Like the fable of the tortoise and the hare, getting to the office fast can sometimes be a case of taking a slower path, and in this case, an almost hidden one.
For people who work in west London, a train to Kensington Olympia might be a smart choice, particularly since the station serves some of the best commuter options in the Shires. Though services into the station are not super-fast, Marcus Dixon, director of Savills, believes they can be the most efficient.
"It means you can live in the commuter belt of Hertfordshire and get into work without using the Tube at all," he says. "Which, for the majority of us, would be a blissful situation, saving between £50 and £100 each month on fares."
Hemel Hempstead and Milton Keynes are affordable locations, if you can put aside your new town prejudices.
"People see Milton Keynes as just a sea of new-build boxes, but there are some really pretty places, with a village green and a pond and all that, but still accessible to the train station," says Dixon. "There is an element of snobbery to get over."
HEMEL HEMPSTEAD, HERTFORDSHIRE
Journey time: 37 minutes
Annual season ticket: £2,644
Average house price: £198,000
Average detached house price: £361,000
10-year price growth: 100 per cent
You know you're in trouble when a town's number one claim to fame is that it has the oldest multi-storey car park in Britain. Nobody could describe Hemel, which was developed after the Blitz to house Londoners who had been displaced by German bombs, as particularly thrilling. But it is affordable and convenient.
There are also some lovely houses if you know where to look, and beautiful nearby villages where you'll need seven figures in order to join residents such as England footballer Theo Walcott and former footballer's wife Sheryl Gascoigne.
The typical Hemel house is a three-bedroom, post-war semi costing between £250,000 and £300,000.
You could opt for a new-build flat from £200,000 for two bedrooms, or an apartment in the former Kodak Tower (dandara.com), once the HQ of the camera company and an iconic landmark. However, it is whispered that off-plan sales of the flats (from £140,000 to £330,000) have been slow, partly because of the recession and partly because of some ambitious pricing. The project is due to complete at the end of 2011.
Ronnie Clarke, of Flaggs estate agents, recommends the suburbs of Boxmoor and Piccotts End to the south and west of town respectively, for period homes.
In Boxmoor you could find a Georgian or Victorian cottage for £200,000, with Horsecroft Road and Kingsland Road among the smartest. In Piccotts End there are late-Georgian four-bedroom houses for £1 million.
Schools in the town are strong. The Hemel Hempstead School, which gets better results than many of the local private schools, is rated "good" by Ofsted. The John F Kennedy Catholic School is described as "excellent".
Local shops and restaurants are fairly run-of-the-mill - locals tend to go to Watford or St Albans instead - although there is an eight-screen cinema and an ice-skating rink.
Close to Hemel Hempstead are the villages of Felden and Flaunden, about half a mile from the station. You would need to spend £1 million to get a four-bedroom detached house in these pretty outposts.
© Barry Phillips
Journey time: 46 minutes
Annual season ticket: £3,184
Average house price: £361,000
Detached house price: £581,000
10-year price growth: 157 per cent
This small market town nestled in the Chilterns is the big winner when it comes to price growth - up almost 160 per cent in 10 years. The station is about one and a half miles from the town, but there is a good-size car park and a shuttle bus from the centre.
Starter homes are in short supply in Tring, but what it does have is a plethora of three-bedroom semis and detached houses. The cheapest option - at about £250,000 - would be a modern house on a development, while a Victorian three-bedroom house within the Tring Triangle - the town's conservation area - would cost between £350,000 and £400,000. Larger post-war family houses on the outskirts, with four or five bedrooms and big gardens, would cost around £500,000.
Paul Swindlehurst, manager of Michael Anthony Estate Agents, recommends Grove Road and Station Road for big family houses, and Park Road, within the triangle, for fans of Victorian architecture. The town centre is well stocked with shops and restaurants, and there is a market every Friday. But the real joy is in its location - head south to reach the Chilterns, or north to explore the Grand Union Canal and four huge reservoirs within a nature reserve designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The National Trust's gorgeous Ashridge Estate is about three miles from town and its grounds are simply spectacular. Local landmarks include the Tring Park mansion, which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and later became home to the Rothschild family - a scion of the banking family built a private zoological museum in Tring, now known as the Natural History Museum at Tring.
Tring Park is now home to the Tring School of Performing Arts, a private stage school. For the non-theatrical, the town's main state senior school is Tring School, rated "good" by Ofsted (the sixth form is particularly highly recommended). For younger pupils, Goldfield Infants' and Nursery School is rated "excellent" by Ofsted. Grove Road Primary School managed a "good" rating.
MILTON KEYNES, BUCKINGHAMSHIRE
Journey time: 67 minutes
Annual season ticket: £3,472
Average house price: £175,000
Detached house price: £275,000
10-year price growth: 137 per cent
It is easy to mock the land of the concrete cow, but Milton Keyes possesses some surprisingly lovely period houses as well as the modernist architecture for which it is famous. Milton Keynes was famously designed in a grid system, which divides the town into individual communities.
"People think we are all roundabouts and concrete cows," says Nicola Langford of estate agent Michael Graham, "but the grid system is really easy to get around - it's not like London. I live six miles out of town and it takes 10 minutes to get to work."
There is not much housing in the town centre itself, and Langford say stay away from the prefab "temporary" properties. They were originally built for construction workers in areas such as Fishermead and Neatherfield. They are hard to mortgage and are not standing the test of time particularly well. The west of town is generally the most favoured, in particular Loughton, which is within walking distance of the station.
Whitworth Lane is the millionaires' row of Milton Keynes, and contemporary executive homes will cost seven figures. A cheaper option would be a two-bedroom period cottage for between £300,000 and £350,000, or a five-bedroom period house for around £550,000.
The west and eastern sides of Milton Keynes are popular with parents because of the quality of the schools. Oak Grove School and Denbigh School are both considered "outstanding" by the Government's schools watchdog.
Outside Milton Keynes are pretty villages such as Deanshanger, about six miles away but - thanks to that superefficient grid road system - a painless drive into town.