We've all thought it when we come home from a night out, trampling over the city's detritus of chicken bones, chips, and filth, waiting for an Uber that's on a triple fare surge: Wouldn't life be better, easier, calmer if we just sacked it all off for a quieter life in the middle of nowhere?
But what is life like for the people who actually do it? Is it stifling solitude, or peaceful tranquility? We asked writers who've left city life in their 20s and 30s how it panned out for them.
Amy Liptrott, 34: "Rather than city nightlife, it's this land of big cliffs, harsh winds, and strong seas that is mine."
My move back to Orkney, the group of islands at the north of Scotland where I grew up, was much more practical than idealistic. My life in London had taken the boring trajectory of alcoholism. After years of attempts to control or stop my drinking, I quit my job to attend a rehab treatment program and when this finished after three months, I was unemployed and fragile. I returned to Orkney for what I thought would be a few weeks while I applied for jobs, leaving my belongings in a friend's loft. They stayed there for three years.
I spent a while helping my dad out on the farm—repairing stone walls and assisting at lambing time. Then I unexpectedly got a job working for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), tracking a rare bird—the corncrake—through the night. I started swimming in the sea. The longer I was there, the more I knew and appreciated the phases of the moon and tides, the birds, the changing weather, and local folklore. Most importantly, bored and hungry, I began to write about these things.
I took myself off to one of the smallest Orkney islands, Papay, population 70, for a winter to write. Because I am a farmer's daughter from the islands, I knew what I was letting myself in for. The short hours of daylight and windswept landscape could seem bleak and unpromising, but I knew that you needed imagination to live there. Years ago a friend told me, "You'll write a good book about Orkney," and I thought that was extremely unlikely, but Doris Lessing said that "every writer has a myth country," and I've learned, although I resisted, that rather than city nightlife, it's this land of big cliffs, harsh winds, and strong seas that is mine.
Kids stream out of universities and unfashionable counties to cities, in search of experience and stimulation. But it's possible to only mix with people more and more like yourself in the city and remain unchallenged. It's often the small towns and rural areas, the families and friends you thought you left behind, where the fertile weirdness lies. Some people who spend most of their work and leisure time alone with a computer are realizing they might as well do this in the countryside—where the rent is cheaper and the air cleaner.
The book is written and is, of course, about Orkney, but I needed a willingness to get down and dirty, get sober, and to look at myself and the best place to do this was the isles. Ironically, though, due to the complexities of life, work and love, I am currently living back in east London. The push and pull, like the tide, is ongoing.
Amy's book The Outrun is out now published by Canongate.
Katie Harkin, 29: "I feel better equipped to grapple the isolation of the country than I ever did the loneliness of the city."
As a touring musician, my relationship to my home runs hot and cold. I'm either totally absent or a permanent fixture. After graduating from university, I lived in four UK cities in five years, but it wasn't until my most recent move to the Peak District that I felt at home.
The "Peak District" is not, as a guy I once met at an NYC party assumed, Manhattan real estate jargon, but the UK's oldest National Park. I didn't consciously set out to find a rural home, but when my old band wrote our last record in a Sheffield warehouse, I found myself driving uphill to find a quiet place to work on lyrics and fell for the blank beauty of the horizons.
Nearly two years in, I feel like my new home has forced me to live a more purposeful life. The only place to buy food nearby is the church, and a cup of coffee made by someone else is a seven-mile round-trip hike. Instead of punctuating my day with the conveniences of the city, I've had no choice but to stock up in advance. This, coupled with cheaper rent, has meant that Peaks life is not just more affordable, but has created a routine within which I've found myself being more spontaneously creative rather than living by the city's schedules.
There are practical challenges, like the morning when, having risen earlier than the farmer who ploughs the village roads, I had to drag my suitcase uphill through a snowstorm to catch an airport train. The most important experiences since I've moved have, however, come from wrestling interior landscapes. I've come to feel better equipped to grapple the isolation of the country than I ever did the loneliness of the city.
Isolation has been its own challenge, though. When I first arrived, I basked in what was a one-dimensional and perhaps naïve admiration of how beautiful my surroundings were. After the sudden loss of a friend who had a keen appreciation for nature, I began to respect my environment in a more holistic fashion. I now see how impermanent the landscape can be, not simply the eternal, infinite, and immovable prospect I thought at first. Realizing that has felt like a parting gift from him.
Often, my anxiety in the city was rooted in the fact that I felt more like an observer than an instigator. Not having an immediate creative community here has meant I've had to be more active in my own creative consumption.
Not far from where I live now is Mam Tor, which is sometimes known locally as the "Shivering Mountain," due to frequent landslips. I came here craving peace and stillness, but I've come to see that pursuing that is futile. Nature is propulsive. Even the mountains are shivering.
Milly McMahon, 30: "My nights out are spent in local pubs where people chat about life rather than work."
I left London two years ago after I reached a crossroads in my life that felt pretty critical. Living in Hackney for just short of ten years and working at a fashion magazine for nearly eight of those, my friends and familiarities were rooted in the capital. Everything, apart from my happiness, was dedicated to continuing on the same path that l had imaged my life would travel. Each month was full of dramatic highs and lows—traveling to exotic places, interviewing amazing people, struggling to hit deadlines, and finding innovate new ways to make rent.
But the office nine to five felt stale and repetitive. Whenever l asked those around me, "How are you?" the answer came back predictably: "Busy." Chat outside of working hours focussed on how stressed we all were. Every Friday, the control we carefully exercised over our professional lives spiraled dangerously out of control. l fell into the hedonistic cycle of rave then recover that is so normal in the city. I felt overwhelmed, sad, and hopeless. I enjoyed my work, but l didn't want to die for it. So l abandoned that life, that home, that job, and that future to return to my roots, in the Worcestershire countryside.
I'm about to enter into my third year studying for a nursing degree at the local university. My first placement here was working in a small community hospital in Leominster, on the Welsh border. My shifts were 15 hours long, and my duties consisted mainly of nursing patients suffering with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, dementia, or terminal illnesses. I remember washing a man hours from his final breath one morning. As I listened to him struggle to inflate and deflate his lungs, I did not feel busy or stressed, but deeply connected to my patient and his need for dignity in these final hours. l suddenly felt a whole new level of affinity with the job that l'd chosen to sacrifice so much in favor of.
When I lived in London, every weekend was spent pushing my body to the max. Now my nights out are spent in local pubs, where people chat about life rather than work.
I still keep in touch with my London friends. l'm aware my work grosses a lot of them out and sounds boring. Conversations briefly touch on what l'm up to and how l spend my time, and l still visit Hackney to remember the energy and freedom the vibrance of the city inspires. London is a journey, and mine ended at the right point, when I realized that each 24-hour period deserves its own opportunity to achieve something new and not be spent recovering from something old and ugly.
Tom Usher, 28: "I don't wake up randomly from roommates doing coke at 3 AM any more."
I have ties to the countryside because my parents divorced when I was ten, and my mom responded, seemingly in a fit of panic, by buying a run-down semi-detached cottage in the hamlet of Sternfield, Suffolk. One day, she picked me and my brother up from school in London and dropped us both in the ass-end of nowhere, at what we thought at the time was a vacation home. When I saw the cobwebs, no furniture, and taps that only ran a muddy brown, I thought, I can't wait to get back to London. Then I saw two large moving vans pull up outside.
That was the first of three times that I have, forcibly or by my own volition, moved to the countryside. When I was 22, I had to move out of the admittedly less imperious metropolis of Norwich and back this time to Cookley, still in Suffolk, because the person I was living with in Norwich didn't like me and kicked me out in favor of his friend. I'd moved to Norwich via Nottingham and Leeds—where I'd been a student, drinking and taking drugs pretty much every day, so the move back to country felt like jumping into a silent film. The nearest town was an hour's walk through winding country lanes, the nearest city another hour from there by train. I'd failed my driving test twice and was too poor to take any more lessons, so I was completely reliant on my mom for lifts, which felt OK at 16 but was bitterly embarrassing at 22. It felt like I was constantly cooped up, and my weekends away in whatever city I could get to became explosive. The swings between unbearable weekday silence and weekend binges were incredibly unhealthy for me.
Then I moved back to London and got stuck into a string of apathetic nine to fives, squandered pay checks, and participated in the yearly routine of debasing yourself in the name of rented property. I loved it, but it got too much. The only constants in London seemed to be terrible apartments, terrible Mondays, and terrible financial health, so I packed my bags and left.
This time I'm finding it a lot more peaceful. Maybe I'm just older, but instead of feeling cooped up, I feel calmed down. I'm sleeping better, I'm not thinking about the weekend, and I don't wake up randomly from sirens or roommates doing coke at 3 AM. It's nice to marvel at how things are cheaper, rather than more expensive than what you expected. It's not perfect—the entire populace is over 60 and way too friendly, and my only Tinder matches list horse-riding as a hobby. But what I've found is that it's best to not try and replicate your city life in any way. There's no pizza, no craft ales, and no problems with housing, and actually that blank openness is nice. It doesn't mean I don't miss the city still, but at this time in my life, the change has seemed to aid rather than hinder my well-being.
Annette Barlow, 33: "I'd pay $1,000 to get a curry delivered to my house right now."
It's negative 5 degrees outside, and leaving the house is a risky business. I've just walked 100 feet down our snow-packed driveway to take the trash out, and despite my sub-zero temperature proof coat, every bit of my exposed skin feels—ironically—like it's on fire. Some glass bottles of water we accidentally left in the car overnight have frozen solid and exploded. The other day, when my hulking pickup truck refused to drive any farther up a steep icy road on a cliff edge, we had to coast back down it in reverse. A death-defying 50-minute round-trip, all for a bag of coffee.
It's my husband's birthday tomorrow, and we've just realized that he won't get any cards. Not because he's universally disliked or anything, but our house, according to the US mail system, just doesn't exist. We've had to open a PO box at the local post office, which is completely normal for rural populations. It's actually OK—picking up your post is a great way to meet your closest neighbors, none of whom live close enough for you to meet in passing.
Our neighbors were too close in London: a rowdy family who hosted BBQs every weekend, complete with screaming children and middle-age-denial garage music blasting from tinny speakers; and a lonesome older lady who we tried to have sympathy for, until she started claiming we were responsible for her gas bills and rifling through our bins at midnight. We were submerged in other people's noise 24 hours a day. The Piccadilly line rumbled beneath our house, which meant we couldn't ever hear ourselves: our bodies, our thoughts, our grievances, our joys. Everything we did was filtered through the lens of London's other 9 million residents, and our lives stopped being our own. We were taut rubber bands, hamsters on a wheel, and every other city-living cliché. The latent hippies in us wanted to gambol in nature, be outdoorsy, and choose our own adventure. New York State's Hudson Valley offered us everything we needed: vertiginous mountains, cheap land, and proximity to NYC should Bikini Kill ever reform, and I'd need to see them.
It's not all near-death experiences, loneliness, and frostbite, though. The sky is different. It's not the dishwater sky you find in cities; it's licorice black at night and sprinkled with stars. The mountain views and waterways are so wild and mighty, you kind of lose your breath. Sure, you're 30 minutes from the nearest doctor, and it's easier to airlift you to hospital than it is to drive, but it's also silent, majestic, and life-affirming. When the ground thaws, we'll fell our own trees and chop our own wood. We buy our food directly from farms, and the internet disappears so often that I've taught myself to knit just to stay entertained. While it's one of the hardest things I've ever done, it's also the best. Even though I'd pay $1,000 to get a curry delivered to my house right now.