Two Londoners On Why They Swapped City Living For Country Life

Barbara McMillan with her daughter and dog in the garden of their Hampshire home

Barbara McMillan, 32, Style Writer and Editor

For my husband and I, the move came a few years before we were probably truly ready. I was 32, with a baby, and we’d only just completed renovations on our South London home, where we planned to stay for at least another five years. Pictures weren’t even hung back on the walls when we spotted the house we’d always dreamt about: a detached, Georgian property in the picture perfect village of Headley in Hampshire, just over an hour from the city.

So sure were we that this was the house for us, an offer went in without my husband viewing it. Surveys threw up all sorts of concerns, all of which we agreed would be worth the bother as we couldn’t afford anything similar without taking on extensive building work. Within three months, we had sold our house and left for our new life.

Our London friends asked how I, a committed city dweller, would feel moving to the countryside: would I miss impulsive mid-week dinners and the convenience of life in London? How would we manage the long commute? Truthfully, I was quietly worried about all of those things. But I’d also started to feel like London had started to lose its appeal. After having my daughter, I’d been spending less and less time doing the exciting things I used to love. Childcare costs were sky-high, I’d swapped full-time office work for the flexibility of being freelance, and although we’d already extended our small terraced house, we realised we would at some point need more space – something we knew we wouldn’t be able to afford to do in our area. Logically and financially, it just made sense.

It also meant we were able to be closer to family. And while they still laugh at the idea of our home ‘being in the country’, we’d argue that our small, sleepy lane sees barely any passing cars, the surrounding fields are full of sheep and the nearest train station is a 20-minute drive away. Compared to the nine years we spent in South East London, this is very much country living.

A few months in, our friends concerns were justified. I convinced myself the commute was fine – it was only an extra 50 minutes on the train and I could easily be in London five days a week and attend the odd work dinner if needed. While that was ,in theory, true, it has proved a logistical nightmare navigating nursery drop-offs and unreliable train timetables. And it’s exhausting.

Socially, I have struggled (and still do) with the feeling I’m missing out on life in London. Sometimes, I wish I could still go for impromptu drinks and walk to brunch on the weekend with friends. But, in reality, I was no longer doing these things in London either – having a baby put an end to that, not moving away.

And then, there’s the quiet. The calm. The pubs and restaurants in our local village and town where you don’t need a reservation, or to queue for an hour to be squeezed onto a table. I love waking up to complete silence and being able to head straight out of the door to walk our dog for miles through the fields and not see another person. I love how our friendly neighbours regularly drop round freshly baked cakes (yes, this actually happens), and electric radiators when my husband is away and our ancient oil heating runs out mid-winter. I’m still as excited as my two-year-old when horses trot past our kitchen window. I feel less pressure to look good every time I leave the house, and spend less on things I don’t need as a result. I sleep longer and deeper here than I ever have before. I still worry about things, but money isn’t one of them – after all, our cost of living is lower and our outgoings have halved in the short year we’ve been here.

Our move to the country is still a work in progress. My husband’s commute is exhausting and leaves us no time together during the week, I’m still getting my head around the restrictions country living has on my work options and I’m learning to say no and push back when I can.

But on the weekend, instead of packing our days full of plans, we just open the back door and let our toddler explore, and then head to the local farm café for lunch. I can honestly say we’re completely content in our new surroundings. We still regularly see our London friends, if less often, but we’re also slowly making new ones.

I know that this is absolutely where I’m meant to be, albeit a little sooner than planned, and our little family will have a wonderful life here. It is not without compromises, but I do not regret moving out, even if I do sometimes miss Deliveroo.

Joanna Coates, 35, film director

Joanna holding a piglet in Suffolk, near her home

When my husband and I decided to leave London – the city I’d always lived in – we didn’t know much about the world we stepped into. We wanted to move for a few reasons: for more space, to be able to spend our money in a wiser way, as well the chance to craft a fresh world together, to think critically about the best life for us to jointly create.

We are both screenwriters and I direct films, and we wanted to be able to spend our time writing and developing projects that we care about, rather than focusing our energies on staying financially afloat. So we looked for a cottage in beautiful countryside an hour outside of London. And when that was too expensive, we looked two hours from London.

If you think country house-hunting is idyllic, then think again: there is little that is serene about standing by a razor wire separating a railway line from the garden of a half-rebuilt cottage while a red-faced man, just visible through cement dust, bellows over the noise of the passing train that ‘the trains here are unnoticeable’. In the end we found a cottage in a tiny Suffolk village, amongst villagers who asked, politely but confused, why on earth we had moved there?

Four years later my answer is that it has given us the time and the space to concentrate on things that matter. It’s also given us the time and space to drink a lot of local ale and spend strange nights with an array of wild people, which was unexpected and delightful. We have learned lots about rural living, not least when to listen to a farmer when he advises to walk next to the hedge – not through the centre of the field – unless we want the deranged stallion to kill us.

And yet, I understand the fears people might have about leaving racially diverse places to go and live somewhere largely white and without the plurality that makes a city feel safer. Who wants to be a pioneer? And some people, without personal experience of diversity, can say and think ignorant and hurtful things. This is a shame and a problem, for the country as a whole. But the countryside isn’t one simple thing, or represented by one type of person. There is amongst many an anxiety to be fair, to do the right thing, to be kind.

People of different financial backgrounds and ages actually mingle, and generally take responsibility for each other, without fanfare. A small example: a few years ago we were in London during a blizzard and urgently needed to drive home. Starting the car, we couldn’t gain traction so I got out to push. A couple passed us, resplendent in Patagonia Ski-wear. “You’ll never make it!”, the man helpfully offered while the woman, picking her way up the other pavement, told us not to bother trying. We eventually got the car started and drove home through the snowy landscape at about 14 mph. Entering our village we found a car, having spun on ice, resting diagonally across the road. A small crowd of villagers had gathered and together, they pushed the car into the right position, helped the driver start moving and then, with equally little fuss, dispersed. This notion of helping each other is pretty logical in a small community. As is the idea of making something happen, of not being passive. These are innate human qualities, and they are found in cities too – but the circumstances for them to blossom is encouraged by rural life. And that is valuable.

We won’t live here forever: the dynamism of cities matters. But right now London living is too compromising – the capital hinders our life more than helps it. The time and space we have been able to carve out has meant we were able to get more ambitious projects into development and then move them into production; to land projects with producers which were previously just nascent ideas. I would encourage anyone wanting more freedom and time to think about exactly where they might be able to find the life they seek.


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