An ex of mine once said they could see the words “LDN” flash in my eyes when I talked about my hometown. I’d moved to London aged 16, working as a tour guide on open top buses all summer before university. I worked in record shops on Berwick Street and held down a career in the capital’s museums for eight years. You’d struggle to find someone who loved the capital as much as me. So I find myself a year after leaving, as surprised as anyone, to realise I don’t miss it at all.
I knew it was time to go as I lay in a hospital bed with my eyes swollen shut following a nasty anaphylactic shock. Twenty years of living in the city had taken its toll. I was burnt out, ill all the time and perpetually skint. I decided to take a break for a year, just to see what else was out there. I tell you what else is out there: a nicer bloody life. The only thing I miss are my friends and family. Everything else is replaceable. London is a trap.
I left a couple of months before the pandemic, which has driven Londoners away by the droves, seeing property prices fall in the capital and rise in rural areas around the country. Wondering if these recent defectors feel like me, I spoke to some to find out if they long for the city or if life has improved outside the M25.
Rachel headed to Glasgow last June. Tired of working lengthy hours in music production jobs, she‘d been considering leaving London for a while. “I wanted to live somewhere with cheaper rents, that was smaller geographically but still with a good music scene, so I could explore who I had become and see what this person has to offer the world without being drained by capitalistic obligation every day.”
The pandemic hurried her decision along, with a scummy landlord kicking her out mid-lockdown: “I didn't have anywhere else to go! The idea of starting a new housing contract in London during a pandemic when my industry had shut down completely and the future looked very unstable... It seemed like a total no-brainer to leave.”
She doesn’t have any regrets about the move. “You still have the friendships you made. You get a new adventure. You get your life back. You get to live in a place without living in fear of your landlord turfing you out because the market rent has gone up by £100 in your area.” Does she miss London at all? “I miss that feeling you get when you walk across London Bridge and realise you live in this wild city and you're making it, but that feeling died in me a couple of years ago, if I'm being honest.”
Estela moved to London to study in 2014. Despite being knee deep in research at Goldsmiths mid-anthropology PhD, she decided to escape last autumn. “With COVID, my course has moved online for the foreseeable future and my project isn’t based in London, so I thought what’s the point of pissing money away?”
She says the charms of the city were wearing thin. “Being a student in London was so fun, but I became delusional that that’s what life there is like all the time. In reality, I just felt really lonely. I found myself constantly trying to fill a void, compulsively shopping online to feel excited about packages coming in, and drinking way too much.”
How has her life improved since leaving a few months ago? “I don’t have those bizarre compulsions now because I live in a smaller community back home in Tenerife, where it's so much easier to reach out to people. Even going for a walk, you see familiar faces and have familiar chats.” So no plans to return anytime soon? “Not likely, not unless I won the lottery. I’ll just hold London in my heart as a fun but turbulent time of my life I don’t particularly want to go back to.”
Turbulent times are a common theme, illustrator Jenny agrees. “When I was in London, I’d gotten apocalyptic. I was convinced that the world was ending. It felt like one awful thing after another was happening. But now in Folkestone, I suddenly feel a lot calmer, a lot less anxious. I go to sit and look at the sea every day. Mental health-wise, it really does do wonders for me.”
Unsurprisingly, she’s found people to be much nicer outside the capital. “People still say ‘good morning’ and ‘hello’ as they walk by. Throughout the pandemic, as my boyfriend is clinically vulnerable, we do our best to stay as safe out of people’s way, but in London no one moves to keep distance... Here everyone will walk on the other side of the path and most people wear masks. It feels like a safer place to be.”
Her move was seamless: “We found a new place in two weeks, it’s cheaper, bigger and lighter than our old place, which was basically a fat corridor. I just can’t believe the tiny space we lived in. We worked, ate and relaxed in the same room. I don’t know how we didn’t go insane. Although it explains the headspace I’d got into.” So she doesn’t miss London at all? “I think right now there’s nothing to miss. I don’t miss the lockdown food shops. I’m trying to think of the nice things we had up there and I don’t miss them because we have a better version of it here.”
Architect Tom and his girlfriend Sapphire also made the move for an upgrade in living space, buying in Eastbourne last year. “Our mortgage is £600 a month for a three-bedroom house with a garden, 10 minutes from the beach,” Tom says. They’d been planning to move for a while, but the pandemic made it feasible sooner. “We knew we wanted a house with a garden. We knew we wanted kids. We can’t afford that in London unless we go to the arse end of Dartford. We always knew it was what we wanted but the pandemic enabled us to go, as now we can work from anywhere.”
Is there anything he misses about London? “We miss our friends – that’s the big one. As an architect living in a big city there were a lot of places to cycle to and buildings to see, so I’ll miss that, but we’re not ever going back and we’re okay with that. I think there’s a cult around London. People inside it think it’s the only place to be, that there’s no life outside of the capital, but there’s so many great cities like Bristol and Glasgow or brilliant towns on the coast.”