Property: Oh, for the village life in the heart of the city

Sixty per cent of us want to live in a village. And though they may be dying out in the countryside itself, they're sprouting up all over the place in London. By Penny Jackson
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A few weekends ago I found myself in a Sussex village at a friends' annual party. It was a beautiful evening and the garden and adjoining field were filled with children and their parents.

Before long, though, storm clouds had begun to build, not in the sky but from over the wall and beyond. As strenuous efforts were made to calm neighbours, a guest was heard to say: "So this is village life. How glad I am I live in a city."

The irony of that comment is that since the city is London, he could also claim to live in a village.

Shad Thames - a stone's throw from Tower Bridge - conforms to peoples' idea of a village. It may be trendier and more cosmopolitan, with open space being the river rather than a green, but its mix of architecture, shops, restaurants and businesses is a winning formula.

And as this and other new vibrant communities evolve in cities, so the old rural models are in decline, according to a report from the Women's Institute. But from the evidence of FPDSavills Research, we have not given up on the blueprint.

The increasing popularity of a "village" environment will, as they see it, be a key issue during the first 10 years of the next century. Some 60 per cent of households would like to live in or on the edge of a village, with only 4 per cent choosing the city as their ideal location. This is creating distinct market hot spots.

Yolande Barnes, director of research at FPDSavills, says that if you probe people on the village theme, what they mean is quality of environment - trees, greenery and open space. "Within a city that includes hard landscaping with a distinctive layout and a certain character. Shops and restaurants should be within walking distance."

As the Government's Urban Taskforce has reported, people want a focus to their community. "Their choice is not swathes of identical properties. A variety of properties and a mix of tenure as much as mixed use is what is needed," says Ms Barnes. "Families are also an important component."

The popularity of the established London villages continues unabated. Hampstead, perhaps London's most famous village, manages to combine some of the most expensive properties in town with a strong local feel. "People stay here for years even after their children have left home," says Lisianne Newman, of estate agents Goldschmidt & Howland.

"You do see the same faces more than once. The shops are open seven days a week, there are pavement cafes, greengrocers and butchers and an Underground station all close together. The architecture varies from street to street, and in the village we have everything from a pounds 150,000 flat to pounds 2m-plus houses. In 13 years I have not known the market as busy, and these are not investors but people who want to settle in the area."

Just sticking the label "village" on to an area doesn't make it one. Yet owners and estate agents persist in doing just that, because they know the tag has a cachet. Simon Agace, chairman of the Winkworth group of estate agencies, has seen a number of new "villages" spring up, generally soon after gentrification. "Then come the good shops, free glossy magazines and other like-minded families. It does tend to have an exclusive feel."

He gave an example of a "village" of streets affecting prices in the Shepherds Bush area. "In the middle of Brackenbury village we sold a house for pounds 265,000 unmodernised, while an identical property in better condition but an eight-minute walk from the shops and pubs sold for pounds 230,000." In parts of Notting Hill, despite its current claims to fame, residents still feel the need to create identifiable zones. "It is when families with children move in that they feel the need to protect its new character," says Mr Agace. "Fashionable areas are not necessarily villages."

Other devices are equally effective: corners, triangles and, in the case of Wandsworth, the Toast Rack - a number of well-placed and popular streets with family houses close to the common. They may not constitute a village but they are special for all that.

However, the danger of these new city villages is that they become middle- class ghettos. Residents may not complain as quickly as their rural counterparts, but they are quite likely to let it be known that certain colours for front doors will be frowned upon.

Ms Barnes says a true village should have a mix of people. "If it is going to work you need a cross- section from, in country terms, the squire to the gravedigger. You cannot exclude low-income groups, and where they are missing the feel of the area is quite different. Mayfair for instance has particular problems because of its itinerant population. It has no village atmosphere."

While newcomers to the villages in the Surrey hills might feel they have cause to complain if the delicatessen is not up to scratch, or there is no interior designer with- in five miles, in parts of Hertfordshire and Essex the demise of village life is prompting an exodus of the elderly.

Williams Wells, of Mullucks Wells, in Bishops Stortford, says that as many as 50 to 60 per cent of rural villages no longer have a shop, post office or pub. "This often makes little difference to the younger generation but the elderly find themselves in the invidious position of being beholden to others. Reluctantly they are selling to move to a larger town."