The annual survey by the Sunday Times to name the most perfect place to live in Britain has revealed the winner. Hold on a minute, Grimsby, Workington and Hartlepool – and step forward Winchester. According to the compilers of the survey, Hampshire’s county town offers ‘a tasty slice of authentic history, with great transport links and fine schools. It also has an irresistible mix of food, festivals and feel-good factor.’ I’ve no reason to doubt this brief summary of Winchester’s plus points; though I’ve never visited this most perfect of places, I know enough about the Home Counties to recognise a uniquely English ideal of picturesque beauty when I hear it described.
So, let’s all go live there, yeah? If you’ve got around £715,000, you can pick up a nice detached property for yourself; roughly £444,000 will get you a terraced property; and if you can only stretch to a flat, just over £300,000 will do. I’m already there. Not as much as the pricier corners of the capital, true; but considerably costlier than Burnley, where the average house price is around £40,000. Hands up who’d rather relocate to urban Lancashire.
As in the old Miss United Kingdom contest, each geographical region of the country has its nominees for this prestigious contest. Ballycastle in County Antrim received the Northern Irish vote; Wales had Penarth in the Vale of Glamorgan; Scotland got Stockbridge in Edinburgh; for London, it was Fitzrovia; the South East pick was Midhurst in West Sussex; the South West was Falmouth in Cornwall; Orford in Suffolk was the choice for the East; the Midlands got Ledbury in Hertfordshire; Oop North saw Harrogate named for the North East (even though it’s in Yorkshire), and Whalley in Lancashire was the North West’s representative.
The factors taken into account when compiling such a survey are such things as crime rates, house prices and the performance of schools, all of which suggests a specific demographic are the target audience for the tourist boards of the respective locations. Couples in well-paid professions with (or intending to have) children clearly figure highly in the list of desirables. Spinsters with a brood of cats or bachelors with a library of 90s porn videos are probably not as welcome; okay, so I know I’m generalising terribly, but it makes for convenient (if admittedly lazy) shorthand. It’s something of a given that everyone would – or should – want to live somewhere that isn’t going to be populated by feral hoodies or street-corner crack-dealers and isn’t constructed entirely of concrete. Though it may surprise the electorate in David Cameron’s constituency, not many of the people who reside in such neighbourhoods actually want to live there either. But most of them have no choice.
Personally, I like the ground to be coloured green and I also like stepping outdoors and not inhaling enough petrol fumes to power a fleet of juggernauts. Born into a densely-packed urban area with factory chimneys pumping toxic discharge into the atmosphere and coating the surrounding houses in a grimy patina of dirt, it’s no wonder my mother says I was always sniffy as an infant; it’s a miracle children weren’t still issued with gas-masks in the early 70s. Of course, the majority of the industries that rendered the North such a Dark Satanic landscape for over a century have now all disappeared. Those factories that weren’t demolished stood derelict for decades before being converted into luxury apartments, sturdy Victorian constructions competing for the attention of the Young Professional with twenty-first century towers. Service industries superseded the manufacturing ones to attract investment; and thus the Northern Powerhouse was born!
Forgive me if I don’t get too celebratory over this fact, unlike the council running one of the North’s most neglected cities, Hull, as they prepare to turn a metropolis boasting an impressive collection of boarded-up businesses and shops into a City of Culture. Winchester must be crapping its pants at the prospect. Of course, I’m sure Hull has its scenic areas just as well as its shit-holes, as most big cities do; indeed, some might argue the ‘edge of the world’ feel that the bleak grey vista of the North Sea generates possesses a beauty of its own, albeit one that has more in common with Scandinavia, a part of Europe much closer to Hull than Hampshire. No wonder it appealed to Philip Larkin.
Beyond the undoubted allure of the Green and Pleasant Land evident in the South East, not to mention all the social elements that contributed towards Winchester’s poll-topping position, what is it that makes a location truly great? New York was bordering on the brink of bankruptcy in the mid-70s, degenerating into the sewer so eloquently described by Travis Bickle in ‘Taxi Driver’, and yet that turbulent period in the history of the Big Apple produced Blondie, Patti Smith, The Ramones, Talking Heads and Television. When the Mersey Beat sound conquered the Hit Parade (as they used to say) in 1963, it sprang from a city containing thousands of homes officially labelled as not fit for human habitation. Sheffield was undergoing the painful decline of its traditional industry when it spawned The Human League, Heaven 17, ABC, Pulp and…erm…Def Leppard, and Coventry wasn’t exactly a boomtown when 2 Tone exploded into life.
Naturally, for those who weren’t forming future chart-topping bands in New York, Liverpool, Sheffield or Coventry, life was hard and the appeal of somewhere like Winchester would have been understandable if what one sought from life was a good job, a home of one’s own in a crime-free neighbourhood, and children that could receive an education that wasn’t a prep school for prison. Let’s face it, that’s what most people seem to want from life, so it’s not fair that so many of them will never taste that ‘tasty slice of authentic history, with great transport links and fine schools’. At one time, maybe – just maybe – social mobility might have made the dream a possibility, however faint. But that kind of mobility has been slowing down to a stationary position in the last few years, and the likelihood of it gathering speed again, let alone hitting the M3, seems sadly remote.
© The Editor