Wednesday, 17 June 2020

I Thought I Was A City Girl - Until Living in Devon for Lockdown



I never used to understand why people would choose to live in the countryside. I didn’t exactly grow up in a metropolis, but living just past London’s green belt with a 20-minute direct train to King’s Cross made the city feel like home. Everything I needed – or thought I needed – was just within reach. Shops? Check. Jobs? Check. Watering holes? Triple check.

I couldn’t fathom a life without stuffy tubes to everywhere, dirt in my pores and countless options for dinner and drinks. Not to mention the friends in every corner: familiar little pins on the map of my world. Beaches and rolling hills were the stuff of holidays only, not the backdrop of a real and prosperous life. And anyway, what would I do for work if not commuting an hour each way to sit in an office?

As I squeezed through a packed pub on a Friday night like the last dregs of toothpaste in the tube, I’d look around smugly and think ‘Who wouldn’t want this? Everyone is here!’ as a stray elbow sent half my pint onto my shoes. My friends, standing sparely in the corner, would be shouting themselves hoarse above the din, looking happy but not quite relaxed. With coats over forearms and bags in hand, they remained alert and ready to pounce should an elusive table make itself free. This was what I knew and loved.


When COVID hit the UK with full force, I was with my boyfriend in his family home in Devon. He’d recently quit his job in London to move back home for a few weeks, as we were set to move to Singapore at the end of March. But with international travel firmly cancelled and our Singapore dreams dramatically dashed, I’d gone down to join him on the quiet South Coast so we could wallow in our shared self-pity.

Space was limited at his house, so we made plans to rent a cottage from a friend just down the road. I felt grateful to be somewhere so beautiful, but also cast adrift, with no map and definitely no anchor. We’d been days from flying to our new life in the world’s most thoroughly modern city, but now found ourselves in the depths of Devon – and I only had enough clean knickers to last a week.

More memorably, I was frightened. The unpredictable and as-yet unknown coronavirus seemed to lurk on every surface and in every public space. Like much of the world I'd never felt so worried for my friends and family, nor so distant and unsettled. Lockdown was happening, people were dying, and I soon couldn’t think of anywhere I’d least like to be than halfway across the world, quarantined and jobless in a foreign city. I felt grateful, then, for the stroke of good fortune that had brought me to Devon in the nick of time. Friends in gardenless London flats were already climbing the walls. You could see the beach from ours.


We couldn’t go far but our daily walks along the coast were stunning and refreshing. The people were lovely too, nodding and saying hello from a safe distance wherever we met them. It helped that my boyfriend knew almost everyone in sight, having grown up just a few minutes down the road. His easy familiarity with people and place – and acute radar for anyone who ‘clearly wasn’t from around here’ – was comforting. This was a community where everyone knew everyone else and people felt safe, at a time when the world seemed anything but. I, in turn, began to relax.

I was hardly a local myself, but quickly grew accustomed to coastal life. I’ve always adored the sea, but never imagined it could become as familiar and omnipresent a part of my day as my local train station. Life became a pattern of working from home, walks, runs and dinners on the patio, the salty sea air filling my lungs and slowly stealing my heart.

This village I’d visited just twice before soon started to feel like home. I’d buy essentials from the local shop and chat to its friendly keeper about the weather and the rule-bending second homeowners (never mind that I'm a tourist myself). I’d take my coffee to the beach in the morning and drink it on the sand, listening to the waves gently lap against the shore. We’d walk a quick but beautiful 1.5km loop around the headland in the evening just as the sun was setting, watching the new born lambs play then scatter as we approached.

When lockdown restrictions eased we made even better use of our surroundings. We'd take the paddle boards down to the sea to escape and explore the rugged coast. We'd pack a backpack and stop at secluded beaches to eat precariously transported picnics. We'd play bat and ball for hours on end and go for early morning swims. Not a packed pub, sweaty tube or sticky floor in sight.


I’ve noticed myself gradually begin to unwind over these weeks, a slow but sure unfurling of mental and physical tension. Here by the coast, where space is ample and villages small, the anonymous veil of London is lifted. I was noticed at first, then recognised, and am now spoken to daily by locals and neighbours. Imagine! An unsolicited approach from somebody you've never met! 

At first I found the openness of strangers unsettling, but now I see the value in letting down your guard and lacking guile. The friendliness of others has forced me slowly outwards, where I suddenly have a brilliant view of all that I have missed whilst nursing my cold little London shell. I’ve made connections, chatted without second guessing my every word and started to realise what the world can offer when you have the space to stop and look.


It’s funny how the life you lead can leave you blinkered to the possibilities that lie just beyond your frame of reference. I already knew I loved Devon, but having only visited for the odd weekend I’d never envisaged a life here. Or at least, not one for myself. I thought I thrived in the busy city with its never-ending possibilities, but I think I just liked having somewhere to hide. Nearly three months into lockdown and we’re still here, with physical and mental space and a thirty second walk to a beach more beautiful than many I’ve seen abroad. I’m all for it.

Living here these past few weeks I’ve enjoyed the sort of break and space that I was seeking from Singapore. I’ve lived by the coast and breathed clean air and felt the sun on my skin. I’m all too aware of how lucky we’ve been, when so many people across the world have lost loved ones, lost jobs, lost businesses and struggled to make ends meet due to the indiscriminating force of the pandemic. But the world works in mysterious ways and for all the horror, the heartache and the loss, we swapped Singapore for England’s South Coast and gained something that cannot be taken: unforgettable memories of three peaceful months in paradise.

We’ll return to London when all this is over as our jobs and routines demand, but who knows? Perhaps one day we’ll be back – and for good. I miss my friends and the hustle and bustle – hell I even miss the office – but my perspective has definitely changed. I'll never forget this time and this place; or the crucial lesson that relentless busyness isn't always best.

I realise now that this isn’t the middle of nowhere after all. It’s right here. And what a wonderful place to be.

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