We did it. Having talked about it for years, we left the city. The place where we had our first home together. Where both our babies were born and took their first steps, said their first words, started school. We’ve arrived in considerably greener pastures new – and it’s lovely and we’re happy but it’s also not without it’s challenges. Here’s what I’ve learned about leaving London and starting to settle into a new place. (It’s pretty weird to be the new girl in your forties!)
Don’t get me wrong: I really like where we’ve ended up. Most importantly, I see how happy my family is, and I know it was the right decision. If you asked me, ‘do you want to go back?’ the answer would be no. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s plain sailing.
The other day, I posted on Instagram Stories that I felt a little out of sorts. I’m still finding my feet and I miss the ease of my old set-up. I wasn’t (I promise) moaning. This is not a poor little me lament. I feel very lucky to live somewhere so beautiful, it’s a lovely place and I think we’ll all be happy here. But I want to be honest because life isn’t always Insta-rosy. And also because I’m sure I’m not alone (I’m not) and that other people would have lots of brilliant advice (they did). It is – as they say – good to talk.
I had always wanted to live in London, ever since I was a little girl and my grandmother would bring me up for tea and to see a show. It all felt terribly grown up – and I was (still am) thrilled by the thrum of the city. I’d watch the lights twinkling as we headed home, and vow that one day, I’d live there. (In this dream, I was living in one of those houses on the Chelsea Embankment. Of course I was.) When I finished university and got my first job in magazines, I moved to loved to the Big Smoke. And even though it was huge and overwhelming and unfamiliar, I loved it. I had, I told myself, arrived. I grew up and – to my surprise – discovered that London was even better with babies. It was easy to build a community of like-minded people; there was so much to do – on any one day there were umpteen classes; hopping around town was crowded but relatively straightforward. And as the children got older, there was a museum or park for every weekend. Plus, when I went back to work after my maternity leaves, I could get home in time for their bedtime. Latterly, it was incredibly convenient for freelance life: meetings cost no more than a tube fare; I could drop the children at school and go to events; when my son was in nursery I could pop into town and back in a morning
But things change. We craved more space – inside and out. We spent more and more of our weekends escaping the city for the coast or the green of the countryside. Things started to niggle: the noise, the sweltering, sticky heat of the city in the summer, the constant crowds, the lack of fresh air (true story: my asthma has all but vanished since we left London), our postage-stamp-sized garden. London is wonderful, but it’s certainly not perfect, and it can be stressful. If you have a stressful job (as my husband does) and you’re not city type (which he isn’t), it exacerbates the stress. When you leave the city, your shoulders drop, the pace relaxes, you breathe more deeply. Metaphorically and literally. It was clear that the answer lay in a proper, out-of-town move: it was only by leaving London that we could find everything we were looking for.
There were also the children. Not just in a practical sense (i.e. the increasingly pressing issue of schools. My daughter desperately needed a change; we wanted to guarantee they’d be able to access great secondary education). And we have an eight-year-old. All the wisdom I’d received told me to get out sooner rather than later: the longer we left it, the harder it would be for her as she got more entrenched in her friendships and in being a London child. If not now, then when?
So, we found a compromise. We looked at villages. Small towns. Like Goldilocks, nothing was just right. The problem was: I am a city girl. I like cafes and buzz and the convenience of walking everywhere. My husband is a country boy who loves green spaces and hills and fresh air. We’d both like to live next to the sea – but that’s not realistic right now: we need to be within reasonable striking distance of London. Then we found the ideal compromise: a small, ridiculously pretty city tucked into the rolling hills of the countryside. We can walk out of our (albeit temporary) front door and be surrounded by green in 15 minutes. There are cafes, restaurants, shops, a theatre etc on our doorstep. There’s an embarrassment of good schools. It’s closer to both sets of grandparents. It’s friendly. In short: it’s great, but I need some advice. Some settling in rules to live by.
Accept that it might be toughest on you. (I’m guessing that you’re probably like me: the mum/wife/ part-time worker.) I was warned by those who have trodden this path before that it’s hardest on the mum – or the primary caregiver, if you prefer. We’re more likely to work part-time or from home (tick). We’re invested in our communities and have built up a close local network thanks to the school run (tick). As a friend told me, her husband swapped the tube for a slightly longer commute by train when they moved to the country, but, essentially, his life remained the same. He still went into the office every day. Had lunch with clients/colleagues he knew. His weekends were the same (if rather greener and with slightly different children’s clubs). The children started new schools but essentially the pattern of their days remained unchanged. But for the person at home at childcare ground zero, it’s more of a process.
“Change without loss is impossible” messaged Helen McMillan (@helenmcmillancoach). “It’s part of the process and totally okay to miss your old life. The way you deal with it is part of the process of you growing into your new life and all the juicy new possibilities.”
Because where you live is part of your identity. I had never considered this, but goodness, it was like a bell ringing when it was pointed out. You feel like part of you is somehow missing. It’s not just friends, neighbours and familiarity – but the feel or the buzz of a place. I used to get a frisson of pride saying I was a Londoner. When I walked around the city – purposefully, knowing all the shortcuts – or dropped into the V&A just because I could, or just soaked up the glory of those bright Spring days when London looked glorious – I’d feel a swell of pride for my adopted city.
It’s okay to miss your old life. People years into the The Move admitted they still struggled at times. Someone who moved more recently admitted to “a sort of grief” for her old home and life in London. She feels bad about this because she’s always believed home is where your family is (as do I) but still has pangs of the heart and days when she longs for her old life. And that’s totally natural.
This is partly because if you know a place, you feel in control. Charlotte from Polar Post moved out of London earlier this year and her messages have helped keep me sane. We’ve recently discussed the idiosyncrasies of our respective council recycling schemes. (Week one I chucked everything in, as I would have done in London, only to spend 10 minutes climbing into the large green bin because my new council doesn’t recycle plastic containers (sorry, what?) or glass (I have no words).
Give yourself time. As someone (thanks Emma) wisely told me, you can’t replace what took you 15 years to build up in 15 minutes (or a few weeks or months). An expat expert (now that’s a move) said conventional wisdom is that it takes 1-2 years to feel fully “at home” when moving abroad – possibly less if you can continue more of your old life whilst transitioning to the new one. But others admitted to feeling unsettled at times years on. Four years, said my old Glamour colleague, Emer. That’s what she was told and it was right. “Stick it out, it’s worth it.”
Say yes to everything even if sounds dire. (With the exception of swinging parties). This was Alex’s first piece of advice, and one I have adhered to. One day I had coffee with three different people – and it was lovely. Have not yet been invited to a swingers’ party.
Join clubs and groups. Yoga, running, book groups, Pilates – if it happens regularly, join it. (Alex points out that activity is less pressure than coffee. Clever.) I’ve booked into a local book group and have just this minute booked myself onto a Barre class. (Gulp.) You can always un-join later if it’s not for you.
Use the kids. Make them join clubs, too. Anything where you stand on the sidelines and chat to other parents is a good thing.
Stay in touch. I’ve been back to London roughly once a week for work/events/to catch up with people. It requires more planning and less impromptu coffees, but it means I appreciate and look forward to things more. It also adds shape to my weeks until I’m settled in a new routine.
But not too much! This was another Alex warning and it’s a good one. What you want to do is build a new life, not cling to your old one. When Alex and her family moved to the country, they spent every weekend going back to London – or having London friends to stay. “We were putting too much effort into keeping our old life going when we needed to channel that into our new life. Your old friends won’t go away.”
If you’re not home, it probably won’t feel like home. We’re doing what so many people have done before us: renting until we find The One. Whilst I know this is a sensible decision, it’s really hard if you’re a homebug. It’s far, far easier to feel at home in a place when you know you’re in your home. I appreciate owning your own home is a luxury – and that the British preoccupation with home-owning is baffling to some. (My first boss was a New Yorker and she marvelled at how the English all want to own their own slice of real estate. Even if that’s just a teensy sliver in London.) But if it’s what you’re accustomed to, well, there’s no place like it.