David Cameron once said: ‘there’s more to life than money’ (MPs might like to remember that when they tot up their expenses). He suggested we look at the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture and above all the strength of our relationships. I couldn’t agree more. However I would add that, if you want to enjoy these things, you need one extra, vital ingredient – time. Over the last ten years I learned a hard lesson: that you can live amongst the most beautiful countryside, with a fabulous family, and even a dollop of culture, but it all counts for nothing if you are too busy, too trapped by money, to enjoy it.
My husband, Adrian, and I dreamed of running away from the rat-race. We thought that if we went far enough, away from the city, away from the relentless spiral of working and spending, we could find peace of mind. We fixed on Exmoor, one of the last wildernesses in England, and focused on the ‘golden triangle’ of honeypot villages – Winsford, Exford and Withypool. This was surely the promised land – horses were as common as cars, people smiled and waved, and the village shop advertised book clubs, poetry readings and film screenings in the village hall. Beautiful surroundings, a loving relationship, even the promise of a little culture – David Cameron’s criteria all rolled up together.
The first time I saw our house I fell in love. It wasn’t the house as such –a late Victorian Exmoor farmhouse, down-to-earth, no-nonsense, built to do its job. It was the location. We drove over the bridge, a small brook busily rattling underneath, and up an avenue of broad maples: up and up until we could see the whole valley laid beneath us. We were king and queen of the castle. A group of red deer looked up warily, ears twitching, paused then daintily cantered off. We looked at each other and smiled. A spacious, five-bedroom house set in ten acres, with a stable block, a stream and even its own Christmas tree plantation. It was NIMBY paradise: a house with no immediate neighbours, in a National Park so nobody could plonk a new industrial estate next door. A place set in some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain. This was heaven on earth – and we wanted in. I dreamed of horses poking their noses over the stable door; of leisurely walks over rolling moorland, of cosy lunches in friendly pubs.
It had struck us that the majority of the happy waving people in the village were retired. It made sense: this was a stunning place and anyone active would obviously want to retire here. The difference was that they didn’t have to work – and we did. We were still tied to our desks for most of the day; we were still having to trek up to London for meetings and to show faces in offices. Our costs had also risen exponentially. We had a large mortgage and had to shell out thousands to replace septic tanks, oil tanks, boilers and to get ourselves connected to mains electricity. We had to run two cars, one a gas-guzzling 4×4 (vital for winter’s icy roads and rough tracks) – our fuel bills were monstrous.
Land, fencing and hedging need constant maintenance – we spent a small fortune on chain saws, petrol-driven strimmers and hedgers and industrial-strength mowers. Labour was expensive and hard to find – we ended up having to do it all ourselves, and it was hugely time-consuming.
I discovered I was pregnant and we congratulated ourselves on making such a wise choice – what more perfect place for a child to grow up? Our child would run carefree through meadows, climb trees and make dams across the stream. Being freelance, however, meant I dare not take too much time off – so I worked up to a week before the birth and was back on deadlines five days after I came out of hospital. Perhaps unsurprisingly I plunged into post-natal depression and stumbled blindly through the next few years, balancing my baby on my knee while I sobbed into my keyboard. And so the years went by. We worked and worked, and worked and worked. Adrian and I barely saw each other – passing our son James like a relay baton – as we hurtled from deadline to deadline. We got to the point where we were too tired even to argue.
The stables remained empty. I simply didn’t have the time to look after a horse. I only made it once to the riding stables for a hack – and then kicked myself because I got back late and found I’d missed a commission. Our fond ideas of having ducks, a few pigs and some chickens faded as we realised that animals take time – time we didn’t have.
It was the day we came back from holiday that it finally struck me. Some friends from London had come down to house-sit while we went off to France for a fortnight. It had been a stressful trip – hot, expensive and culminating in a 24-hour drive through the night to catch a wrongly-booked ferry. We arrived home exhausted. Our friends, meanwhile, looked the picture of relaxed contentment. They were sitting out on sun loungers I’d forgotten we owned, sipping wine, a bunch of wild flowers resting on the picnic table. ‘God, it’s gorgeous here,’ said Dan. ‘How do you ever get any work done?’ They had had lazy picnics, wine chilling in the stream, and walked for miles, through woodland, over moorland and along vast stretches of sandy beach. They had hired horses and galloped over the hills. They had tried their luck with rod and line in the wild streams of Exmoor and taken to sea in search of larger fish. They told us about gems of pubs, about tea rooms where you could still get a ‘real’ cream tea and smart new cafes which served a mean cappuccino. They had chatted to our neighbours, made friends and been invited to any number of barbecues, parties, point-to-points and even begged to join the mythical local book group.
In other words, they had led ‘our life’, the life we intended to lead when we moved here. They had met the people we had hoped to meet, explored Exmoor the way we had wanted to explore it.
Off they went, waving merrily, tanned and smiling, reminding us to let them do it again next time we went away. I was left with a raging headache, a huge pile of washing and a sense that something, somewhere had gone horribly wrong. What was the point of living somewhere so beautiful, if you never had the time to enjoy it?
I had a stunning view from my office window. If I lifted my head from my computer screen I could watch buzzards wheeling high above the valley; I could spy a fox slinking along the hedge-line; best of all, I could catch a glimpse of a bunch of young stags cautiously edging their way down the hillside. But it remained a view. I never got out there to enjoy it. James would ask if we could perhaps go to the beach, for a walk, to look for antlers. I would say, ‘Maybe later.’ He would trudge off, head hung low and I would hear him walking down to Adrian’s office to meet with the same response.
The huge irony of it all is that I was supposed to know better. I have spent the last twenty years writing about natural health, about self-help and alternative ways of living. I have counselled hoards of people on how to sort out their priorities, how to push aside the material in search of deeper meaning, how to find happiness. But it was only when I was asked to write a book on overcoming overload and stress, that I realised what a mess my own life had become. I could tie myself in yoga knots and dish out flower remedies for any emotional ill, but I hadn’t got my own life in any semblance of balance. The more I researched, the more I thought about what we were doing. I gathered opinions and advice from a vast number of experts in psychology, economics, self-help, philosophy and life coaching. Put it all together and it was relatively simple to figure out how nearly anyone could cut out overload and bring their life back to balance. There were short sharp shifts that made it a lot better; tips and techniques to cut back on stress and unburden over-stretched lives. But there was no avoiding the fact that, if you really wanted peace and happiness, you had to make tough decisions. I came to the inescapable realisation that we had no choice: we had to downshift.
Downshifting is a tough decision. It makes you confront your ego, your sense of self. Above all, it makes you realise how caught up you are in the status game. I liked to think I was above all that. I mocked designer labels, snorted in disgust at the very idea of paying a thousand pounds for a handbag, laughed scornfully at the cult of celebrity with its flash cars, cosmetic surgery and exotic holidays. But when we started looking at cheaper houses I realised I was still caught up in the status game. Even the brochures (thin paper rather than lovely glossy folders) seemed cheap. What would people think? I had grown to enjoy the open-jawed ‘wows’ that escaped involuntarily when people saw our view. I liked saying that, yes, we had ten acres, and yes, those were our stables and yes, this was our guest suite. I had become a property snob.
Every bone of my body rebelled against giving up the house. We have worthless pensions, no savings, and as freelancers absolutely no hope of any kind of paid-for retirement. Our house is our only piece of equity. I grew up with the dictat that you ‘stretched yourself’, that you worked your socks off and had scary mortgages because, one far-off day, you could cash it all in and retire. My father was a huge believer in this – he often reminisced about what he would do when he retired, the books he would read, the places he would go, the hobbies he would rediscover. Then one day, without warning, he keeled over with a sudden and fatal heart attack. We packed up his life in a weekend – the books went to Oxfam, the travel brochures in the recycling. We gave away the golf clubs that had gathered dust; we cleared out his diving equipment, his cameras, his squash racquets. He had run out of time.
It was crunch time for us too. We sat down with a calculator and suddenly the sums made perfect sense. Our house was crucifying us. So, we put it on the market and found a much cheaper place in a nearby town. We have a very small mortgage and far lower outgoings (although offset by school fees and a major renovation job!). But we have been able to work less and get out and enjoy our surroundings far more. We can drop everything sometimes to play with James, while he’s still young enough to want us to. OK, I haven’t started riding yet – but I will get round to it.
Do we miss our old house? Our land and our view? Yes, sometimes, just a little. But we certainly don’t miss the juggling, the stress and the sense that life is hurtling by without meaning. We don’t have status, we don’t have hoards of money – but we do have time and, yes sometimes, moments of pure happiness.
The Overload Solution – how to stop juggling and start living (Piatkus, £9.99).
My verdict? I think downshifting is a very real and valid option – if you are in a position to do it.
What do you think? Have you downshifted? Would you consider it? It is purely an option for those who were lucky enough to have enough equity in their homes? Are there more inventive ways of cutting costs?
Do you think our egos are bound up too much in where we live? In other countries there is far less emphasis on owning your own home and many people say that renting is a much healthier option (for our finances and our mental health). What do you think?