No, I'm not doing any house hunting just now. I like my home very much, and mean to stay put for a while yet, although whether I will be here for the rest of my days is another matter. But lack of cash for a move (nothing in the bank for a deposit, for instance) will in any case tie me to my present location indefinitely.
But ten years ago M--- and I were an item, and very serious house hunters indeed.
This urge to look at properties was driven mainly by M---, who treated it as a Grand Project. And something more than just that. Having the ideal house was her own personal dream: a spacious rural or coastal residence, with extensive grounds and a good view. It was a dream I did not share with the same zeal. But if we ended up with a large, well-appointed country property then I was not going to complain, and would doubtless enjoy whatever M--- would make of it.
But I would be equally happy in any property that I could feel at home in. That might include a small modern build, so long as it was snug and convenient. M--- was looking for a property with potential, probably something old and run-down, that could be developed and turned into something very special and individual. And it had to offer space and separation from neighbours. She was ambitious about this, and we looked at many properties that frankly I would never have considered if buying only for myself.
But M--- was bold, and could see the potential of a place. She often said she should have been an estate agent. She loved looking at properties, and I am quite sure that my transition, and the ending of our relationship, was a terrible blow to her dream of owning that lovely million-pound property she so badly wanted. And if my transition had never taken place, if the property market had never faltered at the end of 2007, then we would today still be together, and the proud owners of just such a residence.
To give you an idea of how we conducted our house-hunting in its heyday, here are extracts from the contemporary notes I kept at the time, with some photos of course if I have any. First, a bungalow in the New Forest, and two properties in Dorset, all viewed in June 2003:
A major interest while staying in Milford on Sea was to investigate the housing market in the local area. Unfortunately our notions of finding plots of land for a self-build, or even bungalows with a lot of land around them, were dashed. Properties with large grounds existed - at a price. But suitable places were few. The only one we found in the general area that had the land and semi-rural position we wanted was on the edge of Tiptoe, almost on the New Forest boundary, and it cost a whopping £575K when our realistic budget was then only £300K [that would be around £400K in 2013 values]. In general you were paying a premium to be near the coast and/or near to the Forest. And clearly there would in any case be lots of competition from other people looking for a holiday or retirement home. Still, Milford on Sea remained a top choice throughout the holiday.
We looked carefully at a bungalow in East Boldre, a New Forest village off the B road between Lymington and Beaulieu. This was on offer at £396K. Again, in theory too much for us at the time, although by then we were starting to consider ways to find such money. It was on a plot nearly as large as the Ashley Heath property (see below), but enclosed by high hedges which gave shelter and privacy - though they meant isolation too. Its only access was over a cattle grid - most necessary, since across the road outside lay the genuine forest, grass and gorse with distant trees, and of course wandering ponies who would long for the succulent grazing in a garden. The bungalow itself was modernised, with extensive use of big sliding patio doorways, all double-gazed of course, and a wood-burning stove. It had two moderately-sized bedrooms, a good lounge, a smallish kitchen, a small hall, a loo, a bathroom, an accessable attic reached by aluminium pull-down steps - and that was all. Almost nothing in the way of storage space. We decided it was too small: it needed at least one more good-sized room. But that was next day. At the time we were both quite taken with it. The couple who lived there, both keen on sailing and caravanning, were more than pleased to show us over the property, and very chatty; in fact we arrived at 5.40pm and did not get to leave until 9.20pm. I got the impression they were glad to have visitors. And that was something else about the situation of the house – all the properties in East Boldre were strung out along a two-mile minor road, quite well separated, and getting to know any neighbours would be difficult. Some of them sounded rich and snooty. The one village shop was a long walk away, not at all convenient. One might feel very lonely and cut off when it was dark and dismal outside, and the forest soggy and uninviting. It would not be a welcoming prospect in the winter.
No photos of the East Boldre bungalow, I'm afraid. It was, anyway, somewhat hidden from view when standing in the road, as most properties thereabouts were. Getting to know your neighbours would indeed have been difficult!
While staying at Milford on Sea we drove all over the area bounded by the New Forest in the E, Shaftesbury in the N, Dorchester in the W, and Wimborne in the S, to assess the scenery and the villages. Although there were larger numbers of affordable houses inland, we kept on remembering that Milford on Sea was on the coast, and the sea might be within walking distance there - rather than an hour's drive. So there was something of a coast v inland contest in our minds.
Although the land was higher W of Blandford Forum, it wasn't as likeable as the lower but rolling land to the E, which had wide, open views. We thought the nicest village there was Gussage All Saints. In general, the Gussages and the Tarrants to the E of Blandford were nicer than the Winterbournes to the W. Okeford Fitzpaine was enveloped in a strange smell, which seemed to come from some works from which large container lorries were sent out. Perhaps it was an abbatoir. The Shaftesbury area had some fine scenery. Shaftesbury itself - up on its hill - enjoyed impressive views to the S. An attractive place, with associations for me going back to the early 1970s. And there were some nice places near Dorchester, such as Buckland Newton. Dorchester itself was a pleasant centre with good shops. We must have got 30-odd agents' house particulars, and sought out most of them, though doing no more than viewing them from the road. A bungalow...at Stour Row, near Shaftesbury, was one of these and stayed in mind as a possibility. It was on offer at £237K. But we had a proper look at two Dorset properties in particular.
One was a bungalow in Ashley Heath, a posh residential area near Ringwood. This was [in] Lions Lane. It was on a vast level rectangular plot, had an extensive drive and a detached double garage, and the asking price was £365K...This was actually inexpensive for Ashley Heath. It looked as if the occupants had had to leave suddenly and were not going to return. The gardens front, side and rear were overgrown with grass. It was out of our price range at the time, though tempting, as there was so much space. But Ashley Heath, though high-class, was characterless and lacked any kind of village or community centre, and the busy A31 was not far away. Besides, it was completely without that rural feeling we wanted.
There was also something not quite right with the roof: it sagged a bit. Inside, through the windows, it was like the Marie Celeste, things left just as if the owners had popped out for two minutes, meaning to come back. We wondered what illness or crisis had overtaken them. The long grass in the rear suggested that the house had been empty for most of the summer, and was presumably in the hands of executors.
The other property was an L-shaped barn at Melbury Abbas, near Shaftesbury. This was in its working state, and on offer at £128K. 22 acres of farmland came with it. The story here was that the divorced farmer had sold off bits of his land, and a company now owned the barn and the 22 acres. It had tried various ways to develop the land, but couldn't get planning permission. The land was offered on condition that if the buyer did manage to develop the land, the company would have a share of the profits. Who would buy on those terms? We wouldn't. The barn itself was in good condition, and certainly had potential. Some surrounding land would be nice to preserve ambience and perhaps the view, but 22 acres was really rather too much.
It was certainly a property worth seeing, but it would have soaked up money in getting it habitable, and that profit-sharing stipulation by the company was a killer.
We also considered plots of land. In September 2004 we found one we really liked not far from Bridport:
While caravanning near Lyme Regis, we had a good look around the area, and thought that Seaton and Bridport both had much to be said for them as small towns with good facilities - especially Bridport. Lyme Regis itself was very attractive, but it was really too hilly, and did not have a wide range of decent shops. But you could get a good meal there, and it had sand and a fine harbour.
We discovered that there was an auction of local land on 24 September 2004 at Dorchester. We very much liked one lot just south of Melplash - a 2.4 acre field - and decided to attend the auction. We didn't have the time to research the field much, and hadn't brought our cheque books, so we didn't bid. It went for £26K. Perhaps it was just as well that we couldn't pay - we might have been tempted to bid! We very much doubted that it was being bought simply as a pony paddock: someone was making a little investment on the off-chance that one day they'd get planning permission for a house. (We'd revisit the field in a few years' time, to see if it had been built on)
It was a south-facing field off a rural lane, with no electricity or water connected, but it had space in abundance. I'll have more to say about it in my next post.
You can see that a good part of our holiday time must have been given over to looking in estate agents and visiting properties! It was sort of fun, but M--- was more interested in doing it than I was. But then, she had that dream driving her forward. And if she had actually found the ideal place, she would have pulled out all the stops to secure it. She had learned that if you have the vision, if you believe you can do it, then you can. Me? I was the junior partner in this. I would simply have been carried along by her determination, a twig swept along by a river in spate. It would not be so nowadays, of course.
Melbury Abbas, Melplash. You can see why I thought 'Melford' was a West Country name!