“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” Samuel Johnson*
There is no disputing that London is an exciting, vibrant city – currently The Place to
Be. However, whilst I cannot deny that, if I found a pot of gold, I wouldn’t say no to a
house in Chelsea, I can assure you that there is a great deal more to England (and
indeed Britain) than London and I urge you to take the time to explore it. Britain may
not have France’s glamorous ski stations or sunny beach resorts (why do you think
we Brits flock to them?) but, it does not lack variety, colour – and, above all, LIFE – lots of it.
In Britain, it is perfectly normal to live in the countryside full time; in fact, according to
official statistics, the rural population of England is growing steadily. Even in the
smallest village there is a pleasant feel of bustle and activity and a strong sense of
community and family life; the countryside is generally agreed to be the best place to
bring up children.
Of course, country life would not be complete without a local pub or two. Gone are
the days of my childhood when my sister, brother and I were banished to the pub car
park with a bag of crisps whilst my parents enjoyed their weekend shandy:
nowadays, with licensing rules relaxed, pubs heave with families and offer all kinds of
food, from ‘home grown’ fish and chips to the rather more exotic Thai curry.
And then there are the countryside-based schools, both private and state, day and
boarding. There is no lack of them: in fact, the choice can be bewildering. I have a
list of 405 boarding schools (all based outside London) and am on a mission to visit
them all: roughly 200 to go.
Accompanied by BBC radio, I have motored thousands of miles up and down the
country over the past three years, driving from Ashby-de-la-Zouch to Barton-in-the
Beans via Upton Snodsbury, Westley Waterless and Great Snoring, taking in
Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwll-llantysiliogogogoch on the way. I have
encountered goats clinging on to Welsh cliffs, New Forest ponies roaming across the
Hampshire roads, found myself stuck behind sheep in a Wiltshire lane and been held
up by a couple of cows wandering along a Surrey High Street on a Monday morning.
Thanks to these unhurried creatures and the extra mile-long drive many schools
possess, I have often arrived frazzled, dishevelled – and late – at my destination.
And yet, however frazzled, dishevelled and horribly late I am, the welcome I receive
at each and every school is always warm and welcoming; quite literally at those
which have blissful, roaring fires in their main hall. Within minutes I am ensconced in
a comfortable sofa, offered a cup of coffee and made to feel at home. This sense of
welcome and well-being continues as I am taken throughout the school: from
Chemistry lab to Dining Hall, from squash court to school theâtre, energetic children
dashing past from classroom to sports field, from saxophone practise to art studio.
On occasion, I have been accompanied by the Headmaster’s dog carrying a boys’
slipper in its mouth, have stopped to say hello to the Hunt as it rode through school
land or been introduced to the school pigs; on another I ended my tour by walking my
own dogs through the school fields with the registrar. There has hardly been a visit
when I don’t think ‘I wish I had been to school here’.
My own boarding school was a former Tudor Palace, once owned by Henry VIII and
accessed by a vast tree-lined drive. The surrounding area has now become fairly
built up but in my time the weekly highlight was a long traipse over country fields to
get to the local sweet shop. Most of my memories of the school are of being outside:
cross-country running in the winter, playing tennis until late in summer evenings, or
simply the smell of freshly cut grass as I gazed out of the window during an afternoon
of maths. The rural environment was certainly of no detriment to fellow pupils such as
designer Anya Hindmarch and CNN’s Christina Amanpour who, along with other ‘Old
Girls’ turned successful business women, have gone on to cope rather well with the
pace of city life.
Although my job is to recommend boarding schools, I sometimes feel like a traveI
agent or member of the local tourist board, at times resorting to preparing
photographs of local towns for parents to reassure them that their child is not being
packed off to outer Siberia. Just as I explain to people that sending my own children
to boarding school in England was a present, not a punishment, I try to explain to
families that venturing into the depths of the British countryside is a positive thing, not
Whilst I acknowledge the choice of a school should not be made on its physical
appearance or the acres of parkland surrounding it, I do believe that a beautiful
environment can only have a positive effect on pretty much anyone, children and
teachers alike: really worth going that extra mile. The airport may not be Heathrow or
the station St Pancras, but the jostling of people on arrival is likely to be lesser and
the traffic on the journey onwards – baring a few stray beasts – usually lighter. It
does not mean, however, that the quality of a school will be inferior; simply, that the
choice will be greater.
So I urge you: take the time, branch out, get off the beaten track – and don’t miss out
on these countryside gems, fizzing with life seven days a week.
*Samuel Johnson wrote ‘A dictionary of the English Language’ in 1755.