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Like large swaths of southern England, Marlborough attracts high-end housebuyers because of its good schools and transport links. However, this Wiltshire town of just 8,000 residents has a third and much rarer draw: an excellent high street.
For while many market towns with similar histories have seen their shopping areas erode into clone zones dominated by chain stores, Marlborough’s main drag retains a distinctive quality that has at least partly defied the march of globalisation.
Of course there are a few coffee shop brands and plenty of estate agency offices but this high street – Britain’s second widest, reportedly – shows a truly independent spirit. A report by Wiltshire Council reveals almost half of Marlborough’s 200-plus shops are on or adjacent to this one road alone; its commercial rents rose during the downturn, unlike the story in most other locations; the retail vacancy rate is far below the national average; and there is a low proportion of the takeaway food shops and bars that often symbolise a high street’s declining fortunes.
Wander through and you see how attractive a street can be when it consists of a mix of merchants’ houses, Tudor buildings and churches, interspersed with independent stores like The Polly Tea Rooms, Bertie Golightly clothing and Mystique Lingerie. However, this street offers more than the opportunity to wallow in a nostalgic image of how British towns looked before Starbucks and Primark: it is a major driver for housebuyers.
“It’s incredibly attractive to southwest Londoners. The high street isn’t that dissimilar to Wandsworth Common,” says Rory O’Neill of Carter Jonas estate agency.
The Wiltshire town is about 85 miles southwest of central London and during the past year has become popular with families seeking a semi-rural property and slower lifestyle. “A lot of American buyers also fall in love with Marlborough due to its traditional old-fashioned charm,” says Henry Hannon of the buying agency Property Vision.
Yet for domestic and foreign buyers looking for spacious homes, there is little to snap up close to the high street since its approach roads are lined with pastel cottages of different vintages – very attractive but mostly compact with modest gardens. Instead, high-end purchasers look to the sweeping Wiltshire countryside surrounding the town. Villages such as Manton, Clench and Milton Lilbourne to the south or Great Bedwyn to the east are particularly popular. “These places are modelled on the quintessential English village and still feature a good pub, a local shop and post office,” says Hannon. Tom Hudson, of Middleton Advisors, another buying agency, says: “Purchasers have high expectations when looking here. They can buy character properties with the opportunity to secure land and additional outbuildings.”
To the west of Marlborough and five miles from the M4 motorway, Savills is marketing a mid-19th-century, eight-bedroom rectory with 11 acres of grounds for £2.45m. The property also has equestrian facilities and a pool.
Near Manton, on the southern fringe of the town, Carter Jonas is selling Greenhithe, a detached, six-bedroom, 1930s house with 4,000 sq ft of interior space for £1.1m.
Seven miles south, the same agency is marketing Milkhouse Farm, a Grade II-listed, three-bedroom cottage with six acres of stables and paddocks, plus a barn with consent for a two-bedroom home conversion. The property, on sale for £1.2m, also has the advantage of being just a six-minute drive from Pewsey rail station, the area’s main link to London: most journeys take 70 to 90 minutes into Paddington, making the location possible for hardy daily commuters. The alternative by road is less attractive – a drive eight miles north of the town to join the M4, then a two-hour journey to the capital.
Many moving from London to Wiltshire, however, do not commute but instead work at one of the hundreds of IT and manufacturing groups concentrated along the M4 corridor, such as Honda, Alcatel-Lucent and Nokia.
There are several village primary schools nearby while overlooking the town is St John’s, an international baccalaureate academy for children aged 11 to 18. The main educational attraction, however, is the 170-year-old private Marlborough College, which is described by The Good School Guide as a “famous, designer-label, co-ed boarding school”. The artist William Morris and poet Siegfried Sassoon are former students, as is the Duchess of Cambridge and her sister Pippa Middleton. The college, which since 2012 has had an outpost in southern Malaysia, plays a major part in attracting buyers into this part of Wiltshire, according to agents.
“It’s an instant draw for parents looking to send their children to school outside London,” says Property Vision’s Hannon, while Carter Jonas’s O’Neill goes so far as to claim it “drives both the prime sales and rental market in Marlborough”.
Not everywhere is popular, however. The village of Baydon is close to the M4 and suffers from motorway noise while the approaches to Swindon, to the north, are used by heavy industrial traffic.
Marlborough itself remains largely unaffected by such issues. One of the first acts of the new mayor this year was to urge shopkeepers to put up hanging baskets in a bid to win the local round of this summer’s Britain in Bloom contest. Like many other aspects of life in the town, you can judge its success by walking along the high street.
● There were 3,832 crimes recorded in Wiltshire in April 2014, down from 4,346 incidents a year earlier
● Summer jazz festivals and winter fun fairs are highlights of the year
● There are many commuter trains from Pewsey to London, but few off-peak services
What you can buy for . . .
£500,000 A detached 1980s home within walking distance of the centre
£1m A large period detached house with a substantial garden in the town
£2.5m A listed rectory with land and equestrian facilities
Photograph: Anna Stowe/Alamy