Actress Penelope Keith has been scouring the British Isles to find the best of our beautiful villages.
She’s been looking for chocolate-box architecture, bucolic views and lashings of community spirit — but the £10,000 prize, to be awarded on February 10 in Channel 4’s Village of the Year final, will also require an X factor.
The Good Life star and her panel of judges visited 20 villages in the South-East last week to find a regional winner to go through to the grand final.
They chose Berkshire’s lovely Hampstead Norreys. Set in the North Wessex Downs on the banks of the River Pang, it impressed them with its village shop run entirely by volunteers, and its art festival, where locals teach new skills.
However, in this region there is another element that imbues a village with buyer appeal: being within commuting distance of London.
Homes & Property has picked the rural gems featured on the show that also offer acceptable journeys to the capital.
HAMPSTEAD NORREYS, BERKSHIRE: regional winner
Dense, ancient woods dancing with bluebells are rooted in the 12th century, while Stone Age tools have been unearthed in this lovely, historic spot.
In the centre of the village is a red phone box — which the locals fought hard to keep — and residents are running an “adopt a grave” scheme to care for the Victorian tombstones, while a former orchid hothouse has blossomed into a tropical rainforest with more than 700 species of plant and critter.
Entrepreneur Samantha Betts has her own luxury pet care company which includes a canine spa. She and her husband converted an old farmhand’s cottage into their “forever home”, where they live with their three black Labradors.
“Hampstead Norreys is a lovely place to be,” says Betts. “We have a brilliant community. There’s always something happening at the local shop, whether it’s art viewings or produce tasting — and we all donate extra fruit and veg to the shop.”
The easy commute, good schools and stunning countryside, with the Thames and the Berkshire Downs on one side and the Chilterns on the other, draw in Londoners.
The commute: it’s a six-minute drive to Goring & Streatley station, from where the fastest service into London Paddington is 47 minutes.
Season ticket cost (including travelcard): £5,300.
Down winding lanes, Elstead is surrounded by heathland and well-hidden multimillion-pound mansions. It sits in between the four key West Surrey towns of Godalming, Guildford, Haslemere and Farnham.
Pubs include The Mill at Elstead, which has the River Wey running through its beer garden. There’s a village poodle parlour, convenience store, hairdressers, cricket club, a good primary school and plenty of activities at the village hall.
“It’s a living, breathing village,” says Knight Frank partner Tim Harriss. Prices start from £400,000 for a bungalow to £15 million estates.
It was Elstead’s eccentric events that got it noticed by Channel 4. The Elstead marathon is five-and-a-half miles long, while every summer the residents race lifesize paper boats around “the moat” and local pub teams compete in a tug-of-war.
The commute: it’s a five-minute drive to Milford (where it’s free to park on the road). The earliest train to London Waterloo leaves at 05.36am and takes 53 minutes.
Season ticket cost including travelcard: £4,700.
LINDFIELD, WEST SUSSEX
The preservation of Lindfield’s historic buildings in the lime tree-lined high street appealed to the Channel 4 judges.
“It has bucketloads of character and over 40 timber-framed houses date back to the 14th century,” says Charlie Rosling of Strutt & Parker.
The village was also praised for its farm, based at Oathall Community College, where pupils take a hands-on approach to agricultural studies.
The commute: it’s but a few minutes’ drive to Hayward’s Heath station with frequent trains to Victoria in 45 minutes.
Season ticket cost including travelcard: £5,112.
The Georgian village of Woburn has strong ties to its stately home Woburn Abbey, seat of the Duke of Bedford.
The aristocratic family owns most of the village so it’s rare that freehold properties come up for sale. When they do they sell fast and for a premium, says Jackson-Stops estate agent Neil Abraham.
A group of keen horticulturalists have entered Woburn into heats for the RHS Britain in Bloom awards, and in preparation local traders are sponsoring different flower beds, while hanging baskets can be seen swinging from shop fronts and the red phone box, which doubles as a very small library.
Unusually, the village also has a lido, one of four surviving pools built by the Duke of Bedford in 1911 after a small boy drowned in a pond on the estate.
There’s a Michelin-star restaurant called Paris House, and cottages start from £250,000.
The commute: drive seven miles to Leighton Buzzard, from where fast trains run to London Euston in 37 minutes.
Season ticket cost including travelcard: £6,188.
“Goudhurst is one of the top Kentish villages,” says Rupert Newcomb of Jackson-Stops. With views over the Weald, it also boasts a rambling medieval high street.
Families are attracted by the tennis, football and cricket clubs, and it’s in the catchment for top-performing Cranbrook grammar school.
Homes here cost five to 10 per cent more than those in neighbouring villages.
A two-bedroom cottage starts from £250,000 while a five-bedroom house goes for more than £850,000.
The commute: the station at Marden is a 10-minute drive away, with 58-minute trains to Charing Cross.
Season ticket including travelcard: £5,320.
Sitting in the billionaire belt on the banks of the Thames, Cookham’s beauty and close proximity to London attracted record numbers of high net worth individuals last year.
But its most valuable residents are Her Majesty’s swans, cared for by local Swan Uppers who, once a year, gently scoop up the feathered families, take them ashore, check them for health problems and weigh them. It’s an 800-year-old tradition.
Boat making in Cookham dates back even further to Viking times, and there is still a small group of craftsmen restoring boats at the water’s edge.
The commute: the journey from Cookham station to Paddington takes less than an hour, with a change at Maidenhead.
Season ticket including travelcard: £6,188.