When it's time to take it easy

Cheryl Markosky visits a retirement scheme where an appreciation of Mondrian is more likely to be found than demand for a game of bingo
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The Independent Online

Retirement is one of those scary words, like "policy" and "Europe" that we prefer to ignore. Would any of us look forward to selling the family home, chucking out beloved possessions and downsizing to a tiny beige-painted shoebox for the rest of our days?

Retirement is one of those scary words, like "policy" and "Europe" that we prefer to ignore. Would any of us look forward to selling the family home, chucking out beloved possessions and downsizing to a tiny beige-painted shoebox for the rest of our days?

Or maybe your private retirement nightmare would be vegetating in a cabbage-perfumed institution, or - even worse - in some overpriced development where all your savings will be eaten up by exorbitant service charges, with only the weekly bingo games to look forward to.

Mercifully, retirees can now live in new urban schemes that are roomy, aesthetically pleasing and which offer a wide range of activities you can engage in with like-minded people. To see what life is like in this new breed of retirement housing, I tried out the Chester Classic, a development of 49 two-bedroom apartments in the heart of Chester. Its central location cannot be faulted - a five-minute walk from the train station, 10-minutes from the River Dee and minutes from the main shops - if not a bit baffling for some of the residents used to views of the Welsh hills and the babble of brooks rather than the faint hum of traffic. The most-heard line during my stay was a poignant but determined: "We are getting used to a new way of living."

The good news is life for the over-65s at the Classic is far from dull. The owners already occupying the 11 units sold so far are a varied and interesting bunch, including artists, a classical pianist, a former management consultant, a GP, a teacher and a personnel guru.

Lynne Letford, who helps run the scheme, says: "Such a change of lifestyle can be complex, but we try to make it easier. People have a lot of memories tied up in their homes, but they can bring quite a bit here. Many worry about fitting in large pieces of furniture."

Sure enough, when I have a bit of a nose round some of the residents' homes, they are surprisingly spacious - prices range from £184,500 for 795 sq ft, to £372,995 for 1,483 sq ft. Ample space in the walk-in wardrobes alone certainly beats many London apartments.

Joan and Derick Williams, a former health visitor and a GP from Wales, were the first to sell up their barn conversion and settle in 18 months ago. They chose Chester as a place to hunker down, because it boasts a good hospital and Derick has fond memories of his early days here as a young doctor. The Williams's flat, overlooking a landscaped courtyard with a gazebo and fountain, is in a traditional style, incorporating antiques from their old home. There is plenty of room for a sideboard, corner cupboard, leather chair, desk and a large chest of drawers. "We have put in the same flowered frieze in our bedroom to remind us of the barn," says Joan, "and two pictures of our old village on the living room wall."

An artist and former architect, Neale Evans, and his wife Florence, a retired teacher, have decked out their more contemporary apartment with a Mondrian-style red door with yellow trim and white walls for Neale's art. The couple from Chester kept their eyes open for somewhere to buy. "We found space standards poor generally," says Neale. "In one place when we asked where you stored things like the vacuum cleaner, they said, 'Over there in the corner of the living room'."

Neale says initially the couple were put off by the development's position in Brook Street, a decaying terrace of shops. But with the regeneration of the road and the Council moving in nearby, the area is improving. "Besides, we have discovered the Stanley Arms across the road, the best pub in town and The Chester Tandoori with great Indian food," confesses Neale. The Stanley Arms announces this resurgence of Chester's centre with a sign posing the question, "Is this the new Notting Hill?" Perhaps a tad optimistic, but who knows?

I am hard pushed to accept I am in a retirement development and many of the residents agree. The brick and timber-clad building has a chalet feel that makes you feel you are on permanent holiday. I get to stay in the plush guest suite available to friends and family at £25 a night for a single and £27 for a twin. Residents can stay in any guest suite in the 28 schemes.

A trio from the Chester Philharmonic Orchestra puts on an afternoon concert, we view art exhibited by two resident artists and we scoff a tasty three-course meal for £5.50 in the owners' restaurant.

Unobtrusive care is in evidence (24-hour staff, lever-turn taps, electric windows and extra wide doors and hallways) but you do not feel you are incarcerated in a hospital wing. Service charges are not cheap - just over £80 a week - but extras like one-and-a-half hours of domestic cleaning a week for each apartment are included.

Another plus when you buy a home is getting an automatic share in the development. The owners make principal decisions like choosing the management company. The management side is a non-profit making scheme, as Bob Bessell, the chairman and founder of Classic Retirement Living, points out. "If you want extra cleaning, it costs £6.50 an hour compared to £13 at other places where they stick on extra charges."

Bessell believes we are on the cusp of change and private companies like his will soon be working in partnership with local authorities. "The Government's three biggest fears are cash, health care and housing and it is trying to find approaches to integrate all three. The vast majority of retirees can manage on six hours help a week. They are not the walking wounded."

Selling agent Victoria McCarrick of FPDSavills concurs: "Downshifting to a retirement property can be traumatic and events we have held like a cookery demonstration and wine tastings help people settle in. The residents here are incredibly bright and lively and have more energy than many half their age."

Two-bedroom apartments are available at the Chester Classic through FPDSavills on 0161 244 7700.