Head west for a taste of city living with that village vibe
The cities of the South West are few and far between, but those that exist – Exeter, Plymouth and even modest Truro – have a little urban sprawl, an industrial quarter and a slew of housing estates that make them look and feel a lot like cities.
That’s not the case with Wells in Somerset, however.
First, it’s tiny, with a population of just 11,000. Second, it’s outrageously pretty: the 13th-century cathedral is the best known of its immaculately kept buildings, but the moated Bishop’s Palace is a close runner-up in a competitive field. Third, it’s easy to get from Wells into the countryside. Many of the residential streets enjoy views of the Mendip Hills, and if you walk just a few minutes you are in them.
The picturesque Market Square hosts an open-air produce market twice a week, while locally grown artisan food is prominent in many shops, both reminders that England’s secondsmallest city – behind the City of London – is surrounded by farmland, and is a minor urban oasis in what is otherwise a very rural area.
Little wonder, then, that people want to live here and pay a premium to do so: house prices are 10 per cent higher than nearby towns Frome and Street. Zoopla says the average house price across all of Somerset is £252,583, while in Wells it is £297,027. In some central areas of the city, the finest houses breach the £1million barrier.
The local housing market is fuelled by people keen to be near top schools: Wells Cathedral and Wells Blue are in the city itself, while Millfield, All Hallows and Downside are close by, so create strong demand for homes in surrounding villages.
The single most prestigious address (although perhaps not if you want to avoid tourists) is Cathedral Green, where a small number of classic Georgian properties are ideal for families and sit next to tea shops and restaurants. They are large, typically with four or more bedrooms, and have seven-figure price tags.
A little more affordable are the homes on the eastern and northern fringes of the city, where many are arts and crafts in design, mixed with large newbuilds and some Georgian properties. “These come to the market sporadically as they tend to be ‘forever homes’ but when they do, there’s always serious interest,” explains Samuel Powell of Greenslade Taylor Hunt estate agency.
“The history, architecture and culture have a similar feel to Bath and Cheltenham but on a much smaller scale,” says David Wild of Savills. “Wells still retains the feel of a market town, or even a large village. While it can be busy during peak tourist season, it has a vibrant community.”
He’s not joking about the community: this autumn alone, the city is hosting festivals for contemporary arts, literature and food. In November there is an annual night-time procession of floats, claimed by some to be the biggest illuminated carnival in the world.
In addition to all this community buzz in the medieval streets, there is a far more 21st-century amenity that also drives at least a small part of the housing market: Clark’s Village is a 90-shop outlet centre a short distance from Wells with tax-free shopping (for non-EU citizens only).
The outlet attracts four million visitors annually, and agents say this has persuaded some Chinese buyers to snap up homes in and near Wells itself. International interest is small in this part of the UK when compared with London, but buying agents report that some trophy homes with substantial grounds within 10 miles of Wells have been bought by overseas buyers.
“There’s a strong second home market, often people from London in their 50s sizing up the place before retirement. They often let their properties to tourists when they’re not in Wells,” says Moira Williams, a buying agent in the area. Wells is a good location to have a holiday rental because not only is the city an attraction in itself, but Cheddar Gorge, Wookey Hole Caves, Glastonbury Abbey and the new pier at Weston-super-Mare are a short drive away.
There are a few downsides, inevitably. Wells can get congested with all those tourists during the summer, and a traffic management system during the annual Glastonbury music festival, held six miles south, can be a pain.
The nearest rail links to London are Castle Cary and Bath, some 14 and 22 miles away respectively. On the upside, these train links are speedy into the capital. Wells is less than an hour’s drive from the larger cities of Bath and Bristol, the latter connection now benefiting from an improved link road, and Bristol airport is also close by.
This assumes people want to leave Wells, of course, and many, it seems, do not. “People move in and that tends to be it,” says Williams. “They may move to a different house, but it’s rare that anyone moves away – they like it and they stay.”
A four-bedroom house, main and right, £725,000 with Killens