Transport for London (TFL), the government authority which oversees busses and trains in the greater London metropolitan region, breaks the transport area into nine main zones. The fares it charges for rail journeys vary depending on which zones are involved, and which types of trains are used (Overground, Underground, Thameslink, etc.).
Most Londoners consider Zone 4 to be fairly far from Central London. Depending on where your office is located, a Zone 4 to Zone 1 journey can take as little as 20 minutes, or as much as an hour. In the early part of my UK residence, I lived in Zone 5 (Edgware) and most people considered that extreme. I also thought that was about as far as I wanted to live, since my commute to work was about an hour. Then I visited Chesham.
My first encounter with the town happened by chance. When I first moved to London, I was very curious about the Underground system. One day I wondered, “what station is farthest from Central London?” A quick Google search revealed the answer: Chesham, and I decided to go there as a Mundane Adventure1 . My thinking was that, if nothing else, I could have tea and come back. Pictures of the town looked cute, and it seemed like somewhere relatively unusual to visit.
The journey itself took an hour and a half, but was nonetheless a pleasure. I took the Jubilee line from Canons Park to Stratford, and then changed trains to the Metropolitan line. I watched with interest as urban/industrial landscape morphed into suburbia, and then finally gave way to the rolling hills and fields of the countryside.
It was a somewhat grey and cool day when I got off the Met line. I noticed the staff garden had received a number of awards back in the 90s, and appreciated that there was a free public restroom on the platform. The view when I first left the station was somewhat uninspiring, but then a sign caught my eye. “Walkers Welcome”, it said, and then offered a URL where people could look at maps of local walks.
The UK has a reputation for being a country full of people who enjoy “rambling” but this was the first direct evidence I’d seen of that. I pulled up the website, and was intrigued to find that there was something called the “Chess Valley Walk” that was supposed to be very good. Although I wasn’t really dressed for a hike, I decided to check it out. “What will I find?” I asked myself. The answer was: BEAUTY.
The town of Chesham was very cute, and anything an Anglophile might desire. But the woods, ah, the woods were purely gorgeous. It turned out that the area is classified as an A.O.N.B.–an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty–and completely deserves that name. I lost myself in rolling hills, went wandering down arboreal tunnels, and stood for a time just listening to the echoing birdsong. My heart felt lighter than it had in a long time, and I knew that I would be coming back to do the walk again.
In reality, I thought it would be an amazing place to live, but also thought the commute would be killer. Eighty or ninety minutes to work? No thank you. Plus, I was pretty happy with my flat in Edgware, and wasn’t planning to move. So Chesham became the place I went when I wanted to go for long walks far away from anything resembling a major city.
Fast forward two and a half years: I had moved twice, and I was living in Woodford Green. It had been a year since my last visit to Chesham, because it would have taken me two hours to get there. In addition, the Forest of Epping was pretty close to where I was living. It was once the hunting ground for Queen Elizabeth the First, and is still well managed to this day. It’s quite lovely, and was a 10-minute train ride, or a 30 minute walk from my flat, so I was getting a good dose of nature there on a regular basis. While I missed Chesham, I thought that Epping Forest was an acceptable substitute. And my commute was a quick 30 minutes, so it was hard to fault that.
I had planned to move further East in March, to a town called Loughton, so I would be closer to the Forest. Due to that, and the office moving, my commute was going to be about 50 minutes. But I felt that was an acceptable trade to be closer to the woods. There was a complication though: my old lease ended before the new one began, so I was going to be homeless for a couple of weeks. Furthermore, due to interest from some new tenants, I ended up moving out of my Woodford flat over a month before I was supposed to move into the new one in Loughton.
Knowing from experience that anything is tolerable for a little while, I decided to book an Airbnb in Chesham. I figured that I could put up with an 80-minute commute to work for three weeks, and it would give me a taste of living there. Plus, there had been an incident during the leasing out of my Woodford flat where an estate agent had trespassed into my flat and photographed it without my permission, so I was thinking it would be very nice to get away from that area for a while.
Due to some transport weirdness, I ended up taking a train to Amersham instead of Chesham, and then taking a taxi the rest of the way to the Airbnb. Amersham station is currently under construction, and feels fairly urban, and I got to the Airbnb after a long week of packing and little sleep. So, my arrival didn’t feel particularly magical. But when I went to the station the next morning, I felt my heart lift, like I was somewhere truly magical again. It probably helped that the route there took me along a wooded path. But there’s also just something about the platform that feels very nice. Maybe it’s the towering trees that surround it. Standing there feels a little like being in a Studio Ghibli film. My heart speeds up as if in anticipation of something, and my face almost inevitably breaks into a smile. I just can’t help it. And so I stood in the cold, heart exploding with happiness, and with a huge grin on my face.
That first morning, I was also happy because I’d found out that the rush-time trains to Chesham are fast trains–so they skip almost half of the stops on the way into Central London. It’s still a 20-something mile trip, so it’s not exactly quick, but it did mean that I’d get into the office in just about an hour. That’s a doable commute. I thought.
Something started fizzing in my brain, though I resisted it for almost a week. But after 5 days of going back and forth (and getting used to the fact that there are only 2 trains an hour) I still liked it. If anything, I was starting to love commuting–which I hadn’t really done since I’d moved from Edgware. I always got a seat into town, since Chesham is the first station, and even during evening rush, the trains didn’t have that awful crammed, anxious energy that I associate with the Central or Northern lines. I could look out the window at beautiful countryside rolling past, or write, or read, or just sit and think about the day. I was at peace and in love.
And so, since there was a month left before I was supposed to sign the lease and move into the flat in Loughton, I decided to surrender the holding deposit, and not move there. I was sure that the landlord could let the flat quickly again, and I wanted to immerse myself back in the Chilterns AONB. And so, I chose to throw my life to the winds, and start searching for a flat here. It took about 6 weeks, but I managed to find a flat that was cheap, acceptably quiet, and near to the station, but also near to nature. And as I wrote about in my first post, the timing could not have been more perfect. Being able to walk in nature daily is the perfect solace for not being able to see friends and family for a few months. I could not have been luckier. And I’m very glad that I made the choice that I did.
1. Mundane Adventures: short trips which involve going new places or experiencing new things that within easy reach. Examples of these include taking a new route to work, trying a new-to-you coffee shop, and going somewhere with an intriguing name by bus.
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