The Great Escape: 'We'd glimpsed paradise - nothing could stop us'.

The Independent (London, England); 7/12/2004
By Alex James

AS A CHILD, I always dreamt that when I grew up I would live in the country. Instead, for the past 13 years I have been living in Covent Garden - and you can't get much more urban than that. But last year it began to dawn on me that, while I was not bored of life, I was a bit bored of London. The time seemed right to turn my youthful imaginings into reality.

My wife Claire and I began searching for a new home in the Cotswolds. At first we looked at houses on sale for about a million quid. The properties we saw were pretty depressing; especially the one that had been "completely modernised throughout". You'd think you couldn't go that wrong for a cool country million, but it doesn't necessarily even get you a parking space in Gloucestershire.

Millionaire is a redundant word, like ha'p'orth or knickerbockers. It's gone. In America you've got to have a billion before you can start blinging. Having a million doesn't get you any art or any domestic staff other than a part-time cleaner. With that kind of money, you're still in the system, playing the game.

But if you spend a bit more, you can get a lot more. Less than two million buys a couple of hundred acres, a farmhouse, a cottage, numerous barns and stables, river frontage, sheds, woodland, piles of tires, pheasants and a walled garden.

It was a beautiful spring day when we clapped eyes on the farm. Rabbits scattered as we rolled up the drive in our 300-quid BMW, a filthy car with the rear driver's-side window missing.

I remember the feeling I had when I walked into my very first, tiny, rented flat in Covent Garden - an overwhelming sense that this place must be mine. With most property viewings, you're looking for ways to escape before you've even seen everything, so when you get the feeling of not wanting to leave - that's your home. At the farm, as we sat in bright gold sun in the kitchen, having a cup of PG with the farmer, his wife and their dogs and cats, I knew I was having that feeling.

The farmer who was selling up had a particular quality. He was a radiator; he radiated serene vibes that put us all at ease. We walked the land with him. There were butterflies and blue tits, rooks and rats. Little coppices and streams, and a dried-up lake. Two hundred acres of everything you need. (I'd been trying to find out how big an acre was for quite some time; no estate agent seemed able to help. It was the amount of land a man and a horse could plough in a day, but knowing that still didn't help visualise it in the 21st century.)

By the time we got back into the knackered beamer we were spellbound. We knew we'd do everything we could to buy the farm; it had everything we wanted and more, without being over the top or in bad taste. Living in mansions is for rappers and lottery winners. It's so much more tasteful to be a farmer than a lord of the manor.

Everybody we know was appalled by our decision to buy the place, though. Most took us to one side and had a quiet word; my mum wrote us a letter. Tony the flying instructor, who helped me to take some aerial photos of the farm for us to coo over - and who is the very voice of reason - was worried. How could we expect to run a farm, when it was beyond people whose families had been farmers for generations - while we didn't even have experience of a garden?

But my wife and I thought, no - knew, that it was now or never. We'd glimpsed a version of paradise and nothing was going to stop us. We bought the place and, although I still love spending time in London, I do feel ready for something else now.

Somebody cancels lunch and tells me how they were round at Ed from the Chemical Brothers' house in Notting Hill till 5am, and I suddenly can't think of anything more dull than a late night in Notting Hill. I realise I still need the city, but I'm leaving for pastures new.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.