PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 January, 2007, 12:00am

It was a dreary November morning and George Matheson was not looking forward to another hectic shift, producing live 24-hour international news at ITV's newsroom in London's Gray's Inn Road.

He had given up catching the tube to work because it was becoming too crowded and dirty. Like thousands of others, he had bought a motorbike, rather than a car, which would have incurred the congestion charge.

Depressingly, his route to work often took him past the blue and white tape designating police 'serious incident' scenes. He had recently been diagnosed with diabetes. He had two children approaching school age and a wife who wanted them to grow up in the countryside like she had.

His employers were running a poor third behind rival 24-hour news services Sky and the BBC. They were downsizing.

The offer of a redundancy package could not have come at a better time.

Like many other middle-class families, the Mathesons cashed in on the soaring value of their Stoke Newington home and moved to rural Devon, in the southwest of England.

A study released last week shows that 2.38 million people left London in the past 10 years, 1.4 million of them fleeing to the southwest. They were lured by the promise of better schools, lower rates of violent crime, warmer weather and stunning beaches and countryside.

'It's what you might call a 'metropause',' said George. 'City life had lost its attraction. It's taken a couple of years to find regular work but we were cushioned by the equity we had in our London house.'

George, 48, now commutes to Falmouth, 100km from his new home, where he teaches international journalism at a college three days a week during the semester.

He stays in a hotel for two nights but says his quality of life has vastly improved - in fact, he sees far more of his daughters than he did in London.

In the past, most incomers to the West Country were retirees. Now, according to the survey by the Halifax building society, most are aged between 25 and 44 and married with young children. More than one in four of the region's population is from elsewhere.

One consequence has been a dramatic rise in the cost of housing in the southwest. The average house price is GBP195,000 (HK$2.9 million), well below London's average of GBP287,000 but pushing it beyond the reach of many locals - including essential workers such as firemen, police officers and health staff.

There is another downside as well.

When Louise Thomas' husband was made redundant three years ago, they left London and moved to Devon. But they found that the local job market was low-paid, often below the national average.

'He earned GBP57,000 a year in London,' she said. 'We thought we'd get by on the GBP35,000 plus company car that he was initially offered down here. Now our household income is GBP14,000 a year.

'It's a struggle and we couldn't now afford the house we used to have in London even if he could find a similarly well-paid job there. But there are compensations. We no longer have a mortgage and we have five acres of beautiful land.'