Lead image: St Albans Cathedral Park (photo: Copperman05 / iStock / Getty Images Plus)
‘Tired of London, tired of life’, goes the trite, truncated Samuel Johnson sound bite. Well, I think many of us can relate, as we crush ourselves onto the Central Line from Monday to Friday only to be surgically attached to the sofa come the weekend, too shattered to enjoy our glorious capital city.
Could it be time to flee the capital? Head for the ‘burbs? Unthinkable in your 20s, but in your 30s and 40s the pull of greenery, space, a driveway – heck a whole house – gets that bit stronger.
But where to head? Do you just stick a pin in a map and hope for the best? Head for Peterborough because you heard the trains are good? No, you do your research on the best commuter towns for ex-Londoners, starting here.
Welcome to the first in The Resident’s new series examining London’s commuter belts. First up, Hertfordshire, specifically, St Albans. We’ve all seen St Albans City flash up on the destinations board at St Pancras International. A mere 20 minutes away by train, huh? Perfectly commutable, especially if you work around King’s Cross or north London.
Rapidly becoming the go-to place for London commuters in search of a balanced lifestyle, the historic city of St Albans is the birth place of the first British Saint – Alban – and just a 20-minute drive away is Hatfield House, where The Favourite, staring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, was filmed. It was also voted by The Sunday Times as one of the Best Places to Live in Britain.
‘Wake up in bucolic village or a vibrant market town or city and catch the train into London in 30 minutes? No wonder Hertfordshire has become a go-to destination for commuters to the capital’, says Richard Young, editor of Hertfordshire Life.
‘With beautiful countryside, parks, nature reserves and waterways as well as deep history, there’s much of old England here’, he continues. ‘But don’t think it’s sleepy – the café, dining and cultural scene is thriving. With top schools, sports galore and loads of opportunities for weekend fun it’s also a big draw for families. In a nutshell, the county has variety – the spice of life.’
So far so promising, so let’s take a closer look, starting with the property market…
The property market in St Albans
Foxton’s has the average property price in St Albans as £583,930 – 1.2% below the London average of £590,935 – while Zoopla has the average value at £600,574 versus average price paid of £558,878.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll find new homes like St Albans Square by Osprey Homes, which offers three houses for sale, each composed of four bedrooms, two bathrooms, an open plan kitchen-dining room and separate lounge, as well as 11 two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartments with allocated car parking.
Located on the south side of St Albans just off London Road, the development is less than a mile from St Albans City train station for a swift commute into London, and one mile from the town centre’s bustling boutiques, bars and restaurants. St Albans Square is less than three miles from the M25 Junction 22, and less than four miles from the A1.
Apartments start from £475,000, rising to £780,000 for semi-detached homes and £965,000 for detached homes. For further information call Osprey Homes on 01438 758 386.
Then there’s Gabriel Square. Developed in partnership with Meyer Homes and international architectural and design practices Benson & Forsyth and Conran + Partners, the contemporary styled town houses and apartments have redefined design-led living in St Albans.
Arranged around a landscaped urban garden with dynamic planting and art installations by triple RHS Chelsea flower show winning sculptor David Harber, the four-bedroom townhouses have even been been future-proofed with Smart Homes Technology from Control 4.
As well as its proximity to the rail station, Gabriel Square has good connections to the M1, M25, M40 and A1, leading to London, Watford, Oxford and Cambridge. It’s also just a five-minute drive from Sopwell House spa and a 10-minute drive from the world-famous Centurion Club golf course.
The first garden square development in St Albans has 17 townhouses rstarting from £965,000. Call 01727 226 881 for further information.
Good Schools in St Albans
The St Albans area has many excellent schools, including St Albans Girls School (STAGS), which has an excellent sporting record, celebrates music, drama and the arts, a Business & Enterprise Academy, and a community centered around its House system.
Beaumont School, a co-educational secondary school and sixth form with academy status, was recently enhanced by the construction of new state-of-the-art facilities for sport, maths and computing.
There’s also Nicholas Breakspear Catholic School, where 59% of students achieved grade 4 in English and Maths and 45% achieved A Level grades A* to B in 2018. The school has a House-based system and its pastoral care was rated Outstanding by Ofsted in 2016.
In addition, Merchant Taylors’ School, Haberdashers’ Aske’s and Harrow all lie within 11 miles of St Albans.
Where to eat in St Albans
Londoners have never been short of hot dining spots, so understandably one of our greatest concerns is good restaurants. Fortunately, The Ivy St Albans Brasserie has just opened, so you won’t have to go without your blackened cod baked in a banana leaf.
There’s also Lussmanns Sustainable Fish & Grill, championed by Giles Coren & Marina O’Loughlin in the Sunday Times 100 best places to eat in the UK, and Chez Mumtaj, a French-Asian restaurant serving traditional dishes with a contemporary twist by award-winning Executive Chef Chad Rahman.
Those who like their modern British fare should head for Thompsons, which has three AA Rosettes and a six-course tasting menu for £65, or you could take a 30-minute drive to The Grove on Watford at the weekend, a golf resort and spa that serves steaks, fresh fish and hearty pies at The Stables, set in the estate’s original 18th century stable block, afternoon tea in the lounge, and also have an innovative food offering in The Glasshouse, where busy chefs perform theatrics at live food stations while you browse and graze.
Speaking of afternoon tea, you can also treat yourself to tiered delights at Sopwell House, St Michael’s Manor Hotel and Aubrey Park Hotel. if that’s left you hungry for more, check out our sister title Hertfordshire Life’s guide to 20 of the Best Restaurants in Hertfordshire, and for good measure, Hertfordshire’s Prettiest Riverside Pubs.
ThINGS TO DO IN st albans
Being so close to London, there’s hardly any danger of being left in the in the lurch when it comes to culture. In the summer months Hertfordshire comes alive with the Hertfordshire Festival of Music (June), St Albans Film Festival (June), The Tringe festival of comedy in Tring (July), Battle Proms, open-air concert at Hatfield House (July), Folk by the Oak, one of the UK’s largest folk festivals (July), the Great British Food Festival at Knebworth House (July), Pendley Shakespeare Festival (July & August), Knebworth Classic Motor Show (August), Tom Kerridge’s Pub in the Park in St Albans (August) and plenty more.
For rainy days, the Warner Bros Studio Tour – Making of Harry Potter in Watford is not too far away (about a half hour drive from St Albans), and St Albans Museum + Gallery opened last year with visiting exhibitions such as the currently showing Barbara Hepworth: artist in society 1948-53, a poignant new exhibition exploring the works of the renowned sculptor and her connection to Hertfordshire (showing until September 2019)
Shaw’s Corner, the country home of playwright Bernard Shaw for 44 years, has just been relaunched by the National Trust near Welwyn.
Alban Arena, a theatre and music venue that has been the centre of culture in the area since 1968, has some great shows, and St Albans itself has good some high street shopping, as well as a good weekly market and monthly antique and vintage market.
Knebworth House and Hatfield House are also great places to take the kids, the former famous for its outdoor concerts and the latter not far behind.
Golfers and spa worshippers can while away the weekends at the aforementioned Centurion Club golf course, Sopwell House spa and The Grove golf resort and spa.
So all in all, there’s not much that London offers up that you can’t get in St Albans, all with the added bonus of a little more room to breathe. But if that’s still a little too close to London for you, try Berkhamsted, a historic market town in the Bulbourne valley of the Chiltern Hills. You won’t get much more bang for your buck than in London – in fact, properties are around £50,000 more expensive – but it’s a beautiful place.