Fashion

Can you leave the rat race and still keep your career?

I left the city at the exact point when my career demanded I be there. Was it madness? Maybe. Though desperation feels like a better word. I was 34 and had lived in London for over fifteen years at that point. I woke to the sound of traffic and slept to the screeches of police sirens. I had been mugged, pick pocketed and verbally abused on the streets on London more times than I care to remember and I hadn’t seen a proper green space in years. The week before I left, my downstairs neighbour was hit over the head with a glass bottle. On his doorstep. Our doorstep. I was done.

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But where to go? The suburbs felt too much like a cop out; a place for the undecided. I wanted a clean break. A place where I could hear every note of birdsong and have a garden to call my own. I wanted a big dog, maybe two, who could gambol in fields. I wanted farm shops where the milk came from an udder three miles away and where the lady behind the counter knew my name. The country then seemed the only option.

I found a cottage for rent in a small village in the Berkshire countryside. I knew nothing about this place other than it had an excellent gastro pub and that the cottage allowed pets. The same week we put a deposit down on the house, we bought the biggest, goofiest-looking dog we could find.

The move coincided with taking on my my first editorship – a magazine called Women’s Health, which was a start-up really, with just two members of staff and a work load that required long hours in the office. There was a donkey train from my new local station, that took two hours to get into central London. I took it every morning at 7am and, if I was lucky, got the 9.37pm home every night. Very quickly, I fell into a brutal Monday-Friday routine. If I went out for dinner I rarely stayed for dessert (the last train leaving Paddington station at 11.57pm,) and on the rare occasions I went to the theatre I had to dash as the audience was still clapping. Rare were the times I ate with my partner and the dog only ever saw me at weekends. But, oh what glorious weekends they were.

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On Saturday mornings I’d wake to a blackbird outside our bedroom window whose every note I could make out. And I slept to the sound of silence with a sky so black I could make out shooting stars almost every night. My husband and I went for long walks where we didn’t see a soul, and we knew the names of all our neighbours, who, came with cards and cakes and local recommendations. Though I loved my job, I lived for those weekends. A bad day at the office could be soothed by the thought of a 16km hike; whilst a nasty email was dismissed by the thought of a Sunday morning scoot around the local pick-your-own strawberry farm.

But though I loved the country and what the country did for me, I was always reluctant to give up big city life. I had come to London to find myself as a naive 18 year old from ‘up north’. It had shaped everything from the clothes I wore to the way I spoke. When taxi drivers in foreign lands asked me where I came from I always said London; not Manchester (my birth town) and certainly not the small village we actually called home, but London. Saying you were ‘from London’ meant something. It said you were progressive, you were ambitious, you were someone. Or at least that’s what I thought.

And so, no matter how brutal the commute became, I couldn’t ever imagine closing the door on the city completely. Leaving London entirely would be an admission I had failed. People who left the capital were those who could no longer hack it and that wasn’t me. And then of course, Covid hit.