Property Hot Spot: Winchester: City life in the country

Its superb location, excellent communications and wide choice of housing options make Winchester a very attractive alternative to the crowded capital.

Ever since the days of Alfred the Great, people have been dying to get into Winchester. "The city's expansion really took off during the last century," says estate agent Paul Hellard. "That is why most properties here are Victorian, although the housing stock is diverse. Character is probably the single most desired quality that property hunters ask for."

And character is what they get in properties, some pre-dating the 19th century, in Winchester itself and in the surrounding villages, some of which are within easy walking distance of the city centre.

Winchester's location is exceptional in several respects. "It is wonderful for commuting to London, which is less than an hour by train. It is also convenient for the Midlands and, with the A303 being improved, to the west," says Michael Dunning of Lane Fox. "Winchester has good schools, both public and state, and it is surrounded by nice countryside that is not spoilt in the way that much of Surrey is."

Hellard notes that the attractive surrounding countryside combined with good access to Heathrow airport have enticed many airline employees to live in the area.

"Most people identify communications as Winchester's main attraction, but its beautiful countryside runs a close second," he adds. "We are blessed in this area with three river valleys: the Meon to the south, the Itchen at Winchester, and the Test to the west. This is a plum spot."

Winchester's plummiest properties are enormous country houses, some carrying appropriately stratospheric price tags, but others are surprisingly modest. In addition, flats and houses have been built in Winchester during different periods since the 1950s, resulting in various styles, from post-war utilitarian to contemporary luxurious, and prices. On the cheapest end, "large council estates were built in the 1950s and 1960s and many units are now in private hands," says Hellard.

Demand far outweighs supply, but Dunning is heartened in that "while potential sellers are deterred because there are not enough properties for them to move to, a steady stream of places come on to the market via divorces, deaths, or job relocations."

Another Winchester advocate is Christopher Neve of Hamptons International: "Winchester has fast trains, good schools, virtually no crime, is close to the south coast, is surrounded by green hills, and has many properties that are close to the station."

Neve believes that Winchester's property market dances to tunes sung 70 miles away: "London prices are strong compared to Winchester. A house selling for pounds 400,000 in Putney sells for half that here." Given its attractions, Winchester tempts a lot of buyers who are priced out of London or enjoy a windfall when they sell. If his theory is correct, the recent surge in London prices will have a powerful knock-on effect in his city.

The Low-Down

Transport: Winchester has good road access to London, Poole, Basingstoke, Southampton and the ferry port of Portsmouth, the New Forest, and Bournemouth. London, the Midlands, the north and Scotland are accessible by rail. Southampton International airport has UK and Continental destinations. Heathrow Airport is 55 miles away.

Prices: Paul Hellard says that location and property condition are so variable that it makes sense only to think in terms of starting prices: some two-bed flats start at pounds 70,000, and others at pounds 140,000. Three-bed Victorian houses start at pounds 140,000 to pounds 160,000. Lane Fox is selling mansions for seven figures, but also an eight-bedroom Victorian house on two-thirds of an acre for pounds 595,000. Large detached houses are also available near the city centre.

New Luxury Flats: Linden Homes is building 29 two- and three-bed flats at Queen's Court, Peninsula Barracks, in the city centre. Prices are pounds 165,000 to pounds 255,000, which includes car parking, en suite to the master bedroom, and either a balcony, terrace or roof terrace (except for one flat, which is already sold). Some flats have two balconies.

Gurkha-free Zone: A local resident recalls that the Gurkhas and Green Jackets were housed in Peninsula Barracks until the facility was closed a few years ago. The huge courtyard remains, surrounded by flats, houses and military museums. Queen's Court backs on to the museums.

Alfie: A statue of Alfred the Great dominates The Broadway, and a large Round Table hanging from the wall adorns the Great Hall, the only extant part of the original Norman castle. The former can't, and the latter shouldn't, be missed, more for the vast room itself than the table, which has hung in the hall for 600 years.

The Compleat Cemetery: Jane Austen, Izaak Walton and King Cnut rest in peace in the cathedral, as do various Anglo-Saxon kings in mortuary chests.

The Wayfarer's Dole is alive and well: The Hospital of St Cross, founded in 1132, is still home to 25 Brothers, and the Wayfarer's Dole is still dispensed. Don't accept substitutes. The original recipe calls for bread and beer served in a horn.

Clubs, societies, associations and events: Winchester Winemakers' Circle; Alresford Historical and Literary Society; Winchester Magical Society; Flower Arrangement Society; Aero/Autojumble, Fly In & Classic Car Rally; Psychic Fayre; Mid-Hants Watercress Line Special; Grandma's Attic Antique Fair.

Estate Agents: Hamptons International, 01962 842030; John D Wood, 01962 863131; Lane Fox, 01962 869999; Paul Hellard & Co, 01962 842166.

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