Our Northumbrian adventure begins . . .

I first visited the northeast of England in the summer of 1967. I was 18. And then, a couple of years later, I joined a group of Northumbrian pipers and dancers from Newcastle upon Tyne to perform at a bagpipe festival in the Czech town of Strakonice. Before heading for Czechoslovakia (as it was in those days) we met up in Newcastle to get to know one another, and form Morris and rapper sword dance teams. And get some practice!

In 1998, Steph and I spent a week touring Northumberland, the county immediately south of the border with Scotland, and one of England’s largest counties. Until 1974, Newcastle was part of Northumberland, but then the metropolitan county of Tyne & Wear was created.

Northumberland is a magnificent county. There are awe-inspiring landscapes, beaches that stretch to the horizon, and millennia of history, including remarkable Roman remains dotted across the county, the world famous Hadrian’s Wall in particular.

Most of the county is rural. Settlements grew up on the coast, exploiting the once-abundant fishing in the North Sea, or mining ‘black gold’—coal seams that stretch for miles under the sea. Fishing stocks declined, coal pits closed. The once prosperous coastal towns and mining villages are now looking beyond tourism for a brighter future.

In 2000, our younger daughter Philippa enrolled at the University of Durham (16 miles south of Newcastle) so we would visit her there over the next three years when back in the UK on home leave from the Philippines where I had been working since 1991 in rice research.

In 2005, Philippa returned to the northeast and took a research post in the Department of Psychology at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne. Between then and when we retired back to the UK in 2010, we visited her in Newcastle on several occasions, and have traveled there a couple of times a year once we had resettled in Bromsgrove.

Steph and Philippa on the banks of the River Tyne in the center of Newcastle in July 2007. That’s the Gateshead Millennium Bridge in the distance, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art to the right, and the shiny building (top right) is the culture hall, Sage Gateshead.

In 2010, Philippa married Andi and they settled in the Heaton district of Newcastle. Elvis and Felix were born in September 2011 and September 2013. She completed her PhD in 2010 and joined the faculty of Northumbria University.

Family get-together in Bromsgrove in mid-August 2019.

Our elder daughter Hannah and her family—husband Michael, and Callum (10) and Zoë (8)—live in St Paul, Minnesota, and since 2010, we have traveled to visit them each year (as well as having a video call every week). But not this year, unfortunately.

For several years, both Philippa and Hannah have been encouraging us to sell our home of 39 years in Bromsgrove and move north to Newcastle. Well, as you might imagine, we were comfortably settled, it was hard to even think about such a move. But the more we did, weighing up all the advantages of being closer to family since we’re not getting any younger, and while we are still in good health, moving to Newcastle didn’t seem such a crazy idea after all.

In November 2019 we decided to take a look at the housing market in Newcastle, and again when we visited over Christmas. We made the decision. We would move in 2020, so put our house on the market in January this year. The Covid-19 pandemic almost scuppered our plans, and although we didn’t make our original deadline of mid-year to be in Newcastle, we have now arrived. Just two weeks ago, and have taken a small rental property for the next six months.

What’s even more remarkable is that we have already found a house to buy, made an offer that was accepted, and have begun the conveyancing to purchase. It’s actually not too far from where we are currently living in the northeast of the city, towards the coast.

Last week (the day before Steph’s birthday), and it being a bright sunny day, we headed to Seaton Sluice just five miles away on the coast to enjoy the sea air. I’ve never lived by the sea (if you discount the time I was a student in Southampton, which is a major seaport, and not close to any beaches). Steph hails from Southend on Sea in Essex, and grew up just stone’s throw from stretches of beach where the Thames estuary meets the North Sea.

Now we have the opportunity of walking along the beach any time the fancy takes us. And that’s just what we did on the 7th, and yesterday. We have walked the beach at Seaton Sluice in the past with Philippa and the family. But these were our first walks as residents, so to speak.

I still have to pinch myself that we can hop in the car, and in just over ten minutes can be walking on the beach. On the 7th we couldn’t park at the usual carpark; it was occupied by maintenance workers who were doing some engineering work on the beach. So we parked further south on Rocky Island, and walked along the beach. On our second visit, we headed further north.

What an exhilarating feeling, watching the waves roll in and crash on the beach. The strong breeze blowing the cobwebs away. We even saw an Atlantic grey seal enjoying an early lunch during our first walk.

These are just the first two of many more walks to come and enjoy. Thus begins our Northumbrian adventure. Watch this space . . .

Moving house: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Selling and moving house is, they say, one of life’s more stressful episodes. And, from personal experience, I can vouch for that. But it has not always been that way.

Steph and I have moved house several times, and across continents: from the UK to Peru in 1973; from Peru to Costa Rica in 1976; from Costa Rica back to the UK in 1981; and to the Philippines and back in 1991 and 2010. However, none of these moves was as stressful as our most recent one. That’s because we never had a house to sell as well.

As I’ll relate later on, the actual move out of our home of more than 39 years in Bromsgrove and move into a rental property in Newcastle upon Tyne, was really rather straightforward. It was all the months and weeks leading up to the actual sale of our house, and particularly the last month, that caused all the stress, almost a meltdown even.

Let’s go back to the beginning
Since July 1981 we have lived in Bromsgrove, a relatively small market town in north-east Worcestershire, just 13 miles or so south of the center of Birmingham. But with our two daughters grown up, married, and with families of their own, and Steph and me not getting any younger (we’re both in our early 70s) we took the decision about a year ago to move away from Bromsgrove, and relocate in the Newcastle upon Tyne area of north-east England where our younger daughter Philippa lives with her family: husband Andi and sons Elvis and Felix. Moving closer to our elder daughter Hannah and her family was not an option. They live in St Paul, Minnesota!

Philippa with Elvis and Felix outside our rental home in Newcastle on Steph’s birthday, 8 October.

So, in early January we asked several estate agents (realtors in US parlance) to tender for the sale of our house, eventually settling on a local firm, Robert Oulsnam and Company that had a branch in Bromsgrove’s High Street. We chose this firm not only for its very competitive quotation (at just 0.5% of final sale price) but because we felt they put the client first. They were interested to know what we wanted to achieve whereas other agencies just gave us the ‘hard sell’ why we should choose them, their fantastic record of sales, notwithstanding that they valued our house significantly lower than did Oulsnams. We would never have achieved the price we did had we gone with one of the other estate agents. 

By mid-January, the details of No. 4 had been posted online, featured in the local newspapers, and circulated to a list of prospective buyers. A sign went up in the front garden: For Sale!

Viewings were not brisk, to say the least, which rather surprised us given the excellent location of our house: within five minutes walk of two of the best first and middle schools in town, and 10 minutes walk in opposite directions to the town center or the newly-refurbished rail station.


Pandemic lockdown . . . and recovery from the first wave
I guess there were about ten or so viewings up to mid-March, by which time the Covid-19 pandemic was beginning to surge. By the middle of March Steph and I had already begun to self-isolate, and decided not to take any more viewings. Except for one. Before we self-isolated we had received a request for a viewing a week hence, so decided to honor that one. In any case during most of the viewings we had not been in the house, and had taken the opportunity for a daily walk.

Then, that was that. The Covid lockdown came into force, estate agents closed up shop for the time being, and all went quiet. We did wonder whether it would in fact be better to forget all about a move in 2020, and park the idea until 2021.

As the first wave of the pandemic passed towards late May, and parts of the economy were allowed to open once again, estate agents resumed their activities. And almost immediately we received a request for second viewing: from the couple who were the last ones to view the house before lockdown. The next day they made an offer, at a price much lower than we were prepared to accept. I made a counter offer, and within an hour this was accepted. Sold! Things were on the up. Or so we thought.

Our solicitor told us that the conveyancing process would take six to nine weeks. We never expected sixteen. That’s because there was a ‘chain’ of three buyers below us. And unforeseen delays.

We had already decided that we would sell our house first, then move into rental property in Newcastle, using that as a base to look for a new home. Even without the pandemic making life and travel difficult, trying to look for a house 240 miles away from home was almost impossible.


Getting ready to move
Did we jump the gun? By the end of June we had selected a removal company, under the impression that the sale would go through by the beginning of August. This wasn’t a bad idea, because we then began to go through our many years of accumulated ‘stuff’ and discard what we no longer needed, and boxing those we intended to take north, books in particular. Boxes and boxes of them. We also decided to dispose of the large (and very heavy) leather sofa and armchair we had acquired way back in August 1976 just after moving to Costa Rica. It was not only beginning to show its age, but we knew it would probably be too big for a smaller house that we would move into. Reluctantly we also gave away the dining table, six chairs, and sideboard, all made from cristobal, a tropical hardwood found in Costa Rica. Fortunately our next door neighbors were interest to take these off our hands. We had to send the sofa and armchair to landfill. I wasn’t able to upcycle those.

Our neighbor Dave (center) with his brother Nigel and nephew after we’d removed all the pieces of furniture from No. 4

July came, as did August and there was no movement in the chain below us, as the buyers at the bottom of the chain and in the middle negotiated for mortgages. Our buyers were keen to move in by 1 September, which would have suited us fine. No one could agree on a date to exchange contracts, the point at which a house is legally sold. Because we were still looking for a house to rent, we asked for three weeks between exchange of contracts and completion, the day we would have to move out. 

I’d had my eye on one property in Newcastle for a few weeks, which I knew we could rent on a six month tenancy. Six month tenancies are as rare as hen’s teeth; landlords mostly want tenants for a minimum of one year. I negotiated the tenancy aware that we could not sign any agreement until our house was sold, i.e. we had exchanged contracts. So, around 14 September I proposed to everyone in our buying/selling chain (through solicitors, of course) that we should agree on a completion date of 30 September. This would allow just two weeks for us to complete the tenancy background checks and the like. 

Finally it was agreed that contracts would be exchanged on Wednesday 23 September, even less than the two weeks that I had compromised to. So, with anticipation and some nervousness, the 23rd dawned and we sat around waiting for confirmation that this next important stage had been completed, leaving us free to sign a tenancy agreement. You can imagine my reaction when, around 4 pm, I received a phone call from my solicitor telling me that the exchange had fallen through. There had been a last minute ‘glitch’ involving the sale of our buyer’s house. I felt desperate.

By late afternoon on the Thursday, it seemed as if the ‘glitch’ had been resolved and we were promised exchange of contracts the following morning. By 2.30 pm that Friday afternoon we’d still not heard anything, and concerned that the exchange would ‘fail’ once again, I phoned my solicitor who was as perplexed as we were why things had not gone through until then (all handled through phone calls) since the ‘exchange’ had begun that same morning around 9.30 am.

Then, around 3.10 pm there was another call: exchange completed! Having already carefully scrutinised our tenancy agreement line by line over the previous couple of days, I immediately digitally signed my copy and submitted it online. That generated a copy for Steph to sign, and once she had submitted her digital copy, the tenancy agreement was wrapped up. Relief all round. We’d have a roof over our heads after moving out of No. 4 on the 30th.

I also had to confirm the move with our removal company, Robinsons Relocation. I guess we’d given them the run around over the previous couple of weeks, pencilling our removal date for the 30th but not able to confirm this until the last moment.

On my 70th birthday in November 2018, my bank manager had sent me a bottle of Moët & Chandon Brut champagne. We never could find a good excuse or opportunity to open it. Until that Friday night.

Over the next few days, we completed our packing, and clearing the last remaining items in the garage and garden that I needed to take to the local waste disposal and recycling center. 


The move
It felt strange at No. 4 the night before the move. Our last night there after more than 39 years. Over those decades Steph had created a lovely garden, so we enjoyed a bottle of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, and wandered around the garden. Steph had taken cuttings from many of her favorite plants and these had been crated up in anticipation of the move. 

We were up with the larks next morning, the 30th, and after a quick breakfast, we packed away the final items that were still in use in the kitchen. 

Our removals company was due at 8.30 am, but they actually turned up fifteen minutes early. And got immediately to work, despite the rather dank and dreary weather. It began to rain more or less as they arrived, but fortunately had cleared within the hour.

The removals team were three: Paul, Kyle, and Harrison (aka ‘H’). Since we’d already done all of the packing ourselves, Paul and his team only had to load everything on their truck. I say ‘only load’, yet some items were quite heavy and cumbersome, and one large Ikea bookshelf had to be dismantled (yes, they are as complicated to take apart as assemble!).

By 11.30 am everything had been loaded, the van closed up and they were off. I say ‘off’, but back to base in Redditch as they intended to drive up from the West Midlands to Newcastle early the next day.

Then it was time for Steph and me to have a final check around an empty No. 4, make sure everything was ship shape and Bristol fashion as much as we could, grab a quick sandwich, lock the front door, and be on our way. That was about an hour after removers had left, and by then there was a removals van parked outside waiting to move our buyers in. They had to wait until around 3.30 pm to get access to the keys once bank transfers had been confirmed.

Grabbing a quick sandwich after all had been cleared. And a final photo in front of No. 4.

With that, we hit the road heading for Newcastle, and arriving at our Premier Inn in Shiremoor (less than a mile from our rental property) just after 5 pm. I enjoyed a couple of large beers that night.

The move in . . . 
Around 9.30 on the following morning, 1 October, I had a voicemail message from Paul of Robinsons letting me know where they were, and at what time they expected to arrive in Newcastle. We met up with an agent of the lettings agency to gain access to our rental home, check the utilities and inventory. It’s a strange experience moving into a property that you’ve never seen firsthand, but only through online descriptions and photos. However, it turned out just fine. We have a compact, three bedroom house, very close to excellent transport links, shopping, medical services and the like. So we knew we could settle very easily there.

The removals crew turned up just before 1 pm, and immediately set to work. And just before 4 pm they were on their way south once again.


Thus ended our house sale and move saga. So what were the good, the bad, and the ugly?

The good
On reflection, I think our estate agent served us well, with a good discount on their fee, and continual follow-up on what was happening down the chain. The promotional materials they produced were of a high standard. Also the service we received from Robinsons Relocation for the actual move north was excellent.

The bad
What frustrated us most was the lack of transparency in the legal aspects of the sale. Once we had instructed solicitors to handle the sale, it was like sucking blood from a stone to find out what was happening throughout the chain. No-one was proactive, keeping us updated. It was always us having to make enquiries. Now I am the last person to deny anyone their annual vacation, but I was extremely annoyed on two occasions to find that two solicitors in the chain had taken off for a week or more at critical times in the sales negotiations without letting their clients know. In any case the whole sales process seems arcane and convoluted, and the lack of information and transparency only made the whole thing more mysterious and stressful.

The ugly
Selling a house is stressful at the best of times, as I’ve already mentioned. Selling one during a pandemic just adds to the stress, and anxiety. And the last month, as deadlines came and went without apparent progress, and the pressure to find a rental property in Newcastle increased, my stress levels increased seemingly exponentially. There were a couple of occasions when I came close to a breakdown, and I’m a pretty level-headed sort of chap. Just the uncertainty, and not knowing whether we’d have a roof over our heads once we’d sold No. 4, were awful. I don’t think I slept more than three hours a night for over a month, and I’ve lost quite a bit of weight (which, on reflection, can’t be a bad thing!).

It was a relief when that call came through that contracts had been exchanged on 25 September, opening the door to so many other aspects of our move such as finalising the rental contract, confirm removals arrangements, and the like.

But we did it. We have now been in Newcastle for just over two weeks. We are settled, and relaxing a bit more. And we have already found our next home. But that’s for another blog post in due course.