Stand on almost any mainline station platform in Sussex at 6.30 in the morning and you'll be shouldered by solid ranks of London commuters who would sooner rise well before dawn than go back to living in the capital. In Brighton, estate agents Mishon Mackay say about 20 per cent of their applicants come from London. Some agents further into the leafy hinterland of Midhurst and Petworth put the figure higher at 50 per cent.
What's the attraction? Well, Sussex seems to have it all. East Sussex has Brighton, the racy Regency resort now awash with showbiz names, such as Zoë Ball and Norman Cook, and spectacular marina apartments. The average price of a modest terraced house in Brighton and Hove is now £214,362, but if you're after a traditional Brighton house with wrought-iron balconies and sea views, you'll need more than £1 million.
West Sussex has Chichester, with the theatre and the sailing, plus some of the prettiest villages. The South Downs could become the country's next national park, if the countryside campaigners win their argument at the public inquiry. This would severely restrict local authority powers over planning and could conceivably boost existing house prices even more.
Faster train services - albeit very expensive - are tempting commuters who have traditionally resisted daily journeys of more than an hour. London to Brighton currently squeezes in at 55 minutes, but there is talk of a 35-minute service within three to four years.
Part of the gentle swell southwards is down to the rising prices in areas nearer London, such as Guildford and Godalming, say the agents. The ripple effect is pushing up prices in towns like Haywards Heath and Midhurst, where good property is in short supply anyway. Once people settle in Sussex, they rarely leave, which is why officially, more than half the population in West Sussex have retired.
Laurence Jones, who was in banking in the City, joined the club in August when he retired, sold his townhouse in Barnes and moved to Midhurst.
"I had no particular connection or huge number of friends here," he says. "But Midhurst always gets voted one of those towns in Britain with the best quality of life. I was glad to escape from the traffic in London. Midhurst is a very self-contained small town and I'm going to enjoy walking in the countryside."
Although getting to Sussex - East or West - by car can be frustrating, with notorious bottlenecks on the A23 and the M23, the area is perceived to be less built up than neighbouring Surrey.
"From Petersfield in Hampshire across to Pulborough, a lot of the land is in the hands of a few big estates like Goodwood and Cowdray," says Andrew Ferrier of estate agents Jackson-Stops & Staff in Midhurst. "So large chunks of the countryside is being looked after, where it has been completely clobbered in other counties like Surrey."
But what Heathrow is to Berkshire, so Gatwick is to Sussex - very convenient for going on holiday and a major local employer, but a damn nuisance when the Government suggests building another runway. Aircraft noise can slice hefty chunks off the value of otherwise charming Sussex farmhouses and houses hunters should choose their spot with care.
Down in Brighton though, you would barely hear the roar of a Rolls-Royce engine above the rattling of the latte glasses hitting the marble tables in the city's cafes. Proud of its "Alternative London by the Sea" reputation, buyers can just as easily find a loft-style apartment here as they would in Camberwell, except it will be much cheaper and with much nicer views.
Glovers Yard near Preston Park is a new development of five live/work properties, created from the former Cornelia James glove factory.
Founded in 1945, Cornelia James became one of the leading suppliers to royalty and film stars, and still holds a Royal Warranty from The Queen. Nicole Kidman and Glenn Close are among their customers and the firm produces gloves for stage shows and films like Star Wars and Moulin Rouge. When the decision was made to transfer production to a modern unit, Cornelia James' son Peter, a novelist and film producer, decided it was the perfect opportunity to convert the old factory into homes where artists and artisans could live and work. They have B1 planning consent and prices start at £285,000 (through Mishon Mackay 01273 829300)).
What you can buy
Millstone Cottage, Sutton
Two-bedroom period cottage five miles from Pulborough (for fast service to London Victoria) and just north of the South Downs. Has 22ft sitting room with large inglenook fireplace, cellar, beams and a third of an acre garden. Price: £335,000 through Jackson-Stops & Staff (01730 812357).
Knights Farmhouse, Shipley
Listed six-bedroom farmhouse 21 miles from Brighton and just over eight miles from Horsham. Attached barn provides entertaining space and office. Has heavily beamed ceilings, 30ft kitchen with Aga, plus two and a half acres of grounds including orchard. Price: £1.2m through FPDSavills (01483 796820).
Four-storey, period terraced house with study, morning room conservatory with pyramid-shaped skylight, roof terrace and four bedrooms, a quarter of a mile from mainline station and sea front. Price: £319,950 through Geering & Colyer (01273 604276).
Providence House, Burgess Hill
Conversion of a Grade II-listed former Baptist chapel three quarters of a mile from Burgess Hill station, just over four miles from Haywards Heath and 10 miles from Brighton. Unusually contemporary conversion with five bedrooms, playroom, 32ft vaulted drawing room, study and large kitchen/ breakfast room with built-in, top-of-the-range appliances. Price: £675,000 through Strutt & Parker (01273 475411).
Bodkins End, Haywards Heath
Former estate house with four bedrooms, two and a half miles from Haywards Heath station. Four bedrooms, off-road parking and a third of an acre of garden. Price: £495,000 through Strutt & Parker (01273 475411).Reuse content