When I moved to London at 22, fresh out of university, it felt like the most exciting place in the world to live. The hustle and bustle, the nightlife, the cultural scene and, as a trainee journalist, the job opportunities. Fast forward five years and, 10 months ago, I was moving out for a new life in the Hertfordshire suburbs.
By 2017, I felt alienated by the soulless capitalism of life in the city. My anxiety was at its peak, and the crush of the tube made me claustrophobic.
Scarred by a year of rush hours on the central line, I found myself only applying for jobs where I could travel slightly later, and on quieter lines, before deciding that freelancing from home was actually the way forward.
As more and more friends left their high-pressure London jobs for a calmer and more affordable work-life balance elsewhere – or, like me, to go become self-employed – it became apparent that the London was no longer the centre of the employment universe. Not only were there job opportunities elsewhere, but the working cultures and cost of living were far less intense.
While friends in London would repeatedly blow me off to work late, those outside the capital seemed to have exactly the kind of work-life balance that had driven me into self-employment in the first place. Unemployment in the capital might be down, but it's only because we’re choosing to leave for greener pastures at a rate of 100,000 a year. New roles are sitting empty because there are fewer and fewer people to fill them. The crisis in housing affordability is making the capital less attractive to those in their late-twenties and thirties, who could previously be found knuckling down to city life at key points in their careers. For millennials, however, our expectations are changing.
While the mass exodus of several of our closest friends meant there were already fewer reasons to stay in London, it was the cost of housing that finally clinched it. While friends in Bristol, Manchester, Derby and Stevenage were moving into proper houses with gardens, we would never be able to afford much more than our tiny two bedroom east London flat. Maybe it was partly an age thing, but by 27 I'd become someone who no longer wanted the long hours, terrible pay, and high pressure working conditions. Instead, I wanted a garden, a dog, and that most precious of commodities – fresh air. I craved a financial and emotional stability that London just couldn't offer and, having already quit the rat race, I was free to work from anywhere.
Last autumn, I moved to Letchworth Garden City – a commuter town in north Hertfordshire designed and built in the early 20th century for the express purpose of offering the best of both worlds. With my husband still commuting into London daily, it provides a kind of happy medium between the convenience of the city and the sanctuary of the countryside.
It's only 50 miles from our previous home, but it feels worlds away – and the improvement in my mental health took place almost overnight.
When friends in London asked me what life in suburbia was like, the first thing I described was the novel experience of regularly getting a decent night's sleep. “It's so quiet, and so dark!” I gushed. “I haven't heard a siren in weeks! At night, I can actually see the stars and sometimes, on a Sunday, I get woken up by the sound of kids playing football at 10am. But otherwise it's just birdsong and sunlight.”
Instead of a pokey flat, we now live in a four bedroom townhouse, where I have my own dedicated office that doesn't have to double up as a spare bedroom/laundry room/storage dump for surplus belongings. We have the garden, the dog, the green space, fresh air, peace and quiet, and the sense of community and belonging that I really needed. I can even buy a round of drinks without anxiously checking my bank balance.
Most of all, I can finally enjoy London again. I can now take advantage of all that is great about the city, instead of dreading every step outside my front door.
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