For the past month, roughly the time it has taken my sister and I to melt into life in the countryside, we have been talking about The Cottage. It is a game which harks back to our childhood when we would spend hours fantasising about make-believe worlds, casting dolls and stuffed animals in both lead and supporting rolls. Today, The Cottage inspires hours of conversation as we tread through fields and empty golf courses on our daily walks, but also comes up in serendipitous snippets throughout the day. It is a dream which feels distinctly fanciful, but entirely seductive.
The Cottage is a three bedroom house situated in the bucolic fields of our imaginations. It is steeped in Bloomsbury aesthetic, just with modern plumbing. Sometimes, if we’re feeling fancy, there is a babbling brook at the bottom of the garden and a study for me, with wall to ceiling bookshelves (a fantasy which extends itself across several of my daydreams). There are no police sirens or loud music drifting through walls of noisy neighbours, only the symphony of nature crescendoing in cow bells and early morning birdsong. There is crisp white snow in winter, and explosions of wild flora and fauna in summer. The air is so pure it makes your nostrils flare.
The farmer’s market, but a stone’s throw from our fictitious abode, would sustain us faithfully. Daily menus would be simple but nutritious; homemade tomato and basil soup, freshly baked farmhouse loaves and apples that drop with a thud from local orchards. My sister has even agreed to give up her coconut milk habit, in exchange for cow’s milk delivered every few days by the local milkman. I imagine the condensation dribbling down the glossy bottles and creating little pools on the doorstep while waiting for collection.
While we tend this fantasy carefully in order to accommodate our particular desires, we are not alone in imagining a different life to the ones before coronavirus. The entire Home section of today’s Sunday Time’s is dedicated to the predicted exodus from cities to places like Lewes, Shere and Cookham following the “return to normal”. But if returning to normal means commuting everyday on overcrowded trains, haemorrhaging cash on inflated city prices and breathing in bus fumes as soon as you step out of your tiny flat, I’m not sure that is what many of us will want.
I have realised that in following what I thought I should do, I have ended up further from what I actually want (peace, space and a sense of purpose).
There is a Diana Vreeland quote which I write on the front page of every diary I have as a reminder that life is mine to make or break. “There is only one very good life, and that’s the life you know you want and you make it yourself.” These words, now read in the context of time and space, have taken on an urgency which I never had the luxury to indulge before. The realisation that in following what I thought I should do (move to the city, earn a good salary, go for dinner at a new restaurant every other night), I have ended up further from what I actually want (peace, space and a sense of purpose).
I say this in the privileged position of spending the past six years living the best of city life. Visiting the Victoria and Albert museum, as well as the Royal Academy and the Tate has become a beloved habit, mainly because of my love of art, but also because of the ease of going. I see friends for dinner most weeks and miss our impromptu nights out in Soho, dancing until 3am, sweat and vodka dripping from every pore. The vicinity to airports is undoubtedly the best part of my London life and while I don’t miss the queues at security in Heathrow’s Terminal 5, the promise of what that queue means is sorely missed. I worry a move away from all of this would somehow dilute my experience of life. Would I still be relevant, particularly trying to forge my career as a writer, outside of the capital?
But isolation is the great recalibrator. I remind myself that Emily Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights in Haworth, a tiny village surrounded by intemperate moors. Virginia Woolf penned her most audacious novel, The Waves, in her 16th century country bolthole, Monk House and on the more extreme end of the spectrum, JD Salinger would wave a shotgun at anyone who stumbled upon his isolated property in rural New Hampshire. Closer to home, my heroine, India Knight, left London five years ago and continues to write my favourite words of non fiction regardless, her inspiration seemingly buoyed, rather than bowed, to life outside the M25.
As I think carefully about the life I want to make for myself, I note that in this time of crisis, my first reaction was to escape the city. If this experience has taught me anything, other than the enormous amount that can be achieved with a single laptop and high speed internet connection, it is that London is hardly the centre of the universe. Far from it. It is easy to be sucked into the mindset that being a Londoner makes you a more elevated human being, simply by virtue of existing in the diverse and cosmopolitan ecosystem. The Cottage might seem like a fantastical ideal but, unlike the city, this fairytale might be a better reality.