The quieter streets of Lewes are proving a big draw for Londoners eager to escape the rat race © Charlie Bibby/FT

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Ed Davey, 39, was born in London, does not drive a car and has never lived outside the city. He is also one of a growing number of residents who have decided to sell up and leave.

For Mr Davey, a director at the World Resources Institute working on food and land use, and his wife, an infant nutritionist, the urge to move came during lockdown. Confined to a two-bedroom Willesden flat with a rampaging toddler, a new baby and jobs to perform, they “were going crazy”.

“I had a stool out to sit on and a laptop on the bed. There was a cacophony of noise in the day, and sleepless nights,” he said, while viewing a terraced house with potential for a garden office in Lewes, East Sussex, 60 miles south of the capital and seven from the sea. “All this has made us think we want the great outdoors, we want nature,” he added.

London has always been a magnet for people seeking careers and urban kicks. Its property market has long since decoupled from the rest of the country, with rocketing rents and sky high property prices. But coronavirus has caused a rethink, and a reverse migration is under way as many Londoners cooped up during the pandemic seek space outside the city, and in some cases, a move closer to family.

A change in lifestyle enabled by remote working — and, for those lucky enough to own, the margin between the value of London property and homes elsewhere — is now driving some residents far beyond the suburbs to the home counties, the west country, the Yorkshire Dales and further afield.

Londoner Ed Davey views a property in Lewes, East Sussex © Charlie Bibby/FT

Together with a holiday on stamp duty — a tax levied on property purchases — of up to £500,000 on any home, it is fuelling a mini-boom in towns such as Lewes, where there are surrounding hills, good schools, and reasonable transport connections to London.

Charles Wycherley, whose family estate agency has operated in the town since the 1850s, has put a record 50 properties up for sale since July and already sold 10, many to people like Mr Davey, who are referred to in local parlance as “DFLs” — down from London.

“I have never seen anything like it,” Mr Wycherley said of the demand in August, when house prices unexpectedly rose at their fastest pace in 16 years, according to the Nationwide Building Society.

The mini-exodus is not only driven by those leveraging the money that London homes command.

Charles Wycherley, an independent estate agent in Lewes © Charlie Bibby/FT

Caroline Methuen, an NHS psychiatrist, moved this month from a canal boat in central London to a small cottage on the Norfolk coast. She had thought to herself, as theatres shut, live music faded, and restaurants emptied: “I am living in a very expensive place for no reason at all.”

But she was also fleeing the trauma of her work. A specialist in the elderly with dementia, most of her 200 patients have died of Covid-19 at home or care homes untreated during the pandemic.

“It was awful. They were like family,” she said. Her new job in an accident and emergency department is more “conveyor belt.” “Suddenly I haven’t thought about Covid for a couple of days.”

Swelling the numbers of leavers are also people recently made redundant, and graduates who cannot find jobs, for whom the city is simply too expensive to stay in.

“The cost associated with being unemployed in London and the toll it takes on you as an individual is astronomical,” said James Macdonald, who runs Escapethecity.com. His website helps people “escape the rat race” by providing them with an interface with employers outside the city. Inquiries from people seeking work that can be done remotely are up fivefold on 2019, he said.

Even some people in the financial services sector, the heart of the London economy, are thinking beyond the Square Mile. Flexible working has opened up a host of options, from provincial towns within striking distance of the city by train — as Mr Davey has chosen — or a cleaner break much further away.

A couple look at the garden of a property in Lewes © Charlie Bibby/FT

“The need to be in the office from nine to five is something of the past,” said one 36-year-old, who works for a hedge fund and asked to remain anonymous. She upped sticks last week with her husband and child to a rented farmhouse in Lancashire, with a view to buying longer term.

“A slight change of role has allowed me to go fully remote,” she said. “So, we have moved from one extreme to another. We were living on a main road in Wimbledon. Now we are in a big farmhouse with amazing views.”

While she might come to miss the social side of the city, she said, there would be no nostalgia for daily tube journeys. The upsides of relocating ranged from being close to her parents, to walks from her doorstep and the much lower cost of childcare.

“London will always have its attractions. “But when you have a young family you just want different things,” she said.

Toby Millbank, from the Search Partnership, a buying agent in Yorkshire, said such sentiments, combined with coronavirus, had driven unprecedented interest in rural properties in his region.

He said wealthy Londoners with a connection to Yorkshire had always talked of how much more their “Chelsea flat” could buy them back home. “They always think, well one day that would be wonderful. Now Covid has given them the push,” he said.

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How long the flight from London lasts is another matter. Last week the Centre for Economics and Business Research forecast that house prices would fall 14 per cent next year, as the holiday on stamp duty ended. Estate agents contacted by the Financial Times also foresee appetites waning although some found demand for rural properties so unprecedented that they could not predict when the mini-boom would end.

Mr Millbank mentioned an unrenovated Yorkshire barn on the market for £750,000, that attracted 65 viewings. Richard Speedy, at Strutt & Parker in Exeter, said a dilapidated former convent in Devon attracted 150 potential buyers in two weeks, had 31 offers and sold at a 30 per cent mark-up. 

“To give you some idea — we were shut down essentially for four months. But we will sell 10-20 per cent more this year than last. The demand has staggered us all,” he said.

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