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Upping Sticks: Part 1 – Thinking About It

July 23, 2021
Old Bridge over River Wey - Weybridge, Surrey. Pic from

If I’ve been a little quiet of late, it’s been because I’ve been preoccupied by a life-changing event.

No, I haven’t hovered on death’s door with COVID (yet). Nor does England’s success in a football tournament register much on the radar. In fact, I’ve watched virtually no TV in the past few weeks, and paid very little attention to all the stuff that usually gets me going, such as politics and the strange habits of migrating ducks. And no, my wife hasn’t tired of my eccentricities enough to divorce me or at least seek respite in Bognor Regis.

The event in question was a house move.

It must have been five years ago when we first started to think about downsizing. We’d been in the same home for a quarter of a century. Our kids had grown up there. The cat was buried at the bottom of the garden. The dog’s DNA was everywhere. Neighbours had come and gone.

The folks who lived opposite us had stayed in their large house until the bitter end, sustained by armies of helpers: carers, cleaners, shoppers and gardeners. Did we really want to end our days in a house built for a large family, or should we make way for others who might use it more fully? If so, the time to move was when we still had the energy to up sticks and go somewhere where we could moulder away without getting lost in all the unused space.

It was strange, really, to spend five years thinking about moving when, earlier in life, I would cheerfully hop from one place to another in the blink of an eye with barely a couple of suitcases to call my own.

Back in 2016, given the election of Donald Trump and the imminent collapse of the British economy at the hands of Brexit, we thought of moving far away. Away from the crowing of Nigel Farage, the Occado vans, the floods of fake prosecco and death-delivering clouds of diesel fumes.

Perhaps a remote Hebridean isle (if the Scots would have us), or one of those craggy outposts to the far west of Ireland.

Iceland? Quickly discounted – too cold, and full of bearded policemen. Easter Island? Too full of rats and spooky statues. Ulan Bator? A possibility. It would have felt like a return to an ancestral homeland, because I’m convinced I’m descended from Genghis Khan. And fermented mare’s milk probably goes well with the morning coffee. But again, too cold, I thought.

If we did go abroad, the chances were that we’d settle in some warm island far into the Atlantic or the Pacific that hadn’t been turned into a glassy wasteland through repeated nuclear tests, or isn’t a giant runway populated by stealth bombers.

As for the kids, of course we’d miss them. But they could always come and visit us every few years once they’d saved up for the six flights and the motorised outrigger they’d need to reach us. Assuming of course that the world wasn’t a smouldering wasteland by then.

But in the end, we decided that in such places we’d probably die of boredom, as opposed to through the pestilence, flooding and the negligence of feckless politicians back home. Better, perhaps, to expire in an interesting place.

Not that you’d describe Surrey, in the big scheme of things, as particularly interesting. Weybridge, our little town, is not urban, it’s not suburban and it’s not country. If you want edgy, go to Hackney or Islington. Surrey had the edges knocked off it long ago. Apart from the occasional phantom tree slayer, nothing much happens in our backyard. And that seems to be how people like it. It’s manicured, affluent and relatively anonymous. It has no nightlife to speak of, no MacDonald’s and no cinema. In other words, it’s a safe pair of hands, whose embodiment for many years was its Member of Parliament, Sir Philip Hammond, a property developer who became Chancellor of the Exchequer and was known to his colleagues as Spreadsheet Phil.

It’s perhaps significant that as the town grows larger, the traffic gets ever more clogged and our most recent claim to fame was a nutter who went around with a chainsaw chopping down innocent trees at night, that Hammond’s recent successor is a mental health doctor by trade.

For most of our time in Weybridge, we lived in something of an enclave. People in Surrey, if they can afford to live in them, like their private estates. Ours was typical of the genre, a collection of large houses that were built in the 1930s on land that once belonged to a single manor.

When we arrived in 1993, it was a quiet place. A mixture of long-term residents and, like us, younger folks with families. Since then, residential property in England has come to be regarded as a source of enrichment as well as “home”. Everybody seems to have become obsessed with improving their homes, and with them their fortunes.

There was never a moment, in my recollection, when one house or another in our estate hadn’t had a host of white vans parked outside upgrading kitchens, erecting summer houses, converting lofts or building extensions. You could say that the legal phrase “quiet enjoyment” of your property was subordinate to the relentless urge of your neighbours to add a few thousand pounds to the value of their homes by upgrading it one way or another. I confess that at one stage we joined in the fun. We extended our home by a third.

Over the past couple of decades, many hadn’t stopped at upgrades. Sharp-eyed developers had been at work. A good third of the houses had been ripped down, to be replaced by two on the same plot. The result was that for many years one part of the estate or another hosted building sites as well as gracious living.

Some of the new builds blended in nicely with the existing properties. Others didn’t. One of them was a vast grey Lubianka of a mansion, which stood in stark contrast to the red brick to be seen just about everywhere else. How the owner got planning permission to build such a monstrosity is beyond me. Another decided to be eclectic. He took the existing shell of his building and adorned it with a feature of just about every architectural style from the Tudor period onwards. More recent rippers-down seem to have chosen a more traditional style favoured by developers who specialise in building for footballers and Russian oligarchs. McMansions, in other words.

Things calmed down in recent years, partly because all the big plots had already been divided. But there was and is still scope for people to demolish their houses and build bigger ones.

By and large, we jogged along quite happily among the steady tick of home improvement. On the domestic front, we lived fairly quiet lives, though occasionally our teenage daughters would contribute to the few moments of excitement that set tongues wagging.

But now the teenage torch had been passed to others, some of whom we’d watched grow from infancy. Over the past year, coronavirus had stunted the rites of passage, though we could still hear the occasional raucous gathering from nearby gardens.

We felt like the oldies whom time had forgotten, surrounded by professionals busy furthering their careers and burnishing the prospects of their offspring. We were ready to move on. Was it a wrench? Perhaps more for my wife than for me. For her, our home was the source of memories, many of them treasured, some less so. Not so much connected with any feature of the house, but more as an invisible patina that covered everything and everywhere. For me, it was all about objects – pictures, photos and other stuff we acquired over our stay. The underlying bricks, wood and stone are pretty much irrelevant. And those objects would move with us wherever we went. They would make a house a home.

But first we had to put our our beloved place on the market. And that, for all the bullshit you might have read in the media about the frothy state of English property prices, was no simple task.

Part 2 has all the gory details.

From → Social, UK

  1. Brave man Steve – moving is not for the faint-hearted! And yes lots of happy memories plus the odd trunk or two of that materials that accompany these! Glad you didn’t venture off to St Helena or even Socotra!

    • Never thought about Socotra. Just as well perhaps. A bit military these days…

  2. Well, where have you gone? And have you got rid of double Royston?

    • A few miles away – chickened out. As for the Double R, reported him/her to Facebook and got a reply. Not sure what they’re doing.

  3. care to explain the last interchange here to those of us not in the inner circle?
    If not, your prerogative, obviously.

    • Hi Debby. If you’re referring to the state of the English property market, the house price index is said to have risen this year by more than 10%, for no apparent reason, except possibly a tax holiday designed to stimulate the post-COVID economy. It came to an end at the end of June. Not a reason for people to feel justified in spending (or borrowing) tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds more than last year, since the tax saving was only £15k. More on this in Part 2.

      Was there anything else? S

      • Sorry, I meant the “double R” ?
        (Prices where I live now have tripled since 9 months ago.)

      • Ah, the Double R. Someone on Facebook, calling themselves Steve Royston Royston, has been impersonating me. They’ve used my photo and have been trying to befriend my “friends”. The trouble is, they give my birth date as 1924 and claim I’m a woman! I’ve notified Facebook, but no action thus far… S

      • Re property prices in your neck of the woods, there’s a bubble if ever there was one…

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