Technology is changing the geography of property hotspots in London’s commuter belt. In the past, the most sought-after locations combined handsome housing, access to good schools and nearby village shops with a one-hour (or shorter) train journey into the capital. Now, laptops and tablet computers have transformed commuting from a waste of time to a productive part of the working day.
For ease of working, however, people need to sit down, which has persuaded some commuters to start their journeys at stations that have slower services, but where they have a better chance of getting a seat, and perhaps a table, if they’re lucky. And these technocommuters are discovering another benefit of taking the slow train-the car parks at less crowded stations are cheaper, or even free. The icing on the cake is that slow trains often stop at extremely pretty villages in lovely countryside.
As a result, property in villages that combine all these benefits can cost up to 24% more than in the surrounding areas, according to recent research by Savills. Lucian Cook, research director, explains: ‘Traditionally, choosing where to commute from has been a three-way trade-off between travel time, house price and quality of life. Now, commuters are accepting longer travel times if they can use that time productively.’
This new approach to commuting is bringing to the fore villages such as Cooksbridge, in East Sussex, where the station offers easy car parking and the likelihood of getting a seat.
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Similarly, commuters in the Guildford area are increasingly choosing stations upstream of the main Guildford one, where every morning a mass of cars competes for parking spaces, and seats are raced for in silent ferocity. Villages further out, such as Farncombe and Milford, are served by less frequent trains, but have cheap parking and the chance of a seat, says Charity Holden of Savills.
‘We sold a house in Munstead Woods to a man who told me he spends the first 40 minutes of every day on his iPad going through his email and preparing for the day. He wanted to buy a property close to a station where he could get on the train, sit down and get some work done by the time he got to Waterloo,’ Mrs Holden explains. ‘It’s not just getting a seat [that makes this location attractive], of course. It’s a lovely area with fantastic schools and is under an hour from central London.’ Mrs Holden is currently selling Rake Mill House, a mile from Milford station, which offers rural seclusion in 10 acres of ground at £2.25 million.
Situated on the opposite side of London, in Cambridgeshire, Whittlesford is another village that meets the technocommuters’ needs. Paddy Pritchard-Gordon of Knight Frank is currently selling a lovely Georgian house in the area. The journey to Liverpool Street takes only an hour from Audley End, six miles away from the house, and about 75 minutes from Whittlesford, but ‘the vendor says that, from Whittlesford station, which is two miles away from the house, you are always guaranteed a seat’.
New commuting hotspots are also emerging along the old Great Western lines out of Paddington. At Pangbourne, on the River Thames, the owners of North Ridge, a charming Victorian riverside house, can walk to the station and are comfortably ensconced before the hordes pour on at Reading. ‘We have clients whose sole search criterion is how long it takes to walk to the station,’ says Richard Sutton of Davis Tate, who is marketing the house.
North Ridge is one of the line of prominent properties along the river known locally as ‘the seven deadly sins’, and is on the market at £875,000. It has a riverside garden with just over 140ft of bank. Pangbourne itself is a charming village with shops and a health centre. West of Pangbourne, in Hungerford, Nick van Zeller of Knight Frank has also seen new interest in villages that offer longer but more comfortable commutes -and more value for money. ‘With house prices being slightly cheaper to the west of Devizes, buyers are prepared to travel slightly further and take trains from Pewsey and Andover, which take a little over an hour to reach Paddington.’
The latest communications technology is also allowing many people to work from home a couple of days a week, enabling them to justify the extra commuting time if they can get a bigger, more comfortable home with an office. Mr van Zeller is currently selling Seend Bridge House, near Devizes, which is a lovely 18th-century farmhouse with a range of outbuildings that could be used as offices. The asking price is £1.65 million.
Commuter belt shows resilience
Recent research by Savills investigated how the recession has affected commuter villages. ‘We saw small falls in commuter numbers (as measured by the number of season-ticket holders) during the period 2009/10,’ says Savills’ research director, Lucian Cook. ‘However, the core commuter zones have shown the greatest resilience. Commuter numbers have stayed high and local housing markets relatively strong, both in terms of prices and transactions.’ The local-authority areas that showed the smallest falls in commuter numbers-no more than 10%-in 2009-2010, and where housing-market sales volumes are closest to the five-year norm (a reliable measure of the resilience of a housing market) are:
West and north-west of London
South Buckinghamshire, Slough, Chiltern, St Albans
South-east of London
Sevenoaks, Tonbridge and Malling
South and south-west of London
Epsom and Ewell, Waverley
Savills also identified the most popular commuter locations (as measured by the number of season-ticket holders) and those where property is most expensive. Among the popular villages are Kelvedon and Hatfield Peverel in Essex, Earlswood and Worplesdon in Surrey, and Wolverton, near Milton Keynes.
The most expensive ones are Seer Green in Buckinghamshire, Welham Green in Hertfordshire, Witley and Milford in Surrey, and Wadhurst in East Sussex.
Top five villages for technocommuters
Cooksbridge, East Sussex
Time to London 65 minutes
Seat probability High
Car park 10 spaces, free
Local info Cooksbridge isn’t a favoured village, but is surrounded by superb downland country and is close to the facilities of Lewes
Time to London 51 minutes
Seat probability Decent
Car park 136 spaces, £5 a day
Local info A great village with lots of facilities, and close to the shopping centre of Guildford
Time to London 69 minutes
Seat probability Good
Car park 379 spaces, £5.90 a day
Local info Charming village with church, two pubs and close to shops in Cambridge
Time to London 50 minutes
Seat probability High
Car park 90 spaces, £4.60 a day
Local info Charming riverside town with local shops; close to Reading
Time to London 80 minutes
Seat probability Decent
Car park 77 spaces, £6.10 a day
Local info Unassuming village, but surrounded by the lovely Vale of Pewsey, with its famous white horse