After the green and pleasant Ribble Valley in Lancashire is named the happiest place in Britain, self-confessed 'urbanite in country clothing' Sophie Tweedale explains the joys of moving away from the city
It’s difficult to pick the tipping point that finally shoved me off the precipice of city life. But as I sat on another soul-crushing, underground crawl to go three miles across London, a carriage of equally strung-out strangers jammed up against my cheeks, I knew something had to give, before I did.
That weekend, six years ago, my husband – also imploding from a week of stress – and I decided to give up city living, for our ‘dream’; a rural existence where the kids could actually inhale clean air when we went out, and where we could reclaim the happiness that was ebbing away under the strains of modern, 24/7, big-city life.
Recent findings from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) back up this increasingly on-trend, city-to-country exodus, with the Ribble Valley in Lancashire named as the UK’s happiest place to live in 2019.
With its rolling hills, winding, bucolic country lanes and honey-stone cottages, I totally get it; because I too am a complete convert to the rural happiness spike, the inherent joy to be found in small-town life.
Having lived and worked in the urban heartlands of London and Manchester for nearly two decades, I felt like I was just existing, not really living.
That weekend, I recklessly hovered a finger over Google Maps and closed my eyes. It landed on the Cotswolds, and the rest is history (true story). Within a year we had moved, lock, stock and chicken coop to the quaint village of Bibury.
Open up your passport (issued after 2014) and you'll find a picture of a Hobbit-like row of 17th century weavers' cottages. It's called Arlington Row and it's our daily, and downright gorgeous, view. I had gone from an unhealthy, weekly habit at the Selfridges nail bar, to living the most extreme version of rural life you could imagine, and – nearly seven years on – it still feels so good.
Of course, secretly, I was absolutely petrified that leaving the city would curtail my career. But within months high speed broadband moved in to the village and the whole thing got a hell of a lot easier. Since relocating, clients and work have poured in, and I’ve been the Editor in Chief of a successful, national magazine, single-handedly managing a UK-wide team from my little, creaky attic in a Grade II listed cottage.
There are still stresses – but the difference is I now get to fling on my trainers and run it out through fields full of butterflies and belted Galloway each lunchtime with the dog. It has been transformative.
Happiness is subjective, and what is mind-blowingly blissful for one person can be purgatory for another.
Small town life isn’t perfect despite what the polls would have you believe. Some of my favourite tales include the awful afternoon there was a power cut during a global conference call (took hours to come back, something to do with a sheep eating through a cable). Or the deadline day when the local bus route stopped (errant cattle in the road, major probs round this parts) and my son was left stranded on his way home from school. I ended up putting a 160-page magazine to press as I careered along the A417, trying to locate my son "near the big bush".
The happiest places in Britain seem almost always to be small villages or towns. Why? I am London’s biggest fan, and I pride myself on being an urbanite in country clothing. But the comical house prices, pollution that blackened our nostrils every night, overcrowding, and creaking underground system? No thanks.
Going small hasn’t been a compromise, it has been my saviour, reconnecting us with nature and a sense of community again I felt we’d lost.
According to the ONS, more than a third of a million people moved out of the capital last year, suggesting a ‘historic turning point’ – the largest number since records began in 2012.
And, if you needed more proof, the Happiness Research Institute in its 7th World Happiness Report in March revealed how profoundly important ‘community’ and pro-social behaviour (helping, sharing, cooperating and volunteering) are to our general happiness.
Living in a small town or village does force you to talk to people, to interact, even to trust more. We literally live the rural-cliche every week, being drawn into this or that fete or event, but in truth, we all love it.
I’ve come to realise no lifestyle is ever going to be 100pc happy, or stress-proof. But has it brought me as close to personal contentment as is humanly possible? Yes, without a doubt.