Light pours into Ian Brumwell’s office, spilling on to dozens of tidy stacks of paper spread out across the hardwood floor – the haphazard filing system of a man with a job in the City of London but who prefers to work from home, 350 miles away in Berwick-upon-Tweed.
By basing himself in an office on the top floor of his family home, the executive director at management consultancy Trinity Horne has, of course, deprived himself of secretarial help. But it is easy to see why he has chosen this lifestyle. At any time he can rise from his desk, walk to the window and gaze out at glorious scenery: the rugged Northumbrian coast bending miles into the distance, the North Sea foaming at the base of tousled dunes and ancient castles. Should his colleagues need him in London, he steps out of the front door and walks for one minute to his local railway station. The trip takes just three and a half hours in a high-speed carriage equipped with wi-fi internet access. “It’s surprisingly easy. I take the 6.30am and get in by 10am,” he says.
Brumwell stands at the leading edge of a commuter class that constantly tests the limits of Britain’s transport system, transforming residential property markets on its way.
Berwick-upon-Tweed, a salty-aired town of 26,000 people hugging Scotland’s border, is surely the farthest English locale from London to be hit by this trend. Three years ago, when Brumwell and his wife, Amanda, moved to Berwick with the notion that it would be a good place to live, it remained an isolated port town on the eastern shore, described by a local estate agent as offering “nothing but bloody seagulls”.
Edinburgh, home to some of Trinity Horne’s clients, is a 45-minute train ride to the north. Newcastle-upon-Tyne to the south is equally accessible and trains to London run frequently. But because Berwick, surrounded by vast fields and sea, is traditionally part of neither metropolitan area – never mind London – property prices remained low.
In 2003 the Brumwells bought their stone-built, late-Georgian house, boasting 3,500 sq ft, six bedrooms and an acre of gardens, for £310,000 – a fraction of the price for an equivalent property within ordinary range of London. They invested a further £175,000 in refurbishment and, as if on cue, other non-local buyers began to discover Berwick too.
Their roomy, immaculate house on Castle Terrace is now back on the market with a recommended price of £745,000, listed with Edinburgh-based Rettie & Co. With a pre-tax return of £260,000, or 35 per cent, over three years, the Brumwells are keen to buy locally again. “We’re definitely, definitely staying in Berwick. We used to live in St Andrews and we loved it. This has the same flavour, a very similar feel,” Amanda Brumwell says.
According to estate agents’ forecasts, this is a wise choice. With sustained economic growth in Edinburgh and Newcastle fuelling the growth of commuter zones around both cities, the two zones are now converging upon this handsome walled city in the middle. Euan Aitchison, an estate agent based for 30 years in Berwick, welcomes what he calls “a pincer movement of brothers from the south and friends from the north”.
The trend has the potential to remake Berwick, not just economically but culturally, as the former backwater draws in buyers from sophisticated metropolitan centres. “Berwick has always been hugely insular, a world of its own, a mish-mash of English, Scots, Geordies and Borderers. But now we are getting a new kind of customer. People who demand better amenities,” he says.
Aitchison predicts “phenomenal growth over the next two to three years”, and his view is echoed by leading estate agents in the Scottish capital, who find themselves forced to compete in an expanding geographical area. “Berwick is probably the outer limit right now. The rule of thumb is 45 to 50 miles at the outer circle but that was unheard of two years ago and bit by bit it is pushing out,” says Blair Stewart, head of Edinburgh residential properties at Strutt & Parker, the property consultancy.
The main attraction is price. While UK property prices grew rapidly through the 1980s and late 1990s, in Berwick they generally grew by just 2-3 per cent annually, Aitchison says. Historically a thriving fishing and agricultural centre, the town faltered economically during that period to the point where it registered average local income figures among the lowest in Britain. Yet the consequent under-investment happily deprived Berwick of ugly modern development and “kept it attractive” architecturally, Brumwell notes.
Today, the combined impact of high-speed rail access from Berwick and fast-growing property prices in Edinburgh and Newcastle is registering in earnest in a market where growth capacity was previously restrained. From 2003, prices began to jump by 15-20 per cent annually. Now, while growth slows elsewhere in the country, it continues in Berwick, with rising demand from incoming commuters being matched by buyers of second homes who find themselves priced out of the southern UK market.
Parity with comparable markets remains at least two years away, so forecasts of growth appear justified, barring market shocks. “I reckon within the next 12 months we will be looking at over £1m for a house on Castle Terrace,” says Aitchison.
Educated, urbane buyers drive much of this new demand. Deborah Whyte, a jeweller from Edinburgh, and her husband Ian, a university professor, are typical newcomers. Last May they purchased a four-bedroom house in Devon Terrace for £395,000. Four years earlier it was sold for £225,000. Perched atop hillside gardens that rise above the city pier, the house offers spectacular views of the glassy estuary where it meets the choppy sea.
After a year searching the growing area around Edinburgh advertised as “easy commuter zone”, Whyte and her husband finally visited Berwick with no thought of buying there, she says. “We just went down to Berwick for lunch on a rather dark, dreary day but there in one of the estate agent’s windows we saw just the perfect place.”
Berwick’s lone curse is residual insularity, which locals identify as the cultural legacy of the border wars between England and Scotland that ended in the 17th century. To move to Berwick from a comparatively cosmopolitan, urban environment is to leap into an unashamedly inward-looking world. Typifying local disinterest in culture beyond the town’s Elizabethan walls, the only local cinema closed permanently at the end of 2005. High street shops hang signs in their windows bitterly imploring shoppers to “buy local while you still can”. An outside investor’s recent effort to win support for a new marina foundered on local resistance.
Yet with newcomers streaming in, change is in the air. A new proposed marina, perhaps more promising than the last, is under consideration and Aitchison says it will likely win consent. Market pressure from new residents is building, compounded by the hope for rejuvenation felt by some long-time residents.
James Abbott, chief valuer for Smiths Gore, the UK-wide estate agency, says market pressure “will win out in the end”. If price parity with traditionally favoured markets such as St Andrews is imaginable, as agents and buyers suggest, cultural dividends might flow in, too.
In the meantime, newcomers say Berwick offers a peculiar charm. “It looks down on itself and there’s a slight sort of defiance that we find a little strange,” says Whyte. “But it’s a town with its own integrity, a place where people work and live and go to school and the small shops are very good. There’s an excellent butcher.”
One unanswered question is whether newcomers will be mainly wealthy, as has been primarily the case so far. Abbott of Smiths Gore pooh-poohs the suggestion. “First-time buyers and young professionals working in either Edinburgh or Newcastle” will be lured as well, he says, with well-situated two- to three-bedroom flats still selling for around £100,000.
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