It didn’t surprise me when Karl Manning, head of residential sales at Savills Chelmsford, told me that sales in Essex in the first quarter of this year were up 167 per cent compared with last year.
Combine this with a lack of available properties, then add countless Londoners who are clamouring for houses to the mix and it’s easy to see why the roads and schools out in the east are slowly filling up.
It’s not just happening in the commuter belt; sales have gone through the roof further north in Norfolk – not only in the coastal areas but in villages close to Norwich, too.
According to Natalie Howlett-Clarke at the Savills Norwich office, “the speed at which sales have been agreed in Norfolk this year has been extraordinary. The fact that people are now expecting to commute to the office less, and Norfolk’s relative value for money when compared with other areas, make it highly desirable.”
Forget the north-south divide: it seems that there is evidence of a new east-west divide in the property market. Is Norfolk the new Cornwall? And is Suffolk becoming as desirable as Gloucestershire?
As Caroline Edwards, country property specialist at the Fenn Wright office in Woodbridge, observes: “Suffolk is the new Cotswolds but without the massive price tag.” Edwards is seeing properties in Woodbridge – which she describes as “the jewel in Suffolk’s crown” – sell within two days to a week. Most houses, she says, are selling for the guide price or above.
“Certainly in the past year, prices in the towns and villages close by have increased by about 10 per cent, with 4 per cent of that growth in this year alone.” Further south on the desirable Essex/Suffolk border the market is just as hot.
A five-bedroom house overlooking the River Stour in the pretty village of Bures (boasting an Ofsted-outstanding school and close to the highly regarded comprehensive secondary school Thomas Gainsborough) sold last month in just three days.
You might see more affordability and a bit less market intensity further west of Colchester towards Braintree, but at the risk of sounding like a saleswoman you had better hurry up; the Eastern penny has dropped and it is making quite a splash.
Savills reports in the first five months of this year a higher increase in sales of the £1 million-plus market in East Anglia than in the counties to the west of London, compared with the same period in 2019.
It is worth mentioning though that the counties to the west of London, ever popular, have still outperformed in the market as a whole. But there has been a sea change. Gone are the days when the world and his wife all head west onto the M4 and A3 in a quest for the countryside close to London. They have realised that there’s another option: to head eastwards past the Tower of London and Docklands – and beyond.
Sybilla Hart and family
‘It was our ambition to raise our family in the West Country – then we fell in love with a farmhouse in the east of England’
As someone who grew up in the wild and woolly countryside near Stroud in Gloucestershire, it had always been my and my husband Charlie’s ambition to raise our family in the West Country. Instead, we ended up moving to East Anglia.
I remember sitting in our noisy kitchen with our children playing (and fighting) at our feet asking Charlie if there was a place called Great Shouting. That would be the place for us!
There was a Great Yeldham over in Essex – so maybe we should check it out? We did just that. And what we found was an unspoilt rural area where avocados and coconut water were still viewed with suspicion and where time had apparently stood still.
Ten years ago we may have imagined our family home to have been in Cornwall (such is our love of the sea), Wiltshire or Devon, but we managed to narrow it down to the Coln Valley in Gloucestershire, the area we loved and knew best.
Cue about 40 house viewings (all with three rumbustious toddlers in tow) and eventually we found a chocolate-box cottage on a river, put in an offer – and had it rejected.
The house was going to be an enormous project, and given the ages of our children I wasn’t keen to take it on. Feeling depleted, I picked up an envelope containing the details of an old white farmhouse surrounded by cornfields in the Colne Valley in Essex close to where Charlie, my husband’s family were from.
The farmhouse was not in the area that we had set our hearts on (the other side of the country no less) but I felt we had to go and see it. As we turned into the drive, adorned with every species and shade of blossom under the sun, we caught a glimpse of a sparkling lake in the bottom right corner of the valley. It disappeared from view when we arrived at the wooden gates, playing its own game of peekaboo with us.
The plot is shaped in the same long and linear outline as the country of Israel and once you walk past the house and into the meadow (Charlie renamed it Skymeadow and wrote a book about it and named his art gallery after it) you catch another glimpse of the lake. At that moment we were sold – we moved in about four months later.
Though we missed (and still do) many family and friends “out west” our love affair with the east of England was about to take off. There seemed (don’t laugh) to be fewer roads and so much lichen on the trees. Charlie is an organic gardener and has created an oasis for wildlife here in our garden; I call it our own nature reserve.
In East Anglia we discovered Norman forts, estuaries flanked by medieval churches, bluebell woodlands, stunning mill ponds with cows grazing in nearby water meadows, populations of seals and finally, further north at the Catholic shrine of Walsingham, a gentle undulating valley peppered by streams.
I remember driving through the Dedham Vale in Suffolk exclaiming like an overexcited schoolgirl that I had been waiting my whole life to discover this countryside. This wasn’t the Cotswold escarpment or the red cliffs at Exeter, but it was every bit as breathtaking, if one must make comparisons.
Marshes, high tides and headlands
⇢ What to expect from Eastern terrain
When the topography is flat in East Anglia – such in the marshy Fens in Cambridgeshire – it is the sky that does the talking. My Essex neighbour, who grew up in Norfolk, says that living under East Anglian skies was akin to living by the sea, such was its irreplaceable beauty.
The sunsets that we are treated to in our gently undulating valley (thanks to the glacial ridges they are formed on) vary from a raspberry-ripple special effect in high summer to exploding peaches and halogen yellows in the winter months. During lockdown and the demands of homeschooling one look at the sunset was enough to put me on an even keel.
North Norfolk is flat (as remarked by Noël Coward) but it is also windswept, blessed with muddy tributaries where the ebb and flow of high and low tide brings families of crabs back and forth. The Brecks and the Broads are worth a visit too, with their unique looking panic-stricken trees and network of waterways.
Coastal market towns like Blakeney with flint cottages adorned with hollyhocks
Norfolk Broads natural waterways
Ancient cathedral cities such as Norwich
Sandy Suffolk riverbanks
Windswept beaches such as Holkham
Wide, open skies; flat or gently undulating countryside
Marshy seascapes reaching as far as the eye can see
Warmer drier summers; colder, windy winters
The best places to visit in the East
⇢ The Ramsholt Arms on the River Deben
Gastropub on the sandy shores of the prettiest river in Suffolk serving seafood and an American BBQ at weekends to sailors and sunseekers. The only south-facing pub on the River Deben, the sunsets here are legendary.
Overlooking the River Stour in Suffolk, the Swan at Henny has one of the best countryside settings in East Anglia. During the summer months paddle boards can be hired. The River Stour Trust runs boat trips to the Henny Swan from nearby Sudbury. If you arrive by canoe, please check the pub can accommodate before pulling your boat out of the water.
⇢ The Victoria Inn, Holkham
This super hotel and restaurant is the East Anglian answer to Oxfordshire’s Soho Farmhouse, right next to the beach at Holkham. Ask for the loft room – it is impossibly romantic.
Anmer Hall in north Norfolk is the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s second home, a Georgian pad near the Sandringham Estate and Hunstanton. Their elite, aristocratic group of friends in “the UK’s poshest county” have been dubbed “the Turnip Toffs”.
Emma Freud, wife and script editor to Richard Curtis, has a long-standing connection with the Arts-and-Crafts village of Walberswick on the Suffolk coast, which inspired Esther Freud’s novel The Sea House.
In Suffolk, you’ll also find Ed Sheeran in Dennington, Claudia Schiffer in Stanningfield and Bill Nighy in Aldeburgh. Actor Damian Lewis and the late Helen McCrory bought a second home in Sudbury, a market town on the River Stour near the Essex border.
Val Proctor and family
'People in the west can be insular and less open than those in the east’
Val Proctor and her husband Graham Papenfus (both 55) lived near Woodbridge and Ipswich in Suffolk for 10 years, where they enjoyed exploring the east of England. Six years ago, they moved west with their daughter Hannah, 23, to the Cotswolds.
“We moved to the Cotswolds in 2014. We’d lived in Suffolk, in the village of Hasketon near Ipswich and the historic riverside town of Woodbridge, for 10 years previously. We loved the proximity to the coast and exploring the countryside. We’d moved there from Hertford, so it was very rural in comparison.
“We used to go to Aldeburgh virtually every weekend in the summer for a seaside day out, or sometimes to Southwold. Aldeburgh has such a nice vibe, with lovely cafés and seafood shacks. I also used to go down to Felixstowe with a friend to swim in the sea. Once, we even got the ferry across from Harwich to Holland.
“Snape Maltings was another favourite haunt. It’s a world-class concert venue but I also loved the antique shops, boutiques and galleries. Graham was working as director of development at Ipswich School, the independent co-ed school (other independent schools in Suffolk include the Royal Hospital School, Woodbridge School, Framlingham College and St Joseph’s School).
Ipswich itself has some nice and some grotty parts. Christchurch Park is a lovely, large green space with ponds, tennis courts, wooded areas and a museum, Christchurch Mansion.
“We loved being close to Cambridge and the Norfolk Broads. But when my daughter finished her GCSEs, she wanted to do equine studies at Hartpury College near Gloucester. My husband also felt it was time for a change, so he got a new job at Dean Close School in Cheltenham.
We were excited about moving to a new area in the west of the country, closer to Wales. Initially we lived in Tewkesbury, and then my husband changed jobs again to work at Kingswood School in Bath.
“Next, we lived in Tetbury, and now we live just outside of Malmesbury. I work in PR, and there’s lots more opportunities for freelance work in Bath, Cheltenham, Gloucester and Bristol – all less than an hour away – than in Ipswich. Still, we miss the friends we made in Suffolk, and the coast. Going to the beach for the day here isn’t really an option. Instead, we drive to Daylesford for a farm lunch, and find rivers to swim in, like the River Avon.
“One of the other negatives is that it takes longer to get to London and trains are more expensive. The food is good: there’s a pub in Tetbury called the Royal Oak which is a favourite with us, as is the Blue Zucchini brasserie. I certainly think the Cotswolds villages are prettier. Six years on, we’re still discovering new villages at weekends.
“I’d definitely say this area is more moneyed and well-heeled. A lot of the people here have lived here all their lives. They can be insular and less open than people in the east of England.
There’s lots of second homes and tourists, so the social scene is hard to crack. Both in Suffolk and here we’ve belonged to the local tennis club. In Suffolk, we’d be around other people’s houses and having “dos” at the club all the time. Here, everyone is lovely, but we’ve never been invited to anybody’s house for dinner.
“We’re pleased we moved, and that we’ve experienced both the east and the west of the country. Our daughter made fantastic friends at Hartpury and thrived. Now, she’s a qualified veterinary nurse. She loves it here, and wouldn’t go back to Ipswich for all the tea in China.”
As told to Madeleine Howell
Dramatic, steep and thunderous
⇢ What to expect from Western terrain
In the West Country the Cotswold escarpment is wonderfully dramatic; you can climb to the top and sit with a view of the Bristol Channel at your feet. I grew up in a place called Bisley where if you went on a walk in the countryside around the village you might not be able to see for more than 50ft to your left or right, such was the drama of the landscape and surrounding valleys.
The north Cornwall headland is famous for being steep and thunderous, with more gentle, thickly wooded creeks in the south, but anyone visiting the Lizard, beware; its stark contours give north Cornwall a run for its money.
Fiercely dramatic coast and rolling countryside
Sandy coves, smugglers’ ports
Honey-coloured Cotswold stone villages with gentle streams running through them
Visit Symonds Yat in the Forest of Dean for some heart-stopping scenery
Independent boutiques and cafés in Cirencester
World class surfing at Polzeath in Cornwall
Wet winters, cool summers
The best places to visit in the West
⇢ Rusty Pig in Ottery St Mary
Tucked away in this sleepy village 15 minutes outside Exeter, The Rusty Pig is the very definition of a hidden gem. There’s no menu, but rather a “surprise” tasting menu of hyper-local seasonal produce (they are surrounded by farms). Sip a hedgerow cocktail in the alfresco area, then bag a table upstairs for a romantic evening or settle down at the large sharing table and watch the chef at work.
⇢ The Daneway near Cirencester
Traditional country pub nestled in the most idyllic Cotswold valley with a canal path at its feet. Camping with bathroom facilities and outdoor café.
⇢ The Bell at Sapperton, Gloucestershire
A gastropub in the pretty village of Sapperton which is both elegant and traditional. Children and horses welcome.
⇢ The Newt in Somerset
Upscale Georgian hotel set on a farm, with medieval herb garden, spa and cider orchards.
⇢ The Idle Rocks at St Mawes
Stunning interiors and setting, too. The bed linen matches the azure of the water below.
They divide their time between London, country homes in the chocolate-box villages surrounding “Chippy” and Soho Farmhouse members’ club. They include Jeremy Clarkson, the Beckhams, Amanda Holden, former pop star Alex James (who hosts the Big Feastival on his farm), David Cameron, Elisabeth Murdoch (daughter of Rupert) and JCB heir Lord Bamford.
Interior designer Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen lives in a manor house in Siddington, a small village near Cirencester. Jilly Cooper OBE lives in Bisley, near Stroud in Gloucestershire.
In Somerset, designer Alice Temperley has a manor house, Cricket Court, not far from fellow designers Stella McCartney and Phoebe Philo. Meanwhile, property guru Sarah Beeny has been gracing TV screens from Bruton in New Life In The Country.
For Sale: what a million will get you
In the West...
Hill Farm Cottage, near Bruern, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire
Guide price: £950,000
Oakfield, near Rosecare, Bude, Cornwall
Price: excess of £1m
Old Weavers Farmhouse, Wellow, Bath
Guide price: £965,000
In the East
Stisted Mill, Stisted, Braintree, Essex
Guide price: £1.15m
Porters Manor Farm, High Roding, Dunmow
Guide price: £1.195m
Barn Hall Cottage, High Street, Stock
Guide price: £925,000