How to find the perfect village
Locating a rural haven can be harder than you think. Caroline McGhie reveals our pick of 25 idyllic spots in England.
This is best time of year to enjoy the English village. It is the season of fetes, church concerts, agricultural fairs and country house opera. Pubs spill out onto village greens, cricket pavilions are alive with the sound of ball on bat, and gardens deliver an embarrassment of riches. Some villages even have scarecrow days, peopling the streets with surprisingly realistic straw mannequins. All the eccentricity of pastoral English life is there.
The perfect English village is the house-hunter’s Holy Grail. In her recent television series on Hidden Villages Penelope Keith visited settlements dubbed by Channel 4 as “the most desirable places to live in Britain”. With the benign inquisitiveness of a modern Miss Marple, she tootled through the countryside in her cardigan, savouring music and fertility festivals, learning about thatch in Dorset and flint in Norfolk.
Many of her villages weren’t hidden at all but were in fact rather wellknown. What she found within them was a strong heartbeat. While they faced dramatic change, caused by coastal erosion or incomers, they prized their sense of history. The capacity to pull together was as powerful as ever. But new rural homehunters these days want sophistication with their rural idyll. They want a Michelin-starred restaurant or a gastro pub, a brilliant primary school and a good deli.
The recession saw a flight to the towns by people who wanted to save petrol on school runs and to stay within reach of coffee shops and cupcakes. Recent figures from Savills show how this has left the countryside looking comparatively good value to new buyers. Rural locations nationwide are still 13.8pc below the 2007 peak, and villages 6.5pc lower but recovering. Prices went up by 2.3pc last year.
“Since the credit crunch,” says Sophie Chick, Savills research analyst, “people have chosen urban over rural in order to be closer to a work place, and the result has been that affluent cities and towns have outperformed their neighbouring villages and rural locations. This means villages now represent better value and so it is a good time to buy.”
Property search agents get to know the villages on their patch better than anyone. Adam Buxton at Middleton Advisors (www.middletonadvisors. com) loves Chadlington in Oxfordshire. “It epitomises everything a village should be,” he says. The ace in Chadlington’s pack, apart from the primary school, cricket team and annual beer festival, is the village shop, called Chadlington Quality Foods, which is a general store, delicatessen and off-licence. It sells home-cooked foods and is also a bakery.
The villagers got together in 2001 to keep it open. If you want local asparagus, peas and broad beans, then this is where to find them. If it’s Hook Norton beers, French cheeses or strawberries from Cornwall you’re after, then they have those too. It is believed to be Prime Minister David Cameron’s favourite shop, which is saying something because Daylesford Organics looms nearby, more Notting Hill than old-fashioned Cotswolds. Chadlington still feels like a farming community, although the last cow was milked here in 1999.
“It also has ‘Cafe de la Post’ in the old post office, which serves breakfasts and lunches alongside papers and lottery tickets,” says Adam. “Friday evenings it turns into a restaurant and on Saturday evenings into a pizza house. There is also the Tite Inn down the road serving real ales and draught ciders.” If you do wish to escape then Charlbury station is just two miles away where trains will whizz you to London Paddington in 65 to 90 minutes.
This is the conundrum. Although we want villages with great community spirit, we also want to be connected to London. The commuter with a big budget is now the big beast all over the South East, and many villages empty out in the daytime. So strong is the commuter pound that Savills now separates the commuter zone from the wider south of England, and predicts that house prices in commuterland will rise by 6 per cent next year and 20 per cent by 2020.
In Essex you stumble across villages full of half-timbered and colourwashed cottages, smartened by owners who daily get the train to Liverpool Street or Fenchurch Street. Some of the loveliest are Finchingfield, Coln Engaine and Good Easter.
How should we measure perfection? Villages which have stayed in the care of old estates tend to keep their character better. Broadhembury in Devon is a favourite of Richard Addington of Savills because of the influence of the Drewe estate. “Changes are slow and well coordinated,” he says. Cob-and-thatch cottages stand just as they did in the 16th century.
‘Villages represent better value – it is a good time to buy’
The imposing big country house can add cachet and attract summer concerts. And, according to Knight Frank, Michelin-starred restaurants raises prices considerably. The pull of Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck at Bray, Buckinghamshire, is felt by buying agent Mark Lawson of The Buying Solution. Clients have “particularly requested easy access to Bray because of the fabulous restaurants”.
But however charming a village may be, it does not become truly desirable in the eye of housebuyers unless it has, or is close to, doctors, shops, a good school, a good pub, eye-spinning landscape and pretty houses.
Cycle through the village of Blackmore, seven times named best kept village in Essex, and you will fall for the intimacy, the three pubs (The Prince Albert, The Bull, The Leather Bottle), the ducks on the pond. You might lean your bike against the old Post Office, beside the scarlet telephone box and think that time has stood still.
Thatched cottages at Lustleigh village in the Wrey Valley on Dartmoor National