The City workers who swapped the office for the great outdoors

Muddy nails and waterproofs have replaced the silk shirts of Helene Mark’s former City life.

The Danish native left her role as chief operating officer of football analytics start-up Football Radar in 2018 to start an open-air nursery school.

“There comes a point where you want to do more with your life than just making your shareholders rich,” said Mark, 39, who previously led a 200-strong team. “My work was very rewarding but it got to a point where even though I was reaching certain goals I was feeling empty. I was coming home in the dark and feeling very disconnected from life.”

She is one of a growing number of workers ditching the office to become entrepreneurs of the great outdoors. Life shocks including redundancy and the pandemic have led many professionals to reassess the stress and long hours of corporate jobs.

A 2021 report from insurance provider Aviva found the number of UK workers planning to make changes to their career rose to 60 per cent, from 53 per cent in 2020. It also showed a fifth of UK adults were looking to profit from their hobbies.

According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, total job-to-job moves between January and March 2022 increased to a record high of 994,000, driven by resignations rather than dismissals.

Mark’s idea for Outdoor Owls came while she researched nursery provision when pregnant in 2019. Inspired by her home country, where early years play and learning takes place entirely outdoors, she rented three green sites in Richmond and Putney, in south-west London, and Cobham in Surrey, funded by her savings. Starting with five children, it has grown to about 30 at each site.

Mark enjoys the hands-on nature of site maintenance. “So much of modern life has become all about being within four white walls; starting at nursery, then school and later the office, yet the outdoors is the most natural place for people to be,” she said.

There is one downside — she said she was yet to take a salary.

“Obviously I’ve taken a hit on my personal finances, especially considering what other jobs I could have taken but I’m confident that if we continue to grow the nursery to more sites it will be a healthy business. I’m mentally and physically healthier than I was; there’s a lot of hard work . . . but I have no regrets.”

Other professionals have made similar career changes — and kept or increased their pay.

From Monitise to Stonehenge

Yolandi Boshoff, 46, was made redundant from her post as a business analyst for Monitise, a financial services technology company, and four years ago moved to south England’s Devon coast.

Through her new venture running “spiritual retreats” she is now matching her previous earnings but working fewer hours and with no commute. Clients from Europe, Australia and the US pay up to £4,500 for her guided breaks to the sacred sites of Glastonbury, Avebury and Stonehenge, learning about their history and mythology. She said many attendees were executives “needing to figure stuff out”, using the experience as a meditative break.

Through her new venture running ‘spiritual retreats’, Yolandi Boshoff is matching her previous earnings but working fewer hours and with no commute © Gareth Iwan Jones/FT

Her previous job was “interesting but hard work and very stressful and I always knew it wasn’t the bigger picture of what I wanted to do.”

She added that the pandemic “made us realise that always being in the office and rushing around was a construct we had created because we thought that was what life should be.

“People have begun to question why they are here, realising there has to be more to life than working yourself to death.”

Foraging for opportunities

A reconnection with nature forged during lockdowns and rising food insecurity has also helped boost interest in activities such as foraging, opening up commercial opportunities.

Marlow Renton, who until 2008 was a web developer in London, is now a seasoned foraging instructor and director of Wild Food UK. He grew a weekend hobby into an enterprise that has sales of £500,000.

His earnings do not quite match his previous salary but he said the career change was a rewarding antidote to the long hours and high living costs in London. He swapped Croydon for Ludlow, Shropshire — “a leap of faith”, helped along by the prospect of lower rent and minimal outlay.

Wild ingredients for an immune supporting tonic using summer seeds and autumn berries
Healing Weeds offers guided walks and workshops to identify wild plants and create remedies

He developed a website that stood out “because there weren’t many very professional looking sites in the industry in 2008”. Last year the site had 2mn visitors.

Renton and his business partner started securing bookings for courses and travelled around the UK in their camper van, initially to locations near friends and family “so we could catch up with them and get a shower,” he said. “We didn’t make much for the first few years, but I certainly smiled a lot more than when walking around Croydon and going to the office.”

Now with an expanded team of instructors his courses regularly sell out and have waiting lists with corporate clients including Land Rover and Puma.

Mark Williams, founder of Galloway Wild Foods, which runs workshops on setting up and expanding foraging-related businesses, has seen a 10-fold rise in demand for his courses.

Others are also succeeding in this area.

After Maria Fernandez Garcia was made redundant from her teaching post in 2020, she started Healing Weeds, based in Bristol, which offers guided walks and workshops to identify wild plants and create remedies.

The 31-year-old built up an online following through regular content on her website and advertised courses on Eventbrite, the ticketing website. Course groups have expanded from just three people to 30 and she also puts on foraging-themed parties.

Mindful that a practice cast as sustainable can also be perceived as a drain on delicate eco systems, her focus is on “reconnecting with nature rather than extraction”.

One-time corporate accountant and former manager of Jamie Oliver restaurants in London, Eoghan Proudfoot, 34, is also careful to minimise the impact of foraging for ingredients for his non-alcoholic drinks lounge in Winchester, Hampshire. He skims a wide range of hedgerows so he does not strip bushes of their fruits.

He said managing a large company’s accounts “has been invaluable experience”. But it meant his passion for foraging was on hold.

Before the bar could open due to pandemic lockdowns, “multiple pivots” were needed, including a focus on local deliveries. But the business now has a £150,000 turnover. Significant investment is needed but Proudfoot, who often spends a full day picking herbs and flowers, is aware investor hopes for quick returns are not compatible with the operational inefficiencies of traditional production methods.

“People assume because foraged ingredients are free that it’s cheap and easy, but they have no idea how labour intensive it is,” he said. “Yet, it is the most rewarding way to spend my time; celebrating and sharing the natural ingredients we have on our doorstep has meant I’ve found my purpose.”

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