What’s wrong with the following: an Edwardian semi backing on to allotments, west-facing garden, six bedrooms (two in the loft plus an extra bathroom), extended kitchen/breakfast room, close to friends and amenities, within 30 minutes of London Euston by train and by car to aged parent?
All in a community in which our three children had attended local schools, we’d holidayed with our neighbours and had been involved in local politics and theatre?
How lucky were we? Yet, one afternoon, having taken our 22-year-old cat to the vet (sorry Peg), we came home and invited estate agents to call. Nine months later after a protracted and bloody period of house moving, including eight weeks sleeping in friends’ spare rooms, we moved into a two-bed flat in north London.
It wasn’t so much empty nest syndrome as empty house-itis. I used to dash from my writing room (with balcony overlooking garden), to the loo or kitchen, down the freezing staircase, far too mean to heat the rest of the house, conscious of all that space that would not be filled except at Christmas and occasional weekends.
The clincher for me was when I read that moving house makes life feel longer because there’s a definite cut-off between one home and another. And a strong-minded close friend, when I admitted to feeling restless, uttered three words: move to London.
Why wait until retirement to change
We had been putting off the decision until we reached retirement and no longer had elderly dependents. Instead, we went for it.
Throughout all the trauma, we never questioned if it was the right decision, even when we wasted three months and a lot of money having an offer accepted on a property whose freeholder turned out to be a crook.
Meanwhile, we’d sold our house, had fixed a removal date and risked letting the chain fall through. I sat in meltdown at my desk: should we exchange contracts even though we had nowhere to go?
My daughters scooped me up and marched me round half a dozen properties. By the end of the day we’d put in an offer on a two-bedroom flat, smaller than we’d intended and in a different area.
What I’ve learnt about downsizing
Friends are marvellous – and that we rather enjoyed communal living. It was good to share meals occasionally, go off to the pub, exchange news.
It’s vertiginous, in your fifties, not to have a home, and that it’s very easy to underestimate how much stuff you’ve got.
Location is everything.
A good shake-up does much for the soul, even though for the first week getting out of the new flat on time with my teeth brushed and my keys in my hand was an amazing achievement.
Nests do not remain empty if you move to London and your children and their friends find you a convenient and hospitable base.
The best place to write is a little shed in the garden complete with insulation and internet access; squirrels, tits and foliage for company.
It’s possible to make new friends and build new communities but it takes time.
City life is a hurly burly but what price a bit of weariness when you can catch a bus to the British Library, Selfridges or The Wallace Collection?
Giving up the family home
Everyone says: But what about the children? Weren’t they sad to lose their family home? Of course. They had a ritual weep in each room. But they didn’t have to put up with seeing their parents grow old in a house they associated with vibrant family life.
Instead they have had to make changes of their own, not least in how they regard us. Last October, my 97-year-old father died. He’d lived in the same semi since a few years before I was born. We’d taken note of the choice he’d made, to stay on in a familiar place forever, and we’d decided, to be blunt, that we did not want to live in the same big house until we died.
A friend called ours the most extreme downsize he’d ever known. I’ve had to let go of my old habit of hoarding everything. Other friends think we’re lunatics and are keen to move somewhere quieter when they retire. We are hugely blessed: baby-boomers with health, careers, friends, kids. There’s so much we need to get involved in and we’ve found a way of kickstarting the future.
Katharine McMahon’s book, The Woman in the Picture, is out in paperback on 30 July.