Cream Of The Country: Ross-On-Wye

This pretty town with a colourful history attracts those looking for a quieter life
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The Independent Online

The charming market town of Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire is built on a red sandstone cliff above the River Wye. It may be not as well known as Hay - 25 miles upstream to the north-west where the annual literary festival is held - but it has just as much to recommend it.

It's a sparsely populated and peaceful stretch of country, sheltered on all sides by wooded hills and gently rolling valleys above which swoop hawks, falcons and snowy owls. To the north-east rise the Malverns, while to the west in Wales loom the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons beyond.

The area is steeped in legend and myth. Local caves have revealed signs of human habitation dating back as far as 10,000BC, while King Arthur and Merlin are said to have roamed these hills along which are scattered ruins of ancient castles - testimony to the region's history of bitter border disputes.

The town itself has also had its ups and downs. There's been a settlement here since medieval times and for many centuries Ross flourished as an important trading post before succumbing to the ravages of plague and Civil War.

However, the town enjoyed a renaissance in the 18th century as a favoured haunt of artists and intellectuals. Its popularity grew, and by Victorian times it had become a major holiday destination.

The town's varied history is reflected by its remarkably diverse architectural styles. There are a few pockets of new-build developments on its lower slopes but most of the older, more interesting properties tend to be found concentrated along the steep narrow streets higher up. The town's main landmarks are St Mary's Church, from the 13th century, and the splendid colonnaded 17th century Market House overlooking the main square. Regular outdoor markets have been held here since medieval times and the streets fanning out from it also offer a good selection of independent stores as well as two major supermarkets.

Many of the more interesting residential properties in this part of town are built of the same local red sandstone as was used for the church.

They are mainly 17th century but there are also a few timbered Tudor and Georgian townhouses. Many of these have been divided up into flats and serve as shop premises at ground level.

It is a little to the west of the centre and to the back of the church that most of the larger period properties are to be found - Gothic-style family houses that were built in the town's Victorian heyday.

Ross still attracts a fair number of tourists in the summer months.

Residents, meanwhile, tend to be a mix of locals, holiday-home owners, retired people and commuters, often working in nearby Gloucester or Hereford. Estate agents also report that there has been a significant surge in the number of newcomers moving into the area in recent years, particularly from London and the South-east.

Typically, these people want period townhouses and flats in the centre of Ross or stone cottages and converted farmhouses in pretty outlying villages such as Symonds Yat, Goodrich, Much Marcle or Fownhope.

"It started with a trickle of people about 20 years ago," says Norman Bricknell of Morris-Bricknell, "but the trickle has now become a flood.

"Up to 60 to 70 per cent of my buyers at the top end of the market are people relocating to the area.

"They are attracted by the glorious countryside, the slower pace of life, its good transport connections, the quality of the local schools and the relatively low property prices."

Fact box

Cost of living: one-bed Georgian flats in town centre from £100,000; two-bed period semi-detached cottages from £130,000; three-bed Victorian terrace houses from £150,000; four-bed detached townhouses from £250,000.

Attractions: wide selection of period properties; plenty of ruined castles; good local pubs and restaurants, including the award-winning Bridge House Hotel in the town centre; annual regatta on the River Wye; canoeing and white-water rafting; potholing, climbing, abseiling and hot-air ballooning; best salmon fishing outside of Scotland; fine bird-watching around Symonds Yat.

Downsides: property prices typically 10 per cent higher than in nearby Hereford.

How to get there: trains run from Hereford (16 miles away) to London Paddington via Newport and take around three hours.