A stroll into the wilderness

Buy a house in a national park and you can enjoy a healthy, rugged lifestyle - as long you don't mind paying extra for the privilege. But are second-homers squeezing out the locals? Nick Lloyd Jones reports
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The Independent Online

There are many attractions to buying a holiday home in one of Britain's stunning national parks. There are 14 of them to choose from in all - from the newly announced New Forest to the rough and rugged Cairngorms in Scotland to the breathtakingly splendid Dartmoor in the West Country. Each has its own distinct character and allure but all of them offer glorious swathes of unspoilt countryside and tranquil retreats from the stresses and strains of modern life. And all are set in areas of outstanding natural beauty where you can ramble, ride or climb to your heart's delight.

There are many attractions to buying a holiday home in one of Britain's stunning national parks. There are 14 of them to choose from in all - from the newly announced New Forest to the rough and rugged Cairngorms in Scotland to the breathtakingly splendid Dartmoor in the West Country. Each has its own distinct character and allure but all of them offer glorious swathes of unspoilt countryside and tranquil retreats from the stresses and strains of modern life. And all are set in areas of outstanding natural beauty where you can ramble, ride or climb to your heart's delight.

They are also rich in wildlife and peppered with buildings of great historical interest. And there are plenty of thriving cottage industries keeping alive ancient arts and crafts. Shepherds still roam the hills, and farmers still mend dry-stone walls, while live folk music and fine real ales can still be found in many of their traditional pubs.

But there are additional benefits. National parks are sparsely populated, so your privacy is assured, and the few people that you do come across tend to be friendly and welcoming. Planning regulations are rigorous, too, which means that the charming rural property you buy today is likely to stay that way, without the nightmare prospect of future developments encroaching on it or blocking its fabulous views. This doesn't necessarily rule out extending or improving the property you buy - it just means that any extensions or improvements you make will have to be in keeping with the historical character of the place.

In spite of all the many pluses of buying national park properties, there are disadvantages to consider. Principal among these is their popularity. As a result, you can typically expect to pay a 15 to 20 per cent premium when buying a property within their precincts, compared with similar ones falling just outside.

And prices can be steep. Webbers Property Services in Dulverton, Somerset, for instance, is currently advertising an eight-bedroom stately pile called Highercombe House, just inside the boundaries of Exmoor, for £1.25m. This is a Grade II-listed former hunting lodge set in its own eight acres, directly bordering on open moorland and within easy access of the picturesque market town of Dulverton. Secluded and peaceful, it's the perfect location from which to explore the heather-covered hills, wooded coombs, streams, rivers and towering coastal cliffs of Exmoor, with its cornucopia of Roman forts, Bronze Age burial sites and medieval castles.

Meanwhile, moving up-country into the North Yorkshire Dales, Blenkin & Co of York is offering the 17th-century, six-bedroom Holgate Head for £1.1m. This comes with three acres of land, is close to the pretty village of Kirkby Malham and enjoys fishing rights on the nearby River Aire. It's a lovely spot, set amid green rolling hills and dry-stone-walled meadowland, with the majestic limestone cliffs of the Pennine Way looming above on the horizon.

But such high property prices can be a headache for many of the local people living in national parks. Although they value the substantial contribution made to their economies by second-home owners and tourism, they rightly regard recent hikes in property prices - which in some areas have more than doubled within the past five years - as a threat to their way of life.

It is now estimated that as much as 50 per cent of housing in some of the more popular national parks is accounted for by holiday homes. And with agricultural wages as low as £16,000 a year, locals fear they are becoming increasingly marginalised and squeezed out of their own homes. As Sara Long of the Association of National Park Authorities puts it: "Local people are getting priced out of the market and the young people especially are increasingly having to move out of the areas in which they were born because they can no longer afford to live there."

Many national parks now subsidise low-cost housing schemes, while imposing restrictions on second-home ownership quotas. The substantial council tax discounts formerly enjoyed by second-home owners have likewise been scrapped.

In spite of soaring prices and the raft of disincentives facing second-home owners, there are a few good deals to be had in some of the loveliest national park locations. You may not be able to afford a palatial country house, but you can still find the occasional farm or solidly built stone cottage that isn't going to break the bank. In the Lake District, for instance, Mitchells of Cockermouth is advertising a Victorian, three-bedroom, semi-detached, traditional Lakeland cottage for £325,000. Christcliff Farm nestles in the heart of the secluded Eskdale Valley and is flanked on all sides by magnificent fells, streams, rivers and waterfalls. It's a short stroll into the charming little village of Boot, while the challenge of Scafell Pike lies within easy hiking distance.

If climbing is your passion, you may prefer Snowdonia National Park. Jackson-Stops & Staff of Chester is offering a four-bedroom stone cottage in the lower foothills of the park for £285,000. The cottage boasts fine views over the River Glaslyn, is surrounded by lush woodland valleys and provides the perfect base camp from which to plan mountaineering trips.

Jackson-Stops & Staff (Chester): 01244 328361, www.jackson-stops.co.uk

Mitchells (Cockermouth): 01900 827292

Blenkin & Co (York): 01904 671672

Webbers Property Services (Dulverton): 01398 323271, www.webbers.co.uk

PROS OF PARK LIVING...

* Superb views of the countryside.

* Escape the stresses of modern life.

* Low population means more privacy.

* Healthy pursuits on your doorstep.

* Strict planning laws mean unsightly developments are unlikely to be approved.

... AND CONS

* Inflated prices.

* Local dislike of holiday-home owners.

* All extensions must comply with historical character of properties.

* Quotas on second-home ownership.

* Council tax discounts for second-home owners were scrapped last year.

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