A recent business trip back to the UK had me taking trains between several major cities in England, and passing through endless suburban station towns.
I was struck by the similarities between the kinds of housing I saw everywhere – north and south, big town or small, the rows of semi-detached and terraced houses looked very consistent and similar, and to my distanced eye very ‘English’. It was difficult to put my finger immediately on the unifying factors, other than their differences to the way houses are built and occupied in Spain. But it occurred to me that this familiar English landscape of houses is what we and many others left behind for our new ‘life in the sun’.
I think travelling in this way you get a wonderful fleeting opportunity for great nosiness – glimpses of one back garden after another, sometimes more leisurely as you approach or leave a stop. Of course not every house in the UK backs on to a railway line, and you could argue that the more desirable properties by definition do not – but I think you get a quick look at a pretty good cross-section of normal, average British homes that typical families live in across the UK cities and suburbs.
All have their strip of lawn, often edged by flowerbeds, and as often as not a shed or storage unit like a garage, for all those garden tools. Many homes in the UK now optimistically have outdoor seating/eating areas, whether as a result of climate change and genuinely greater opportunities for outdoor living, or driven by lifestyle reality makeover shows, this seems to have proliferated in the past decade or so. Whatever times I travelled during the day or evening – admittedly, not generally during the weekends – I rarely saw anybody actually out in the gardens themselves, apart from the occasional industrious bit of weeding or tidying.
Regardless of how small the plot, every garden was unique and individually tended. Narrow Victorian terraced houses sometimes had quite long strip-like gardens, but only as wide as the house itself. Clearly some showed more signs of tender loving care than others, and some were more family-oriented than their neighbours with swings and trampolines outside for the kids. But I don’t think I saw one without at least a patch of green lawn somewhere… of course a sign of serious expat swank in Spain, where the irrigation and tending to those tiny green shoots alone is an expensive nightmare through the hot dry summer months.
Of course gardens and gardening in Spain tend more often to reflect local climate issues, and use native plants that are thrive in the climate extremes we can be subject to. But in towns, gardens are far more likely to be communal it seems to me, covered by a community charge in apartment blocks and urbanisacions, and looked after by professionals Gardening as a hobby perhaps again reflects an aspect of Britishness, and indeed that’s feedback I’ve had from Spanish friends – what, you do your garden yourself? Can’t you afford to get someone in to do it..? Because it wouldn’t occur to them that anyone would want to do it for fun, or even see it as part of normal household maintenance.
Another thing I reflected on during that train journey as I watched the terraced rooftops snake across the land, was the ubiquity of the built-up development – especially in the South of England, there were few areas of no building at all. Whenever I go back to the UK I get a bit claustrophobic now, probably because I usually end up in the middle of London, but the spread-out crowdedness of the conurbations was also evident in more than just the traffic jams we sped past on the British motorways
It’s not just a greater population density that leads to this effect, in Spain the different towns and villages are so much more distinctly delineated. With the exception of parts of the coastal strip, in Spain you get to the edge of a village, where the last building might be a five storey apartment block – then, nothing. Across the road is orange groves and fields, and perhaps another clearly-distinct settlement in the distance. As soon as you get far enough inland from the tourism-lead development boom, (and obviously I’m not talking about big cities) you simply don’t seem to come across suburbs in Spain. If people want to live in a town, they want to be where the action is, not out in the sticks – even of the tiniest villages. Obviously there are fincas with seriously big agricultural plots scattered on the outskirts of the villages that they are administratively part of, but that land would – originally at least – have been part of their living and livelihood, not about having space around for its own sake. There isn’t the urban sprawl of roads full of spread-out houses with gardens, and little sub-settlements of corner shops and pubs and playgrounds, that you find in the UK.
Except of course on the coast. And that’s because they have been built in response to the needs of non-Spaniards… it seems to me there is a powerful need for the English to replicate that sense of our own bit of garden (however small), a private outside space – our ‘castle’ has to have a ‘moat’. And this scales up to the neighbourhood – each urbanisacion has it’s little shop and café, and its own distinct area, replicating our little village greens… people can then socialise in their shared places but easily retreat to the solitude and peace of their private gardens behind their fences and walls.
This reflects what we left behind in the UK, and also possibly different ‘personal space’ needs between the two cultures – there’s an old joke about a Spaniard and an Englishman moving endlessly down a corridor, as they both attempt to find the interpersonal gap they are most comfortable with, the Brit backing away whilst his Spanish acquaintance keeps stepping forward into the gap… or if you are the only person on the beach, and someone else turns up, if they are Spanish they come and sit near you, but if they put their towel down as far away from you as possible they’re not rude – just British.
I think a lot of us do come out here with a subconscious need to protect our space in a new environment, and a lot of us come from the suburbs in the UK. In the UK it’s not unusual to feel that you live very much in a town or urban area, but still have your own house with its own garden – apartment living tends to be reserved for very central urban zones even in larger cities, and seen as something you do as a young, childfree person like a student or a professional with a lively social life.
Certainly it seems unusual in the UK for people with young families to choose to live in apartments. Even in social housing, having a ‘child at height’ is one of the points factors for being upgraded to a ‘better’ home that is on the ground floor, it’s regarded as a bad thing. The replacement home, whilst probably newer, may well be a lot smaller than the high-rise apartment vacated – even taking into account the pocket-handkerchief of lawn. I’d be the last person to argue that kids don’t need to play outside more than they do as that was one factor driving our own relocation, but I’d question whether those inner city kids whose families are ‘decanted’ by local authorities into new lower-density estates actually do spend more time playing outside… I hope they do.
For us it has been an interesting part of the journey, to find our most comfortable personal space in Spanish culture – that meant leaving behind the expat urb-ghettoes and finding a low-rise residential area on the edge of a small town. Getting the balance right has meant acknowledging our own needs for space and what we regard as acceptable noise from outside the house, as well as adapting that expectation particularly for fiesta nights and the summer. We also don’t worry about whatever noise our kids want to make, or how loud the music is – because it seems that deep down a terribly British uneradicable part of us would be mortified if we offended or intruded on our neighbour’s peace and quiet.
Is there a Spanish word for peace and quiet? I haven’t needed to learn that yet, rather like when a translation of the word ‘early’ had me reaching for a dictionary recently. Maybe during siesta time only!