Countryside appeal: four pretty, bustling commuter towns popular with increasingly young London leavers

·8-min read
Manningtree in Essex sits on the River Stour  (Alamy Stock Photo)
Manningtree in Essex sits on the River Stour (Alamy Stock Photo)

Moving to the countryside, with its pretty landscapes, quaint cottages for half the price of a London flat, and rustic pub lunches sounds lovely. But the trouble with life beyond London is that after a while all that wide open space and bucolic charm can get a bit, well, boring.

Especially since, during the pandemic, people exiting the capital have started getting younger. Traditionally it was a move to be made when children were in their teens. But today six in 10 buyers of properties outside of London are in their 20s, 30s or 40s, according to research from Knight Frank. And almost 70 per cent of buyers in the home counties have yet to celebrate their 50th.

For country life without (too much) compromise, these are the towns where you will find live music, wild swimming, top quality restaurants, festivals and lots and lots of like-minded ex-Londoners.

Manningtree, Essex

Prices: The average property will put you back £323,100, which, despite a 1 per cent dip in the pandemic, is up 51 per cent over 10 years.

The commute: An hour to Liverpool Street.

After 14 years in Nunhead, the pandemic convinced Catherine and Paul Arnold to exchange south-east London for Essex. In December 2020, the couple, both 50, plus their children Bonnie, 12, and Buddy, eight, exchanged their “tiny little terrace” for a four-bedroom house. They got a cockapoo called Dave and have found life in this small but perfectly formed town a revelation.

“During lockdown I craved the countryside,” says Catherine, a nutritional therapist. “We also needed more space, and you get far more for your money in Manningtree.”

A healthy lifestyle is particularly important to this family since Paul, who works for a record company, survived leukaemia in 2007. Forget supermarket shops — today their food is mostly locally grown or bought at Manningtree’s wholefood shop.

During their downtime they swim with the Manningtree Mermaids, a wild swimming group that takes daily dips in the River Stour. They also go kayaking and kite-surfing from the many nearby beaches along the Suffolk and Essex coasts. “Bradfield Beach is just heavenly,” says Catherine. “Its waters are crystal clear and wild samphire is growing, it is out of this world.”

Catherine Arnold loves Manningtree for the community and healthy lifestyle (Emilie Sandy)
Catherine Arnold loves Manningtree for the community and healthy lifestyle (Emilie Sandy)

Walking and running are new-found pleasures as Manningtree is right by the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a landscape made famous by the paintings of John Constable.

The town’s high street is full of cute cafes and restaurants. Catherine recommends Lucca, a rustic Italian restaurant, as well as its sister seafood restaurant, The Mistley Thorn.

They have also thrown themselves into local life, from the sailing club to shows at the Manifest Theatre and gigs at the Red Lion pub or Winyl, which sells a dream combination of music and wine.

Catherine recommends seafood restaurant The Mistley Thorn (Mark Bolton Photography)
Catherine recommends seafood restaurant The Mistley Thorn (Mark Bolton Photography)

Later this month, the family will be attending Manningtree Earth, with its emphasis on music, food and sustainability. Because Manningtree a eco-friendly place where many businesses have stopped using unnecessary single-use plastics, the Manningtree Mermaids has joined forces with Surfers Against Sewage to campaign for better water quality, and the local community group Pace has planted a community orchard. “I can’t tell you how enriched my live has been since we moved here,” says Catherine.

Stroud, Gloucestershire

Prices: The average sale price is £266,200, up 13 per cent during the pandemic and 41 per cent over the past decade.

The commute: About an hour and a half to Paddington.

Designer Jasper Conran once described this Gloucestershire town as the “Covent Garden of the Cotswolds” and it is has certainly got more than its fair share of boutiques, specialist shops, art galleries and bookshops, set on charmingly narrow town centre streets.

For sustenance you can shop at its award-winning Saturday farmer’s market, pop into Wilder to see what’s on its eight-course surprise tasting menu or go casual at the Star Anise Arts Café. Not hungry? Then go see a band at The Subscription Room, a film at the cinema or a play at the Cotswold Playhouse.

Stroud has plenty of boutiques, specialist shops, art galleries and bookshops (Alamy)
Stroud has plenty of boutiques, specialist shops, art galleries and bookshops (Alamy)

Then of course there is the Cotswolds on the doorstep — and being south of the A40, this is “real” countryside, not smug Chipping Norton-style rural.

Sean Sage, senior branch manager at Peter Joy estate agency, has seen an increased number of Londoners moving to this town since the pandemic. “If they only have to be in the office a couple of days a week they can live wherever they choose,” he says.

Most of these exiles have a child or two in tow and they choose Stroud for its great schools and open space. “If you go for a five-minute walk you are pretty much in the countryside,” says Sage. Property prices are also appealing. You could pick up a three-bedroom Edwardian terrace for about £500,000 or a two-bedroom period flat for around £220,000, estimates Sage.

While Stroud is great on café culture and kerb appeal, buyers who turn up expecting to find London-style nightlife will be disappointed. “There is a good music venue, a couple of good bars, but not a lot else,” he says. “A lot of people move here for the benefit of their kids, and I think Stroud fits nicely into people’s changing priorities.”

Bruton, Somerset

Prices: The average price in the town stands at £403,500, up 24 per cent in the past two years and 76 per cent in the past decade.

The commute: About two hours to Paddington.

Arty and fashion types have enthusiastically adopted this sweet, ancient Somerset town just west of Cranborne Chase. Its community now includes designers Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo and Alice Temperley, plus jeweller Solange Azagury-Partridge and film director Sam Taylor-Johnson.

In 2019, Merlin Labron-Johnson, 31, swapped a flat in Haggerston for a rented townhouse in the village. “The contrast could not have been more stark,” he says.

Since then, Labron-Johnson — who worked on the launches of two Marylebone restaurants, Portland and Clipstone — has been dizzyingly busy. He has opened a restaurant, Osip, which has already won a Michelin star, set up two farms to grow his own produce and launched a wine bar, The Old Pharmacy.

Merlin Labron-Johnson has launched Osip restaurant in Bruton (Maureen Evans)
Merlin Labron-Johnson has launched Osip restaurant in Bruton (Maureen Evans)

“I grew up in the countryside, always in quite remote and beautiful places, and I didn’t want to live in London anymore,” he explaines. “Bruton seemed like a very attractive place for a restaurant.”

He says the town’s ritzy reputation isn’t an unfair one, but the rich and famous happily rub along with locals to form a tight knit community. “It is funny because you can walk along the high street in the evening and it seems very quiet, and then you go into a bar or a restaurant and it is full of people.”

Given his workload, Labron-Johnson has little in the way of downtime and regularly returns to London to visit his girlfriend who still spends part of the week in Haggerston. But he does find time to visit the Hauser & Wirth, a gallery set up by arty power couple Iwan Wirth and Manuela Hauser in 2014 after they moved from Holland Park to Bruton.

Pretty Bruton is a hit with arty types (Alamy Stock Photo)
Pretty Bruton is a hit with arty types (Alamy Stock Photo)

It is currently showing an exhibition of work by Henry Moore, and Labron-Johnson also enjoys a stroll around its stunning gardens and a browse in its shop. Predictably, Bruton High Street isn’t your average provincial mash up of tea shops and farm shops. You can buy vintage fashion at Swank Vintage, take potluck at Matt’s Kitchen, where a single set menu is served every night (and free meals are being offered to families struggling with the cost of living crisis), or stock up on organic groceries at Bruton Wholefoods.

Labron-Johnson’s only criticism of his town is that spiralling prices mean that it is hard for locals, including his own staff, to find anywhere to buy or rent in the village. “It is frustrating,” he says. “But I’m not sure what you do about it.”

Cranbrook, Kent

Prices: The average sale price is £556,300, up 10 per cent during the pandemic and 34 per cent in the past decade.

The commute: A six-mile drive to Staplehurst, then just over an hour to Charing Cross.

This achingly pretty market town, dotted with clapboard houses and windmills, is set in the heart of the Kentish Weald so it certainly has the quintessential looks exiting Londoners yearn for.

The presence of the Ofsted outstanding Cranbrook School, one of the UK’s top performing state schools, means ambitious parents fight to move within its catchment area. And, of course, there are Kent’s grammar schools all around.

Cranbrook is dotted with cute shops and windmills (Daniel Lynch)
Cranbrook is dotted with cute shops and windmills (Daniel Lynch)

Its also super for foodies. The Hartley Coffee House and Farm Shop is packed with delectables and there is also a traditional butcher, a micropub, Larkins Alehouse, and independent cafes.

For culture, Grierson Galleries puts on regular shows and The Queen’s Hall Theatre adds film screenings and comedy nights to the mix. Gatwick Airport is close by, as is Ashford for quick trips across to Paris on the Eurostar.

Alec Cox, associate director of Lambert & Foster estate agency, estimates that some two thirds of his buyers during the pandemic have been moving out of London.

“They are families in their 30s and 40s, with one or two children,” he says.

“Often they have moved to London to build their careers, met their partners, and are now moving back to the countryside. But although we are surrounded by green fields, I think that because we are so close to London they don’t feel too remote.”

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