In 2017, I was asked to write a guest post on another blog, Esme Salon. https://cookandenjoyrecipes.wordpress.com/
This was the post I submitted five years ago. Some of you may have seen it on her blog.
I lived in London for sixty years. Born and raised in the dockside area just south of Tower Bridge, it was all I knew. I grew up there, went to school there, and got married there. Like most people, I moved around. It’s a big city, lots to see, and all the districts are different. I lived in middle-class areas, upper-class areas, and cramped rented flats too. After two divorces, and a geographic circuit of the Capital, I spent the last twelve years in the trendy confines of Camden Town, a stone’s throw from the centre.
I worked there too. One third of my life as an EMT, dealing with the demands of a population of over seven million, plus the tourists and commuters. The next fifth of my life spent working for the police, a total of thirty-four years in the emergency services, dealing with every bad thing that one of the biggest cities in the world can throw at you. By the age of fifty-nine, I was worn out. London is not really a place that you live in. It is something you endure, somewhere you survive. You learn to live by its rules. Don’t use a car unless you really have to. Don’t flaunt anything, and walk straight, catch nobody’s eye. Never back down. Only fools speak to strangers, and only tourists or children sit on the top deck of the bus.
Oh, it has its perks. Restaurants, cinemas, bars, theatres. Lots of them, everywhere. Shops, shops, and more shops. You can buy anything you want, but not always what you need. You are a small fish in an enormous shoal, so unlucky if a predator spots you. Stick with the crowd, and you will get by, unnoticed. But forget trying to sleep. Sirens, helicopters, 24-hour life and transport, with ambient light so bright it feels like the sun never sets. Always tired, struggling through one day to the next, in the relentless pace demanded by city life.
Retirement loomed as I approached sixty. Time for a change. London is no place to be old.
So, we bought a house in Norfolk. Only 120 miles north-east, but it might as well be in another country, and at another time. A drive of just over three hours by car takes you back over fifty years in the process. We settled in a place where people still say “Hello” as they walk past. Where a parcel left outside your door is still there, a week later. You don’t have to lock your car, and you could probably leave your doors unlocked too. Children don’t follow old people to mock them, but to help them. Your neighbours help out, and are happy to ask for a favour in return. Traffic jams are but a memory, and within twenty minutes drive, we can be standing on a deserted beach.
And the house cost less than the price of a lock-up garage, in the street we happily left behind.
It’s not all perfect, nothing is. Public transport is almost non-existent, and I have to travel twenty miles to buy a decent shirt, or to find a good street market. There is one cinema, and the choice of places to eat is limited by the modest expectations of local people. No local shop, and no real village centre, so it is not easy to meet new people. But it is dark at night, and I can see the stars, for the first time other than when on holiday. I can walk my dog past wild deer, and watch fish jumping in the river. I feel like I live in an England that I only ever read about in history books.
And I know which place I prefer.