Property: Hot Spot - St Albans: Near the madding crowd

Robert Liebman
Friday 14 May 1999 23:02 BST

It's twinned with Nevers, Worms, Odense and Nyiregyhaza (in France, Germany, Denmark and Hungary respectively) and enjoys a "friendship link" with Sylhet, in Bangladesh - but the cathedral city of St Albans is really the Hertfordshire equivalent of Kent's Bromley or Surrey's Guildford.

All are sufficiently far from London to be green and quasi-rural but they also enjoy the benefits of an exceptional rail service. St Albans seems nearer the City and West End than many towns which are actually much closer to the capital.

With a population of 55,000, St Albans has its own theatres, art and cultural centres as well as a wide assortment of local shops and the usual multiples.

The town dates back to Roman times, when it was known as Verulamium, and it has the ruins to prove it. The imposing 10th-century cathedral, built in part with Roman stone, lures pilgrims as well as tourists.

These days, St Albans has diverse housing stock, appealing to singles as well as growing families and retirees. "The town attracts Londoners who come mostly for the schools, the clean air and transportation. It is only 18 minutes to central London via Thameslink," says Robbie Muston, the assistant manager of Connell estate agents and a St Albans resident.

The Victorian terraces in the town-centre conservation areas were clearly designed for another era, namely the Victorians. On some roads, houses are crammed together with little garden space to the rear and none at all to the front on streets where even the space for pavements has been grudgingly conceded.

"These roads were designed for horses, not cars," says Mr Muston. "St Albans had many print works, and these houses were for print workers."

Considerably less sardine-like are the areas away from the centre, where large detached houses and chalet-style bungalows are available on sizeable plots. Many houses have been converted to flats, and the area also contains numerous purpose-built apartment blocks.

But there is some bad news, namely that demand far outstrips supply: "Our mailing list has more than 2,000 names and only 150 properties are available," says Mr Muston.

To meet the demand, developers are regularly converting obsolete hospitals and other brownfield sites. Try Homes sold out its apartments but some town houses remain at their centrally located St Peter's Square, which was originally a bus station. Prices start at pounds 279,950.

Bryant's 75-unit Maple Heights and 63-unit Abbotswood occupy former hospital sites. The latter is part of Highfield Park, where Laing has built 41 detached houses on the site of the erstwhile Cell Barnes Hospital.

This development includes social housing and a new park that, when complete, will have extensive community and sports facilities, a wildflower meadow, a formal garden, and footpaths and cycleways linked to the housing areas. The David Wilson Homes here have already been sold.

Linden Homes has one four-bedroom and six three-bedroom town houses available next to the River Ver. Prices start at pounds 235,000. "The apartments sold out almost immediately, about half to investors," says Nicola Ellwood, a Linden sales negotiator. A St Albans resident, she says that "this area is expensive but justifiably so, because of the rail and motorway access, and it is very rural still."

The Low-Down

Properties and prices: Two-bed flats sell for pounds 110,000 in the town centre and for pounds 85-pounds 90,000 further out. Three-bedroom semi-detached houses sell for pounds 180,000-pounds 200,000, and very large houses are priced in excess of pounds 600,000. Halifax is selling a three-bedroom Victorian terrace in St Albans for pounds 109,950 and similarly priced three-bed houses in good condition two miles out in London Colney.

Rail and Road: Thameslink service from the main rail station links St Albans with Luton Airport (16 miles), the City and Gatwick Airport. The Abbey Flyer from a separate station shuttles to Watford, linking with Euston. The city is surrounded by the M1, M25, A1(M) and M10, bringing Heathrow (28 miles) and Stansted (42 miles) in range.

Shopping: St Albans has a street market on Wednesday and Saturday dating from 1553. It also has two shopping precincts, Christopher Place and the Maltings, but estate agent Robbie Muston admits that "we could do with some department stores". The St Albans website lists more than 50 restaurants (including chippies and burger and doner-kebab joints), and about 35 pubs ( "For young people the social life is very good," says Mr Muston.

Schools: The St Albans City and District area contains more than 50 primary schools, 12 secondaries, Oaklands College and the University of Hertfordshire.

Parking: A controlled parking scheme comes into effect next month. First permit will cost pounds 40, the second pounds 80, and the third pounds 180. Band D council tax is pounds 764.

Bring Me the Head... of Alban: Third-century pagan soldier who, for protecting and then being converted by a Christian priest, was beheaded, becoming a saint and England's first martyr. The Abbey is the location of the beheading. Verulamium Museum, Verulamium Theatre, and the City Museum commemorate St Albans' Roman past.

Contacts: Connell, 01727 856781; Halifax, 01727 845000; Bryant, 01727 830157 (Maple Heights) or 01727 812855 (Abbotswood); Laing, 01727 838918; Linden, 01727 875599; Try, 01727 844080.

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