Pre-Christmas reports of massive bonus payments due to be paid to City high-rollers in February and March has elite estate agents rubbing their hands in glee. This year was very good for deal makers in the London stock market: shares soared by 15% from a low of 4783 in January 2005, to a four-year high of 5539 by late December on the back of a surge of merger and acquisitions activity, allied to strong dividend growth and high corporate earnings. City editors are forecasting further rises of 10?15% in 2006, with Dutch bank ABN Amro tipping the FTSE 100 index to hit 6200 by the end of the year only 750 points short of the record 6950 achieved on December 30, 1999.

It all adds up to a bumper year for City bonuses, with some 3,000 City bankers and brokers earning about £1 million each in 2005. The big investment banks Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, HSBC and Barclays Capital have all substantially increased the pot of money earmarked for pay and bonuses, with dozens of high-flyers set to pocket between £3m and £6m.

Dozens of top executives at smaller corporate finance firms are also set to receive multimillion pound payouts. And thousands of accountants at the top four accountancy firms KPMG, Ernst & Young, Pricewaterhouse Coopers and Deloittes (which tops the accountancy league with average earnings of £702,000 a year) will receive hefty bonuses on the back of record profits, reflecting huge demand for accountancy services, due to increased corporate red tape and regulation.

Another trend of particular significance for the UK country property market is the emergence of a new generation of high earners investment bankers, hedge fund managers, property developers and heads of private equity firms who are not based within the Square Mile. Thanks to the internet, London is no longer the geographical centre of the financial world, and successful provincial investment firms are now trading as far afield as Bristol, Bath, Nottingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle and Edinburgh.

So, as the country?s financial wealth spills out into the provinces, the country house map of England has altered in tandem. The revitalisation of provincial cities, especially in the north of England, has created ever expanding commuter belts around these major urban centres where country-property values can be as high as anywhere in the South-East.

A recent survey by Barclays Bank found that 24 of the top 50 ?real wealth? hotspots in England and Wales fell north of a line drawn between the Bristol Channel and the Wash. The ?wealth league? was based on the average gross income of people living in parliamentary constituencies throughout Britain, in relation to the cost of living in those areas. It is no coincidence that the areas of highest ?real wealth? (facing page) correspond to those where the demand is likely to be highest.

Good news travels fast, and business is booming for estate agents in Kensington and Chelsea, Britain?s richest borough. Tim Wright of Knight Frank?s Kensington office (020?7938 4311) saw a surge in demand for high value properties in Kensington, Notting Hill and Holland Park as far back as November, with bonus backed buyers ready to sell their £2m houses to buy new ones at up to £6m. Many have already exchanged, with completions scheduled for February or March.

With plenty of money about and top houses in short supply, Mr Wright can expect to find a ready purchaser for the very splendid 10, Cottesmore Gardens, W8, at a guide price of £8.95m. Designed by its architect owner, the house has four palatial reception rooms, a master suite, 4/5 further bedrooms, four bathrooms, two summer houses, plus every amenity known to City man.

?For City buyers, it is all about image and outdoing your peers,? says Ed Mead of Douglas & Gordon?s Chelsea office. In 2006, he expects to see the return of the ?mid-bonus? boy (or girl) reflected in a marked increase in enquiries for property priced at around the £1m mark. ?In addition to the CEOs and senior management at the top of the pile, those people further down the pecking order, who drive the merger-and-acquisition deals from the ?engine room?, will also be in line for hefty bonuses,? he adds.

Traditionally, Surrey has always been the first stop on the City buyer?s route out of London. In the exclusive enclaves of Esher, Walton and Weybridge, the market went ?absolutely haywire? on the run-up to Christmas, says Tim Ross of Savills in Esher, who agreed sales on eight houses priced at more than £1m during that period all to City buyers. With mergers and acquisitions reaching levels not seen since before the ?dot-com? collapse of 2000, ?this is just the tip of the iceberg,? Mr Ross believes.

Following the recent goldrush in St George?s Hill, only a handful of outstanding properties remain to tempt the New Year ?bonus buyers?. Tim Garbett of Knight Frank (01372 464496) has at least one of them. He quotes a guide price of £6.25m for secluded Ellesmere on Hill House Road, St George?s Hill, which has 10,556sq ft of palatial accommodation on three floors, and ?all the toys? such as a pool hall, a cinema, a gymnasium/ dance studio and a vast wine cellar.

According to Michael Parry-Jones of Strutt & Parker (01483 306565) people moving from the leafy boroughs of Rich-mond, Twickenham, Barnes and Wimble-don like to join their friends in the Surrey Hills, gravitating either towards Guildford (London-Waterloo, 35mins) or Haslemere, which has its own ?6.30 am City special?. After a year ?of mixed fortunes?, Mr Parry Jones finds himself short of houses to sell, due not just to pressure from City buyers, but because the mere talk of big City bonuses makes non-City buyers ?hop about a bit?. His New Year gift to the market is Norney Wood, a nine-bedroom Edwardian house with 21 acres at Shackleford, six miles south-west of Guildford for sale, for the first time in 55 years, at £2.75m.

Buyers in north-east Hampshire are getting younger by the year, says Mark Potter of Knight Frank in Basingstoke, who had a ?phenomenal? year in 2005, agreeing sales on £13m worth of houses in one week in September: buyers included ?City boys?, buyers from up north who had sold their businesses, and ?entrepreneurs who had made their money quickly?. ?Basingstoke offers a 42-minute commute, with seven or more fast trains an hour, so hotspots are any decent village within 20mins drive of the station.?

The Thames Valley towns of Shipley, Henley and Maidenhead have long been a magnet for high achievers, not just in the City, but in the headquarters of the pharmaceutical and high-tech companies which proliferate along the A3/M4 corridor. But to James Laing of Strutt & Parker ?the Thames is still a big old river beyond Oxford?. He advises canny City buyers to look at the Thames Valley between Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, notably around Faringdon, Wantage and Lechlade, where there is ?a wealth of stone-built rectories and farmhouses which are under-valued?.

Paul Grove of Lane Fox?s Cirencester office (01285 653101) saw the first signs of big bonus money to come, when he sold two Cotswold village weekend retreats to ?City boys?, one at £1.25m, the other at £1.5m. ?During the month of December alone, we registered 25?30% more cash buyers than in December 2004: all are looking for the typical village family house with a large kitchen/living area and within walking distance of the pub,? Mr Grove reports.

City high-flyers who buy first in Buck-inghamshire and Surrey, often sell and move further afield in their forties and fifties. With a journey time of 55 minutes from Rugby to London-Euston, Warwickshire is not for the ?early-bird? City brigade, but James Way of Knight Frank in Stratford-upon-Avon expects to see more well-heeled senior City figures buying in his neck of the woods.

The villages around Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick are established hotspots, with Leamington once again ?on the up? after a few years in the doldrums. An example of value-for-money in Warwickshire is Sherbourne Manor at Sherbourne, three miles from Warwick, a classic Georgian manor house set in 15 acres of parkland, for which Knight Frank (01789-262882) quote a guide price of £2.15m.

There is also good value to be found in the East Midlands, says Richard Trustram Eve of Strutt & Parker in Market Harborough, who recommends the constituencies of Rutland and Melton and Rushcliffe, Nottinghamshire, as sensibly priced alternatives to more fashionable areas of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Wiltshire.

Buyers tend to be split between City commuters who buy within reach of Market Harborough, Kettering, Grantham and Peterborough stations, or those with family connections in the area, who may also have attended Uppingham, Oundle or Oakham schools. Strutt & Parker (01858 433123) are currently offering the seven-bedroom, Georgian, Old Rectory at Willoughby Waterleys, 10 miles south-west of Leicester, at £1.1m.

As James Gloag of Strutt & Parker in Harrogate reminds me: ?Yorkshire people get some pretty large bonuses in major northern financial centres such as Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle; quite a few also work in London during the week and come home for long weekends?. The last couple of months have been ?more like old times? for Mr Gloag and his confrères in Harrogate, with the prices of good village houses in the prime Harrogate and Knaresborough and Ripon and Skipton constituencies creeping up into the £1.25m to £1.5m price bracket.

With increasingly restrictive planning policies keeping the supply of good new houses in short supply, Tim Waring of Knight Frank suggests that buyers look to lesser known areas such as the south-west fringes of the Peak District near Sheffield, the M62 corridor in David Davis?s Holtemprice & Howden constituency, and the Vale of York.

Across the Pennines in Cheshire, Tatton and Knutsford both rank high in the ?real wealth? league, thanks not just to the presence of leading sportsmen such as Andrew Flintoff and Wayne Rooney, but, as Jonathan Major of Strutt & Parker points out, to a high proportion of other high net worth individuals who have quietly made their mark in technology, telecommunications, finance and property development.

Wilmslow in the south of the county is also prime territory for canny northern deal makers, one of whom may just buy into the proposition put forward by Strutt & Parker (01244 320747) on behalf of the developer owner of the 10,000sq ft, Edwardian, Oakdene House in Wilmslow: he agrees to refurbish the house to the buyer?s specification for an agreed sale price of £4m.

TOP 30 AREAS OF ‘REAL WEALTH’

1. Kensington and Chelsea

2. Cities of London and Westminster

3. Tatton, Cheshire

4. Sheffield, Hallam

5. Hampstead and Highgate

6. The Cotswolds

7. Beaconsfield

8. Leeds North-East

9. Altrincham and Sale

10. Richmond Park

11. Macclesfield

12. Esher and Walton

13. Mole Valley, Surrey

14. South-West Surrey

15. Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire; Knutsford, Cheshire

16. Harrogate and Knaresborough

17. Hexham

18. West Derbyshire

19. Warwick and Leamington

20. Haltemprice and Howden, Yorkshire

21. Maidenhead

22. Rushcliffe, East Midlands

23. Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands

24. Woodspring, South-West

25. Vale of York

26. Cheadle, Cheshire

27. Bristol West

28. Rutland and Melton

29. North-East Hampshire

30. Skipton

This article was published in Country Life magazine, January 5, 2006

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