Escape to the country
PUBLISHED: 15:32 25 September 2015 | UPDATED: 15:32 25 September 2015
Matt Austin Images 2013
They gave up a comfortable city life as lawyers to go down on the farm in Devon. Andrei Szerard reveals how he and wife Holly became accidental smallholders
I can’t remember if there was a particular moment when we decided to move to Devon. If this was a film, I’d claim that the idea came to us one windswept afternoon, walking on Yes Tor. The clouds parted, we were bathed in an ethereal light and a voice from above solemnly intoned: “Be sure to check out the property supplements this weekend…” But life’s not like that – it was more of a gradual process.
Holly and I were both (let’s get the confession over with) London barristers, working in an old, established set of chambers in the Temple and specialising in family law. I’d been lucky enough to be elected as head of chambers and we had great colleagues, good friends and a beautiful house in South London.
Despite all that (and this is going to seem annoyingly ungrateful), we began to feel restless with our (rather comfortable) lot. We started to spend all of our spare weekends travelling to the countryside to escape the noise and urban sprawl. Getting out of London, even for a little while, was wonderful, but dealing with the downside - the Sunday afternoon trudge back - became increasingly difficult.
Gradually, however, we came to realise, over the course of our country strolls, that we did have a choice. We had no dependents, no other significant ties to the city and a degree (a small degree) of financial security. It was a risk - but less of a risk, we reckoned, than the vision of our older selves, looking back at our lives, thinking: “Why didn’t we do that?” We finished our remaining cases, told everyone we were leaving and sold the house. We were finally free. And then we thought: “What now…?”
The answer turned out to be sitting at the bottom of a long, barely navigable track in the middle of rolling dairy country midway between Dartmoor and Exmoor. We’d seen quite a few properties before we came upon the cottage - but none had really engaged us. This one, though, seemed just the ticket. It was 300 years old, thatched and well maintained with outbuildings, a vegetable garden, an orchard and seven acres of pasture. Perfect. We moved in. It was October 2012. We set about redecorating, renovated the old Massey Ferguson tractor that came with the cottage and dug out the vegetable plot. Then we remembered the pasture.
Now, seven acres might not seem a lot (a pocket-handkerchief in farming terms) but to a couple of urbanites like us, it might as well have been the Serengeti. Although we enjoyed looking at the fields we soon realised that we had to do something to fill them.
After some consideration of possible animal inhabitants, we decided to attend a sheep-keeping course run by the redoubtable Gillian Dixon at South Yeo Farm East near Northlew. After some struggles with terminology (“No, Holly, sheep don’t have babies - they have lambs…”) Gillian felt confident that we were responsible enough to order our first livestock. The woolly pioneers arrived a few months later – a small group of beautiful, rare breed, Balwen sheep.
Learning to look after them has proved… interesting. They are feisty, stroppy, infuriating little characters possessed of a level of basic cunning that belies the dim-witted reputation of their species (no lawyer jokes here, please). We love them enormously. Our first lambs were born at the cottage the following Spring which finally cemented our feelings that this was really, now, our home. The sheep have given us fleece and (look away now if you’re sensitive) the most gloriously tasty hogget and lamb. As we’ve grown more confident in caring for them, (the local farmer and vet are no longer on speed dial) we’ve learned a lot about ourselves and the things that we really value. Rare breed pigs now come and go each year, our little flock of chickens have settled in and give us fresh eggs every morning, the vegetable garden is up and running and, last summer, we converted one of the outbuildings into a romantic, self-contained little B&B for two. We’ve also set up our own website.
Despite dire warnings of some London friends we haven’t been socially isolated by the local community. In fact, we’ve been greeted with enormous warmth by our new neighbours and I received the ultimate accolade last year by being invited to join the local skittles team. I wasn’t very good - but I was honoured by the invite.
To anyone dreaming of a move to the country I hesitate to offer any advice but, if pressed, I’d say that the most important thing is never to regard it as just a recreation of city life – with better views out of the window. It’s different. Very different. Get out there, embrace it and enjoy it for what it is. Trust me – it’s great.
It’s now Sunday night. I don’t have to read any case papers or face an irritable judge in the morning. The animals are all safe, there’s a roast in the oven, the log fire is glowing and there’s a decent Malbec about to be uncorked. So, do we miss London? I’ll get back to you on that.