In the seemingly endless search for somewhere nice to live in modern Britain, where parking is not subject to martial law, I went house-hunting in the Surrey Hills.
I began in the sleepy village of Holmbury St Mary, 15 minutes from where the horses are now kicking their heels up in a lovely livery yard overlooking Dorking. It was a sweet house. But in truth it would only have been practical if one could have built a lift from the roadside through the sheer hillside on which it was built, to cut out the 50 or so steep steps leading to the front door.
I should explain that I had arrived with my friend Emily in tow, one of life’s natural born eccentrics. She is about to burst on to our screens in a reality TV show in which she goes missing and has to be hunted down. If you watch this show, you will know exactly what I mean when I try to describe Emily.
Until then, you will have to trust me when I say that anyone who has ever met her has only been able to cope with her for five minutes before collapsing exhausted on the pavement. Not me. I like drama. So I take Emily out with me and we have all sorts of adventures, most of them brought on by her propensity for mania.
She previously starred in this column when she got an owl accidentally stuck on her hand. That’s the sort of thing that happens to Emily, who gasped with unbridled enthusiasm as we looked round the cottage on the 90-degree hillside and declared,‘This house is the nicest house I have ever seen!’ That won’t have been true, by the way, but she will have meant it at the time.
Eventually, I had to inform the agent I wasn’t really that interested, unless a Dr No-style lift through the cliff-face could be installed. Emily was distraught. But within a few minutes of driving away, we happened upon the most idyllic place Emily had ever seen in her entire life, with a stream running through it. I think it may have been Abinger Hammer, once home to E.M. Forster. But I’m not entirely sure.
All I can say with any certainty was that at its centre was a shop, like something out of a picture book, with little children’s fishing nets stacked outside.
‘Oh, this is delightful,’ I exclaimed, stopping the Volvo in a layby. ‘Let’s go in for a sandwich.’ For outside there was a sandwich board, saying ‘Sandwiches sold here.’
Suddenly, however, Emily hit a low and professed her desire to wait in the car. ‘I don’t want anything,’ she said, with the gloomy look that I knew was inevitable when I didn’t buy the house with cash on the spot. So I went into the shop alone. ‘Could I have a sandwich, please?’ I asked a lady behind an old wooden counter.
‘Sandwich? Someone wants a sandwich!’ she called back to another lady, hidden from view. Another lady appeared. ‘What sort of sandwich?’ she asked a bit suspiciously.
‘What have you got?’
‘Cheese or egg,’ she said, lightning fast.
‘Then I’ll have egg.’
Preparations for the sandwich duly began and continued apace for a long while, so long that Emily appeared, sulkily plucking a chocolate bar from a shelf and slapping it down on the counter. Then she disappeared back to the car. The egg sandwich manifested, I paid and walked back to the car. But it was too late.
I pieced together later what had happened in the 60 seconds Emily had been unsupervised in the open. An elderly couple had pulled up in their car and expressed dismay that the Volvo was blocking what was, in fact, an official residential parking space, belonging to them. ‘We pay £20 a week for that space,’ they announced.
Whereupon Emily crumpled her pretty face and told them it was a stupid place to have a parking space.
Whereupon the man said, ‘This is terrible!’
Whereupon Emily said, ‘No it’s not! What’s happening in Syria is terrible! This is not terrible! This is the stupidest thing ever!’
Whereupon I emerged from the shop and started running towards Emily and the elderly couple, hoping she wouldn’t manage to get them stuck on her hand, or similar, in the few seconds before I reached her. ‘So sorry! I’ll move it now!’
The lady was gasping, ‘Your friend. She’s…’
‘I know. But I have to take her for days out. It’s voluntary work.’
In the car, Emily sat with a black expression on her face. ‘I hate it here. It’s not idyllic. It’s the most awful place ever!’
All things considered, and given the unavailability of even one parking space next to the village shop, I couldn’t disagree.