Commuter watch: living on the farm

You don't have to be TV's Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to run a smallholding. Ruth Bloomfield finds three country areas where you can live the good life but still commute to the city
The Laurels
£750,000: The Laurels in Epping comes with 4.5 acres with paddocks and outbuildings and has a modern interior (01245 344222)
The siren call of the countryside starts as a small voice in the head of Londoners, reaching a louder pitch in summer when thoughts of self-sufficiency and small holdings creep into half-waking imaginations as the morning sun streams through the bedroom windows of Victorian semis in the suburbs.

But the trouble with the good life in the country is that, unless your name is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and you can parlay a book deal and spin-off TV series from your amateur farming, you are never going to make sufficient cash from your acres to give up the day job. But the halfway house is to buy a smallholding and still work while enjoying evenings and weekends on your land.

Research by estate agent Savills has identified three country areas within commuting range of the capital where house prices are relatively low - by home counties standards at least.

"There are a lot of people who want this kind of life," says Marcus Dixon, associate director of Savills, who carried out the research. "But to grow your own, and rear animals, means spending money and paying mortgages, so it is best to stay in work and near London."

Epping, Essex

Journey time: 45 minutes
Annual season ticket (Tube): £2,016
Average detached house price: £599,000
Average house price: £391,000
Land price per acre: £7,000
Ten-year price growth: 115 per cent

Essex is the spiritual home of the City boy made good, and prices peak in and around the smart town of Chelmsford. But if you hone your smallholding search closer to the tracts of farmland around Epping you will find glorious open country and prices that are perhaps 20 per cent lower.

Paddy Pritchard-Gordon, a partner at Knight Frank, believes that buyers in this area would pay around £750,000 for a large family house and gardens - and a couple of acres of land would add around five or ten per cent to the price.

"It is very popular with all the city boys because they want to be within an hour of their desks," he said. The downside is that Epping is a slow hack into London on the Central line, but on the other hand trains are more frequent and run later than mainline services.

And if you find your dream house but it lacks the land then Pritchard-Gordon says the neighbouring farmers might sell you an acre or two: you will inevitably pay above the going rate to extend your holding (perhaps £15,000 to £20,000 for two acres) but the bigger spread is as much an investment in your property as a loft extension or new kitchen.

And if a smallholding is "agriculturally tied" it means it can be occupied only by either a retired farmer or by someone whose main income is from the land. This does not rule out commuting - a family with one parent working in town and another at home with the kids can get around this rule, providing they find a way to sell their fresh eggs or organic veg for pin money.

£1,595 million: Falcon Fields
£1,595 million: Falcon Fields in Groombridge comes with outbuildings and large gardens with a pool (01892 501000)

Crowborough, East Sussex

Journey time: 63 minutes
Annual season ticket: £2,444
Average detached house price: £583,000
Average house price: £465,000
Land price per acre: £6,500
Ten-year price growth: 83 per cent

Crowborough is on the less desirable (southern) side of Tunbridge Wells and yet, sandwiched between The Weald and the South Downs, there is some truly outstanding countryside within a few miles of town where a pretty four-bedroom cottage with a couple of acres and perhaps a stable costs between £650,000 and £750,000.

Travel 15 minutes north to the more sought after village of Groombridge, however, and you could expect to pay £100,000 more for a similar property. It is quiet, close to Tunbridge Wells and there are some great schools. Crowborough itself has been smartened up - there is even a Waitrose if the chickens don't lay an egg.

The Farm in Fritwell
£875,000: The Farm, in Fritwell is a 17th century farmhouse with 1.37 acres and a barn, workshop, wood store and a paddock (01865 790077)

Bicester, Oxfordshire

Journey time: 61 minutes
Annual season ticket: £3,780
Average detached house price: £463,000
Average house price: £375,000
Land price per acre: £6,500
Ten-year price growth: 90 per cent

The open country around Bicester, home of the UK's most famous discount shopping outlet, is full of possibility for would-be smallholders.

The most expensive option is to the south - but its proximity to Oxford means a five-bedroom period house with five acres would cost in the region of £800,000 to £1 million, according to Robert Russell, a partner at Fisher German. Head west to the glorious Cherwell Valley, however, and a similar property would cost in the region of £750,000 to £900,000.

To the east lies the Aylesbury Valley, a more flat, agricultural landscape, but prices fall again to around £700,000 to £800,000 for the same sort of house. North of Bicester is closest to the station, where you would pay between £700,000 and £900,000 for your five-acre holding.

London will not be quick because the train journey is a shade over an hour - with a drive to the station to consider, too. But since recent Office for National Statistics data showed that one in five Tube commuters spend an hour or more underground every morning, it is certainly doable.

Russell says the classic smallholder buyers are 35- to 45-year-old couples with young children who work in London but often have country roots and want a few acres for chickens and maybe a couple of ponies for the children. "It is a niche market and the supply of this kind of property is very limited," he warns. "It certainly increases saleability: for a normal house we might get five to 10 viewings, but [a smallholding] might attract 15 to 20."

Things to consider

* There are legal complications with hobby farming you must consider. If you are basically buying a house with a huge garden and some useful outbuildings check with the local authority about whether you are going to need planning consent to convert them for agricultural use - turning a barn into a stable may seem a minor change, but not all councils will agree.

* Land price per acre is based on agricultural prices - prices for private sales to smallholders will be significantly higher

'We really loved London but this lifestyle is just totally rewarding,'

Steve Malkin and family
Charlie with Mum, Dad and brothers Will, 16, and Tom, 12, and some of their menagerie
When Steve Malkin and his wife, Ros, first met they lived in Marylebone but started creeping southwards, first to Bromley, then to a village near Sevenoaks in Kent, and finally, in 2007, to a smallholding near Mayfield, East Sussex. The four-bedroom 1930s property cost them £625,000. They then bought an additional five acres of land, which, together with clearing, fencing and building stabling, cost them a further £50,000 but the whole lot is valued today at £750,000.

"We really loved London but this lifestyle is just totally rewarding," says Steve, 45. He and Ros, 43, and their three sons - Will, 16, Tom, 12, and Charlie, seven - care for a menagerie: a herd of rare-breed Manx Laughton sheep, three pigs, a flock of chickens and ducks. They also grow vegetables.

Steve commutes to Blackfriars most days, where he runs an environmental consultancy, Planet Positive (, which advises on sustainability. It is a tough 90 minutes to work. "But the commute is completely worth it," he says. "You do have to be organised at home - and even Charlie helps collecting eggs. But it is not that hard, probably an hour and a half a day, and we all share it, which is fantastic, the best thing." They reckon their smallholding probably just about breaks even. Steve adds: "It is a lifestyle and we really love it.

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