By Louisa Leontiades, on January 20th, 2012
Richmond is a simply beautiful town. It nestles on the bank of the Thames with a the biggest park in Europe containing deer, nature walks and quite frankly the most breathtaking view I have ever come across from Pembroke Lodge (throw in a few scones with jam and cream from their coffee shop and you’d make even the Gods on Mount Olympus jealous).
We lived in Richmond for a good while and made firm friends; firstly other couples and later mostly Mums because my first child was born at Kingston Hospital (Kingston….different kettle of fish). But I don’t miss it. I miss my friends of course, but Richmond – despite it’s beauty and glamour – no. My priorities changed during my time there and it mostly had to do with money.
We moved to Richmond among other things, because of the envious lifestyle of the inhabitants. In the glory days, I bought pretentious coffees from Starbucks in town, diamond earrings from Bolder & Wiley, cupcakes from The Village Bakery on the hill and cocktails from SO bar. I frequented Gauchos for their steak, Steins for their sausage and beer on a Sunday afternoon, and migrated up the hill to Roebuck to see the sun setting over the valley with friends over a pint. I belonged to Richmond Hill Hotel gym, drank champagne at Balham’s and shopped at Waitrose. It’s a wonderful life in Richmond….when you have the money to pay for it. Fortunately I did.
Nevertheless, even then we were in the lower strata of Richmond society, living in The Alberts (those cottages Victoria built dirt cheap for the railway workers which now cost in the region of £600,000). Some richer acquaintances called them adorable …in italics. The Alberts is predominantly for professional couples or very new families – hardly anyone stays longer than 5 years, especially if you plan to have more children. It was expected that living there was an interim proposition until our finances were able to afford something better. Which meant bigger. If you couldn’t afford it in Richmond, you had to go across the river to St. Margarets …and the water would predictably prove a psychological barrier in your social world.
Don’t get me wrong, I liked Richmond…but when my daughter arrived I no longer wanted to spend the money to live the Richmond life. For friends, safety, beauty, and schools …it is justly known as one of the best places in the UK to raise children. As I started to experience the Richmond life as a Mum, my money went on organic food, clothes, toys and baby activities. Suddenly I was spending twice as much as before! I felt the pressure to keep up with the latest trends in childrens’ fashion because Petit Bateau, Jojo Maman Bebe and Gap were the baby stores of choice in Richmond town.
To get to the cheaper Mothercare, you had to go to Kew (not an easy journey for several Mums when the bus only takes two prams at a time). And over our purchases, the mummies gathered in the watering holes with the best changing facilities…Carluccios, Starbucks or The White Horse for coffees and lunch because our houses were too small to accommodate large groups. It cost a lot. And for what? My daughter seemed more interested in the boxes the toys came in, the delicate pink and beige cardigans were worn twice before she either outgrew them or I ruined them in the washing machine and my grocery shopping went off.
Rebelling against such an ingrained system inevitably means exclusion. Not by design, mind you. No one minds if you don’t join them at The White Horse or if you do that you get a glass of tap water. But living in Richmond means that almost by definition, you are also obliged to spend your money on the lifestyle. Gathering in Petersham nursery for coffee and for lunch after Monkey Music or trying to budget for baby gym, baby massage and all the things that the other Mums & babies did. As I moved from the corporate world on a high income to an entrepreneur investing every spare cent in my business, I discovered some surprising value systems in Richmond that conflicted with my own.
Without spending the money on democratically elected social activities of the group, my daughter and I were far less a part of my friends’ worlds. I dropped out of the gym because quite frankly, I was working too much to profit from the monthly fee and lost an entire social circle whose spare 3 hours a week was dedicated to losing baby weight and enjoying a green tea after yoga. There’s no blame – it’s only about choice. New mums have hardly any time and that precious amount we have, we need to spend in the way that is most enjoyable and effective. But spending 100 pounds a month on a gym subscription which served basically for socialising, wasn’t my way.
As my priorities changed and with the impetus of a second impending birth, we made the dramatic move to an equally beautiful island in Sweden where there are no coffee shops, no cars, no shops – excepting the one grocery store – and best of all, a place where my daughter won’t think she has to own the latest handbag to have friends. It’s not the truth of course, but children pick up on perceived actions, not words. We are part of a community where the houses are big enough to accommodate groups of children and where most of the indoor and outdoor activities don’t cost a penny. Now when I visit my friends in Richmond, I can guiltlessly spend tons of money to live the high life. But just for two days.