I am now, officially, a TWAT. Yes, my friends, enemies, casual acquaintances and even members of my immediate family may well have known this for many years, but now, by way of modern lifestyle behaviours and professional schedules, it’s a status with rubber-stampedconfirmation.
My new post-pandemic working week, in a London W2 magazine office, is Tuesdays, Wednesdays And Thursdays. The rest of the time, I luxuriate/mar in a freelance/WFH module, remotely communicating by Zoom and virtual meetings, 70 or so miles away in the quiet of the Oxfordshire countryside (the civil parish in which my titchy little house resides is, by the way, called “Chipping Norton”, so I suppose that makes me a Complete and Utter...)
Currently only a few weeks into my out-of-town experiment (I had lived in central London for almost 40 years), what I have discovered is that the hybrid way of doing things involves a lot of moving around and booking ahead. Much packing of bags and thinking forward. The sudden, constant need of a change of clothes (for several weather conditions), becomes as much a part of one’s life as a sense of statelessness — as a London visitor, with nowhere of your own to go when work is done, you must get used to feeling like an outsider, acquiring a taxi driver-esque knowledge of public loos, friendly coffee bars, parks and cosy pubs. Traffic will be bad, the weather will be cruel, trains will be over-crowded, often late and — with the constant threat of strikes — frequently won’t run at all. This will make the alternative commuting methods — buses and roads — even more packed and jammed up.
All of which is a sign that your reporter is very much not a trailblazer here. If you believe the surveys, London is emptying faster than a leaky li-lo. Back in 2020, as the pandemic took hold, the London Assembly housing committee looked into Londoners’ domestic situations and their attitudes to home life as a result of Covid-19 and found that one in seven (14 per cent) wanted to leave the capital, a desire for private gardens and balconies as well as the proximity of parks to one’s home driving their decision-making. And of the 33 per cent of Londoners who said they wanted to move to a new home, 46 per cent wanted to be out of town.
When the Covid situation worsened at the start of 2021, PricewaterhouseCoopers predicted that London’s population could decline for the first time since 1988, by as much as 300,000. Hamptons estate agents added that London leavers had purchased 73,950 homes, worth a collective £27.6 billion, outside the capital over the course of 2020, coronavirus leading the biggest urban exit (Metrexit?) from London in four years.
Leaving London was at first, a traumatic experience. I vacated my apartment during a sunshine week in June, just days after the jubilee, a glorious street party attended by a multi-cultural mix of local characters, neighbours and friends serving as a weepy goodbye. Why did I leave? More bang for my buck property wise. More space. Less speed. A change of scene. All good.
Right now, a few weeks in, settling into the low ceilings and head banging beams of my new home — lovely but a work in progress comfort wise — still feels like a holiday that might come to an end soon. Yes I am financially better off — my mortgage payments in the countryside are pretty much half what my apartment rental was costing me. But there an emotional price to pay. During my weekly 48 or 72 hour raids on London I walk the streets like a tourist, a day tripping visitor. I’m gradually getting used to it but often I’ll be on my bike, cruising a west London street and my internal sat nav, the knowledge apparently now permanently downloaded on my brain’s hard drive, will start steering me back to my old flat. There is always a little tear of disappointment, displacement and sentimental dismay when this happens.
I walk the streets of London like a tourist, a day tripping visitor — but I’m graduallt getting used to it
The countryside is a starkly alternative reality. Yes, it is tranquil and calm and gently civilised but it’s not without stress and worry and the need to plan ahead and allow for travel time — for pretty much everything. Shopping, cinema, dining, socialising, friends and a decent sourdough loaf — all a 20-minute car drive away, rather than a few steps down the street like it was in Notting Hill. If I want to have a drink with a friend, it’s quite easy to choose who that lucky pub pal will be…seeing as I only have one friend within a 50-mile radius. The neighbours? While helpful and generally friendly, they tend to eye townie-dependent, back-and-forth part-timers (ie me) with a barely concealed suspicion and mistrust. And then there’s the travel. My first attempt at commuting was a complete comedy of errors. Shocked to note that business-hour train tickets on the GWR cost anything up to 40 quid — one way! — from my local station I decided to do things the hard way. An e-scooter ride from my house to Witney (three miles) then a slow, meandering bus to Oxford bus station (£4.50), and finally the Oxford Tube coach service to Notting Hill Gate (£12). Wifi on board, a destination of W2 and a saving of around £20. You can also buy a “Tube 12” carnet of 12 tickets for use within one year for £90.
Only problem — my e-scooter was considered too bulky for the Witney bus driver (he let me on “just this once”) so I had to cycle and lock up my bike at the bus stop the next day. Also, this cash-cheap option was rather time-expensive. I’d left home at 6am, got to Oxford for 7am and then, because of “heavy metal around Perivale,” as the old Capital Radio “Flying Eye” chopper used to say, didn’t get to the office until after 10.30am. A whole hour and a half late.
How about cycling the whole way? That might work. After all, I am quite fit and having beaten Ventoux and Alpe D’Huez am rather experienced on two wheels. So, I put on my Rapha clobber, swung a leg over the carbon fibre Colnago and tried that too. I mean, how difficult could it be? Just 74 miles, door to door, in summer conditions?
If I left at around 5.30am and averaged around 18 miles an hour, I should be fine-ish, right? So I set off, as the sun was rising, keen and upbeat and full of energy- boosting breakfast fuel, country roads, sunshine… and then bailed out, hot, sweaty and frustrated at my sluggish pace, at Reading railway station. I’d managed 38 and a half miles in around three hours. Pathetic, really. And I had to arrive at the office looking like an over-heated cosplay weirdo.
I had to arrive at the office looking like an over-heated cosplay weirdo
I reverted to the train. A cycle to Hanborough station in Oxfordshire (five miles, 20 mins) splashing out £36.70 on a ticket and boarding the 7.40am to Paddington. Fast. Comfy. Quiet. I arrived just over an hour later, just a three-minute walk from the office, Nice. The train back, on Thursday evening, after a two- night stay at my friend Tom’s Harrow Road home / guest house (£50 a night) would be off-peak, so much cheaper — £21. Result! But then GWR went and pulled a day of industrial action and cancelled all trains out of Paddington. I had to walk to Notting Hill Gate and queue for the Oxford Tube coach, which flew by twice without stopping as it was full of tragic TWATs like me making “alternative arrangements.”
Since I had given up my old diesel estate car commuting by driving wasn’t initially an option until an opportunity to join the 21st century in a swanky e-vehicle turned up. I borrowed a brand new Genesis GV60 — the South Korean firm’s first ever EV — and oh lordy, THIS is the way to go. Even the transition from house to driver’s seat was a thrill — the hyper-futuristic EV aesthetic immediately very different from GWR’s idea of comfort. Kitted out to a premium materials, sci-fi spec, the gear stick no longer sticky but instead a giant crystal sphere “drive selector” in the centre console (think Mystic Meg meets Woody Allen’s Orgasmatron). When the car is switched off the sphere provides disco-tastic mood lighting then flips over (!) to reveal a rotating dial indicating that the GV60 is ready to drive. With an electric motor on each axle of my 4WD version, a zippy 0-62mph time of 4.0 seconds was a breeze on the quiet country roads. When I programmed the nappa leather driver’s seat to give me a massage I imagined myself in a comfy nook of Darth Vader’s country club and the miles rolled away. The “infotainment” offering was crisp and loud — I click-wheeled my way around the 17-speaker Bang & Olufsen surround sound system blasting out Kraftwerk’s motorik rhythms as I checked out other TWAT traffic in the digital mirrors. Yes, this sort of e-luxe would be costing me a lot — between £47,005 and £65,405 depending on specification, but the benefits were obvious and, crucially, unreliant on railway employees and industrial action.
And if you leave at 5.30am, like I did — e-vehicle all charged up overnight from a length of flex through an open window across the garden — you’ll glide into town in 80 minutes, arriving before 7am, almost two hours before you need to be in the office. (NB: This is the first time in my long and illustrious career that I have EVER beenn early to work).
Okay, so it’s not without its downsides but all this felt thrillingly modern and responsible, hip and air-quality considerate. I was, for a couple of days anyway, part of Mayor Sadiq’s big plan for the capital to be a zero-carbon city by 2030, one of the new gen e-drivers in London who now account for half of all new car purchases, and one of the 6,000 or so fully electric or hybrid plug-in cars registered in London in June 2022 alone. It would cost me the best part of £60,000 but I would be doing hybrid living right.