Property: Happiness is the 7.30 to town

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Indy Lifestyle Online
What is it about the city? As soon as people are in, they want to get out. By Fiona Brandhorst

WHEN Alex White leaves his home near Peterborough for work every morning, a little plaque on the house opposite reminds him just how far he has to travel: London 87 miles.

We all know someone like Alex, indeed, we may even be like Alex, or one of the many disillusioned Londoners who packs his bags and heads for the towns and villages that make up commuter land in search of decent schools, less aggressive driving or perhaps just a better life.

Deciding to commute to his job in central London was the easy part for Geoff Hurrell. It was just a question of from where. With his wife, Julie, expecting their third child, they were rapidly outgrowing their modern south London town house and knew that it was time to make their longed- for break for the country.

Weekends were spent investigating the commuter trail from Essex through Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire and finally down to Kent. Tunbridge Wells was the end of their line. Geoff, an IT specialist, puts it down to a "gut feeling". They quickly realised they couldn't afford Tunbridge Wells itself so they took a look at surrounding villages.

They were dreaming of a period country cottage with oak beams and a roaring fire; they bought a four-bedroom, detached house circa 1970, but it is still "brilliant" in their eyes: "spacious rooms and large garden". The village had to be pretty, have a good school and "a couple of pubs, a post office and a Chinese". Pembury, now part of Tunbridge's sprawl fitted the bill. "We haven't looked back," says Julie who, a year after their move, feels well settled in a community with a high percentage of ex-Londoners. Geoff now drives to the station in an old banger "absorbed into the cost of the move" while Julie keeps the child-friendly estate car. "I'd take the bus to the station if it was more reliable," says Geoff, who aims for the 7.30am service to Charing Cross because it's always a new train "quiet and air conditioned" and he'll get a seat. His monthly season ticket costs around pounds 230.

Geoff says he enjoys the 51-minute journey - he can read the paper, use his laptop or just "switch off". So does commuter chat become a bind when you're used to ignoring your neighbour at the bus stop in London? Geoff says it's all about body language. "You soon get the message if someone's feeling unsociable."

Having to drive home from the station in the evening means a couple of beers after work is a distance memory, but Geoff can live with that. On a good day he aims to be home around 7.30pm, just in time to catch Rebecca, five, and Alex, four, before they go to bed. But he misses one-year-old Emma who is so used to seeing him leave the house that until recently she thought he was called "bye, bye".

John Bennett's daughter, Rosalind, is only eight months old yet she can determine which train he'll catch to London every morning. If she sleeps in he can still make it to the office for 8.30am. John, a solicitor, lives with his wife, Fiona, in St Albans - the jewel in the commuter's crown, where you can catch a Thameslink train, without checking the timetable, and around 25 minutes later find yourself pulling into London's Farringdon Station.

That and the good reputation of local schools have led to property prices rocketing in recent years. According to Frost's, a local estate agent, two/three bedroom "commuter cottages" in the conservation area of the town are priced between pounds 110,000 and pounds 179,950. And almost every person registering with the agency has a London address. John and Fiona left London three years ago, choosing St Albans because of family ties. "It's hardly the rural idyll," says John, "but it has the feel of a big little town." They didn't want a drive to the station, so living in an out of town development was out of the question. John starts the day with a brisk 15-minute walk to the station. Generally, the Thameslink service is good, albeit crowded, but when it's bad, it's really bad and John is aware of the lack of an alternative route to work, something that living in London provided. His annual season ticket costs pounds 2,236 and includes tube travel in central London. In spite of its cost he has no regrets. "The 20-minute journey is just long enough to read a few chapters or catch up on some sleep."

Carrie Elderfield is definitely on the outside looking in. "Mentally I'm not a commuter," she says. "I love observing but I haven't joined the club." The club, according to Carrie, being largely male middle Englanders. She said goodbye to Crouch End, in north London, almost four years ago and took the train west to the Chilterns where she feels at home with its "comforting landscapes". When she left Crouch End it was just beginning to become the "hub of the universe; a place that never slept - I hated all that".

Eighteen months after her move, Carrie married Roger, another ex-north Londoner and "hopeless townie". However, he's quickly become the star of the local pub quiz. Roger divides his time between commuting to the City by train or Europe by plane from Heathrow - only 40 minutes on the motorway. "That's an accidental bonus of living here," says Carrie.

But for some the daily commute finally takes its toll, Paul and Stella Bramwell moved to Lindfield (tile-hung houses, duck pond and historic parish church), near Haywards Heath, in Sussex, from London seven years ago. "Stella worked in Crawley and I could get the train straight into London," says Paul, who enjoyed the peace and quiet of the countryside at weekends. But after four years, Paul began to look at his fellow travellers and recognised a "lifer" feel about them. "I didn't want to qualify for the gold watch after 25 years of commuting," he says.

The three-hour round trip between Haywards Heath and London's Victoria made Paul, who works in advertising, question his priorities, especially when he and Stella had children. "I hardly saw Grace and Emily all week," says Paul. "It made us wonder why we'd had children in the first place."

When a job opportunity came up in Solihull in the Midlands last year, it was a chance to change their lifestyle once again. Now Paul, though still a commuter, has a 20-minute drive to work from their Bromsgrove home and he's usually home in time to see the children before bed. "Both moves have been good for us," adds Stella. "Lindfield was very relaxing. If it wasn't for the commuting, we'd probably still be there."

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