For Ian Walthew there were a number of complicated reasons but deep down he knew there was something missing, both in his heart and the countryside around him.
“For me personally England was a place of loss, it was where I lost my brother, it was where I lost my father and that personal loss was mirrored in the loss of the English countryside around me,” said Ian.
“The future of the local pub was that it was to become a gastro-pub, the future for my neighbour, who was a struggling farmer, was that at some point his barns would become executive homes for accountants from Oxford.
“There was just a prevailing sense of imminent loss, including local knowledge as very few people I met were true country people who understood and respected it, so the personal loss I had and that sense of loss in the English countryside came together.”
These thoughts were worked out by Ian in his book A Place In My Country that tells of his move from the offices of the International Herald Tribune in Paris to the Cotswolds were he learnt about the local life of the village and more importantly about himself.
After progressing to worldwide marketing director for the newspaper, and putting together the strategic plan for the department’s move to London, he realised that he did not actually want to move back to the UK after spending ten years abroad, but he accepted an offer he could not refuse.
“I went back to England just for the money really and I was dreading it,” Ian said. “I had an apartment in Paris and was enjoying that life with my wife, but there was something about England which I didn’t understand.
“But being back in London triggered severe depression, it was bad enough already having to commute into Docklands, but it was increasingly difficult to balance my professional life when the ‘black dog’ lay on top of me and you still have to go to work.
“I decided that I had to get out and use my salary to buy a place in London, but we happened to go to the Cotswolds one weekend so that my wife Han, who is Australian, could visit a different part of England and that’s when we saw a house for sale.”
Within a few weeks the couple were owners of a small village house, with a downstairs toilet and a tiny back garden that was surrounded by fields and woodland, and neighbour to a farmer with an uncanny ability to appear near people when they were on his land.
That neighbour was Norman and he became a link for Ian into an English way of life that was slowly disappearing, and whose demise could be traced back over 200 years.
“When we first moved into the house I just wanted to get better and so went running and spent some time at the pub which was a traditional English-style place,” said Ian.
“It was the only way to meet people as nobody came and knocked on the door with a welcome pack, although it used to be done, it was stopped because the turnover of people was continual.
“There is an idea that an English village is a place of great continuity and stability, and that you have multigenerational families but that’s not true as the Enclosures Act of the late 18th century saw the land of many people stolen due to Parliament.
“Many families had lived on the same land for hundreds of years but they became reliant on the landowners or ended up moving to the growing cities, people became very mobile.
“And I see those same divisions today which are still essentially along class lines, so with our first baby on the way we went to ante-natal classes at the local NHS hospital yet there was a parallel service for those mothers who wanted to take the private option.
“The same was happening in education, if a community doesn’t share a school where are you? Are these people part of the community? Then people don’t share the same doctor, some go private while the rest have their seven minutes with the GP.
“The things that really matter, education and health, were split along fault lines with the English social class system providing that divide so that people lived on one side and another set were on the other, and the two shall never meet.
“But I was the same when I was younger as I went to boarding school and didn’t know any of the kids in my mother’s village, my social network was related to people like me, but coming back to the UK after spending so long away made me see it all again and I knew that was another reason why I had to leave.”
With a young daughter now part of the family Ian and Han left the Cotswolds and eventually landed in the Auvergne, an area of France they knew little about, but which offered them a chance to buy a larger house especially as the couple hoped to have more children as well as the opportunity to find a home with some land.
Now three years on and with two small boys now added to the family, Ian spends some of his day working on the house and land, but also finds the time to learn more about his local village, the surrounding countryside and keep a daily record through his blog, A Place in the Auvergne.
“The interesting thing about France is that during the time of the Enclosures Act in Britain the Revolution took place and many people got their land back,” said Ian.
“In regions like the Auvergne, and for example around here where the land wasn’t very good, a seigneur would have the responsibility to collect a rent, but the local one to us didn’t bother for about 50 years before the Revolution.
“And the deputy mayor of the commune during the time of the Revolution, his family name is that of out current mayor. Yes there was a huge loss of people from the Auvergne, particularly after WWII, but there are still surnames from the past in the hamlets and villages.
“My neighbour, who is 86 years old, lives in a house that his grandparents built and during his life he has only had three different neighbours, we are that third lot.
“So as the English were seeing their land being taken away from them and tremendous social mobility in the countryside, the French were getting hold of the land and digging in even deeper than they already were.”
The Auvergne is an area bypassed by many people as they head off to the Mediterranean coast for their holidays and a lack of low-cost flights has seen the area slip under the radar of many English-speaking property hunters.
But this isolation has also seen it struggle to attract new business and many millions of euros have been pumped into the region in an attempt to attract companies and help small artisans, and Ian sees similar parallels to the UK.
“The current administration in France seems as determined as those in the UK to cut back on essential services. My youngest son, who is two, was born in our local hospital which is 12 minutes away down the hill and he was the penultimate child to be born in the maternity ward before it was closed down,” Ian said.
“There are women in the village who are set to give birth this winter and should they go into labour at three in the morning, in January and in the snow it is going to be quite a job to get to the nearest hospital.
“They are closing the local court, the tax office and will reduce the surgical block in the hospital, post offices are being closed.
“What worries me is that these important public services, and what makes living in the countryside practicable, are being closed and whilst in England other services may be 30 minutes away, over here you are looking at an hour and a half, the distances involved are much greater.
“You have got money pouring into the Auvergne, the poorest region in France, yet at the same time the government is closing all the things that would attract people to live here in the first place.”
Now though Ian feels that his life is on the right track with a sense of balance, and although the changes and loss of services close to his home may impact on him, a stability now exists in his life.
“I think in my heart of hearts, even when we were at our happiest in the Cotswolds, I knew I wasn’t going to stay in England,” Ian said. “We’ve also been incredibly lucky in finding a place where out neighbours have welcomed us and invited us in.
“But the main difference is that I have put down my suitcases, or déposez les valises as the French say, and unless there is something major we are not moving. I’ve got an incredible sense of place, something I couldn’t find in my own country, and with that community, warmth and contentment you know you won’t be moving on.”
Title: A Place In My Country
Last Updated on 4 July, 2023.