More For Your Money: St Albans

Historic buildings, boutiques, good schools - and a 20-minute train link to London. St Albans has it all, including some bargain homes. By Robert Liebman
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The Independent Online

Astride the Hertfordshire greenbelt and only 20 minutes from the City via Thameslink, St Albans is an understandably popular commuter town. In fact, it has been a des res for several millennia.

Called Verulamium by the Romans, it was the location of a Benedictine abbey (793) that evolved into the current cathedral, built partially with salvaged Roman bricks. It has one of the longest naves in Europe.

Modern St Albans was shaped largely by the arrival of the railway in 1868, followed by the Underground extension to Hertfordshire. In addition to town-centre Victorian and Edwardian houses, the property stock includes family homes on large plots, local authority houses and flats, and newish brownfield developments.

"Developers are building luxury flats, especially ones with two bedrooms," says estate agent Martin Treasure. "Many of our clients are young couples with two incomes and no children, who intend to start a family so they buy a new flat or a cottage. They can afford to pay between £250,000 and £300,000."

The quick commute is only part of the town's appeal. "Young people are moving here for the lifestyle," Treasure says. "St Albans has many new bars and pubs, is vibrant and has evolved a café culture. It is like an extension of the West End. It also has the history that none of Hertfordshire's new towns have."

Jack Pia and his wife have lived in the same house here for 50 years and, despite repeated requests, have no intention of selling. "We've been lucky, because St Albans has few social problems, and the look of the town has not changed all that much. We didn't have large road schemes as Watford did."

In a part of town where large gardens were subdivided long ago, the Pias live in an 1834 house on a third of an acre. "It was a wreck with planning permission for eight flats when we bought it at auction 50 years ago," Pia explains. "There is a lot of money sloshing around today, and people want big houses, but the biggest houses have been converted. I constantly get offers for this house, but I always refuse."

How much do properties cost?

If a flat in this area is priced around £100,000, this probably means it is inconvenient for the town centre, where flats start at about £165,000. Three-bed houses start from £200,000 if modern (£250,000 if period), rising to about £1.25m for detached houses on large plots. Unusual, and unusually expensive, is a five-bed, five-reception house with indoor pool and outdoor tennis court; £4.75m at Strutt & Parker. The main reception room alone is 985 sq ft and has a glass ceiling.

What about flats?

A first-floor period conversion with a roof terrace near the city centre is £177,500 at Martin Treasure. For a similar price (£175,000), a two-bed flat in a modern block has allocated parking and a communal garden; the agent is Langleys.

What about more affordable houses?

In the Abbey conservation area, there is a two-bed period house over three storeys with a conservatory and south-facing garden; £300,000 at Martin Treasure. In London Colney, a three-bed semi with a 100-foot rear garden is £227,500 at Langleys.

How's the transport?

Thameslink connects St Albans with the City, Gatwick Airport and Brighton. A shuttle train from a different station links the town with Watford. St Albans is surrounded by or has easy access to the M1, M25, A1(M) and M11. Luton Airport is 16 miles away, and Heathrow is 28.

How's the shopping?

St Albans could do with a department store, but it has several shopping centres, plenty of smart boutiques, a large street market on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and a monthly farmers' market. There are large shopping centres in Watford and Hatfield respectively.

What about cultural and leisure facilities?

The Cathedral hosts concerts and many family-friendly activities. St Albans has important Roman ruins, several museums, and a large town-centre park. Multiplexes in nearby Hatfield, Hemel Hempstead and Watford offer a total of about 30 cinema screens.

How are the local schools?

Most primary schools score well-above-average results. Townsend CE Secondary is rated as above-average, but only by one point. Among the private schools in the area is Haberdasher's Aske in Elstree, the alma mater of Ali G (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Vicky Pollard (Matt Lucas).

And one for the pub quiz

What connects golf's Ryder Cup and St Albans?

The first Ryder Cup was sponsored in 1927 by Samuel Ryder, whose Ryder Seed Company was headquartered in St Albans.

Langleys, 01727 844 444; Martin Treasure, 01727 844 330; Strutt & Parker, 020-7629 7282