The Royal Wedding shone a particularly favourable spotlight on Windsor last month and heralded the beginning of the “posh frocks and big hats” season that so perfectly encapsulates the traditional English summer.
The Home Counties is where much of the action takes place. Two wealthy commuter towns in particular — Ascot and Henley-on-Thames – come alive in the coming months as they play host to some of the most iconic festivals including Royal Ascot and Henley Royal Regatta.
As the excitement of the Royal Wedding subsides, the glamour set will turn to the next appointment in the social calendar: Royal Ascot (June 19 to June 23). At this time of year, the countryside looks invitingly green and verdant as hedgerows team with bluebells, cow parsley and primroses.
Of all the events in the Home Counties summer season, Royal Ascot is probably the best known and the grandest. It’s Britain’s most valuable race meeting, attracting among the world’s best racehorses—some of whom, including the likes of Frankel, go down in history—and there’s more than £7.3m in prize money. The meeting is broadcast to audiences around the globe.
It’s fair to say that at both the key sporting events in the Home Counties — be it racing or rowing — sport plays second fiddle to socialising but while that remains true, there’s a gulf of difference between the property markets in these affluent towns.
Ascot remains attractive to an international audience who appreciate the fact that it’s an address known throughout the world—and much of that hangs off the back of the royal meeting. “Brand Ascot” is so strong that international clients will often say that they want to live in Ascot before they’ve had a chance to have a look around. Schooling also remains a key part of the equation as Ascot is well placed for access to private schools including Eton College, Papplewick, St George’s Ascot, St Mary’s Ascot and the prep school Lambrook, among others. There’s also an American International School at Egham that further attracts international families who generally come from all over the world. Over my years of working as a buying agent in the Home Counties, international clients come and go like tides — when the Russians start to fall away, the Americans move in and when they subside, the Middle Eastern interest might rise but Ascot and its environs remain perennially popular, particularly with the Chinese at the moment
While Ascot doesn’t have a particularly strong centre, a lot of the socialising takes place at golf and country clubs in the local area, the housing stock at the top end of the market tends to be newly-built houses, some of which are set within gated communities or down private roads, the most famous and sought after being the Wentworth Estate.
Conversely, Henley-on-Thames is generally made up of a predominantly domestic community and has always been popular with European buyers. It lacks the type of property stock—large, new-build houses fitted with security or on secure estates—that cater for the international community who are more attracted to the Ascot area. While there are a few new-build houses, the vast majority of Henley’s property stock is made up of period and character homes. Schools-wise, the area is well served for those looking at private education with Rupert House, Shiplake College, Pangbourne Collegeand The Oratory as well as Moulsford Prep school on the doorstep. The arrival of Crossrail to Twyford, in December next year, will also transform the accessibility of Henley and make the commute to the City that much easier.
Another distinguishing factor is that life in Henley is focussed on the town and its riverside setting which, even if you don’t like rowing, is a real draw whatever the season. Community spirit reaches its zenith during the early part of July when the Royal Regatta and Henley Festival take place. The latter is known as the only black-tie festival (although that dress code is optional) and takes place from July 11 to July 15 with acts including Rita Ora and Grace Jones in this year’s line-up.
For those seeking a more low-key and family-friendly taste of the season Marlow’s town regatta, a two-day event on 16 and 17 June, is perfect. In recent years the perception has been that, as a town, Marlow trumps Henley and, from the perspective of eating and drinking, it benefits from Tom Kerridge’s award-winning pubs the Hand & Flowers and The Coach, and his hybrid butcher-cum-pub The Butcher’s Tap — as well as the recent arrival of The Ivy.
Clients would typically consider both Henley and Marlow as options but the real battleground is the prime countryside that lies between them. Taking in villages such as Hambleden, Fawley and Frieth, this area, which offers prime Chiltern countryside within an easy distance of London, is in hot demand, very much attracting a domestic market and in many cases, refugees from London looking for a bit of space. The scarcity of pretty period houses and cottages will mean they always receive a tremendous amount of interest and demand big prices.
A bonus for buying in and around Marlow is that you fall within the catchment area of Buckinghamshire’s grammar schools, including Sir William Borlase as well as private options including Wycombe Abbey.