Will Shorrocks

How has the pandemic changed the relationship between city and country?

The relationship between city and country has been one imbued with tribalism, enigma and intrigue for as long as cities came to exist in the UK. The two mutually exclusive identities – rural folk and urbanites – formed the bedrock of British society, save a few fortunate ‘double lifers.’ But with improved communication and transport, the lines and ideas that once divided these two worlds have gradually blurred, spurred on by a series of hotels and restaurants keen to bridge the gap.

Urbanites can indulge the rural idyll, simple or squire-like, with a series of public footpaths, bucolic country hotels with locavore menus and activities such as riding, shooting, wild swimming and fishing – previously the preserve of country dwellers. Likewise, rural types weary of pastoral rhythms and brandy-fuelled seclusion, can whizz into the city for an invigorating dose of culture and retail; for the theatre, bustling restaurants and cutting-edge shops.

Or at least they could.

The global Pandemic has turned this modern double-lifer dynamic on its head, challenging the right to oscillate between the two settings and prompting a reappraisal of long-term living circumstances – which camp are you in, town or country?

The shortcomings of cities, which thrive on social interaction and proximity, have been sorely exposed, starved of their greatest assets: theatre, exhibitions, innovative restaurants, bars, parties, offices with Government-enforced lockdowns. Where urban lifestyles once hinged on after work drinks, lazy brunches and weekend cultural jaunts, they now play out inside flats, small houses and across crowded parks – once a small price to pay to be part of this thrilling metropolis.

Cast your mind back to March 2020, Britain’s first lockdown. Much like now, exercise is limited, inner city London is a ghost town and Deliveroo and Netflix are serving up the lion’s share of entertainment. Add to this sky-high rents (London being Europe’s most expensive city to live in), soaring levels of Coronavirus cases where Londoners continued to scurry like mice onto crowded tubes and buses, and lifestyle scrutiny felt inevitable.

The situation catalysed binding, previously slow-brew decisions, notably around relationships and lifestyle. Those veering towards their urban expiry date took the plunge, such as Tara Carson and her husband who moved to Gloucester:

“We love our London flat but the lure of the countryside has always been there; a slower pace of life, endless open space and room for a dog! The pandemic gave us the opportunity to try it out and we love it.”

Second-homers made a solemn promise to commit to their country or coastal bolthole, only once they’d installed top-rung WIFI. But more curiously, people who’d not previously entertained an ‘escape to the country’ hopped onto Zoopla and RightMove in a bid for green space and quiet villages, spurred on no doubt by the prospect of remaining boxed into a gardenless flat for months on end (21% of Londoners have no garden). High-end estate agent, Savils observed a surge in interest from Londoners for country property: describing it as –

"A time of unprecedented demand for more outside space [and] these buyers will tend to be families willing to make a wholesale commitment to a change in lifestyle."

But while the Pandemic appears to have pushed city and country lifestyles apart like tectonic plates, in the hospitality scene, both worlds appear to be learning from one another.

A good example of this can be found in London’s leafy neighbourhoods such as Highbury, Stoke Newington and Ladbroke Grove where coffee shops, cafes, delis and wine specialists have seized their moment in the spotlight, delighting working-from-home crowds who’d exhausted central London’s Pret-A-Manger menu. This local, go-slow shopping style: visiting the local butcher, the fishmonger, the independent coffee shop reads like a villager’s daily routine, just with a latte and cinnamon bun. During lockdown, artisanal shops, delis and restaurants, such as Top Cuvee in Highgate and Pidgin in Hackney, have rolled out hampers of fresh produce and DIY courses to recreate restaurant-grade food at home. Curiously, the pandemic has breathed new life into these sleepy city boroughs, bestowing them with the rhythms and community psyche (‘supporting your local’) more typical of rural towns and villages.

Meanwhile, the ebb and flow of tiers and lockdowns has seen rural establishments pivot their offering, mimicking the foodie joys commonly associated with urban life. Pubs and destination restaurants have upped the ante on deliveries for those accustomed to driving miles for fish and chips, and even mobilised them via food trucks, with renowned chef, Mark Hix’ Oyster and Fish truck being a notable example. Hix’s converted Chevrolet ambulance selling fresh fish and seafood along with Mark’s daily dish pitches up at a farm shop in Morcombelake. Cafes and coffee shops nimbly flipped to an al fresco model, their artisanal stalls and cake-studded counters recalling scenes from Mediterranean markets. Country hotels followed suit with delivery boxes, such as The Newt’s kitchen garden vegetables in Somerset, the Fife Arm’s Scottish hamper of goodies exclusive to guests in more normal times, or Limewood’s ‘Get in a pickle with Luke’ fermenting set by Luke Holder, Head Chef at the country hotel’s unbuttoned, food-first Hartnett Holder & Co restaurant.

But perhaps the most heart-warming consistency that has swept across these disparate social and geographical landscapes during the Pandemic is communication – in the traditional sense– and a newfound appreciation for nature.

The question, ‘how are you?’ rendered banal through overuse in modern parlance suddenly bore weight, whether it was angled at the local village butcher, the corner shop owner, a neighbouring farmer or the checkout lady at Tesco. With isolation came a renaissance of community and care, a human longing to stay connected. This manifested in hospitality through care boxes for the vulnerable and food donations for NHS workers pulled together by already stretched cafes, restaurants and hotels.

Then there were the seasons; the burst of colour and birdsong in spring, the hot, drowsy summer afternoons drawn out over picnics, the autumnal hues which painted the British countryside and city pavements in reds and browns, and now, the icy breath of winter, all of which scoffed at current affairs and as such, became a great comfort and symbol of resilience for so many.

It’s as though William Henry Davis’ Leisure wish has finally been granted, whether finding time to watch streams of stars in rural Yorkshire or squirrels hiding nuts in London parks. It’s worth noting that stopping and staring was not available to all, especially those needing to work even harder throughout the Pandemic to stay afloat, or those forced to shield indoors. What’s more the fruits of rural and urban overlap remain accessible to a lucky few.

Whether lockdown’s impact will prompt a mass exodus to the sticks remains to be seen, particularly now vaccines are being rolled out apace. History has shown us that humans have short memories (will new green pastures be worth the two-hour commute when offices re-open?). What’s more, the true economic scars of the pandemic have yet to fully reveal themselves – many businesses are running on borrowed time. But our relationship between the country and city has undoubtedly changed, with the past year reminding us of the remedial virtues of nature and connectivity, of its importance in both an urban and rural context. It’s ushered in a reappraisal of life quality which looks set to influence hospitality well beyond the pandemic.

Will Shorrocks