Oak Cottage, a 15th-century detached house, is a 21st-century commuter's dream. Just an hour from several major cities, it has charm, space and tranquillity, and has been renovated tastefully.
In Britain's prime rural areas from the Cotswolds to Cheshire, houses like this are simply not coming on to the market. But Oak Cottage is in a less fashionable county: Shropshire. And for that reason, it's not just on the market, but it's on at a very tempting price – less than £400,000.
The example of Oak Cottage (pictured, right) makes clear one of the trends emerging from the credit crisis. The scarcity of what agents describe as "prime rural property" (traditional, family-sized houses in established, well-to-do areas) is frustrating many buyers. "It's always been difficult to break into the fought-over honeypot locations," says Liam Bailey, head of residential research at Knight Frank, "but now it's harder than ever. People who are looking to sell prime houses in, for instance, the Cotswolds, are not willing to accept that they'll get less now than they would have a year ago. So instead of dropping prices, the deal volumes have dried up. They're down 30 per cent in some areas."
So if you were hoping that the credit crunch might present an opportunity to pick up a dream house in, say, Gloucestershire, you'd be mistaken. But all is not lost. Searching around less obvious counties has never yielded such tempting discoveries. Prompted by the prime residential slowdown, the nationwide agency Savills has conducted a revealing piece of research into what your money will buy in prettier rural locations across Britain.
Lucian Cook, the agency's director of research, explains why it makes sense to think beyond the obvious. "Take Somerset: this is a county that includes high-value areas, such as Bath, and is next to others, such as Devon. Yet the south of Somerset offers better value for money than either of these more obvious property hotspots, but is often overlooked by buyers.
"This is echoed along the Welsh border, when comparing counties to the West with the Cotswolds. Or, further north, where Shropshire provides better value for money than its neighbour, Cheshire. Many of these counties are more affordable, with the influence of London being less evident. In some cases, these areas have even seen small price drops over the past 12 months, adding to their appeal and value for money."
Will the prices fall further in these rural spots? Well, who's to say which areas will be immune. These areas may, for instance, be an extra hour in the car from London, and you might not bump into as many captains of industry at the local golf clubs. But there are some beautiful counties, with wonderful homes in charming villages, where houses are both available and comparatively cheap. As mortgage companies put the squeeze on how much we can borrow, you may well decide that the extra bedrooms and land justified your decision to look beyond the obvious locations.
It's too far south of Manchester and Liverpool for the Premiership stars to build their modern mansions, and too far north to catch the Cotswolds overspill, but Shropshire is awash with beautiful villages where excellent houses have tempting prices. Most of Shropshire's fame derives from the gastronomic town of Ludlow where houses are 15 per cent above the national average, but 20 miles north of Ludlow is Shrewsbury, where houses cost 15 per cent less than the rest of the Britain.
There's plenty of choice both in the medieval town and surrounding villages. Brooklands (Savills, 01952 239 500, www.savills.co.uk) is an Italianate five-bedroom house for sale at £1.5m – you get a lot for that money in these parts. It overlooks Shrewsbury and the hills beyond within grounds of 2.5 acres. According to Savills, prices in the Midlands and the North have dipped in the past year, allowing buyers from outside the area to capitalise on that difference. Shrewsbury ticks lots of boxes: crime is low, there are good road connections north, east and south, and the trains take you in to Birmingham in 55 minutes. There are good schools, such as state secondary The Priory, and the medieval street pattern still survives in Shrewsbury, adding atmosphere to this ancient town. The Quarry, a 29-acre riverside park in the centre of town, keeps things green, or nip along to The Golden Cross for a pint – it's the oldest pub in town and has been open since 1428.
Just outside Shrewsbury is the village of Ford where Oak Cottage (Balfours, 01743 353 511, www.balfours.co.uk) is on sale for £395,000. Dating from the 15th century, this four-bedroom house has been sensitively restored and features a Rayburn in its large family-sized kitchen. The setting is idyllic and one can only guess at how much such a large, characterful home as this would sell for in the stockbroker belts of Kent or Surrey.
Northumberland is rich in bustling market towns, lonely landscapes and affordable homes. It offers better value than Cumbria or North Yorkshire, yet it's not as cut off as many think. Berwick-upon-Tweed is England's most northerly town and has pretty architecture and cheap house prices, but 30 miles south is Alnwick, which has been identified by Country Life as one of the best places to live in Britain.
The big draw for buyers here are the housing stock, train connections, dramatic scenery and attractive house prices. Take Crag View, half-a-mile from the town centre, which is on the market for £680,000 (Strutt & Parker, 01670 516 123, www.struttandparker.com). It cuts an imposing figure in its half-acre of gardens. There are four bedrooms, three receptions, a large kitchen/breakfast room and a two-bedroom, self-contained apartment – which all adds up to a substantial period property that would be twice the price if it was near the centre of York. Newcastle and its airport is 35 miles south, and Edinburgh is only 65 minutes from Alnmouth mainline station. For the part-time commuter, the occasional trip to London is an option at three hours 37 minutes, and property is very reasonable. Detached houses offer excellent value, averaging £291,903 against the UK's average of £340,575. Alnwick's reputation as a town of charm is well deserved. Its pale stone houses are beautifully preserved and the encircling wild landscape is visible from most of the streets.
Out in the nearby countryside, five miles north of Alnwick is The Watermill, a four-bedroom barn that offers 21st-century mod cons within a beautifully restored mill. It's on for £474,500 (Rook Matthews Sayer, 01665 510 044, www.rookmatthewssayer.co.uk) and has a magnificent hall with central staircase.
Lincolnshire, one of the UK's least populated counties, has wallowed too long in the property doldrums. The south boasts the charming town of Stamford (which thinks it's in the Cotswolds, being built of mellow stone), but prices there are 15 per cent above the national average – despite the lack of direct trains to the capital.
Further north, there's a feeling that Stamford's elegance drains away into the fens, leaving flat, dull towns and villages that only slightly perk up around Lincoln's spectacular cathedral and the towns in the Wolds such as Louth and Market Rasen. It's a sad fact that names such as Grimsby, Scunthorpe and Grantham tend not to inspire excitement among property hunters.
But, look again at Grantham and you'll see a red-brick town enjoying a quiet renaissance. This new lease of life is driven by low property prices: an average house sells for £170,000 – £50,000 below the national average. And trains can whisk you to London King's Cross in 70 minutes.
North House, on Grantham's North Parade (Humberts, 01476 514 514, www. humberts.co.uk) is on for £650,000. It has elegance and space throughout its five bedrooms, three receptions, four bathrooms, wine cellar and kitchen. It even has a self-contained basement with two bedrooms, a living room and kitchen that would make a great granny annexe, teen den or money-spinner. A walled garden, garage and parking complete a deal that would tip the million-pound mark in Stamford.
Nearby villages are a piece of old England with pretty spires rising from undulating fields. Beacon Cottage (Humberts) is a unique 18th-century house that sits in an acre of grounds one mile out of Grantham. It has sweeping views and details galore within its four receptions and three bedrooms. Outside there's a workshop and an office. Were it on the the North Norfolk coast, the asking price would be rather higher than £375,000.
Families and new businesses are moving into Grantham, bringing much-needed sophistication to the area. The local produce is beginning to be shouted about once again with specialist shops. Schools, including some grammars, are some of the best in the county and the A1 and A52 get you away quickly.
Parts of Wales are often championed as the cheapest in the UK. Twenty minutes from the border, Brecon is an ancient market town that offers a great alternative to the Cotswolds. It's pretty, too, with narrow streets and passageways lined with Georgian and Jacobean buildings. The unlikely bedfellows of mountains and jazz (in the form of the international festival) keep the economy bouyant, drawing thousands of visitors. The average property price is £20,000 less than in the rest of the UK, with detached homes being even better value at £80,000 less. The nearby border town of Hay-on-Wye, with its equally charming buildings and lively literary festival, typically sells at 70 per cent higher (£335,250 against Brecon's £245,418).
An eight-bedroom former rectory, 10 minutes from the town between the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains, is on at £975,000 (McCartneys, 01874 610 990, www.mccartneys.co.uk) . It has five receptions and six bathrooms, all with original shutters, oak floorboards and arched windows. It has eight acres of grounds, including orchards, pasture and views of the mountains that would fetch a price well into seven figures on the other side of the border.
A pretty, four-bedroom canalside cottage within walking distance of Brecon town centre is on at £355,000 (also McCartneys). Despite its period looks, it's only five years old and has dramatic views to the hills, as well as front and rear gardens. Brecon's diverse shops lend the town its "real" atmosphere with good food (such as the Felin Fach Griffin Inn), riverside walks and the Coliseum Cinema. Parents will appreciate the excellent state and independent schools, and for road links, the A470 whizzes south to Cardiff and the A40 links in to England via Abergavenny on the M5.
If you're searching for a peaceful West Country home, but are struggling to find the space you need in Devon, Dorset or Bath, try taking your budget to South Somerset. Here you'll find a belt of towns buyers often overlook, including Ilminster, Yeovil, Taunton, Crewkerne and Chard. These offer great value for money as well as countryside to rival anything Devon has to offer.
Just outside Chard is an enchanting thatched house whose five bedrooms, three receptions and an acre of grounds could be yours for £1.2m (Jackson-Stops, 01823 325144, www.jackson-stops.co.uk). The gardens are a delight, with a two-bedroom cottage and babbling brook, and the views are to die for. Detached properties in Chard average out at £283,536, compared with £403,031 in Lyme Regis or a staggering £588,009 in Bath.
And there's no compromise on curb appeal in South Somerset. The houses, commonly thatched and made of stone, benefit from a light road network that doesn't carve up the landscape. A labyrinth of lanes links villages through soft, tranquil countryside.
Shiremoor House is tucked away in the pretty village of Merriott. It's a listed, five-bedroom detached house with half an acre of grounds and five large receptions that include a 22-foot dining room. Were it in striking distance of Bath, you wouldn't see much change from a million. In fact, it's only three miles from Crewkerne, and 15 miles to the coast, yet has an asking price of £595,000 (Humberts, 01935 431146, www.humberts.co.uk).