Despite Sussex having some impressive market towns and a quirky coastal scene, you don’t have to drive far before you find yourself in a peaceful green oasis. It’s no wonder Londoners with families continue to set their sights on this fair county. But what drives city folk to go from lively urban boroughs, straight to life in a village with only one shop and one pub?
Fiona McQuitty moved to Horsted Keynes in Sussex two years ago from Southfields, near Wandsworth, with her husband Jake and her two eldest daughters. Fiona grew up in Southampton, so was fairly used to city life. She studied in London and stayed after graduating to pursue a career in fashion retail working for Sir Philip Green, before setting up her own retail company, Feather and Stitch. Her Richmond boutique was listed in the Sunday Telegraph’s Top 50 independent London outlets in 2014. Fiona juggles the store and an e-commerce site around her family, spending part of the week in London. “I can do the school run and be on the 9.07 from East Grinstead, ready to put my work hat on,” she enthusiastically declares.
According to locals, their house is within what is known as the Golden Triangle of villages, which are a stone’s throw from Haywards Heath, namely Horsted Keynes, Lindfield and Ardingly. In a 2015 quality of life survey conducted by the Halifax, where factors such as employment opportunity, local infrastructure, weather and residents’ life expectancy were measured, mid Sussex was ranked as the 8th best local authority in Britain to live in.
When the McQuitty family came across this period property on Cinder Hill, with large amounts of outdoor space, a defunct tennis court (where the children learned to ride their bikes), plus an outbuilding with potential for conversion, they snapped it up.
The house is an on-going project but this appealed to the couple, as they could put their own stamp on it, which Fiona stylishly has done, systematically improving the decor room by room. “I don’t care what the rooms look like inside really, because look at that view.” She points out of the kitchen window to a stunning panorama of fields, woodland and the Bluebell Railway line nestled in a hillside in the distance.
Crispin Sykes relocated to Sussex with his young family in 2012. Despite growing up in the Devon countryside, he moved to London to study and ended up living and working there for 15 years. He even opened his own bar and restaurant. But when he and his wife started a family, residing in Putney lost its appeal and country life beckoned. His wife Catherine is East Sussex born and bred, hailing from Battle, but her job in the fragrance industry includes international travel, which rendered that area impractical for their needs. So they unconventionally stuck a pin in a map nearer to Gatwick, around Bolney in West Sussex, and started their property research from there.
Their first 18 months were spent in rented accommodation in the tiny village of Twineham, West Sussex. “At the time it was perfect. The kids were six months and two years old, it was like a long holiday. Our house looked over nothing but fields, it was quiet,” he says. But as the children grew older they wanted to be a bit closer to libraries, shops, play parks and the children’s school friends, but still without compromising too much on a rural location, so settled in Henfield.
“We never considered London a permanent option for living in. It’s extremely expensive and the quality of life is quite poor,” he explains. “But I wouldn’t change the 15 fantastic years I spent there.” In fact, compared to growing up in Bovey Tracey in Devon, Crispin points out that Henfield and Sussex are not really that remote.
Fiona also knew they wouldn’t stay in London long-term and it was just a case of ‘where’ to move to next? Her husband is from Forest Row, near East Grinstead, so they were fairly familiar with the county.
Neither family misses London; even when pressed to think of one thing they were sad to leave behind, they draw a blank. Fiona can only think of the frustrations about where they used to live: “We could never find a parking space outside our house. There was consistent banging and drilling with neighbours converting their Victorian terraced houses. There were always queues at the play park for the swings. I mean, how do you explain that to a four year-old? We have our own swings and slides now.”
Accessible and affordable childcare and education played a part in both families’ decision to relocate to rural Sussex. “Pre-school nurseries are very different here,” says Crispin, “smaller and less expensive.”
According to a recent report by the Family and Childcare Trust, costs for 25 hours a week of childcare in London were on average £150, compared with £130 in the South East. Not a staggering difference, however, in expensive areas such as Putney and Wandsworth, nursery fees can range up to £100 a day with waiting lists so long that people sign up as soon as they learn they are pregnant.
Oversubscription is also a problem in London schools, both state and private. “There were good schools locally in Southfields, but it was a case of could you get your child in?” Fiona says. Her daughters attend Brambletye pre-prep (Benedict Cumberbatch is an alma mater), where there are around eight or ten children in a class. In a similar school in London this would be nearer 20.
But why move from extremely overcrowded neighbourhoods to one where you have to make quite an effort for social contact? Crispin feels there’s more community spirit in his small corner of Sussex compared to Putney. He joined the Mid Sussex Round Table charitable association after moving, and has established a fantastic network of friends through his voluntary work.
“When you raise money in a smaller community, you can relate more to how it improves that area. I mean, what is the local community in Putney? It’s vast. Whereas in Henfield, I know the people and places benefitting from the funds.”
Fiona has established a social life through her daughters’ school and with her neighbours. They’ve also spent time exploring their newfound surroundings, with day trips to historical sites such as Lewes Castle; they’ve even joined The National Trust.
Both families haven’t wasted any time throwing themselves into country life. “We went to the Shermanbury village fair,” says Crispin. “It was a small intimate event with a dog show, Morris dancers and even tractor rides – a typical and wonderful country experience!”
Fiona has several fruit trees on their grounds, so they have apple-picking weekends as a family. “My daughters would never have learned to climb a tree in London. They wear their wellies, rake leaves and have a good outdoors experience.”
“My daughter was invited to a play date by a friend with a pony! And really, you can’t get more rural than that, can you?” Fiona adds, giggling.
With most parts of rural Sussex consistently ranked by quality of life analysts as some of the best places to live in England, Claire Jones-Hughes speaks to families who quit big city life to live in a village