This summer, Harpenden has hosted a dog and duck show, an Armed Forces Day, a classic car display and a teddy bears’ picnic in its various parks and commons. A mere 32 miles north of central London, the town seems in a different world entirely from the capital.
Harpenden’s mix of charm and eccentricity appeals to many who seek an easy commute to the capital as well as the open spaces and good schools that are plentiful in Hertfordshire. As a result, the town’s 30,000 residents have a local housing market which is expensive, even by the standards of southeast England.
A small one-bedroom, modern ground-floor flat outside the town centre costs about £200,000, while a two-bedroom apartment in a converted Victorian property could fetch £575,000. For a four-bedroom, semi-detached house expect to pay about £850,000, while a detached villa would be £1m to £4m, or even more depending on the type of property, plot size and proximity to transport links.
There are two sources of demand for Harpenden homes: existing residents who want to move up or down in house size depending on their age and family needs, and Londoners cashing in their equity in the capital to buy more substantial homes in the commuter belt.
“There’s been an increase of 25 per cent registering for properties since January,” says Nick Ingle, head of Savills’ office in the town. “Harpenden’s excellent state schools are highly popular and often outperform independent schools and, with no set catchment areas, they attract families out of north London.”
“The market between £750,000 and £1.5m is very active at the moment and demand is outstripping supply,” says Sally Noakes of Strutt & Parker, another agency. She says demand is particularly high near the town centre itself although some buyers want homes “in a local village where they get much more for their money”.
Harpenden is not, it must be said, an example of life in the fast lane. The local history society’s website admits as much. “No great events are recorded as having taken place here,” it says. Instead, the town’s contemporary popularity is down to its semirural character and good connectivity.
Harpenden is between the larger towns of Luton and St Albans. Luton airport – Britain’s fifth busiest with 11.5m passengers annually – is seven miles away. The M1 motorway, linking London with the Midlands and northern England, is four miles away and the town is also near the M25 orbital motorway around the capital.
But it is the rail service that forges Harpenden’s commuter town status; the local station is on the popular 140-mile north-south Thameslink line so passengers can reach St Pancras station in just 30 minutes, while Gatwick airport is a 70-minute journey.
Harpenden’s appeal to commuters and families has a greater effect on the local housing market than merely boosting the price of homes near the station.
“Most buyers want homes which don’t require work. They don’t relish the thought of doing work on a property as so many are time-poor,” says Ingle.
As a result, well-maintained homes in central locations such as The Avenues are popular, as is Harpenden Common and attractive villages like Flamstead and Kimpton.
East of the common, Strutt & Parker is selling an early 20th-century, six-bedroom house, a “a gentleman’s residence” the agency says, with three-quarters of an acre of land for £4.5m. On the western side, Savills has a four-bedroom house with substantial off-street parking for £1.75m.
“On one hand, there are fewer big estates in Hertfordshire than in some counties around London but, on the other, the area is more willing to embrace new-build homes so there are quite a few contemporary houses,” says Henry Pryor, an agent who lives in the area.
New four-bedroom properties from housebuilder Taylor Wimpey, on Harpenden’s northern fringe start at £710,000. In nearby Flamstead, a modern four-bedroom, chalet-style house with one-third of an acre of land is on sale through Aitchisons estate agency for £695,000.
But a high-value housing market and a reputation as an outpost of “old” England does not insulate Harpenden from 21st-century problems. “Anyone contemplating buying in the town should look at Luton airport’s expansion plans before doing the deed,” says Pryor.
By 2016, the airport plans to cater for 10,200 budget airline flights per year between 11pm and 6am, two-thirds more than last year. The airport also wants to boost passenger numbers by more than 50 per cent to at least 18m annually, to the irritation of some residents. “Luton cannot be allowed to become London’s low-cost airline night-flight airport of choice,” says Harpenden council.
A local campaign group, HarpendenSky, warns that house-price devaluation is a real possibility because of existing aircraft noise, with future airport growth likely to make the problem worse. A temporary flight path is in use this summer to see if it reduces the effects of noise.
Uncertainty over plans for Heathrow airport have fuelled Luton’s expansion ambitions but, ironically, it is Harpenden’s distance from Heathrow – only 34 miles but usually an hour’s drive on the M25 – that deters overseas purchasers from buying in the town. “There are few business and long-haul flights from Luton so the trek from Harpenden to Heathrow and the absence of many very large properties combine to minimise international interest,” says Henry Pryor.
Savills’ Nick Ingle says he has had “a handful” of buyers from Asia and Russia, but Hertfordshire appears to lack the global appeal of counties immediately west of the capital.
The consequence is that Harpenden remains a quintessentially English kind of place.
● There were 6,500 reported crimes in Hertfordshire in April this year, compared with 7,835 in April 2012
● Annual standard-class season tickets from Harpenden to central London cost just over £4,000
● Almost all of the town’s state primary and secondary schools are classed as “good” or “outstanding” by Ofsted, the schools watchdog
What you can get for . . .
£500,000: A small two-bedroom Victorian cottage, 10 minutes’ walk from the station
£1m: A four-bedroom home centrally located on The Avenues
£4m: A period mansion in East Common with an acre of grounds