Two years ago, Sue and Phil Purver, both 63, realised they needed a new kind of rural living. The UK’s first lockdown had just started. Immediately, their quiet local woodland footpath became a thoroughfare for surrounding townies seeking the countryside for their hour of permitted daily exercise. The path was strewn with rubbish and the isolation provided by the couple’s half-mile private drive was shattered. It was the final straw, says Phil. “The south-east drives us crazy. It is too crowded, it’s too dirty. We’re always in a traffic jam.”
Today, the couple are about to buy 10 acres on Scotland’s remote western coast. On the land, which has never been lived on or farmed, they plan to build a home that is off-grid, generating its own electricity and drawing its own water. But the new home will fulfil their dream of a life apart from society and closer to nature. “What is remoteness for us?” Phil says. “It is remoteness from trains, from cars, from aeroplane noise. From pollution and people who don’t give a damn about the environment.”
The impulse to seek out this kind of remote life is part of the well-documented rush to the countryside sparked by the pandemic. But it is more, besides.
“It is related to autonomy and self-reliance. People want control and flexibility,” says Melinda Mills, a professor of sociology at Oxford university, who served on the behavioural insights committee advising Sage, the government’s scientific advisers during the pandemic.
Alastair Bonnett, professor of social geography at the University of Newcastle, places frontier living within a broader counter-urbanisation movement, emerging after the second world war and now turbocharged by pandemic neuroses. “It’s an international phenomenon,” he says. “[Historically it is] a reaction to pollution, crime rates, other safety fears — this sense that the city isn’t working and that we can find a better environment.”
But what is “better”? What are the rewards of remote living, for which people will bear the loneliness, privation and danger it entails?
Aged 43, Michael Reynolds found himself living halfway up a mountain in New Mexico, several miles from the nearest electricity or sewerage connection. The slope was so steep the only way to reach the home in winter was on foot. Even his wife refused to join him.
But Reynolds hardly noticed the hazards: he was set on a dream of building a community deep in nature beyond the bothersome intervention of government. “It was remote and there was no possibility of power lines or oil wells being drilled. I figured we’d be left alone.” He finished 15 homes before the county authorities, complaining they couldn’t get their emergency vehicles up there, shut him down.
Undeterred, he tried again, buying a remote plot on the nearby high desert plateau peppered with sage and rush. Again, the remoteness defeated him. The homes he built were largely self-sufficient, with fruit and vegetables inside glasshouses watered by residents’ filtered sewerage. But parts of the seven-mile dirt track connecting the site to the highway turned into quagmire when it rained. After he built and sold 10 homes, no one else was interested.
He had a realisation. “For people who want to go sustainable and remote — at least [to get] enough to make a viable community — it’s got to be easy. They’re just not ready to really rough it,” he says. With his next project — 90 homes on a 650-acre desert plot adjacent to the highway, a 20-minute drive from the nearest town — he says he cracked it. “In the two years since Covid we have sold more homes than ever before.”
For those tempted by the illusion that a life apart from society will solve their problems — psychological as well as physical — hazards await. Bonnet sees an element of escapism in the wider pandemic flight to the countryside. “It’s really all about people’s repulsion to the city. People are fleeing from something they know towards something they are not very sure about.”
And today’s preoccupation with wellness offers a hokum alibi. “We are constantly told we need to be kind to ourselves, to find this place that is not hectic but quiet and close to nature — above all, in which nature is working its healing on us. But if it’s flight or escape, you may make things worse.”
After her relationship ended in 2019, Gill Lowing, 51, found herself alone, forlorn and on the point of joining a small residential community on the remote Scottish island of Erraid. “The break-up devastated me. It was a tough year. I was looking at myself and my patterns and my mind came to this place.”
But she hesitated. A move meant giving up her job — nine years as a philanthropy adviser for a charity — and a comfortable home near Durham. And she knew from previous stays on Erraid that island life is no picnic: there is little privacy, the work is hard and the environment unforgiving — the island is frequently battered by storms and rain.
Besides, she was suspicious of her impulse. Was she really looking to recoup and find her direction again or was she just desperate to escape? “I wanted to know: is this place pulling me or am I trying to run away?”
So, she dipped her toe: two weeks at the start of January 2020, rather than the typical week the community offered to visitors, before returning in March for a six-month trial membership. Then, in September, she took the plunge.
Living, working and eating with five people in the middle of nowhere is intense, she says. Interpersonal conflicts have little space to cool: “If you have a difficulty with someone, you still have to sit opposite each other at supper.” The work is tough: her jobs including managing seven gardens that produce most of what the residents eat. “At home I couldn’t look after one garden properly.”
But today, thanks to a recent inheritance and insights gleaned from two years of seclusion, she has a new plan and is seeking a home with a smallholding in southern Scotland where she will run country retreats. By separating from society “we are in control of ourselves, less influenced by the distractions of consumerism,” she says. “That feels significant. What I want has changed. I never thought I would drive a tractor or get a chainsaw licence. It has been empowering.”
This is not the first time a pandemic has triggered curiosity for life at the edge according to Mills. It followed the 1918 Spanish flu and, to a lesser extent, the H1N1 influenza outbreak in the US in 2009 — both also marked by fears of crowded living and resistance to government authoritarianism. But committed advocates of remote living typically share a deeper anarchic side, she says. “As much about the search for autonomy it is about rejection of society, by those who feel society has rejected them.”
Lockie has never felt comfortable with the central role of money in conventional society or the material distractions of urban living. So, aged 27, when his wife found a local newspaper ad for a $40,000 plot of land for sale in Australia’s remote Northern Territory, he needed little persuading. “It was everything we had talked about: cheap, isolated, with permanent water [from a bore hole] and a river nearby,” says Lockie, who declined to give his real name.
The next day the couple packed up the car and, with their one-year-old daughter, left Lockie’s parents-in-law, where the family had been staying. The spot was two hours from the nearest town — 110km on a tarmac road, the final 30km by a dust track — and perfect. They bought it on the spot.
For 17 years they have lived remote, off-grid, alone — not cut off from the world but at its edge, under its radar. Twice, his wife has given birth at the homestead, with only Lockie for company. They have registered none of their three daughters with the state education department — a legal requirement for home-educated children. Instead, the girls are “unschooled”, an unstructured approach led by their curiosity and life’s practical requirements. They learnt maths from card games and jobs round the homestead that involve measurement; all three started reading at around 12 years old.
Before building their house, they lived for 10 years in a wooden shed with material draped around a veranda for shade. The family has solar panels that charge a battery to run the lights and a water pump connected to the bore hole; the fridge and cooker run on gas, replenished by trips to the local town. Now and again, temporary work — manual jobs for Lockie, alternative medicine for his wife — helps fund things they need for the home.
To supplement what is produced in the garden, and the goats and ducks they keep, Lockie hunts kangaroo (in the Northern Territory this requires a permit, which he doesn’t have), buffalo and the odd cow that wanders in from the adjacent ranch, which covers several thousand acres (the family made the last one last four months using everything but the intestines).
None of the family is vaccinated against Covid. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Lockie questions the vaccine’s effectiveness and objects to the mask and movement mandates of the pandemic.
“The government lost my trust a long time ago,” he says. But when his middle daughter fell out of a tree and broke her arm, he was glad for the helicopter that flew her to hospital in Darwin in 45 minutes. “I know I’m part of a society. I have no problem with paying taxes. My dilemma is that all human interactions have a financial dimension. It’s complicated.”
Despite the remote Scottish location, they have chosen, Phil and Sue Purver won’t be pulling up the drawbridge on human interaction. “Our big caveat is we still want to travel. We don’t want to become hermits or live off the land,” says Sue. But she admits the reclusive impulse, accumulated from a life spent in the congested, dirty south-east countryside, is an important part of the draw. “I’m embarrassed about this human race. We want to existing calmly and quietly without inflicting too much on the environment.”