Buying property in London can seem like a thankless pursuit. And it’s not just the sky-high prices. The quality (as opposed to the value) of most London properties depends heavily on the local area – something which can be impossible to assess without living there first. No wonder, then, that more and more potential buyers are choosing to forego the capital altogether and instead put their roots down in one of its various commuter hubs. If you’re looking to buy within an hour of London, here’s our pick of the bunch:
Originally founded as the Roman city of Verulamium, St Albans has since reinvented itself as a bustling market town and, latterly, as one of the most well-heeled of London’s dormitory towns. Its links with the capital go right back to Victorian times, when it became the first stop on the newly-established coach routes going in and out of the city. Back then, it was the rowdy inns that brought in the crowds. While St Albans still boasts good pubs, it’s smartened up its act over the past century: it now prides itself on its culture and sports too, with the city regularly appearing in lists of Britain’s most active spots. And with speedy train connections to central London (in particular to Farringdon, the nexus of the new Crossrail line) and two major airports (Gatwick and Luton), it certainly can’t be beaten for connectivity.
Since officially receiving city status in 2012 as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Chelmsford – the capital of Essex – has been undergoing somewhat of a makeover. Keen to market itself to young families and City types, the centre has been revamped, with a focus on posher dining options and more upscale retail outlets. And there’s culture too: with two theatres and an independent cinema (i.e. the type that prefers subtitled films over massive ice-cream stands and screaming teenagers), Chelmsford is currently preparing its bid to be the UK’s city of culture in 2025. Not bad for a place that used to be mocked as all ring-roads and roundabouts. Meanwhile when it comes to schools, there’s no doubt that Chelmsford punches above its weight, being home to not one but two high-performing grammars and a mid-range independent (New Hall School) too.
Hatfield – and its neighbour Welwyn Garden City – might not come with the same prestige as nearby St Albans, but neither do they have the same price premium. The excellent rail links to central London – just 25 minutes on the fast service to Kings Cross – mean that Hatfield is attracting London commuters at a dizzying pace. And don’t let any ‘new town’ snobbery get in your way: though it might have been founded – at least officially – in 1944, Hatfield has a history stretching back over a century. After all, who could possibly sniff at Hatfield House, the staggering Jacobean manor that once housed the chief minister to King James I? On top of that, Hatfield also boasts a museum, an art gallery, a popular live music venue and some ‘outstanding’ local schools. First-time buyers should get in now while prices are still agnostic.
Best known for all things aviation, Farnborough, the cheapest place on the list, is regarded by those in-the-know as one of the up-and-coming spots in Hampshire. Situated just on the Surrey border, Farnborough has traditionally been dismissed as the land of shopping precincts and dreary office blocks. Now, thanks no doubt to a small but steady flood of London evacuees, the town is once again going places, with an up-and-coming gastropub scene being the first sign of its gentrification. Why not get ahead of the trend? After all, Farnborough is less than 45 minutes by train to Waterloo – a rather fitting station given the town’s quirky French history. Not only is it the resting place of Napoleon III – the last French monarch – who fled here in exile after the Franco-Prussian war, it’s also home to St Michael’s Abbey, a small Benedictine community set-up by his wife and described by one senior theologian as ‘a little corner as a little corner of England which is forever France’. Move there and make it less so.
Much like its member of parliament – former prime minister Theresa May – Maidenhead is a solid, if uninspiring, choice – particularly for anyone looking for that Windsor-esque charm without the dizzying price-tag. Just 20 minutes train from Paddington, this leafy market-town scores well on all the usual metrics: schools, amenities, greenery and all that. And it’s big on jobs too: forming part of what Whitehall likes to call Britain’s Silicon Corridor: that stretch of the M4 which houses a sizeable chunk of Britain’s telecoms and financial services industry. A deluge of rich retirees means there’s a healthy civic-life – golf clubs, boat clubs and the like. Meanwhile easy access to Heathrow – the best-functioning of the big London airports – is a serious perk for anyone with overseas business or a taste for sunshine.
Situated on the northern tip of West Sussex, Crawley is perhaps best known for being home to Gatwick Airport – which means near round-the-clock rail connections to London (via both the highly-reliable Brighton to Bedford line, and also the Gatwick Express). As the town has grown in recent years, so have the schools: Crawley is currently home to seven state schools and two independents (both of which are co-ed and offer both day and boarding options). There’s greenery too: Buchan country park is a 170-mile stretch of gardens and trials which continues to draw newcomers and old-hands to its beautiful nature walks. An interesting fact about the town: it’s home to the world’s biggest community of Chaggosians, the Creole ethnic group forced to leave their Indian Ocean homelands in the 60s and 70s in order to make way for a US military base.