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Out of the Rat Race and into the Country

An interview with Cathy and James Walker, owners of Hartland Mill B&B

Customs, habits and routines are good things. They provide structure and familiarity to daily life and help us focus on goals and build for the future. Yet problems can arise when familiarity turns to tedium, when habits become monotonous and routines scream of repetition. Now and then we need to escape for a while and clear our minds.


One’s comfort zone shrinks the longer one spends in it, so a short, sharp leap of faith can be the psychological reset that we need to reinvigorate our enthusiasm for the day-to-day slog. Sometimes however, a short time away is not sufficient and bigger change is on the cards; when the job, the commute and the traffic start to grate sooner and sooner after coming back from holiday.

At this point, most will content themselves with consuming aspirational television about moving abroad or building their own house or changing their career. Some will chew their friends’ ears off at the pub after one too many merlots about how much they crave the ‘simple life’ and how things would be so much better for them if they could just run away to the country. I think many of us will have heard such sentiments and maybe even uttered them ourselves. It’s telling that these sorts of speeches are primarily about what people want gone from their lives and not what they want to add. This is probably why in all likelihood, come Monday morning, it’s right back in the traffic jam, behind the desk, back to the routine.

We at OXsylva believe that life only gets richer as we grow older. With age comes wisdom, perspective and opportunity. Cathy and James Walker embody this sense of joie de vivre and potential. After long careers in some of Oxford’s best schools, and as the children began leaving the nest, they set about planning the next adventure. Their new start brought them to Hartland in North Devon where they renovated an old mill into a B&B. Since then, Hartland Mill has risen through the ranks on TripAdvisor to become one of the most highly rated B&Bs in the area. We caught up with James and Cathy to discover if the grass really is greener on the other side.


Have you always felt the pull of the countryside?

Cathy: I've always felt more at peace in the countryside and while I lived in Oxford, when it was the best place to be for schools, I was generally plotting how I could move somewhere more rural. I love to watch the seasons change and you can do that so much more closely in the country. The rhythm of the seasons is comforting and even what gets chucked at us in the winter is reassuring. We’re five minutes from the sea and I had no idea how much that would come to mean to me. Much of the move for me was to be able to lead a simpler life, unfettered by the nine-to-five and the rushing around.

James: Definitely – especially the South West for me due to many wonderful cottage holidays I had as a child. Late spring is a great time in Devon and the smell of wild garlic along paths brings back many vivid memories. I also remarked to Cathy recently that if I had my time again then farming or estate management would have been my career path, but that was too diverse to even consider when I was 18.


A lot of people talk about moving away to somewhere idyllic and starting a business. What gave you the courage to actually do it?

Cathy: I’ve never been afraid of moving – maybe because I grew up in a service family. While one yearns to put down roots, there's always the inherent excitement of the new. My life has been a series of reinventions, usually to fit in with bringing up my children but none quite as self-centric as this one. It was a good time in our lives to do it – we've still got the energy and ‘oomph’ to make a go of it, the children were fledging and we yearned for a simpler, less constrained life.

James: I'm not sure about courage but there was certainly a fear that we might look back in years to come and regret not doing it. Certainly when mentioning our plans to friends it was reassuring to hear that they thought we'd be great at the job. After that we made sure that we had enough of a plan to convince the bank to lend us the extra we needed and got on with it.

Cathy: There are moments in life when one wonders if this is it – secure jobs, mortgage and so on, which begin to stretch out ahead and not in a good way. There was also an element of investing in my future health and getting away from static office work to a more active way of life. Since we started this I've lost over 6 kilograms without really trying, and that's with 'testing' lots of recipes. We had the blessing of the children which was very important and so here we are.

James: People have children without a detailed plan as to how things will develop and you can't sell them if it doesn't work out! There are usually more reasons not to make a big change, but you never know until you give it a go.


Was there a certain amount of adjustment necessary to go from your previous careers to your new life?

Cathy: Absolutely – mainly to do with running a business. Our people skills from previous roles were instantly transferable, as was the work ethic. However, using your home as your place of work has meant that, apart from each other, we don't have work colleagues like we did before.

James: 'Transferable skills' is such a catchphrase but you realise the importance of them when completely changing your career. Previously I've enjoyed a variety of roles in independent prep schools and many years ago I was a branch customer service manager with John Lewis. The former was thinking ahead to ensure happiness while the latter tried to reinstate it after the event –fortunately this has yet to be applied at the B&B! A big difference is your spouse becoming your business partner. I've been very fortunate to totally trust Cathy with so many decisions during the initial stages of the business. She has a great eye for design and a clear plan in her head as to how a room will look, so I let her get on with it.


What (if anything) do you miss about Oxford/previous work?

Cathy: The White Company shop – am I allowed to say that? But seriously, it would have to be the friends we left behind. I always felt very privileged to live in a beautiful place like Oxford and to bring up children there – as an urban landscape it couldn't get much better.

James: Having previously been a prep school teacher I really do miss the interaction with a large group of work colleagues and of course the children. The city is an inspiring place but we were not ones to make the most of it and generally only saw the sights when we had people staying.  

What don’t you miss?

Cathy: Working for someone else and of course, Oxford traffic! 

James: I certainly do not miss the crowds, traffic and roadworks. And all the buses! I just remembered the buses!


How did you find the Mill?

Cathy: We found the house after trawling through estate agent websites. We'd had a false start with selling our house which meant that another property we had made an offer on fell through. We eventually accepted an offer on our house with nothing to move to, and took a leap of faith to a rental while we carried on looking. We saw Hartland Mill and instantly felt excited, but never thought we'd end up here. When we drove down on one of our house viewing days – we had a list of six or so – nothing mattered after we saw this. This house and the area got under our skin.

James: The Mill is such a striking house that it really stood out after clicking through so many houses online. We were confident that if potential B&B guests saw it they would have to find out more about the place rather than pass it by. I'll always remember coming down the lane and seeing it for the first time – it was just so perfect for what we wanted to create.


What’s your ethos when it comes to hospitality?

James: A guest once mentioned our approach in an online review: know what the guest requires perhaps even before they do. It is equally important to find a balance in your attentions as some guests wish to chat and hear all about the area while others wish to be left alone.

Cathy: I think it boils down to what we would like if we went away. We hope guests will feel like they've had a real treat being here, a solid sleep in a wonderful bedroom, a fabulous breakfast and the feeling that they've been well looked after. People can retreat here and recharge.


What are your favourite things about Hartland and North Devon?

James: Honestly? You get a lot more property for your money than in Oxford and for that matter, South Devon. The people of Hartland have also been wonderful. From the very start strangers have helped us out and made us feel very welcome. You’re far better off asking someone for a recommendation for a builder than Googling – people live and work so closely they won't let you down.

Cathy: It is stunningly beautiful and so unspoilt. This part of North Devon has a wildness, almost a rawness to it, and watching the cycle of our first year has been exhilarating. Hartland itself is a proud, self-reliant community that is thriving.


What advice would you give to our readers that want to do something similar?

Cathy: Don't give up or be put off – every problem can be solved. Do your research and know what kind of business you want to run. You don't have to be really good at every aspect now – you learn so much on the job. 

James: Everyone involved has got to be determined to make it work because it won't be easy. Be realistic about what you are taking on. You might picture yourself helping guests but you also need to get up early, wash the dishes, change beds and clean bathrooms, so have a goal that is for you. Ours is not creating a fabulous B&B; rather this is what we are doing to reach our goal. Previously we worked to pay the bills and the mortgage – now the house earns the money for the mortgage and we earn the money we want to enjoy life with. Even the other day we had an idea what we were going to do after this!