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Thomas Hardy described Salisbury as “a quiet and soothing place, almost entirely ecclesiastical in its tone”. At least that is how the novelist described “Melchester”, his 19th-century literary incarnation of the historic Wiltshire city, in Jude the Obscure. Those who have recently admired the splendour of Salisbury’s medieval cathedral – gazing skyward at what remains the highest church spire in Britain – might concede the observation.
Situated to the south of Salisbury Plain, north of the New Forest and about an hour’s drive from the coast, Salisbury also has direct rail links to London, Southampton, Bristol and Wales, as well as easy access to attractive countryside.
Yet it is the concentration and range of educational establishments that really drives this small city’s property market. High-performing state schools include the league-topping grammars South Wilts Grammar School for Girls and Bishop Wordsworth’s School (for boys), while independent city centre options include the coeducational preparatory school Chafyn Grove and Godolphin, a public school for girls. Sherborne, Marlborough College and St Mary’s in Shaftesbury are popular boarding school choices slightly further afield.
In 2013, prices for prime property in Salisbury rose 1.9 per cent, outperforming prime homes in much of southern England, according to Savills. The market for family homes close to central schools is particularly resilient, says Lucinda Dale, an associate in Savills’ Salisbury office.
“Salisbury is very strong for schools and parents are increasingly reluctant to be a taxi driver for their kids, doing four different school runs,” she says. “The town market has been stronger than the more rural areas during the past couple of years. There’s now a slight shortage of houses available so we have frustrated buyers who are not able to find what they’re looking for.”
The city’s most desirable properties are located in Cathedral Close, the 40-hectare area surrounding the cathedral. Originally built to house the clergy, its apartments and houses date from the 13th to the 20th century and include designs by Sir Christopher Wren. Today, 144 of the 179 residences are leased by the cathedral. Former Conservative prime minister Sir Edward Heath lived at Arundells, a part-medieval house with a Queen Anne façade, located at number 59, from 1985 until his death in 2005.
“The Close is the most amazing place,” says Edward Cunningham, a partner in Knight Frank’s country department. “If you’re downsizing from an estate, these are big places with high ceilings so you can hang your paintings and so on. Of course everything’s within walking distance, yet you’ve got this amazingly secluded square.”
Properties in Cathedral Close are rarely put up for sale – the most recently available detached freehold house sold for £1.2m in 2005. “People who move in don’t tend to move out unless they’re in a box [coffin] or they need to downsize. Otherwise, they upsize within the Close. It’s very exclusive,” says Dale, adding, however, that Savills has begun marketing a leasehold four-bedroom Elizabethan townhouse on the Close, with cathedral views, for £1.15m.
Less than a mile to the south lies Harnham, an affluent neighbourhood popular with professionals. “It’s on the hill looking down at the cathedral spire. You can pick yourself up a very nice four- to five-bedroom family house, in a good street, for between £600,000 and £700,000,” says Simon Powell, director of Chesterton Humberts in Salisbury.
Buyers must be ready to move relatively fast. Towards the end of 2013 it took Strutt & Parker less than a month to sell a four-bedroom house in Harnham, which had been in the same ownership for 50 years, for its £600,000 asking price. “It went very quickly and is a good example of a buoyant town market,” says partner Andrew Grice. Meanwhile, Chesterton Humberts is selling River House, a modern five-bedroom house just over a mile from the city centre, for £1.25m. Flowing through its 0.6 acre south-facing garden is the Nadder, one of five rivers that converge in Salisbury. Several outbuildings include a games room and a self-contained annex suitable for a relative or housekeeper.
Agents report that the market has picked up since last summer, and predict this year will see a further injection of pace as the improving economy encourages more vendors to sell. Particularly notable is the resurgence of interest from London buyers looking for both family and second homes. “The gap’s never been wider between what you can buy in the country for the same money as what you will get in London,” says Savills’ Dale.
The growth in the number of employers who are willing to allow flexible working has increased Salisbury’s appeal, making it desirable to those who might spend just a day or two in London each week.
Three miles west of Salisbury in the market town of Wilton, Savills is selling Wilton Place for £3.95m. The agent says the recently restored Georgian house was built for the Olivier (as in Sir Laurence) family, who were glove manufacturers. Set in two acres of landscaped gardens it has seven bedrooms, a wine cellar, gym, sauna and separate guest annex.
Those seeking a weekend retreat might be tempted by Keepers Cottage in Upper Woodford, a pretty thatched property with three bedrooms, on sale with Savills for £695,000. The popular village is set in a lightly wooded valley five miles north of Salisbury and six miles from the A303 dual carriageway, which feeds the M3 motorway.
It may be slightly less “quiet and soothing” than in Hardy’s day, perhaps, but a lot more convenient.
● Train journeys from Salisbury to London Waterloo take about 90 minutes. Other direct routes include Bristol (50 minutes), Southampton (32 minutes) and Cardiff (two hours)
● Crime fell 29 per cent in the two years to September 2013
● Popular outdoor pursuits in the area include shooting at Ashcombe Park, racing at Salisbury, and walking on Salisbury Plain
What you can buy for . . .
£650,000: A family home in Harnham with views of the cathedral
£2.35m: An eight-bedroom mill house with several outbuildings and double-bank fishing
£18.5m: A restored Grade II-listed manor house, set in 1,000 acres