Country houses for sale

The best places to live south of London, from charming rural villages to picture-perfect spots beside the sea

With more and more of us commuting two or three days a week, taking on a one or two-hour commute is no longer the blocker that it used to be — and that's opened up a wealth of new areas for those who want to live in the country but work in the metropolis. Many of those are charming villages and coastal areas to the south of London; Arabella Youens selects some of the best.

Hybrid working means that more of us are prepared to venture further out of the capital in search of a house. The countryside that lies to the south of London, taking in Kent, the Surrey Hills and the South Downs, has been a hunting ground for house buyers since the dawn of commuting, which was spearheaded by the opening of the London & Greenwich Railway in 1836 and oxygenated by the huge expansion of the network in the 1840s. Here, we hone in on the best areas within a one-to-two-hour train ride south of the capital.

This is part two of a series of articles looking at the new commuter hotspots. The first article looked at the best places to live north of London.

Canterbury and the Kent coast

As a general rule of thumb, property buyers will know that the further down the track you go, the lower the house prices will be. Although that’s generally true of the southern region, prices do creep up in certain areas, particularly along the south coast of Sussex, which is home to some of the most hotly contested real estate in the country.

Those who favour Kent are advised to look east of Canterbury, says Nick Rooke of Finn’s, part of the Mayfair Office network. ‘The service from Canterbury takes an hour to St Pancras — it gets busy. Whereas, going east, there is the choice of stations at Dover and Sandwich.’ The added bonus heading in this direction is that values start to go down quickly. ‘You get half as much again for your money compared with west Kent,’ says Mr Rooke. He adds that east Kent is well protected from the urban sprawl that has merged into the countryside elsewhere in the county and recommends the villages of Bishopsbourne (home to Gilda Bakery — ‘Daylesford quality at east Kent prices’), Wingham, Eastry, Woodnesborough, Chillenden, Goodnestone and Ash.

What you could get: Kent, £3.5 million

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The quiet village of Wickhambreaux, with its pretty green and excellent pub, was home to the late keyboardist and vocalist Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac for 25 years. At the opposite end of rock ’n’ roll is The Old Rectory, a Grade II*-listed Queen Anne house, which forms part of an idyllic and unchanged Kentish pastoral scene at the centre of the village. The current owners have updated and redecorated the whole house in recent years; it has eight bedrooms, a separate one-bedroom cottage and a swimming pool, gym and tennis court.
For sale with Strutt & Parker 

Moving to the coast, Margate retains its Bohemian crown, bequeathed (in part) by its resident artist Dame Tracey Emin. Joe Charlton of Strutt & Parker says the old town, with its artisan boutiques and cobbled squares, continues to attract creatives relocating from London, but those looking for more peace and quiet will head for the villages of Monkton and Minster. ‘Here, you can still access Margate station and everything on offer at the coast, but there’s a slower pace of life,’ says Mr Charlton. ‘You’ll have to go slightly further afield for good schooling,’ he warns. Expect to pay between £750,000 and £800,000 for a four-bedroom house with a garden.

The Kent kite-surfing scene is lively in Sandwich Bay and Turner’s beloved Thanet. ‘Of course, there’s great golf at Sandwich, too,’ says Mr Rooke. ‘And, if you WFH, there is always the opportunity for an early or late round when the courses are quiet — so much more fun than sitting on a train.’ Kent still holds onto a number of its grammar schools at Canterbury, Dover and Sandwich, as well as a good selection of private schools; among them are King’s Canterbury, Tonbridge, Sevenoaks and Benenden.

The charming high street in Rye, close to the Kent/East Sussex border.

Closer to Canterbury itself, Edward Church, who heads up the Strutt & Parker office in the city, recommends Wickhambreaux, Bridge (home to one of The Pig hotels) and Lower Hardres as examples of villages that come up time and again in searches. The latter is recommended for its farm shop and lovely walks. ‘Most of these villages tick all the boxes with country-house buyers. There is an abundance of cricket clubs, quaint churches with active communities and plenty of schools rated “outstanding” by Ofsted.’

Commuting from Rye on the East Sussex coast means changing trains at Ashford for the high-speed service, but it’s worth it, says Jason Stubbs of Phillips & Stubbs, also part of the Mayfair Office. For those who prefer the reliability of a direct line, he recommends the villages of Iden, Wittersham, Northiam, Stone and Appledore, which are all within a 20-to-40-minute cross-country drive of Ashford. ‘Good villages close to Rye include Winchelsea, Peasmarsh, Beckley and Udimore,’ adds Dominick Brown of buying agent Prime Purchase.

What you could get: Kent, offers over £2 million

Hammill Farm is Grade II-listed and regarded as one of east Kent’s most prestigious houses; it has been occupied by one family for nearly 60 years. Set in just over 2½ acres, the eight-bedroom house comes with an adjoining self-contained annexe, as well as a two-bedroom detached gardener’s cottage. The garden is home to a tennis court and outdoor pool and there is a party barn and indoor pool. Woodnesborough lies two miles west of the Cinque Port town of Sandwich and its train station.
For sale via Finn’s

Life here is spent outdoors. Camber Sands is one of the best sandy beaches on the south coast and also home to a big kite-surfing community. Meanwhile, Rye has grass tennis and padel courts and the links golf course. The area is packed with leading vineyards, including Gusbourne, Chapel Down, Oxney, Charles Palmer and Tillingham — many of which have cafés or restaurants attached.

West Sussex, Chichester and beyond

At the opposite end of the Sussex coast lies Chichester, where Andrew Richardson of Jackson-Stops says his office often sees a seasonal uptick in London buyers at this time of year. As the boats begin to shed their barnacles, the laid-back maritime vibe lures buyers to the villages that surround the harbour, including Bosham, Itchenor and Emsworth, with their sailing clubs and Swallows & Amazons lifestyles. ‘This used to be reserved for second homes, but, since the pandemic and the advent of home working, we’ve seen many families basing themselves here full time,’ explains Daniel Rowland of buying agent Garrington. ‘Most will choose to commute from Havant for fast and direct services. Chichester is lovely with its fantastic theatre and good shops, but it’s a long journey to London on the train.’

Anywhere with a water view will command a premium. ‘Family homes on the coast here usually have price tags well over £2.5 million,’ says Paul Machell of Strutt & Parker in Chichester. ‘This can often make the South Downs villages more appealing.’ He cites South Harting, Amberley and East Dean, home to The Star & Garter pub, as among the most popular. ‘They are far enough away from the coast to escape the hustle and bustle.’

What you could get: West Sussex, £4.25 million

Of all the Chichester harbour villages, Bosham is particularly known for having some of the best waterfront properties. This one, which dates from 1694 and has been redecorated by the current owners, was once the town hall, but is now a handsome five-bedroom, five-bathroom family house offering views of the harbour from almost all of the main rooms. A south-facing walled garden is an ideal spot for taking in the water activity; it overlooks Bosham Channel and includes paved pathways and terraces for outdoor eating and entertaining.
For sale via Strutt & Parker

There’s plenty going on here for those who aren’t into sailing, including polo at Cowdray and racing at Goodwood, which also has a country club and spa. ‘The Pig at Madehurst is a great venue to the north of Chichester,’ adds Russell Grieve of Knight Frank in Haslemere, just over the Surrey border. Although Westbourne House prep school and Prebendal both serve Chichester, parents looking for more independent school options will tend to travel either towards Portsmouth Grammar School or Churcher’s and Bedales in Petersfield, Hampshire.

The market town of Petersfield sits on the crossroads of the A3 and A272, making it easily accessible from all directions. Many in search of a country house will head west to the Meon Valley, says Mr Rowlands, and, if pushed, he’d choose East Meon and Hambledon as the most desirable. The latter is known as the cradle of cricket (where the rules were first established) and boasts a shop, café and strong community; East Meon has good pubs and excellent walks and is popular among cyclists.

Southampton to the New Forest

Few country-house buyers would actively choose to commute from Southampton station; it’s not easily accessible from outside the city. Most commuters will use Southampton Airport Parkway, where there is a direct service to Waterloo every half hour or so, says Fred Cook of Prime Purchase. ‘I live on the north-eastern corner of the New Forest and, when ever I go into London, I’m sharing the platform with a healthy number of commuters; it’s totally doable,’ he adds.

Mr Cook cites villages such as Brook, Bramshaw and Landford as offering the right blend of a New Forest location with an easy train commute from this station. ‘Lyndhurst is a wonderful place to live and also handy for the Southampton train, but it’s a tourist hotspot in the summer and hard to move during the weekends.’

What you could get: West Sussex, £3.95 million

Sidlesham is a small village on the Manhood Peninsula — the name is thought to have derived from the Old English for ‘woodland held in common’ and was once run by a separate judicial and administrative unit known as the Hundred — three miles south of Chichester. Grade II-listed Quay House occupies a prime position on the waterfront and, following a programme of refurbishment completed two years ago, features a vaulted kitchen breakfast room looking out over the saltmarshes and a separate two-bedroom former boathouse in the garden.
For sale via Knight Frank

Some agents recommend New Forest property hunters look at buying around the village of Brockenhurst, which has direct lines to London, the fastest of which take an hour and a half. That’s if you don’t get stuck behind ponies and donkeys walking along the road in front of you en route to the station. ‘One donkey used my wing mirror as a back scratcher the other day and didn’t care that I was keen to move on,’ says Mr Rowland.

There’s another reason to be wary of this route, adds Mr Cook: ‘It’s all wiggly lanes and the train is much slower in the section west of Southampton — and there’s limited parking at the station.’ There is a third option for those determined to base themselves in or near the New Forest, he adds. ‘If you head to the north-west corner, villages such as Godshill or Downton, you could then catch the train at Salisbury.’

The New Forest is a prime spot, but beware road-hogging equines en route to the station.