Worcester : A sleepy city starts to wake up

With its cricket matches in the shadow of the cathedral and links to Sir Edward Elgar, Worcester is the archetypal English city. But new developments are making it increasingly cosmopolitan
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Worcester is a small city with a big river. Too big, sometimes. The broad, majestic Severn moves with a glazed sluggishness in the summer months.

Worcester is a small city with a big river. Too big, sometimes. The broad, majestic Severn moves with a glazed sluggishness in the summer months. Swans bob about in the wash from passing motor boats as ripples of applause greet another Graeme Hick boundary at the cricket ground on the opposite bank from the cathedral. But during periods of prolonged rain, the river can burst its banks and turn the groundsman's greensward into a lake. The racecourse becomes more suitable for rowers than jockeys and the residents of nearby Victorian terraces find themselves baling out their cellars.

Since the floods of November 2003, however, there has been a major investment in flood defences. Two national developers are pressing ahead with waterside schemes in an area known as Diglis Basin - but only after agreeing to a raft of flood-protection measures, in the case of Taylor Woodrow. The company hopes to complete by the end of the year a scheme that will include 450 apartments. The Berkeley Group have applied for planning permission to redevelop the Royal Worcester porcelain works. Permission has been granted for the adjoining Albion Mill. In the pipeline are some 400 apartments, as well as offices and a hotel.

"Waterside" in this case has more to do with the Worcester-Birmingham Canal. Nonetheless, the close proximity of the river was a major factor in persuading the group to invest.

"We took one look at that view and we knew we had to have it," says Rameen Firoozan, Berkeley's regional managing director, gesturing down the lush banks towards a distant spire. As a symbol of enduring Englishness it is difficult to beat.

A mile or two from the birthplace of the composer Sir Edward Elgar, Worcester is an attractive if, hitherto, rather sleepy city. Five years into the 21st century, however, there are signs of an awakening.

"We're on the brink of a renaissance in terms of development opportunities," the city council leader Stephen Inman recently told a group of West Midlands movers and shakers.

The city's population is just over 93,000 - an increase of nearly 20,000 over the past 20 years. But many of the incomers live on estates close to the M5, handy for commuting the 30 miles to Birmingham. Only in the past two or three years have brownfield sites for residential development become available. Long-established industries have either moved to the edge of town, where business parks are bristling with new enterprises, or they are manufacturing abroad and downsizing.

"There are a lot of architectural gems that need to be brought out now that the works are no longer of value to them," Firoozan enthuses as he strides through his new acquisition, pointing out "a stunner of an elevation" here and "detailed brickwork" there.

The Berkeley Group bought the site from a local developer, Neil Grinnall, who kick-started city living in Worcester two years ago. His 23 apartments in a new-build canalside development, Diglis Court, almost sold out within hours of going on sale.

"They were queueing round the block," James Wilson, associate of the agents Knight Frank, recalls. At the time, they were going for between £160,000 and £170,00. Knight Frank has a two-bedroomed apartment back on the market today for £205,000.

Another £25,000 will buy you a three-bedroomed townhouse on the nearby Bath Road complex, another Grinnall Homes development. At the time of writing, there were three left as well as five apartments, including a penthouse with a balcony looking towards the Malvern Hills. Grinnall is building another 23 town houses and apartments in and behind the Grade II-listed former headquarters of Kay's, the mail-order company.

The facade looks out over the Tything, a bustling thoroughfare leading out of the city centre, bordered by delightful squares of Georgian and Victorian villas.

"It's the most exclusive part of Worcester," says Kristian Stott of the agents Andrew Grant, "and very few properties come on the market." He has a Victorian town house in St George's Square for £555,000 and a Regency residence in Britannia Square with a guide price of £625,000. Both have five bedrooms.

Grant's are sole agents for the Hop Warehouse in the Arboretum, a cosmopolitan area. Twelve apartments should be ready for occupation by the end of July in a handsome red-brick pile. The architect, Tim Oakley, has restored and fitted it out to a high-specification while incorporating many original features. "One of the first buyers," he says, "was a 65-year-old bloke and his partner of 30 years. They paid £250,000 for a penthouse."

Who said city living had to be the preserve of the young and single?

Hop Warehouse apartments, from £141,000 to £280,000, are on sale through Andrew Grant (01905 734736). Knight Frank (01905 723438) are handling sales at Grinnall Homes' developments at Bath Road, Diglis Court and the K1 and K2 projects in the former headquarters of Kay's.