Sitting in rolling Hertfordshire countryside 25 miles due north of London, between the M1 and A1 motorways, is Harpenden. This prosperous small town grew up around a large green which stretches south from the high street, offering views of the woods and countryside beyond.
This is where Lady Katherine Ferrers, the famous highwaywoman, terrorised the neighbourhood and where, in the nearby village of Wheathampstead, there is a pub, the Wicked Lady, named after her. On the common itself, another pub, the Silver Cup, recalls the horse races that ran there until the beginning of the First World War — attracting both racegoers and hordes of pickpockets who made the journey by train from London.
Today, though, Harpenden is perhaps best known as the location of the Rothamsted Research Centre, the country’s largest agricultural research organisation started in the 19th century by Sir John Bennet Lawes, who invented phosphate fertilisers and who has been called the “father of agricultural science”.
Next to the research centre is Rothamsted Park — all 56 acres of it — an ideal place for families, and summer fun and games.
Harpenden started life as a small village but grew and prospered as a commuter town after the arrival of the railway in 1860. Even today, locals say they are “going to the village” when they visit the high street.
Harpenden’s expansion left a legacy of red-brick Victorian, Edwardian and vernacular-style houses built in the years between the two world wars and much of the town enjoys the protection of being in a conservation area, one of the largest in Hertfordshire.
Tim Pearse of the Harpenden branch of estate agents Strutt & Parker, says the town is a magnet for families moving out of London. “The attractive high street, the open spaces, excellent communications and good state schools are the key ingredients,” he said.
Properties in Harpenden: Harpenden has some lovely houses. There are large detached Victorian and Edwardian houses on spacious plots, smaller semi-detached and terrace houses, and some very well-detailed Twenties and Thirties detached houses. There are also more modern houses and flats.
The area attracts: many buyers are from London and commute daily to the capital, but there is also a healthy local market, with people trading up and down the property ladder.
Staying power: once settled here, there is little reason to leave.
Renting: Bernadette Oliver, head of lettings at Savills’ Harpenden office, says she has recently let to a number of tenants from overseas who are relocating to the UK. “I am also letting to families who have sold their houses and are waiting to see which way the property market blows before buying again.”
Postcode: Harpenden has the AL5 postcode, the most desirable of all the 10 St Albans postcodes.
Best roads: mock-Tudor houses built in the Twenties by local firm EC Jarvis in the West Common area are particularly desirable, selling for between £1.3 million and £3 million.
Large Edwardian detached houses in the roads known as The Avenues, to the west of the high street, sell for between £1.8 million and £3 million, and in the Poets’ Corner roads — named after the likes of Shakespeare, Milton and Cowper — east of the high street and close to the station, houses sell for between £750,000 and £1.5 million.
What’s new: The Foresters and Forester Mews (Strutt & Parker 01582 343172) is a development of 18 flats and three mews cottages in the Edwardian style behind the high street by Jarvis Group. The remaining mews house is on the market for £565,000, and two-bedroom flats start at £595,000.
Bennet’s Lodge (John Curtis 01582 764471) is a development of 10 two-bedroom flats by Oakbridge Homes with prices starting at £525,000, due for completion later in the year.
Up and coming: there are no undervalued areas in Harpenden, but according to Tim Pearse of Strutt & Parker, Sixties and Seventies family houses represent value for money and can be imaginatively remodelled both externally and internally.
Getting an education
Harpenden’s exceptional state schools are one of the main reasons families make a beeline for the town, and why house prices are higher than surrounding areas.
Almost all Harpenden’s state primary schools are judged either “good” or “outstanding” by Ofsted, as are Redbourn Junior School in nearby Redbourn and St Helen’s CofE in Wheathampstead.
A consortium of charities has won permission from Education Secretary Michael Gove to open a new free school for 240 pupils of primary age in September. St Hilda’s (ages two to 11) is a private girls’ school in Douglas Road and the King’s School (co-ed ages 11 to 16) is an independent evangelical Christian school in Ambrose Lane. Aldwickbury School (boys four to 13) is an independent prep school.
Harpenden has three state secondary schools, all judged “outstanding”, all co-ed taking pupils aged 11 to 18. St George’s School in Sun Lane takes boarders, and there are also two academies — Roundwood Park in the road of the same name and Sir John Lawes in Manland Way.
Shops and restaurants
The high street has a mix of chain stores and independent shops. Town Garden has accessories for the garden and home, and Anna is a small high-end fashion chain with branches in Chelsea, Primrose Hill, Burnham Market, Saffron Walden and Bury St Edmunds.
There are three supermarkets in town: Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and the Co-op. Off the high street, in Thompsons Close, Breathing Space is a day spa with a café. There are chain restaurants in the form of Pizza Express, Strada and Prezzo, but there are also lots of pubs offering a variety of fare from Thai to pizzas. The White Horse at Hatching Green and the Fox on the northern edge of town are both very popular local gastropubs.
There are also shops along the Southdown Road including Jay’s Delicatessen. The Auberge du Lac at Brocket Hall is the nearest fine dining restaurant.
As well as its famous common, Harpenden has an abundance of parks. The Harpenden Carnival and Highland Games are held in the huge Rothamsted Park, which is also home to Harpenden Football Club and has a skate park.
The Nikey Line is a walking and cycling route along the disused railway line which once connected Harpenden to Hemel Hempstead. The Woodland Trust is in the process of establishing a large new forest at nearby Sandridge.
Leisure and the arts: the nearest council-owned swimming pool is at the Harpenden Leisure Centre. Golf is a popular activity locally, and Harpenden has two golf clubs. The Harpenden Common Golf Club is an 18-hole course on the common, while the Harpenden Golf Club is an 18-hole parkland course on Redbourn Lane.
Travelling: Harpenden is close to the M1, A1 and the M25. Trains to St Pancras take around 30 minutes and an annual season tickets costs £3,304 (£4,000 with Tube extension).
Council: St Albans district council is Conservative controlled and the annual council tax for the 2011/2012 year is £1,495.62.