Is lockdown making you wish you had moved to the sticks? Meet the families who did

Linda J. Dodson

The farmer and wildlife presenter Kate Humble has spent the past 10 months tracking the progress of six couples who have given up the rat race to move to the sticks.

Given the current circumstances, their timing couldn’t be more appropriate. In a six-part series, titled Twice the Life for Half the Price, on Channel 5, Humble observes families pack up their suburban lives and de-camp to the deepest countryside.

While loosening themselves from financial constraints are a unifying factor, their other motivations are all different. One family have nine home-schooled children and needed more space; for years they shared one bathroom between 11. Another is a policewoman and her ex-solider husband who are looking for a better quality of life.

That Humble was chosen to present the programme was no accident. 12 years ago, without any family or personal connections, she and her TV producer husband, Ludo Graham, upped sticks from Chiswick, west London, and moved to the Wye Valley in Wales. There she has established a working farm and hosts courses in rural skills.

“I’d grown up in the countryside but moved to London in my early 20s,” explains Humble. “In the beginning, it was exciting but after we started getting established with our careers, I began to hanker for something else. Every time there was a season change, I felt like I was missing out.”

Kate Humble

Searching for what she describes as a more “visceral connection” to nature — and admitting to suffering from panic attacks whenever she was forced to shop in Westfield — the penny dropped. “Something was telling me that I was living in the wrong environment.”

Graham was then offered a one-year contract at BBC Cardiff. For Humble, this was fortuitous. “I’d been looking at the A to Z of Great Britain and was constantly drawn to the fact that while all of south-east England is a mess of multicoloured roads, Wales was largely brown.” Graham suggested renting out the London house to give the option of coming back. “I nodded,” says Humble. “And immediately put the house on the market.”

Filming for this programme began in May last year. For some of the families, the geographical distances involved were modest — from Essex to neighbouring Suffolk, for example. For others, however, they meant travelling the length of the British Isles.

Gen and Alain Cook, and their two daughters Freya and Olivia, sold their two-bedroom, mid-terrace house in Exeter — where Gen was born, and Alain studied at university — and journeyed (in a horsebox doubling as a removal van) 700 miles to Yell, in the north isles of Shetland.

Measuring 83 sq miles, and covered in moorland and heather, Yell is one of the 15 inhabited islands in Shetland and boasts some of the finest beaches. “It wasn’t an overnight whim,” says Gen. “It was an idea that was formed over many years and a decision made together as a family.”

A major motivation was to become mortgage free before either of them reached the age of 50. Selling their Exeter home for £220,000, they bought a four-bedroom house with half an acre of “park” (as Shetlanders call fields), and sea views for £125,000.

The Cook family on the beach in the Shetlands with Kate Humble

Credit: Stephanie Faber

Another motivation was ridding themselves of rush-hour dashes across Exeter to get the girls to school every morning: both now make the ten-minute walk or short cycle ride down the road.

Not everything has gone swimmingly: the weather has slowed down their plans to convert the horsebox into a holiday let — ”horizontal razor hail” is how Gen describes conditions on some days — but their mindset has already changed significantly for this not to matter. “When I was leaving Exeter, I aimed to have it up and running by Easter,” says Alain. “But the weather and circumstances have prevented that from happening. And I don’t mind, it just doesn’t matter.”

Charlie and Sammy Khalil also gave up life in the south for a new adventure in Scotland, which was the top destination for Londoners migrating out of the capital in both 2017 and 2018, according to the Office for National Statistics.

With Sammy having undergone a second round of open-heart surgery, and both fed up with the treadmill of life and desperate for green space — as well as more generous living accommodation for their rabbits — they moved 600 miles from Bracknell in Berkshire to Aberdeenshire.

Charlie and Sammy Khalil with Kate Humble

Credit: Stephanie Faber

“The idea had been brewing for years,” says Sammy, a former professional wrestler who now assesses and teaches trainers online. “I’ve always been interested in bushcraft, foraging and canoeing. After the operation in late 2018, we decided it was time.”

Six months after settling into their new home, and with plans forming to establish a smallholding and grow their own vegetables in a polytunnel, the Khalils are delighted with their premature decision to self-isolate.

“We’d be going stir crazy in our old house,” says Charlie. “Here, there’s so much space. Sammy enjoys hill climbing, kayaking on the River Spey and foraging for wild garlic. Even [with the] lockdown at home, there’s plenty of work to be getting on with.”

Observing these families make the moves has been rewarding for Humble. “What I hope is that people who watch the programmes will realise that these are just ordinary folk, who, for different reasons, want a better quality of life — one which often comes with fewer financial constraints and reaps more time together.”

Kate Humble with some sheep

Credit: Clare Richardson

She acknowledges that her timing has a tinge of Nostradamus about it; her new book, A Year of Living Simply, will be published in October. “Today, everyone is in a really difficult position but what I hope will emerge is a new national sense of priority of what’s really important: family, communities supporting each other and the countryside. All things that money can’t buy.”

When we might all be feeling a bit down in the dumps, the decisions that these families have made should make viewers smile, believes Humble. “It’s not wildly original. They are just lovely human stories with no angles to them. You come away with a feeling of hooray, they’ve done it. Maybe I could too.”

Making the move: Kate’s top tips

  • If anyone is lying awake at night dreaming of a different sort of life, stop dreaming and do something about it. If we are to learn any lessons from now, it’s that we can’t predict the future.
  • Don’t overthink it. If you’ve got that itch, scratch it. And remember there’s no such thing as failure — it’s all a learning curve.
  • When choosing where to go, look at the positives and leave behind the negatives. What’s important to you? Let that frame the destination. What aspects are going to enhance your life? Bear in mind that going mortgage-free will often involve moving a great distance. Is it more space? Children walking to school? A community? A really good local pub? Land to grow things on? A sea view?
  • Moving somewhere remote often means you need to become more practical. This has an upside. One of the themes of my book is that we’ve muddled up convenience with simplicity. Hands do great things: they can sew, fix, build, make. There’s no sense of achievement when something breaks and you just order a new one on Amazon.

A Country Life for Half the Price is on Channel 5 on Tuesdays at 9pm

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