Leicester: Renaissance city

Could a £2bn facelift finally put an end to this area's scruffy image? Nick Lloyd Jones reports
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Estate agents in Leicestershire boast that it is still possible to trade in a run-of-the-mill family home in London for a glorious country house there with plenty of land and, possibly, a swimming pool, too.

One couple who did just that were Rupert and Penelope van der Post - related to the travel writer - who bought a seven-bedroom country house 10 miles south of Leicester seven years ago. "We really wanted to move into the countryside," says Rupert, "but all of the properties we'd seen in the Cotswolds and Oxfordshire were even more expensive than our house in Shepherd's Bush. It was only when we began hunting in Leicestershire that we achieved our dream."

Property prices in Leicester City have also been traditionally on the low side due to a combination of its scruffy image, neglected housing stock and a hangover from the racial unrest it witnessed in the 1970s.

Things have changed for the better since then and now the city looks to be on the brink of a renaissance.

Leicester has always been cosmopolitan. It started life as a Celtic settlement before being occupied by the Romans and later the Saxons and Danes. More recently, it has served as a magnet for Jewish, Polish, Latvian, West Indian, East African, Asian, Bosnian, Kosovar and Somali immigrants. This lends the city of 280,000 residents - the largest in the East Midlands and the 10th largest in the country - a vibrant feel. There is a great selection of ethnic bars, restaurants and clubs, while the city's rich multi-ethnic make-up is also celebrated in such events as the huge West Indian carnival - second in size only to Notting Hill - that takes place there every year.

Leicester's renaissance is even more visible thanks to a £2bn regeneration programme currently under way, designed to revitalise the city's infrastructure and services. The Shires shopping centre in the town centre is set to double in size in the next few years.

Many of the old Victorian warehouses and mills are being converted into loft-style apartments and there are also a number of new-build developments under way - mainly one- and two-bedroom flats - with prices starting at around the £110,000 mark.

This civic facelift will undoubtedly impact favourably on property prices in the suburbs, where most of the larger family houses are to be found. Three- to four-bedroom properties cost about £180,000. Stoneygate and Oadby, areas a little to the south of the centre, are particularly popular destinations, where most of the more attractive and solidly built Victorian and Edwardian houses are located.

"The southern suburbs have a lot going for them," says Jason Hercock, of local agent James Sellicks. "They are leafy and relatively smog free and offer good road links for commuters working in places like Milton Keynes or Nottingham." They also have a good network of local schools, as well as a friendly village-like atmosphere with good parade-shopping facilities.

Those, like the Van der Posts, looking for more substantial properties out in the sticks in nearby villages like Willoughby Waterleys or Theddingworth, can also still pick up places at very competitive prices. The surrounding countryside is glorious and it's ideal for those who enjoy country pursuits. The local coarse and fly fishing is second to none, while the shire is also home to no fewer than five hunts and three of the top ones - the Quorn, the Cottesmore and the Fernie.