Hatty shares her thoughts on whether leaving London for the country is better for the kids
It’s often said that children change everything and it’s surely no coincidence that many people find themselves moving out of London after starting a family. Certainly having Lily (our 2 year old) changed our perspective and, as hardened Londoners, we surprised ourselves by taking the big step of leaving London for the country. But what is the big appeal of life beyond London and is it all it’s cracked up to be for children?
I was born and brought up in London and loved life there – both as a child and an adult. I never thought I would move away. As a child growing up in Wandsworth, South London I took full advantage of everything London had to offer – a good state education, easy access to museums/theatre/galleries, a huge choice of activities, classes and clubs and plenty of open space to run around on Wandsworth, Clapham and Tooting commons. It suited me down to the ground!
Odd then, that after the arrival of our daughter Lily we started thinking about moving out of London. Although there were other factors in our decision (such as both of us working from home so no longer needing to be based in London, the need for a babysitter reducing our use of all the wonderful theatres, concerts and bars that London has to offer and the lure of the sea and a simpler life) it was largely because of Lily that we actually moved. She loves being outside. We regularly took her camping in Dorset and she clearly loved the outdoor life.
Like many toddlers, she is open, friendly and into everything. David, in particular, felt London was a hard, pressured and judgemental place to bring up a child, perhaps making kids grow up more quickly than necessary. Swanage in Dorset (our new home) seemed to offer an environment that was relaxed, full of space, freedom and nature.
Like all parents, we had concerns. What were the local schools like? What activities were available locally for children? Would we become taxi drivers ferrying Lily from place to place? Doing our homework before we moved offered reassurance but the proof is always in the pudding.
Education is as good if not better…
As we were researching our move, Purbeck District Council changed from operating a tertiary schooling system (with middle schools) to the two tier system I was more familiar with in London. In so doing, all the schools in the area have received significant investment and two of the three primary schools in Swanage are now in brand new buildings. What’s more, OFSTED had classed two of the primary schools as good and the third as outstanding. So far, so good.
We also knew that Swanage didn’t have its own secondary school – the nearest one being in Wareham (just under 10 miles away). However, as we researched moving out of London The Swanage School (a free school) opened in Swanage itself and is now growing fast. (So fast, in fact, that they are advertising for teachers if anyone is interested). There are also excellent grammar schools in Poole (one for girls and one for boys).
Lily, of course, is still only of nursery age so we are getting ahead of ourselves slightly! But toddlers are well catered for. We’ve been amazed to discover there is a different toddler group she can attend (for free) every day of the week within Swanage (which is not a big town).
Whilst this isn’t free, three days a week we’ve opted to send Lily to the Childrens’ Nature Nursery up in the cliff top country park at Durlston, Swanage. The nursery offers care between 8am and 5pm so gives us much needed working time. Truth be told, we are seriously jealous of the life Lily has at nursery. Whatever the weather (as part of their registration fee they receive full, heavy duty wet weather wear so nothing stops them!), the children go out for an hour and a half’s walk every morning and every afternoon. They get to ramble down to the lighthouse, over to Durlston Castle, seek out cows and creepy crawlies and build dens in the woodland. Back in the classroom, the kids bake cakes, enjoy art classes from a visiting artist and can chose for themselves when they want to play inside or out as the large, sliding glass doors are always open so that there is little distinction between inside and out. Trust me it’s idyllic – and the fees are slightly cheaper than we were paying in London! We’ve also just been told that, from March, the kids will spend one morning at ForeAdventure’s Beach School. As far as Lily is concerned life just gets better and better.
Images from Durlston Nature Nursery Facebook Page
Keeping the kids entertained and stimulated
In London we used to find we suffered a paralysis of choice when it came to picking activities. There was so much going on we often felt overwhelmed and, somewhat perversely, ended up not doing things because we couldn’t make up our mind. Also, at times, we couldn’t quite face bundling everyone onto the bus or into the tube to get to an activity. Despite that, I did wonder how Swanage could possibly compete with all that London has to offer.
Again, we’ve been surprised. There are a plethora of activities for children on our doorstep. Such is the range of options that we haven’t really felt the need to explore the delights of Bournemouth and Poole yet. There is just so much going on locally. Depending on the age of the child, they can enjoy all the things you’d expect in London – football clubs (with girls’ teams as well as boys’ teams), a good dancing school, swimming lessons, choirs and music groups. The town band is particularly nice as adults and children get to play alongside each other – but, Swanage being by the sea and surrounded by beautiful countryside you’ll also find nature walks, horse riding and extremely well supported sailing classes at Swanage Sailing Club.
And that’s all “as standard” before you look at local tourist attractions designed for kids. Treats like visits to Corfe Castle, Putlake Adventure Farm and travelling on the famous Swanage steam train. We’ve discovered many of the local tourist attractions offer special rates for residents too.
It’s not all rosy
Before you think I’m lost in some idealistic rural idyll with no concept of reality, let me just say that moving doesn’t rid you of those family “niggles”. We still battle to get Lily to clean her teeth and eat carrots and, given she’s two, we have our regular smattering of toddler tantrums.
There have been other disappointments too. In London we were lucky enough to attend St Mary’s Balham, a church which welcomed children and actively encouraged their involvement in the main 10.30 Sunday service. In Swanage, we’ve discovered that the majority of children and families attend a “messy church” style service at All Saints Ulwell at 9am on a Sunday morning. Whilst the children have a lot of fun there it has had the (unintentional) effect of children rarely being present at the main Sunday services in any Swanage (Church of England) church. We were both brought up being included in the mainstream weekly services, especially the Eucharist, and we want that for Lily. At present, she’s often the only child in the congregation on Sunday mornings at St Mary’s, Swanage.
David has recently been appointed Director of Music at St Mark’s Herston which has a strong junior choir (drawn from the local church primary school), which leads a monthly worship service for all ages. David is working with the vicar and others to provide another monthly slot when the children can join with the adult choir at a “child-friendly” Eucharist service so we’re hoping that, in time, Lily will be able to worship regularly with other children.
That said, the churches in Swanage do put considerable emphasis on young people and they combine resources to run extremely successful youth clubs.
The biggest surprise?
On balance, leaving London for the country has been good for us as a family.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is how moving out of London has changed us as a family. The sense of space, fresh air and less pressured lifestyle has calmed us all down (yes even me who just loves to be busy). This calmer outlook, combined with the fact we don’t have to commute anymore has given us the opportunity to enjoy more time together as a family. Whether that’s nipping down to the beach (just 10 minutes walk away) or doing something silly like playing hide and seek behind the curtains before launching into the bedtime routine, we get more “quality time” together. Surely that is the best thing for kids – where ever they live – making time for family fun.