We are trying to buy a house. I say ‘trying’, because it is proving rather more laborious than we expected to find a house. But perhaps the journey is all a part of the quest. So yes, I have been thinking about houses a lot recently. I wouldn’t even say we’re finding it hard because we are especially picky – I have been told that it is not unusual to look at up to thirty properties before buying, and that you should be open-minded, casting out any images of your perfect home to make a successful choice. And after-all we’ve viewed period terraced houses in North and East Oxford, a flat in a brutal/beautiful Nordic-looking block on the Woodstock Road (which I loved because it reminded me of Wallander), contemporary apartments in Jericho, a derelict pub, and most recently a four-storey building on Walton Street housing a characterful three-bed maisonette and on the ground floor, a charity shop (now, mores’ the pity under offer to someone else). There has been excitement and disappointment and I’ve learned about leases and mortgages and that there is such a thing as ‘concrete cancer’ (the reason we decided against the Nordic block).
The difficulty is that we are not only looking to buy a home. Where we do buy is unlikely to be the house where we begin a family, but you never know – catchment areas for good nursery schools are certainly a factor. Like everybody else, probably, we are also carefully looking for a sober investment, something with potential to renovate or extend, sell for a profit next year or the year after and move somewhere bigger and better. My partner, being an architect, is more ambitious than I, because he can envisage the potentially transforming result of taking out walls to produce larger, more open-plan spaces, opening up the roof into a mezzanine studio, for example, or extending on and constructing an oblong glass structure to house a kitchen. And I, being the daughter of a interior designer and a father who has worked in property in London all his life, and who as a child wandered happily around the dusted-sheeted building sites of gutted houses in Putney and Chelsea and Richmond, am more than used to the lengthy processes of a conversion.
The one thing we dislike about Oxford is its flatness; the land here is flush and unbroken. There are no natural summits – the landscape is supine, the only cliffs and peaks created by high-rise faculty buildings. And we both love hills, the feeling of departure and separation they give you. Climbing a hill away from the town is akin to an intermission – the air clarifies, the head clears and you gain a new perspective from a hill-top. And so, we widened our boundaries, which brought us to Beckley, 4.5 miles from our home in Jericho. As we got into the car, we decided to measure the time it took to drive, which turned out to be a concise eleven minutes each way door to door – an abbreviation, even, to my partners current commute to his practice by bicycle (13 minutes).
Winding away from Oxford to the north-east, gently uphill all the way, the road to Beckley is immediately rural just minutes from Summertown and the Northern Bypass. A tapering lane, narrowed by cow parsley, it runs first through the village of Elsfield. A peacock, red chickens and white geese peck around on the warm tarmac; the cottages are ochre-coloured stone and thatched; the view across the Otmoor wetlands an enduring agricultural expanse of field and hedgerow. You could be in Cornwall. There is an absence of white noise, just birdsong, dogs barking – pastoral sounds – and, minutes away from the city, the rhythm is markedly milder and slower. It is an utterly tranquil spot. There is a Norman parish church with a 14th century wall mural of the weighing of souls, a lovely, wood-floored pub with an open log fire, the Abingdon Arms, which was remembered fondly by Winston Churchill in his diaries with the recollection of ‘drinking rum and water from large pewter tankards and eating bread and cheese’. And last but not least there is a supposedly excellent school…
The house we have found for sale is an old, converted chapel. It is pretty, but a little forsaken. Promising, we think. And there is a small plot of land at the rear onto which one could extend the property by 1/3 of its current size should planning be granted. In essence, the potential is palpable, and there are distinct benefits – the solid wood floors, sturdy farmhouse-style kitchen units, the open fireplace, the garden. So we sit outside the Abingdon Arms with a glass of ale and my partner draws sketches of extensions and we discuss the possible advantage of timber clapboard and I ponder the benefits of growing wisteria up the facade and which particular shade of taupe would soften the weatherboarding and window frames, now a rather stark white and a little austere against the soft carnelian-coloured brick.
I must say, it never seriously occurred to me to move out of the city, though I was determined to maintain an ‘open mind’. Even leaving Oxford this evening, I felt faintly anxious at the idea of ‘moving to the country’, of not being within walking distance of a coffee-shop, having to drive rather than cycle to do my grocery shopping (my heavy Dutch-style sit-up-and-beg bicycle would baulk at the hill), or nip down to the newsagents to buy cigarettes and a newspaper. On the other hand, maybe I’d be happier, perhaps getting out of the city every night would mean I could leave work at work.
The house is at the end of the village, at the bottom of a steep lane that takes you over a bridle-pass with views over the broad, green valley below. For people who love watching the seasons change and walking it seems remarkable to even find somewhere so close to Oxford, yet completely rural. I think I would write well here. Evelyn Waugh certainly did. Whilst sharing a caravan in 1925 with a friend in the yard of the village pub, he penned Vile Bodies, later writing: ‘In the evenings I sit with the farmers in the kitchen drinking beer. I like so much the way they don’t mind not talking.’
We could keep chickens, I say. I could buy a motorbike and ride down into Oxford, weaving through the rush hour traffic on the Woodstock Road to work. My partner is looking at me tolerantly. And then he reflects that even if our offer isn’t accepted or if we find something else, or if the survey shows up a damp problem caused by the stream that runs parallel to the house, we are inevitably edging closer to the right one, and a new chapter, and along our journey we are discovering new places, rather than just insisting on the same old streets that we have walked a thousand times. Yes I agree, and what a heavenly evening we’ve had, on a hot summer day in Oxfordshire, and all the possibilities ahead, the pure pleasure of the hunt.