I’ve known two of my closest friends for over a decade. We met during our first year of secondary school, spending our lunch breaks with our legs stretched out between rows of blue metal lockers and writing notes to each other in class.
For the last few years, it’s been harder to keep our friendship at the same level. We studied at different universities, and then lived and travelled through different countries: without the internet, it would have been almost impossible to keep track of what we were all doing.
Luckily, we’ve finally found ourselves living in London at the same time, which is a long overdue and very welcome situation. But London is a city that never stops, and within weeks of moving back, I was getting swept up into the speed of London life again. As well as starting my Masters degree, I took on a job in a café, a weekly Spanish class, freelance writing assignments, moved out of my dad’s house and into a flat – and then November started. With it came NaNoWriMo, or ‘National Novel Writing Month’: a worldwide challenge to write 50,000 words in the 30 days of November.
Though most people use it to write a piece of non-fiction, I decided to attempt the challenge as a way of kick-starting my non-fiction writing for my Masters. If you’re trying to work out what this challenge actually entails, the aim is essentially to get 1,667 words in the bag each day. In theory, that’s pretty doable, except as soon as you miss a day of writing you’re suddenly faced with a more daunting 3,000+. And that number just keeps getting higher.
By the end of November’s first week, I was struggling to keep on track with the word count. To really get my head down and focus, I needed to be somewhere quiet. I needed isolation.
I needed, in effect, the exact place that I was heading for two days.
Life in the English country
Deep in the heart of Oxfordshire is an old farm cottage, flanked by wheat fields and herds of cows, which has been in Mimi’s family for generations. She spends occasional weekends here when she has the time: going for long walks across muddy tracks, and breathing in the crisp clean air.
My granny’s house was a lot like this one. A farmhouse at the end of a narrow lane in a tiny Somerset village, all spiders webs in the corners of the ceilings and old wood beams overhead, splitting along miniature fault lines. Granny’s house wasn’t cold, though. An old woman living by herself in a house intended for many more people meant she kept the heating constantly turned up to full: whenever my parents and I walked through the door after a three hour drive from London, we prepared to immediately shed all our layers of clothes.
No matter what the temperature was outside, we spent each mealtime sweating in silence around the kitchen table – my dad panting in a white vest while he looked incredulously at my granny, cosy in a blouse and woollen jumper. We took turns making excuses to go into the pantry and blast cold air from the open freezer door into our reddened faces.
Mimi’s country house has flagstone floors and rooms that echo at each boot step. There is a closed-door policy from room to room; you can almost see the path of the heat making its swift escape. The fireplace in the living room quickly becomes the mainstay of the house: we sit on the sofa opposite, surrounded by cushions and covered by knitted blankets, and stare mesmerised into an orange heart of blazing logs and scattered coals left to char and disintegrate.
But there’s something wholly comforting about wrapping your body up in layers to combat the autumn chill. The season calls for it; just as you feel the sudden need for simmering stews and casseroles for hours, or baking cakes all afternoon, or drinking red wine in front of the fire while the tree branches outside bend with the weight of the wind.
The coldness of autumn brings people closer together. And sometimes it’s exactly what they need.
A taste of countryside tradition
I spent little more than 48 hours in a country house with one of my best friends and her family, and another best friend and her fiancé. If I’d been in London, much that time would have disappeared into waiting for buses and paying for drinks in crowded pubs. Instead, I had a weekend that blurred itself together with the most beautiful mixture of all the countryside activities I’d forgotten about.
I woke up late, cosy under the weight of a heavy feather duvet and layers of blankets; sat downstairs in socks and jumpers while the morning sunlight filtered through the windows into the kitchen. The girls and I munched our way through slices of freshly baked bread and butter, slathering on jam that Mimi’s mum had made the year before.
Our hands wrapped around mugs of coffee, we went walking through the fields. Clambered over stiles and gates, slick with the dew of the night before.
Eventually, we spotted a herd of young cows approaching cautiously through the layers of mist that hung above the grass.
They trotted towards the fence in clusters, unsure who we were but interested all the same.
For hours, I sat cross legged in an armchair beside the fire, alternating between typing my requisite words for NaNoWriMo and sipping on hot tea, before we migrated back to the kitchen for bowls of homemade soup around the old wooden table.
Meanwhile, my friends baked coffee cake and got decorative with buttercream icing and walnuts.
When the sun set, various members of Mimi’s extended family began to arrive at the house, gathered together for a belated Halloween/Bonfire Night celebration.
We stood around a bonfire in the garden with mugs of mulled wine and waved sparklers in the pitch black, then sequestered ourselves inside again, plates piled high with sausages, salad, and mashed potato.
The weekend was the height of indulgence – food, cheese, chocolate, alcohol – and it felt incredible. I hadn’t thought that I was holding myself back in London, but it’s hard not to fall into the trap of watching what you do, what you eat and how you appear. When I left South America, I was so certain I’d stay true to my traveller ethos of not wearing make up and talking to strangers, but some things don’t last.
The city or the country: which is better?
On Sunday evening, Mimi’s parents dropped me off outside a tube station on the outskirts of London and I waved goodbye. The first few steps along the pavement left me breathless, blinking and confused. The lights from shop fronts and flashing traffic signs tugged at the corners of my eyes.
Why was everything moving so fast? Why were there so many angry faces coming towards me, bodies brushing past me? And it was so loud!
By the time I got back to my flat, the silence was a godsend. There were a few minutes of attempting to catch up on work, but I soon realised it was a lost cause: my mind was too relaxed to do anything other than lie on the sofa and read.
I was born and raised in London. I’ve always loved the vibrancy and speed and complexity of cities; the intangible rush of energy that runs through their people, their busy streets, their transport systems.
But the longer I travel, the more I gravitate to the quieter places. The towns and villages where I can feel like I’ve learnt how things work in a short space of time. And I also like taking things much more slowly now. I hadn’t realised how much I missed my grandma’s house until I stepped out of a country cottage to a quiet that wasn’t really quiet at all: filled with the tiny, far off sounds of cows, birdsong, the buzzing of wasps.
Do you prefer the quiet of country living to a busy city? Have you ever visited the English countryside before?