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March 30, 2012 10:04 pm
The UK has long been proud of its market towns. These historic settlements tend to have strong identities, active communities and – even in these days of global brands and identikit shopping malls – open-air food markets at least once a week.
Young families and retirees favour these places because they exemplify a gentler way of life than that on offer in the big cities, and yet have the shops, social infrastructure and transport that allow a form of self-sufficient living no longer viable in the depths of the countryside.
If one location typifies this 21st-century model destination, it is Ludlow, an 11,000-strong community some 160 miles north-west of London that dates from medieval times. The town sits on top of a hill in the county of Shropshire, which is located in England, but has views overlooking the border into Wales.
Walk Ludlow’s cobbled streets and you see its historic credentials: more than 500 mostly Tudor buildings have listed status to protect them from substantial change, and a medieval castle draws tourists throughout the year.
It is easy to spot Ludlow’s market status too. It has hosted open-air sales of cattle and foodstuffs since the 12th century but it has never had more markets than today. There is an open-air food and craft sale three days a week, Christmas markets in December and a monthly farmers market throughout the year, selling only food and drink produced within a 30-mile radius of the town.
Then there are the two annual food festivals: one is widely regarded by culinary aficionados as one of Britain’s best and routinely attracts visitors from Australia, Japan and mainland Europe, while the other celebrates the British sausage and other home-grown produce.
All these attractions have, in recent years, helped to fatten the profit margins of local estate agents. The website www.home.co.uk, which monitors house sales, says the average asking price of a three-bedroom house has risen from £191,600 to £220,000 during the 12 months to March 2012, a rise of 15 per cent; four-bedroom houses rose a more modest six per cent from £253,400 to £267,600.
“Prices are back to their 2007 peak, possibly above,” says Kevin Boulton of Strutt & Parker, an estate agency operating at the upper end of the market. Most of his clients are in their fifties or sixties, downsizing from large family homes, often in the south of England. “They have £850,000 to £1.25m to spend and want to get away from the busier part of the country,” he says.
That does not mean the market is large – although the value-for-money reputation is high, development is heavily restricted. In 2011 there were only six properties on the open market at £1.5m or above, and a mere 30 valued at more than £800,000.
Some of the largest homes on the market in and near the town are relatively modest. Orchard House, five miles outside Ludlow, is attractive and has five bedrooms but comes with only slightly more than an acre. It is on sale for £590,000 through Strutt & Parker. Castle Meadow has six bedrooms and is much closer to Ludlow’s centre but does not have substantial grounds either. It is on sale through Fine & Country for £720,000.
“A lot of nearby land is occupied by estates that never come to the market. The properties on them are either tenanted or pass from one generation of the owner’s family to another without ever troubling the open market. As a result, there’s often a waiting list of buyers from elsewhere hoping the right property comes up,” says Boulton.
A relative paucity of new homes – and local planners reluctant to allow many more, even if developers wanted to build – serves to exacerbate the situation.
“There has been development but planners have been scrupulous in their choice of sites, allowing small schemes in tucked-away places that become integrated in the town, rather than allowing a dormitory-type sprawl. Planners have extremely high expectations in terms of aesthetics and sustainability too, and this has been a contributing factor in keeping prices high,” says Jayne Perks of Stacks Property Search, a buying agency.
Those rigorous demands are likely to be met by the “earth shelter” recently given planning permission on a plot on the fringe of Ludlow. It will be on a one-acre site and the consent allows a 2,000 sq ft single-level home, sunken into a hillside. This may be one of the few homes built in the area in the near future and provides “an inspiring solution” to the peculiarly tight demands of planners, according to a spokesman for h2land, the development consultancy that came up with the design.
As a result of the overall shortage of homes, the canniest buyers go to extremes to get what they want. One house in Broad Street, a gentle hill near the town centre and widely considered to be Ludlow’s most prestigious address, was sold in 2002 but its buyers – wanting it for their retirement – did not move in until late 2011, letting it out in the interim.
“That’s not unusual. People often buy here for later life but they know the best houses sell infrequently, so they plan ahead,” says Kevin Boulton. “They will either buy early, as in this case, and rent out, or rent themselves within the town, ready to buy whenever anything becomes available.”
Rival bidders? High-quality building? Too few homes available? Such refrains are rarely heard outside the heady housing market of London these days. In Ludlow, however, they are par for the course.
● Self-sufficient town with the facilities of a much larger location
● Year-round buzz thanks to festivals, tourism and markets
● Close access to large areas of English and Welsh countryside
● It can be very crowded when festivals take place
● Trips to Birmingham and, especially, London can be long and, on the train, expensive
● The town has been cut off during extreme winter weather
What you can buy for ...
£100,000 A modern one-bedroom retirement apartment, eligible only for over-55s, on the edge of town
£1m A unique medieval townhouse in the centre of Ludlow, around 3,500 sq ft, listed and packed with original features, or a large six-bedroom farmhouse with 20 acres of land outside the town
●Strutt & Parker www.struttandparker.com
●Stacks Property Search www.stacks.co.uk
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