8 REASONS NOT TO MOVE OUT OF LONDON WHEN YOU START A FAMILY
By Jodi Bartle
We’ve all been there — you have your first baby in a smallish London flat but you figure out you’ll be ok for space because he or she can sleep in a cot next to the bed.
Babies don't need much, you think, just a high chair, steriliser, nappy bin, travel cot, their own linen, sleepsuits, snowsuits, nappies, car seats (etc, etc…) and a cleanish floor.
Then the baby gets a bit annoying at night and begins to crawl and you start wishing for more space.
If more babies arrive, the problem gets worse; the spread of toys more prolific, messy and plastic-centric ‘child-friendly’ areas encroach into your adult spaces until you have nothing left to call your own but a bedside table, one shelf in the bathroom and about three books.
It is then that many London parents start getting all misty-eyed and turn to property-porning over commuter cities, seaside towns, Wales, the Southern Hemisphere; imagining the mansions they could afford if they just gave up living in London.
And anyway, they mutter - it’s polluted here, and there’s knife crime, and the traffic is rubbish and the restaurants are expensive, the tourists walk too slow and what about the terrorists?
Well, there are very good reasons to stay in London and to raise your family here. Compromise a little, rearrange your perspective, and London - an amazing, vibrant, exciting city - can still be the place to grow smart, healthy, intelligent kids. Let me outline the reasons why I think you don’t have to move away just yet.
1. Space Is Important But Overrated
I know of what I write here. As New Zealanders who are used to broad, bright spaces, my husband, in particular, finds the lack of space in our flat difficult because we have a lot of kids. Our five boys share one room - having reached critical mass, the only solution to our space crisis was to build bunks and effectively attach the kids to the walls. But our kids know of nothing else, and when we go away they choose to sleep in the same room with each other anyway because it makes them feel safe.
Admittedly, when one kid gets up in the night and leaves the toilet light on and wakes another kid, it is annoying, but I can’t help but feel that if their great sacrifice of London life was to share a childhood bedroom, then they are lucky, lucky kids. And kids just follow you around, don't they? The idea of them leaving you alone to hang out in a playroom seems wishful thinking at best.
Space is important, but it must be balanced with other considerations. You learn to carve out something for yourself when space is at a premium, and as the kids get older, they are becoming more outward-facing, choosing to spend time with friends in other places.
As for the storage issues, well, there is always IKEA. Boxes, trundle beds, frequent trips to charity shops, tolerance and patience are all key here.
It would be really great to get a dog, or a cat, or a lizard or a rabbit, and if you lived in the country, then you could. You still can in London though! You just have to figure out the right animal for your family and your living space, and become au fait with litter trays or poo bags.
We have a medium-sized dog and we have to walk him at least twice a day to school and back. We also have lizards who live in a medium-sized tank. It becomes about choices here - if it important to you, then you can figure out how to make it work. And if pets get you out of the house and into the park or bonding over tank-cleaning as a family, then all the better.
In Westminster, we have wonderful choices at both primary and secondary levels. All of my kids are in Ofsted-rated outstanding schools and nursery, mainly because we live centrally and so the postcode lottery affects us for the better.
The schools are completely diverse (our primary school has a mix of over 60 nationalities) and this is a brilliant way for children to see the world - everyone is the same, just classmates to eat lunch with, because they are all pretty much blind to colour and race. The kids are tolerant and relaxed about other religions, and shared International Lunches are a culinary riot.
This is a special kind of London culture, where my kids are being educated in a rounded, diverse, open-hearted way - and for us, this is a priceless thing.
Cars are a problem (although the traffic does tend to slow everyone down), but the streets are so well-populated that there is always someone to ask for help and to keep people behaving properly.
I run through Kensington Gardens in the dark mornings three times a week and feel pretty safe because of the sheer numbers of other joggers. Generally, Londoners err on the side of too-safe - if people see your kid too far out in front of you, they tend to stop and get involved, or at least keep their eye on your wayward scooter-demon until they see he or she is reunited with a grownup.
The size of London means we are really just interconnected villages. Many people in our community know us and our kids and we have a support network from the upstairs neighbours who constantly renew the kid’s wardrobes through their own sons’ castoffs to babysitting networks, the ladies in Waitrose who ask after the kids, to the local vicars and the pub quizzes involving our square.
Londoners are mostly kind and engaged and that makes me feel very secure.
We walk to school, my husband walks to many of his local jobs and I work from home so we have very small commuting costs. Public transport is so good that we rarely use our car, and we don’t spend much eating out or on things to do because of the vast and varied amount of free or inexpensive actives that London puts on.
Think the recent Lumiere Festival, market stalls for feasting at the weekends, the museums, galleries, Covent Garden buskers, Sunday afternoons at the park, picnics along the riverbank, the summer water fountains in Kings Cross and Southbank, abandoned City walks on a weekend.
There are always cheaper restaurants to try in non-hotspots, although you can find reasonably-priced places like Franco Manca and kids-eat-for-free chains anywhere you look hard enough.
The markets are great sources for cheap produce, and in Portobello there are two Saturday stalls that sell grocery items like panettone for two quid and gorgeous french cheeses at three for a pound.
It would be wonderful to have family close by, although it is often the case that they can’t (or won’t) help as much as you would like.
Everyone is busy with full lives, perhaps parents are finding the kids a little too much and a lot too loud, and so expecting family to drop things for you when you decide to mosey on back to live down the road might be asking too much.
At least being in London you can avoid family drama and do things your way. Get a babysitter who expects nothing but some decent biscuits and a tenner an hour.
Your kids are studying the Great Fire of London? Take them up the Monument. Your Year 8 kid is interested in Churchill? Get him to the War Rooms. One of you has a penchant for Georgian architecture, a chapter to write about Dickensian workhouses, a thing for the Royals, a desire to see a play in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, have a hankering to see where William Wallace was slaughtered? It’s all here, a tube or twos ride away.
The rest of the world has to Google this stuff or study it via Powerpoint.
8. Green Places
47 percent of London is a green space, and there are 8 million trees keeping us from choking on diesel fumes.
The Royal Parks are awash with wildlife, and you can see foxes and bats if you try hard enough. You are never very far from rats in London, that is true, but you are also never very far from a grassy knoll. We spend a lot of time running around Hyde Park, finding trees to climb, conkers to throw and branches to swordplay with.
In summer we swim in the Serpentine, in autumn we forage for blackberries and in winter we wait in and hope for snow, and all of this costs nothing but an ice-cream or a hot chocolate for the walk home.
Are you a Londoner for life?