I’ve never felt more cut off or lonely than since I moved to the country: Like so many, broadcaster Rebecca Wilcox uprooted her family from the city to the shires in the wake of Covid. But her ideas of an idyllic life have led to days of friendless boredom
Like clockwork he arrived every morning and evening. The small deer would amble across the neighbouring field before slipping his head under the fence to feed on the windfall apples in the orchard at the end of my new garden.
So often did he pop in that he became a regular companion while I drank my morning coffee, then again on my evening walk.
Having left London after lockdown to pursue a new life in the country, this was exactly the rural experience I’d dreamt of — deer strolling about and my two boys laughing on rope swings we had tied to the trees.
But then my blissful bubble of smugness burst.
It’s probably no coincidence that it happened at about the same time I found my once magical deer, glassy-eyed and eviscerated, lying in pieces across the lawn, killed by forces unknown.
In fact, that felt like a rather gruesome metaphor of my hopes for our new life here.
Having left London after lockdown to live the country, it was the rural experience I’d dreamt of, but then my blissful bubble burst, says Rebecca Wilcox (pictured with her horse Camperito)
While I wanted to find a new community to rival — or even better — what I’d had before, the reality has turned out to be far more isolating and less pleasurable than I’d expected.
I remember the first time I saw a photo of our new house online. It was like finding Prince Charming on Tinder after kissing all the other frogs.
Here was the country idyll I’d been searching for, meeting all the requirements on our extensive list.
We wanted an old house with a garden, near a village with a fast train direct into London. After days spent glued to the internet flicking through photos and calling estate agents, we finally found ‘The One’ in Surrey.
It took my breath away with its rose-framed cottage windows, Aga-warmed kitchen, flagstone floors and open fireplaces.
It seemed to promise a wholesome, happy place to raise my family, which seemed opposite to the lockdown London life we were then living.
Because, like many people who lived through the pandemic, we had fallen out of love with the big city.
Of course, with our house and garden in a nice area close to local parks, we were luckier than most.
While I wanted to find a new community to rival what I’d had before, the reality has turned out to be far more isolating. Pictured: Rebecca’s sons Benjamin, nine, and Alexander, six
But still, life was proving challenging. Our four-bed was our only space for living, working, exercising, schooling and endless eating.
My husband set up his office in the spare room and worked 12-hour days from behind a firmly closed door.
My children, Benjamin, now nine; and Alexander, now six, struggled to sit still at the kitchen table as I tried to teach them something about fractions or Vikings while attempting to keep up with work, housework and the rest.
The house quickly started to fray around the edges as we rattled from room to room like caged animals. And our small garden was now obviously too tiny for two energetic boys.
Even our lovely north London suburb, Muswell Hill, which is regularly voted one of the best places to live in Europe, had become like a hamster cage. The vibrant High Street and wooded parks became boringly familiar, our enthusiasm having been eroded by daily walks.
We felt trapped and, like everyone else it seemed, we started to research areas filled with greenery and space, a place to let children run on paths that weren’t tarmacked.
By early 2021, the number of Londoners who had relocated from the capital as a result of the pandemic was estimated by the Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence at 700,000.
Covid now meant that living in close proximity to other people was increasingly unappealing.
In response, property prices in rural locations soared. A Hamptons survey showed that prices in rural England and Wales increased three times as fast as those in cities.
Our dream of moving away started to become more of a possibility when we saw others do it. By the end of summer 2020, several close friends had uprooted. One or two stole away without mentioning their plans until they were fully ensconced in their new areas.
In London, we started to research areas filled with greenery, a place to let children run on paths that weren’t tarmacked. Pictured: Rebecca with her sons Benjamin and Alexander
Other friends debated their move options with me on endless FaceTime calls. Even my mother, the broadcaster Esther Rantzen, a stalwart city girl, quietly sold her London flat and relocated permanently to the New Forest.
As spring 2021 started to breathe a fresh light into London, I realised that half of my friends and all my family had left. What’s more, they all seemed happier.
Which is when I started to look more determinedly for our new life in the country.
Once I’d found our dream house in Surrey, it was as if the decision had been made for us — and after living in the city all my life, we finally moved out in July.
Before I left, my friends assured me that meeting people wouldn’t be an issue. I was an outgoing person. I would find other mums at the school gates, fellow runners and like-minded families. It would be fine.
Emboldened by their encouragement, the day after we arrived I put out messages on local Facebook sites to connect with other mums, hoping to make the first day at school a little less scary for us all.
Only two responded but they were both very friendly. Unfortunately, they were also extremely busy and couldn’t meet up, and I didn’t see them again until the term started.
Still, it was a positive start and, undeterred, I placed more messages on the village groups, asking to join running clubs, a book club, the PTA, volunteering at local groups, anything!
In London, I’d had a lifetime to meet people. I wasn’t naive enough to expect to walk into a fully established friendship circle on the first day, or even month. But I did hope to find friendly people who were open to meeting new families.
As spring 2021 started to breathe a fresh light into London, I realised half of my friends and all my family had left and they all seemed happier. Pictured: Rebecca, Benjamin and Alexander
Sadly, this was not the case. Most of the groups I tried were full or met at impossible times of the day; can you believe they go running at 5.30am round here?
I hoped to meet people at school socials, but they weren’t happening due to Covid. The ones that did go ahead proved to be nerve-jangling evenings which I spent standing solo and trying to smile at everyone, possibly looking a little crackers.
As my lack of success caused me to feel more isolated, my attempts to reach out grew a bit desperate and consequently less appealing. It was clear that making friends was going to be a lot harder than I’d thought.
I now feel slightly adrift, so if I am invited to things, I’m so unsure of myself that I spend ages worrying about whether I laughed too loud or talked too much, social anxiety I never had in the past.
Those people I do speak to seem to move on quickly. It’s clear I’m a nuisance, and loneliness is a sadly unattractive quality.
Eventually, even the running group I joined disbanded and re-formed without me. Apparently, you can talk too much on a 5km run. Who knew?
I used to be much better at this, at the epicentre rather than standing awkwardly on the periphery.
In London, our area was young family central and the result was a brilliantly busy social life. At every school drop-off there were dozens of people to chat with, go out to dinner with or just moan to and laugh with.
But whereas before we would walk to school, in the country most parents drive. Us included, as a three-mile trek down single-track country lanes is not safe for a six-year-old.
So instead of gathering round the gates, parents sit in their cars until the doors open, then rush their children inside.
There were no welcoming drinks for new parents either, unless your children were in the first year, so our family’s arrival went unnoticed in the playground.
During Covid, our London suburb, Muswell Hill, which is regularly voted one of the best places to live in Europe, had become like a hamster cage. Pictured: Her sons at their London home
The class Whatsapp groups, filled with parents who have known one another for years, feel cliquey and hard to navigate.
I’ve tried volunteering at a few events, but it seems everyone is at their limit with time and energy, particularly in the run-up to Christmas, and very few have the head space to let a new person in.
My husband seems to have suffered less from the change. Whereas I work from home as a broadcaster and writer, his daily commute to London means he is still connected to his previous life.
But I don’t think men crave social contact in the same way as women: when we lived in London he never went out as much as me.
He was content to see his friends once or twice a month, while I like far more frequent contact and made plans to see people weekly, if not daily.
My loneliness is compounded by the fact that for months now, I have also spent my days trying to distract myself from the silence in every corner of the echoey house.
There’s a lot to do when the kids are here and the chaos is everywhere. But when the children have gone to school and my husband has left for the office — he works for a property company in Central London — the house is silent and I am utterly alone.
The countryside is so quiet, with birdsong replacing the city hubbub. For most people this is one of the big draws but it has made me feel disconnected from the world.
In London, I tried to shut myself off from the rush of traffic, builders and shoppers who scuttled up and down my road every day. I had never realised before how much that hustle and bustle made me feel connected to people.
My only regular company these days is the plumbers, roofers, electricians and handymen our new home requires.
What at first seemed a quaint old place turns out to have many foibles and problems — a new leak or crack appears daily, something Aviva Home Insurance has said is a common problem.
About 92 per cent of people who bought houses during the pandemic have found faults they hadn’t noticed during the viewing. I still adore our house, it’s just a little more expensive than we predicted.
I’ve even got a horse — Camperito — as part of my strategy to connect with other people. There is a field attached to our garden and the children had always wanted to learn to ride. I thought perhaps it might even entice people to come and visit us.
Turns out, however, that it’s not uncommon to have a horse in rural Surrey and if you’re interested in horses, you already have one. So now the horse and I take quiet walks up and down the local bridle paths alone.
I suppose it should be some comfort that of the friends who made the big move, 75 per cent have admitted they feel isolated and unsupported.
The countryside is so quiet, with birdsong replacing the city hubbub. For most people this is one of the draws but it has made me feel disconnected. Pictured: Her son riding a horse
‘Becca, you know I don’t have any friends, right,’ one of them told me, when I asked how she was after admitting my own misgivings.
‘Moving in March, just after coming out of lockdown, means it’s been impossible to meet anyone new.’
Another friend said: ‘I don’t regret moving out of London but it’s difficult to make friends at this age, especially when you’re moving to a smaller community where people have their own friends.’
Others have told me it will take at least a year to feel settled. ‘In a year’s time you’ll look back on this as just a blip,’ a friend insists.
But loneliness is poisonous and confidence-eroding and it’s not just me who feels it.
Every day the children ask me when we can move back to London. They miss their old friends and home hugely.
‘Why are you surprised by any of this?’ my mother-in-law asked me. ‘What else did you expect? You and the boys had years to create a friendship group in London. It won’t just slot into place the moment you arrive.’
‘But they’re children,’ she added, with a knowing smile. ‘They’re resilient, they will move on.’
Which is what I must do, too. I need to face up to these lonely feelings and accept the present is not how it will always be.
There are and will be future friends out there who are just waiting to be met. But in the meantime, I will accept any and all tips on how to find them.