DEVON DREAMING

Many of us dream of escaping to the country, but few make the decision in the prime of their life. Knight Frank Regional Partner, Mark Proctor, gives us his first-hand account of swapping London life for something freer in South Devon

We’ve all had the vision. Turning it in and quitting the rat race for a different place at a different pace. We’ve all let the thought linger: “to give it all up and gain it all at the same time."

Some of us want to do it younger than others, to make the move for the sake of our family, simultaneously building a future. Some of us have even built it into our ‘five-year plans’.

But rarely, however, do many of us strike while the iron is hot, take the plunge and leave big-city life in the midst of our adult primes. That’s exactly what Knight Frank’s Mark Proctor did in 2016, however, when he moved with wife, Sylvie, and two young children, son Sennen and daughter Marner, from Shepherd’s Bush in West London to Ashburton, a small village south of Dartmoor National Park, in Devon.

“We made the move together as a family,” Mark tells us, as we catch up with him on a rare day that he remains in one place. “We made a decision about what we wanted for our children and that our philosophy would be to have no regrets over making the move.

“You've only got one life so you might as well live it. The fact that we were able to be combine all of our passions with my career has probably helped me be more successful in the long run. My wife has a successful career down here as well, and now works remotely. She worked for a branding agency up in London and has retained a lot of her clients, so she now works freelance and hasn't had to compromise on her income.”

Mark, 43, has been with the firm for more than 15 years, rising to the position of Regional Partner for the South West of the UK, a person who is responsible for the offices in that region. He started his career with Knight Frank in St John’s Wood and Belsize Park, selling prime property to Londoners in one of the firm's most fruitful periods.

For Mark now, the region is again his home as much as it is his patch, one he believes is “very diverse” and full of promise. He is responsible for the Hungerford, Sherborne, Bristol, Bath and Exeter offices, all of which have flourished under his stewardship.

“I'm West Country born-and-bred, so to be able to run the region is a real privilege. I can only do this though with the great people I work with,” Mark affirms. “They’re really passionate about what they do, and working with a great team has made the move all that more satisfying. I haven't really looked back.”

There are many drivers behind why movers will leave major cities such as London, chiefly among which, is having more space. This includes space in the home, space in the garden, space in the immediate and surrounding vicinity. Price – or what you can get for your money in comparison to say London – can further ignite this desire, making the decision a logical no-brainer. This isn't to forget schooling options for Sennen and Marner when they grow older, with the quality of state and independent being considered above average, across the southern part of the county.

“For what we were selling in St John’s Wood or Belsize Park for £3.5 million, you could buy for £1.5 million in Devon and get a superb property with views and land instead,” he adds.

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown such decision making into sharp relief, with more buyers saying it’s galvanised any resolve to make the break from the city after living through an extended period of lockdown.

Knight Frank’s Global Buyer Survey 2020 – a gauge of consumer sentiment conducted by Knight Frank’s Research Department in June of this year – certainly confirms this. Of 700 registered Knight Frank clients living across 44 countries, 25% of respondents said they were more inclined to move within the next 12 months after experiencing lockdown, while 45% of would-be movers said they would be looking at purchasing a detached house, and 66% saying they would prioritise owning more outdoor space.

“I think what we've seen, particularly in the light of the pandemic, is people realising that they do not necessarily need to be tied to the Capital, and can probably work from home more,” Mark says. “In fairness, this was a shift already happening, with the rise in homeworking, but businesses have been slow to adapt. Covid has forced the issue.

“We'd seen with Brexit that values in London hadn't been going up as much as they had in the past, nor were salaries rising to match living costs. People began realising they have more opportunity to strike a work-life balance that suits them, than they’ve had in the past ten years.”

Other dynamics remain at play, which include rethinking the role of secondary and primary homes in the sphere of family life. Mark believes local infrastructure upgrades have certainly helped, with improvements in connectivity both physically and digitally reshaping the need to be in a single location to work: “I think a lot of those traditional second home owners are now suddenly realising they can make the countryside their primary residence and perhaps make their second home in London.

“There's definitely a shift in perception and I think there's a lot more emphasis on improving mental health, wellbeing and lifestyle,” Mark adds. Indeed, “space” as a concept can be considered shorthand for all the things it enables a person to do. Lifestyle drivers such as being able to exercise, connect with nature, or give a place for children to be active in all remain strong motivators for buyers, as our Global Buyer Survey shows.

“I wanted to be able to give my children the lifestyle that I had when I was growing up” Mark says. “Both my wife and I are passionate about the outdoors and we love walking on Dartmoor, swimming in the rivers, or going for long runs. It’s wonderful to be able to take advantage of all these interests and share them with my family. There's great access to the outdoors in the South West and it's fantastic to know my children will have this as they grow up.

“On a personal note, I’m a big surfer and sailor and all that sort of stuff, so the move really created more opportunity to get out onto the ocean regularly. At a bare minimum I'll go for a surf once a week when there's swell, and during the summer, I know that it doesn't get dark until half past ten, so I can work until seven o'clock and still jump in the sea for two hours before bedtime.”

It seems a slight paradox to move somewhere with less but be able to do more, and it’s often invoked FOMO-induced feelings of dread in city dwellers who think it can’t possibly be true. Mark believes demography has been affected in recent years, too, as he deals more with families in their thirties, forties, fifties, rather than sixties and seventies, looking to ‘retire’ to the South West.

“Actually, Ashburton, funnily enough, provides most of those things I need and love. It's got a cookery school; great cafes and restaurants; loads of antique shops; and even a guitar shop on top of the usual local amenities you’d expect. It definitely punches above its weight for a small town. I live near another town called Totnes, which again is in the heart of the South Hams, and that's got another really vibrant local scence, with well-balanced, young communities springing up.”

The fear of detachment can similarly be boosted by the impact such a move can have on a career, but Mark again believes this to be untrue in his experience, if not something that’s changing in reality: “We’re seeing a lot of young-ish people like me moving this way, either for the first time or are returning home, and it’s really heartening to see.

“London is a great place to cut your teeth and certainly will give you more experiences at a young age and that can give you an edge later on in life. But in terms of what I do for a living, down here I actually have to work at a much quicker pace.

We made a decision about what we wanted for our children and that our philosophy would be to have no regrets… You only get one life, you might as well live it

Mark Proctor, Knight Frank, Regional Partner

“I absolutely loved my time in London, I loved the vibrancy of the city and everything else and I still love that,” he says. “But now I choose as and when I go to London, and make the most of it when I’m there.”

Mark and Sylvie have done things on their own terms. Understanding where you want to move to and a little compromise can be the ingredients that make such a move successful, but the biggest one needed is faith. “What’s the worst that can happen?” Mark questions. “We could’ve always moved back. But it worked. I now have far greater lifestyle opportunities than I had before, and the balance is right. More importantly it’s a decision we made to invest in our family’s future. And that is priceless.” Take the leap now and the rewards could last a lifetime.

You can see more of Mark's daily life in the South West, by visiting his Instagram, @markproc_kf_exeter

Words: Matthew McEvoy Images: Mark Proctor; Getty UK