For five frenetic days next week about 300,000 people will descend on a village in east Berkshire and will steadily work their way through an estimated 51,000 bottles of champagne, 44,000 glasses of Pimm’s and more than 2,000kg of lobster. They will also watch some of the world’s greatest racehorses tested to their limits around Ascot Racecourse.
For the other 360 days of the year Ascot is an affluent, but somewhat staid, commuter dormitory. Its popularity is based on swift train links to central London, plenty of green space, and a general air of prosperity, all helping to attract middle-class families tired of city life. There is also a (not quite A-list) celebrity contingent living the area.
Ascot piques interest from overseas investors, in particular Middle Eastern buyers with horseracing interests. More recently they have been joined by eastern European owners looking for greater value for money than they can find in nearby property hotspots like the Wentworth Estate, an exclusive gated development in Virginia Water, five miles away.
This triple whammy of interested buyers means that Ascot’s prices are recovering well from the recession. Average prices stand at £643,932, according to research by Savills, some 77 per cent higher than a decade ago, and ten per cent higher than in 2007. An average detached home in the area today costs just over £1.1m, while an average semi-detached house would sell for £424,000.
Paul Rowe, manager of Edwards & Elliott estate agents, forecasts stability for the next 12 to 24 months although, he says, the market is diverging.
The most difficult properties to sell are starter homes, which in Ascot tend to be Victorian two-up, two-down cottages, priced between £300,000 and £325,000, and “second step” three-bedroom 1930s properties, priced at between £400,000 and £425,00.
A dearth of first-time buyers means these properties are tougher to shift than high-end homes, which tend to be new-build mansions with colonnaded entrances and electric gates as standard. Barton Wyatt is selling a six-bedroom example, built in 2003, for £3.95m. The house, which features six reception rooms, is set within an acre of gardens and has almost 6,000 sq ft of living space.
A similar home on the Wentworth Estate would be priced at about £7m.
“Demand for these mansion houses is really strong,” says Rowe. “We are now seeing houses that were only built ten years ago being torn down and rebuilt bigger because that is a viable thing to do in this market.”
The smartest streets in Ascot are on its south side, abutting Surrey. Savills is selling a single-storey, four-bedroom period house on the edge of Sunningdale, close to both Sunningdale and Wentworth golf clubs, for £3.75m.
The 4,790 sq ft house has been recently refurbished, and there is a tennis court and a pool within its 2.5 acres of grounds.
Daniel Burstow, a director at Savills, estimates that 30 to 40 per cent of homes in the £3m-plus bracket are sold to overseas buyers. Another factor in the area’s favour is that it is a 20-minute drive to Heathrow airport. “If they can’t afford the £7m house in Wentworth, they can buy something almost as big in Ascot for half the price, and it is still a big, impressive house.”
This year Burstow has also seen an increase in the number of buyers from London looking in the area. “You can exchange your three-bedder in Fulham, west London, for a five-bedder in Ascot,” he says.
There are also a number of major developers eyeing Ascot. Berkeley Homes recently launched Queensbury Gardens, made up of 23 houses in a gated scheme, which will complete in summer 2014. Prices start at £655,000 for a three-bedroom mews house, rising to £1.2m for a five-bedroom detached house.
Since the development went on the market in mid-April seven homes have been reserved, mainly by local downsizers looking for a low-maintenance, high-security home.
Property aside, Ascot’s key attractions include its excellent schools. Ascot Heath Church of England Junior School, a state school, is rated “good” with some “outstanding” features by Ofsted, the schools’ watchdog, while Charters School in Sunningdale is deemed “outstanding”.
For fee-paying parents there are plenty of upmarket choices, including Heathfield School (glamorous old girls include Lady Helen Taylor, Daphne Guinness and Sienna Miller), and St George’s School, Ascot (alma mater of Princess Beatrice). Eton College is nine miles from Ascot.
Sport plays an important role in local life. Winkfield, three miles away, is the self-styled home of British polo with several clubs, including the Royal County of Berkshire Polo Club. Golf can be played at Wentworth, or closer to home at the Ascot Heath Golf Club, and there is horse riding and walking at Windsor Great Park, and water sports at Virginia Water, both three miles away.
However, Ascot high street is uninspiring; a predictable “clone town” line-up of Tesco and Toni & Guy, with the inevitable Starbucks and Costa Coffee thrown into the mix. Indeed, the only thing which sets the town apart is that, while Britain struggles to extract itself from the economic recession, there are almost no empty shops.
“Sometimes we get Chinese tourists coming in with their cameras asking us where Ascot high street is,” says Rowe. “We have to tell them that this is it.”
● Between December 2011 and December 2012 crimes in the Thames Valley police district were recorded at the rate of 60.93 per 1,000 people, compared with 65.69 per 1,000 people nationwide
● High-end property in Ascot sells at £360 per sq ft, compared with £1,330 in prime areas of London
● Trains to London Waterloo take from 53 minutes
● There are 5,072 people living in the Ascot and Cheapside ward. Just over 60 per cent of the workforce hold managerial or professional jobs. Only two per cent of adults in the area claim benefits, compared with an average of 15 per cent in England
What you can buy for …
£500,000 A three-bedroom semi-detached period house
£1m A detached four bedroom family home
£4m A substantial five- or six-bedroom detached house with two acres of gardens and outdoor pool