The ways we live now: The top of the pile

Nestling in the Chilterns, Penn is the epitome of the sleepy English village. Terry Kirby encounters well-heeled residents who are discreet about their material comforts
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The ducks in the village pond at Penn yesterday probably didn't know they were paddling around in the richest place in Britain, but they did exude a certain well groomed superiority and were clearly disdainful of a visiting seagull.

The ducks in the village pond at Penn yesterday probably didn't know they were paddling around in the richest place in Britain, but they did exude a certain well groomed superiority and were clearly disdainful of a visiting seagull.

The pond lies on the attractive village green, which is surrounded by an equally picturesque circle of houses - the homes of some of the people who, according to the Office of National Statistics, make this the wealthiest local authority ward in the country.

Deep in the Chilterns, Penn is the kind of place where not only are the lawns well-manicured, but the borders of the roads appear to have been attended to with the same nail clippers. There are a couple of antiquarian booksellers, a little café, a wine shop and a garage selling vintage sports cars.

It is the kind of place over which visiting Americans from Pennsylvania, which is said to derive its name from the village, would sigh with pleasure. Unsurprisingly, it has been used as a backdrop by film makers wanting to portray a certain type of home counties England, most recently in the television series The Midsomer Murders, starring John Nettles.

A settlement since medieval times, Penn began to prosper after the railway arrived in nearby Beaconsfield in 1906, putting it within easy reach of London. The local lord of the manor began selling land with the stipulation that only houses of a certain size could be built on it.

Now its leafy lanes are populated by City executives, their houses protected by high gates and security alarms, attracted by good state schools, proximity to Heathrow and the M40 and some lovely Chilterns scenery. They earn an average of £86,000 a year.

New homes cost about £1m, but much less for an older three or four-bedroom detached home. Locals include the actress Pauline Quirke and Diane Thompson, the chief executive of Camelot.

Although the transformation into affluent commuter belt country has deprived the village of its shop (now a bookstore), its post office (now a wine shop) and its butcher (now an estate agent), local people insist that its community spirit is as rich as its residents. "Wealth has nothing to do with it. This is a very caring and friendly community where people look after each other,'' said Margaret Laing, whose home overlooks the green and who is a stalwart of the residents' association and the village produce show.

But there is clearly something of a divide, albeit not a particularly acute one. One resident who asked not to be named, spoke of the "steady encroachment of security gates" up from Beaconsfield. Mrs Laing said: "Of course there are a lot of wealthy people who live behind their gates and we don't see much of them. It doesn't feel particularly rich - there are also a lot of pensioners without cars and we make sure they are not overlooked by helping them with their shopping and errands."

John Wildey, manager of one of the two pubs, the Red Lion, agreed. "Most of the wealthy people tend not to come in here," he said.

"They stay in their nice homes. But it is not the kind of place where you can often tell. People don't flash their gold cards around or wave £50 notes. You do get used to the odd television personality coming in and you see some nice cars around. We certainly don't get any trouble in here."

Ward of PENN AND COLESHILL, Buckinghamshire

Population: 4,357
Average age: 41.2
Marital status: 68.6 per cent married or remarried; 18.3 per cent never married
One-person households: 18.3 per cent
Owner-occupied households: 85.8 per cent
Average number of rooms per household: 7.8
Households in detached house: 44.7 per cent
Average cost of detached house: £426,338
Average household weekly income: £1,660
Unemployed: 1.4 per cent
Retired: 17 per cent
Qualified to degree level or higher: 40.7 per cent
No educational qualifications: 13 per cent
Households owning two or more cars or vans: 67.4 per cent
Households owning no cars or vans: 4.1 per cent
People describing health as "not good": 4.2 per cent
People with "limiting long-term illness": 10.2 per cent
Crime rate - violence against the person: 3.4 per 1,000 population. (Average in England and Wales: 11.4)
Crime rate - theft of a motor vehicle: 3.2 per 1,000. (Average in England and Wales: 6.4)

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