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The small town of Cranbrook in the Kentish Weald, a lightly wooded swath of southeast England between the chalky North and South Downs, has been the setting for some fairly competitive property bidding of late. Parents eager to buy in the catchment area of Cranbrook grammar school are prepared to pay a premium of up to 20 per cent for houses that fall inside the 6.2-mile radius. According to Simon Biddulph at Knight Frank, the school’s popularity could even be fuelling a mini housing bubble in a town where growth has been sluggish since the crash.
“We have a few bubble areas,” says Biddulph, who is based in nearby Tunbridge Wells, “and Cranbrook is one of them. We get a lot of younger London buyers who want to start a family or grow their family, and they want to get into a good local prep school so that, when they get to 13, their children can head to Cranbrook grammar [providing they can pass the entrance exam].”
Local agent Jane Beard, of Harpers & Hurlingham, agrees. “The past few years have been OK – just that – but recently there has been a lot of interest,” she says. “It hasn’t started a manic war just yet, but we are noticing now that there are two or three people wanting one property.”
The appeal of Cranbrook grammar is obvious. Rated outstanding by Ofsted, the co-ed school – one of the few state schools in the country to accommodate a limited number of boarders, and the only chance of a place if you live outside the catchment area – turned out its best ever GCSE and A-level results last year, with 25 per cent of students being awarded AAB or better at A-level. For many, it is seen as possessing all the qualities and character of an independent school, without commanding the price tag. Old Cranbrookians include comedian Harry Hill and Nasa astronaut Piers Sellers, who in 2003 took a copy of the school’s charter into space with him.
The town itself doesn’t seem like the setting for a sharp-elbowed bidding war. Founded in the 11th century, Cranbrook became a centre for the local cloth and iron industries during the middle ages before rising to fame in the late Victorian era for being home to the Cranbrook Colony, a popular group of artists who painted scenes of domestic life in Kent. Today a small cluster of white weatherboard houses still spiral out from the 19th-century windmill. There is a village feel to Stone Street and High Street with independent shops, some highly regarded pubs and the Michelin-starred Apicius restaurant.
Victorian white weatherboard town houses in Cranbrook typically go for about £750,000. However, Biddulph says about 70 per cent of his buyers are looking for a property in the surrounding villages but still within Cranbrook grammar’s catchment area, such as Sissinghurst, Rolvenden, Goudhurst, Benenden, Hawkhurst and Kilndown. In Folly Hill, about three miles north of Cranbrook, Savills is selling a five-bedroom converted barn, with a large kitchen, reception room and more than 5,000 sq ft of interior living space, for £1.2m. On the other side of Cranbrook, in Hawkhurst – also in the catchment area – Knight Frank is selling Slip Mill for £2.6m, a Georgian mill house with six bedrooms and a separate four-bedroom cottage, tennis court and outdoor pool, set in about 11.5 acres.
While houses like Slip Mill appeal to parents with an eye on Cranbrook grammar, Sarah Simmonds, of Savills, says more expensive houses are unlikely to be affected by the school. “In the upper echelons of the market, buyers aren’t interested in Cranbrook school so much – they have alternatives and can send their children [to] private [schools] if they want.”
One such example is Field Green House in Hawkhurst, a grand Grade II*-listed property with eight bedrooms, a two-bedroom cottage, a pool complex, and 33 acres. Savills is marketing the property for £3.75m.
The housing market unaffected by the draw of the school – either because properties are too expensive or because they fall outside the catchment area – is underachieving compared with what Savills calls its “prime outer commuter” alternatives. These are places an hour’s journey from London, where prices are driven by booming markets in Cambridge, Oxford and Winchester.
According to Savills, the average for this index is down 0.9 per cent on 2007. Over the same time period, prices in Cranbrook are down 16.3 per cent. This may be because Cranbrook does not have a train station, meaning that London commuters have to go via Staplehurst, adding 15 to 20 minutes to the journey.
Although prices here are lagging, Lucian Cook, head of residential research at Savills, maintains that Cranbrook has all the attributes of a good commuter location. “As such,” he adds, “it looks great value.”
This perceived good value is perhaps one of the reasons why, despite a quiet few years, agents catering for Cranbrook’s prime sector – properties priced between £750,000 and £1.5m – have been busy of late. “In the past six months the number of inquires we’ve received has gone up dramatically,” says Biddulph. Jane Beard agrees: “It’s looking very like we’re going to have a mad rush market this spring – we haven’t had one of those for several years.”
According to Savills, the recent flurry of interest has lifted the prime average in Cranbrook up 1.6 per cent in the six months to March 2014.
However, one thing that could dampen nascent price rises is the possible introduction of a UK mansion tax on properties priced at more than £2m after the 2015 general election. “We’ve got a lot [of houses] between £2m to £4m, so it is a sensitive subject,” says Biddulph. “Sellers are realising that, until there’s clarity, buyers may just pause for thought. Beneath that level, it’s still a very busy market at the moment, and I’d expect house prices to continue to rise over the next two to three years.”
● Cranbrook, the so-called “capital of the Kentish Weald”, has a population of about 8,000
● Police recorded 31 crimes in Cranbrook and Beneden in March
● High-performing prep schools in the area include Dulwich, Marlborough House and St Ronan’s
● Trains from nearby Staplehurst, Marden or Headcorn take about an hour to London
What you can buy for . . .
£500,000 A four-bedroom family house near Cranbrook High Street
£1.5m A detached home in a nearby village with four to six bedrooms
£4m An estate with ancillary accommodation and a substantial plot of land