Our columnist explains what first prompted him to swap Bethnal Green for Bridport - and why he's never looked back since.
I lost the urge to live in London as soon as I realised I’d never be rich. More fool me, of course; we’d be a lot richer if we’d hung on to that tiny terraced cottage in Bethnal Green.
At the bottom of the street was a corrugated-iron shack with a horse in it, which never came out, and, once, a man lost his temper and ranged the pavement shouting and banging on doors, swearing that he’d worked for the effin’ Krays.
We didn’t move out of London – it sort of moved away from us. We found ourselves a house in the country, at £30 a week, and, one day, we woke up to discover that we hadn’t been back to the East End for weeks. I was working on a book, which could be written anywhere, so it seemed unreasonable to hog a dwelling that could go to a more deserving person, someone who might actually need to live in London.
First, we lent the house to Benedict Allen, the explorer, and then, when he moved on to Namibia, we sold up. It can be done, as many readers of this magazine can attest, but I still feel we were lucky to find a way of living in the country.
My mother did it by running off to the coast with a penniless fellow writer. Swanage was recommended to them by a friend who managed an amusement arcade and grew pot on a patch of obscure wasteland out beyond the railway station. I seem to recall that he left suddenly and was never heard of again, but she stayed. My mother made it work by writing books.
It’s been done by selling them, too. Harry and I recently found ourselves in Hay-on-Wye. Richard Booth, the so-called King of Hay, owns a chunk of it. After he left Oxford in the 1970s, he wanted to go and live at home, but couldn’t find anything to do there, so he rounded up a party of strong Hay men and took them to America, where he had heard the public libraries were shutting down and offloading all their stock. Booth bought it up, packed it into containers and shipped books to Hay by the tens of thousands.
The town became a vast interlaced second-hand book emporium. When the cinema closed down, it became a bookshop. Others opened, to cater to the desires of the bookworms and collectors who showed up. Peter Florence, who belonged to the next generation of Hay booklovers, started a festival that grew and grew and now has copycat operations all over the country and beyond.
On the back of their success, Hay appears to have more ice-cream shops than any town of comparable size in the kingdom, as well as a vegan restaurant in an old electrical shop where Harry and I ate traditional Welsh tzatziki and some quinoa salad.
The ice cream reminds me of our friends Isabelle and Guiseppe. For years, Guiseppe ran a restaurant in Soho. Clients from the USA used to ask him for tickets to West End shows, but it was only after many, many trips to the last-minute ticket booth that Guiseppe finally plucked up courage to ask the ticket girl out on a date.
They saw eye to eye, not least in agreeing that neither of them could bear the hours spent armpit to elbow in clanking commuter trains. Last year, they came to Bridport and decided to settle.
She makes the lightest pâtisseries this side of Paris and he uses local Jersey milk for his spectacular ice cream. They’ve opened a parlour on the high street called Gelateria Beppino. I don’t know if they’ll become rich, but they’re happy and it’s heaven. ￼
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