The flexible way to live

Ruth Bloomfield talks to two "flexi-living" families who were not prepared to wait until retirement to live their dream
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Alison Bremner with daughter Abi
© Andrew Hasson
Alison Bremner with daughter Abi, who, like her brother Edward, spends weekends enjoying life in Kent
Alison Bremner owns two irons, two vacuum cleaners and two make-up bags. Her most precious possession is a portable hard drive and she struggles when people ask her that simplest of questions: Where do you live?

Simon Barnes, meanwhile, is in no doubt that he lives in Malta but works in London. Alison and Simon are part of a growing band who have chosen to be "flexi-livers" - they have adapted the way they work to suit the way they want to live.

Alison and her husband - also called Simon, both 51 - bought an Edwardian terrace in Dulwich in 1991 for £200,000. By 2009, with their mortgage almost paid off and their daughter Abi, a veterinary student, away from home a lot, and son Edward at school, they decided they were not going to wait until they retired to have their dream home in the country.

The couple started what they thought would be a long search but then almost immediately fell deeply in love with a Grade II-listed 17th-century farmhouse in the village of Bethersden, near Ashford, Kent, which was for sale at £600,000. They knew that Edward's schooling would keep them in London until 2012 - he is now 17 - but they could not get that old farmhouse out of their minds. So they bought it and have never regretted the decision.

Now Simon, who works in the City, and Alison, a marketing and communications consultant, come and go, spending weekends and school holidays at the farmhouse with Edward (and Abi, too, when she is around). Eventually, the family will move to Kent full time, selling their Dulwich house and buying a London crash pad for Simon. But for now they run two homes and admit that it can be expensive.

They have two sets of utility bills, and council tax (discounted on the farmhouse as a second home), and need to plan their lives meticulously. For her job, Alison uses a portable hard drive so she can work anywhere, picking up her messages remotely. She shops in both places, but always uses the Kent butcher, and she has two cleaners. "Our Kent cleaner 'came with the house', which was great as we wanted a trusted keyholder who lived locally in case the alarm ever went off," she says.

Socially, the move has been a triumph with close friends in Kent for Edward. "People have been so friendly, and we are trying hard to be part of the community," says Alison. "This is where our hearts are and we are stoical about separations. In London, Simon leaves for work before I get up and gets home at 7.30pm or 8pm all week, so the only difference is that some weekdays we are not together for supper."

Turning travel into a fine art

Simon Barnes, a middle-aged property consultant, and his wife have made an even more radical alteration to their home life. Taking a holiday in Malta, they fell head over heels for its weather and its comparatively cheap cost of living. They decided to sell their three-bedroom flat in the Barbican, bought a 400-year-old house on Malta and moved there nine years ago while their two children were still young.

Then Simon bought a small flat in St John's Wood. "I get four long, and very full working days in London," he says. "It is a much more productive working routine than if I was coming home to my family each evening."

When Thursday evening comes he dashes for the airport, dropping his laundry off at the dry-cleaner on the way. He travels light and has got the entire journey, door to door, down to about five hours having negotiated a return airfare of £300 a week. He works en route and in Malta on Fridays. The obvious downside is separation from his family. "But my children were young when we arrived, so they don't know anything different. I probably spend more time with them, thanks to the long weekends, than if I was working full time in the City."

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