06 December 2007

Wild beauty, tamed prices

By Eric Jansson
Published by Financial Times, 1 December 2007

Even among UK property markets, hyped for more than a decade, few places have benefited as much as Alnwick, in north England. Ever since the magazine Country Life dubbed the Northumberland market town “the best place to live in Britain” in 2002, it has proved irresistible to many buyers.

Understated beauty, a pastoral setting near the North Sea, strong schools and services, a negligible crime rate, affordable prices, easy commuting links to upwardly mobile Newcastle upon Tyne and a fantasy factor – Alnwick Castle doubles as “Hogwarts” in the Harry Potter films – have made once-obscure Alnwick a property hound’s paradise. And, as a result, residential property prices rose 70 per cent faster than the UK average over the past five years.

Now, though, the market is starting to level out, with some agents warning investment-minded buyers off Northumberland as a whole. But nearby there may be another Alnwick-inwaiting – the little town of Rothbury, about 15 miles south-west – which has all the same advantages as well as the promise of continued growth.

With a population of about 2,000, Rothbury is a quarter the size of its better known neighbour and well entrenched in the wild beauty of the countryside, regarding itself as the “capital” of Coquetdale, an undulating agricultural area pressed up against the Northumberland National Park and the Cheviot Hills. Traditionally it has been more expensive than Alnwick, which has deterred house-hunters. And to outsiders it can feel distinctly remote. Yet all that is about to change.

Property prices are now on a level with those in nearby markets, having climbed just 20 per cent since 2002, well under the national average and the 80 per cent increase seen in Alnwick. In each town, the best two-bedroom houses now start at about £240,000; a four-bedroom detached house in Rothbury, with rich interiors and immense hillside views, is currently on the market for just less than £400,000, about the same as a four-bedroom townhouse in Alnwick.

Peter Bolam, owner of estate agency R.G. Bolam & Son, says that the market has recently become “static” due to combination of factors, including an unprecedented supply of new housing and the national credit crunch. But he thinks the long-term outlook is strong, given the town’s traditional role as an expensive area in the region and its attractions, both new and old.

Rothbury is also less remote than many people imagine. It’s true that the 30-minute drive from Alnwick involves a road that thins and bends into staggering wilderness, with moorland vistas opening up and a final descent into a deep pine forest. Yet, when one reaches the town, at the base of a valley, a separate road offers a shorter route to Newcastle. Commuting is entirely possible and increasingly popular, locals say.

“We are now on the periphery, if not just over the edge of the periphery,” says Bolam. Since Newcastle is pushing outward, this is just where many people want to be. So Rothbury is witnessing a period of dramatic development given its small size. On a south-facing slope at the far east end of town, work crews at the largest single development, Whitton View, are finishing off the construction of 97 new houses. With designs sympathetic to those in surrounding neighbourhoods, Bowey Homes, a developer acquired mid-project by Irish-owned McInerney Homes, won support from hesitant local authorities, which have long placed high priority on aesthetic and community considerations. The homes cost from £195,000 for a three-bedroom space to £335,000 for one with five bedrooms.

Several smaller developments have also recently placed about 100 new houses and flats on the market. The latest, still under way, is a tasteful conversion of the local cottage hospital into seven flats, following its closure in 2006. Although all are two-bedroom flats, they vary in price from £240,000 for an upstairs unit to £315,000 for ones on the ground floor with high ceilings and direct garden access.

These new projects are adding to the town without altering its feel. That conservative air – slow-paced, tucked between the hills, predominantly stone-built – will remain because Rothbury would lose so much of its value if it changed. “It has taken 20 years to determine how Rothbury could grow and now, as far as planners are concerned, [Whitton View] is probably going to be the last of its kind,” Bolam says.

Walking through the penthouse flat in the cottage hospital conversion, the foreman on the project says he reckons it and others will sell “in no time”. Indeed, one of the two ground-floor units was sold well in advance of completion and it’s easy to see why. The building neatly satisfies the demands of country-bound urbanites, who want their modern conveniences and minimalist styling packaged in old-fashioned frames.

Steven Bridgett, a local councillor, says officials are meanwhile working to ensure that Rothbury’s expansion does not outpace an increase in services. In most small British towns, for example, the closure of a hospital would be a signal of doom but last year saw the opening of the larger Rothbury Community Hospital to replace its 19th­ century predecessor.

The town has also expanded public bus links to Alnwick and Newcastle to provide evening and weekend services, which “was essential, especially for young people – and young people like me really want to stay in Rothbury,” says Bridgett, who is 20. “I would not want to live anywhere else.”

Similarly important for the town’s growing population of e-commuters was the installation of broadband capability in 2004, well in advance of many rural communities in Northumberland thanks to a push from proactive locals. And big strides can be seen among leisure facilities too. Rothbury Golf Club, located where the west end of town spills out into the Coquet Valley, doubled in size this year, expanding from nine holes to 18 and opening a new clubhouse. A public swimming pool re-opened after refurbishment in 2006 and, several years ago, the local tennis and bowling clubs combined to erect a new pavilion at the foot of the hill upon which Whitton View now stands. For a community of 2,000, this is remarkable progress.

New residents are already arriving, drawn not only by the new homes and amenities but also Rothbury’s historic attractions. As a functioning market town, it’s an unlikely survivor and its impressive line-up of stand-alone businesses – two banks, multiple grocers, a butcher, baker, chemist’s, florist, ironmonger, pubs, restaurants, hotels and many others – serve villages and farms throughout Coquetdale.

True, the Tesco supermarket delivery van has begun to make regular appearances, a development regarded ominously by some local shopkeepers. But Rothbury still attracts entrepreneurs who aim to settle and work locally – not just the southern buyers of holiday homes whose investments in many Northumberland villages have rendered them half-deserted most of the year.

One newcomer is Lorraine Armstrong, an interior designer who last May moved her studio to Rothbury’s High Street from Bedlington, an ex-mining town within Newcastle’s urban ring. She’s looking to buy a home too and says she sees plenty of attractive two- and three-bedroom options in town. Meanwhile, the ample stock of brand new and un-renovated houses – many of them old stone constructions – look likely to generate plenty of business for her. “So many of the houses have so much potential. I look at them and just think: ‘Oh, I could do this there and that there’,” she says.

Perhaps more importantly, the local community has given her a warm welcome. “I noticed when I was first moving in that everybody was excited, everybody was interested,” she says.

It helps that new arrivals are not flooding in too quickly, Bridgett says. You used to recognise everyone in the queue at the Co-op grocery shop and you do not any more. But people are still familiar enough that everybody still knows everybody’s business."

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