Beyond the city limits

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The Independent Online
The London commuter strays a fair distance these days. Although the traditional stockbroker belt will always be prime territory for anyone who has to be at their desk sharpish, five days a week, flexible working, technology and improved transport links have allowed many people to go further afield.

Alison Dean, a director of estate agents Savills, has noticed that the received wisdom of a one-and-a-half-hour, door-to door cut-off point has polarised: some commuters want to be at work within 45 minutes, others are prepared to travel for up to two hours. The three-day office week, with increasing numbers of people working partly from home, has made the long commute acceptable. "We find that if both partners work, the choice is to stay closer in. A couple will often move further out when the woman, say, decides to work part-time or from home," she says.

Clearly, improved rail and road links have opened up new areas. Only now is the effect of the electrification of the eastern line from King's Cross to Peterborough, a 45-minute trip, being felt. Rutland and Norfolk, very much second-home territory, are now becoming thinkable for regular commuters.

"Car travel is dead time, but people can get through a lot of work on the train. Regular commuters learn the tricks of the trade. They know where to stand on the platform to get a seat and how to stagger their journeys," says Alison Dean. Jim Ward, an analyst at Savills, lives in Cambridge and works in London. "We live in the heart of the city so I can cycle to the station. I spend an hour on the train and that is very useful time for reading and planning. Quite a few people use laptops. In that sense it is better to be an hour away than have a journey of half an hour while you are squashed into a carriage unable to do anything." It costs him just over pounds 3,000 a year in fares but, he says, is worth it for the quality of life Cambridge affords.

The equation of moving out of London and saving money does not always add up. There is a premium to pay for homes in pretty Hampshire towns that have a fast rail service and the Surrey commuter belt is more expensive than many parts of London. But the northern London commuter belt is cheaper than Surrey. In Empingham, 19 miles from Peterborough, Savills is selling a Georgian school house for pounds 185,000, which would be closer to pounds 300,000 in Surrey. And a 17th-century house in the village of Wilby, two miles from Wellingborough, with a 50-minute run into St Pancras, has a guide price of pounds 565,000, while in Surrey it would be between pounds 700,000 and pounds 800,000. Winchester, which 10 years ago was regarded as an outpost of commuter land, is a 55-minute journey to Waterloo. Mary-Anne Crafter, PR manager for Hamptons International, is a regular passenger. "Working on the train is the equivalent of three hours in the office. I can focus and am uninterrupted. It does get stressful if the trains are mucked about. I can only do it because my husband works locally and I have a brilliant nanny."

Try Homes' development and refurbishment of Peninsula Barracks, in the centre of Winchester, has seen a number of young professional buyers. At the beginning of March, five homes in the last side of the square will be ready. The race is on between the empty-nesters and those with their eyes on the nonstop link to Waterloo.