Housing markets in south-east England are normally judged on predictable criteria: commutability to London, quality of local schools and the availability of homes for growing families. Bray, a tiny village, offers something extra: great food. The Fat Duck, run by celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, has just been named the Good Food Guide Restaurant of the Year for 2012.
Bray ticks all the traditional boxes: it sits near the M4 motorway, is 25 minutes west of London by rail, and is a short drive from Heathrow airport. Within a few years, when the £16bn high-speed Crossrail project is delivered, it will even be within acceptable commuting time of the City. Bray’s local state and private schools, which include Eton College, are some of the best in the country, and there are plenty of detached houses for families.
Yet what defines this village – of just 9,000 residents in a matrix of tree-lined streets and cul-de-sacs on the banks of the river Thames – is its cuisine. Bray has two of the UK’s four restaurants that have been awarded three Michelin stars. The Fat Duck is known for its culinary bravura – snail porridge is a signature dish – and has been rated among the world’s top five restaurants each year since 2004. A stone’s throw away is the Waterside Inn. Founded by Albert and Michel Roux and now run by the younger Roux generation, it has enjoyed an international reputation for decades. In 2010 it became the first restaurant outside France to have held three Michelin stars for 25 years.
There are more culinary treats. Blumenthal owns the two village pubs: the Hind’s Head, the Michelin Pub of the Year 2011, serves posh nosh including tea-smoked salmon; and the Crown Inn offers what it claims to be classic pub food (although there is nothing traditional about a soup of vanilla cream, blueberries, mandarin and thyme).
So far, so delicious. But how does this food-fest affect house prices in a small pocket of Berkshire? The Fat Duck opened in 1995. Estate agents say that back then a typical semi-detached house would have cost £350,000; today it would cost double. A larger, Tudor riverside home would have started at £850,000 in 1995 – today it is close to £2m. Knight Frank says that, in spite of Bray’s distance from London and the downturn of recent years, this roughly matches the price appreciation of favoured suburbs such as Richmond.
Properties range from two-bedroom cottages at around £500,000 to detached houses from £750,000, and on to riverside homes worth £2m and above. Several of these are owned by executives working in London, while a few are occupied by celebrities such as TV show host Michael Parkinson. With the Queen’s residence in nearby Windsor, the location has plenty of kudos.
“The area is also highly appealing to London buyers. They can feel that they are within a short commuting distance and yet live in a picturesque English village,” says Fiona Copeman of Savills estate agency. Among Savills’ local properties are Magnolia Cabin, a three-bedroom house with 34ft of river frontage for £1.6m, and Etchea, a five-bedroom riverside home, at £2.15m.
Buying agents say the area just north of the village centre has the most private properties. “Monkey Island, to the south, is not really desirable. There’s very audible M4 road noise,” says Nick Warner of Prime Purchase. Indeed, Bray trades on its tranquillity and unspoilt appearance. Many buildings are fronted by 14th-century black-and-white beams and are well-preserved. There are rolling parks and paths leading to the river, and a cricket pitch completes the picture of Bray as the quintessential English village.
While Bray has been popular with affluent commuters for decades, its foodie image is changing the nature of the place. Online comments about Blumenthal’s takeover of the local pubs include the words “soulless” and “corporate”, with grumbles about the number of chauffeur-driven cars that line the streets in the evenings. Yet some residents say Bray is distinctive enough to survive its new-found fame.
“I moved here in 1980,” says Michael Baker, a retired businessman. “It’s certainly busier now than three decades ago but that’s inevitable. It’s won Britain in Bloom [a contest for street flower exhibitions] countless times and there’s great community spirit.”
Nick Wooldridge of Stacks Property Search says locals are keen to preserve Bray’s heritage: “The physical character of the village is protected by a conservation area but the community came together recently to campaign successfully to protect the historic village almshouses from development.”
That desire is shared by its most famous restaurateur. “Bray is really special to Heston. He grew up nearby, lived there until recently, and recognises that it adds something to the experience of visiting his establishments. He’s got a restaurant in London, but otherwise he’s concentrated everything in Bray,” says a spokeswoman for Blumenthal. “That’s not going to change. And neither is Bray.”
● It is beautiful, well-preserved and well-loved by residents
● Excellent commuting areas
● Good facilities, from schools to golf courses and equestrian centres
● Tourists and foodies make the village busy, especially in the summer
● House prices are high, even by southeast standards
● Eating out locally can be expensive
What you can buy for …
£100,000 A one-bedroom flat four miles away on the edge of much less sophisticated Maidenhead
£1m A five-bedroom detached family house with a modest rear garden
● Knight Frank www.knightfrank.com
● Savills www.savills.co.uk
● Prime Purchase www.prime-purchase.com
● Stacks Property Search www.stacks.co.uk