NEWBURY is a prosperous former market town with a good train service to London, and attracts commuters like bees to a honeypot. It has a mass of pretty downland villages (Watership Down country) within reach and is positioned on the edge of the so-called ‘Silicon Valley’. The centre is mostly 17th- and 18th-century with a good range of shops, including an old-fashioned pork butcher and pie-maker, and the Kennet & Avon canal provides scenic richness. Many people feel that new buildings have erased all sense of the brick-and-tile traditional country town. Vodafone has a massive presence – it was once spread between 48 office buildings, but has since moved to a huge new headquarters north of town. ‘Fifty years ago I can remember cattle and sheep being driven in, and the circus arriving by train and walking through the town. It’s hard to imagine any of that now,’ says one old resident.
A great mix of people are attracted to Newbury. Computer companies have brought in the upwardly-mobiles; the racecourse (which has its own weatherboarded train station) attracts the punters; the much-contested bypass has been joined by a new underpass running north–south along the A34 to speed traffic further. Builders are busy catering for demand. Close to the centre you could find a three-bedroom restored Victorian house for around £275,000; spacious flat conversions in period buildings go for £350,000 to £400,000. A standard executive house sells for £400,000 to £500,000. In Garden Close Lane or Tydehams, large houses built in the early 20th century in private grounds will sell for £700,000 upwards.
The once quiet night life has burgeoned as bars, nightclubs and health clubs have proliferated. There is a recreation centre and a swimming pool, and two golf courses with a hotel and spa have been built at Donnington, just outside. The controversial bypass cuts a swathe straight across Enborne Chase, a beautiful unspoilt belt of land south of the town.
Villagers from as far to the north-west as Lambourn, and from Hurstbourne Tarrant in the south, use Newbury station. The National Hunt racehorse training centre is at Lambourn and there are more than 2,000 horses in Lambourn and Upper Lambourn together, both busy working villages. Stable-hands work from about seven in the morning until midday, when they rush to the village to shop before starting work again at about four o’clock. Lambourn itself has a few general stores, a farm shop, butcher, post office, saddler and an Indian restaurant. Upper Lambourn has very little other than a pub. A three-bedroom semi will cost £210,000. You need a car if you live here, though buses to Newbury and Swindon are becoming more frequent and there is a call-a-bus service to Hungerford station. Strings of 20 to 30 horses exercising in the narrow lanes across the rolling chalk hills can frustrate commuters driving to the station to catch the early morning trains, though gardeners love the manure they provide.
Eastbury, on the River Lambourn two miles closer to Newbury, is a lovely, slightly more expensive village with a good pub, The Plough. Houses are built on the riverbanks, cleverly planted with shrubs and bulbs. It is a popular place to retire. A five-bedroom Grade II listed cottage with barn recently sold for £950,000; a period three-bedroom cottage would cost up to £395,000; a Sixties’ four-bedroom bungalow, £445,000. In neighbouring East Garston you will find another enchanting village of thatched houses, with three stables, a shop-cum-post-office and similar house prices.
Further east are two more good chalk villages, West and East Ilsley, just off the A34. East Ilsley, slightly cheaper of the two, has a central square with a pond, and has resisted new developments apart from some sheltered housing for the elderly. Village life has changed dramatically over the years. This used to be the site of a twice-yearly sheep fair (the greatest sheep market in England after Smithfield, they say) and there were 13 pubs, but today only three remain. Undaunted by the demise of the local post office, the residents have pulled together to launch their own community shop-cum-post office. The village has all the walks that the nearby Downs can offer, including the Ridgeway, along which Neolithic and Bronze Age man once commuted. West Ilsley is the pretty cousin, with a church at its heart, a village green, cricket pitch and pavilion, a pub and a good collection of cottages. Its social life tends to be dominated by the horse-racing fraternity. A four-bedroom period house in the centre of the village would sell for around £500,000.
Stanford Dingley, set in the valley of the River Pang a good six miles to the north-east, is thought to be one of Berkshire’s most beautiful villages. It has a classic mellow red-brick Georgian rectory, a 13th-century church screened by chestnut trees, and two old inns, The Bull and The Boot. At The Bull a game known as Ring The Bull is played, in which a ring dangling from the ceiling has to be swung on to a horn. ‘We’re an active village,’ says the parish clerk. ‘We have barn dancing and hold summer fêtes, usually in someone’s garden.’ The River Pang runs through some of the gardens, providing the original setting for the annual tug-of-war during which the losers traditionally fell in, but damage to the banks has caused the event to be moved. Houses rarely come on the market because people tend to stay put. A house with three or four bedrooms might be bought £450,000.
Yattendon, just north of the M4, has a picture-book village square surrounded by black-and-white 17th-century homes, backed up by Cromwellian red-brick houses. The partly moated manor house, the church, rectory and malt house, all look immaculately cared for. Robert Graves’s ashes are in the churchyard. The village has a general store and post office, butcher, hairdresser, smithy, The Royal Oak Hotel and a restaurant. Socially it remains fairly feudal. There are tennis courts and a cricket pitch. The village fête is the main annual event. A three-bedroom period cottage costs around £475,000; a modern family home with four or five bedrooms and half an acre will fetch £800,000.
Two miles to the north of Newbury is the village of Bagnor. It is scattered charmingly around a tributary of the Lambourn and remains fairly unspoilt, with a green and a pub, The Blackbird. The Watermill, a little theatre with restaurant, attracts good productions and was recently saved after a £3m appeal. Leckhampstead also has a star quality setting, high above the Wantage to Newbury road, and wears its thatched cottages proudly around the small green.
Heading south you come to Highclere on the main Andover road, where houses range from £380,000 for four bedrooms to £550,000 for the same in a period cottage with half an acre. Ecchinswell, immortalised in Richard Adams’s novel Watership Down, is a handsome neighbour, where a period three-bedroom cottage will cost around £450,000.