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Most visitors to the tiny Cornish village of St Mawes can see why its housing market has emerged from the downturn relatively unscathed, even as property prices in neighbouring places remain depressed.
The village, with a permanent population of only 850, is on a beautiful hillside in the Roseland peninsula giving many properties uninterrupted water views, sometimes on two sides. For boat owners it is near Falmouth and Mylor, two of southern Cornwall’s sailing havens, while gastronomes are no more than 15 minutes’ drive from several Good Food Guide restaurants, such as the Michelin-starred Driftwood in Portscatho and Tabb’s in Truro, as well as many old-fashioned country pubs.
Houses in St Mawes are unusually large by Cornish standards. Whereas most high-end parts of the far southwest of England are dominated by elaborately modernised fishermen’s cottages with little outside space – Port Isaac, Padstow and Fowey, for example – St Mawes has a significant proportion of large, modern and detached houses in substantial grounds.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, the village’s housing market is strong. The average price of property sold there over the past five years is £607,000, while in Cornwall as a whole it is just £236,000, according to the website Zoopla. And, although average prices across Cornwall are still falling (down 3.8 per cent over the past year, according to the Land Registry’s October figures), local estate agents say St Mawes is now over the worst.
“It was affected between 2009 and 2012 as the recession restricted second-home buyers,” says Ben Standen of Jackson-Stops & Staff. “But in 2013 there have definitely been more buyers than sellers, hence prices have stayed strong.”
“It’s our view that early 2012 saw the bottom of the market when we saw two sales concluded at over £2.5m each [despite] one of these selling at a much higher level in 2007,” says Jonathan Cunliffe of Savills. But the typical St Mawes buyer now seems to be returning, he adds: a mixture of wealthy retirees and second-home buyers from London.
There has been an increase in international interest, too. The village had its first Russian purchaser in 2010 and Savills has sold two homes to German buyers this year, while other agents report interest from Hong Kong and Australia. On top of that, there are returning British expats, “who start looking five years before they move back, giving time to have work carried out and to visit on holidays,” says Nicola Oddy of Stacks Property Search, a buying agency.
One major driver for consistently strong prices is St Mawes’ sailing tradition. Knight Frank says the village is one of the top seven locations in southern England with the highest premiums on properties with water views, especially if they are accompanied by direct river frontages and moorings. The agency claims a private slipway can boost the price of a property in St Mawes by more than 100 per cent, while private access to a jetty will add 80 per cent.
However, buyers inevitably have a limited choice of homes in such a small location. This winter there are some 25 St Mawes homes on the open market, just four of which are on for more than £1m. A similar number are for sale in nearby villages Portscatho, Tregony and Veryan.
Savills is selling a new three-storey house in St Mawes with 6,300 sq ft of space. The property has five bedrooms and a galleried hall, plus extensive outdoor terracing – all designed to optimise water views. It is on the market for £2.35m.
Nearby, a colonial-style house, built in the 1930s and frequently remodelled, has four bedrooms, 2,800 sq ft of space and is being marketed by agent H Tiddy for £1.85m.
For those with long-term plans for a customised house, a plot on the edge of St Mawes is being sold with consent to build a 6,100 sq ft home for £1.39m through Carter Jonas. Its unusually large 48-acre grounds come with 1,500ft of creek frontage. A more modest three-bedroom Georgian semi-detached house – still with views across St Mawes harbour and the village itself – is on sale for £850,000 through Miller Countrywide.
These high prices persist despite what some prospective buyers may regard as significant disadvantages.
Not only is St Mawes 290 miles southwest of London – a six-hour drive not including breaks – but the final 20 miles leading to the village are on narrow lanes. To travel from St Mawes to the nearest town centres of Falmouth and Truro you must either drive a dog-leg route to the head of a river or use undeniably charming but slow ferries.
St Mawes is only 30 miles from Newquay airport but easyJet has recently closed its Newquay-Gatwick service citing insufficient demand, while Gatwick and Heathrow are both about 280 miles away.
Even the mobile telephone signal can be patchy – “which frustrates holiday makers and business people alike,” says Nicola Oddy. But perhaps it is the peacefulness of the area that appeals to its better-known residents and tourists.
Sir Frank Williams, owner of the Williams Formula One team, has a property in the village, as does David Richards, former F1 team principal and now chairman of Aston Martin. This year, Richards opened a 20-room boutique hotel called Idle Rocks in St Mawes. It is aimed at young families and is a rival to the Hotel Tresanton, a 1940s yacht club transformed by the Forte family’s Olga Polizzi in 1997 and frequented by Tony Blair, the Prince of Wales and a host of celebrities.
St Mawes clearly still has pulling power, despite Cornwall’s economic landscape not yet enjoying the green shoots of recovery seen elsewhere. A powerful combination of natural beauty, water views and spacious housing has been its recipe for staying strong, even in a downturn.
● In August – at the height of the holiday season – there were just two reported crimes in St Mawes: one for antisocial behaviour, the other for burglary
● A significantly higher-than-average 39 per cent of residents are pensioners. The southwest of England has an average of 22 per cent, while the national average is just 17 per cent
● 65 per cent of homes are detached, double the average across southwest England
What you can buy for . . .
£500,000 A refurbished three-bedroom cottage near the harbour
£1m A detached four-bedroom house with views and a lawned garden
£2.5m A five-bedroom period villa with large grounds on the water
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