Hot Spot: Darlington

The birthplace of train travel still provides smooth connections - and bargains - for commuters, says Robert Liebman

Do the locomotion? They've been doing it in Darlington for more than 150 years. It's the birthplace of actress Wendy Craig and comedian Vic Reeves, but Darlington's most famed son is George Stephenson, whose engine Locomotion on the Stockton & Darlington Railway conveyed the world's first railroad passengers. He is commemorated in the Railway Centre and Museum and the life-sized brick sculpture Train, and nationally in the etching on old £5 notes of his train crossing Darlington's Skerne Bridge.

Rail travel is still benefiting Darlington. "After some slackening during the Gulf War, the property market it is now well and truly back on its feet, with high turnover and great consumer confidence," says Andrew Potter of agents J W Wood. "This is mainly due to Darlington's first-class communication network, with the mainline railway, local and regional airports, and being at the crossroads of two main roads. People live here and work in Newcastle, Teesside, Leeds and York. It is only 20 minutes by train to York, and property here is a whole lot cheaper. Darlington has a strong local economy and high employment. The agricultural sector is still doing well, Orange has a major call centre here, and we have other telecoms, engineering and electronics firms. Property price rises averaged 17 per cent in 2001 and 25 per cent last year."

It doesn't hurt, he adds, that the town has beautiful surrounding countryside, especially the North Yorkshire Moors, Yorkshire Dales National Park and the coastline from Whitby through Robin Hood's Bay and up to Northumberland.

"Our amenities are excellent, and it is still possible to buy a quality three-bed semi from £85,000." In fact, buyers not fussed about location or the condition of the property can find three-bed houses for less than £50,000. Local homeowners have been buying small investment properties, snapping up terraces that, selling for £50,000 today, doubled in value in two years. "But there is probably some saturation with small terraces," Potter adds, "and discerning investors are now buying larger family homes, getting more certainty of occupation and greater capital appreciation."

Ruth Lightfoot of Jackson-Stops says that the village market continues to be active, with good demand for properties that are well-presented and correctly priced. The most popular villages are Great Stainton, Hurworth-on-Tees, Middleton Tyas and Aldbrough St John. Nearby, too, is Croft-on-Tees, where Alice's Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll lived.

THE LOW-DOWN

Getting there

Darlington is on the London King's Cross to Edinburgh line, via York, Durham and Newcastle. The A1 skirts Darlington to the west, and the Darlington-Middlesbrough section of the A66 is mostly dual carriageway. Teesside airport, six miles east, has scheduled flights to London Heathrow and Jersey.

Shopping

M&S, BhS, the Cornmill complex and independent retailers on Grange Road are the main consumer lures. There is an outdoor market on Mondays and Saturdays, a monthly farmers' market and occasional French and speciality markets. Architect of the Victorian covered market was Alfred Waterhouse, who designed London's Natural History Museum and Manchester's Town Hall.

Museums

The Railway Centre and Museum, where Stephenson's Locomotion is housed, is in the historic North Road Station, which dates from 1842. Other museums include the Tees Cottage [Water] Pumping Station and the Roman fort in Piercebridge, 5 miles from Darlington.

Entertainment

The Odeon cinema has three screens, the restored Edwardian Darlington Civic Theatre hosts West End shows, concerts, dance and other performances, and the Darlington Arts Centre also has a large theatre. Darlington Football Club's new stadium will also be a concert venue.

Sports

The Dolphin Centre has four pools, squash and badminton, a climbing wall and two pulse suites. Stressholme is a municipal golf course. The Eastbourne Sports Complex is a joint venture between the council and the comprehensive school, with an athletics track and all-weather pitch. Elsewhere in the town, karting, canoeing, windsurfing and paintball are on offer.

Prices

On the bottom rung, a three-bed semi with sizeable rear garden is £44,950, and a two-bed end terrace, £48,000, at JW Wood. A two-bed terrace with off-street parking is £57,500 at Deal.

Outside town

An three-bed end-terrace in Piercebridge is next to the village church and backs onto the Roman fort; £165,000 at JW Wood. A two-bed stone cottage, £250,000, and the Old Vicarage, £775,000, both in Barnard Castle, as well as the massive Witton House and Cottage in Witton-le-Wear, £725,000 are among the country homes at Jackson-Stops.

Townhouse

A four/five-bed, three-reception townhouse with bay windows in Darlington is £249,950, and a new four-bed detached house with garage in Middleton St George, four miles outside town, is £285,000; both at Deal.

Bungalows

A two-bed bungalow with garage and garden in Darlington, £87,950. A two-bed bungalow with summer house in Winston, £185,000, and a three-bed bungalow with paddock and steel sheds in Coathum Mundeville, £210,000, JW Wood.

New

Chesterfields, by local builder Darlington Homes, consists of 30 two- and three-bed flats with allocated parking near the town centre, between £109,950 and £187,500, via Deal.

Estate agents

Deal, 01325 352222; JW Wood, 01325 485151; Jackson-Stops, 01325 489948.

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