As British cities go, Wells is a one-off. It has a very small population and quiet atmosphere, and the whole place is only a short walk from open countryside. Its housing market, however, shows more familiar qualities: high prices, a stock shortage and, now, international interest.
The distinctive character of Wells is due to its size and status. There are only 11,500 residents but the presence of a cathedral (since 1205) means that it is officially a city. It is unspoilt, a warren of narrow streets with medieval buildings. Surrounded by farmland, it remains true to its agricultural history with a twice-weekly open-air market. It has an enviable local reputation as a centre for the production of food and drink.
Contrary to what tour guides suggest, it is not quite England’s smallest city. It is larger in population and footprint than the City of London, the Square Mile at the heart of the UK capital. But whereas that is surrounded by Greater London, Wells, 140 miles west of the capital, is surrounded by the Mendip Hills and the Somerset Levels wetlands.
The nearest rail links to London are at Castle Cary, 14 miles away, or – for a faster train – at Bath, 22 miles away. Wells is a slow, twisting 15 miles from the M5 motorway, making it a hefty three-hour drive from London. Yet even though this all means daily commuting is out of the question, the city’s housing market is still closely linked with London.
“The excellent schooling in the area and the larger Bristol law firms attract London buyers,” says Richard Brooks of Savills. “This tends to be the demographic for high-end properties. The buyer wants a total change of scenery and lifestyle, and yet accessibility to larger cities like Bristol or Bath.”
Amanda Ake of Stacks Property Search, a buying agency, agrees about the schools. “The Blue School is in the centre of the city and has attracted many families to the area,” she says. “The Cathedral school is an integral part of the city; every Friday pupils walk through the city to an assembly in the cathedral. There is also Millfield school nearby which creates high demand for property in villages, particularly Butleigh and Baltonsborough to the south,” she says.
Large £1m-plus Georgian townhouses close to the cathedral are the most sought-after homes, but are rarely on the market. An eight-bedroom period house with 5,586 sq ft of space, including a chapel and an art studio, near the Blue School is on sale with Knight Frank and Roderick Thomas estate agencies for £1.15m.
High-end buyers seeking homes with land will have to go outside the city. At Green Ore, five miles north of Wells, a five-bedroom house with a pool, stables, 74 acres and outbuildings is for sale with Savills and Cooper and Tanner at £2.95m. At Butleigh, 10 miles south of Wells, a five-bedroom house with stables and a pool is in on sale with Roderick Thomas for £2.75m.
“There are very few homes on sale on the open market over £2m,” says Gigi Allen of GA Property Search, a buying agent. “Properties above that figure have stuck for the past year thanks to stamp duty costs. Sellers don’t want it known if they ask for over £2m but then have to drop below, so they put their home discreetly before buyers ‘off-market’ through agents. They don’t advertise and don’t put the details on the internet.”
As a result of the stamp duty threshold, Allen says, many sellers with homes accurately valued up to about £2.2m have in the past year reduced their asking prices to between £1.75m and £1.95m.
Despite Somerset’s idyllic reputation, there are some disadvantages.
Broadband is available but relatively slow in rural locations with no short-term improvement expected; this occasionally deters those setting up new businesses or moving in with the intention of telecommuting. Traffic management measures for several days around the Glastonbury music festival, 10 miles from Wells, can be severely disruptive in June. Meanwhile, throughout the summer, the streets of Wells become congested with up to 2,000 tourists on peak days.
Despite these downsides, Wells is beginning to attract international buyers. Local agents say about 10 per cent of enquiries for homes costing £1m-plus now come from overseas. Knight Frank reports that this year a British expat returning from the Caribbean and an Asian buyer were rival bidders for one property while Stacks Property Search has recently acted for a Libyan client seeking a home close to local private schools.
There is Chinese interest, too, and for an unusual reason – easy access to Clarks Village. This is a 90-unit high-end retail park eight miles from Wells. Business consultancy Deloitte described it last year as southwest England’s largest free tourist attraction, “with 4.1m visitors per year, including many from China”.
Now some of them are buying homes nearby. “We’ve had a few this year. They want small modern lock-up-and-leave homes near the shopping. There aren’t many homes on sale at any time but they go quickly and to the Chinese,” says Gigi Allen.
Shopping bargains may be generating foreign interest but the housing market is far from cut-price. Estate agents say Wells values have a 5 per cent premium over nearby towns, such as Street and Frome, and more rises are likely. Wells may be small, but its appeal is getting bigger.
● There were 120 reported crimes in Wells in August this year – the majority for antisocial behaviour
● According to Zoopla, the average home costs £255,375, 6 per cent above the UK average
● House prices have risen 4 per cent in the past year, says Zoopla
What you can buy for . . .
£500,000 A modern five-bedroom house on the fringe of Wells
£1m A large period house close to the centre
£2m A country house with up to 50 acres of land within five miles of the city