Part of me wanted to find flatmates because country life can be lonely. In the wilds of Land’s End, captivated as I was by windswept cliffs, I knew that I’d be happier with someone to share them with. When I finally moved into my cottage in Somerset, I quickly filled it with friends, began researching how I could take in foster children and signed up to offer my spare rooms to Ukrainian refugees (I’m still waiting).
For a while, I have a run of guests from the Workaway website staying, the best of whom is a gorgeous Argentinian man in his 30s, an aeroplane mechanic at home, who proves himself capable of anything. In a couple of weeks, he paints the kitchen and the dining room (not even flinching at the onslaught of pink). He fixes my front door, sorts my dodgy internet and hangs so many light fixings that he becomes accustomed to me coming home with another auction-find begging him to fit it. He even looks over my car and, although his first language is Spanish, translates the details of the log book for me. In return, I keep him entertained with days out around Somerset, where we explore Bath, walk the Tor in Glastonbury and hold fairy-lit dinner parties with him and my friends in the garden. When he leaves for a new placement in Gloucestershire I feel teary.
Meanwhile, the need for flatmates turns from a fun idea to becoming an urgent necessity as I watch my bills increase. On SpareRoom, I notice a proliferation of other people offering rooms in family homes, presumably for the same reason. In fact, in March a poll by SpareRoom of 4,298 people who had either taken in a lodger or have signed up for information on taking one, found that 84 per cent were doing so to help with the rising cost of living. Meanwhile, over the past decade (from 2011-2021) the number of people sharing aged 45-55 rose more than twice as much as the number of sharers aged 18-24. While the number of house sharers aged 55-64 increased more than in any other group.
Before writing my advertisement, I looked through some others for inspiration. Some have very strict criteria: only wanting non-smoking, non-pet-owning lodgers who work out of the house all day and are only looking for somewhere to rent from Monday to Friday.
I have no such demands. My flatmate advert is extremely relaxed because that’s exactly the type of person I hope to attract. “Pretty room in a creative rural cottage,” I write. “Dogs welcome.” Flat hunters quickly reply. About 90 per cent are older, single men. Sixty per cent of them contract workers on jobs nearby, which isn’t exactly the creative, homely vibe I had planned.
The weirdos appear quickly, too. Some send long, over-detailed messages about their living situations, others barely form a sentence. “I’m interested,” one man writes. Another man comes over to view the room I’m renting then messages to ask if he can live in a tent in my garden. Another man arrives who has no front teeth, messages me, disappears, then messages me again to ask how I’m doing late at night.
One younger guy, who seems promising, sends a messages, but when I Google his name (a fleeting safety check), I find his Twitter feed full of pornographic pictures he has “liked”.
I am about ready to remove my advertisement all together when Claire (not her real name), a girl in her 20s, messages to say she is looking for somewhere to live, having broken up with her boyfriend.
She comes to visit the cottage while the boiler is broken. We drink tea, shivering, but she is unbothered. She explains she works for a charity dealing with people who live in places that are far, far worse (which, bless her, she means as a compliment).
Soon Claire and I are happily spending evenings by the fire, listening to Taylor Swift (sharing the same taste in music helps), tapping away – her on coursework, me on this column. Inspired by her enthusiasm for discovering country life, I start re-exploring my local villages, the pubs and sign up for Hinge.
It would be fun sharing the cottage with just Claire, but I can’t afford it. When, a few weeks later, Rob (not his real name) a man in his 50s, answers my ad for the second room, I agree to let him visit. He comes over on a day when a leak has erupted from the bathroom into the living room, drenching the sofa and caking the ceiling with grim yellow circles.
Luckily my prospective flatmate is a builder. In an hour, he’s given me enough useful advice that convinces me that he’ll also make a good flatmate.
Now we are all tucked in the cottage rocking along nicely. I got a cleaner, which helps. And although the dance of cars in my tight driveway is tricky to negotiate, it helps that mostly we’re all out in the day, coming together at night.
Perhaps we’re an odd combination, but we work. Claire and I sit swapping stories about men, while Rob tinkers with the log burners and advises me about insulating the attic.
On my birthday, Rob cooks and we sit down together, drinking red wine and talking, sharing our stories of how we found ourselves here. Each of us having found our lives turned on their heads by Covid.
Claire spent lockdown as love’s young dream, having quickly moved in with her then-new boyfriend, getting a house and a puppy during the first lockdown – the same time as I was leaving my fiancé.
Meanwhile, Rob had been working through issues in his marriage, put under pressure by the pandemic. I realise that a path I started alone, when my life seemed to implode, was a journey so many others were taking. But as we drink wine and chat, I think that as we come to work out the true fallout of the pandemic, perhaps among the many changes will be upsides we didn’t expect.