The Great Relocation that has taken place over the past three years has seen a younger generation up sticks and move to the countryside in a bid to live the rural dream. Thanks to the working from home revolution, it has become possible for young families to move to the country, perhaps a decade or two earlier than they had intended; and a renewed desire to be surrounded by nature has also lured many away from the cities.
Some have retraced their steps and moved back to the city since offices have reopened, or on finding that rural life didn’t suit them after all. But many have made the move permanent, and made their homes in properties that are very different from the town houses and flats they previously occupied. So how is this influx influencing the interior style of the modern country house?
In his book, The New Country, interior designer Dean Keyworth discusses this very question and offers advice for anyone still thinking of making the move. And he has personal experience, being a participant in the phenomenon himself.
When Dean and his husband, a marketing consultant, bought a converted church in Northumberland in 2017, they originally intended to keep it as a holiday home, retaining their main base in London. Then the pandemic hit, and when they found themselves spending long periods of time in the country, they decided to relocate full-time.
“We were both able to continue working up here, and just decided that we liked it,” says Dean. “It’s funny, I’m a born-and-bred Londoner and I’d lived there all my life, but I feel more relaxed, at home and rooted up here than I ever have before.”
Their home is, by its nature, idiosyncratic in its design, but their living and entertaining space – one large open-plan room, zoned into areas for dining, sitting and working – is, Dean admits, “not traditionally something you would have in a country house at all”. Although the open-plan kitchen/dining/living room trend is increasingly in evidence in the countryside, as those moving from town houses accustomed to open-plan designs aim to replicate them in the country, in many cases it’s not necessary, desirable or even possible in the case of some listed buildings.
“The thing about a country house is that the kitchen is bigger to start with,” says Dean. “There will be a place to sit and maybe a comfy sofa the dog can sit on – that will be already there, you don’t need to knock down walls to get it. There will be bigger public rooms, and smaller private rooms like snugs, which were seen as a bit old-fashioned before but are actually really useful.”
The snug is an example of the type of country-house feature that has come back into fashion and become desirable in town houses, too: see also pantries, laundry rooms and boot rooms, which are coveted for their styling opportunities as well as their practical qualities, partly thanks to the growing number of interiors influencers (many of whom live in the country), who “reveal” their immaculately ordered, tongue-and-groove-clad utility spaces on Instagram. What were previously purely functional rooms in a country house have now become wow-factor spaces where their owners can indulge in gloss-painted cabinetry in bold colours, under-sink patterned curtains, and bespoke dog showers.
That cross-pollination of design aesthetics goes the other way, too: there are rooms not traditionally found in country houses that are becoming ever more in demand in the country thanks to the younger generations who are moving there, among them gyms and cinema rooms, particularly in rural locations that are miles from the nearest cinema.
“I’ve seen super-modern cinema rooms in basements, but also a barn conversion where the beams of the original building were kept and wall cladding added so that the acoustics were right,” says Dean. “It’s a case of embracing modern technology, but softening the edges of it for the country.”
The home office is, of course, the big one – and a key room where technology and design need to work hand in hand. Although in some cases an office will need to double up as a TV room or snug, “The great thing about a bigger country house is that you can potentially choose where you want to work, because you’re not limited to a spare room as you might be in a town house,” says Dean. “You could even have one room you use in the summer that overlooks the garden and another you use in the winter that’s cosy and well-heated.”
As the home office is now, more than ever, a room that will be used regularly rather than occasionally, its design has evolved to become more personal and decorative, with patterned wallpapers and antique desks often making an appearance.
Although a bedroom might need to be converted to make an office, there will often be a higher number of them in a country house – with multiple spare rooms needed to house visiting guests comfortably – and then, of course, there is the bathroom question. “You can have a 10-bedroom country house that’s only got two bathrooms, which is not adequate for a young family who are used to en-suites,” points out Dean.
Increasing the bathroom-to-bedroom ratio is often one of the key changes to be made to an older house when a young family moves in, and can mean dispensing with a smaller bedroom or two. “There are clever ways you can do it though, depending on whether the house is listed or not,” says Dean. “In the big older houses, there’s often a linen room next to the main bedroom that’s the size of a London bathroom, which you can convert.”
Aside from practical considerations, when it comes to decoration, there has historically been a divide between the traditional, comfortable style of the countryside, and a more contemporary look in the city. That divide has reduced in recent years, however, due to a revival of the country-house look, thanks again to younger, rurally-based tastemakers popularising rustic kitchens, gingham fabrics and antique furniture – although it often comes with a modern tweak, and is sometimes executed in a punchier palette.
“It’s definitely evolving,” says Dean, who cites the bold patterns and moody colours of wallpapers and fabrics of brands such as House of Hackney that are giving old-style motifs a contemporary flavour. “In a house with high ceilings, you can really go for that maximalist look,” he adds, “although, I don’t think we’re quite ready for that in Northumberland.”
Why I swapped city living for a country home
by Catriona Gray, author and journalist
Moving to the countryside from London sounds like a cliché, but it was something my husband and I had always talked about. Neither of us were actually raised in the city – I’d been brought up in rural Ireland, where the nearest village was two and a half miles away and the vast majority of our neighbours were sheep; Tim hails from Kent and spends all of his free time outdoors.
It was fairly obvious to both of us that we would end up leaving London at some point, but the problem was how to manage it, given we needed to be there for work.
We were lucky enough to spend most of the pandemic in Ireland, which gave us an idea of what it would really be like living in the countryside full time. What became swiftly apparent was that while we both loved it, we needed to be closer to London. Sussex was an obvious choice – rural but not too remote – and we spent almost two years searching for somewhere that felt right. When we finally found it, it wasn’t exactly the sensible family home that we’d envisaged – it was a two-bedroom folly that resembled a miniature castle, set in a remarkably beautiful location.
At that point, we were childfree, so the lack of bedroom space wasn’t the most pressing thing on our minds. However, by the time we moved in last August, I was pregnant, and we realised that we would have to make a few changes in order to make the layout more functional – repurposing a study to become the master bedroom, changing the configuration of the bathrooms, and generally making better use of the available space.
However, our ideas on space-planning were swiftly trumped by more urgent concerns. Arriving in the midst of a 40C heatwave and an impending fuel crisis, we realised that the ancient, oil-guzzling Aga couldn’t be switched off, and was also the only source of hot water. What started as a simple plan to decommission the Aga soon spiralled into having to replace the entire heating system and the circuit boards, and then rewire half the house.
Thankfully, though, that’s behind us, and I can finally think about the decoration. I’ve always preferred old things to new, and I love that traditional country-house look, but at the same time I want to live somewhere that’s comfortable and practical, and not too precious.
My favourite interiors are those created by antiques dealers, such as Robert Kime and Jack Laver Brister (@tradchap on Instagram), as they’re so layered and filled with lots of interesting pieces. In general, I find it more helpful to look at pictures of designers’ own homes for inspiration, rather than images of very immaculately renovated projects, which can sometimes seem a bit soulless.
I love interiors that have a playful side to them – whether that’s colours, pattern or artwork – which is probably why I was so drawn to the idea of living in a folly. Half of the rooms are circular, which brings its own set of design challenges, but it also offers the opportunity to create something unique. It might not be the most conventional house in which to raise a family, but I have a feeling it’s going to be a lot of fun.