In 2006, the average price of a house in England and Wales broke through the £200,000 barrier for the first time ever. In the same year, the average price of a property advertised in the glossy pages of Country Life rose to £1.84 million on the back of soaring demand from big City bonus-earners, and a dwindling supply of trophy houses for sale.

With a reputed £8.8 billion due to be paid out in a fresh wave of bonus payments in the coming weeks, leading estate agents expect the market for prime country property to be hotter than ever this year. An analysis of properties sold through Country Life in 2006 identifies the 12 areas of the country most likely to feel the heat in 2007.

1. Guildford, Surrey
For 110 years, the towns and villages of the Surrey Hills, within a 15-mile radius of the cathedral city of Guildford, have been prime Country Life territory. Last year, the January bonus bonanza kick-started the spring market, with anticipation of even bigger bonus payments in January 2007 sustaining the market right up to Christmas. Demand outstripped supply and prices rose by 10%, a trend agents expect to continue well into this year.

Harry Turnbull of Strutt & Parker (01483 306565) comments: ‘Communi-cation is key to the perennial appeal of the Guildford area. Frequent fast trains to London (Guildford-Waterloo: 35 minutes), easy access to the M25 via the A3, and proximity to Heathrow and Gatwick airports make it a Mecca for high-flying City businessmen. Add an excellent choice of high-achieving schools, plus a wide choice of pretty villages, and you have the perfect lifestyle package for a London buyer.’ He kicks off the year with the launch of idyllic Millwater at Mill Lane, Ripley, seven miles from Guildford, at a guide price of £4.65m.

2. Cirencester, Gloucestershire
Anywhere within 15 miles of Cirencester is home ground for the hard-riding Gloucestershire set. Anthony Coaker of Savills (01285 627550) sets the scene: ‘The Coln Valley, taking in Coln St Aldwyns, Coln Rogers and Coln St Dennis, is our equivalent of Belgravia, where values increased by 10% in 2006. Beaudesert Park prep school at Minchinhampton is a magnet for London buyers. The artists’ town of Stroud is our Notting Hill, and will undoubtedly grow in favour as London tastes prevail; valleys leading into Stroud are already on the up.’ He is offering Grade II*-listed Dunkirk Manor at Amberley, near Stroud, at a guide price of £1.85m.

3. Newbury, Berkshire
Schools and horses, plus ease of access to London and Heathrow via the M4, are huge incentives for London buyers to set their sights on trendy west Berk-shire. Villages within 15 miles of Newbury can be a mixed bag, but downland villages such as Brightwalton, where Strutt & Parker (01635 521707) sold pretty Green Farm for £1.3m in recent months, offer a genuine country lifestyle and value for money, by today’s standards at least.

4. Oxford, Oxfordshire
Education?from high-chair to City desk ?is Oxford’s raison d’être. House prices in and around Oxford have surged in recent years on the back of demand from London parents wishing to send their children to the city’s Dragon prep school on a daily basis. Keen country-loving parents are drawn to the area by other high-profile schools such as Radley, Oxford High School, Headington School, St Edwards, Stowe, Cothill and Chandlings. Savills (01865 339700) are asking £1.85m for Park House at Kirtlington, 10 miles from Oxford city centre.

5. Bath, Somerset
Property prices around Bath, with its unique architecture and superb transport links, traditionally track at a higher and more stable level than other provincial West Country towns, says Ben Brown of Cluttons (01225 469511). He expects the unseasonal flurry of activity seen at the tail-end of 2006 to usher in another year of growth, with country-house prices in the area growing by up to 8%. New to the market at £1.1m is pretty Warleigh Fields Farm at Warleigh, five miles from Bath, and close to the city’s many excellent private schools.

6. Tunbridge Wells, Kent
Robert Jacobs of Savills (01892 507000) says: ‘With its sublime architecture, excellent commuter links, superb range of schools?both State and private?and excellent choice of varied and interesting town and village houses, Tunbridge Wells is a magnet for London buyers.’ For sale through Savills at £1.1m, Brownes House at Robertsbridge, East Sussex, is typical of the many pretty houses to be found in secret valleys around the town.

7. Winchester, Hampshire
With its famous College, choice of excel-lent preparatory and senior schools and cosmopolitan lifestyle, historic Winchester continues to be the destination of choice for buyers moving out of south-west London. Prices have rocketed in the city in recent years, as have those in the surrounding countryside. Savills (01962 834002) quote a guide price of £2.95m for the classic Queen Anne Clanville House at Clanville, 18 miles north of Winchester.

8. Cheltenham, Gloucestershire
The Regency spa town of Cheltenham, on the edge of the spectacular Cotswold escarpment, has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years, as London buyers push ever westwards. Yet prices of good country property within reach of the town’s famous squares, gardens, restaurants and schools are still significantly below those of nearby Cirencester. For instance, £2m will buy a substantial country house and 72 acres of land at Middle Hill Farm, Prescott, 6.5 miles from Cheltenham, through Knight Frank (01242 246959).

9. Taunton, Somerset
In 2006, the tranquil Taunton area was a major beneficiary of the relentless west-ward drive of Londoners, but many locals now see Somerset as a less frantic alternative to fashionable south Devon. People who buy in this part of the country tend to stay, trading both up and down as time goes on, says Brian Bishop of Jackson-Stops & Staff (01823 325144). Typical of the area is Howleigh House at Blagdon Hill, sold recently by Jackson-Stops for more than the £1.375m guide.

10. Worcester, Worcestershire
After some years in the doldrums, the cathedral city of Worcester is enjoying something of a renaissance, the effects of which are now filtering out into the surrounding countryside, says country-house agent Andrew Grant (01905 734735). Berkeley Homes’ imminent redevelopment of the former Worcester Porcelain factory will further revitalise the town, whose excellent schools already attract buyers from the West Midlands and beyond. Typical of the area is Grade II*-listed Lower Tundridge Farm at Suckley: Mr Grant invites ‘offers over £1.499m’.

11. Exeter, Devon
Richard Addington of Savills (01392 253344) comments: ‘The market for good-quality houses in and around Exeter has changed in the past five years, in as much as locals now compete with “incomers” for the best properties. The best town houses in Exeter now sell for more than £1m, with manageable rectories and small country houses in the surrounding villages going for much more. Savills quote a guide price of £850,000 for ‘idyllic’ Brick House with 7.5 acres at Mamhead, 10 miles from Exeter.

12. Salisbury, Wiltshire
Buyers who settle in the Salisbury area are looking for a more peaceful, less transient way of life, says Andrew Shakerley of Strutt & Parker (01722 344010) who saw prices in the favoured Wylye, Nadder, Chalke and Woodford valleys rise by 10% in 2006. Having recently sold a house in Wylye for ‘serious’ money, Strutt & Parker are offering White Cottage at Wylye at a guide price of £495,000.