Come to Chiltern, just don't stay: Ruth Picardie reports on how a rising population is threatening the London commuter's last refuge

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TRAFFIC has come to a standstill in the pretty village of Chalfont St Giles; the high street is being resurfaced and only one lane is open. Several minutes pass, but still no horns are honked, no insults exchanged through open windows. Instead, a man in a blue Range Rover hops out of his car and politely asks the driver who is blocking the road to move. The driver obliges and the traffic moves on. 'Awful, isn't it,' says the nice lady in the chemist, as a steamroller thunders past. 'Still, it'll be nice once it's finished.'

Who can wonder that the population of Chiltern District - a 50,000-acre pocket of hamlets, villages and small towns in south Buckinghamshire - was this week forecast to grow faster than any other part of Britain during the coming decade? According to CACI, a census analysis company, the district's population will increase by 13.8 per cent, from 89,687 in 1991 to 102,076 in 2001. This is in direct contrast to Liverpool, forecast to shrink by 13.9 per cent, from 480,749 in 1991 to 413,616 in 2001.

There are no ugly new towns or urban splodges in Chiltern - Watford and Hemel Hempstead are to the east, Slough to the south, High Wycombe to the west and Aylesbury to the north. 'This is the district of rolling chalk and clay hills,' reports the district's official guidebook . . . ethereal beechwoods, burnished cornfields, rich meadows and open commons . . . Well-maintained lanes wind deep between high hanks of hedge and twist through sun dappled woods.'

At the same time, Chiltern lies on a modern ley line, outside the M25 but inside the London underground system - the Metropolitan Line comes to a halt in the small towns of Amersham and Chesham. The journey to Baker Street (single fare pounds 3.90) takes 35 minutes. Even the tiny villages - Great Missenden, Little Chalfont, Seer Green - are linked to London by train. The district's eastern boundary is flush with the M25, while the M40 marks the south.

In short, Chiltern is the last refuge of the London commuter, a dreamland of green belt, four-bedroom semis with 2.2 children, and low crime. Its residents come here to get away from London: its pollution; its dog-fouled parks; its poor schools; its noisy neighbours.

Urban escape has a long tradition in Chiltern: Milton was living in the City of London when the Plague reached its apogee, in 1665. His friend Thomas Ellwood found him a 'pretty box' in Chalfont St Giles, with a beautiful garden. Milton moved in with his family, and finished Paradise Lost.

Today, however, the people of Chiltern are not refugees from the inner city, but from the suburbs. 'People migrate from Pinner and Uxbridge and Harrow,' says Bob Eltze, who works as an estate agent in Chalfont St Giles. 'They want to get out a bit further.'

Jonathan, a self-employed sound engineer, moved from Ealing last year. 'We wanted our little boy to grow up with a few trees,' he explains. And an education: three of Britain's top 50 state grammar schools are in south Buckinghamshire. In 1992-93, 82 per cent of pupils stayed on in full-time education after the age of 16, against a national average of 65 per cent. In the district, 58 per cent gained five or more GCSEs at grade C or above, compared with a national average of 38 per cent.

Bill, a 37-year-old civil servant who commutes to Wembley by tube, moved to Chesham seven years ago, escaping from Greenford in Middlesex. 'There are no disadvantages living here,' he says. 'Our only concern is green belt being swallowed up.'

The new people of Chiltern may have come for the green belt, but they have brought a suburban mentality with them. Ron, a 50-year-old worker on the Underground has lived in Chesham his whole life. His mother and his two sons live 200 yards away. 'I can remember when it was a little town,' he says. 'Now I can stand in the centre for quarter of an hour and I won't know anybody.' Bill, the civil servant, agrees: 'You do get to know people on a nodding basis over a number of years.'

Unfortunately, for London's suburban refugees, Chiltern appears to be full. 'Chiltern District has a population of 90,000 people,' explained a recent submission to the local government commission, 'which is not expected to increase.' In fact, the district council has forecast a population decrease by 2001, to 86,110. If more homes are built, Chiltern will lose its green belt and turn into Pinner. Already it is criss-crossed with trunk roads and choked with cars. The main problem for the Amersham police is theft from cars. 'Good value stereos,' says Constable Ronald Hale, 'and mobile phones'.

But people are still trying to get into the Chiltern anti-ghetto. There are nine estate agents in Amersham (population 17,600) and two in the high street of Chalfont St Giles (but one butcher and one baker). However, there is little movement. 'We have a shortage of properties across the range,' says Heather Sparks, manager of one of the Amersham nine.

This week's census analysis may be right about Liverpool and the other urban centres forecast for decline. Chiltern, however, looks set to prove the statisticians wrong.

Sandra Barwick is covering the European elections.

(Photograph omitted)