Early this summer I went for a picnic with my four-year-old. Sausage rolls packed, we put on our wellies and tramped off up the road. Minutes later we were wading uphill through swathes of knee-high grass. We had to keep stopping so that my son could search for the small brown crickets whose chirruping filled the air around us and chase after the butterflies which flitted past. While he tormented the insect life, I took the opportunity to admire the view, which was green and rolling, with just an occasional church spire breaking the line of trees.
Where was this bucolic idyll? Was I on holiday? Do I live in some remote corner of Dorset or Pembrokeshire? No. I was in London. Within zone 2. The rolling fields? Hampstead Heath.
If I had a pound for every die-hard city girl who had a baby and suddenly decided that she needed to move to the country I’d – well, I wouldn’t be able to buy a studio flat within the M25 – but, still. Scary London house prices and modest dreams of gardens, better schools and clean air have sent many a freshly-minted parent scampering out of the city and into the office of a small-town estate agent.
However, my advice to new parents would be don’t rush to pack up your stuff and head for the hills. London has a huge amount to offer parents and kids – as much as any provincial town or chocolate-box village.
I know this, because I learned it the only way I know how: the hard way.
I grew up in the countryside. And although I’d spent all of my adult life living and working in London, I always thought that eventually, when the time was right, I’d move somewhere more peaceful, with, yes, more space and a garden.
When, suddenly, there were three of us – two grown-ups and a baby – squashed into a tiny, garden-free flat on a busy road, it seemed like the right time had come, so we kissed goodbye to our lives in the city and headed off to pastures new.
Two years later, we came back.
Why? Because I discovered that I wasn’t the country girl I thought I was. Because it turned out that gardening was actually quite hard work. And because, with the benefit of comparison, it transpired that London isn’t such a bad place to have children after all.
In the beginning, living in the country was idyllic. We had a whole house, and a couple of fields. Luxury beyond our tiny urban imaginations. The scenery was breathtaking, the peace and quiet absolute. For the first six months we felt like we were on holiday. But when reality kicked in, the idyll evaporated, or, to be more accurate, got washed away.
It rained a lot. And while fields and gardens are all very well when the sun shines, when the weather turns bad they’re not so appealing. To me, anyway. Other, hardier, parents might have relished a bit of character-building mud and sleet, or risen to the challenge with a constant round of indoor activities, but I’m afraid I went more for gloomy staring out of the window, wondering when it would stop, while my two-year-old bounced off the walls.
When it rains in London there are cinemas with baby screenings, soft play centres, libraries with dedicated children’s rooms, swimming baths with children’s pools and pretty much every baby and toddler group, activity and class you can think of. Not half an hour away in the car, but just round the corner. And call me unresourceful, but I’ve realised that these are things that I need to get from week to week as a parent.
When the weather is better (and the Thames Estuary is, according to the Met Office, the driest part of Britain) there are still big open spaces, like Hampstead Heath and Wimbledon Common, as well as loads of large, well-equipped playgrounds, open-air paddling pools and city farms.
In the city there is also a plentiful supply of the things that make adults (well, unresourceful ones like me, anyway) tick – shops, restaurants, cafes, and, most importantly of all, friends. I missed my friends. With a baby under one, my social schedule before I left London hadn’t exactly been jam-packed, but I had met lots of friendly mums at various baby groups and when I moved away I really missed having people who I could call and meet for a coffee or a walk in the park.
I tried to make it work in the country, of course I did. I became a dab hand with an empty cereal box and a tube of PVA glue. I baked bread and made chutney. I was a regular at every toddler group within a twenty mile radius, and, gradually, I did make new friends.
But lovely though the new friends were, there weren’t enough of them, and they didn’t live close enough by to sustain my need for social contact. And every time I needed to go anywhere, even for a pint of milk, I had to get in the car – I realised how much exercise I had been doing in London just pushing the buggy to the shops and back. With all the driving and baking, never skinny at the best of times, I got properly fat. So much for clean living – being in the country, for me at least, turned out to be unexpectedly unhealthy.
Fat, lonely and bored. Eventually, I had to admit to myself that I could make all the home-made cakes and cardboard rocket ships in the world, but I was just sellotaping over the cracks – life in the country wasn’t really for me.
When I finally got myself back to the city, lost weight and breathed a sigh of relief, I realised something that I hadn’t fully appreciated before: London is an incredibly friendly, and child-friendly, place.
Try walking down a country lane with a dog and a small child in tow. There might not be many cars, but those that there are will be going fast, and there are no pavements and lots of blind corners. It’s a nightmare for the nerves. In a big park there’s no traffic, children and animals can run free, and there are conveniently spaced playgrounds and ice cream vans.
Baby groups everywhere are a good place to meet other parents, but in London the sheer volume of people and range of activities means that you’ll make more friends, more quickly. Also, contrary to a prejudice I sometimes hear, Londoners are friendly. Rare is the trip to a London play park when I don’t end up either bumping into someone I already know or chatting to someone I’ve just met.
There is also a whole range of stuff for older children in London that you just wouldn’t get anywhere else – international-standard museums, west-end shows, ice skating at Somerset House – I could go on. Activities that would mean planning a special trip from outside London are within reach for the price of a bus ticket if you live here.
And as for the exercise, lots of London mums I know don’t even have a car because with supermarkets running delivery services, brilliant public transport and so much within walking distance, they don’t need one (and the traffic is bad, and parking impossible, but, hey, I never said it was perfect).
Our current flat even has a garden. It’s about the size of an Oyster card, but we still managed to grow a respectable range of veggies this year. Just a handful of each, granted, but we’ve already established that I’m too lazy for self-sufficiency, and there’s always the farmers’ market.
Later this summer, I went to the Heath again with my son. After a hike to the ponds to feed the ducks, we stopped off at the paddling pool. It was full of splashing children, and parents with their jeans rolled up. We met some friends, and while the kids played, the grown-up conversation went something like this: how lucky are we to live here? Where else could we be standing against a backdrop of grass and trees, with the holiday-scent of chlorine in our nostrils, and still be planning to pop to M&S Simply Food for groceries on the way home?
It took moving away to make me realise it, but now I do feel lucky. Spoilt, even. Granted, I live in a particularly nice corner of London, and for that I have to accept the trade-off of living in a shoe box. But, once you’ve stomached the property prices, living in any part of this city means having access to an unbeatable range of, often free, facilities.
It’s true that if you really want space on a grand scale, or to be able to stand in the middle of a field and listen to yourself breathe, then you probably do need to go elsewhere. But in future I’m going to save that stuff for holidays, and for everything else I’m staying put.