Last month, the Essex town of Chelmsford was awarded city status as part of The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Local politicians cheered the news, saying that it put ‘Chelmsford and Essex on the map’. In the property world, Chelmsford marks the first attractive country town on the A12 corridor that runs up to Norfolk. For City workers, it has long been an alternative to Guildford as a commuter base, and is arguably a better location because of the fast trains that travel direct into Liverpool Street in 36 minutes.
But first, country-house buyers need to get over the mental hurdle of buying in Essex. ‘There’s really no need for the bad press around Essex,’ explains Sarah Broughton of buying agents Prime Purchase (01284 788306). ‘Much of it’s really quite beautiful and undulating.’ There are some ugly areas, she admits, ‘but there are also some very unspoilt parts, and Chelmsford and Colchester are both very attractive.’
Guy Jenkinson of Bidwells (01245 250998) says that it’s the ‘necklace’ of villages around Chelmsford that traditionally lures country-house buyers out of London. ‘Places such as Little Baddow, Danbury, Stock and Ingatestone are very popular stockbroker villages, which attract the banking fraternity and City-based workers.’
In these locations, the best-in-class houses will be priced at between £3 million and £4 million, and in Fryerning, perhaps the most expensive of all the neighbouring villages, the absolute top-drawer houses can go for £5 million, and are often sold off-market. But over the past few years, the flow of buyers with this level of power in their wallets has thinned to a trickle. ‘People are nervous about being too far from their desks,’ explains Mrs Broughton. ‘I’ve got a client at the moment who isn’t sure exactly where he wants to be, but one thing he’s very conscious of is time on the train.’
According to Jeremy Small-man of Jackson-Stops & Staff in Chelmsford (01245 467468), a light is beginning to appear at the end of this tunnel. ‘At last,’ he cries, ‘we’re beginning to see some London young again. We haven’t seen many in the past three years, but we’re about to exchange on two properties whose buyers both come from south-west somewhere in London.’
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Mr Smallman estimates that 80% of what they sell will be to commuters, many of whom will be jumping on the train into the City or driving down to Canary Wharf-or even getting on the Central Line at Epping. ‘Unlike London, which has boomed in the past few years, we’ve yet to see the benefit on house prices in the area. Values have remained fairly flat over the past few years, so, as a result, we’re very cheap when compared to the capital.’
There is a good collection of Edwardian and Victorian family houses in the new city, which are priced between £850,000 and £1 million, and the same money will buy a four- to five-bedroom farmhouse with a few acres in the surrounding country-side-considerably less than what an equivalent house might cost in the classic commuter-belt countryside of Surrey and Hampshire. ‘We’re really a poor relation of the Home Counties, but this part of Essex has so much going for it,’ enthuses Mr Smallman.
The area is particularly attractive to parents who want to take advantage of the excellent State schools-Essex is one of the few counties remaining to still use the 11-plus exam. ‘The level of education here is outstanding,’ explains Antony Bromley-Martin of Strutt & Parker in Chelmsford (01245 254606). ‘There are seven grammar schools, two of which are in Chelmsford, and they consistently rank among the top 10 in the country in the league tables.’
Chelmsford County High School for Girls and King Edward VI Grammar saw a significant jump in entrance applications in 2008 after the credit crunch. ‘It’s a saving of £30,000 a year per child, so it’s quite a consideration,’ adds Mr Smallman. Buyers wanting to take advantage of the educational opportunities tend to ‘hot house’ their children in prep schools to prepare them for the 11-plus. ‘And if they don’t want to go down the State route in the end, there are public schools, including Felstead, within easy reach of Chelmsford.’