Going the distance

Published in the Sunday Times, 02Sep2007

How feasible is it to live on the Continent and work in the UK? Our correspondent meets the Eurocommuters

James Trollope

Every other weekend, Jo Wheeler presents weather bulletins from Sky TV’s studios in west London, before flying home to the western Algarve. Ed Williams, a property investment specialist, commutes weekly between his office in Oxford Circus, in the West End of London, and the north coast of France, while John Fuller, a sales director, shuttles monthly between Nottinghamshire and Mallorca.

Budget airlines, high-speed trains and the rise of the internet have bred a new race of Eurocommuter, ready to swap Basingstoke for Barcelona, Potters Bar for Porto or Luton for Lille. With suitable skills and a sense of adventure, growing numbers of people are finding it possible to live in one country and work in another – even though it won’t do much for their carbon footprint.

“I love sitting outside in the morning, having breakfast under a clear blue sky,” says Wheeler, 44. “We have a view of the Atlantic, a pool and citrus orchards. You can walk, park or horse-ride almost anywhere. And in the evening, there’s nothing nicer than sitting back with a gin and tonic after picking one of your own lemons.”

Five years ago, Wheeler and her husband, Richard, sold their Cheshire house for £320,000, and paid £190,000 for a five-bed villa at Cape St Vincent, about an hour’s drive from Faro airport. Now renovated, the property has been valued at more than £500,000. Her two youngest children live with her in Portugal; her three teenagers board at school in Britain.

Wheeler squeezes her hours at Sky into two long weekends a month, leaving for London early on Friday and flying back on Monday. She works from 4.30am to 10pm on Saturday and Sunday, with the odd extra shift on Friday and Monday. The average airfare is £175; she keeps a car at Sky’s headquarters, and stays with a friend. “I enjoy the contrast between the two countries and still have a strong work ethic,” she says. “Besides, it would be difficult to get a highly paid professional job in Portugal.”

The move has also paid dividends professionally: Wheeler was called in by Sky to help cover the Madeleine McCann case, after the little girl was snatched a few miles from Wheeler’s villa. “Despite that horror, it’s generally much safer for children over here. It’s very laid-back and a great place to bring up a family.”

Ed Williams, 42, and his wife, Leila, 44, who have four children, feel the same about northern France. They live in a large house overlooking a golf course at Hardelot, near Boulogne-sur-Mer on the Opal Coast. Ed spends Thursday to Monday in France with his family; on Tuesday, he drives to Calais and catches the Eurostar to London.

Two concentrated days of meetings are cushioned by a night with his mother-in-law in Chelsea (she irons his shirts) before he heads home. “A lot of people think I don’t do much work, but I work far harder than when I was in the City full time,” he says. “I have an office in the grounds of the French house and use my laptop on the train.”

The family first visited Hardelot 10 years ago, bought a holiday home five years later, and moved there full-time in 2004, upgrading to a six-bed villa with an acre of land. They kept their London home, which they rent out, but they have no plans to return. “The whole family recently spent 48 hours in London and we were all desperate to get back,” says Williams. “To get out of the car and smell the sea air and pine forests again – it’s magic.”

An average return rail fare costs £100. The drive to Calais takes 30 minutes, and Williams reaches his office in Cavendish Square, in the West End, two hours later. When the high-speed rail link starts in November, the trip will be cut by 20 minutes. Eurostar doesn’t offer season tickets, but there is a frequent traveller reward scheme.

His annual rail bill is about £5,000 (compared to, say, £5,320 for a Peterborough to King’s Cross annual season ticket), yet the commute often takes him less time than colleagues who live in Sussex and Hampshire. “If the house was on the Wentworth estate [in Surrey], it would have cost at least five times as much,” he says. “As well as golf, the children can sail, fish and play tennis – and they all have horses.”

There are no statistics on how many Britons commute from abroad. However, a report commissioned last year by Thomson Holidays predicts that by 2020, 1.5m Britons will live abroad, returning, with varying degrees of frequency, for work. The survey has identified five key airports around which overseas commuter belts would grow: Barcelona, Palma, Marrakesh, Dubrovnik and Faro.

Terence Panton, an estate agent with Engel & Völkers in Palma, Mallorca, says he has hundreds of Britons in search of restored flats in the historic district of the capital. “It’s cheaper than London, the weather is nicer, it’s more secure, the food is great and they clean the streets every day. Rather than having a pied-à-terre in Palma and a house in London, more people are buying their main property here.”

Two years ago, John Fuller, 53, bought a £190,000 three-bed flat in Palma. It has now been valued at £280,000, and he is downsizing the property he owns in the UK to buy something bigger out there. He and his wife, Petra, spend five days a month in the city, which is a two-hour flight from their local airport at Coventry.

Liam Hennigan, meanwhile, expects to clock up 100,000 miles this year on a weekly London-Madrid run. After completing an MBA in Spain, Hennigan, 31, became a financial consultant in London, but his wife, Katharine, and baby, Joe, will stay in Madrid until early next year. “Being away from the family is hard, but I can see that, in terms of quality of life and cost of travel, more and more people will consider flying to work,” he says. “I used to work in New York, where it was quite common to commute to Chicago or Miami. Once you’re in the right mindset, it’s easy enough to do.”

HOW FAR WILL YOU GO?

Faro: 2 hours 45 minutes to London Stansted, Gatwick and Luton with Thomsonfly, EasyJet, Ryanair and Monarch.
Calais: 75 minutes by Eurostar to Waterloo, three times a day (from November, 55 minutes to St Pancras).
Madrid: 2½ hours to all main London airports with BA, EasyJet and Iberia.
Palma: 2 hours 40 minutes to Coventry with Thomsonfly, six days a week.