We had driven from Central London that afternoon with one, and only one, goal in mind....to get our bulky caravan, with its wrong-side steering wheel, away from the big-city traffic....street after street, car after car, all of it on the wrong side of the road. And all the while Gil was struggling to shift with the wrong hand and Roma was ducking each time we came close to some roadside obstacle.
Because the Stevens Agency was closer to the southern edge of the city than any other, we had headed south. (We have sometimes wondered how different our English experience might have been if the Stevens Agency had been on the northern side of the city.)
So we started driving south, toward what our map told us was the nearest non-urban countryside. Yet even that promised-land was miles from where we began. It was afternoon by then and traffic was heavy. As we were learning, traffic was always like that in London.
And then there were the roundabouts....those devilish traffic-circles where we waited for a break in the circling traffic that would allow us to make our way into the rapidly moving loop.
Once there, the trick was to locate our desired exit and get in the proper lane for that. The one saving grace....if we missed our exit the first time we simply continued around the circle a second, or occasionally a third time.
It would take us more than two hours to escape the clutches of city and suburban traffic. Finally, a few miles south of Guildford, in a area of green pastures and rolling hills, we spotted what we were looking for....a grassy, parklike grove where we would hopefully not be bothered.
The place even had a name. The English have a thing about naming everything and everyplace. Our home that evening would be on Headley Downs. Though we were not sure if overnight stays were allowed there, we were too tired to worry about that. Our day, which had begun in suburban Philadelphia, had finally ended in the peaceful quiet of the English countryside.
It was there we awoke the next morning ready and eager to begin our exploration of the Mother Country. Truth to tell, however, though we may have been eager enough, we were woefully unready for the daunting challenge that faced us.
Think about it. What sort of world travelers would set off on a great adventure with no idea of where they were going, what they were looking for, or how they would know when they had found it?
The process was called “preparation” or “planning.” By the summer of 1972 Gil should have been well acquainted with the concept. For several years he had successfully co-managed a thriving group of small businesses, using detailed action plans that he and the staff had created.
He had even studied (sort of) business analysis and planning at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. By the time our tired family reached Headley Downs, he had successfully scripted our cross-country journey, navigated an intimidating Customs hurdle, and arranged for the caravan we were driving.
In short, Gil knew a thing or two about planning....and how to do it. At that moment, if you had asked him point blank, he would have claimed to be prepared for what lay ahead. Yet, when we woke that August morning in a quiet English woodland, it soon became very clear that we were not at all prepared for what came next.
Where would we settle for our English stay? Some places were bound to be better than others? What about schools for the boys? There were surely good ones and not-so-good ones. How would we know the difference?
In the end we started off that morning with a single overriding question in mind, and no clue how to answer it. What choices did we have? Until we knew what was available, how would we know what was the best location for us?
With that single task in mind we set off to find what would be our new home. Our first stop was in Farnham, which had earned the top spot on our city-search list by virtue of being the nearest large town.
At the edge of the downtown business district we stopped to buy a copy of the local newspaper. A few minutes later, having failed to find a single rental listing among the sparse classified ads, Gil had concluded there were no rental homes available in Farnham.
In a matter of hours we had met with similar results in nearby Aldershot and Basingstoke. By the time we stopped for lunch we were growing discouraged. We had traveled across the Atlantic to live an English life. We could see that it was a country full of houses....detached, semi-detached, apartments, and flats, even grand estates. They were all around us.
Yet after several hours of searching we had not found a single property for rent in the entire south of England. One newspaper after another confirmed that dearth of rental offerings. Still, we had to keep trying. With that in mind we started down the motorway toward Winchester.
At the Winchester turnoff it took only a minute or two to realize that we were not going to drive the winding and narrow, centuries-old streets of downtown Winchester. Instead we found a half-empty car park a couple blocks from the High Street and walked to the center of the cramped and crowded business district.
Once there, it took no more than a few minutes to fall in love with the place. It was one of those magic spots you find in every corner of England. Take away the automobiles and electric lights and we could have been strolling through the sixteenth or seventeenth century.
The buildings were worn, weathered, and picturesque. And looming beyond the High Street, Winchester Cathedral stood guard on the scene....as it had since 1093.
But we were not there to see the sights. We were house hunting. Though our hopes of finding a suitable place had been dashed at every turn, there was no turning back. That meant getting our hands on a local newspaper.
By 1972 the downtown Winchester business district was slowly evolving from its centuries-old ways to what we Yanks would consider a more progressive, Americanized shopping area.
Sainsburys, the grocery giant, had recently opened the city’s first supermarket. (More about that later.) On the busy High Street the Boots Pharmacy would not have looked out of place in any American shopping center. Yet up and down the street most of the shops and stores still retained their long-standing, specialized roles.
That meant if you wanted a newspaper you looked for a newsagent or tobacconist. Because those were the places, the only places, where newspapers were sold.
Fortunately, what we would later learn was the best tobacconist in town was right next door to Boots. So while Roma and the kids waited on the sidewalk outside of what looked to be a male sanctuary, Gil went inside, eyed the offering of newspapers and picked up a copy of the Hampshire Chronicle.
In a matter of seconds he located the classified ads, and for the umpteenth time confirmed there were no rental properties being offered in the Winchester market. How could that be?
For a moment he debated whether to pay for the essentially worthless newspaper in his hands. Apparently the kindly old fellow behind the counter was wondering the same thing. Laying the barely-read paper on the counter Gil fished for his wallet.
As he handed the clerk a bill he took a moment to study the cigarette offerings on the shelves that stretched across the back wall. There were so many brands he had never heard of. More to the point he did not see his brand. Though he had enough smokes to last for a few more days it seemed like a bit of fact finding was in order.
“Do you carry Kools?” Gil asked. He had smoked those menthol killers for a long time. Perhaps he ought to have a few spares on hand.
“Don’t have much call for those,” the clerk replied, still smiling. There was no need for Gil to explain that he was a Yank. The old fellow had known that from the moment he entered his shop. Who else would be wearing dark glasses on a cloudy day?
“I believe I have a carton of them in the back. Would you like me to get them?”
“What would they cost?” Gil asked. A moment later he was doing the mental mathematics, arriving at a price that was more than twice what he paid at home.
“I think I’ll pass,” he nodded.
The accommodating clerk made change for the newspaper, then paused to ask, “Are you wanting to know more about our part of the country?”
“We’re looking for a home to rent,” Gil answered. Poking at the paper he grumbled something about, “Doesn’t seem to be anything for rent in this part of your country.”
“I’m sure there must be quite a few.”
“You’ll have to show me where they are.” Returning to the classified ad pages, with their columns of small print, he spread the paper out on the counter for the clerk to see. “I don’t think I missed anything. If it’s here it must be hiding.”
The clerk took a moment to reply. Perhaps he was trying to stifle a laugh that wanted to escape. When Gil looked up into his face the old gentleman was shaking his head very slowly. “In the newspaper?” he finally asked. “You’re looking for a housing rental in a newspaper?”
“Of course. Where else would I.........?” Suddenly the light was dawning. Could it be that we had spent the whole day looking in the wrong place? “Where would you look?” Gil asked.
The clerk looked away as another customer stepped to the counter....a regular client it appeared from the way he was greeted. In fact, the clerk was speaking directly to his friend as he answered Gil’s question.
“If I was looking to rent a home I believe I would visit my local Estate Agent. Don’t you think, Leonard?”
“Estate agent? You mean a real estate guy?” Gil asked. Apparently the fellow did not understand. “We don’t want to ‘buy’ a house. We want to ‘rent’ one.”
“Then you really should be talking to an estate agent. They rent homes as well as sell them. And you just happen to be in luck. If you go to the end of the block and turn right you’ll come to Fox and Sons. They’re one of the best estate agents around.”
It was a decidedly sheepish grin Gil was wearing when he rejoined the family. Roma noticed that right away. That in turn had her grinning too. “Did you find something?” she asked. “Do they actually rent homes in Winchester?”
Down the block and around the corner we went, walking straight toward the Cathedral until we came to Fox & Sons - Estate Agents. The long front window was full of sales displays for the properties they had to sell. There were photos, wordy, adjective-filled descriptions, and eye-popping prices. In all likelihood Winchester was going to be too pricey for us.
We went inside, probably disturbing the efficient office quiet. There were six of us....Gil in his shades and all of us dressed in our rumpled travel finery, looking for all the world like we had spent the night in our car. Still, the gentleman at the front desk stood and extended his hand.
The agent, a friendly and helpful fellow, took a few minutes to hear our story. When he finally offered his explanation, he began with a brief history lesson on “housing the British way.”
It was post-war England we were dealing with ....complete with the remnants of their recent Socialist experiment. In urban areas like Winchester a high percentage of low-cost housing was government-owned “Council Housing.” Though the homes were very basic, not much by American standards, they were very inexpensive, much-prized, and never came on the market. There were always waiting lists for the next available Council Home.
As a result the rental market in Winchester proper was limited, especially for homes that would accommodate a family of six. After leafing through his entire cardex file the agent finally settled on one lone candidate, in the suburban neighborhood of Harestock. It was the only listing he had that was large enough for our family and fit our budget.
At that point the calendar too was working against us. It was late Friday. The soonest we could see the Harestock house was Monday afternoon. We made an appointment for two o’clock Monday, though at that point we were not sure we would return.
But at least we had one fish on the line, and a better idea of how to find other possibilities. With that much accomplished, it was time to spend the weekend seeing a bit of our new country.