In search of rustic retreats
As a new rail route threatens the heart of rural England, Oliver Bennett tracks down the last idyllic hotspots
Wednesday 24 March 2010
The Government's ambitious £30bn plan for a high-speed rail network has already alerted house hunters to the renewed possibilities of country life – linking rural Britain to the cities, providing many more commuting opportunities and, no doubt, ramping up house prices in and around the network hubs.
But, with the proposed route cutting through some of Britain's most idyllic countryside, not everyone is keen. Sir John Johnson, chairman of the Chilterns Conservation Board, which is campaigning against the proposed London to Birmingham high-speed line, says "The Chilterns is a piece of England's finest countryside and a high-speed rail link will damage it forever".
This may sound a shade Nimby-ish, but the benefits of high-speed rail are not always welcome. According to Johnson many people along the preferred route are already concerned about what it will do to the value of their homes. As well as the new infrastructure and its effect on the landscape, the rural destinations close to mainline stations, or motorway junctions, can quickly become dormitories: suburban rather than rural in nature. This has happened in the Home Counties, and is already filtering through to Kent, Oxfordshire, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset and even Devon. Some have called this phenomenon "Rurban" or "Rururban": a mixture of rural and urban, not quite either.
What of true, get-away-from-it-all rural life? Where can you still find solace from trains, planes and automobiles?
The North-east is less touristy than the Lake District and the kind of rugged place that is attracting lifestyle buyers and the retired. "The North-east is one of the country's most sparsely populated areas and it's one of England's best kept secrets," says Stephen McOwan, of local agents George F White. "Many areas of Northumberland, plus the Durham and Yorkshire Dales, are still quite isolated, with small villages and market towns often well over an hour from a mainline train station, and not near any main roads or major airports. We're not on the route of the planned high-speed rail link so these places are set to retain their rural character." Expect hills, bracing coastline, minimal light and sound pollution – and if you occasionally miss the bright lights, Newcastle and Edinburgh aren't too far away.
Relatively close to London, and with its fair share of second-home owners, Suffolk is known for posh boltholes like Southwold, where Gordon and Sarah Brown holidayed last year. But as motorists on the slow A12 will testify, the deeper parts of the county are as remote as it gets in the south of England – and despite attempts to make the county town, Ipswich, and the south Norfolk town of Diss commuter destinations, there's no real alternative to the car. Try the market towns – Saxmundham and Framlingham, where prices are far keener than on the coast, and where night skies are truly dark. "Framlingham is on the road to nowhere with the closest mainline train station being 10 miles away in Ipswich," says Philip Harvey of Property Vision, the buyer's advisor and subsidiary of HSBC Private Bank. "It may be too rustic for some, but the most charming houses in East Anglia can be found here. Suffolk's heritage coastline is on your doorstep, along with cultural amenities nearby including the Snape Maltings concert hall."
England's second-biggest county has long attracted workers from the Midlands to its coast, and yet large swathes have been forgotten by transport masterplanners – which will suit those in pursuit of big skies, long views and low population counts. "Properties in secluded locations are becoming more and more difficult to find," says Peter Mills of Chesterton Humberts in Grantham. "When they come on the market, they generate a lot of interest – and if there is land with the property, this will increase its value. In areas such as the Fens you might have to drive 20 minutes to buy your morning newspaper, and parts of of the beautiful Lincolnshire Wolds can offer similar seclusion. Buyers are looking for a complete lifestyle change or a rural holiday home."
North Norfolk can be a bit Chelsea-on-Sea, and certainly Burnham Market has its fair share of Up From Londons. But you can still get away from built-up areas. "To the north and east of King's Lynn, the county is dominated by large landed estates, small market towns and villages and a landscape that is mainly arable farmland," says Ben Marchbank of Bedfords in Burnham Market. "Rail links are often not there, as it wouldn't prove economically viable to reinstate the lines cut by Dr Beeching rail reorganisation of the 1960s."
Isle of Wight
We don't necessarily think of the Isle of Wight as remote, but train lines are few, there's only one major roundabout, and only light aircraft can land on the island. In the interior, you can find real solace amid the chalky downs. On the other hand, there are a lot of boats.
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