On their one-acre plot of Hertfordshire countryside, Sarah Apps and Liam Armstrong live with three chickens, 59 tomato plants and – until this morning – three pigs. “It’s been an emotional day,” says Apps. They plan to get more pigs later in the summer, and next week more chickens are arriving; then ducks and a goat, a couple of turkeys for Christmas and, maybe next year, bees. Living on their own land, and becoming more self-sufficient, had been a bit of a dream for the couple, but it took the Covid pandemic to make it happen. “You just didn’t know what was going to happen,” says Apps. “Young people were dying, older people were dying … I think you really need to live for the days that you’ve got.”
When they spotted a run-down bungalow that came with an acre of land, they went for it. They had been living in Romford, East London. “We could hear the roar of the M25 and I could barely be bothered to mow the small patch of lawn we had,” says Apps. They moved in November and spent the winter creating raised vegetable beds, putting in fencing and making animal enclosures. It has been gruelling physical work – they have done it mostly by hand – moving around 30 tonnes of soil. “It was our fitness thing through lockdown,” says Apps. But now they have growing just about every type of vegetable you’d find in a well-stocked supermarket, eggs every day, and in a few days the pigs will return for the freezer. She breaks off to check on a chicken who is in their kitchen. “She’s just had a bath. She’s not very well.”
Lockdown gave them both more time (and money) to work on their land, but only during the evenings and weekends. Both are key workers – Apps works in care and Armstrong is a lorry driver – and they were working throughout the pandemic, though they hope to scale it back at some point. “I think we’d be happy to have a more modest lifestyle and not work as much, because what is work really?” says Apps. “Unless you really enjoy it …” She turns to Armstrong and says: “You love being at home in the garden. Why would we not do that? The pandemic has definitely opened our eyes to that. You’ve got to do what you enjoy, rather than be in the rat race. It’s not really living, is it?”
There appears to have been an explosion in interest in moving towards a more self-sufficient lifestyle – or at least a more wholesome one – since the pandemic began. A sourdough starter and an enthusiasm for cottagecore on TikTok may have been your gateway to urban chickens and home-brewing. The Beckhams, Beyonce and Ed Sheeran all took up beekeeping. Harry and Meghan have rescue hens. Meanwhile, people have been moving out of cities for the rural dream or, more dramatically, resigning from high-pressured jobs or taking advantage of redundancy to lead a simpler life. The pandemic has been the opportunity for some perspective and some life-changing decisions – as well as perhaps offering the time to address underlying anxieties about food shortages, the climate emergency and future pandemics.
The smallholder training courses that Debbie Kingsley runs on her small farm in Devon have almost sold out for the year, even though she’s added extra dates. “The interest has gone crazy,” she says. “People are reassessing how they want to spend their lives – they’ve realised that perhaps they don’t want to be in the city any more or they don’t have to work the long corporate hours they were prior to lockdown, and can still survive.” Will it last? “It’s hard to gauge,” she says. “It’s perennially of interest, this way of life. At the moment, there’s definitely a feeling that, if you want to do something that you’ve thought about for years, there’s no better time.”
Before the pandemic, Rachel Paske was working in finance in Belfast and rarely saw her six-year-old son. “His childminder was doing his homework with him. I was coming back from work, putting him to bed, then just getting him up and out the door again,” she says. When lockdown started, she realised how much she was missing out on. It was also a time of extreme uncertainty, and they were stuck in their town near Belfast. When restrictions started to ease, she and her partner, Darren, were again able to visit his parents in the countryside. She says that, apart from having to wear a mask in the local farm shop, the area appeared untouched by Covid. “It’s like it hadn’t happened,” she says. “I felt more relaxed.”
She says, with a laugh, “I don’t even know how it happened,” but suddenly she had left her job (Darren still works as a golf professional) and in June last year they moved in with his parents, who have five acres of land. Paske got a polytunnel to grow vegetables, and six rescue chickens. “And then six chickens somehow turned into 60,” she says. “I just loved them – they’re characters.”
As well as horses, dogs and cats, they have three goats, one of which is producing milk, so they’re planning to make cheese. “We’ve also got a lamb, which we weren’t meant to have. Darren went to pick up our goats and arrived back with a lamb. He said: ‘I couldn’t leave it – it had no mother.'” The aim, she says, is to be as self-sufficient as possible, as well as buy locally. “It’s been a big change – I’m a city girl. I couldn’t have imagined even two years ago that this is what I’d be doing with my life.”
They’re now hoping to sell more of their produce. “It wasn’t ever meant to be that way but it’s just kind of evolved,” she says. They get about 40 eggs a day, which they have been selling at the end of their lane with an honesty box, but last weekend Paske did her first farmers’ market. She says she misses the regular salary of her old job, but that’s about it. Her son has bloomed – from being a city child who was nervous of farm animals, he’s embraced country life and “is better with the chickens than any of us are”. Paske enjoys being “my own boss. And the satisfaction – if we sit down and have a salad, we’re having our own lettuce, rocket or spinach, our own chives. You have eggs from your chickens, eat your own potatoes. Just the satisfaction that I’ve actually produced this – I haven’t been to the shop. And all the animals have got their own personalities. I can go and sit with them for a while and it’s relaxing. It’s hard work but it’s worth it.” Her animals have been given a new life too. She took on former battery hens, and one has taken to roaming all over the land, enjoying her freedom. “She just does whatever she wants. She lays wherever she wants to lay – we’ve given up trying to find out where.”
For Kelly Johnson, being without her new smallholding is now unimaginable. She and her husband already owned some land a few miles from their house in Essex where they kept their two horses. When the pandemic hit, and the supermarkets were ransacked, she decided to get chickens, which still live in their garden, though they’re building a pen on their land to house another 20. A month later, they got some rare breed sheep – they plan to increase the flock to about eight, which they will breed and sell as pets rather than for eating, and for their fleeces. They also grow vegetables. “I think the pandemic made us both really look at the world and see how we’ve become so reliant on things that are out of season – having strawberries all year round, eating grapes and things like that,” she says. “We just wanted to go a bit more back to basics.”
Only a lucky few are landowners, of course – what the lockdowns highlighted was that access to outside space is an immense privilege. But it is amazing how productive a small back garden can be, says Hollie Tu, if “you’re willing to not have the nice lawn and have chicken poo on the patio”. Before the first lockdown last year, Tu, a tutor, moved in with her boyfriend, Tom, and created a small veg patch in the garden of their rented flat (she had been interested in gardening for a while but it was “windowsill stuff”). With her work drying up, “I found that I needed something to do. It gave me a routine instead of just waking up and going: ‘The news is really depressing.’ It was so good for my mental health – the sense of achievement, and the fact that I needed to get up for something every day. And all the usual stuff about being outside.”
Thanks to the stamp duty holiday, her boyfriend was able to buy a house with an unusually large garden, further out in south London, and they moved there in December. The 30-metre-long (98ft) space had been mostly concreted, so they had to get people in to remove that, but then Tu built raised vegetable beds and they got four chickens in March (she also wants to get a goat). “Sorry,” she says, looking out to the garden. “My chickens have escaped.” Then: “Oh no, it’s all right. She was on the neighbour’s fence but it’s fine – she was chasing off a crow.”
This year, Tu thinks they will be about 60% self-sufficient in vegetables, and she spends about two hours a day on the garden and chickens. She is well aware that the “self-sufficient life is highly glamorised. There are moments when I wake up where I’m like, I can’t be bothered to go outside and feed the chickens.” (They do get fed, obviously.) “It’s something you can really only do with disposable income and a lot of time.” And you do need a lot of space to become really self-sufficient, which is pretty much impossible in an urban setting. “Although we have a really big garden, the house is quite small. That’s another difficult thing about self-sufficiency in London – it’s having the space to actually keep all the produce to tide you over winter.”
For centuries, rural life has been romanticised. In a few years, we may see an influx of people moving back to the city, having realised the countryside dream was not all endless organic vegetables and frolicking livestock. Is there an idealised view of smallholding life? “One of the reasons people come on our courses is to find out whether their view is romantic or not,” says Kingsley. “I believe what we do is remove the rosy tint from their spectacles. This is about understanding the reality of it.” The majority are still keen afterwards, but around 5% decide it’s not for them, she says. And complete self-sufficiency is rarely the aim, despite people’s enduring Good Life dreams. “I think people want to produce some of the best-tasting food they possibly can, and have an interesting, more natural life. But I don’t think anybody is going to be giving up their posh coffees.” Most people will still have to do conventional work, even if part-time or in a more “portfolio”-style career, alongside running a smallholding. They do get retirees and people who have made a lot of money in corporate jobs on their courses, but for most people, Kingsley says: “I think it’s extremely unlikely they’re going to be able to give up work and have this kind of life. Unless you have a niche, high-value product as a result of your smallholding, then you’re going to have to do other work alongside.”
When Grace and Jason Pearce told people they were swapping their life in Sevenoaks, Kent, for a smallholding in Spain, some people reacted quite negatively. They both had good jobs – Grace was a teacher and Jason was a tree surgeon – and some couldn’t believe they wanted to give up their stable lives. But they had been wanting a change for a while. Jason would be doing 12-hour days and some weekends; Grace was also out of the house all day, and their three young children were in nursery. “And then Covid hit, and lockdown,” Grace says. Jason continued to work, but suddenly Grace was at home with three small children while also trying to do her job as a teacher online. “It was horrible,” she says. “I was thinking: ‘Why are we still here? Why didn’t we move two years ago?'”
They quickly realised the house and land they wanted was prohibitively expensive in the UK. Since Grace is half-Spanish and fluent in the language, they decided to do it in Spain instead. That day, they rang the bank to remortgage their house. A month later they had quit their jobs and the month after that, they were living in Spain, staying at a house belonging to Grace’s parents while they looked for their own place. They moved to their smallholding, in the mountains by Spain’s eastern coast, just before Christmas.
It has been a huge learning curve. Jason is learning Spanish and has been able to continue working as a tree surgeon half the week. Grace has started an online tutoring business, and they hope to sell veg boxes locally at some point. The rest of the time, they’re working their land. “We’ve got a lot to learn. Jason has gardening experience, but every houseplant I’ve had, I’ve killed,” says Grace. Still, they’ve got a huge variety of vegetables growing, as well as an enviable “food forest” – 200 olive trees, 100 almond trees, figs, pomegranates, apples. They’ve planted citrus, avocado and mango trees and berry bushes. There are chickens, and two goats are arriving soon. They created all the vegetable beds themselves, and collect rainwater for irrigation; the plan is to get a tank big enough to provide enough water for a year.
They have long been interested in sustainability and food security issues, but the pandemic focused their minds on it. “We’re destroying the planet and we didn’t want to have a part in that any more,” says Grace. “We spend so much money on stuff we don’t really need and working so much, and we just thought ‘for what?’ If we can have a simpler life, we can be with our children more – and they’ve got space here, freedom.” The children have become fluent in Spanish and enjoy helping out. “In England we had a 12ft by 10ft garden,” says Jason. “Here, I can let them go off into the olives and I don’t have to worry about them. Before I was coming home from work and was lucky if I could put them to bed.” Now the couple will be outside with the children most days until 8pm. “We’re working but, because the kids are there with us, it doesn’t feel like work,” says Grace. “It’s physical but, if you like doing it, then it’s not a chore.”
Would they have done it without the pandemic? “It definitely pushed us,” says Jason. Grace agrees: Jason was getting promoted, and they could have ended up stuck in the cycle many of us recognise, of earning more and spending more. “That’s the norm, it’s what we’re programmed to do,” she says. “And that’s why we got negativity about wanting to be self-sufficient – because it’s not the norm, and why would you do that because you’re making more work for yourself? But work is work. You’re either going to an office or you’re at home and working your own land. We’d rather be doing that and know that we can provide for ourselves.”