|Small, quiet and deadly dull - it's
the perfect start in life
Living in a sleepy backwater might be short on thrills, but it's not all bad, says James Trollope.
Adjectives such as "boring" and "unfashionable" are shunned by estate agents and send shivers down teenage spines, but, to house-hunting parents, dullness can be a virtue. Dull towns can be excitingly cheap and great places to bring up a family. Many of us would plump for "safe and sleepy" over "vibrant and sophisticated" most days of the week.
Or am I simply straining to justify our move from "vibrant" Brighton to "sleepy" Seaford? Despite some misgivings, with a four-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son, I think it makes sense.
To assess the pros and cons of small- town life, I've been canvassing opinion from around the compass: Seaford (population 23,000) in the South, Cockermouth (8,500) in the North, Dereham (15,000) in the East and Shepton Mallet ( 8,000) in the West.
All are unassuming towns with lower-than-average crime rates, where you can buy a five-bedroom house for about £300,000. Each has its own high school and is surrounded by attractive countryside. But none is exactly a prime tourist destination. "Pleasant backwater" would be nearer the mark. So, what's it like growing up in one?
"I didn't feel I was missing out on anything. We used to take the dog for walks on the South Downs, go down to the local shop to buy stickers and have barbecues on the beach," says vicar's son Tom Stone, recalling his pre-teenage childhood on the outskirts of Seaford. However, when Tom hit his teens, the town's limitations became apparent and, since heading to London to study law at the London School of Economics, he's scarcely been back.
"I remember gangs of older kids hanging around outside the kebab shop. I failed to see the attraction of that and do think that people who stayed may have lost out on some of things life has to offer," says Tom, now aged 30, and chief sub-editor of Men's Health magazine.
"Hanging about" seems to be the quintessential teenage occupation in small towns. There is even a website devoted to it (www.knowhere.co.uk). A typical entry from a woman who lived in Dereham, Norfolk, reads: "We used to talent-spot on the steps near Iceland. Sad or what? I can't think why any babe would want to stay there. Listen, there is life out there. A big, big world."
But others see Dereham in a much more positive light. Brigitte Morton, who raised her three children in the Norfolk town, was never worried when they were cycling or running around. "For young children, it was big enough to have lots of things going on but small enough for them to have a large nucleus of friends," she says.
Her boys, Daniel and Simon, played football and rugby respectively and when her daughter Amy, aged 14, showed signs of boredom, she put her on the bus to Norwich. "She went with a gang of other girls and they used to try to look cool outside various venues that wouldn't let them in."
Amy left home at 20 to live with her boyfriend in Portsmouth, before buying a flat in Norwich, where she is hoping to become a psychiatric nurse. Her older brother, Daniel, is a research chemist in Leeds.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's a good thing that they left home early," says Brigitte, who grew up in Paris. "Life in a small town gave them the impetus to want to do something else."
Only Brigitte's youngest child, Simon, is still at home. Having recently graduated from Preston University, he is itching to move on. "Dereham is pretty devoid of anything to do in the evenings. There's a bowling alley but only one pub," he says.
Craig Watts, who spent his youth in Shepton Mallet, would sympathise. The 23-year-old is now a hair stylist in Brighton, but remembers the small Somerset town with something less than affection.
"It was just so boring," he recalls. "There was nothing at all to do there and not even a cinema. We loitered in the street and everyone knew everyone else. There was a lot of 'he said you said'. My brother went into a pub the other day and some old bloke said 'you're sitting in my seat'. That just about sums the place up."
Despite such grumbles, recent Ofsted reports suggest that small-town teenagers do comparatively well academically. Dereham Neatherd High School and Cockermouth School are both "excellent"; Whitstone Comprehensive in Shepton Mallet is "satisfactory" and Seaford Head Community College is "improving" after a wobbly spell.
Crime levels are generally reassuring, too. True, a man was jailed for biting off a large chunk of another man's nose in Cockermouth but, judging by a local website, it was the Cumbrian town's most serious crime in 2005.
"If you're looking for a fast pace of life with lots of wine bars and clubs, it's not the place to be, but for family life it's hard to beat," says estate agent Cynthia Hannah, whose two grown-up children still live in the town.
Just outside the Lake District National Park, Cockermouth isn't overrun by tourists, unlike its neighbour, Keswick. The Sellafield reprocessing plant, a 40-minute commute, is the biggest local employer.
Teacher Candy Regan, head of the sixth form at Cockermouth School, has two young daughters, six-year-old Molly and Lilly, three. "They do pony-riding, ballet, swimming and gymnastics and have a far better social life than we do," she said. "At school, many 17-year-olds have their own cars. If they're not going to friends' houses, there's always the option of going into Carlisle or Workington. And 90 per cent of sixth formers go on to university."
Despite some reservations, we're looking forward to moving from a fashionable city to an unpretentious town - less noise, less crime and a much bigger house and garden for the children to muck about in.
I do worry, though, that my young daughter might see it rather differently in 10 years' time. I can almost hear my impotent cry: "For God's sake, Katie, stop hanging around outside that kebab shop!