For locals ‘in the know’, the area along the Northamptonshire/Oxfordshire border to the west of the A5 and the east of the M40 has always been ‘special’, due to its unspoilt rural character, lack of main roads and pretty countryside?comparable, they insist, to many more fashionable parts of Oxford-shire and the Cotswolds.

For local agent Quentin Jackson-Stops (01604 632991), the area has two great advantages over the Cotswolds: easier access to London and Birmingham via the M40 or the M1, with the train journey from Milton Keynes to London a mere 40 minutes; secondly, proximity to a wide choice of preparatory and public schools in both counties. ‘The downside of the equation,’ Mr Jackson-Stops points out, ‘is stiff competition for the properties that do come to the market, as shown by the sale of Great House Close at Souldern, on the southern edge of the area, which was offered at £1.2 million in September and exchanged for more than the asking price just before Christmas.’

The correlation between schools and house prices, already a familiar theme in Country Life, has taken an intriguing twist in this part of the country, where previously most parents new to the area had their sights firmly fixed on Oxford’s most prestigious prep schools. But, thanks to a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes and reputation of Winchester House School in Brackley, Northamptonshire, since the arrival of its dynamic headmaster, Mark Seymour, in 2003, many have now switched their focus from south to north.

Estate agent George Philip is one of them. Having failed to secure places for their two boys at one of Oxfordshire’s best-known prep schools, he and his wife are delighted that they opted for Winchester House, which these days has a waiting list for almost every age group. The other major problem now facing prospective Winchester House parents is finding a house nearby, and latecomers will need to get their skates on to secure either of two good village houses launched by Lane Fox in recent weeks.

Built in the late 17th century in the coursed square marlstone typical of the area, The Green at Adderbury, three miles south of Banbury, is a handsome Georgian family house overlooking the green in this thriving North Oxfordshire village of 2,300 souls. Newly renovated throughout by its present owners, whose sole reason for sale is an unforeseen change in family circumstances, The Green has four reception rooms, seven bedrooms and three bath/shower rooms, a conservatory, a coach house, a barn and a pretty, secluded, rear walled garden. Lane Fox (01295-273592) quote a guide price of £900,000.

At a guide price of £775,000, The Old House at Thorpe Mandeville, Northamptonshire, six miles north-east of Banbury, is 10 minutes’ drive from Winchester House, and appears to offer excellent value for money by current standards. Another substantial, 18th-century, stone village house, it has four reception rooms, five bedrooms, a bath- room, a summer house and a charming walled garden, and has been modernised and extended with considerable flair.

Northamptonshire is somewhat blighted by a swathe of light industrial development running the length of the A45 from Thrapston to Northampton. But in this ‘county of squires and spires’, there are still some delightful small manor houses to be found lurking either side of major thoroughfares.

One of these is the exquisite, Grade II*-listed, Queen Anne Stanwick Hall, with more than 11 acres of gardens, grounds and paddocks in the village of Stanwick, eight miles north-east of Wellingborough. Built in about 1705 as the dower house to the surrounding Stanwick estate, the Hall has five reception rooms, seven bedrooms, three bathrooms and five basement rooms. It looks a bargain at £1.1m, but a new owner should be prepared to face bills in the order of a further £500,000 to restore this important house fully, says selling agent Craig Jordan of Knight Frank (01789 297735).