In The Pickwick Papers, Eatanswill is the unappetising name that Charles Dickens applies to Sudbury, a town prized today as the hub of a fabulous vein of timbered Georgian and Victorian homes.
Wool in the Middle Ages and silk in the 19th century brought prosperity to the area. Wealthy merchants built spacious half-timbered homes and worshipped in oversized churches designed in the distinctly perpendicular style. Sudbury has three notable medieval churches and the birthplace museum of artist Thomas Gainsborough.
"Sudbury is a thriving market town which home buyers often pass by because it is not on a main commuter route, but it has wonderful water meadows providing delightful walks," adds Timothy West of Sworders estate agents. "Old warehouses and mill buildings are coming down, being replaced with high-quality secure town-centre housing. Prices for both the new and the historic houses are climbing but are still surprisingly affordable, and many of Sudbury's lovely old houses are within walking distance of the station."
For many commuters, a poor rail link is better than none. Sudbury is the last station on a branch line that begins at Marks Tey on the Liverpool Street to Colchester route. The neighbouring villages of Lavenham and Long Melford have no train service and are even further from Colchester than is Sudbury. But both are less commercial and better preserved, and Lavenham is famed for its 300 listed buildings, many of which date to the 15th century.
"Lavenham properties still carry a premium of between 15 and 20 per cent compared with those in surrounding villages," says Tom Orford of FPDSavills. "It is a beautiful, unspoiled medieval wool town that is a recognised beauty spot. Most other towns have been over developed."
Orford believes that the premium prices will persist: "Prices have possibly peaked but demand is still high, and these properties make their own market. They get a premium because of scarcity, and we have no problem selling them, achieving figures on or above expectations."
Oliver Peacock of Jackson-Stops agrees: "Lavenham is at a premium to the surrounding villages and may be a niche market. We forecast five per cent growth for East Anglia's residential market for the next 12 months, and Lavenham may outperform the mainstream."
The long-term prognosis is even rosier: the supply of genuine period homes cannot possibly increase.
Sudbury is 15 miles from Colchester on the A134, and 36 miles from Stansted airport.
An artist as a young man
Although lacking his major society portraits, Gainsborough House contains the world's largest collection of the artist's paintings, drawings and prints. Its print workshop is available to the public for an annual fee. The Quay Theatre hosts local operatic and dramatic companies. The Sudbury Society has published a 100-page glossy book on the town's unlisted buildings (www.sudburysociety.co.uk).
Sudbury's schools are St Gregory & St Peter CE, St Joseph's RC, Tudor CE and Woodhall County primary schools; All Saints and Uplands County middle schools; and Great Cornard and Sudbury Upper schools. Sudbury Upper School and Arts College is a 13-18 comprehensive and holder of several academic awards.
Six miles north-east of Sudbury, Lavenham was the home of poet Stephen Spender during the 1930s. Architectural treasures include the Corpus Christi Guildhall, and the Church of St Peter & St Paul. The village has a variety of guided walks.
Four miles north of Sudbury, Long Melford has a two-mile high street, the Church of the Holy Trinity, Kentwell (a moated Tudor mansion that has outdoor performances), and the National Trust's Melford Hall.
William H Brown currently has a three-bed 1970s terrace for sale at £119,950, and a three-bed terrace with garage at £145,000. Large new four-bed detached houses range from £245,000 to £330,000. A Grade II-listed timbered cottage in the town centre costs £145,000.
Shiver me timbers
At Sworders, the Grade I-listed The Chantry in Sudbury has vertical timbers that are still mostly vertical. It has four bedrooms, a 50ft garden and is for sale at £325,000. A two-bed high-street house in Lavenham with 65ft garden and higgledy-piggledy beams lists and is listed, too; £235,000. A two-bed riverside Victorian terrace costs £155,000.
A semi-detached, four-bed barn conversion in Little Waldingfield is £375,000 at William H Brown, and the new Brickwall Barn & Granary in Bulmer is £800,000 at FPDSavills. In Groton, near Boxford, Bidwells is selling a wing of a Grade II medieval house with detached annexe; £350,000.
Upmarket country (£500,000 and rising)
In Lavenham, Jackson-Stops has a three-bed listed Anchor House with annexe; £495,000. A Grade II-listed Georgian detached house with four receptions, six bedrooms and 40ft swimming pool in Sible Hedingham is £800,000 at William H Brown, and the 10-bed Eyston Hall with paddocks and 13 acres is £1.25m at FPDSavills.
New to view
At between £167,950 and £189,950, a handful of flats and cottages remain at Rydon's Meadow Place near Sudbury town centre; agent is William H Brown.
Bidwells, 01473 611644; FPDSavills, 01473 234800; Jackson-Stops & Staff (Bury St Edmunds), 01284 700535; William H Brown, 01787 379372; Sworders (Sudbury), 01787 375555, (Lavenham), 01787 247123.Reuse content