Samuel Johnson wrote that when a man has tired of London he has tired of life. I love London, but I moved away – and returned – and left again. Now I’m back living in central London for the first time in many years.
I never tired of it, but relationships caused me to change direction, quite radically at times. At one point in my late 20s, at the suggestion of my then girlfriend, we moved from our Hampstead flat to a 300 year-old cottage in the Shropshire hills – The Old Post Office. Looking at it now, I wonder what the hell I was thinking. Not in the sense that I hated living in the country – far from it – but I hadn’t finished with London.
I love the English countryside and was quite happy immersing myself in such a different way of life. I was only 28 though, so it was an odd time of life to be making a move most people only consider when they’re nearing retirement. Since I was a self-employed journalist (my working life has come full circle in that regard), I had the flexibility and I embraced the opportunity. After a while, I found I had adapted to my surroundings and gained a real understanding of rural life.
Ultimately it was unsustainable. Although I made a few lifelong friends there, I had little in common with many of the local people. They led simple lives, working the land or in small businesses. Many of them had never been to London, so I held back from talking about my own experiences. I got involved in local affairs and worked for a time on the local newspaper, but I understood that in this close-knit rural community, however long I stayed in my village, I would always be seen as an ‘incomer’. The relationship ended but I kept hold of the house for seven years, though I only lasted two as a full-time resident, before work drew me back to London in the early 1990s, where I met Denise, a New Zealander.
We moved out of London again when we had children, then we emigrated.
So there’s an element of unfinished business about my current situation, especially coming back to live in my old London neighbourhood. On the one hand it’s familiar terrain but equally, because this area is so full of little lanes, alleyways and mewses, there are still new cut-throughs and character houses to discover.
And the trees! The imposing character houses – many of them of red brick and every one a little different to the next – are matched in stature by the magnificent trees. I’m living on the third floor and looking out from a small balcony to huge mature London Plane trees, oaks, maples and ashes all the way along the street.
In fact, the borough of Camden is among the most densely tree-covered areas in England and Wales. A short walk east or west of here I can be in Primrose Hill or Hampstead Heath. The Heath is celebrating 150 years since it was created as a public space by act of Parliament. On the walk there, the streets are all heavily tree-lined.
In many ways, it really is the best of both worlds.
Belsize Park, 1 August 2021