This time last year, the London-based crime writer Martin Bodenham and his wife, Jules, were faced with a problem — where to live next?
‘Even before Covid, London was becoming too impersonal, like a city full of strangers,’ says Martin, 60, whose latest novel, Crime And Justice, was published in August.
‘So we looked at smaller places such as Stratford and Exeter, before settling on Bath, which we love. It feels less transient here. And culturally, it punches well above its weight.’
Pretty day trip: Helmsley on the North York Moors is just 20 miles from York
Martin’s predicament is a common one, exacerbated by Covid. The career-change company, Escape the City, claims 51 per cent of its new clients want to leave London compared with 20 per cent in 2019.
A few of these buyers are perfectly happy with rural isolation; others do not want to turn their backs completely on city comforts.
‘Most of my clients would feel insecure if they were more than 15 minutes away from a decent latte,’ says James Greenwood, a property search agent with Stacks (stacks.co.uk).
‘I point them towards the funkier country towns such as Stroud, Totnes or Abergavenny. Ledbury and Cheltenham are also buzzing, yet they’re only a few miles away from beautiful countryside.’
Here are three ‘funky country towns’ and small cities that are sure to be much sought-after in these ever-changing times.
The Wiltshire market town of Marlborough is ideally positioned for those, like Alistair Greener, who work from home but need to be in London once a week. He simply drives 15 minutes to Pewsey, from where he is in Paddington in 75 minutes.
‘Yet Marlborough doesn’t have the impersonal feel of a commuter town,’ says Alistair, 57, a presentation coach. ‘It is set in real countryside, with rolling hills and working farms; it’s not manicured.’
Marlborough, reputedly with the widest High Street in the country, has a market twice a week and high-end independent shops and chain stores. Polly Tea Rooms are as twee as they sound, and classy restaurants include Dan’s and Rick Stein’s.
There are literary and jazz festivals too, but the town’s jewel in the crown is its schools.
Not everyone can fork out the £30,000-plus for annual fees at Marlborough College – the alma mater of the Duchess of Cambridge and Jack Whitehall – but St John’s Secondary School is ranked outstanding. A three-bedroom semi-detached house will cost in region of £350,000.
York used to be a favourite city for ‘homers’ – northern retirees returning to their roots having made a tidy penny down south.
Nowadays, it is also the occasional commuters who work most days from home, who move to the city in droves. It makes sense.
The fastest trains can speed them into King’s Cross in less than two hours. Leeds is only 25 minutes by rail.
The attractions of the city, with its charming cobbled lanes and imposing Minster are plain to see.
‘It is a small city with a safe, family feel to it,’ says Nick Talbot of Jackson-Stops (jackson-stops.co.uk). ‘Within an hour, you can be in the pretty market town of Helmsley on the North York Moors or in the Howardian Hills.’
Before the pandemic struck, York was also a hive of culture, with its Great Yorkshire Fringe festival, the revamped Theatre Royal and York Art Gallery. Fulford School is a top comprehensive and there are some renowned independents.
The average price of a semi last year was £268,000. A terrace house cost £265,000 and a detached was £387,000.
Busy, little Truro
Some may imagine that a pretty Cornish coastal town like Padstow would make the ideal place to enjoy family life.
But Ben Standen, of Jackson-Stops, reckons that Truro is preferable.
‘It’s a year-round, busy little city, not a seasonal resort,’ says Ben. ‘It offers all manner of sports, the north coast surfing beaches are only ten miles away and you have sailing nearby on the Fal.’
Although its cobbled alleyways and its Georgian and Victorian architecture will be untouched, Truro is undergoing a revamp.
The Hall for Cornwall theatre is closed for a £20 million refurbishment and Prince Charles is behind a new development of 90 Georgian-style houses being built near Waitrose. There are excellent schools.
As for communications, Truro is about four-and-a-half hours to London Paddington. ‘The trains also link to Penzance and Plymouth so teenagers don’t feel cut off from the rest of the world,’ says Standen.
The average price of a Truro semi-detached last year was £256,000.
On the market… compact but lively