BUYERS VOTE FOR CAMERON COUNTRY
The honey-stone Cotswold homes of the Tory leader's constituency are a favourite with Londoners, says David Spittles
The gently rolling hills and picture postcard villages of the Cotswolds, normally a peaceful retreat from the manic street life that Londoners love — and love to leave at weekends — are being shaken and stirred as election fever breaks out in Cameron country.
As the Tory leader leaves his Notting Hill home to concentrate on his Witney constituency, the mood in these fashionable, honey-coloured market towns is as animated as in the wine bars of North Kensington.
The Cotswolds, the countryside of choice for Chelsea and Notting Hill fashionistas, won a big stamp on its credentials when David Cameron became Witney's sitting MP in 2001.
In his wake came all the essentials for making the countryside suitable for the discerning urbanite: serious craft shops, art galleries, bistros full of rocket and sun-dried tomatoes, gastropubs, organic produce, and antique book stalls for a Saturday morning browse.
GETTING ON FAMOUSLY
About 45 per cent of all homebuyers locally are from London, mainly City executives relocating with their families and commuting, according to Damian Gray of estate agent Knight Frank. But the location — close to Oxford and just over an hour to the capital — is equally attractive to the party people.
Celebrity PR fixer Matthew Freud and his media executive wife, Elisabeth Murdoch, are Cotswold neighbours of Mr Cameron, and in the same dinner party gang as Alex James — the Blur bassist and cheese-maker — and his wife Claire, and Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson and his wife Francie.
All glamorous professionals who enjoy weekend gatherings over cosy kitchen suppers and shepherd's pie Sunday lunches.
"They love the whole package: the accessibility, the schools, the fantastic, rolling countryside and endless views of real farmland, and big estates normally owned by someone they know," says Gray.
The eastern edge of the Cotswolds around Witney is popular because it is quicker (90 minutes) to reach from central London.
The area wasn't great as a destination shop, then Daylesford Organic arrived. You only have to look at the car park to get the message; knee-deep in 4x4s and Bentleys, this superstore haven of the organic and home-made is the posh and trendy package. "Farmhouse" shelves are laden with handwritten-labelled produce, while the café walls are hung with cashmere clothes.
There's a spa for eastern meditation and a flower shop full of white enamel-potted plants. It even sells the French Provençal green paint that colours the estate. It is run by Lady Carole Bamford, whose father-in-law made his zillions from JCBs, and customers include Liz Hurley and Kate Moss .
London immigrant Sebastian Snow, chef and proprietor of The Swan at Southrop, followed a well-trodden route. After 18 years of running Snow's On The Green restaurant in Hammersmith, he set up a business between Witney and Cirencester two years ago which is now a hugely successful celebrity watering hole in terms of the pub/restaurant, and a cookery school.
Snow says his customers tend to be influential fortysomethings "who like to network and party".
A lot of those relocating from London still work there up to three days a week, "so they've got the best of both worlds".
At weekends, 80 per cent of his customers are Londoners, mostly with second homes in the area. A good number of these second homes are in The Lakes, an eco-friendly development, with Jade Jagger and Kelly Hoppen interiors, on a 650-acre estate near Lechlade, Gloucestershire. Prices from £775,000. Call 01367 250066.
The Camerons' constituency home is a substantial period stone house in the hamlet of Dean, near Chipping Norton. Witney comprises the whole of the district of West Oxfordshire, made up of market towns of which Witney is the largest, with a population of 23,000.
It dates from the 12th century and the high street is a mix of old and new owner-run and chain stores. There's a twice-weekly open-air market, a monthly farmers' market — and the inevitable new Waitrose.
The town has several modern housing estates on its edge, while up to 1,400 new homes, a relief road and primary school are proposed near Hailey Road, north Witney.
Gleeson and Taylor Wimpey, joint developers, say the new estate will ease pollution and traffic, but warnings have been sounded over flood risks.
Witney, on the banks of the River Windrush, is on English Heritage's "at risk" register. Flash floods in 2007 were the worst for more than 50 years and killed a 17-year old boy.
While Witney is seen as relatively affordable (£220,000 for a terrace house), the Cotswolds is generally pricey. Burford, beautiful Chipping Norton and Woodstock form the "golden triangle".
Burford high street slopes down to the willow-draped Windrush and its medieval bridge; there are tea shops, narrow lanes, crooked cottages and tons of tourists.
The average house price in Mr Cameron's constituency is £247,000. Seven per cent sell for over £500,000 and one in five sales is a detached house.
Properties in Burford and Woodstock command premiums of 30 per cent on average. Small period cottages sell for upwards of £250,000.
Most in-demand are traditional, stone-built village houses with four bedrooms and half an acre of garden, at about £750,000-£850,000, said Nick Rudge of Savills.
In the £2 million to £5 million bracket, the hotspot is between Woodstock, Moreton-in-Marsh and Stow-on-the-Wold.
South of the A40 towards Cirencester is cheaper and better value. It has lovely, traditional houses but the land is flatter. Rudge says there is an acute shortage of properties.
"We have hopeful buyers who sold up in London three or so years ago and have been renting and waiting. Prices are back to peak levels and we have agreed sales way over the guide."
Farmers are converting agricultural buildings and flogging land to developers for new homes. Agricultural land is also being converted to attract hi-tech business.
At Carterton, a short drive from Witney centre, is RAF Brize Norton, one of Europe's busiest military airports, employing 4,500 and forming a major part of the local economy.
'IT'S PRETTY AND THERE'S A PROPER COMMUNITY'
Johnny Dunford, 46, moved to the Cotswolds three years ago and commutes from the village of Kemble — his nearest station — to Paddington for his commercial property market job in Mayfair. He and his wife, Emma, have primary school-age sons, Henry and James.
"It's rural and pretty here, with good schools, train and airport links and all the amenities we want," said Johnny. "It's a lovely place to live."
Their listed, six-bedroom house in the pretty village of Cherington has a walled garden and garaging and overlooks the village green.
It is near Tetbury and the Prince of Wales's Highgrove Estate, with its popular tours, speciality food and gardening shop, and also close to Gatcombe Park, home of the Princess Royal.
"The area is popular with weekenders but most people are good users of local facilities," said Johnny. "There are the smart shops such as Quayles deli in Tetbury, and William's Kitchen in Nailsworth, for dinner parties, and reliable small traders.
"People here don't retreat to their big houses, they get involved."
Now that the family is looking for a home with further space, Savills is selling their property, Westside House, for £995,000. Call 01285 627550.