Almost two years into the Covid pandemic, it seems only two things are clear. Firstly, as Omicron is sadly showing, the virus is not done with us yet. Secondly, the ways we work and live have undergone some permanent change.
So how has Bedford – one of the South East’s major commuting towns – been affected? Are commuters still choosing to work remotely, and if so, are they using local businesses more?
Is the London exodus still coming this way? We thought we’d check in on various key indicators in our town, and more broadly, to get a picture of what’s happening.
The London Commute: still down
At the height of the pandemic, between April 2020 and March 2021, rail travel from Bedford fell a staggering 78% according to figures from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR).
Official weekday passenger figures for Bedford are due at year-end, but a spokesperson for Govia Thameslink told us weekday passenger numbers are now ‘roughly half’ what they were in the pre-Covid era. We won’t know until well into 2022 if that is a permanent change.
The Bedford area property demand: still up
“Our website is still averaging around 2,000 hits per month, and 25% of all enquiries are coming from within M25, compared to 10-15% three years ago,” says Richard Banks, Director at Michael Graham.
“Big houses in Bedford and nearby villages are hot commodities. There are two lots of people we’re dealing with – those coming from London, then also local people wanting to expand.
“They may still want to be able to commute but they’re not commuting every day – maybe just five days a month, and need more room. We’re looking at a 12% increase in prices year on year, slightly above the national average.”
Town-centre lunchtime trade: very positive
US-born Kelsey Tucker, who along with her Bedford-native husband Simon started up the Gallery café in early 2019, is upbeat about business.
“I’d say the cafe is twice as full now overall than it was pre-pandemic,” she told us.
“We have a lot more people sitting in to work with their phones and laptops. We’re also seeing people buying more food to take away, suggesting they may be treating themselves as they work from home.”
It’s a similarly positive picture at Vanilla Tree, another of Bedford’s great town centre indie cafes.
Owner Tracy O’Hare says, “We now have a massive lunch rush – it is definitely bigger than it used to be before the pandemic hit. From about 1pm to 3pm we are flat out. Our customers are mainly coming for their lunch break from local businesses in the area and business is good.”
Sense of community remains strong
There’s no doubt that the pandemic has made many of us realize more than ever how important it is to be part of our local community. Bedford has community spirit in spades, displaying huge levels of charity, togetherness and empathy which has really helped people facing isolation and difficulty.
Kerry Cash, Salon Director at 5th Avenue Hair and Beauty Spa, says she has worked the phone non-stop during lockdowns to stay in touch with customers – not just to keep business buoyed up but to connect with people.
“It’s so important to keep people motivated and hopeful,” said Kerry. “We’ve worked really hard to keep our clients coming when it’s been safe to do so.
“I’m always planning ahead in case things change, but we are very busy and I am optimistic.”
As the hair and beauty industry is a great bellwether for general business spirit the world over, this is encouraging.
The Covid19 era has upended all of our lives and lifestyles in one way or another.
For many Bedford-area people who’ve been remote-working their London jobs this past 18 months, a long commute now seems much less attractive, virus or no virus. The enforced disruption of our old patterns has made us see how things might work differently – and that has got to be a good thing.
Read a full version of this article, including more on changes to work patterns, here.
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by Charlotte Smith
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