Country houses for sale

A hip Arcadia: the draw of the east Somerset countryside

The east Somerset countryside has become as fashionable as it is beautiful and this is drawing growing numbers of London buyers, says Carla Passino.

A new spark is lighting up the east Somerset countryside, from Frome and Shepton Mallet down to Bruton. ‘We’ve seen a huge surge in popularity and the market has remained strong, even in the run-up to the referendum,’ says Philip German-Ribon of Jackson-Stops & Staff.

The mosaic of tidy fields and open grassland that stretches at the foot of the Mendips has always been a draw for property buyers, who appreciate the scenic backdrop of ancient villages, towns and river valleys as much as the excellent local schools and good transport links. ‘Unlike further down, this area is reasonably accessible,’ notes Quintyn Howard-Evans of Cooper & Tanner. Plus, adds Mr German-Ribon, the choice of local schools is superb: ‘You have Millfield, King’s Bruton, Downside and Sherborne and some very good preps such as Hazlegrove, Sherborne Prep and Perrott Hill.’

In the past five years, this idyllic corner of Somerset has become increasingly trendy, fuelling buyers’ interest. Mr Howard-Evans attributes this buzz partly to the success of the Kilver Court shopping village, near Shepton Mallet, and the Hauser & Wirth gallery, on the outskirts of Bruton, and partly to a crop of dynamic local councils driving the area forward. ‘The councils recognise the need to reach beyond the local community—for example, all the local towns have good broadband.’

As for Kilver Court, he continues, ‘it’s really very good—an interesting, independent centre, full of designer shops’. Touted as the new Bicester, the shopping village, which was opened in 2011 by Mulberry founder Roger Saul, not only houses 40 brands as diverse as Pringle, Mulberry and Jack Wills, but also has magnificent gardens and a garden nursery featuring a flamingo island. About eight miles away, the Hauser & Wirth gallery, which showcases the work of modern and contemporary artists such as Martin Creed and Pipilotti Rist, has quickly become the area’s cultural hub since it opened two years ago. Alongside temporary exhibitions and artist residencies, the gallery also has an exceptionally good restaurant, the Roth Bar & Grill, which is an attraction in its own right. ‘It has interesting artwork on the walls, big installations outside and great food,’ explains Mr Howard-Evans.

Together with At the Chapel, a bakery and restaurant set in a converted chapel in Bruton, the Roth Bar & Grill has helped put east Somerset on Britain’s foodie map. ‘People come all the way from London to eat at those restaurants,’ according to Mr German-Ribon.

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This combination of food, culture, shopping and technology is proving irresistible to London property buyers —particularly those in the creative industries. Most are selling their London home to buy a pied-à-terre in the capital and a house in Somerset, although some prefer to keep their base in London and get a weekend cottage in the area. ‘It’s a complete mixture,’ says Mr German-Ribon. ‘We are selling a lot of properties in Bruton, but also family homes with a bit of land in the villages.’

Mr Howard-Evans finds that incomers tend to settle into the towns, whereas those who have already lived in Frome or Shepton Mallet for a time often move into the neighbouring villages: ‘It’s about perception: if you’ve lived in London, Shepton probably feels very small. And the towns here all have a strong community feel, with carnivals and amateur-dramatic societies.’

Such is the popularity of the local towns with incoming buyers that it’s almost erased the price gap with the surrounding countryside, according to Mr Howard-Evans. ‘The villages used to be rather more expensive, but now, there’s almost no difference.’ Nonetheless, the entire area remains very affordable compared with London and the South-East: ‘A four-bedroom Victorian town house costs about £450,000 in Frome and £380,000 in Shepton Mallet.’ Mr German-Ribon has also noticed a real appetite for houses priced at £850,000 to £1.1 million.

Frome is the most popular town, followed by Castle Cary, which has a good railway link into London Paddington (90 minutes). Bruton is also becoming a hotspot and Shepton Mallet offers good value. Wells, with its 12th-century cathedral, tends to appeal to older buyers, according to Mr Howard-Evans. Among the villages, Mr German-Ribon mentions Batcombe, in the River Alham valley, as particularly sought-after. ‘It’s 10 minutes from Bruton and very pretty. Houses there sell like hot cakes.’