Stowe is a quiet village in rural Buckinghamshire, known for its beauty and prestigious private school, yet it now finds itself at the centre of a planning maelstrom.
For amid the rolling agricultural landscape of this southern edge of the English Midlands, about 70 miles north-west of central London, there is what locals see as a threat to their tranquility – the arrival of HS2, a high-speed non-stop rail service to operate from the UK capital to Birmingham by 2026, with a later extension to the far north of England.
Approved by the government earlier this year, HS2 has attracted fierce national debate. Consultations are now beginning between HS2 Ltd – the company responsible for engineering, design and environmental work on the project – and local groups along part of its route between Stowe School and the market town of Brackley, six miles to the west. “The effect of HS2 is uncertain but more than the line itself, it is the disruption that the build and access could cause which could put off potential homeowners,” says Robert Fanshawe of buying agency Property Vision.
As a result there is nervousness in the villages near the estate where the late 17th-century Stowe House, the school’s main building, is located. There are 770 boarding and day students – mostly boys, but the school is becoming co-educational.
Unlike many private schools, Stowe has roots in its community. “It’s inclusive and locals use many facilities. The grounds are managed by the National Trust [so are open to the public] and it’s possible to become a member of the school golf club,” says Catherine McAllister of Stacks Property Search & Acquisition, another buying agency operating in the area.
The school also affects the local housing market. “Demand for top-end homes within a large school-run radius of Stowe far exceeds supply. Potential buyers sell in London and get themselves into a good cash position. They rent locally and are ready to pounce when the right property comes up,” says George Barkes, also of Stacks.
Homes priced at £1.5m-£2.5m close to Stowe are likely to be detached 17th to early 20th-century houses with substantial gardens, often in the “golden triangle” of Moreton Pinkney, Wappenham and Helmdon. Families keen to buy near the school vie with those drawn by the proximity of Silverstone, which has engineering parks and hosts Britain’s F1 and MotoGP events.
Seven miles from Stowe sits Wicken Manor, a 17th-century Grade II-listed house. It is on sale for £1.75m through Jackson-Stops & Staff and is near Milton Keynes, with its 35-minute train connection to London’s Euston.
Those willing to be slightly further away enjoy diverse options because Stowe is also close to the borders of Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire. Oxfordshire homes are most popular with top-end buyers because of the county’s transport links to London and strong employment prospects.
“Prices in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire are much on a par but Northamptonshire can offer more value for money. Prices are undoubtedly lower than 2007-08, by 10 per cent to 20 per cent according to the property,” says Quentin Jackson-Stops of Jackson-Stops & Staff.
In the area of Oxfordshire closest to Stowe, about 20 miles from the school, lies Bletchingdon Park. This is a nine-bedroom Georgian mansion with cottages, arable land and paddocks in 127 acres (£20m through Knight Frank). About 15 miles from Stowe, but in Northamptonshire, is Riverside Manor. This 5,400 sq ft house, with river frontage, landscaped gardens and views, is priced at £1.35m through Carter Jonas.
Overseas purchasers remain rare. “In the main, British buyers move up the commuter line or motorway from the south,” says Richard Olliffe of Fine estate agency. Some agents report a growing number of buyers doing a “weekly commute” to London, staying in a pied-à-terre and returning to their main home for long weekends.
“We’ve had people returning to the UK from the Middle East and the US but the area’s perceived lack of proximity to London means Chinese and Russian buyers stay close to the M25,” says Olliffe.
But for many owners and buyers, a transaction is not an attractive idea because of HS2. Politicians on Buckinghamshire County Council oppose the scheme, saying: “We do not believe the business case stacks up” and promising to “strongly object”. Knight Frank has set up a team to advise owners and admits “hundreds of homes may have to be destroyed” while the values of thousands of other properties could be blighted.
It presents homeowners with a dilemma: to sell at a reduced price now, to a limited market willing to live with the disruption caused by HS2’s construction, or to wait to see whether day-to-day noise from the service is less than feared and causes only minimal impact on house values.
Former students at Stowe are called Stoics, and in a local market faced with such uncertainty, a stoical approach is exactly what is required.
● Unspoilt countryside – for now
● Relatively good links to London
● Good value properties on Northamptonshire fringes
● Years of HS2 uncertainty and construction blight
● Many small villages poorly served by public transport
● Heavy traffic at Stowe during Silverstone race weekends
What you can buy for ...
£100,000 A one-bedroom above-shop apartment in Buckingham
£1m A 19th-century four-bedroom Georgian villa with small grounds