2 July 2019

King West

Northamptonshire - The Overlooked County

 "For Lord Spencer, it’s only a question of time before more people start to cotton on to Northamptonshire’s good value, pretty countryside, high quality of life and excellent schooling."

 The Telegraph, featuring Stephen King, alongside Earl Spencer and others, discusses the merits of Northamptonshire living over the Home Counties.

 Northamptonshire - the overlooked county that has affordable homes and easy commutes into London - Arabella Youens in The Telegraph

Althorp, the Spencer family’s seat for more than 500 years, is quintessentially English. Set in 13,000 acres, the honey-coloured Grade I listed house is surrounded by gently rolling parkland filled with mature trees and woodland.

It lies 75 miles north of London, which is just 46 minutes by train from nearby Northampton. Yet few outside the county could pinpoint it on a map.

 Northamptonshire flies under the radar for many country house buyers. It’s as commutable as the Home Counties, as close to London as Berkshire is, and has villages pretty enough to rival anything the Cotswolds has to offer – and yet it’s not nearly as fashionable.

As a result, property prices offer comparative value. Figures from Savills show that houses in Northamptonshire are 41 per cent cheaper than in Oxfordshire and 24 per cent cheaper than in Hampshire. In the year to January 2019, the average price of a property in Northamptonshire was £247,818; in Oxfordshire it was £418,130.

The value gap between Northamptonshire and the Home Counties is considerable, agrees Stephen King of Market Harborough-based agents King West. He is selling Grade II* listed The Dower House at Rushton which has eight bedrooms and is set in 2.5 acres, for £1,950,000. He estimates that the same house would cost at least 50 per cent more if it were across the county line in Oxfordshire.

“You could sell a three-bedroom flat in Fulham and buy a really nice four or five bedroom house here in Northamptonshire”, says Northampton-based Quentin Jackson-Stops. “But the reality is that we don’t see many doing this; 75 per cent of the market we sell to will be local buyers.”

The reason is that it suffers from a lack of identity, believes Earl Spencer. “If you say Oxfordshire, everyone knows what you’re talking about. It’s the first syllable of Northamptonshire which puts people off – everyone assumes it’s up near Durham or Cumbria rather than south-central England. Things might be different if it was known as ‘Midhamptonshire’.”

To illustrate his point, he cites a recent conversation while recruiting for a position at Althorp with an applicant who was based in Norfolk. “The man told me flatly that he wouldn’t move anywhere further north and before I could explain the geography, he’d put the phone down.”

Outsiders haven’t done much to help Northamptonshire’s cause: the broadcaster Melvyn Bragg once quipped that the only thing to do there was to use the lavatory at the motorway service station. It’s an attitude that makes locals weary.

Recently, attempts have been made to address Northamptonshire’s reputation deficit. In 2017, James Lowther, a founding partner at advertising firm M&C Saatchi, spearheaded a campaign to put Northamptonshire on the map, with the tag-line “Northamptonshire: Britain’s best surprise”.

 Posters on the Tube highlighted little known trivia including that George Washington’s family come from the county (Sulgrave Manor); it’s home to the most important battlefield in England (Naseby); it was where Charles I was kept prisoner for five months (in Holdenby House); it spawned the world’s first garden gnomes (at Lamport Hall) and Northampton had a university as long ago as 1261.

 Earl Spencer admits that as a child he wasn’t too thrilled with the news that the family was moving to Althorp; he was brought up in Norfolk until he was 11 and knew little of the county. Now, aged 54, he takes delight in showing it off to relatives of his half-Canadian, half-Californian wide, Karen, Countess Spencer, and to guests who come to stay for the literary and food and drink festivals hosted at Althorp, which bookend the start and finish of the house opening period.

The county hasn’t always suffered from this lack of identity: dubbed the “county of squires and spires” it has more stately homes than any other in England, which means much of the countryside is preserved and protected. “Ironically, people used to know how lovely it was,” says Earl Spencer.

For every honey-coloured Cotswold beauty spot, Northamptonshire has a postcard-pretty village with houses built from the mellow, sandy ironstone which is quarried a mile down the road from Althorp at Harlestone, or, at the northern end of the long, slim county, in the whiter Lincolnshire limestone.

For decades, shoe manufacturing provided much of its financial heartbeat – Church’s shoes are still made in Northampton, and the musical Kinky Boots was based on the town. Now its industry is based predominantly in the technology and automotive sectors (80 per cent of the world’s Formula 1 cars are made in the county, which is also home to Silverstone.)

 Northamptonshire’s thorns are the main towns, says Crispin Holborow of Savills Private Office, who lives in the northern end of the county. Oundle, regarded by some as one of Britain’s best-preserved Georgian towns “is, by some margin, the prettiest,” he says, “but beyond that we lack any more ‘destination towns’. Northampton, Kettering and Corby are somewhat blighted by their manufacturing bases”.

What they do offer is excellent commutes, however. “Compare to the South East and South West, we’re incredibly lucky. Kettering is a fantastic line and Northampton is quick; getting a seat is rarely a challenge,” adds Holborow. Electrification of the Midlands Main Line is to be extended up to Market Harborough, which straddles the Northamptonshire/Leicestershire border, shaving time off the journey and improving train reliability.

The most desirable countryside lies near Cottesbrooke, Guilsborough and Lamport; as well as the villages around Oundle; and further south between Daventry and Banbury, where you can take advantage of the speedy Banbury commute to London Marylebone.

There are some standout villages including Church and Chapel Brampton (locally known as “Millionaire’s village”) and the Old Rectory in Lamport is regarded as one of the most beautiful houses around (the writer and illustrator Denys Watkins-Pitchford, aka BB, was born there in 1905). “But because of the vast number of stately homes, there aren’t as many classic country houses that come up for sale as there are in Oxfordshire or Hampshire,” adds Holborow.

“The Cotswold riches were founded on the wool trade, which resulted in two or three wool merchants’ houses in every village,” explains Jackson-Stops. “Here you’re lucky to find a village with a manor house as well as an old rectory and it’s not every day that they come up.” His agency is selling an exception: Grade II listed seven-bedroom manor house in Mears Ashby is in immaculate condition for £1.495 million.

There are no five-star hotels or Michelin starred restaurants. It’s more low-key, pub-oriented rural living. One theory to explain this is a strong Low Church bedrock that doesn’t believe in spending money fruitlessly. The payoff is that nobody bats an eyelid if Lord Spencer and his family show up for lunch in a pub. “There’s a camaraderie here that I don’t believe you get in what I call the ‘golf club counties’ where everyone appears to be more status-conscious,” he adds.

Something that Northamptonshire doesn’t lack is a wealth of good schools, including prep schools such as Maidwell and Spratton Hall, co-ed day school Wellingborough School and Oundle public school among others. “It’s one of the ways that outsiders get to know Northamptonshire. They send their children here to board and discover how pretty it is,” says King.

The Spencers are getting ready to host Althorp’s summer exhibition, Animals of Althorp, which opens on Monday. For Lord Spencer, it’s only a question of time before more people start to cotton on to Northamptonshire’s good value, pretty countryside, high quality of life and excellent schooling. “My wife is convinced it’s about to take off. If three or four groovy couples move to the county, that would be enough.”

Credit: Arabella Youens - Telegraph article Overlooked County Has Affordable Homes and Easy Commutes to London  29 June 2019

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