Hot Spot: Colchester, Essex

This ancient town attracts hi-tech workers as well as City commuters in search of the good life, says Robert Liebman
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The Independent Online

Yhe historic town of Colchester is no longer just a dormitory of London's Square Mile. "People used to live in the area for its accessibility to the City, but now there is competition from people working in the area," says Piers Day of property search agency Stacks. "Even so, improved rail service into Liverpool Street means Colchester is within 45 minutes of the City, so the commuter market is stronger than ever."

The historic town of Colchester is no longer just a dormitory of London's Square Mile. "People used to live in the area for its accessibility to the City, but now there is competition from people working in the area," says Piers Day of property search agency Stacks. "Even so, improved rail service into Liverpool Street means Colchester is within 45 minutes of the City, so the commuter market is stronger than ever."

The City may be in the doldrums, but the A12 corridor from Chelmsford to Ipswich, and the A14 from Ipswich to Cambridge are undergoing industrial and technological commercial development, he says. "The A14 is becoming a mini Silicon Valley, and Harwich and Felixstowe harbours are among our busiest container ports."

Britain's "only working original American soda fountain" is located in Colchester, in an area that claims bands such as Prodigy, Blur and Jamiroquai as native sons. Fortunately, a history dating back 3,000 years provides the town with other claims to fame and illustrious inhabitants, including an 11th-century castle and the landscape artist John Constable, born nine miles from Colchester in East Bergholt.

Jane Ninnim of Bradford & Bingley praises Colchester as a great place to live and work. "The town is steeped in history, and Colchester castle is wonderful and has beautiful gardens. We have three major health clubs, and great shopping facilities. Although prices increased more than 18 per cent in the past year, property is still reasonably priced, and first-time buyers can buy their home in a decent area. The reasonable commute also appeals to City workers who are looking for a quieter life."

Upmarket country houses are also popular. "Dedham Vale, north of Colchester, has lovely contoured countryside," Piers Day says. "This area is also exceptionally attractive for leisure. The Blackwater, Stour and Orwell rivers are popular for sailing, and the trendy Suffolk coastal towns of Aldeburgh and Southwold are nearby. Stoke-by-Nayland and Coggeshall are particularly sought-after villages."

Estate agent Robert Chapman highlights another strength of the area: "Colchester schools are noteworthy, particularly the girls high school and boys' grammar school, which regularly feature at the top of the league tables. Excellent private schools include St Mary's for Girls, Holmwood House and Littlegarth. Philip Morant is an excellent state school."

Getting there

Trains are frequent and fast – about 55 minutes – between Colchester and London Liverpool Street. Colchester is conveniently situated for Stansted Airport (36 miles), Harwich and Felixstowe, and the Midlands.

The Low Down

Shopping and dining

Debenhams, Marks & Spencer and Karen Millen supplement the comprehensive Williams & Griffin department store, and there is a twice- weekly outdoor market. Popular restaurants include Le Talbooth and North Hill Exchange Brasserie.

Time out

Leisure centres and gyms include Top Notch, L A Fitness and Fitness First. Rollerworld has a maple-floored skating rink.

Cultural pursuits

Between them, Colchester Arts Centre and Charter Hall offer popular or classical music concerts, film and other cultural events almost daily. The Odeon cinema has eight screens, and plays are performed at the Mercury Theatre.

Family fun

Colchester Zoo has large cat and primate collections. Leisure World has

flume, spa pools, a lazy river ride, sauna and spa. The scenic Colne Valley Railway runs steam trains to Castle Hedingham, and the East Anglian Railway Museum is located at Chappel. The area also has natural and local history museums as well as Tymperleys, a clock museum in a 15th-century house.

Fortress town

Colchester is Britain's oldest recorded town, and the town centre occupies the area where a settlement existed 3,000 years ago. The castle has the largest surviving Norman keep ever built. The University boasts "probably the largest Students' Union bar in East Anglia".

What you'll pay

According to Craig Davis of Connells, prices have stabilised after steep increases over the past two years. Average prices are £75,000 for one-bed flats, £100,000 for two-bed terraces and £145,000 for three-bed semis.

Country homes

Roy Chapman is selling several large country homes including two in Nayland, just north of Colchester – a three-bed detached with views over the Stour Valley for £275,000, and a massive barn conversion with river frontage for £700,000. FPDSavills is selling a new large detached house with double garage by Mersea Homes, £600,000.

New to view

The large (167 units) Higgins development in East Colchester has one-bed flats from £97,000 (01206 868688), Hopkins has 36 riverside flats and townhouses from £140,000 to £295,000 (01206 346783), and Redrow has 12 townhouses remaining from £165,000 (01206 728779).

Former hospital

Barratt's new developments in the Colchester area include former hospital sites at Beechwood Gardens, from £199,995 for four-bed townhouses, The Ridings, from £136,995 for two-bed flats, and a further development at the erstwhile St Mary's. Barratt's Colne Reach has homes from £139,995 (01245 232222).

Estate agents

Bradford & Bingley, 01206 561166; Connells, 01206 547431; Roy Chapman, 01206 262244; FPDSavills, 01245 269311; Stacks, 01359 245260.

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