Cream Of The Country: Monmouth

It's had its ups and downs, but this border town is firmly back on the map
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The Independent Online

The little Welsh border town of Monmouth is set amid some spectacular countryside in the heart of the Wye Valley. It's a landscape of stark contrasts, with the tangled wilderness of the Forest of Dean and the gently rolling hills of the Cotswolds to one side, and the looming, hawk-circled peaks of the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons to the other.

Monmouth has a surprisingly long and war-torn history for a town of just 5,000 people. Its strategic value on the River Wye and as a gateway into the southern Welsh valleys had long been recognised by the indigenous Celts before the Romans established a fortress there in 43AD.

The place is rich in folklore too - it was the 11th-century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth who first chronicled the exploits of King Arthur and his Welsh wizard Merlin. At about the same time William the Conqueror was building the town's castle, where King Henry V born 300 years later. Other of the town's historical highlights include the medieval stone bridge spanning the River Monnow and the Norman church of St Thomas's.

Monmouth's recent past has been somewhat more mundane. It went through a bad patch in the 1980s with a slump in property prices and a spate of shop closures. The town's subsequent recovery was largely the result of a retail revival spearheaded by the opening of a Waitrose in the centre about eight years ago. Other up-market stores followed - independent delicatessens, quality butchers, wine merchants - and suddenly Monmouth was back on the map again. The town's restaurant and pub scene also picked up.

This, combined with the low property prices, started drawing people back to the area. "It has always been cheaper around here than it is immediately across the River Severn to the east," says Jane Matthews of estate agents William Perry Richards, "so families who can't afford Cotswolds prices have increasingly been drawn to the town. They also appreciate the stunning countryside round here and the quality of the schools."

The best of Monmouth's residential properties - elegant three-storey Georgian townhouses and Victorian terraced cottages - tend to be found around the town centre, particularly in St James's Square, Hereford Road and Monk Street.

Cheaper period houses can sometimes be found to the west of town in Drybridge Street but often these suffer from floodwaters when the River Wye breaks its banks. Bargains can also sometimes be found in a number of picturesque outlying villages such as Welsh Newton Common, Skenfrith or Trellech.

Jack and Moira Townsend moved to the town nine years ago from Bristol.They were both in their mid-20s then, living in rented accommodation with their young daughter Grace. They couldn't raise the mortgage for a big enough place in Bristol so they started looking further afield. 'We couldn't believe our luck when we found a three-bedroom house in Monmouth, close to the centre, for £115,000,' says Jack - who still does the 45-minute drive each day to his job as a graphic designer in Bristol while Moira works part-time for a firm of solicitors.

Word of the town's attractions and its low prices began to spread and Monmouth eventually became a popular destination for those fleeing the crippling property prices of the south of England as well. Although the town lacks its own railway station - the nearest trains for London leave from Newport, 17 miles away - its road connections are good. You can drive to London in just over two hours and there are flights from airports at Bristol, Cardiff and Birmingham.

Philip Smith of Monmouth estate agents Roscoe Rogers and Knight confirms that the number of people moving from other parts of the country is rising. "I'd say 60 per cent of my buyers are now from London or the Home Counties,' he says.

The lowdown

Cost of living: One-bedroom flats from £100,000; two-bed terrace houses from £140,000; three-bed semis from £175,000; four-bed detached new-builds on outskirts from £195,000; four-bed period townhouses from £300,000.

Attractions: Blend of cultural influences; good schools; varied country including wooded hills, forests, leafy hamlets and the river Wye; views of the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons; good shops, pubs and restaurants.

How to get there: Regular trains to London Paddington from Newport 17 miles away take two hours; good roads to West Midlands, London, South-west, South Wales.

Downsides: Difficult parking; town centre congested at weekends; some riverside properties at risk of flooding.

USP: Value for money.

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