I was delighted to be asked to share our experience of leaving London to move to the country by the wonderful Life after London team, who are well worth a visit if you’re planning your own River Cottage exodus. I chose to try to be brutally honest about how we’ve found it so far, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on a similar move if you’ve made or are planning one!
Six months ago we left our Victorian terraced house in South West London for a draughty farmhouse on a rural three acre smallholding in Hampshire. Having spent years trying to grow as much food as we could on a tiny patio and becoming frustrated at the lack of space for our son to play in, we wanted to go somewhere with beautiful views, where we could grow or raise a significant amount of our own food and where we could swap gym membership (well, we would have swapped it if we had it…) for digging our own vegetable beds. It’s been wonderful, but a paradigm shift, so here are ten things I wish I’d known about moving to the countryside:
1. Pheasants are stupider than you can imagine
Pheasants are pretty but ludicrous creatures and nothing can prepare you for the determined way in which they try to run directly under your wheels. The roads are smeared thickly with pheasant pate from October to December and it’s so unnerving to have to drive defensively because of a bird!
2. It’s lonely at first
I found the first fortnight in our new home horribly difficult and felt terribly homesick for the friends I’d left in town. I ended up acting the playground tart, essentially approaching other playground mothers, telling them we were new and asking them to be my friend! Making new friends as an adult is like speed dating without the benefit of a Wonderbra but months later it’s getting much better.
3. Find your feet before you fall back on old friends
It’s extraordinary how many old friends suddenly come out of the woodwork angling for invitations for a weekend stay when you buy a house in the country. We heard from people we hadn’t seen in years! A good friend that fled the city before we did sensibly advised us to settle in before we started importing London friends every weekend or we’d never meet anyone local which seems difficult but tempting.
4. Country drivers have nerves of steel
In the deep countryside where we live people drive at terrifying speeds down narrow one lane twisty country roads and have little patience for those of us that feel that 70mph is suicidal in such a situation. “Come along” they howl through the window as they barge past you on a small dirt track when you’re nestled in a hedge, “you could get a tank through there”. Ignore them. In six weeks time you too will be muttering under your breath about “London drivers” whenever you get stuck behind someone doing 45mph on a derestricted road.
5. It’s possible to do too much, too soon
Within a fortnight of moving in, we had a new puppy, four ex-battery hens, had started to work the land, replaced all of our carpets and a good part of the kitchen, embarked on a month-long dramatic period of having no heating in sub zero weather because we couldn’t find an oil engineer and unpacked (and I was six months pregnant at the time). We then sensibly postponed the store lambs and couple of pigs we’d been hoping to buy immediately until this year and I’m so glad we did. The dog was one of my stupider ideas. We love her but for weeks she bullied our cats, desperate to play whack-a-mole with their heads, and she seemed to take an age to house train. If I had my time over, I wouldn’t have gotten her for at least six months. That said, we’ve also planted a bare root tree orchard of more than 30 trees, a fruit garden with 120 raspberry canes and 50 fruit bushes, learned how to catch escapee chickens (hint: pin their wings to their sides), built a wood store, learnt to chop wood for said store, made our own cider and rosehip cordial from foraged fruit and now think nothing of being covered in mud all day, most days. If that’s our first four months alone, we can’t wait to see what else we’ll learn in our first year.
6. Food suddenly becomes complicated
Farewell forever Uber Eats (unless you live in the heart of a large commuter town). If you’re in a village you suddenly realise that running out of butter means a half hour round trip to get more. So pack the freezer, start keeping a stocked store cupboard, and get your head around the fact that you can’t just lazily order a delivery for supper, you’re going to have to drive to get it.
7. In a village, people will know you as the new arrivals on sight
In London, where we had a tiny postage stamp of a patio garden, we and our neighbours used to give each other privacy by simply pretending we couldn’t see or hear each other. Here people stop their walks to chat over the garden wall. It’s all very friendly but a bit disconcerting when you’re used to the anonymity of London, but once you’re used to it you’ll be thrilled by how friendly just about everybody is. So don’t do the London thing as I did for the first month and stare suspiciously at them just because they’ve wandered up through the garden and around the back of the house to find you when nobody answered the front door but they could hear that you were in, because unlike in town, they’re not casing the joint, they’re just reaching out to the new arrivals.
8. Dogs are marvellous social currency
Dog walks are the most marvellously social and fun things around us. Most people happily stop and chat even if our dog has already managed village-wide infamy for rudeness at the tender age of six months. Such is the prevalence of canines that I recently overheard one local matriarch say to another she’d just met “Oh, but I must walk past your house all the time, how strange that we’ve never bumped into each other. What kind of dog do you have?”. The idea that the other party might be dog-less was simply inconceivable. My son has become a dog enthusiast after years of being mown down and terrorised by the various slavering muscle dogs running loose on Tooting Common which is really lovely to see.
9. Location, location, location
It took us years to find our perfect country location as we were torn between deep countryside and a commuter town. We’re minutes away from a pretty Georgian town filled with lovely cafes and boutiques and about twenty minutes away from Winchester and the fast line into London but even so, we still have to get into the car every time we want to buy a pint of milk, which is a pain, but worth it for the space on our smallholding. We’re glad we really thought about what we wanted in terms of local amenities – there’s no point in buying the perfect country pile an hour’s drive from the nearest town if you’re a social butterfly. It was worth spending weekends in our shortlist locations, some ruled themselves out immediately because they were too empty Monday – Friday. Where we are was worth the wait!
10. The new life starts at once
Make sure you actually go out and do all the things you dreamed you’d do and take advantage of the change. We went from living minutes from multiple stations, to being so isolated that if you wanted to walk to the nearest station you’d have to bring along a tent to use overnight en route. A standard weekend for us now incorporates a decent amount of time pottering about in the garden with our little boy, a few pretty country walks with the ill-mannered hound, the odd pub lunch and some time in front of the fire. It’s bliss. I go back to London every two or three weeks and although it’s a lovely place to visit, I honestly wouldn’t want to live there any more!