Location, location… and an access road

The beautiful but uninhabitable Garn-galed in the Monnow Valley
The beautiful but uninhabitable Garn-galed in the Monnow Valley

As kids growing up in the sixties, sunny Sunday afternoons usually meant one thing: my sister and I being bundled, often protesting, into the back of my grandad’s ancient Morris Minor and whisked off to The Countryside, Topsy and Tim style.

My maternal grandfather, Sydney Davies, was a country lad. Hailing from a large family of mostly girls, he was the sole sibling to be lured by the city lights, the only one brave enough to leave his childhood home near Usk to seek fame and fortune in… Newport.

That would have been sometime in the early 1920s, I guess. Sadly, riches eluded this quiet, reflective man; however he did a secure a job in Newport Corporation’s parks department where his green fingers and conscientious manner were highly regarded and he remained until his retirement.

Memories of those trips to the countryside around Usk will remain with me always: our frequent encounters with stingy nettles (treated with soothing dock leaves), the huge (to us) cows thumping against the farmyard gate, collecting hazel nuts in the lanes (and learning how to distinguish them from acorns), the topiary peacock at Overbrooke Farm (home of Auntie Min, Uncle Ern and Min’s unwed sister, Lil) and the uphill walk through a field to Auntie Winnie’s more humble dwelling. Here we drank homemade lemonade and wandered through the cottage garden, fascinated by the velvety leaves of the lambs’ ear.

 

The perfect Gower location... but there's nowhere to park
The perfect Gower location… but there’s nowhere to park

Then there was the homemade butter… oodles of it on everything (I was a Blueband girl back then). And hadn’t anyone heard that you were supposed to cut the fatty bits off ham before putting it in sandwiches? Of course, then I’d get chided for pushing ‘good’ food around on my plate but anything was better than eating it.

One particularly vivid memory is when my Gran told my sister she must kiss Uncle Ern to thank him for the flowers he’d given her. My sister looked at the flowers, clearly decided they weren’t worth that much and hurled them back at him! 

 

One of many abandoned houses in the Picos de Europa, northern Spain
One of many abandoned houses in the Picos de Europa, northern Spain

Yes, the world of our elderly country relatives seemed a million miles away from our own lives fifteen miles away in a Town. As Grandad’s old car wheezed its way over Christchurch Hill to Caerleon and beyond, we sensed we were being transported to a bygone era where kitchens were cavernous, stone-floored ice-blocks, tiny rooms were heated with individual coal fires and the garden patch was cultivated for vegetables not flowers.

Fortunately for us, or so we thought at the time, our parents were not ‘back to the earth’ types (this, of course, being before The Good Life took the country by storm and everyone wanted to grow onions and keep chickens) and living in a terraced street opposite my grand-parents seemed to suit them. 

The irony is that nearly a hundred years after my Grandad left the countryside in search of a better life, it’s only those who have succeeded financially (or never left in the first place) who can  now afford a country pile. And the majority of those who can afford to seek a home in the country seem to want all the benefits of city-living but with a better view. 

 

Thankfully this house near Longtown has been restored
Thankfully this house near Longtown has been restored

Harri, who is from diary farming stock himself, uses the word ‘gentrify’ to describe the transformation of former farming properties (houses and barns) which are no longer used for their original purchase. And the desire to live the ‘simple life’ is evident everywhere: restored farmhouses with sweeping tiled driveways and remote-controlled gates, spacious barns with re-pointed stonework and roof-height windows, outbuildings renovated as picturesque holiday homes, etc.

With all this fondness for country-living, you’d expect every farmhouse within fifty miles of a city would be snapped up for ‘development’ but, from what we’ve seen on our walks, that simply isn’t the case. Our jaunts often take us past forgotten houses and outbuildings, a visual reminder that agriculture dominated the Welsh landscape long before industry arrived. 

Uninhabited and neglected for years, even decades, the majority have fallen into such a state of disrepair that only the very bravest would embark on a renovation project. There are others, however, where the stonework is surprisingly intact and which, with a little imagination and patience, and perhaps more than a little money, could be transformed into attractive and modern family homes.

So what is it that’s stopping house-hunters from snapping up these properties? Why are property developers giving stone farmhouses with views to die for a wide berth? What makes a detached, but dilapidated house on the west side of Gower so undesirable that no-one’s even trying to market is as a ‘needs major renovation’ project (as happens all the time in France, Spain and Portugal).

 

Yet another perfectly habitable home in mid Wales... if only there was a road leading to it
Yet another perfectly habitable home in mid Wales… if only there was a road leading to it

The lack of road access, that’s what. 

In the UK, our love affair with the car is so absolute – and our public transport system so inadequate and, where it does exist, prohibitively expensive – that buying a rural house without car access is a big no-no, something not even worth considering.

In 2013, no-one, it seems, is willing to park up and walk across a field to their doorstep as Auntie Winnie did all her married life. 

Location, location, location, shout the estate agents. Road access, private parking and lots of it, insist the buyers.

In Madeira, many of the smaller, traditional properties are located on levadas and have no vehicular access. For more than a century, the families living in them have accepted that everything they buy has to be carried a fair distance from the nearest road or track to their homes. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that so many Madeirans grow their own produce (the year-round sunshine helps). Convenient? No, not really, but certainly not reason enough to turn down a perfectly habitable home with a glorious view. 

 

Many small houses in Madeira have no vehicle access
Many small houses in Madeira have no vehicle access

My guess is that few Brits would be prepared to live in a property where they couldn’t park their car(s) immediately outside (how many neighbour disputes are about parking?). As for having to walk several hundred metres from the nearest lane/track to your front door… with the week’s shopping! Heaven forbid! 

It’s because of our modern-day obsession with vehicular access that new housing developments allocate at least two parking spaces for each three- or four-bedroom house. It’s what buyers demand, what makes the property desirable.

 

Would a modern day Dylan Thomas want to live in the garageless Boat House?
Would a modern day Dylan Thomas want to live in the garageless Boat House?

We still expect our home to be our castle, but in the twenty-first century we insist our castle forgoes its surrounding moat, that the drawbridge is permanently lowered and the stone floor is perfectly level. We want the obstacles removed from our busy lives and that includes being able to park outside our front door.

These old stone farmhouses might be located in some of our most stunning landscapes but it’s the rumble of nearby traffic that most home-buyers are really listening out for, not a gurgling brook.

 

 

2 Responses

  1. thecurvyhiker

    We’re presently renovating an old stone cottage, on the side of a small Irish mountain, with outstanding views across the midland counties. When I made initial inquiries about the place the auctioneer (estate agent) just gave me directions and told us to go and look on our own. She said it was quite remote, and everyone she had shown up there so far hadn’t even wanted to go in once they got there, due to it being so remote and quiet. So she wanted us to make sure we really did want to look around inside before she arranged to meet us up there with the keys. It isn’t all that remote (I didn’t think so anyway). There is road access. The grass grows all the way up the middle of the road and I’d say that the local Co Co road maintenance team don’t even know where the road is judging by the state of it, but the road does go all the way up there! And it is still only 3 miles from the nearest village, and about 9 miles from the nearest town. (Unlike an old cottage in Scotland we once lived in, where the nearest shop of any kind was an hour’s drive away – that really did require forward planning and careful diesel rationing!)
    We looked through the dusty windows, into the very abandoned cottage, and we had already decided what offer to put on the place before we’d even seen inside. Many friends and visitors absolutely adore the place, and love the peace and quiet…but almost as many again wonder why we aren’t knocking the ‘old place’ down and building a brand new bungalow on the site…

    • thewalkerswife

      It sounds absolutely beautiful and definitely the type of home we’d like to have… one day, when youngest flies the nest (I don’t think she’d take too kindly to living on a mountainside!). Though I have to admit I’m not the most organised of shoppers so I think I’d need a village nearby as you have in Ireland. Garn-galed, the house in the photograph, is reasonably close to a village (though no shop) but there’s no discernible road access, just a sunken (wet) lane. There are three separate buildings, two stone and a more modern brick house which is attached (and is in worse condition). It is amazing is how well-preserved the stonework of many of these houses are – they were certainly built to last!

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