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.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.