The economic recovery has been slow to come to the West Midlands. Commercial gloom helped the region, which includes Birmingham, the UK’s second most populous city, towards the largest leave vote of any of the UK’s 12 regions. Lately, the funk has shown little sign of lifting. While UK unemployment fell to 4.7 per cent in the three months to January, the lowest since summer 1975, in the West Midlands it had gone up, to 5.6 per cent.
However, in Stratford-upon-Avon, the small Warwickshire town 30 or so miles south of Birmingham’s centre, agents are declaring the green shoots of a rally. Until recently, says James Way, who runs Knight Frank’s Stratford office, the entrepreneurs and small business owners of Birmingham, Walsall and Wolverhampton were keeping their belts tight, ploughing what spare cash their businesses were generating back into shoring them up. Few had enough left over to blow on the sort of trophy homes they once sought in the region’s smart southern satellite towns of Stratford, Banbury and Leamington Spa.
In the past 18 months, however, they have come back in earnest. Both inquiries from and sales to this group have increased, says Way, especially among the modern homes with open living spaces that they traditionally favour. Local agent Edwards Exclusive is selling a five-bedroom detached home that fits the bill on Avenue Road, near the centre of town, for £1.28m. For something a little roomier, Knight Frank is selling a six-bedroom house on 10 acres on Warwick Road, at Stratford’s northern edge, for £2.9m.
Prices are creeping up, albeit slowly. Average home values in 2016 were 1.5 per cent up on the year before, compared with 4.5 per cent in Birmingham and 6.9 per cent in Greater London, according to Land Registry data collected by Savills. Gains over three years look stronger — up 13.6 per cent, compared with Birmingham’s 11 per cent and 20.8 per cent in Greater London.
While the shopping is better in Leamington, according to Way, and Solihull is livelier, culture has always been at the heart of Stratford’s appeal. The town is defined by its history — it was Shakespeare’s birthplace — and the rich cultural offering this has spawned. It is the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which produces plays at its three theatres in the town. For your own (rather tenuous) bit of Shakespeariana, Knight Frank is selling a Grade II-listed manor house with six bedrooms in Luddington, three miles south-west of Stratford, for £2.1m. Relatives of Anne Hathaway, the Bard’s wife, once occupied the home.
Increasingly, however, buyers are drawn to Stratford because of the qualities of small town life, which it encapsulates and which are coming firmly back into vogue, says Yolande Barnes, head of Savills World Research.
It provides a walkable centre with well-connected streets containing shops that people need and want to use and which bring people into contact. “They are the sorts of spaces where you’re likely to bump into your business partner, life partner or partner for the night. In the digital era, how towns like Stratford facilitate those interactions seems to matter,” she says.
Stratford’s good schools are a draw, too. If treading in Shakespeare’s footsteps is not enough to stir your children to acts of vaulting intellectual accomplishment, in and around the town are a good crop of private and grammar schools. King Edward VI School, which claims the Bard among its alumni, is a mostly boys’ grammar school and academy occupying a prime spot near the town centre. Had there been the tradition of a school run in those days, Shakespeare would have had no need for a lift; the school is a five-minute walk from the building where he lived.
Like Stratford Girls’ Grammar School, another selective school on the town’s western edge, King Edward’s shows well in annual A-level league tables. A 15-minute drive west of Stratford, meanwhile, there is the mixed Alcester Grammar School.
This educational draw, and the opportunities to take advantage of a weak pound, is attracting an increasing number of UK expats — banker-types returning from Hong Kong, say — according to Edward Lowe of estate agents Edwards Exclusive. Often wealthy parents will buy when children are sitting the 11-plus (the competitive entrance exam used by grammar schools to select pupils). If they fail to get a place at King Edward’s, Stratford Girls’ or Alcester, he says, they will be sent to one of the private schools in the area — which include Warwick, for boys, The Kingsley School, for girls, and the coeducational Rugby.
Even before the boost from sterling, new arrivals from Hong Kong would have noticed their money goes a long way back in the English regions. There were only five properties listed for sale for £1m or more in Stratford on Rightmove at the start of April. The average price of a second-hand home sold in 2016, meanwhile, was £351,000, according to Land Registry data collected by Savills. This may be pricier than Birmingham, where the average was £173,000. But it is a fraction of what the Hong Kong bankers will have sold their pokey two-bedroom apartment in Mid-Levels for. With the trickle of West Midlands’ entrepreneurs now making Stratford home, they may even find some new customers.
All roads lead to Rome
This summer the Royal Shakespeare Company is marking 2,000 years since the death of the poet Ovid with their Rome MMXVII Season, writes Lucy Watson. The Bard’s Roman plays will run at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon before transferring to the Barbican in London in November, and each play will be broadcast live in cinemas. Alongside these, a series of debates will explore Shakespeare’s portrayal of Rome through the lens of politics today.
Julius Caesar runs until September 9, with Andrew Woodall as a “brusque, unyielding” Caesar and Alex Waldmann as Brutus in this drama about the betrayal of the emperor.
Antony and Cleopatra runs until September 7, directed by Iqbal Khan with Josette Simon as Cleopatra and Antony Byrne as Mark Antony in the true story of love and power after Caesar’s assassination.
Titus Andronicus runs from June 23 until September 2. It follows the fictional Titus in a cycle of revenge with Queen of the Goths, Tamara, directed by Blanche McIntyre.
Coriolanus, directed by season director Angus Jackson, runs from September 15 until October 14.
● Direct trains connect Stratford to Birmingham in just over 45 minutes and to London in just over two hours
● Depending on traffic, Birmingham international airport is 45 minutes by car
● In the 2011 census, the population of Stratford-upon-Avon was 27,455
What you can buy for . . .
£600,000 A four-bedroom, Victorian semi-detached house with a garden
£1m A five-bedroom, detached Edwardian villa with a garden
£2m A seven-bedroom house on Tiddington Road, backing on to the river
More homes at propertylistings.ft.com
Photographs: nagelestock.com/Alamy; SebastianWasek/Getty Images/Age Fotostock; Sladja Kisic/4Corners/4Corners Images; Helen Maybanks; James Kerr
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