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June 29, 2012 6:53 pm
The town of Royal Tunbridge Wells is considered by many as an outpost of old-fashioned British values but its streets reveal a much more modern story – one of estate agents competing in a strong, high-value housing market on the edge of London’s commuter belt.
The town of 45,000 residents and the surrounding Kent countryside is serviced by no fewer than 60 estate agents. Around 20 of them handle properties selling in excess of £1m and buying agents – de rigueur for purchasers in central London today but rarely spotted in the commuter belt – are out in force, according to sellers.
The reason behind this market buoyancy, even during a wider downturn, is the town’s remarkable attractiveness and its proximity to central London, some 35 miles away. The town has four large, well-maintained parks; its streets are quiet on weekdays as most households have at least one member commuting to London; and it is very well-preserved with crescents rivalling Bath Spa for Regency splendour and many streets with Victorian and Edwardian houses still displaying wrought-iron fencing and balconies.
This is England as many like to think of it, creating a fondness for the town among traditionalists and earning it a reputation as a bastion of conservatism. Its genteel manners and nostalgic feel certainly add cachet to the housing market.
Hometrack, a property analytics business, says an average four-bedroom house in the town is £497,000 – far above the levels of most other locations in Kent or the neighbouring county of East Sussex. Larger houses are typically priced over £1m. Rail fares are expensive too: a first-class annual season ticket to London is £6,748 and the town’s station is one of the few in the country where it costs more than £1,000 a year just to park a car.
Most people moving in are therefore affluent and their reasons for choosing Tunbridge Wells – the “Royal” is dropped by locals, even in this diamond jubilee year – are familiar enough across south-east England. They seek more green space than is available in London suburbs, along with good commutability and access to respected private or state schools. Buyers can purchase in the town itself or choose from several sought-after villages within a few miles’ radius.
The areas around the four parks attract attention too: “Town buyers tend to covet houses in or near Calverley, Camden, Hungershall and Nevill Parks because of their architectural quality,” says Andrew Harwood of estate agents Knight Frank. Homes proven to have been designed by Decimus Burton, the 19th-century architect whose style dominates streets close to the parks, attract a premium. Savills is marketing what it calls “a Decimus Burton beauty” near Calverley Park – 3,195 sq ft of space plus front and rear gardens – for £2.25m.
Fernclyffe House is a Regency villa in central Tunbridge Wells built by Burton’s protégé William Willicombe in the 1850s. It has eight bedrooms, a one-bedroom integrated apartment and an acre of grounds, and is on sale for £3.6m through Knight Frank.
A more rural environment can be found in the pretty villages of Penshurst, Speldhurst, Bidborough, Brenchley and Wadhurst. In all these locations the most favoured homes are classic Kentish designs with local vernacular features such as red fish-scale tiles running along the upper outer walls, or 17th to 19th-century oast houses with conical roofs once used for drying locally harvested hops.
Knight Frank is selling an oast house with more than 4,000 sq ft of space and five acres at Brenchley, about seven miles from central Tunbridge Wells (£1.495m).
Among recent new-builds are two faux Arts and Craft-style houses, each with six bedrooms and built by DeVoysey Fine Homes close to Southborough Common, a 70-acre swathe of woodland situated a short drive from the centre of Tunbridge Wells, on sale through Savills from £2.35m.
“We find buyers of top-end houses almost invariably move here from London, often places like Belsize Park or Hampstead Heath where they’ve had a touch of countryside and open space but now want more,” says Anji Perkins of Pavilion Relocation, a buying agency based in Tunbridge Wells.
This well-heeled town, though, has heavy-duty vehicle noise while many nearby villages and towns like Tenterden are effectively bisected by busy roadways. For many such noise is a price worth paying to live both close to London and on the edge of rural Kent. With all that bustling traffic, perhaps Tunbridge Wells is not as sleepy as it is made out.
● Close to London
● Unusually attractive
● Expensive housing
● Commuting makes the town feel empty
● Traffic overload
What you can buy for ...
£100,000 A studio flat or a one-bedroom, shared ownership flat
£1m A six-bedroom detached house with small grounds
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