,” (Thank you for stating the obvious.) “and, as such, land is a dear commodity.” At the end of this lecture, the point was made that the “problem” here is that the bulk of the land in this country is in private hands, something like 3% of the population own something like 80% of the land.

Which leaves the rest of us to fight it out for the remaining 20%. Brilliant.

Well, all that the D.E.B. and I want (with apologies to Virginia Woolf) is a place of our own here in Barford. Nothing too grand or ostentatious. But, something with a bit of character, not too modern or flashy. With a nice garden, and room to breathe and move around in.

It’s very funny, we had a look at this one place on the market here in Barford, a “barn conversion” – let me just say, if this place had been a barn once, it must have been a barn for at the most two Shetland ponies. Or a tribe of hobbits.

The minute we walked into the “Living Room,” I thought (possibly aloud), “Our nephew, Harry, would never even fit in this room, if he came to visit.” And that was truth! It was a doll-house.

Of course, we would have better chances if we ventured further afield.  But we love Barford. We have put down roots here, made friends, feel a part of a community, and have people we care about here.

Very frustrating.

Our house pursuit comes and goes. Some days we are both very keen, and other days we don’t see the point of bothering at all at the moment. We find ourselves in a very rational frame of mind, and say to ourselves: “Let’s just hang on, and see what happens.”

Right now, I feel another “why bother” spell coming on…


Iota said...

House prices in England are ridiculous, you're right. And yes, the size of houses here in the Midwest is great - it does make for a better standard of living. You can't afford to get too used to it, though, if you're thinking of returning to England!

Vicky said...

Yes, I am cranky about house-hunting in Warwickshire. (Could it possibly be the most expensive county in England?!)

Yes! Well one of them, anyway...
You're right about the 60's and 70's housing - ugly and small, as is 80's 90's. If you want something reasonable, you need to look for 30's and 40's housing - which is still quite nice but not tiny (to me, a Welsh/English hybrid). If however you want the pretty traditional English cottage then smalls your lot. For pretty and big, in Warks I think you're going to be looking at prices way over a million! In Leamington we have tiny at 200,00- - 250,000, then nothing until huge regency lovelys at a million , or more! Frustraiting. but its a popular area!