It’s happening. Turning the corner on my daily perambulation around the local neighbourhood, I chance upon a friend I have known since university and who has lived only a few streets away for the best part of 20 years. A choreographer who works on all sorts of West End projects, she is someone I have always considered to be London to the core. I am surprised, then, to see a sales sign keening beside her door.
It’s true, she tells me. After two decades of near defining the dance culture of the city, she and her family have decided to make the move. It’s in the middle of nowhere, she says of her imminent new homestead, a spacious country dwelling on the edge of the South Downs.
Moreover they’re leaving, like, tomorrow. Just like that, they’ve upped and disappeared. It’s just another in a series of conversations I’ve been having. Conversations that start with debates about the merits of decamping to the country, and end with people telling me they’re off to Hastings, or Brighton, or, even worse, to Bath.
This post-pandemic flight from urban areas is being replicated in cities throughout the world. In a Harris poll conducted among US citizens, 39 per cent of urban dwellers said they were considering moving to a less densely populated area of the country, while 43 per cent said they were web-browsing in the burbs. In June, The Wall Street Journal reported that home purchases in non-urban areas had increased by a third more than in urban areas in a four-week period compared with the same period the year before. Home purchases were falling in Los Angeles’ densest neighbourhoods, as they were in Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington DC.
In the UK, in April, a survey by the estate agent Hamptons found the proportion of Londoners looking for houses outside the capital had almost doubled. Savills has found that around four in 10 prospective buyers now find a village location more appealing and “54 per cent of those with school-age children now find the idea of a countryside location more attractive than pre Covid-19”. It’s an exodus that’s playing out the world over. The unexpected bonus of a new landscape in which so many more of us will work from home.
I too have found myself indulging in the fantasy. At the very end of lockdown (OK, well, maybe a few days before I was officially supposed to venture further than the two-mile boundary in which we were advised to stay), I found myself compelled to drive to the Peak District, to look at a four-bedroom house for sale.
It was The Modern House that made me do it. An “alternative” estate agent featuring houses of rare architectural interest or design, it has taken on a magnetic allure throughout this crisis with its intoxicating inventory of renovated oast houses, Georgian rectories and Brutalist boltholes. Spending too long on the site makes me delirious with possibility, and so it was that I found myself, one weekend, chugging up the motorway dreaming of my urban flight to come. (It would have taken a lot less time, incidentally, had we not been driving our metropolitan electric motor, which journeys for about 20 minutes before it needs a charge.)
The daydream lasted approximately 20 minutes before crashing back to earth. Far from overlooking hills and scenic vistas, the house was situated in the middle of the village with views of local children cycling in slow despondent circles and older people quietly watching life go by. I imagined standing here in bleak midwinter. Looking at this rustic scene of nothing really, I understood that long-term occupation in the country was not for me.
I still adore the country. I spend almost every weekend tramping on a footpath on a hill. But I’m not so confused that I want to go and live there. Especially not now.
For much of the past six months, urban living has been rubbish. So many of the things we love and treasure about the city have been cancelled or postponed. But in recent weeks we’ve been starting to get our fun back. The restaurants and galleries are all reopening. Cinemas are whacking up new movies and the theatres are working out their shows. Don’t tell me that you’re prepared to swap an eternity of looking at a rain-soaked wheat field just because, for a few weeks, you couldn’t go and buy a pint?
Besides, some features of this country life are overrated. After months of listening to birdsong, and clicking on my nature app to identify wild flowers, I have become more accustomed to paying attention to the world around me. And it’s been brilliantly instructive. But I was dazzled earlier this week to hear the sound of children tearing round a playground; a noise so glorious and lately unfamiliar it made me want to cry.
After months of silence and quiet introversion, such a clap of chaos was like tuning in to the forgotten sounds of normal life. A great performance by the orchestra of urban. And while it’s only starting up quite cautiously (in England, our social lives will be restricted once again from Monday) you can feel the city’s confidence returning. Our urban centres are slowly waking up again.
And you want to head off to the middle of nowhere? That just sounds like zero fun. Things are only just beginning to get started. This is not the time to run.
Email Jo at firstname.lastname@example.org
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