In a 17th century farmhouse, nestled in the south Norfolk countryside, Hayley Southwood says she’s never felt more at home.

She and her husband, Paul, are one of the many couples and families who have relocated to the county in the past few years, using lockdowns as a chance to evaluate what they wanted and where they wanted to be.

But, unlike others, they didn’t do it to escape the city rat race. Instead, they swapped one patch of countryside for another.

“We moved from a tiny hamlet in between Buckingham and Milton Keynes,” Hayley explains. “We’d bought our house, renovated it, and then the prices just went absolutely mental. Everybody was trying to get out of London, so that obviously knocked on to where we were.” Their sons had just gone off to university, so there were fewer ties, and they were keen to start a “second chapter.”

Lockdown, she says, gave the pair a chance to look at how they wanted to live and what their values were, both together, as a family, and with her business.

Hayley runs an online lifestyle brand, Southwood Living, which has 29,000 followers on Instagram (@southwoodliving), and Southwood Social Hub, which is a growing support network for women in business.

“I never really loved where we lived,” she says. “We just ended up staying there because of our children, so it felt like a chance to find our forever home and a place where we really wanted to be.”

The pair looked at four or five properties in Norfolk before finding the barn that would become their home. And for Hayley, it felt like love at first sight.
“We’ve lived in lots of houses, and lots of lovely houses, but it really was the minute we drove up,” she says. “We viewed this house and I just had a total emotional reaction to it. I have never felt so at home.”

The property – a 17th century period barn, with three acres of land and a few outbuildings, sold to them through Savills – had been renovated by the previous owners, who are now their neighbours. “The couple that actually sold it to us are renovating some barns next to it,” Hayley says.

“It was part of an old farm, so we’ve got the main farmhouse and a barn, and next door are keeping some old barns that they’re renovating. They came round on Saturday and brought all their old photographs. The work they did was insane. They put proper blood, sweat and tears into the renovation. It’s really got great bones.”

As a result, Hayley says that she and her husband have had to do next to no work to it – although they are turning a self-contained part of the house into an Airbnb, which they hope to open by the summer. “Obviously I run my business from here as well, so the land and the barn are really important to me,” she says. “We really want to put a few cabins on the land and make it kind of a retreat for couples.”

A sense of retreat and escape is exactly how Hayley describes her new home – and Norfolk more generally. “I’m totally and utterly smitten with my home and the lanes around it – I just feel like I’m in a complete escape,” she says. “I think it’s the authenticity of everything.”

Hayley is very down-to-earth, so it’s hard to believe she could have found a place more suited to her or to her brand. Authenticity has been part of the Southwood Living brand since she created it, championing sustainable makers and encouraging others to buy less, but better. “A lot of the girls that are in the hub say Norfolk couldn’t suit me better,” she laughs. “I think it just really suits my whole ethos and brand – by accident, really, it was definitely not intentional.”

Sharing is a big part of Hayley’s life, whether it’s in her business community, through her online store or through her social media profile – and now Norfolk has become a part of that.

Work by Norfolk artists and ceramicists can now be bought from her online shop – along with a ‘Norfolk’ weekend bag – and her Instagram page is crammed with snaps of the county, including the many trips she and Paul take in Nelson, their Land Rover Defender. She’s become a real cheerleader for the area, amazed by the friendliness of the people, and is keen to share her new life with others.

Hayley hopes that she can share her love of the county even more by hosting events and gatherings for Southwood Social Hub at her new home. “My life and my business are wrapped up in each other,” she admits. “That’s why the move, how it feels, how it felt, was so important to me, because it’s all wrapped up and I want people to come here and feel like they’ve stepped into my world, almost.”

She says they will use the barn they have for their gatherings and hub meet-ups and hopes the woodlands will play host to a series of supper clubs. “But they will be small and quiet and peaceful. They’re all about enjoying nature and being outside and sharing the beauty of it all.

“My life is all about sort of sharing anyway. I want to be able to give them a little slice of that so they’ll be able to come and stay and be a part of it – it’s so peaceful here.”

Perusing Hayley’s Instagram is, in some ways, like having your own tour guide or pocket book of places to go in the county. Many of them are lesser known, off the beaten track, and there are several that even Norfolk natives, like myself, haven’t visited yet.

Another thing that is clear is Hayley’s passion for her particular patch of Norfolk. “I don’t think we realised how incredible south Norfolk actually is,” she says. “I think everybody talks about north Norfolk – we obviously would have gone there on holiday and we would go there for days out to the beach when we lived in our old house – but I’m really not a coastal girl, so south Norfolk is just so green and beautiful and quiet and it’s really unspoiled.”

She says the proximity to other areas, like the Norfolk Broads, helps too – particularly for her husband who loves the outdoors as much as her, but especially water – and so does Norwich, with so many independent shops and creative businesses.“I love being in the countryside, but I love that the city is on our doorstep and it’s a small enough city so you feel like it’s all just manageable and exciting and vibrant,” she says.

“If we’re loving it this much in the winter, I can’t wait to see the summer!”

Something tells me she’s in for a treat.

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