After a move to the seaside, a lifelong Londoner finds new creative energy

St Leonards-on-Sea, United Kingdom – Toby, born and bred in London, has always lived in the city. But when he met his partner, Beth, and they fell pregnant with their child, the couple decided to leave for the more rural reaches of the south coast of England. Settling in the quiet seaside town of St Leonards-on-Sea, they’ve experienced a renewed sense of creative freedom to explore new ways of expression and collaboration. The relaxed, seaside lifestyle might be appealing to some, but Toby isn’t slowing down – he’s intent on inspiring more local people with his work, at the same time as building the profile of the town through his combined passions for film, music, and street art.

You’re from London originally. What made you want to leave the city?
I’ve been in London my whole life. I was ready to live somewhere else for a couple of years. My wife Beth and I both wanted to get out of London. We went on a tour around the south coast and stumbled across this place, and we both really liked it. Brighton was expensive, Margate was a bit rough, but St Leonards-on-Sea was a bit smaller and just right. It reminded us of London in a weird kind of way. It was only meant to be for three years.

How did moving here affect your life?
In London I was working fulltime. Here there’s more time for the things you want to do. You could easily have a pretty relaxed lifestyle here because it’s cheap, but maybe that’s not such a good thing [laughs]. Having kids changes your life anyway. And being able to bring up Nancy by the sea has been amazing.

How do you feel about working less?
When you haven’t got the pressure to earn money you take your foot off the gas a bit and relax. And if you’re out of the whole London networking thing, people forget about you. Down here you just end up meeting locals and everybody’s in the same boat. It’s a really nice lifestyle, but I think you can only do it for so long if you’ve got ambitions to do other stuff.

What do you do at the moment?
Graphic design and music. I also do carpentry, but it’s quite demanding physically, so I’m not sure I can do that for much longer. I want to learn new things as well. I’m doing a film editing course at the moment – I want to get into that. It will tie in with the music and graphics.

Can you explain your music project and how that came about?
I used to do a lot of music in the 90s. I released about five or six singles, and I actually did all right – I sold quite a lot. I went around Europe on a little tour. It was a good few years. At some point I just got bored of music, and I sold all my equipment, got a computer, and got back into graphics. When we moved here, for some reason I really wanted to make music again. It can be bleak in the winter, and there isn’t a lot going on. I spent about 500 pounds on some equipment and started renting a studio space. I wanted to have somewhere to go where I could work in the evenings. That’s how it began.

Can you tell me about your studio?
It’s a big warehouse space, with lots of room. It’s great. I share it with two other artists. Danny Pockets is a painter and teaches in London 3 days a week. And Sophie ‘Shuby’ does collages and street art.

A few of your paste-ups can be seen around town. Are you still involved in street art?
I used to do it for a while, but then it got really commercial. I always liked doing something a bit out there, sort of alternative, whether it’s music or art. There was just too much of it, so I kind of lost interest. It’s a bit like when I used to DJ in the early 90s. All of a sudden everybody was a DJ, and their moms, and their dogs… And that’s what I thought about street art as well – it just got a bit swamped.

Does being down here help to operate outside the mainstream?
I think you follow fashions more when you’re in the heart of it. You are influenced more by what’s going on around you. In fact, I think that’s actually one of the reasons why people are interested in Elf & Stacy [Toby’s music project], because it sounds a bit different. When we first got played on the radio, they selected us because they thought it was really refreshing. And that’s probably to do with being here and not being caught up with what everyone else is doing. If everything starts to look the same, if everyone starts to dress the same, does the same thing, there’s no alternative. That’s what I feel certain areas of London are becoming like. That’s not why I left, that’s just an observation.

Is there anything you miss about London?
I love cinema, so that’s one of the things I really miss. Just being able to go and see a cool film at the drop of a hat. Here there might not be anything on that you want to see, so it’s less spontaneous. Multiculturalism is another thing I miss. The noise, the smells, the colour, reggae blasting out of shops – I think that’s really inspiring. There aren’t many cities that are like that.

How do you feel about Hackney now? You lived there long before it got so popular.
It’s just London, isn’t it? Twenty years ago Notting Hill used to be really fashionable and then prices went crazy. Then it was Shoreditch and then Hackney. It’s how it works. But sooner or later I can’t think of anywhere else in London. Maybe it’s places like this, Margate, Hastings, Ramsgate, 'the new places' will be these forgotten little seaside towns. They are definitely having a renaissance now. Also technology enables you to be anywhere you like. You can make a picture here and send it to a client in New York. If you can get the work, it doesn’t matter where you produce it. It’s just getting the work that’s the hard thing.

There’s no spotlight on this place. You can do whatever you want, and you don’t feel like everybody’s judging you

Do you think living here has changed you as a person?
I’ve definitely become calmer. I don’t get road rage anymore [laughs]. In London I always lived in rough areas when I was growing up. It’s definitely more relaxed here, and I don’t feel threatened in any way.

How do you spend your free time?
My downtime is just about making music now. In London your whole week could be planned out, every night you could have something to do. Living here gives you space to think whereas in cities you don’t really have that so much because there’s always distractions. And there’s no spotlight on this place. You can do whatever you want, and you don’t feel like everybody’s judging you. In London there can be a bit of a snobbish attitude sometimes.

How easy did you find it to connect with the community here? Walking down the street with you and Beth feels like you know everybody.
We were lucky because we opened a shop [selling vintage furniture, children’s clothing and world cinema DVDs] when we first moved down. We had it for 3 years. Everybody came into that shop and we made some really good friends. It is a small town, so it’s easy to find people you’ve got things in common with. The cheap studio and house rents make this place really attractive for the creative community. There are a lot of artists and writers.

Do you think you can bring something new to this town coming from London?
If you get out there, talk to people, make music, play live, then you’re giving people something they might not have heard before. Something different. When I started doing the paste-ups around here, people really reacted to it. Even if it’s just a tiny little bit, you can definitely influence something. If your music is being played on the radio and they mention it is from St Leonards, people might visit or take an interest. It might inspire locals to do something similar.

What are your ambitions for the future?
I really want to be working towards tying everything up into one package – music, graphics and film – something where it all comes together. I also quite like the idea of working with other people again to create something new. At the moment I’m quite isolated, so I’m all for working with other people.

This piece was originally featured in City Quitters. You can purchase a copy here.

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