Londoners have always looked upon commuting as a painful necessity if you want countryside, good schools and more space.
But Covid-19 is turning minds, more than ever before, to the quality of travel, with particular regard to health and safety.
As September approaches many predict it will be the green light to return to the office for some, for at least part of the week.
Home buyers considering a move beyond the reaches of the Tube should realise not all train companies are created equal, so it would be wise to study carefully what the services you might use have to offer in terms of a safe and comfortable commute.
A season ticket will buy you a journey but not necessarily a seat — making it harder to keep a safe social distance from fellow passengers.
The best train companies for commuters
Department for Transport data reveals that the best trains for being sure of a seat are London North Eastern Railway services to King’s Cross — only one per cent of morning rush-hour passengers are left standing.
In second place is Virgin Trains West Coast, which serves Euston station, with three per cent, then East Midlands Trains services out of St Pancras International, on four per cent.
On the most crowded service, London Overground to Euston, 55 per cent of passengers don’t get a seat, while on Govia Thameslink Railway to Blackfriars, more than a third of morning rush-hour commuters have to stand.
While all trains are quieter than usual for now, in the coming months as we leave lockdown behind us, congestion will gather pace.
So, if you are among the many who have decided to move out of town in search of cleaner air and more space, remember, a safe train carriage is a quiet train carriage. The following locations offer well-priced homes and a healthy commute.
Buying in Bedford
Commute: from 47 minutes, with East Midlands Trains
Annual season ticket: £4,972
Car parking: £9.20 a day/£156.80 a month
Average home: £246,333 (Rightmove)
This working market town on the River Great Ouse is an excellent, practical choice for exiting Londoners.
School standards are high. The town centre has a comprehensive range of shops, pubs and restaurants and has had a recent upgrade courtesy of the local council, while the best of the housing stock is quality Victorian.
Work has begun on a new train link between Oxford and Cambridge, giving Bedford new direct links to both cities over the next few years.
Lockdown has made open space a priority and Bedford Park is lovely, while there are lots of country walks north of the town. Every other year, Bedford River Festival attracts around 250,000 people.
The smartest address is the Castle Quarter, a cluster of period houses close to the river.
Matt Ireland, marketing manager at Wilson Peacock estate agents, says a four- to five-bedroom Victorian villa on The Embankment would cost about £800,000 but a three-bedroom Victorian house in Castle Road would be about £350,000.
Post-war homes across the rest of the town centre are rather bland, but many Londoners want to live in one of Bedford’s pretty villages, with Biddenham, Bromham and Sharnbrook all good places to search — a four-bedroom detached house would be £400,000 to £500,000.
Ireland suspects Bedford’s value for money comes from its location just over the Hertfordshire border. “If you go to Hitchin, 20 miles away, prices are 20 to 25 per cent more,” he says.
Buying in Leamington Spa
Commute: from 1 hour 18 minutes, with Virgin Trains West Coast
Annual season ticket: £9,460
Car parking: £8.50 a day/£32.40 per week
Average home: £254,000 (Rightmove)
A classy Regency spa town, Leamington isn’t quite as chichi as Bath but it offers much better value when it comes to property.
Road and rail links are both good — as well as trains to Euston there are Chiltern Rail services to Marylebone — and Leamington has plenty of lovely parks and very good-quality schools.
Andrew James, associate director of estate agents Sheldon Bosley Knight, says London leavers eyeing up Leamington Spa tend to want either a big detached family house or a classic town centre Regency townhouse.
A four- to five-bedroom detached house would cost £900,000 to £950,000, while those lovely period townhouses come in at £700,000 to £800,000 for a three-bedroom example.
These, of course, are Leamington’s prime properties. With a budget of £500,000 you could get a three-bedroom Victorian villa in sought-after North Leamington.
The south of the city is considered a bit student-y thanks to proximity to Warwick University.
In addition to its top-quality housing stock, open space, access to the M40 and the Warwickshire countryside, under normal circumstances Leamington is bustling as well as beautiful, says Andrew James. “It has got some decent bars and a bit of nightlife.”
Buying in Stevenage
Commute: from 38 minutes, with London North Eastern Railway
Annual season ticket: £3,964
Car parking: £8.50 a day/£151 per month
Average home: £277,068 (Rightmove)
The posh bit of Stevenage is its Old Town, with period cottages clustered around a High Street with plenty of restaurants and cafés. You could buy a four-bedroom detached house in the Old Town from about £600,000.
The other option is to take advantage of Stevenage’s fast train links to London and house hunt in one of its pretty satellite villages, surrounded by lush Hertfordshire countryside.
Tracy Kosmalski, director of Putterills estate agents, recommends looking east of the A1M at the villages of Aston, Walkern and Graveley, where a four-bedroom period house would cost in the region of £750,000.
“We are seeing a tremendous wave of people looking to move out of London at the moment,” says Kosmalski.
“What they want is outside space, a study, or room for an outbuilding. I have never seen anything like it in 30 years.”
However, house hunters should beware the “new” town.
A great deal of historic Stevenage was almost submerged by a tidal wave of housebuilding after the Second World War. But dreams of creating a new town for Londoners ended up as a badly planned concrete jungle of estates, accompanied by a grim pedestrianised town centre.
Kosmalski agrees it is not a thing of beauty but points out that the leisure facilities — including a cinema and theatre — are good.
There are also plans in the pipeline for a £350 million regeneration of the new town centre, with shops, bars, restaurants and hundreds of new homes, plus open space. Developer Mace submitted a planning application for the scheme in January.
‘Great train links and a buzzing town to enjoy’
Jessica Thompson made the big move away from London’s bright lights late last year to the slightly more subtle charms of Leamington Spa in Warwickshire.
She and her boyfriend Edward Hatherley, 28, left the two-bedroom Putney flat they shared with another couple and bought a three-bedroom Victorian terrace house in the centre of Leamington for £297,000.
They immediately embarked on a £15,000 renovation, finishing just before lockdown.
“Doing lockdown in London with four of us in a flat with one bathroom, all working from home, would have been a challenge,” says Jessica, 27, an account executive with a communications consultancy.
“We were paying £530 a month each for the flat and our mortgage now is £870 a month between us, so it is much cheaper and we have so much space. We also have a little courtyard garden.”
Edward, 28, works for an energy firm. During lockdown they were able to work from home in style, entertained by their new Bengal kitten, Cita. During their downtime they have been exploring Leamington Spa.
“The transport links are very good, and it has lots of independent bars and restaurants,” says Jessica. “Everything is really easily accessible and there’s lovely countryside and lots of National Trust properties nearby. It is a student town so it has got a bit of a buzz — there is no compromise really.”