‘I’ve gone from fashion girl to land girl – and I love it’

Paula Reed
·7-min read
Paula Reed says her working life has been made over since she moved to Cornwall
Paula Reed says her working life has been made over since she moved to Cornwall

Normally, at this time of the year I’d be in Paris. I’ve been on the international fashion circuit for so long that my subconscious responds to the unfolding fashion seasons like a migrating bird. No need for a calendar. My schedule goes Resort, Couture, Catwalk, Capsule, Bridge… and repeat.

This spring things are very different. For a start I have been on my own since December 29. This spring I am hammering the damp lath and plaster off a sagging attic ceiling and patching up an aluminium greenhouse that has seen better days.

This spring I am learning ways to cook wild leeks and am up a ladder following YouTube directions on how to prune wisteria. And all because last summer I fell in crazy love with an old vicarage in Cornwall and, like true love demands, dropped everything that had been my life in London W11 and relocated to EX23.

For 30 years my working life has been a cycle of fashion shows, networking lunches and product launches. Hand luggage was kept packed at all times with essentials for lightning trips to Milan, Paris, New York, Munich and Dubai.

I had a walk-in wardrobe with options for everything from dinner with Karl Lagerfeld in Venice to lunch with Dries Van Noten and his dog in Antwerp. I was once invited to fly to Tokyo for the presentation of a watch strap. I have an address book stuffed with the contacts of VIP enablers and, in more normal times, could have got a restaurant table or theatre ticket on short notice just about anywhere.

I have drawers full of items known affectionately as my “drag” – grazing chandelier earrings, bicep-length white leather gloves, a felt sombrero, a Givenchy couture evening skirt embroidered with shamrocks. I have kept it all because I have always had conceivable expectations that it might come in useful one day.

For 30 years this was how I paid my bills… until Covid. In the first lockdown, the golden treadmill of fashion weeks and product launches stalled as an undercurrent of panic stirred: I spent my time on Zoom yoga, baking F standard sourdough and sympathising with a succession of clients as our world changed beyond recognition.

But in June, while visiting friends at the seaside, my life changed. I spotted the house in the property section of a national newspaper and joined a long queue of people to view it. Like an old school cad, the rambling Victorian vicarage on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic played very hard to get. But the gods of the Cornish property market weren’t prepared for the kind of tenacity that gets a girl to the front of the queue at the Chanel sample sale.

Paula Reed now enjoys views of the Atlantic instead of views of the capital - Dale Cherry/The Telegraph
Paula Reed now enjoys views of the Atlantic instead of views of the capital - Dale Cherry/The Telegraph

It required radical action. I could put our family home on the market but the selling process would likely be too long to enable a fast move and the competition was fierce. In the end I put it up for rent and found lovely tenants who were on their own pressured timetable. Strapped in for the ride, wherever it might take me, I moved my belongings into storage and myself and the dog into a friend’s flat and waited, effectively homeless, juggling banks, estate agents, accountants, financial advisers, surveyors and solicitors. Five months later, the vicarage was mine.

Over the last two years, my three kids had all embarked on careers of their own, two of them in America. I’d been rattling around in the empty house for a while knowing that there were infinite possibilities but I hadn’t been able to focus on exactly how to use them. I had worked non stop since my first Saturday job at 15. I never had a gap year. I needed something to boot up my third act. A year living in Paris or Rome and the dream of a train ride through Russia, crossing to Japan and returning via the Silk Route were snuffed out by Covid. Something about this house told me I’d find something here.

By the beginning of December, I, my geriatric Jack Russell, and all my worldly goods, including about 200 pairs of shoes, were on the road to North Cornwall in a 1990 Mercedes Benz estate. My new home was built in 1837 by Reverend Stephen Hawker: there is more romance here than a shelf full of Du Mauriers. Reverend Hawker was a poet, an eccentric who smoked opium, counted Lord Tennyson and Charles Kingsley among his friends, and was instantly recognisable in the area for his brightly-coloured outfits.

The house, and the Norman church attached, snuggle in a valley looking down a deep V-shaped view of the Atlantic. A sequence of these V-shaped valleys defines the coastline like bosomy cleavages covered in velvety green and laced with a network of streams that rush to waterfalls over steep cliffs. It’s easy to be alone here but not lonely. There is so much to look at.

I was worried what reception a London incomer might get in the middle of a pandemic, but my neighbours arrived at the door with Christmas cards, homemade shortbread, chutneys and local cider. There is a sense of community here that is closer to the experience of my Irish childhood than that of a glamorous grown up in London.

'I have somehow landed on my own perfect desert island' - Dale Cherry/The Telegraph
'I have somehow landed on my own perfect desert island' - Dale Cherry/The Telegraph

If I was going to have second thoughts I know I would have had them by now. Thanks to the mysterious workings of BT I was without internet for the first five weeks of the year: sometimes almost tearful with panic, it eventually dawned on me that there was absolutely nothing I could do. I busied myself with projects and I walked, and walked and walked.

The only complication was work. I consult for fashion brands sharing my magazine, newspaper, retail and e-commerce experience. My clients and I had all adapted to working remotely – but with no Wi-Fi and no mobile phone coverage in my valley either, the car became a mobile office and I took to hot-desking in any lane or lay-by where I could get 4G. I worked with my files on the passenger seat, my iPad propped on the steering wheel and the dog in the footwell.

Just as my working life has been made-over, I have too: I’m not quite feral but my London grooming schedule is a distant memory. I haven’t had a manicure in months – frankly I think my nails look healthier for their year off from gel polish. My face without make-up doesn’t frighten me like it once did. And that chain of V-shaped valleys is better cardio than any cross-trainer. My wardrobe has shrunk to a rotation couple of pairs of jeans and a few sweatshirts that I keep over a chair in my bedroom.

In spite of stripping away the sparkle that took up so much of my existence I am never stuck for something to do; my life has taken a sharp U-turn and I like it. On my first day here I remember getting out of the car, alone, taking the place in, and thinking what the..? It still surprises me that I am here. And far from being able to fill the house with family and friends, which is what I had imagined when I first saw it, in lockdown I have somehow landed on my own perfect desert island.

I still feel a bit like a helpful guest. I am scrubbing the floors and cleaning the Aga in anticipation of the return of the lovely people who have let me stay here, Reverend Hawker perhaps, who will come ambling down the drive in his purple cloak, pink hat and a book full of new poems wondering what is for supper. I just hope he approves of what I’ve done with the place.

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