Escape to the countryside: Find your rural idyll

Whether you dream of a holiday cottage, a peaceful retirement spot, or a house where you can work as well as live, rural idylls rarely come cheap. Graham Norwood searches the South-east to offer inspiration to those getting out of London, while Jonathan Christie hunts for getaways across Britain


Sussex

GETTING THERE

Most south-west Londoners looking for an escape would put Dorset at the top of their wish-lists. And if they're unintimidated by the thought of an even longer journey, with kids in tow, they might look further afield, towards Cornwall or Devon. But they'd be overlooking the nearer, better-value escapes that Sussex has to offer.

Getting to most of this county from the Big Smoke is not a problem. There are direct trains towards Gatwick and Brighton from the City, London Bridge, Victoria and many south London suburbs. About 90 minutes by car on combinations of the M3, M23, M20 or M25 should get you to most of rural Sussex, as long as you go outside commuter time.

WHAT IS THERE TO DO?

There are relatively few large towns in Sussex, so much of it feels truly blissful. Head south to hit some of Britain's best beaches from the underrated pleasures of Bognor, across to Worthing and Brighton and the slowly regenerating front at Hastings.

Just inland is the marvellous walking country of the South Downs. Over half of West Sussex consists of protected countryside, and there's plenty of well-maintained history on hand: Arundel and Bramber castles, for example, and the rival county towns of Lewes and Chichester.

BUDGET BUY

The average price of a home in Sussex is £210,000, so if you're looking to snap up something pretty and still get change from £200,000, your best bet may well be to look for something new on the edge of a village. A typical example is Crest Nicholson's Pease Pottage scheme of 46 pretty homes, mostly with American-style weatherboarding (from £185,000 for a two-bedroom house, 0870 752 1820). The village has a florist and two pubs, and is just out of range of Gatwick airport noise.

TOP-END STYLE

Providence Cottage in East Grinstead is already owned by a London family who use it as a holiday home, and it's on sale at £410,000 (Lane Fox, 01342 326326). For a two-bedroom cottage it may not be cheap, but it is close to a good railway service: it takes under an hour to get here from Victoria. Expect to pay around the same prices in the rural areas close to Brighton, the county's busiest town, which also command a premium.

Kent

GETTING THERE

Next year, improved train lines being put in place for the Eurostar will open up the further reaches of Kent for those looking to escape London and enjoy some rural bliss. When that happens, prices are bound to shoot up – so if you're considering buying around here, now is the time to do so. In the meantime, getting here isn't easy if you live in south-east London, as the M25, M20 and A-roads are often clogged. Allow two hours for the deepest rural areas.

WHAT IS THERE TO DO?

The Garden of England still deserves its name: there are orchards and hop gardens galore if you avoid Ashford and the heavily built-up coast. Kent has more pick-your-own farms than any county in the UK. The area is rich in history, too. Leeds Castle and Canterbury Cathedral are well known, while the Isles of Sheppey and Grain are interesting eccentricities worth a visit. There are also are well-preserved railways at Romney, Sittingbourne and Strood. If all else fails, you can hop on the Eurostar at Ashford International and be having lunch in Paris 100 minutes later.

BUDGET BUY

Away from the highly priced stockbroker belt, southern Kent has plenty of villages where £200,000 will get you a two-bedroom cottage. This one on the outskirts of Pluckley, near Ashford, is in good order, offers parking for two cars and a whopping 200ft garden for the green-fingered holiday-home owner (£195,000, Gould & Harrison, 01233 646411).

TOP-END STYLE

Not even a big budget will secure any feeling of isolation in Kent: there's simply too much development. But there are plenty of pretty properties like this two-bedroom house at Plaxtol, near Sevenoaks. It boasts a garden, a patio and terrace, and some nice views, but it's the nearby fast train services to central London that account for its hefty price tag of £385,000 (Savills, 01732 789700).

Bedfordshire

GETTING THERE

If you live in north-west London, the call of the Cotswolds may be irresistible – until you see the prices. Head north rather than west and you come to an altogether more affordable area. Bedfordshire is within easy striking distance from central and north London. Frequent trains take 40 minutes from King's Cross to Bedford and run 19 hours a day. By car it takes an hour to get to rural areas using the A1, A5, A6 or M1, although these suffer frequent jams even outside of commuter times.

WHAT IS THERE TO DO?

Only 1 per cent of Bedfordshire properties are second homes, as opposed to more like 10 per cent in areas such as the Cotswolds or north Norfolk. But there are plenty of lovely villages here nonetheless. Take the beautiful and quiet Eaton Bray. It may be close to busy Dunstable, Leighton Buzzard and Aylesbury, but it has an annual carnival, duck race and the remains of a moated castle. Elsewhere in Bedfordshire are former clay pits now turned into country parks (Stewartby Lake and Stockgrove, for example) plus more forests than any other county bordering London.

BUDGET BUY

You won't find budget rural homes anywhere near expensive St Albans, and you won't want one close to the densely developed hub of Watford. Keep going north: when you get beyond Luton – the edge of the daily commuting belt – prices ease substantially. In this area, £215,000 will win you a high-quality period property like this characterful two-bedroom house at Eaton Bray, with two dramatic spiral staircases and a garage as well (Densons, 01582 666777).

TOP-END STYLE

Villages around Harpenden are the most favoured rural spots in the county, but a large home will be £600,000-plus. There are plenty of attractive villages elsewhere. Kimpton, near Luton, is pricey because of good transport links, but it's got a Norman flint-built church and many homes like this two-bedroom cottage with a garage, which is going for £415,000 (Country Properties, 01438 832955).

East anglia

GETTING THERE

By the standards of South-east England, prices in much of East Anglia are incredibly low. The reason: it's not convenient if you're looking for a daily commute to the Big Smoke. The M11 does not pass anywhere near second-home havens such as King's Lynn, Great Yarmouth or Wells-Next-The-Sea, meaning that most rural parts of East Anglia take two hours from north-east London. Trains to and from Norwich, Peterborough and even Cambridge are generally slow, although improvements are promised by 2010. But if you only need to be in London a few days a week, or you're after a holiday home, you may wish to cash in on these bargain spots.

WHAT IS THERE TO DO?

North Norfolk is the gem here: 45 miles of coast, with long sandy beaches and salt marshes stretching from Horsey to Holkham. Inland are over 80 conservation areas, 2,000 listed buildings and 100 designated ancient monuments, all in a countryside that's ideal for cycling, walking, twitching and horse riding. Elsewhere in East Anglia are 200km (125 miles) of navigable waterways, the Norfolk Broads. Second homes are also common in towns and villages between Cambridge heading north-west to Norwich, ensuring tea shops galore.

BUDGET BUY

East Anglia's mainstream housing market is divided geographically: Suffolk and Norfolk are significantly cheaper than Cambridgeshire. But holiday homes are highly sought-after across the region, so you really have to shop around for a bargain. This two-bedroom flint cottage is in a conservation area in the Norfolk village of Bacton and costs £209,995 (Millsopps, 01263 510051.)

TOP-END STYLE

Diss, in Norfolk near the border with Suffolk, is probably the single best East Anglian location for Londoners: it's just 97 minutes from Liverpool Street. As a result, the nearby country houses carry a premium. This thatched 16th-century three-bedroom cottage in the village of Redgrave is a case in point: it is going for £400,000 (Savills, 01603 229229). Still, a house like this would cost at least 50 per cent more in the Cotswolds.

Hampshire

GETTING THERE

As a low-cost alternative to Wiltshire, Hampshire is a good option for those looking to get out of west London. South West Trains runs frequent services through Hampshire from Waterloo, with many trains stopping at Weymouth, Southampton and Portsmouth and towns close by. The M3, M27 and A303 mean that most rural areas are accessible from south-west London; expect a 90-minute journey into the capital outside peak travel times.

WHAT IS THERE TO DO?

The county is not a traditional second-home location, but there's plenty going on, with seaside resorts such as Hamble and historic maritime landmarks in Portsmouth. Many estate agents regard Buckler's Hard, a beautiful hamlet on the edge of the 900- acre Beaulieu estate and next to the Beaulieu river, as the county's most sought-after location for second homes. It's only three miles from the motor museum at Beaulieu, too. Country lovers can enjoy the New Forest National Park and the South Downs, an area that is tipped to become a national park in 2008. If wet summers demand indoor distraction, Southampton and Portsmouth are nearby, and the Isle of Wight is a short ferry-ride away.

BUDGET BUY

There are plenty of coastal developments in Hampshire, especially in and around Southampton, which are aimed at second-home owners from the capital. But this first-floor, two-bedroom apartment at Quay 2000, a gated scheme overlooking the River Itchen at Horsehoe Bridge, comes with an eight-metre mooring – these are hard to come by in the area and boost a property's resale price. The flat is for sale at £225,000 (Savills, 02380 713 900). Schemes such as these, close to Southampton, are usually the cheapest waterfront developments in the county – nearby Bournemouth and Poole are much more expensive.

TOP-END STYLE

Shoetree Cottage is a chocolate-box, thatched three-bedroom home in the village of Monxton, near Andover. It has more than 1,000 sq ft of interior space and includes a pretty garden that backs on to a brook – and it's all for £395,000 (Savills, 01962 834 042). "It's a forgotten county for second homes – people rush through en route to the South-west, but this is cheaper than Devon," says Mark Readman of estate agent Bidwells. Properties close to the A303/M3, and northwards towards the M4, are the most expensive.

North Wales

GETTING THERE

The North Wales coast has a speedy access road in the A55 expressway. Chester, Warrington and even Manchester and Liverpool are within such easy distance that some of the coastal towns here are in danger of being described as "commutable". Still good value, though, are Abergele and Rhyl, both self-contained towns that are surrounded by quiet villages. Rhyl is just over half an hour from Chester by train, so you're not restricted to travelling by car.

WHAT IS THERE TO DO?

The beaches here have been a draw for decades, and where there's sand, there are tourist attractions. Rhuddlan Castle is steeped in history and the rooms of Bodelwyddan Castle are filled with treasures from the National Portrait Gallery. Rhyl itself has a theatre and the surrounding area has craft centres, artists and historic houses galore. Scenery, history and wildlife are all just a short hop away. For a different kind of sensory overload, visit Knights Cavern in Rhyl. It's touristy but memorable, especially Geronimo's – a 25-foot monster drop slide. There's definitely something here for everyone.

BUDGET BUY

With Rhyl's average prices remaining about £70,000 below the rest of the UK, it's not hard to see why this area is attracting buyers. Outside the town are pretty villages such as Rhuddlan and Dyserth, where a charming converted barn is for sale for £199,950 (Williams, 01745 888 900). Original details have survived its 400-year history and it now offers some modern comforts within its living room, kitchen and two bedrooms. There's also a cottage garden and a garage outside. The perfect bolthole?

TOP-END STYLE

Further east along the coast is Abergele, another hot spot for property hunters. The surrounding countryside has more than its fair share of picturesque valleys and walks. Prices here are about £50,000 below the national average, so your cash definitely goes further. If space and land are what you're after, Fron Fawr (Reeds Rains, 01745 832 150) could be the answer. With eight acres of land and five bedrooms, the asking price of £525,000 seems tempting. When you see the views, sense the history and realise what you get for your money, the word bargain begins to seem more appropriate.

Lincolnshire

GETTING THERE

With below-average house prices, Lincolnshire offers rural areas that can, in house-hunting terms, still be described as "undiscovered". It's a prime hunting ground for anyone trying to escape Nottingham, or any of Yorkshire's cities. Grantham is considered a commuter town, and its peak trains get into London Kings Cross in just over an hour, but the villages to the west of it also benefit from the fast link. Meanwhile, the A1 skirts Lincolnshire's eastern boundary, and dual-carriageways give fast access to Grantham and the other towns of Sleaford and Lincoln.

WHAT IS THERE TO DO?

Horncastle, with its equestrian links and antique shops, is nestled in the undulating Wolds (another Lincolnshire secret), and has good shops, schools and walks on its doorstep. The "ridge" villages of Caythorpe, Navenby and Coleby are within spitting distance of the shopping hub of Lincoln, and Grantham retains an old-fashioned charm. Grammar schools in the county are always achieving good marks and the twisting lanes around Lincoln's Cathedral have plenty of atmosphere.

BUDGET BUY

Horncastle properties are typically £30,000 cheaper than the rest of the UK, making it spot-on for downsizing or just buying more space for your money. Pretty, traditional cottages are scattered everywhere, such as this Grade II-listed gem, which has two bedrooms and a good-sized garden. The £199,950 asking price (Savills, 01522 508 912) not only buys masses of charm in a peaceful location, it's also only a few miles from Horncastle.

TOP-END STYLE

Lincoln's ridge villages are some of the prettiest in the county, yet they are generally priced at £15,000 less than the national average. In Navenby's North Lane is one of the village's oldest properties, a detached four-bedroom house that dates back to the 17th century. It has delightful gardens, in which are located a useful garage and workshop, and a large kitchen/breakfast room. The house is on at £595,000 (Walter's, 01522 512 513) – the cost of an average thatched cottage in the Cotswolds.

Scottish Borders

GETTING THERE

With the A7, A68 and the A1 slicing through the Borders, there's plenty of access to this region. The town of Lauder is about 25 miles from Edinburgh, yet enjoys all the requirements of a property hotspot – it is affordable, the prices are rising quickly and there is an ever-growing cluster of amenities. Nearby Galashiels and St Boswells also offer value for money, although this may be partly down to their lack of railway stations. If you have wheels or like to remain rooted, however, then these towns will get you much more than the easy-on-the-eye town of Montrose a few miles away.

WHAT IS THERE TO DO?

Much of the area's charm lies in the slower pace of life, away from the built-up cities. Cycle routes and serious walks twist all over this area and there are more traditions and annual events than you can shake a haggis at. Thirlestane Castle, near Lauder, is one of Scotland's seven great houses and the Montrose Air Station offers a glimpse back at our aviation history. Parents will find the local schools are of a high quality in both the independent and state sectors, and all day-to-day needs are only a short walk away, with more specialist shops to be found in Edinburgh or Berwick.

BUDGET BUY

Prices around these towns track around or only just above the Scottish national average, making their proximity to Edinburgh even more attractive to buyers. One pretty three-bedroom cottage is located only a few miles from St Boswells; offers over £159,000 (Cullen Kilshaw, 01896 822 796). St Dunstans Cottage West has delightful views and a good-sized garden with a few outbuildings. There's also a primary school in the village.

TOP-END STYLE

Grand houses in Edinburgh come at a premium, but look south into the Borders and value for money starts to improve. Knight Frank (01578 722 814) has a five-bedroom semi-detached in St Boswells; offers over £400,000 – the price of a two-bedroom flat in the Scottish capital. The spacious rooms ooze character, and there are many period details remaining in place. There's a generous garden, three reception rooms and a kitchen with an Aga, as well as a stable block with planning permission for extension.

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