"Look at this house", my husband said from his laptop, ten weeks into lockdown. We had been vaguely thinking about moving before March, scouting out areas near Kentish Town and Dalston, from where we could easily travel to our Central London workplaces, and visit our London-based families and friends, and eat at the London restaurants which we respectively run and write about.
"It's called The Old Farmhouse and it's perfect. It's got five bedrooms, Grade II listed. Amazing kitchen. And it has a fruit garden. And a vegetable plot. And a barn!"
"Right", I said. "Where is it?"
"The Lake District."
"Amazing. Let's get it."
Haha, good one- except... After two months of lockdown in a flat without outdoor space, breaking up with London and moving to the countryside seemed like less of a joke. And others were already deadly serious. In the first week of May, the number of searches for homes in rural locations on Zoopla was up 68% compared with the first week of March, with parts of Devon, Monmouthshire and Surrey showing the biggest increases. According to estate agent Savills, by May almost four in 10 people considering a house move were now more inclined to pick a countryside location than they were before Covid-19 struck. Houses in Cornwall were being snapped up sight unseen. Could we, should we..?
It's not just forty-somethings with school age kids thinking of moving out either. For millennials, the city suddenly doesn’t glitter half as brightly. Even pre-coronavirus, the average age of someone relocating from a city had been falling, from 47 in 2008 to 37 in 2018, according to Hamptons International. Might coronavirus kickstart a millennial mass migration outta London? As soon as estate agents reopened in mid-May, a 30 year old friend and her 38 year old fiance, who live in a two bed in W1, raced off to view houses in Suffolk, the Cotswolds, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, shown by an estate agent overrun with millennial urbanites desperate to buy outta-London properties. Phoebe, my extremely zeitgeisty editor at BURO, tells me that "my boyfriend and I talk about moving out of London ALL. THE. TIME. I have Right Move alerts on." Quick, I think. She might nab our Old Farmhouse. Should we just…?
Because what was the point of London under lockdown? Without the restaurants and bars, shops and gyms, theatre and clubs and festivals - and with the discovery that many of us can do our jobs from home - why, we all wondered, do we live here? For weeks, the only thing permitted was to sit in the gardens that more than 1 in 5 Londoners don't have. In this new world, why pay through the nose for subsiding two-beds flats or leaking, ancient house shares with five unknown people and a Rachmanite landlord, or bizarre studio rentals even Joel Golby would struggle to adequately eviscerate? Why not have a garden and space and light and fresh air and, hell, a barn to boot? The Old Farmhouse costs the same as most two bedroom flats in N1. Could we possibly...?
Reader, we did not buy The Old Farmhouse, sight unseen or otherwise. We were never going to. Much as isolation has made us crave a simpler life, I just don’t believe we are willing to give up the spontaneity that city life affords. All the time saved commuting wouldn’t be spent pottering among the plants but planning. Without a Sainsbury’s Local on the doorstep or a dozen different Deliveroos at the tap of an app, living life on a whim is curtailed. You can’t drop a friend a text at 4pm asking if they fancy a quick drink at 5pm - the bastards have to come and stay for the entire weekend, where they smile bravely at your planned jollities, drink all your alcohol and bitch about your central heating behind your back.
Instead I continued to play Fantasy Farming on Rightmove, and Instagram. It's all too easy to drink the Good Life koolaid on the feeds of artist and designer Luke Edward Hall and farmer and gardener Julius Roberts (former urbanites who fled the city long ago, and post beautifully about it). On their grid, the countryside is one long lamb-cuddling, sweet pea-picking romp across sunset-soaked fields, with heritage beetroot gnocchi harvested by your own fair hands for supper.
We are not entirely fools. We know that farming and even gardening is harder work than that filtered shot would have it. My husband's lockdown project has been to commandeer and cultivate the tiny patch of council-owned scrubland on the kerbside outside our flat, armed with a Royal Horticultural Society online course and a wild array of books from Amazon, with names like "Smallholding Manual: The Complete Step-By-Step Guide", "The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency" and 'The Farming Ladder', a 1944 vintage farming classic. After six hours of hoeing and weeding and sweating and swearing, grass seed was laid, and a few days later an adorable stubble of green began a-sprouting. We cooed over it like new parents.
And then the rumours of an imminent lockdown lift on 4th July began to gain traction. By the time our baby patch of grass was three centimetres high, Boris Johnson confirmed the easing of social distancing from two metres to one metre, and the reopening of the hospitality industry. My favourite restaurants began to announce they were taking bookings faster than those promising green shoots could grow. I stopped looking at bucolic snaps of rolling hills and crumbling cottages, and started WhatsApping friends to organise dinner and cocktails and gallery visits.
I'm not done with London, and I doubt many of us truly are. Perhaps lockdown will have given some of us a taste for a sourdough-baking, pot-planting Good Life in the future; perhaps staring at that four bed barn conversion with its own wood was just a way to pass the endless evenings in. Right now? I want to make up for lost time in my beloved London, to run around eating and drinking and seeing and feeling and living everything this brilliant city has to offer once more.