Debbie Gould had never seriously entertained the idea of leaving London before the coronavirus crisis. The 65-year-old retired makeup artist had lived in the city her whole life, first in Highbury in north London, then in a two-bed townhouse in Hackney in the east, with a garden “not much bigger than a postage stamp”, she says, which she loved nonetheless.
But the thefts when lockdown was finally lifted were the first thing that started to change her mind. Her neighbours’ houses were broken into. Then some bikes were taken. The final straw came when her caravan was stolen.
The pandemic has turned so many lives upside down and, for Gould, the city she loved had suddenly felt dangerous and claustrophobic. Her local park, London Fields, “turned into Glastonbury” every weekend, she says.
Gould decided she wanted space to “breathe and walk around”, to be somewhere you don’t have to lock your front door.
Now she is moving to Norfolk, more than 100 miles away.
Coronavirus has prompted a shift: city dwellers such as Gould are moving en masse to rural regions as the pandemic exposes the shortcomings with people’s living arrangements, with many wanting more space as they work from home.
In June and July, the number of buyer inquiries made to Rightmove, the UK’s largest online property website, from people living in 10 cities increased by 78% compared with the same period last year. And there was a 126% increase in people considering properties in village locations, compared with a 68% rise in people searching for towns.
The number of inquiries from Liverpool residents looking for a village property was up by 275% compared with last year. This city is followed by Edinburgh, where village inquiries have risen by 205%, and Birmingham, up 186%.
Data provided to the Guardian by Hamptons International estate agents shows 63% of new properties in Tandridge in Surrey and Sevenoaks in Kent have been bought by Londoners.
Gould says in recent months the things she used to love about London had begun to feel different, such as having lots of young people socialising locally. “We have been going up to Norfolk since lockdown eased because of my business, so we realised it is quite nice to have open space, to feel you can breathe,” she says.
But moving has been hard, she says, because properties are getting snapped up, leading to price rises, and so far she has been unable to secure anything.
“It’s bonkers. If you have anything in Norfolk, even a garage, then sell it. We are waiting and we have had very little come through, and when it does it’s gone, or you register and are in the queue to view it all on one day and then there is a bidding war. I am not sure what is going to happen,” she says.
The Guardian asked readers why they were considering leaving their homes for the countryside and 140 people responded. For many, such as Gould, the pandemic has been a significant factor. It has brought into sharp focus their living arrangements, such as the lack of gardens, overcrowding in the city and distance from those in their community.
Working from home was also a key contributor; with so many Londoners no longer based at their workplace full-time they have the freedom to go elsewhere.
For some, the fear of living alongside too many people who did not practise social distancing was a factor, and also the high cost of property in metropolises has forced them out. People were also returning to where they grew up, to be nearer to family.
Krish Surroy, a 48-year-old executive coach and startup founder who is moving from Brighton and Hove to a more rural setting, says lockdown made him re-examine his environment and “realise how unpleasant life in a city is”.
He did not have trouble finding his new property: “We only started looking around 10 days ago and are just about to sign the lease on our new place. However, there does seem to be a dearth of truly rural places to rent and they tend to be very expensive,” he says.
“I had long been contemplating it but living in a city, even one as liberal as Brighton, which has the sea and the South Downs right here, was making me depressed. That, coupled with being locked down in a small two-bedroom flat, just felt more and more claustrophobic. I need to be much closer to nature,” he says.
The desire for green space is a common reason for moving. Half of the renters (49%) currently in the market surveyed by Rightmove say lockdown has had an impact on what they are looking for. The five things it has affected most are: wanting a bigger garden or at least access to one, wanting to live in bigger accommodation, wanting to live in a pet-friendly home, wanting to be closer to parks and green spaces, and wanting access to a parking space or garage.
Another city dweller making the change is John Chadwick, a 56-year-old quantity surveyor who lives with his partner, Alison, and her daughter, Grace. “We are moving from a two-bedroom flat in a newly built block in a trendy part of Manchester city centre to a converted barn in a semi-rural location just outside of a small Lancashire village,” he says.
“We have moved because we wanted to buy a place together but we are not confident of property values holding in Manchester due to the high number of new flats being built. The decision has been made easier because of the less-than-pleasant experience of lockdown in a sixth-floor flat with no balcony.
“The area in which we live has become more popular recently with many new bars and restaurants opening. While this can be a good thing, it has added to the noise and antisocial behaviour locally. We have decided that a quiet spell in the country would be a nice change and a fresh start for our joint venture.”
Sally Yates, 44, from Hackney, lives in social housing in Highbury, and has never lived anywhere other than London – until now. She has just had an offer accepted on a property in Dorset.
“What I really want is to have space around me, some privacy and more living space. I live in a basement flat and coronavirus has been pretty intense as it has been me and my 22-year-old daughter shuffling around the flat,” he says.
“I have got a vulnerable family so I have to be very cautious. I want a nicer environment – more space and to be in a community that is small and supportive. I want to be near the sea.”
For some, however, leaving the city is bittersweet. Mike Goldberg, 64, is swapping his flat in Camden, north London, for a three-bedroom house and a garden in a market town in Suffolk.
“It is a radical change but, like many people, you start to think outside the box with all of this. We could hunker down and wait for coronavirus to be over but I don’t think it will the same,” he says.
He and his partner went to the theatre and said the city was “completely deserted”. “As a Londoner, I feel depressed about that. Maybe I am burying my head in the sand but I want to get out … It’s like seeing an old friend of yours in a really bad way. It’s not pleasant,” he says.