Travel: Two hours to London, two hours to Paris: If you love France, the best place to be is in Kent. Anne Spackman explains

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The Independent Online
It is an autumn morning in Ashford, Kent. A day of shopping and lunch lies ahead. Where to go? Two hours up the railway line to the west is London; to the east, two hours away on the new Eurostar service, is Paris.

If you want to make the Channel tunnel fantasy of living within easy access of both Paris and London come true, the place to be is not northern France but Ashford. Sometime in the autumn, Eurostar will finally start its hourly international passenger service from London to Paris and Brussels, stopping at Ashford. Trains will take an hour to grind their way over fallen leaves from Waterloo. But from Ashford to Paris, they will run at French speeds nearly all the way.

Commuters based in Kent won't be able to make use of the international service to London from Ashford - which does not make much difference now, but will when the high-speed rail link is finally built in about eight years. But for those who want to get under the Channel, Ashford is the place to be - or be near.

The town has suffered the irony of being a railway centre served by one of the country's worst rail services. While Sevenoaks and Royal Tunbridge Wells have prospered on the fast line, Ashford has remained a daunting 70 minutes by rail from London Bridge.

The planners have not done the place any favours, either. Its old centre has almost disappeared under a sea of roundabouts, ring roads and housing estates. More recently, it seemed a byword for Channel tunnel blight.

But now Ashford is looking beyond all that to its European future. On Wednesday, residents will hang out the bunting and shut the schools as the Tour de France hits town. The council has declared 6 July the nearest thing to a public holiday. Even the hospital is closing for all but emergencies.

The cyclists are coming through the tunnel (on the train) to begin a 125-mile race through Kent to Brighton. Many shops have turned their windows over to celebrations of the event and one roundabout has a floral display in its honour.

One woman who will still be at her desk on Wednesday is Alison Fitzgerald, of estate agents Taylor Riley. She has just been to Paris with some friends for the weekend. Two hours after setting off from home they were waiting patiently in Gatwick airport.

'We were thinking, won't it be great when we can use the train,' she says. 'I would go shopping there instead of London or Canterbury. You could stay for lunch or even for the weekend.'

Does she worry about the cost? Eurostar says it will pitch its fares to compete with the airlines, which means it won't be that cheap. 'I'd be prepared to pay more,' Ms Fitzgerald says.

For those who want to join her on the weekend specials, the best place to live is either in one of Ashford's few remaining unspoilt streets, or in the pretty villages that dot the Downs in the triangle between Ashford, Canterbury and Folkestone.

The first buyers are turning up already. Ms Fitzgerald has just sold six homes, converted from Spring Grove Oast, in the popular village of Wye. Four went to second-home buyers looking for good access to France. The properties sold within two months for between pounds 55,000 and pounds 72,000. 'The purchasers were all buying as an investment,' she said.

She has also been selling tiny two-up, two-down cottages in the village, a few miles north of Ashford. 'They have been going for pounds 40,000 to pounds 45,000 to people from London or people who have been living abroad,' Ms Fitzgerald says. 'Now they would probably sell for a bit more. The strength is back in the market.'

Wye is one of the most favoured of the local villages. Cluttons is selling Marriage Farm, a family house outside the village with four reception rooms, four bedrooms and eight acres, for pounds 365,000.

The firm also has a Grade II* listed Tudor/Jacobean house in the village with five bedrooms and three reception rooms for sale at pounds 225,000.

Christopher Calcutt, of Calcutt Maclean, says: 'We are just beginning to get people who are looking for houses in this area because of the tunnel. Between Ashford and Cheriton the rail route is fixed, so the threat of blight has more or less disappeared. On the other side of Ashford, it is still difficult in places.'

Calcutt Maclean has just sold a four-bedroom period cottage in Wye for about pounds 175,000. Another pretty, semi-detached, five-bedroom cottage in the village of Mersham, five miles from Ashford, has just sold for pounds 115,000.

Buyers looking at villages to the east of the town, around Westwell and beyond to Lenham, will have to make sure they steer clear of major transport arteries and avoid any impending road or rail horror. Those who look in Ashford itself will find a mass of modern estate houses costing anything up to pounds 150,000.

But the best location for Francophiles is probably Queen Street, a conservation area of Victorian terraces and lamp posts. Here, a two- or three-bedroom town house with a small backyard costs between pounds 45,000 and pounds 55,000. It is convenient for all town amenities and just four minutes' walk from the international train service to Paris.

(Photograph omitted)

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