Town & Country (UK)
THE GREAT ESCAPE
Covid has kick-started an exodus from our cities – but is moving to the country really the key to domestic bliss?
More and more city-dwellers are uprooting in favour of verdant rural pastures, including Alex Preston, who now finds himself asking if the grass is truly greener on the other side, or if London is really where it’s at
Has there ever been a time when exhausted Londoners, surveying the relentless grey march of days ensconced in the city, have not dreamt of chucking it all in and moving to some quiet, rose-grown corner of the countryside? And has there ever been a time when the papers were not full of articles by journalists working over this well-worn staple of the property pages? As a trope of late-capitalist life, agonising over leaving for pastures green says something profound about what it is to be British. Brits are country folk: our myths are rural myths, our idylls bucolic ones. We are a nation of villagers, finding solace in woods and water; in oak, owls and ivy. The city is always suspect, invidious, global.
Now, as lockdown life refocuses us on our dreams of escape, it’s time again to weigh the costs and benefits, the gains and losses of moving to the country. More people are making the leap than ever before: rents in the Cotswolds are up by 75 per cent over the past three months, in parts of Oxfordshire by more than 50 per cent. House-price growth is at a five-year high, although not in London, where prices are stagnating. The cause is clear – working from home has lost its stigma; many will never return to the office, or will work in town three days a week, making previously gruelling commutes bearable. If you found city life claustrophobic prior to lockdown, it became positively insupportable once restaurants shut their doors and horizons closed in.
It was that sense of claustrophobia that drove my family to up sticks to the Kentish Weald at the end of 2015. We’d been on a long, blissful road trip through America that summer, swimming in lakes and rivers, scarcely wearing shoes, sitting out under big skies as the sun went down and the fireflies came out. When we returned to our home in Kensal Green, it seemed mean and hemmed-in, half a life. Added to this was the fact that our neighbourhood was changing as we watched – a lot of it for the better, but the fact that our house was snapped up by a couple of highflying bankers the first day it went on the market felt like a message. This wasn’t our London any more.
For Sasha Wilkins, author of the Liberty London Girl blog and a hostess of everything from literary lunches to corporate conferences, it was finances that finally drove her from her beloved Primrose Hill home. ‘I couldn’t possibly have afforded to stay,’ she tells me. ‘When lockdown hit, my whole working world just seemed to disappear.’ She is now happily settled in the Gloucestershire countryside, where she has traded her MX-5 for an SUV, and her Louboutins for wellies. ‘Old Sasha wouldn’t recognise today’s Sasha. And she certainly wouldn’t approve of her footwear.’ These days she works from her drawingroom, and her Instagram account overflows with rolling Cotswold loveliness.
My own initiation into country life began badly, with Brexit, when the lanes around our village were afire with red Vote Leave posters, and my own, lonely Vote Remain sign was uprooted one morning and hurled in our pond. Since then, though, it has been largely heavenly, and, after an early and relatively painless brush with coronavirus, we enjoyed a blissfully rustic lockdown year. I discovered gardening early in my conversion into a Man of Kent, but 2020 was special in the two-and-a-bit acres we have shaped about our home. With the children off school, and a warm spring building into a glorious summer, we ate in a sun-trap on the terrace, wolfing down the garden’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of artichokes and lettuces, runner beans and wincingly sweet tomatoes. There were vases of flowers on every table, jars of honey from the bees, apple juice from the orchard and plums so delicious it felt almost indecent to eat them.
And yet… This was also the year I found myself missing London in a way I hadn’t since we had left, not even in the dark days of 2016, when belligerent locals wrapped in St George’s flags celebrated their victory in the towns and villages all about us. I didn’t set foot in London between March and December, and found myself instead visiting it in fiction – Martin Amis and Zadie Smith – and film – everything from Notting Hill to Hangover Square. I missed throngs of people, city life in all its diversity. I missed sushi and Soho, bookshops and that rich, purple London twilight in which anything seems possible. It’s strange that it was the year in which the world moved out of London that I thought most about moving back.
Tom Hodgkinson, the author, entrepreneur and editor of The Idler magazine, was an early evangelist for the kind of country living that was 2020’s aspiration of choice. He and his partner Victoria Hull relocated to north Devon in the early Noughties. There, Hodgkinson wrote about the joys of slow-paced life, home produce and ukulele playing.
IT HAS BEEN LARGELY HEAVENLY – A BLISSFULLY RUSTIC LOCKDOWN YEAR
Then, rather to the surprise of his readers, in 2013 he moved back to London, trading the wild Exmoor coast for the less rugged charms of Shepherd’s Bush. I ask Hodgkinson whether lockdown had made him regret his return to London.
‘A little bit, yes, and Victoria has been longing for it a lot. She keeps saying she’s jealous of people in the countryside. Our friends in Somerset all seem to be quite smug about having all this space and living the country life. At this particular moment I feel perfectly happy where I am.’ Hodgkinson has written extensively on bringing up children in the country. Now his kids are teenagers, they’re thrilled to be Londoners. ‘They’re so pleased we moved back,’ he says. ‘Under lockdown there’s a lot to love about Central London. We’ve been on bicycles a good deal, discovering our own area. The schools in the country just weren’t as good. I want my children to be more sophisticated than their farmer mates. It was great when they were small, climbing rocks and leaping in the sea. But it’s different now they’re older.’
The dream, of course, is to have a foot in both camps. I speak to Rachel Johnson, the writer (and the Prime Minister’s sister), as she’s about to leave her Chelsea home for her country house – also in Exmoor, although the Somerset side. She notes that while men have thrown themselves headlong into country life during lockdown, the move is more problematic for many women. ‘I think that lockdown was an instruction for women and a permission for men,’ she tells me. ‘The move to the countryside on the part of men is an expression of their enjoyment of being at home for the first time in a long time, and of course they want women to enjoy it too, but all the evidence shows that men and women in lockdown don’t shoulder the same burdens of childcare, home-schooling, cooking, cleaning. I think teleporting women out of the city where they have services, friends, restaurants – it’s setting a woman back into domesticity by changing her location. However glorious the countryside is, there’s always tonnes to do – you never sit down. You’re sweeping round the wellies, you’re fixing the Aga, you’re walking the dog, you’re driving an incredibly long way to get some food. You’re basically quite isolated.’
When I moved the family to Kent, it was midwinter, grim, dark and mud-spattered. Johnson believes those who took lockdown as a permission slip to give up on London may be feeling the first pangs of regret now the summer is behind us. ‘It’s very different in winter,’ she says. ‘The mud and the darkness rise, and you become what my friend Christopher Hitchens used to call “glum-wellied”. You feel like you’re growing moss and mildew. In London you can spritz up and see other people. You can go for a coffee with a friend in the park. In the country you just don’t see anyone.’
Alice Temperley’s dreamily beautiful dresses are in communion with a very rural English aesthetic. It seems fitting, then, that she moved her business from London to Somerset during lockdown, where it now occupies a vast and characterful 22,000-square-foot Victorian pile in the centre of picturesque Ilminster. Temperley has deep roots there – her parents brew cider and apple brandy just down the road – and moving to a place both familiar and fondly remembered has been an inspiration and a release for the designer, as well as enabling her to see more of her 12-year-old son, Fox. ‘What I needed was a space to be creative rather than travelling 15 hours a week,’ Temperley says. ‘We were looking for a space down here before Covid hit. Then, when lockdown came, I realised that London was over. Paying really expensive rates for a building, feeling like I didn’t want to commute there because of the situation – it made me press the fast-forward button and try to find something down here as quickly as possible. Just by total luck, this building turned up and my partner and I managed to buy it. What we loved was that we could bring the brand home to the countryside, in a building that had character, and enough space to have a store, the design studios, the archive, production, all in one place.’
I ask her what she misses from London. ‘Not very much,’ she says. ‘I’ve done my nightlife, done my years of bar work and college. What I loved was having my team there and seeing my friends. Now my team is here, and I have better quality time with my friends having them down to stay or seeing them once a month in town rather than all the time. In London, you work a lot and see people for little snippets. Am I nostalgic for the city? No. It just stopped and anyone who didn’t need to be in the capital wasn’t there.’
Such lack of equivocation is rare, I think. Certainly, my own story is one of perpetually looking for the greener grass. While in the metropolis, I dreamt of rolling hills and clematis-clad pergolas; in the country I long for the grit and gumption of the city. Now, though, writing from the heart of another lockdown, and with Kent in the highest tier, I have lit a fire in the study, the owls are loud in the wood outside, and there’s a pie bubbling away in the Aga. It’s not perfect, but it’s home.
‘IN LONDON YOU CAN SPRITZ UP AND SEE OTHER PEOPLE. IN THE COUNTRY YOU JUST DON’T SEE ANYONE’