We've escaped from the rat race, so has the reality lived up to the dream?

The rat race has perhaps never seemed less appealing.

Hard work no longer guarantees job security and for those who have devoted years of their life to companies now forced to cut back, the stresses and strains of life in the fast lane suddenly seem like a hefty price to pay.

With priorities being quickly reassessed, many are thinking of turning their back on high flying careers, swapping lucrative salaries for a more laid back lifestyle.

The bank worker turned village shop owner

Sonia and Darren Leeming learnt the hard way that bad luck comes in threes.

Eight years ago, they fulfilled their dream of leaving behind city life, moving from Leeds to run a post office in the quiet North Yorkshire village of Hawnby.

Their arrival was quickly followed by the foot and mouth epidemic which turned the countryside into a no-go area. Life eventually returned to normal, but in 2006 floods swept through the village, taking out the mains supply and leaving houses and footbridges under water. Last year came the final blow when the Leemings discovered their post office was among those earmarked for closure. Despite vocal opposition, the axe finally fell in June.

However, despite their run of misfortune, the couple, who continue to run the Hawnby Stores and Tea Room, have

no regrets.

"It's a huge struggle," says Sonia, who left behind what she describes as "decent paid job" in a bank. "It's not so bad in the summer when the tourists come, but in the winter it can be hard to make ends meet.

"But we didn't come here expecting an easy life. We knew we'd have to work hard and even now the pros still outweigh

the cons."

The Leemings' two young children, 11-year-old Connor and Fraser, six, go to school in nearby Helmsley and enjoy all the benefits of growing up in the heart of the Dales.

"Their bikes have been left outside the house for the last eight years," says Sonia. "In Dewsbury where we used to live, they'd steal the sand out of the sandpit.

"I don't want to do it down too much, but the last time we visited, I saw the burnt out cars and the boarded up buildings and realised just how lucky we are.

"If the boys fall off their bikes in Hawnby, I know someone will pick them up, give them a hug and check they're okay. It's not completely idyllic. I worry what will happen when they're older. It's already difficult to find work and that's not going to change, but nowhere's perfect.

"When we first came to look at the post office, it was a really miserable day. I always said if you can fall in love with a place in a downpour then you know you've made the right decision."

The pattern technician turned bed and breakfast owner

With the benefit of hindsight, Eric Culley admits he'd probably still being working long hours in the design trade.

A decade ago, Eric, along with his partner Michael Pearson, bought Austwick Hall, near Settler, as a holiday home. A few years later, they decided to turn part of the impressive property into a five star bed and breakfast.

"Naively, we thought that we'd be done by lunchtime and have the afternoons to ourselves," says 42-year-old Eric. "I had visions of pottering around the garden, but it hasn't quite worked out like that. It's quite difficult to get staff who stay for longer than a couple of months, so the two of us do everything ourselves. It's not difficult work, but it is all-consuming."

Since the couple opened Austwick Hall to the paying public 18 months ago, they haven't been away on holiday and when there's a booking, they are on call 24 hours a day.

"We did shut for most of January, but we spent most of the time decorating," says Eric. "Neither of us minds hard work, but you can see how some dreams are shattered when reality sets in.

"For couples used to going out to work and having their own space it can be a culture shock. Spending every minute of

every day with someone is not easy. It sounds like a cliche, but it either makes or breaks a relationship. Thankfully,

Michael and I are pretty tolerant people."

Just before they opened, changes in fire regulations meant they had to spend a further 50,000 on the property, but with bookings up on the same time last year, it looks like the expense and the hard work was worth it.

"If we had both known how difficult it would be to get the place up and running and all the hoops we would have to jump through, we probably wouldn't have done it. It's true what they say, ignorance is bliss, because when I look at what we've achieved, it's incredibly satisfying.

"In my previous job, the deadlines were never ending and often I was in the office at 6.30am and not home again

until 7.30pm. Now we're always near home."

The charity executive turned shepherdess

Beate Kubitz's learning curve has not just been steep, it's

been vertical.

In a former life, she was a campaign organiser for Amnesty International, but after moving to Todmorden seven years ago, she found herself in charge of a flock of sheep and running an ethical knitwear business.

"Swapping the exhaust fumes of Holloway Road for the company of a few sheep seems like a massive step," says Beate, who grew up in Bradford. "But when I moved back to Yorkshire, everything seemed to fall into place. It was just after the foot and mouth outbreak. Everyone was talking about how depressed the countryside was and I started to think about how to promote local produce."

Beate invested in a small flock of Angora goats and Shetland sheep and, following a chance meeting with fashion and knitwear graduate Nicola Sherlock, the pair set up Makepiece. Operating out of a shop in Todmorden and on the internet, the business, which sells knitwear made from British yarns, is thriving. Juggling order books, livestock and a much reduced salary brings its own stresses, but there are compensations.

"Every time I see someone wearing one of our pieces I get a real sense of satisfaction," says Beate. "I still go down to London for trade shows and to see family and friends, but normally I can't wait to get on the train back north. No job is without stress, but now it's not the kind that eats away at you. It's the kind you can control and whenever things do get too much, I can go up to the fields, look at the sheep and suddenly life seems okay again."

The nurse turned card designer

Many dream of turning their hobby into a full-time job. Most rarely make the leap.

Helen Allen, who had spent years working as a community nurse, admits she would probably still being travelling hundreds of miles a week had her husband not fallen ill. However, three years ago, the 57-year-old, from Skipton, suddenly joined the growing ranks of the country's unpaid carers and took early retirement.

"I had already left the hospital wards to become a community nurse," she says. "That had always been my dream and it

was a good job. However, it involved a lot of travelling and while there are much worse places to drive around than Craven, I really needed to be at home.

"When something like that happens, it makes you reassess your priorities. I still wanted to keep active and I still needed to earn money, but I also needed a job which was flexible. When my son got married, he and his fiance asked if I would make the invitations and it made me think that maybe I could turn into a business."

Three years on, Helen runs Celebration Invitations from her home and while the bulk of her business comes from Yorkshire, a new website means she is now starting to get commissions

from further afield. No one is more surprised than Helen at

the success.

"The only thing I left school being able to draw was a tree," she admits. "I was always creative, but I've never had any formal training. When I look back, I wished I'd started my

own business years ago. Nursing was stressful and it's easy to get caught up in a career, never taking a step back. Life tends to take you in different directions, but if there's one

thing I have learnt, it's never too late to start again."