Life & Culture

Why we swapped Hampstead Garden Suburb for life on the farm

How do you stay observant Jews on a smallholding amid your sheep, goats, ducks and bees? Easily!


Gillian Freedman with a goat on her farm

When Jeremy turned 60 we could have booked a Caribbean cruise or thrown a party at a swanky restaurant. Instead we put our Hampstead Garden Suburb house on the market and before the year was out we had relocated to a five-acre smallholding in rural Bedfordshire.

Friends and family were concerned and bombarded us with questions,

“Where will go to shul? How will you get kosher food? What will you do with so much land?”

We weren’t worried.

It was true that we had been fully immersed in communal North London life, we were regular shul goers, ran a charity in our spare time and worked far too many hours in our office. We were ready for a change and what a change it proved to be.

The Gables came with a delapidated house, a 300-year old barn and stable block that was in need of renovation and a large tract of land that had lain fallow for over 40 years. The plan was to continue commuting to London part of the week and to get our new home sorted, create an organic garden, orchard and vineyard and slowly acquire livestock. We rolled up our sleeves and got digging.

There is no need of gym membership when there is outdoor work to do and very soon our skin was tanned, our muscles ached and our garden began to take shape. The house got a makeover and in time the barn was restored to its former glory and the stable block fitted out as bedrooms for the guests that we hoped would visit.

From the outset we decided to tell our new neighbours that we were Jewish and observant Jews at that. Most of them had rarely met a Jew but they were interested, sometimes puzzled as to what kosher food was and why we couldn’t eat in their houses. They were always respectful and pleased to join us at The Gables for our annual Chanukah party and they all loved the latkes and doughnuts. Who doesn’t love latkes? They ate as many as we could fry.

On Wednesdays I joined the village walking group and became close friends with one of the church wardens. I learnt that congregations, vicars and wardens also have ferribles and broigeses just like us.

I stopped work and we asked a neighbour to help us select two Dexter cows. Lucy and Beattie came to live in the field and were soon joined by eight Jacob sheep. We built a chicken run and acquired a selection of hens and one magnificent cockerel. There was an abundance of fresh eggs, with bright yellow yolks and my cakes never failed to rise. One day Jeremy brought home four white Embden geese and they went to live on our pond. Then we added some ducks and five years ago we just had to buy two beautiful Golden Guernsey goats. The goats have become a feature of The Gables and led to some adventures, some tragedies and mostly a great deal of joy. We milk two of them every morning and Jeremy makes a selection of cheeses – feta, cheddar, mozzarella, ricotta and halloumi.

As we suspected we had numerous visitors from London. Children were entranced by the animals, their parents and grandparents enjoyed eating our fresh strawberries and gooseberries whilst tasting our homemade cider and sitting in the sunshine. No one went home empty handed and we were able to give jars of own honey to Jewish friends and family for the New Year. Soon we were holding gatherings for Shavuot, Succot, Chanukah and many shabbat weekends. It was true that we couldn’t walk to a shul but we created a synagogue in our dining room with our own sefer torah and a wooden ark built by a local craftsman to our specification.

Those who doubted that Jews could live a Jewish life in the countryside began to say that “I’d love to do what you are doing. You are living the dream.”

Then came Covid and our daughter and son-in-law, niece and grandson packed their most precious possessions and came to live at The Gables for 12 weeks. We were amongst the very few families who could be together for that first Seder night in lockdown and seven weeks later for Shavuot. We felt blessed.

Life in London was more or less the same in all the seasons. Here in the countryside we live in close contact with the rhythm of nature. In the spring there is a surplus of milk and eggs, the daffodils bloom and the trees burst into life. The summer is a season of plenty and we make jam, pickled cucumbers, and eat the most delicious asparagus, new potatoes and globe artichokes.

The orchard gives us peaches, walnuts, almonds, apricots and later plums, apples and pears. In the autumn we tidy up the garden, dry some of the beans, plait onions and hang butternut squashes in nets all to be stored and used throughout the winter. In the depths of winter we sit by the woodburning stove, drink a glass of whisky and enjoy the long nights when can read and even write a book. Then just as we are settling into a quieter life we begin lambing. Our first lamb this year was born two weeks ago. Last year we had 22 lambs. Some sheep needed help with birthing and some lambs needed to be bottle fed. Feeding doesn’t last long and before you know it the lambs are running around the field and fully independent.

Believe me it is possible to leave the North London bubble, to be accepted for who and what we are and to fit into a new way of life. The rewards of living in the countryside, in tune with the seasons, raising animals and eating of the fruits of one’s labours have brought us immeasurable satisfaction. Now our London friends and family ask us, “How much longer will you be able to keep farming?” Who knows? I will just enjoy every day.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive