Easy country commutes

Anthea Masey visits Londoners’ seven favourite commuter hotspots - all only an hour’s train journey from the capital
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Wivenhoe waterfront, near Colchester
© Barry Phillips
Wivenhoe waterfront is just a few minutes south of Colchester at the creek end of the River Colne
Attractive towns, pretty villages, beautiful countryside and quality schools are the Holy Grail for families moving out of London. Here we begin the home search for you, and look at seven towns in commuting hotspots all within an hour’s rail journey of central London.

A recent survey looked at the areas around London which had experienced the greatest growth in commuters between the 1991 and 2001 censuses. Top, with a rise in commuter numbers of 85 per cent, was the Mole Valley, which includes popular Leatherhead and Dorking in Surrey, followed by Eastbourne, Hampshire, which saw a rise of 82 per cent.

The Gravesend area in Kent, part of the Thames Gateway, where homes are still relatively affordable, saw an increase of 72 per cent.

1. Guildford

This ancient Surrey town has a modern cathedral and an attractive high street on a hill with views over the surrounding countryside. There are good state and private schools. Private schools that get excellent results are the Royal Grammar for boys, and Guildford High School and Tormead for girls.

Queen Elizabeth Park, Guildford
Queen Elizabeth Park, Guildford, about 40 minutes from London
The best state school is George Abbot, judged outstanding by Ofsted. It is on the north-eastern edge of town, so families aiming for this school need to think about buying nearby - the best roads are: Tormead Road, where houses cost about £650,000; Woodruff Avenue, where they are about £580,000; and Gang Hill, where they range from £800,000 to about £1 million.

The Spectrum Centre is one of the best leisure centres in the South-East, with facilities for swimming, ice skating, 10-pin bowling and other sports facilities.

The surrounding countryside has pretty villages full of tile-hung cottages and large detached Edwardian houses, many in the Arts and Crafts style favoured by architects such as Sir Edwin Lutyens, who built many houses near Guildford.

Commuting: Guildford to Waterloo takes about 40 minutes and the price of an annual season ticket is £2,656.

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Verulamium Park near St Albans
© Barry Phillips
Verulamium Park, near St Albans, which is connected to London by the Thameslink line

2. St Albans

Set conveniently between the M1 and A1 and connected to the City by the Thameslink line, which gets City workers to their desks in just over half an hour, St Albans is close to the old Roman city Verulamium and has a Norman cathedral and abbey built with stones from the ruined Roman city.

The shops have improved in recent years with the arrival of chain stores and independent boutiques and there is a lively market on Wednesday and Saturday. The town’s housing stock is Victorian and Edwardian with pockets of Georgian architecture and newer homes on the outskirts.

There are a lot of schools to choose from. The two private schools, St Albans High for girls and St Albans School for boys, both get good results. Four of the city’s comprehensive schools get better than average results: Beaumont and Sandringham, which are mixed, and St Albans Girls School (known as STAGS) are all rated by Ofsted as good with outstanding features; St Loreto College is a Catholic girls school, rated outstanding by Ofsted.

The clock tower in St Albans city centre
© Glenn Copus
The clock tower in St Albans city centre
Commuting: St Albans to St Pancras is 20 minutes; there are also through trains to Moorgate, which adds another 10 minutes to the journey. For those working in west London, the Abbey Flyer runs between St Albans Abbey station and Watford Junction, where there are trains to Kensington Olympia, taking 26 minutes.

An annual season ticket from St Albans to St Pancras costs £2,460.

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3. Winchester

Winchester is one of Britain’s most historic cities. Connected to London by the A3 and a train service to Waterloo, it sits on the western edge of the South Downs and is within striking distance of the New Forest and the coast.

Two years ago it was rated the best place to live in Britain. There is a peaceful cathedral close, a castle containing a Tudor rendering of King Arthur’s table, tranquil water meadows, an attractive main shopping street and a science activity centre with a newly opened planetarium.

Winchester College is one of the country’s top private schools with an enviable academic reputation. The Pilgrims’ School is the cathedral choir school and Winchester College’s feeder prep school. St Swithun’s school is a sought-after private girls’ school.

There are good state schools, too. Westgate and Kings’ schools take pupils from 11 to 16 and both get above-average results at GCSE; Ofsted judges Westgate as very good and Kings’ as outstanding. Pupils go on to the high-achieving Peter Symonds College, a large sixth-form college.

Commuting: trains from Winchester to Waterloo take about an hour; trains to Paddington (change at Reading) take about 70 minutes. An annual season ticket, Winchester to Waterloo, costs £3,712.

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4. Colchester

Bedgebury National Pinetum and Forest Gardens, Cranbrook, Kent
Marshal's lake at Bedgebury Pinetum and Forest Gardens, Cranbrook, Kent
This town claims to be the oldest in Britain (it was mentioned by Pliny the Elder in 77AD). The centre has attractive Tudor buildings in its Dutch quarter named after the Flemish weavers who settled there in the 16th century. Colchester has long been a military garrison town. However, the army is moving to the outskirts and the old garrison is being developed for housing. This includes renovated historic buildings, and the development opens up an area in the centre of the town that was previously closed to the public.

Colchester is surrounded by lovely villages: to the north is picture-postcard Boxted and Stoke-by-Nayland, and to the south the pretty creekside villages Wivenhoe and Rowhedge. Colchester has two top-performing grammar schools, which frequently feature near the top of the exam league tables: Colchester Royal Grammar School for boys and Colchester County High for girls. Colchester Sixth Form College offers the International Baccalaureate and is rated outstanding by Ofsted.

Commuting: trains from Colchester to Liverpool Street take 55 minutes. The cost of an annual season ticket is £4,260.

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5. Old Amersham

A picturesque village surrounded by the breathtakingly lovely Chiltern hills, Old Amersham is between the M25 and High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. The wide high street has medieval half-timbered buildings and cottages and is lined with smart boutiques. Two of the pubs had a starring role in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. The area was once home to the Lollards, a Protestant sect, five of whom were burned at the stake in the 16th century.

A triple oast house and barn, Tonbridge
A triple oast house and barn, Tonbridge
The town has a couple of popular prep schools: Beacon School for boys and Heatherton House for girls. Caldicott, a prep school with a good record of getting its pupils to top public schools, is nearby at Farnham Royal.

Buckinghamshire still has grammar schools and there are two in Amersham: Dr Challoner’s Grammar School for boys and Dr Challoner’s High School for girls.
The top girls’ boarding school, Wycombe Abbey, is in High Wycombe.

Commuting: Amersham station, which is up the hill in the new town, is on the Metropolitan Tube line and there is also the Chiltern Line train service, with a winning track record for punctuality to Marylebone station.

The train to Marylebone takes 38 minutes, the Tube to Baker Street about 45 minutes. Amersham is in zone 9 and the cost of an annual season ticket is £2,600.

The M25 and good schools prove a winning combination

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Knole House
© Barry Phillips
Knole House, on the western edge of Sevenoaks, owned by the National Trust

6. Sevenoaks

Sevenoaks is an attractive Kent market town close to the M25 and is popular with parents who have secured a place for their children at the high-achieving private Sevenoaks School, which was one of the first schools to switch from A-levels to the International Baccalaureate. Popular prep schools are New Beacon Prep and Sevenoaks Prep. Nearby, Bromley and other parts of Kent still have grammar schools. The nearest are: St Olave’s and St Saviour’s in Orpington; Judd for boys, and Tonbridge Grammar and Weald of Kent for girls, all three in Tonbridge.

The National Trust-owned Knole Park and Knole House, which is still occupied by the Sackville family, are on the western edge of the town; the Kent Downs area of outstanding natural beauty surrounds the town, and the High Weald is to the south.

Commuting: Sevenoaks has trains to Canon Street and Charing Cross, with journey times of just over 30 minutes; Bat & Ball station serves the north of the town, with trains going to Blackfriars but the journey takes an hour.

An annual season ticket, from both stations, costs £2,300.

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7. Tunbridge Wells

“Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” has given his town a grumpy reputation that it doesn’t entirely deserve. An elegant 18th century spa town, it was as fashionable as Bath, with a social scene orchestrated by legendary Beau Nash. The colonnaded Pantiles survives with bars, restaurants, antique shops and boutiques.

The colonnaded Pantiles, Tunbridge Wells
© Barry Phillips
The colonnaded Pantiles, Tunbridge Wells
On its outskirts, 19th century architect Decimus Burton built grand mansions. The town is surrounded by pretty Weald towns and villages such as Hawkhurst, Goudhurst and Cranbrook.

The town has two grammar schools: Skinners for boys and Tunbridge Wells Girls Grammar, but it also has two great state schools: Bennett Memorial, a C of E school, rated good and improving by Ofsted, and St Gregory’s, an RC school, judged good by Ofsted. Tonbridge in the nearby town is a leading boys’ boarding school that also takes day pupils.

Commuting: Trains take 50 minutes to Canon Street and 60 minutes to Charing Cross. The cost of an annual season ticket is £3,000.

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