There are more Londoners heading for the hills than ever before - the Cotswold hills, that is.
Estate agents in its biscuit-coloured villages, with their farmers' markets and manor houses, report a record number of enquiries from people seeking an escape from the capital to a cute high street cottage or one of those irresistibly handsome 18th-century family homes that have captured many hearts, including those of Elizabeth Hurley, Kate Winslet and Kate Moss - and a host of less-famous yummy mummies.
'In the Golden Valley just south of Stroud, canal restoration has been transforming waterways'
But the price of being hugged by Middle England in "Posh-tershire", that hallowed Gloucestershire triangle between Cirencester, Burford and Stow-on-the-Wold, is rising rapidly.
We went in search of a cheaper alternative, a cut-price Cotswolds, in the Golden Valley just south of Stroud where canal restoration has been transforming locks and bridges, waterways and properties that will be very attractive to newcomers who know where to search for a sound investment. According to Hamptons International, homes by water are 18 per cent more expensive in London and hiked by 21 per cent everywhere else.
The Cotswolds, like London, have a north-south divide, with prices in the south up to 50 per cent cheaper. The south, say locals, is the real Cotswolds, where the legacy of its proud industrial past can be seen in the rows of pretty workers' cottages interspersed with classic Cotswold stone houses. You could pick up a small period house for less than £250,000.
The area is in the spotlight because work has just started on the first phase of a Lottery-funded £11.9 million project to revive a six-mile stretch of the Cotswold canals, between Brimscombe and Stonehouse, that has been impassable by boat since the Forties. Clearing and rebuilding the canal, installing new locks and bridges and restoring the towpath will turn it into a "six-mile water park", according to Clive Field of the Cotswold Canal Trust.
The project will take four years, and the trust is now negotiating with the Heritage Lottery Fund for the second phase to clear more of the canal, linking it to the River Severn to the west and the Thames in the east.
The towns and villages along the canal are very commutable. None is more than three miles from Stroud, and trains to Paddington take a shade over 90 minutes. An annual season ticket costs a steep £8,044 but the cost of living is cheaper, the quality of life is high, schools are good and the locations are delightful.
Brimscombe and Thrupp
The new canal will start at the village of Brimscombe and then run on through neighbouring Thrupp. Stephen Harris, business manager of Murrays estate agents, admits neither would win a prize for the prettiest Cotswold village, although competition for that particular title is fierce.
However, both have their charms, and you could pick up a Georgian or early Victorian two-bedroom cottage for between £175,000 and £200,000, a proper Cotswold stone cottage with three bedrooms for £300,000 to £400,000, or a large family house for between £500,000 and £600,000. Similar properties in more favoured locations would cost seven figures.
Harris believes that the reason for the two villages' off-radar feel is that they were home to mill workers in the Victorian era, leaving a legacy of many small houses and fewer grand manors. On the downside, Thrupp is short on facilities, but only about a mile from Stroud. Brimscombe has a pub, The Ship, and a handful of village shops.
Both villages sit on the fringes of The Commons, some 600 acres of National Trust-owned open space, and are just a 40-minute drive away from Bath or Bristol. The next stop on the new canal is the enchantingly named Butterrow Hill, a tiny hillside village below the stunning Rodborough Common.
Homes in the village include red-brick Victorian terraces, priced at about the £250,000 mark for two bedrooms. Expect to pay between £200,000 and £300,000 for a three-bedroom Cotswold stone house.
The next stop is Bowbridge, perilously close to Stroud and less quaint than its neighbour. Bowbridge is dominated by flats, mostly new-build, although properties in converted mills sometimes come up. This is less a Cotswolds village and more a Stroud suburb, although you could pick up a two-bedroom waterside apartment for about £100,000.
The canal passes south of Stroud, dissecting the unremarkable suburbs of Wallbridge and Cainscross. The next real gem on its path is Ebley. "We are not pretentious around here," says Cliff Jones, director of Parkers estate agents. "But it is a lovely part of the world." A two-bedroom Victorian cottage in the village would cost about £130,000, while Cotswold stone cottages range from £150,000 for two bedrooms to about £350,000 for four bedrooms.
Ebley boasts that critical ingredient of village life, a pub - The Coach and Horses - as well as a village shop and a gym, and the centre of Stroud is less than two miles away. Jones believes that Ebley, once traffic-clogged, has come into its own since the opening of a bypass in the Nineties. "Now that the canal is opening again, Ebley is on the up: it is a really easy commute and you can walk to Stroud along the towpath," he says.
If Ebley and its neighbours are too short on facilities for your liking, then Stonehouse, at the end of the revived canal, and its satellite suburb Ryeford, might be a more lively option. "Stonehouse is small but it has its own identity," says Martin Woolford, a partner at Location estate agents.
With a population of about 5,000, Stonehouse feels minuscule by London standards, but it has a busy high street with everything from a bookshop to (three) banks, a station five minutes further along the London line than Stroud, and schools. Park Junior School is rated "good" by Ofsted, while Maidenhill School, for seniors, could only manage "satisfactory” - although local parents maintain that standards are improving.
The half-timbered Wool Pack is a perfect country pub, and locals rate the food at the Stonehouse Court Hotel. The town is three miles from Stroud and five from Gloucester, so there is plenty of nearby retail opportunity.
Stonehouse was once home to a brickworks, and the evidence can be seen on its streets. Despite the name, houses there tend to be red-brick rather than stone, and you could buy a three-bedroom terrace for between £170,000 and £180,000, or a detached house for up to £450,000. Stone houses are more of a rarity but are competitively priced. You could buy a three-bedroom terrace for below the Stamp Duty threshold of £250,000, which is extraordinary value for the chance to boast of owning a Cotswolds bolthole.