Cream Of The Country: Somerton

Once the capital of Somerset, this sleepy town is thriving again. By Nick Lloyd Jones
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The Independent Online

A lot of people have never even heard of Somerton. We are very much off the beaten track here because the main road bypasses the town centre," says Brian Carpenter of local estate agent Palmer Snell.

However, this sleepy little town of just 5,000 people has not always been so obscure. The Saxons and the Romans camped here and in its medieval heyday it was the principal town of Wessex before that county disappeared and Taunton became Somerset's capital.

Somerton grew outwards from its central Market Place, where local livestock and dairy produce used to be traded, but which now only hosts a weekly flower market on Thursdays.

Most of the town's prime residential properties are in the streets fanning off from here - notably along Broad Street, New Street and West Street - which are full of picturesque townhouses and cottages hewn from the local blue Lias stone and often embedded with golden ham stone.

Most of Somerton's shopping facilities and local services are still also concentrated in and around its compact centre, especially out towards West Street's Brunel Shopping Precinct.

Somerton can easily be crossed by foot in a few minutes and very much retains a local feel. Many of its residents have lived there all their lives while a lot of others have moved there from Wiltshire and Dorset. The town somehow manages to achieve the happy blend of being tightknit but also welcoming and friendly.

It has increasingly been attracting buyers from the South-east recently too, often people who holidayed in Somerset and who are now looking to buy retirement homes there. "They like the quietness of the place, the stunning architecture and the absence of heavy traffic," says Patricia Griffin of local estate agent Greenslade Taylor Hunt. "It also appeals because it's relatively flat and compact so it's very easy to get around."

Typically, such buyers are looking for central period stone cottages at around the £200,000 to £250,000 mark. Local agents report the value of these has more than doubled within the last five years, although this growth has been levelling off recently. "Buyers are becoming more cautious," Griffin says. "There is still no shortage of houses appearing on the market but they are only selling if more realistically priced."

However, prices are still rising steeply in many of Somerton's outlying villages, such as Charlton Adam and Kingsdon to the east or Long Sutton and Pitney to the west. Demand is strong for larger period properties with substantial grounds, which increasingly fetch more than £1 million and are often bought up by wealthy families with children at local schools. There are plenty of good ones near by, including Millfield in Street.

An additional charm is often the idyllic setting amid rolling arable farmland and dairy pasture.

"There has always been a high demand for grand country houses in the area," says Simon Barker of agency Knight Frank, "but the floodgates really opened this year and we're now witnessing an unprecedented surge in interest. Business is brisker than it's been for the last 12 years."

Those with less to spend might still be able to afford a home in one of the 1960s and 1970s developments around the town's outskirts where two-bedroom semi-detached houses can go for less than £150,000.

The lowdown

Cost of living: one-bedroom flat from £130,000; period cottages from £190,000.

How to get there: Taunton is 18 miles to the East, direct trains to Paddington from Castle Cary (10 miles).

Attractions: good schools including co-ed Millfield in the private sector, a number of medieval pubs.

Downsides: house prices are some of the highest in the county.

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