John Betjeman was not one to pull his punches when it came to describing the towns and cities of England. Yet in his imagining of the 1902 Henley Regatta the poet laureate was moved to describe the town that hosts the event as the “flowering heart of England’s willow-cooled July”.
Today, Henley-on-Thames during summer is still hard to resist. True, the endless coffee shops and ambitiously-priced antique emporiums would likely not have pleased the poet. And one needs a sharp pair of elbows to negotiate Market Square in high summer – the perils of living in a tourist hotspot. But it is the idyllic first impression of this Oxfordshire town that is the driving force of its property market.
“Most people who buy here have children and are moving out of London,” says Giles Robinson of estate agency Robinson Sherston. “They have sold their house in London, rented at first and they either buy the same sized house for less money or they buy a bigger house for the same money; either way they win.”
Among the most desirable Henley properties are the Victorian and Edwardian villas that line the river bank. The entry price for one of these, says Trevor Michel, residential sales manager at Simmons & Sons, is £1m, which could buy a four-bedroom house with water views and, possibly, a mooring. Larger properties (perhaps 6,000 sq ft), with a boat house and river frontage sell for up to £8m.
Apartments can offer less expensive river views. A two-bedroom property with unimpeded views is on the market for £750,000 with Sotheby’s International Realty.
Meanwhile, in the town centre historic town houses sell for between £1.5m and £3m. An eight-bedroom Grade II-listed home is on the market with Knight Frank for £3m. There are also attractive period cottages, with two or three bedrooms, priced from about £400,000. Savills is selling a three-bedroom cottage which dates from the 15th century for £725,000. But the most common property type in Henley is the Victorian terrace, and £650,000 would buy a four-bedroom semi with a garden.
For buyers who would prefer to live in a satellite village, the Hambleden Valley, which extends into neighbouring Buckinghamshire, is a rich hunting ground. The countryside is green and gently rolling, and its villages – including Hambleden, Skirmett and Turville – are full of charm.
Here, substantial houses with land are priced at about £3.5m, while family-friendly village houses (four bedrooms plus good gardens) cost in the region of £1m to £1.5m.
Michel agrees with Robinson that activity in the current market in and around Henley is being driven by “the London ripple”, and this trend is strong enough to have kept prices buoyant since the recession began. Henley’s average property costs just under £600,000, and prices are up 12 per cent since 2007.
Over the past decade prices in the town have increased by 67 per cent, compared with 57 per cent in the rest of Oxfordshire.
Apart from its 44-minute train link to London, Henley’s advantages include its schools. In the state sector Trinity CE Primary School and Gillotts School, a secondary, are both rated “good” by Ofsted. Sixth-formers move on to Henley College which offers the International Baccalaureate as well as A-levels. There is also a good range of private schools nearby, including the Oratory School in Woodcote and Reading Blue Coat School.
There are, of course, numerous rowing clubs in town, most notably the Leander Club (members include Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent), and a busy programme of races on Henley Reach including a women’s regatta and an annual contest between the Oxbridge teams.
But the most important date on the calendar is the Henley Royal Regatta (established in 1839 and given its royal status in 1851), when some 470 international crews converge. This year’s regatta starts on Wednesday. Peter Nicholls, a director of Jacksons Residential, says the town has something of a split personality. “From spring until about October you have the regatta, plus the festivals. In the winter it reverts back into being an ordinary little Oxfordshire town.”
It is also a true blue town – a safe seat for the Conservative party for more than 100 years. “It is a conservative place,” says Nicholls, “and I don’t mean only in a political way. We have quite an ageing population and it is about as traditional as you can get. It is quiet, it is not cosmopolitan, and it does not have nightclubs and that sort of thing.”
Charlie Fisher of Knight Frank says new arrivals tend to assimilate rather than bring about change. “We are seeing more London style in terms of people creating big open kitchen-diners,” he says. “But there has been a continual flow of Londoners into Henley for decades and it remains a very traditional place to live.”
While Henley is undoubtedly affluent, Nicholls says its residents tend to shy away from overt displays of wealth. “The money in Henley is old money ... You won’t see gold Range Rovers parked outside the door.”
● The average home in Henley is worth £599,818, up from £535,899 in 2007. Top-end property in the town sells at £510 per sq ft, compared with £1,330 in prime central London
● Trains to London Paddington take from 44 minutes
● A low crime rate with a total of 70 offences reported in April of this year. Across the Thames Valley police district there were 60.93 offences reported per 1,000 residents in the 12 months to December
What you can buy for ...
£500,000 A two-bedroom mews house in the town centre
£1m A three- to four-bedroom period house
£3m A listed detached townhouse with five or six bedrooms, close to the river