Lara Croft meets leafy suburbia

Wasn't that Angelina Jolie in the Black Horse in Fulmer the other day? It may well have been. But you don't have to be an A-list film star to want to live in Bucks, Berks and Herts. Rosalind Russell investigates the attractions
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The Independent Online

When Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, moves into a small Home Counties village, you have to assume the area has an appeal beyond its refusal to give up on the grammar-school system. Of course, she isn't really Lara Croft, she's the actress Angelina Jolie and she's settling in very nicely in the pretty Buckinghamshire village of Fulmer where she's even been seen in the excellent local pub, The Black Horse (I can recommend the sausage sandwiches).

Bucks, and its neighbour, Berkshire, consistently come high in the lists of the quality of life/most expensive postcodes/most millionaires to the mile surveys. Despite unrelenting pressure on the green belt by developers, bolstered by John Prescott's indifference to local opinion on planning issues, many villages have managed to remain more or less intact.

Chorleywood, tucked in a fold of the hills on the Bucks/Herts border is 30 minutes from London by train and ring-fenced by green belt land. Served by the Metropolitan Line, which was immortalised by John Betjeman - as was Slough in Berkshire, though with considerably more venom - and a mainline station into Marylebone, it has barely changed since the Fifties.

There's no street lighting outside the centre and limited scope for development, says local estate agent John McAteer of John Roberts & Co, because the local Three Rivers Authority has placed a moratorium on knocking down one big property to squeeze several in on one site. Most of the village is within walking distance of the station and shops and it has a hilly, open common covering 250 acres. A Victorian or Edwardian cottage can cost £680,000, young locals being virtually priced out of the market. Good pubs are plentiful and the traditional butcher's, WH Wiggins, has a queue snaking down the pavement on most Saturday mornings. There are stables offering liveries and No Galloping signs on the roads. The most popular side of the village is in the catchment area for the Bucks grammar schools, Challoners and Chesham High.

The lovely Ms Jolie aside, the grammar-school system is one of the main reasons buyers move to the Home Counties Many schools demand stringent proof of residence - utilities bills, etc - before considering children for acceptance, such has been the pressure on places. High performing grammar schools can save families a fortune on education, though that can be cancelled out by higher house prices, and there's always the lure of a fast track into Oxbridge.

A major attraction in Reading in Berkshire is the two grammar schools, Kendrick for girls and Reading School for boys, both offering Classics among the courses and both heavily oversubscribed. The boys' school has four applicants for every place. But outside town, in the broad meadows bordering the Thames, woods and pretty villages, big money is required to buy into places like Pangbourne, Goring, Streatley and Whitmarsh. "Berkshire," says one local agent, "is the new Surrey. It's as country as some people want to get without getting muddy."

Nearer to London in Royal Windsor, property prices are high, boosted by the protection of her Her Majesty's 4,800 acres around the Castle, currently still safe from Mr Prescott's grand designs for house building. The Golden Triangle of Osborne Road, Frances Road and King's Road either face or lead into Windsor Great Park and the Long Walk. All the top money buys into those and the roads they enclose.

The Georgian and Victorian terraces in the centre of town, within walking distance of the two railway stations, cost a lot and don't come with garages.

The best villagey areas are Datchet (on the river, with own railway station), Eton (a two bedroom Victorian cottage can cost more than £300,000) and Eton Wick. Datchet and Wraysbury (the posh side of Staines) have most of the riverside properties, but demand has dropped off, because of the fear of flooding. Windsor's mini London lifestyle is very appealing. Classy restaurants and the metropolitan standards - Cafe Flo, Pret A Manger and Cafe Rouge - are handily placed for the shopping. There's Ronit Zilkha, a favourite with Cherie Blair, pre-Carole Caplin, East, Hobbs, Patsy Seddon, Crabtree & Evelyn, Fenwicks, Caleys (John Lewis) and Penhaligons. Also a small M&S, Laura Ashley, Gap, Monsoon, Next, Austin Reed and - directly opposite the Castle - Barbour, should HM need a new pair of smart green wellies sent over. It is, of course, packed with tourists all year round and you can barely hear yourself talk above the noise of the planes coming into Heathrow.

For schools, there's Eton for the privileged few, Windsor Girls School is an oversubscribed state comprehensive and prestigious St George's (Windsor Castle) takes girls and boys. The Duke of York sent his daughters Eugenie and Beatrice to Upton House.

Across the border in Bucks, the fast commuter lines into London are as vital as education for buyers. The Chiltern Line is a star performer among rail companies, with fast trains from Marylebone to Gerrards Cross taking around 23 minutes... not bad for covering the 22 miles or so through the suburbia of Neasden, Wembley and the Ruislips. Any property within walking distance of the station can command a premium. But GX - like neighbouring Beaconsfield - is gradually becoming built up by blocks of flats squeezed onto what used to be generous Edwardian gardens. Fighting planning applications for those - and against motorway service stations on the nearby M40 - is an ongoing battle.

On the plus side, there's always the chance of bumping into Warren Clarke - the one with a face like a crumpled paper bag in Dalziel & Pascoe - in Waitrose.

So if it wasn't the schools, it wasn't the commuter trains - and it probably wasn't Waitrose - what did bring Angelina Jolie to South Bucks? Step forward Pinewood Studios, one of the area's biggest draws for actors who want to live close to the shop. Some - like Nicole Kidman - just came to rent. Many more have decided the upmarket B&B is the place to buy.

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