Weekend retreats: Anne Spackman braves the motorways to browse round a choice selection of accessible classic country cottages

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The Independent Online
On the subject of weekend cottages I am with Nicholas Coleridge, who wrote in The Spectator magazine recently of the horrors of spending your weekend in a traffic jam on a motorway. The idea of shooting off to the country after work on Friday for two blissful days of fresh air before slipping back to town on Sunday evening was a myth, he said. The reality of a weekend cottage was eight hours of travelling, two or three hours of packing and precious little pleasure time at all.

He has the advantage of speaking from experience. I have never owned a weekend cottage, but I have experienced weekend traffic on visits to friends in the country. The key problem for people like him and me - and thousands of fellow travellers - is that we have to abide by a schedule dictated by small children. No late bedtimes on Sunday when there is school tomorrow.

But not everyone is similarly hampered. Over the past few weeks, as the sun has shone almost continuously on this corner of England, there must have been many people delighting in the pleasures of escaping London for the country.

This is the time of year when the contrast between the city's dusty, fume-filled streets and the fresh air outside is at its greatest. If you can avoid the 4pm to 7pm rush on Friday and Sunday the weekend dream can become a reality.

Crucial to those who want to avoid traffic jams is the choice of a location on the side of London closest to home. If you live in North London and have a cottage in Hampshire you will spend the first hour just getting to the Chiswick roundabout.

Alternatively, some people may choose a spot easily reached from the office and go directly from work on Friday night. If they are based in the City the Suffolk/East Anglia run is a good option.

It is a good option for anyone within reach of the M11, as that is one of the least crowded routes out of town. And the classic country cottage comes a lot cheaper here than it does in the serious weekender country of the Cotswolds.

When it comes to the cottage itself, almost all weekenders have similar requirements. The setting and outside appearance are far more important than the rooms inside. It has to look and feel the part.

This means there is huge demand for small, period cottages with good sized gardens in a pretty village or an isolated rural location. But the competition means they don't come cheap. The idea of picking up something sweet for less than pounds 50,000 belongs to the past. That is true even of cottages in remote parts of the country.

That's the bad news. The good news is there are some very pretty places about. Many of the agents who sell the grandest country houses also sell the tiny ones, so don't let a grand name put you off.

Strutt & Parker is particularly strong in this field. Its land management side runs a lot of large estates, whose owners are often keen to rent out or sell one of their small agricultural cottages.

One such place is for sale in Helmingham, near Ipswich. It is a semi-detached, red brick, former estate worker's cottage with a pretty white wooden door and gable window. On the ground floor there are living room, dining room, kitchen and bathroom, with two bedrooms upstairs.

Outside, it fulfills the requirements with a decent garden and a rural setting on the Helmingham Hall Estate. At pounds 52,000 it is one of the cheapest cottages available, but it needs some updating.

Slightly further south in Essex Strutt & Parker is selling a very similar pink-washed cottage with a storm porch and heavy oak door in a village three miles from Harwich. Cherry Tree Cottage is believed to be 16th century and is Grade II listed. Slightly larger than the Suffolk cottage, with a similar layout and pretty gardens, it is priced at pounds 77,500.

Bedford Country Property Agents is selling two ideal bolt-holes in the village of Dalham near Newmarket. Jockey Cottage gets extra weekend points for having a thatch and a stream outside. The two-bedroom cottage is priced at pounds 79,000. Holly Cottage is also thatched, but is smaller with one bedroom and is priced at pounds 63,000.

Those willing to travel the extra miles to Norfolk can get a bit more home for their money. Strutt & Parker has a white 18th century cottage in the village of Garboldisham, about eight miles from Diss, with a guide price of pounds 80,000. Portway Cottage has a kitchen, dining area, playroom and sitting room, three bedrooms and the usual downstairs bathroom.

The same agent is selling a slightly smaller brick cottage in the hamlet of Little London, two miles south of Aylsham. In the garden it has a summer house and a children's treehouse with a sandpit underneath, as well as a vegetable patch. The asking price is pounds 89,950.

For those who want to head south-east to Kent, Calcutt Maclean is selling one of the most picturesque village cottages around. Orion's Cottage, a 16th century Grade II listed house, is on The Square at Chilham, with views over Chilham Castle. It is a two-up, two-down cottage, with a bathroom added on and the asking price is pounds 89,950.

In Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire period cottages for under pounds 100,000 are few and far between. John D Wood has a little two-up two-down brick cottage in the village of Crondall in Hampshire with a summer house at the end of the garden. Again the asking price is pounds 89,950.

The same money will buy you a small cottage in Somerset or Wiltshire or even in parts of the Cotswolds. Strutt and Parker is selling a larger Cotswold village house with three bedrooms and two living rooms in Lower Swell near Stow-on-the-Wold for pounds 115,000.

Anyone willing to buy in a town, rather than a village or open country, can get the same number of rooms for half the price. The only trouble is, you're leaving one town for another.

(Photographs and map omitted)