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The exodus to Kent! Why the chicest Londoners are decamping to the south east coast

 (ES)
(ES)

Before one of her friends announced that she was moving to Folkestone, Rosie Percy would not have been able to place the town on a map. But she accepted an invitation to visit, and something about this arty, regenerating seaside town on the Kent coast got right under her skin.

Rose Percy in Folkestone, Kent (Lucy Young)
Rose Percy in Folkestone, Kent (Lucy Young)

“For me, what stuck out was the green space, the burgeoning restaurant and bar scene, and the creative community,” she explained. “Then people started telling me about a new mindset, the Folkestone F**k It. You don’t have to look perfect here, you don’t have to be cool. You can be authentic. It’s not like London in that way.”

Percy first visited Folkestone in 2018 and in 2021, untethered from the office by the pandemic, she decided to relocate. Since then she has become a homeowner for the first time, has started a side hustle running events to help new arrivals meet like-minded friends, and feels like she has finally found her sweet spot in life. “It has been a very healing experience for me,” she said.

Folkestone (Lucy Young)
Folkestone (Lucy Young)

Kent has long been a natural next step for Londoners looking to change their life. It has glorious countryside, a long coastline, some of the best state and private schools in the UK.

The arrival of high-speed rail in the early Noughties pushed the focus towards the affordable east Kent coast. High-profile cheerleaders like Tracey Emin (Margate’s most renowned resident), jeweller Stephen Webster and his wife Assia (who have a spectacular clifftop house between Deal and Dover), producers Hamish McAlpine and Carole Siller (Broadstairs), and Frieze founder Matthew Slotover (who recently opened the super-chic Fort Road Hotel in Margate) have all driven interest in Kent’s seaside towns. There’s also, of course, the Turner Contemporary art gallery in Margate and the redevelopment of the Harbour Arm in Folkestone, now full of restaurants, cafés and boutiques — and simple word of mouth.

Tracey Emin at the opening of her TKE Studios and T.E.A.R in Margate (Dave Benett)
Tracey Emin at the opening of her TKE Studios and T.E.A.R in Margate (Dave Benett)

The ripple of buyers reached a frenzied peak during the the pandemic and there are locals who grumble about how the DfL (Down from London) brigade have hiked property prices beyond their means. But it is also true that newbies have invigorated towns with their entrepreneurial spirit, opening cafés and restaurants, art studios and architectural practices, and their sheer enthusiasm for immersing themselves in their new communities. Exclusive research by estate agency Hamptons shows that over the past five years house price growth in Kent has been concentrated along the coast. The winner, by some distance, is arty, gritty Margate, where prices have leaped by 33 per cent since 2018 to an average of £306,000.

While it doesn’t have Margate’s profile, another stand-out property performer is Deal. Prices have jumped 32 per cent since 2018, to an average £390,000. Deal has enjoyed one of those Peckham-style property transformations over the past decade or so. “I grew up around here and in the Nineties you didn’t go to Deal on a Friday or a Saturday night, because it wasn’t safe,” said Becky Lead, director of Bright & Bright estate agents.

What transformed Deal’s fortunes was the arrival of high-speed rail. Lead moved to the town herself in 2009, relocating from genteel Sandwich, because she could get more house for her money in Deal. She wasn’t the only person who began to realise that they could snap up high-grade, aspirational property — think Georgian townhouses, Victorian villas, and fishermen’s cottages — for less than the price of a basic London flat.

The Rose, Deal (The Rose)
The Rose, Deal (The Rose)

High-profile openings like The Rose, the pub/boutique hotel owned by brewing heir Christopher Hicks and revamped with the help of his partner, ex-Wallpaper* magazine editor Alex Bagner, have helped put the town on the map, as have events like the Deal Music and Arts Festival.

Other outperformers since 2018 include Broadstairs and Folkestone. Both have enjoyed price growth of 26 per cent, hitting average prices of £422,520 and £289,000 respectively.

Before her move Rosie Percy and her flatmate were paying £1,400pcm for a basic flat in Crystal Palace. She swapped it for a two-bedroom flat in Folkestone, shared with her now ex-boyfriend, which cost £975pcm. Percy, 34, began saving hard and by last November she was able to buy her first home, a one-bedroom period flat, which cost £169,000.

Rosie Percy in Folkestone (Lucy Young)
Rosie Percy in Folkestone (Lucy Young)

Becoming a homeowner was, initially, overwhelming. “I cried for about a week just because of the burden of realising that I was going to have to be solely responsible,” she said. But she quickly threw herself into redoing the flat, which was all white gloss and magnolia paint, into the “maximalist mid-century” style she prefers.

Percy, whose day job is audience development manager for a publishing company, had set up an Instagram page about Folkestone a couple of years previously (@coolasfolke). Sharing her transition to full-time resident helped her build up a found family. “I was very emotionally open, talking about my devastating break up — it wasn’t just #brunch!” she said. “That was really pivotal to me making friends.”

This summer Percy started running events for Folkestone newbies to help others make the same transition. “I am making an active effort to bury myself into this local community,” she said.

While the DfLs have boosted house price growth on the coast, Kent’s classic commuter honeypot towns, where high prices rule out a lot of younger buyers, have been less compelling. Prices in Sevenoaks increased by respectable but not stellar 20 per cent in five years, to £841,000, Tonbridge prices are up 18 per cent, to £408,000, and Royal Tunbridge Wells could only manage price growth of eight per cent to £478,000.

This year, however, a reversal of fortunes is starting to emerge. The cost-of-living crisis and interest rate bumps mean that of the 19 towns and villages analysed by Hamptons, just over half have seen prices fall in the last 12 months. More drops look inevitable in the coming months as recent rate hikes start to bite.

Back in Deal, Lead has noticed prices starting to drop, but she isn’t too concerned. “I feel that prices got over-inflated during Covid and what is happening is more of a correction after an artificial period of inflation,” she said.

“People are not prepared to pay silly prices anymore. We definitely find that people are much more cautious, but deals are still being done. It is just a very static market at the moment.”

High St Sevenoaks (Alamy Stock Photo)
High St Sevenoaks (Alamy Stock Photo)

In Sevenoaks, meanwhile, annual price growth is still, for now, in the black. The town has been, for generations, the blue chip choice for City workers looking for a place in the country and buyers continue to aspire to a TN13 postcode.

“It has got really good schools, it is a 25-minute train journey from London, and it has got a green, leafy feel,” said Will Bankes, director of Humberts estate agents. Most of his clients are in their thirties, have a property in London to sell, and either have young children already or are hoping to start a family. “They are people who had always planned to have their party years in London and then move to the country to have a family,” he said.

Rob Sabin, sales director at Miles & Barr, tips dingy Dover as one to watch. The town hasn’t — yet — seen stirrings of boutique hotels and cool restaurants and buyers will have to overlook its Brexity reputation. But the local scenery is spectacular, it has pockets of exceptionally affordable Georgian townhouses ripe for renovation, and developers have already started investing in its potential with schemes like the redevelopment of the town’s Connaught Barracks.

Edward Church, head of Kent agency at Strutt & Parker, thinks the ongoing regeneration of Folkestone, where local businessman Roger de Haan — scion of the Saga retirement brand — has been investing heavily in improving its town centre and in building upscale new homes, will continue to appeal to buyers. Regency Ramsgate is also smartening up its act, with new openings like Little Ships restaurant and Archive home store-cum-café enlivening its picturesque harbour.

Ramsgate waterfront (Alamy Stock Photo)
Ramsgate waterfront (Alamy Stock Photo)

And Church thinks the new train station, Thanet Parkway, which opened just outside Ramsgate in July, will encourage buyers too. “Commuters living in Ramsgate, Sandwich and the nearby villages can suddenly get into London in just over an hour, which will surely translate into even more of a price premium than these areas already see,” he said.