THE TIMES
10 MARCH 2017

TOWN AND STRIFE

Oh my, it’s tough having two homes, says Christa D’Souza. Unless, of course, you know the rules…

Cluster flies. If you are a town rather than a country person then chances are they will mean nothing to you. If, though, you divide your time between the two, like me, then you’ll be nodding knowingly at the very mention. At how they hatch out of window frames at a specific time of the year, then swarm en masse around the house like that Black Mirror episode about killer bees. How you have to somehow drive them into one room, slam the door shut, then spray Raid through the keyhole.

 

We live in a valley near a lake with its own microclimate (ie raining 99.9 per cent of the time, even though five minutes down the A303 it can be blazing sunshine) so the battle against flora and fauna is a constant one. Mushrooms sprouting out of the ceiling, ever had that one? Yet still we merrily persist enduring that two-and-a-half-hour journey every Friday (four hours if there is traffic) out of London, with the bread and the bacon and the milk and half an onion in a Jiffy bag that has been up and down the M3 so many times it ought to be earning air miles.

 

Being a second-homeowner has always been the middle-class dream. (Especially now almost every motorway petrol station has Starbucks.) The flagstone kitchen floor, the roaring fire, the dog curled up in its basket in front of the Aga and the sneakers drying inside it. (Bottom left-hand corner, fine to leave them in there overnight.)

 

But how to get it right, to be able to seamlessly sweep in on a Friday evening with only your vitamins and a laptop in hand? How to go straight into town for a smart meeting from the country without looking down and realising that there’s fox poo on your trouser seam, or that you’re still wearing your Uggs? (Mrs Doubtfire is surely the spirit animal of many a female second-homeowner.) What are the rules, the rituals, the dress codes, the apps, even, that make it all work?

Obviously you’ll already have downloaded Nest, the app that allows you to turn on the heating and hot water remotely. What a fun game that is to play – one of you turning the underfloor heating on from the car, the other (already there and keeling over it’s so warm) turning it off, on, off, on, off until it eventually breaks. 

 

The trick is to get it down to a system, of course. Time it so you leave late on a Friday and early on a Sunday, have a housekeeper (slash gundog trainer) who’ll buy milk and bread and turn the Aga on in the morning before you head down (although there is also an app for that if your Aga is electric), plus a battalion of willing country tradesmen.

 

Tradesmen are less expensive and far nicer than they are in London, but gosh they are chattier too. Electricians, for some reason, are the chattiest of them all, although the man who tends to our sewage has also got an awful lot to say. Meanwhile you must treat your cleaning lady with kid gloves, despite how many sets of new sheets have gone pink, because unlike in London there are so few of them around.

 

If you’ve got the money to have a lot of staff then so much the better. They can light all the candles just before your arrival (as, apparently, do Anne Robinson’s) and turn down the beds. There is the worry, however, as to whether they will all get along – a friend of mine who used to have a second home in Mustique once got a call from the housekeeper relaying that the gardener had just tried to kill one of the maids with a machete.

 

The other trick to making life with dual abodes feel more seamless is to have a job that allows for a four-day week in the office, enabling you to come down on Thursday by train (where a good two hours’ work can be done in the quiet carriage) and have a “country” car, ie a beaten-up Land Rover Defender that the kids can practise driving on, waiting for you in the station car park. (Because four-wheel drives are now considered environmental terrorism, the car you use for the London home and the commute is a family hybrid, of course.)

 

Duplicates of everything – make-up, toiletries and clothes – are also a must. Ideally one needs three wardrobes not two. One for town, one for country and one for the car. Yet it doesn’t stop there. As I write this I am looking down at my hands and thinking, after a long weekend in the country, how . . . rural they have begun to look. Uggs, any sweater that’s started to pill, pants with iffy gussets – these are just some of the items of clothing that, after being taken to the country, must stay there. Ditto the full-length mink you inherited from your mother-in-law that, by rights, shouldn’t work anywhere in 2018, but with muddied wellies is perfect for country con twist.

 

This brings us to the subject of guests and how easy it is for them to forget that you are not a hotel. I remember hearing of a certain inebriated guest from London waving his hand in the air after supper and asking for the bill.

 

Guests. How my heart instinctively drops at the thought of the staggered breakfasts and wet bathmats and all those washbags littering up the bathroom sink. In my book, when I tell guests to make themselves at home, what I mean is for them to make me feel at home. In other words, to leave the lightest possible footprint. My detritus is fine, it is other people’s I can’t stand. The same goes for pets. (And, for that matter, kids.) My own dog’s outrageous sense of entitlement is adorable, but in anyone else’s dog/kid, forget it. And how to convey that the custom of leaving a tip for the cleaning lady under the bedside lamp is not just a thing aristocratic people do? It’s so bad to judge, but it is amazing how many sensitive, well-travelled, emotionally intelligent people over the age of 30 “forget”.

 

At the same time, I like guests. What’s the point of a guest room if not for them? The trick, counsels a fellow second-homeowner, is to make the invitation super short and sweet, as in, inviting them to arrive for Saturday tea and making it clear that you are leaving straight after Sunday brunch. If you can’t face talking to anyone before noon then you can always put a coffee machine and a kettle in the spare room, although that can look a little B&B. Of course, if you want to put potential first-time guests off completely then you can always enthusiastically tell them to bathe before they arrive and bring their own loo roll.

 

Don’t think, by the way, of your second home as a place to get away from it all. As anyone who divides their time between the two will tell you, the social life is always far more frenetic and decadent in the country than it is in town. This is because year-rounders, those who’ve abandoned town completely, are so starved of London news and gossip that they cannot help descending on you as soon as Friday comes round. Meanwhile, leaving a party à l’anglaise (that is, early, without saying goodbye) just doesn’t cut it in the country, where folk are not only grimly hardy partiers, but also have the beadiest eyes when it comes to spotting you suddenly not being there any more

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Finally, we should discuss the farm shop. Although it is the size of a shoebox and triple the price of the Harrods food hall, it will be an integral part of your life, a place you’ll visit maybe three or four times in one weekend if you are like my partner, and enthusiastically invite your guests to do likewise. That the Co-op and/or Waitrose are five minutes’ drive away is beside the point. Spending as much money as possible in the farm shop is about supporting the community and being treated as a proper country person by the real locals (ie not those who’ve done a runner from London to avoid the school fees). Contributing to an upgrade for the village hall’s sound system and paying the largest share for the communal broadband package (faster than most London equivalents) are also ways to ingratiate yourself with the year-round folk. These bona fide locals, by the way, tend to live in new builds, have excellent double glazing and satellite dishes out front. They have sensibly bought homes that are weatherproof, cost-effective and practical to live in. One day we’ll learn 

 

Weekend guest guide

Tipping
£10 a night, depending on the size of the party. The suggested rate at Blenheim Palace is £20 a day for the cleaning lady and £100 for a loader for a shoot. (I wonder what it is if you are invited to stay with the Queen?)

Dogs
If it chases livestock then leave it at home. Ditto designer breeds such as shiba inus and French bulldogs. Country folk despise spoilt “London” dogs. If you insist on bringing the dog and it kills, say, your hostess’s favourite chicken, then be prepared to courier over a crate of expensive, exotic replacements (as Rowan Atkinson did, apparently, after a shoot at my partner’s aunt’s house a few years ago). Always be prepared for it to have to sleep in the car.

Gifts
A generous box of Rococo chocolates. A minimum £100-spend bouquet from Flowerbx. (Now they deliver outside London so you can have it arrive before you do.) A crate of Nespresso capsules. (Although with Starbucks littering our motorways, the coffee issue has become less urgent.) A candle (ideally a lesser-known brand) only if you are very, very pushed. The grander the property, the more expensive or inventive the gift must be. I once canvassed Julian Fellowes, the Downton Abbey writer, for ideas. He suggested always being on the lookout in junk shops and antique markets for paintings of friends’ houses, or paintings of the landscape before said house existed. If you are coming to me then caviar, however little the tin, is always nice. (Remember, the gift never needs to be opened in the giftee’s presence.)

Fires
Unless you have known your hostess or host for at least seven years, don’t even think about touching them.

Plumbing
There is usually a septic tank rather than mains sewage, so be mindful about flushing. Sometimes it takes three goes.

Second-home buyer’s tips

Decor 
It’s hard to resist duplicating the fashionable country outposts of the Soho House members’ club empire, such as Babington House in Somerset or Soho Farmhouse in the Cotswolds – especially now they sell all the “looks” online. They do get it so maddeningly right, but resist you must, because you are not a hotel. And watch it with the use of ironic toile – as one whose second floor looks like an advert for Timorous Beasties, I know of what I speak.

Pools 
A swimming pond rather than pool is now the thing to have. Check out the ones from Gartenart. Teenagers and millennials will be attracted by the “wild swimming” vibe.

Wine 
A spiral wine cellar is what everyone craves at the moment. You pay for depth, so be careful of colliding with a fast-running stream, as we did. We could have bottled our own mineral water if the man at the top of the hill hadn’t got there first.

Outdoor furniture
Try the luxurious yet understated garden furniture from Oxenwood.

Control
A Nest app is essential. It enables you to co-ordinate and manage your thermostat, security cameras and lighting from your mobile phone.

Cluster flies 
Smoke bombs and a strong vacuum cleaner will help to get rid of them. They slyly hibernate in the window frames of your house, then buzz into terrifying action each autumn just as your guests are about to arrive.

Taxis 
Cabs cost way more, take longer and need to be booked well, well in advance. The drivers are also much chattier.

© Christa D'Souza 1989-2020