The art of living the dream in Norfolk

Kathryn Cross They’ve ditched their city suits and place in the rat race for an idyllic life in the Norfolk countryside doing what they love. With their first art exhibition looming, Keith and Debbie Osborn tell Kathryn Cross why they believe they have found the perfect work-life balance.

Kathryn Cross

It's the sort of lifestyle many of us dream about but never get round to taking the plunge or are too scared to take the risk.

But Keith and Debbie Osborn have done just that and on first impressions it looks like they have made the right choice.

The couple, who both grew up in north London, had high-flying careers - Keith in banking and Debbie in accessories buying - but in the past three years they have found a country home, just outside Fakenham, and launched their own art, design and photography businesses in studios just outside their front door.

Add to that a garden full of vegetables that they sell from the gate and the picture couldn't get much prettier.

It has still taken a lot of hard work and dedication to get where they are today, and it has not all been easy.

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After marrying 21 years ago and settling in to their jobs, the couple yearned for a life in Norfolk after holidaying in the county every year.

But it was a bad back that set Debbie's life-change into motion.

“I couldn't work any more in the job I was doing so I went back to college,” she said. “Seeing other people's work every day had reignited the idea that I could do that.”

So she took an initial art and design course at college which led to a degree and then an MA, taking more than seven years of study in total.

But in May 2004 the hard work was to be realised when they were back in Norfolk for another holiday and came across the Creake Abbey studios at North Creake. One of them was empty and, after barely a day to consider, they decided to commit to it as a workshop for Debbie's fashion designs.

The worst part was Debbie having to live in a caravan during the week while Keith still lived in Northampton but in April 2005 they found their dream house, Hillside Lodge at Toftrees, near Fakenham, and they could be together again.

Debbie still used the studio at North Creake until her own was ready at the house last autumn but in the meantime Keith had decided to give up his job in the city after 27 years and take up photography full time.

“I enjoyed it as a hobby and I had taken some photographs for Debbie's fashion shoots but I was ready to do other things and wanted to try and make a living from it,” he said.

He too converted an old garage into a studio and now the couple share three log cabins, one being a gallery for all their work.

After Keith recently had some of his photographs of chairs accepted at an open exhibition at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol, the couple decided to stage their first exhibition together using chairs as their theme.

“I found this really unusual boudoir chair at an antique shop in Fakenham which I thought was really characterful,” he said. “There are all sorts of things you can do with chairs, and they all have stories to tell. It is a piece of furniture that is so diverse and individual to the person so it was a springboard to more work.”

Debbie added: “A theme helps you work. You can fumble around in the air but having focus is a challenge. Being at university I had the experience of having something put in front of you but you have to set yourself these sorts of briefs. You need something to get your teeth into.”

Her work has now expanded from fashion into all sorts of materials and textiles whether as art or bags, cushions, fabric jewellery, scarves and much more. They will form part of the exhibition as well as transmitting some of her eye-catching art on to chairs themselves - including wheelchairs - using acrylics, collage or whatever the subject lends itself to.

She even puts pen to paper for some poetry when the mood takes her.

It seems like their creative juices are in overdrive and, by the time the exhibition starts on Saturday, the gallery may well be bursting at the seams.

But there is no doubt the couple love their new life, working together.

“I didn't want to look back and wish I had done this before,” said Keith. “I wanted to do it before it was too late and we are still not sure if it will work but even if we feel discouraged or drained at times we want to make a go of it. We are trying to do something that is a bit different to what people can see around them all the time and we want to establish a name for ourselves as somewhere people can come and find something interesting.

“We are living our life rather than seeing it pass by, realising that money is not everything - it is the quality of life that matters.”

Debbie is noticing a difference in her husband since he gave up the London commute. “Keith was in a stressful job but since he has left work he has been able to relax more. We enjoy working together and discussing our ideas but we also have our own space.”

It has been a long road but the couple are finally living the dream and integrating fully into Norfolk life. They are members of Produced In Norfolk, a social enterprise promoting products made in the county, and with plans for art workshops it looks like Keith and Debbie are well on the road to achieving the more self-reliant lifestyle they were looking for.

t Chairs, an exhibition, runs from Saturday August 23 to Sunday September 10, 11am to 6pm, admission free, at Hillside Gallery and Studios, Hillside Lodge, Swaffham Road, Toftrees, Fakenham, 01328 856700.

t For more information log on to the website