Goodbye Soho, hello St Ives

A groovier lifestyle is persuading companies to leave their Soho haunts for surfing in the South-West, says Alex Wade
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The Independent Online

The surf's up on Sennen Beach, just around the corner from Land's End in the far west of Cornwall. It is early autumn; the sun is shining, and the sets of 4ft waves are about as perfect as can be found anywhere in the world. Morgan Francis, co-founder and director of Spider Eye - a successful digital and animation studio which relocated from London to Britain's most westerly town, St Just, in 2002 - seems a little distracted. Fresh from a business trip to London, Francis has heard that "it's going off" and can't wait to get into the water.

"I'll head down to Sennen in a while, once I've got a few things done," says the former London-based surfer. "That's the beauty of working and living here - surfing isn't a dream, it's a reality."

The reality - surfing or otherwise - of life in Cornwall is proving attractive not only to Francis but also to a host of other media companies, giving the lie to two well-worn clichés: that the media thrives only in the basement bars and dimly lit clubs of Soho, and that Cornwall might be a nice place to visit in the summer but is rather wet and dull for the rest of the year.

"We haven't looked back since we moved," says Francis, whose company, set up in December 2001, has won a host of awards, including an Oscar and several Baftas. A keen surfer, Francis wanted to be close to the ocean instead of shuttling along the M4 to Cornwall every Friday, along with hordes of other metropolitan escapees. But there were compelling financial reasons for the move, too. "We were paying £60,000 a year in rent for our old studio in Oxford Circus," says Francis. "We're now paying a tiny fraction of that for a space that's twice as big. And I don't have to commute for hours any more."

When Francis made his move, many of Spider Eye's contractors followed suit. "The nature of our business is contract led, meaning that we need people in for large projects when they come along," says Francis. "We didn't have a core staff to relocate, but we told the contractors that we used regularly what we were doing. One moved lock, stock and barrel with us, and the rest come and rent cottages when they need to work here."

Spider Eye's Cornish idyll might seem a little too good to be true, but Francis is far from alone. Along the coast, in a studio in Penzance overlooking Mounts Bay, is Chilli Media, a TV production company whose lifestyle and extreme sports shows have been distributed in more than 80 countries worldwide. Managing director Dan Atkins, 33, moved Chilli Media from London to Cornwall in 2002, following a management buyout. There were two reasons for the move - lifestyle and financial - and Atkins remains surprised at how smooth the transition has been. "Some of our staff came with us, and we've had no trouble recruiting good people down here - there's a wealth of media talent at Falmouth College of Art and the CVs flood in. As the company expanded we needed space for an edit suite, and when the opportunity came to move here and reduce our overheads we jumped at it."

Atkins, a former director of the Professional Windsurfing Association, has a benign attitude to staff who share his passion for watersports. "If they want to go for a surf before work and stay in the water a while, they can," he says. If this is Chilli Media's secret, it is a profitable one - Atkins says that his company has had 100 per cent client retention since it moved, with the good vibes enhanced by 40 per cent growth in turnover.

Similarly buoyant is Cornishman Greg Dyer, co-founder and director of digital media consultancy Light Circus, which has offices in Penzance and St Ives. Formerly based in London, Dyer returned to Cornwall in 1999. "A major part of the move was lifestyle," says Dyer, also a surfer. "I wanted to give my children the childhood I had had." He says that work has to come first - "you can't just down tools and go for a surf whenever you feel like it" - but admits to extending the odd lunch break when conditions are favourable.

But all the waves in the world would be no good to a media operation without a first-rate communications infrastructure. And it is this, indeed, that is driving the influx of media companies to the far south-west as much as anything else. As Edward Cowell, technical director with search engine marketing agency Neutralize, says: "Cornwall is the crossroads of the internet, where Europe and America meet. Most transatlantic cables land in Cornwall, meaning there is better access to bandwidth and high-speed communication. And it's getting better all the time."

Neutralize decamped from London to Camborne, west Cornwall, in 2000. Cowell says that as soon as he and co-founder Lucy Cokes realised that the company had outgrown its central London offices, they set their sights on Cornwall. "We just knew it had the potential to become a media hub," he says. "It doesn't have that trendy Soho feel, but where else can you have absolute peace and quiet while you work, go to the beach at weekends and see the ocean every day?"

In addition to these companies many of the major magazines in the UK, including GQ, Vogue and Wallpaper are printed in Plymouth St Ives.

Companies relocating to Cornwall can call upon the help of Cornwall Pure Business (CPB), a "red carpet" programme funded by Cornwall Enterprise (the economic arm of Cornwall County Council) and EU Objective One investment. Danielle Adams, an inward investment manager with CPB, explains that over the next four years the programme aims to attract 78 new high-quality businesses to Cornwall, creating 780 jobs and injecting £23.4m into the economy. "The environment is wonderful for generating ideas, and we're dealing with a lot of businesses in the creative sector seeking a better work-life balance."

Lynda Davies, director of the Digital Peninsula Network (DPN) in Penzance, says broadband has "helped hugely" in the development of media enterprise in Cornwall. "The county is isolated geographically but broadband penetration is now at 80 per cent - the highest for a rural area in Britain," she says. But she has some cautionary words: "If a company wants real growth, London links have to be retained."

Cornwall's new media entrepreneurs agree. All admit that they make regular trips to London, either by car, rail or plane. Dan Atkins swears by the Paddington to Penzance sleeper service. "It means I can go to the pub, sleep for the journey home and be at work by 8.30 next morning." Francis prefers the Newquay to Gatwick Air South-West service. "In this industry there's a certain amount of schmoozing, just to keep in the swing of things. So I go up to London every month for three or four days and stay with friends."

As the saying goes, you can take the media man out of London, but you can't take London out of the media man. Well not, at least, until he's on his surfboard.