It happens every year. For 10 months, Haverfordwest is a sleepy, anonymous town with 14,000 inhabitants. Then summer arrives, bringing two million visitors to Pembrokeshire and its vast, meandering and walkable coastline. The touristic pit-stop of necessity if not choice, Haverfordwest, suddenly becomes the busy hub for St David's to the west and the ferry ports to the south.
A hilly town bisected by the River Cleddau and benignly overlooked by the remains of a 12th-century castle, the town has a pedestrianised shopping precinct, a hospital, college, and robust local economy.
Painter Augustus John and his sister Gwen hailed from Haverfordwest. "For most of the 1990s our area, which includes the national park on the coast, was quite depressed," says estate agent Paul Lucas, "but a recent significant increase in buyers from outside the area has helped boostprices. And these rises apparently have not put off local buyers."
The population mix has become more diverse of late: "Recently, our buyers have included more young families. They seem to be attracted to this area by factors such as the environment, good schools and low crime rates."
First-timers are having a harder time of it. Estate agent John Nicholas of JJ Morris uses a two-bedroom terraced or semi-detached house on the Priory Estate as an example: "The house cost £40,000 in January 2001, jumped to £50,000 a year later, and today would sell for about £75,000."
The race to snap up these affordable homes was won mostly by investors. Soon, however, the buy-to-let set dropped out of this market, deterred by the high prices that they had themselves set in motion. But even with these competitors removed, first-timers were still locked out. "They are now competing with retirement purchasers who are looking for smaller, more easily maintained properties. First-time buyers are looking for properties in Neyland and Milford Haven, which have also seen properties increase in value."
Mid-range property prices have also doubled in the last three years. But these rises mean that Pembrokeshire bargains are rapidly vanishing. Nicholas notes that "as the differential between west Wales and the rest of the country has narrowed, vendors have to moderate their prices. Purchasers will look elsewhere if they feel the property is overpriced."
Top-end buyers are also pinching pennies, although for different reasons: "Typically these potential purchasers are reluctant to invest more than £300,000. They want to retain sufficient capital from their own sale to use as their pension fund."
Haverfordwest is 100 miles from Cardiff, 140 from Bristol and 250 from London. Car ferries from Fishguard and Pembroke Dock serve Rosslare, in southeast Ireland. Withybush is the local airport. From London Paddington, service is fast (four and a half hours); service from Waterloo is much slower (six and a half hours) but much more scenic.
Riverside Quay, Riverside Market, Bridge Street and Quay Street have Safeway and Tesco, Ocky White department store, and many local shops. An organic farmers' market operates fortnightly.
The town has a multiscreen cinema and a film society. Annual events include the Portfield Fair in October, the May Fair, and many arts and crafts fairs throughout the year. Pembrokeshire Fish Week (June/July) focuses on angling and dining. The three-day agricultural County Show takes place in August.
Serious sporting facilities include floodlit pitches, coaching, organised teams, and leagues. The menu includes football, rugby, cricket, golf, tennis, swimming, cycling, running, basketball, hockey, triathlon, bowls, martial arts (judo, karate, tai chi and kick boxing), badminton and aerobics.
The 186-mile Pembrokeshire coastal path makes this area a magnet for walkers and twitchers; guided walks from railway stations are available. Railway excursions can be made to Fishguard in the north, the coastal towns of Milford Haven, Pembroke and Tenby to the south, and Narberth in the east.
What you'll pay
According to Lucas, average prices are about £80,000 for 3-bed terraces in good condition, £120,000 for 2-bed bungalows, £150,000 for 3-bed bungalows, and from £200,000 for four-bed houses. The property mix includes B&Bs, holiday cottages, hotels and farms.
Top and tail
FBM are selling three-bed terraces starting at about £70,000, while Treffgarne Hall is an ivy-covered, six-bed (four ensuite) Grade II Georgian country house, on five acres with tennis court, £675,000.
A 17th-century lighthouse and coastguard buildings at St Ann's Head overlooking Milford Haven, 15 miles from Haverfordwest, has been converted into five flats. Prices range from about £125,000 to £160,000-plus (agent RK Lucas).
A three-bed, two-bath chapel conversion with a railed inner gallery in Penycwm, on the coast, is seeking offers around £255,000; Coast & Country Estates.
Old Telephone Exchange
The former telephone exchange in St David's is a two-bed detached cottage, about £160,000. In Laugharne, home of poet Dylan Thomas, a farm on 312 acres is selling for £700,000. Also available are new, individually built homes in Neyland; prices start at £79,950.
Coast & Country, 01437 765522; FBM, 01437 762233; JJ Morris, 01437 760440; RK Lucas, 01437 762538.