Top market towns and commuter hotspots: the only way is... Essex

Essex's good-looking market towns are going up in the world, thanks to quick train links to the City and a strong house price growth.
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Ever since a certain reality television show introduced us to Joey Essex and co, the county in which it is set has been seen as a bit flashy.  But if you look beyond the Sugar Hut nightclub and the false eyelashes,  Essex has some wonderful market towns, with quick train links to the City and a healthy disdain for glitz.

A study by Knight Frank of prices in 10 market towns has identified Waltham Abbey as the top performer of the past year, with prices up 9.9 per cent to an average £252,689, closely followed by Saffron Walden.

Waltham Abbey has long been a refuge for City workers. It hugs the north side of the M25 and rush-hour trains from neighbouring Waltham Cross to Liverpool Street take only 29 minutes — an annual season ticket costs £1,856. 

A pretty town, it sits by the River Lea, which meanders its way down to the Olympic Village. In the 11th century, during the reign of King Canute, a church was built there to house what was believed to be a miraculous cross. Its ancient roots have left a legacy of lovely half-timbered buildings around the market square, and a sprinkling of traditional weatherboarded cottages. 

“The town centre is mainly pedestrianised and you have a lot of character,” says Howard Green, managing director of Duncan Phillips estate agents, who has seen the demographics of the town start to change over the past few years, with more younger families moving  in. Green space is amply provided  by both Epping Forest and the River Lee Country Park, a 1,000-acre spread that is perfect for walkers and cyclists.

However, Waltham Abbey has an Achilles heel. Four local schools — King Harold Business and Enterprise Academy, Waltham Holy Cross Junior School, The Leverton Junior School — have been censured by Ofsted, which feels they all require improvement. Unsurprisingly, this means there is a scramble for the better schools, which include Upshire Primary Foundation School, Hillhouse CofE Primary School and Nazeing Primary School, all rated “good”. 

Most of the properties in town are Twenties or Thirties semi-detached homes, costing about £300,000, while a five-bedroom home is about £550,000. The prime homes are dotted around the perimeter of town. Large detached houses down leafy lanes, with gardens big enough to require a sit-on mower, are priced from about £1 million. 


When it comes to price growth, Saffron Walden is hot on Waltham Abbey’s heels, with growth of about 9.4 per cent, to an average of £215,073. 

The nearest station is at Audley End, two miles south-west of the town, and services to Liverpool Street take from 51 minutes. An annual season ticket costs £5,404. Gary Ellis, senior negotiator at Kevin

Henry estate agents, puts the town’s price rises down to demand from commuters, as well as its great lifestyle. “Nobody rushes about in Saffron Walden — everyone takes their time,” he says. 
£460,000: a three-bedroom house in Long Row Close, Thaxted Road, Saffron Walden

Visitors fall in love with its quintessentially English town centre, independent shops and traditional pubs. Walkers and cyclists can roam for hours along the footpaths which thread the surrounding countryside. The town is quiet, and will likely remain so now that the Stansted airport expansion, which had concerned local residents, seems unlikely.

Saffron Walden has excellent schools — Katherine Semar Junior School, Clavering Primary School and  Saffron Walden County High are rated “outstanding” by Ofsted.

Ellis says buyers will need to spend £500,000-plus for a four- bedroom Victorian house in a quiet street close to the town centre — West Road and Victoria Avenue are popular — but will get more bang for their buck in one of the new developments.

Tudor Park, for example, is a mile east of the town centre and a four-bedroom semi-detached house there is about £330,000 to £340,000.

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