When James and Carla Wilkinson made the big move from W11 to Wiltshire, they imagined that, along with the air they breathed, the quality of their social life would also improve. No longer would dinner with friends be a harried after-work affair rounded off with a rainy scramble into an Uber. Even the theatre – the reason most of their friends cited for staying in London (though few ever went) – was usually just a protracted opportunity to catch a nap. No, country life would be different, the Wilkinsons told everyone as they cashed in 3,000sq ft of hardwood flooring for an acreage so vast and verdant it needed a tractor to tend it and came with fishing rights. In the country they would see more, not less, of their London friends.
They were not wrong. No sooner had they left the tarmacked roads for a gravelled driveway than city dwellers – desperate not to spend another Sunday in Hyde Park and Whole Foods – began queuing up to while away a languid weekend of simmering casseroles, brisk walks, unleashed dogs and freshly picked wild flowers in their guest bedrooms.
What James and Carla hadn’t counted on was how much work went into creating the illusion of effortless country entertaining. As their new Smythson Visitors Book spilled over with gushing sentiment, Carla’s hospitable spirit began to wane. Six months into Wiltshire life she hadn’t written so much as a word of her brilliant blog, let alone set up the communications consultancy she planned after giving up her PR job in EC1.
Instead the couple appeared to be running a B&B – unpaid save for the occasional box of chocolate truffles or White Company smellies that were proffered with inappropriate ceremony every Friday evening. James now spent eye-watering sums in Waitrose on Friday afternoons. And when Carla wasn’t slaving over the Aga, she felt like a chambermaid. She may have fallen in love with the laundry room when she and James first viewed the house but she hadn’t imagined it would be put to such good use, their new housekeeper Magda forever besieged by detergent, bedlinen and wet towels, and James and Carla praying all the while that this weekend’s intake of city escapees would succumb to a bad oyster and have to cancel.
Because, apart from the toil involved in being the perfect hosts, there was the added irritant that whenever they came to visit, James and Carla’s usually well-mannered friends – high on the smell of wood smoke from the log fires – suddenly developed the delusion they had checked into Soho Farmhouse. Without exception they all lost the ability to wash up so much as a teaspoon somewhere around Junction 14 of the M4.
One Sunday evening, after bidding good riddance to the latest raft of pals, the Wilkinsons were overcome with the desire to move back to London. “Right now I’d kill for tickets to Hamlet at the Barbican”, Carla sighed, as they sat amid the debris of yet another “great weekend, we’ll be back soon”, with the spectre of Christmas looming: 12 of their friends had threatened to descend for some seasonal R&R. “I need to sleep so badly”.
A month later, as the first snow fell on Manton Manor, James and Carla’s friends made their way down the drive laden with salted caramels and festive poinsettia for their hosts. But instead of being greeted by cheery Wilkinsons, they were met by Charles and Cynthia from Milwaukee, who had seen the house on Airbnb and decided to spend Christmas there with their nine grandchildren.
Charles handed over the Christmas card their errant hosts had left behind. “Gone to the Smoke for some R&R. Please follow enclosed directions. Christmas is on us!”
Half an hour later, as their friends were settling into their rooms at Soho Farmhouse, James and Carla were strolling through Hyde Park, enjoying their first weekend à deux in months. “Where next?” Carla asked her husband excitedly as they browsed the Serpentine Gallery, “Whole Foods?”
“Yes, and then the Barbican for the new Hamlet,” said James, surprising his wife with a pair of tickets.