September 21, 2020

“I  don’t much care if I never see a mountain in my life. I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments as any of you mountaineers can have done with dead Nature…  I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much life.”

So wrote the town mouse Charles Lamb to the country mouse William Wordsworth in 1801. The London that Lamb was describing was very different from the city we know today. For one thing, it stank. For another, it had a population of only one million. The London of 2020 is a global city home to almost ten million inhabitants, and many of them do not feel the warm glow of “intense local attachments” that Lamb so cherished.

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An exodus may now be upon us. Home movers have put more property on the market and have agreed more sales in the past month than in any month for over ten years. House prices have risen at their fastest rate in 16 years. And while property prices in London have dipped by 2%, in most other regions they have risen significantly, with parts of Essex, Kent, Berkshire, and Hertfordshire particularly attractive to people fleeing the capital.

There’s a certain logic in their thinking. Lockdown taught many business owners that they could allow their employees to work from home while still maintaining productivity and, from the workers’ perspective, it makes little sense to stump up for London house prices when a greener and more spacious lifestyle is available elsewhere.

Expensive, polluted, and crime-ridden, London not only saps the happiness of many of its residents, but also plays a dysfunctional role in the UK’s economy, generating a vast amount of capital that is selectively parcelled out to the regions, while in return the city sucks youth, talent, and ambition into its ever-hungry maw.

But a word of caution to those dreaming of a rural idyll. I, too, was once tempted by the affordability of the countryside, and the sense of community I imagined there. But my husband and I were quickly disabused of our romanticism when we moved to a small village a few years ago.

In retrospect, some of the problems we faced were entirely predictable. For instance, we were surprised by how unpleasant it is to be entirely car dependent, with walking and cycling often impossible on country lanes. We were also naive about the rigid and intimidating social hierarchy that is often embedded within villages, and we didn’t realise that living amid beautiful fields and woods does not necessarily mean that you can actually access them, since 92% of English land is privately owned and so out of bounds.

The experience didn’t kill my love of the countryside. I do still feel a tug of longing when I come across #cottagecore, a social media aesthetic popular among Gen-Z. Cottagecore is a rural fantasy: arbours trailed by wisteria, freshly baked bread, meadows of wildflowers, and all set within an endless summer of pastoral delights. It is the sort of fantasy that set Marie Antoinette’s heart aflutter, hence the dinky Hameau de la Reine she had built in the grounds of Versailles.

But I learnt that the reality of being a young adult in the countryside is not so much Country Living as This Country, a magnificently dark mockumentary that follows the lives of cousins Kerry and Kurtan as they contend with boredom, isolation, and frustration in their Cotswolds village.

Part of the problem for young people like Kerry and Kurtan is poor infrastructure, and the failure to redistribute money generated by the economic engine that is London. But even with a better bus service, low population density still presents challenges. A friend of mine in her late twenties lives in a Yorkshire hamlet that offers lovely views and plenty of space, but also acute loneliness. She longs for the company of other mums, but there are none to be found for miles around, and going to a playgroup or even just a coffee shop means packing up her young daughter in the car and hitting the motorway

This week, she’s giving up on rural life and moving to the city. Eighteen months ago, my husband and I did the same thing. But, London house prices being what they are, we couldn’t buy. I am now in the unusual position of living with both my parents and my spouse in the suburban house in which I grew up.

It turns out there’s plenty of community to be found here. I rarely leave my house without being greeted by name, often by neighbours whose children I used to babysit. Walk into my local pizzeria, garage, dry cleaner, hair salon, haberdasher, florist, gym, or coffee shop and I can be sure that someone will ask after my family. For more than 20 years, the same farmer has been driving in from his plot near the M25 to sell eggs and root veg from the back of his van. Sometimes he’ll bring one of his hens with him, and she’ll peck around on the pavement outside our house while we chat. Does this sound like urban anomie to you?

It is often said, and rightly, that London is composed of a series of villages, or (more accurately) small towns. The level of churn is high, with young adults particularly likely to regularly move house, often to a different part of the city, where they are then obliged to put down new roots. It takes several hours to travel from one end of the city to another, meaning that moving from West to East, or North to South, is as socially significant as moving counties. To feel a sense of rootedness in London, you really need to choose one spot and stick to it.

But we all know what the problem is: house prices. I regularly go past the three bedroom terraced house I lived in between the ages of four and eleven, now worth seven times what my parents paid for it in the 1990s. It’s unlikely that my husband and I will ever be able to buy it, or indeed any house within the catchment area of my old primary school. You can be rooted in London, but it comes at a price.

So I can’t fault the young professionals fleeing the capital for more affordable alternatives, although I’d urge them to choose the more pragmatic option of smaller cities and towns, rather than the rural fantasy. It may be that an unexpected upside of the Covid-19 crisis is that it encourages those kinds of urban areas to flourish, which could be to the benefit of both the country as a whole and the character of London. If people continue to leave the capital at their current rate, we might find that the city drained of some of its power and population could retain its best qualities, while shaking off its worst.

The experience of trying and failing at village life inoculated me against a sentimental attachment to ‘Deep England’ that many post-liberals are suckers for. It also helped me to realise that the problem isn’t cities. The problem isn’t even London. The problem is the beast that is ‘London’ in its current form — the prohibitively expensive and dominating city of the 21st century. But perhaps another kind of London is possible.

Reject the London-phobia of Wordsworth, or the London-philia of Lamb. Let’s turn, instead, to their contemporary, William Blake, a native of London who knew both its pleasures and its pains. He described the city in all its complexity as a “human awful wonder of God”. He was right two hundred years ago, and he’s still right now.