When we bought our little manor house on the Wiltshire border two and a half years ago, we could see no other buildings from our garden or fields. And the local planning officer, who generally delighted in torturing us during our loving year-long restoration of the listed house, gave me a moment’s comfort when he promised that no new homes could ever be built to spoil our views as ‘new build is against council policy’ in this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. So what do I see on the skyline?
All along the road that crests the hill, above which the morning sun rises, thick ancient woods are being cut down and new houses are popping up in the gaps. The latest is advertised on the builders’ white hoarding as a ‘6,000sq ft Country House’ only a little smaller than Buckingham Palace and is apparently to be sold for millions.
This makes me ponder two mysteries. First, how our beloved planning officer persuaded himself to wave through these glaring developments at the same time as refusing our application to make tiny changes of detail to the windows of one of our outbuildings, visible only from our fields. Secondly, what is the quickest time for a man’s transformation into a full-blooded Nimby? My wife and I moved into our house only a month ago, yet here I am harrumphing that the area is on the brink of ruin.
For all that, our house becomes more like Eden every day. If I close one eye and block out the half of the garden that is still an ugly mosaic of rubble, I can admire the other half covered in perfect new turf, thick as shag-pile after only a few weeks. I have become insanely protective of these few square yards of lawn, and, to protect them from raiding rabbits, I keep an early-morning vigil at our bathroom window: body motionless, finger stroking the trigger of my air rifle, eyes cold as death. I am hoping the developers on the skyline will start to back off as soon as they hear about the local weirdo.
Last year, during the restoration of the main house, I asked our builders to give an estimate for repairing and converting the adjacent cart shed, where a plaque commemorates Ronnie,a long-gone horse. With days to go before the workmen start to dig out the floor of Ronnie’s stable, I am staring at a second, more accurate price: almost 20% higher than the first.
Much of the cost increase is neither our fault nor the builders’. It is down to the rising price of materials in the building trade. For it is a mysterious fact of life that these climb each year at around double the standard rate of inflation. Another hitch before work has even started: our architect has specified a particularly attractive kind of metal-framed window to replace the broken old ones in the shed, but we discover that these Critall frames take four months to order. Four months, when the project was supposed to take three from start to finish.
This is further proof that the building industry exists in a different dimension from the rest of us, where the usual laws of nature no longer apply, just as Einstein imagined was possible. On building sites, time and money (usually the client’s) can be stretched almost to infinity.