In the end it wasn’t the knife crime, the pollution or the screeching sound of the central line. It wasn’t the obscene house prices, the lack of trees or the used sanitary towels I’d find on my doorstep. The tipping point, the last straw, the reason I finally broke up with London was another Saturday afternoon in the pub. It was a nice pub, it was a pleasant afternoon, but my week had become ground-hog in its predictability. I wasn’t inspired to visit art galleries or join a fringe theatre collective, instead, after surviving another week in zone 1, I was exhausted and just wanted to sit down somewhere not too far from my flat.
In the last ten years more than half-a-million more people left London than moved into it. Last year alone, twice as many women aged 30-34 moved out of the city than arrived. A month ago I joined them – I packed up a Luton van with our soiled couch, too many boxes and 8 IKEA bags stuffed with clothes and left the capital. It was something I never thought I’d do, for 18 years I’d bounced around London calling ten different flats ‘home’. From losing my virginity in a damp room above a Mexican restaurant in Finsbury Park to giving birth 15 years later in a hospital room over looking Tottenham Road, London had been the stage for all my most formative experiences. I’ve cried on night buses and spoken to foxes, but like most love stories that begin when you’re 18-years-old, by the time I reached my mid thirties something had soured.
‘As a Londoner my city was becoming unrecognizable under advanced capitalism’ Sharmaine Lovegrove, a Book Publisher, left Herne Hill for Bristol in 2018. Having been born and raised in London, it wasn’t a decision she took lightly, but she’s passionate it was the right move for her, her husband and their 7-year-old son, ‘We live in modern Britain, so no city is perfect, but in Bristol the focus is on lifestyle rather than work’, she says. ‘And the houses are lived in by a range of people, they’re not just for the wealthy with grey doors and shutters. It makes for a more a communal city.’
Parents of toddlers are moving out at the fastest rate, presumably searching for that elusive spare bedroom or garden. But there’s something else people can’t seem to afford in London that they’re finding in the foothills or on the coast: head space. ‘With our living costs down and a clearer perspective I can actually focus on making work that I really love and not just churning as much out as possible.’ Emily Pugh is a successful set designer who fostered her career in East London. Two years ago she moved to Margate, dubbed “Dalston-on-Sea” for its popularity among London’s artists and writers, ‘Initially I mourned the loss of my identity as an East London “creative” but I realised that I should try not to be defined by my surroundings which basically requires being way more self assured’, says Emily. ‘I now see London as one of many great cities.’
Recognising the need to spread wealth and opportunity around the UK, in 2011 the BBC created MediaCityUK in Salford, more recently Channel 4 announced a part-relocation to Le to make the broadcaster ‘less London centric’. It’s not just the stick of London pushing people out of the capital, the carrot of other cities is reeling them in. ‘We’re seeing a huge revival in the city centers of Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle,’ says Rebecca McDonald, an analyst from Center for Cities, ‘The self-employed economy might be booming, and obviously tech is making it easier for people to work from anywhere, but it doesn’t mean everyone is working from home. Densely populated city centers are still very attractive to anyone working in an industry where innovation or idea generation is important. Many of the people leaving London are staying in commuting distance for work.’
For nearly two decades I drank London’s Kool-Aid; I believed it was the epicentre of all worthy careers, even feeling sorry for the people who had left. I thought moving would render me irrelevant (I still worry). Then, this summer, we visited Lisbon, it had all the things you’d write about on a postcard – sun, beaches, surf – but more critically, it felt booming, in the career sense. I had always thought you had to choose between ambition and the beach, but it was while sat in Lisbon’s Second Home, a co-working space with its own surf school, that I realised the time had come to break up with London.
‘It took having my eyes opened to a different culture to realise that you don’t have to work like a dog to earn money,’ says Bella Hepworth, a fashion designer, who left London after 12 years for a job in a Paris fashion house. ‘But getting over London and it’s money-centric attitudes is like breaking-up from a toxic relationship, you have to cut yourself off and have no contact and then suddenly three months later, you’re free.’ It helped that where Bella moved to, France, has an entirely different relationship with work, ‘People aren’t in the office at 11pm, everyone takes the whole month of August off; it’s totally possible to have a healthy work-life balance.’
Emma Lally, was 28 when she moved to Edinburgh from London two years ago. ‘‘I am more selfish with my time now. In London there were so many people to see and so much to do, I never enjoyed a night in, even when I needed one. I call it The London Guilt.’ Emma says, ‘I know this sounds strange, but I feel like a bigger person since leaving, I feel stronger and more confident in myself.’ I understand what Emma means, London can trick you into thinking you need it and when you realise you don’t it’s like you grow ten-feet.
Ironically, so much of what I love about my life in Lisbon, I technically could have had in London. Yes, I can now surf at the weekends, but what I’m really enjoying is that I cook more, that I meander rather than traipse, that I’m not drinking or shopping as much and that I spend more time with my son. Basically life has slowed, and although I hate to be a cliché, it feels, well, just lovely. There’s something else too, which I realise sounds at odds with slowing down, but it’s an adventure, things aren’t so monotonous.
‘But what about your mates?’ I hear you ask, ‘and work? There must be downsides?!’ I’ll admit, not having any friends _is_ weird and stalking ‘potentials’ on Instagram isn’t quite how I imagined my social life would be at age 36, but if there’s one thing London taught me, it’s how to make friends and hustle. I now have two places I can call home, two cities to hit up for work. I don’t hate London, that’s not why I moved. I left for the same reasons I left university and my first boyfriend – it’s time that’s all.