Not so far from the madding crowd: Dorset’s homebuying allure

Lulworth Cove: the Jurassic Coast’s ancient rock formations are part of Dorset’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty © Paul Biggins/Alamy

At the end of last year, Nick from Sunningdale, in Berkshire, bought a four-bedroom home in Lyme Regis on the west Dorset coast. The family has owned a holiday home in the area since 2020, but when this prime, beachside property came on to the market, Nick thought it was too good to pass up.

“We love the traditional olde-worlde feel of the town,” says the father of five. “It hasn’t been transformed by new glass apartments or branches of shops like Jack Wills,” he adds, referring to the Salcombe-born clothes brand found in fashionable coastal towns. “The food scene is really good too.”

Reached by a three-and-a-half-hour drive from London — with no motorway for most of the journey — the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty stretches from Lyme Regis in the west to the Isle of Purbeck in the east. Its Jurassic Coast of ancient dramatic rock formations — Lulworth Cove, Durdle Door, Chesil Beach — is a much wilder, less developed stretch than east Dorset.

It appeals to both those buyers who want a holiday home more easily accessed than Devon and Cornwall, and those who want more than just a coastline, says Danny Rowland of Garrington Property Finders. “People choose Dorset for its practicality but it’s a different sort of buyer [to those in Cornwall]; less fixated by the cachet, the beach or having a sea view.”

Rolling hills, historic market towns and narrow winding country lanes with a Thomas Hardy-esque feel attract those keen to escape the crowds, says Jo Henry of Jess Simpson Property Search, such as a couple recently downsizing from the “busy” Cotswolds. Travelling around west Dorset can be a challenge (“it can take an age to get anywhere”), and the beaches are stony rather than sandy. “But that’s why some people choose it,” she adds.

The Marine Parade seafront overlooking the sandy beach at Lyme Regis

The seaside resort of Lyme Regis © eye35.pix/Alamy

Around Eype Beach, Symondsbury, Bridport and Burton Bradstock is popular, so it can be hard to find a property. Sophie Campbell and her husband Duncan were among those that got what they call the “rural itch” during 2020’s lockdown. Hybrid working allowed them to move with their two small children to Bridport, a mile inland of West Bay with its vertiginous sandstone cliffs. The historic ropemaking town holds annual film, literary — and hat — festivals.

“There’s something ancient and magical about this coast. With its eclectic food and arts scene, Bridport has still got a soul. It’s not commuterville — it takes half an hour to reach a train — so people don’t disappear off to a city,” says Sophie, who runs Tooka, a homeware business. “But it’s been tricky to find the right house and we have been renting for nearly two years. It feels like there’s a backlog of people still looking, like us.”

Lyme Regis’s limited housing supply helped push the average price increase up by 36 per cent between 2019 and 2022, according to Hamptons using Land Registry data — to £427,060. For the nearby town of Beaminster — also within Sophie’s search area for a detached four-bedroom house — the figures are 39 per cent and £412,510.

These figures are much higher than the Dorset average increase of 25 per cent; and also those of postcodes BH13 and BH14, which include the high-profile coastal areas of Sandbanks and Canford Cliffs — at 22 per cent.

GM030608_23X H&H Dorset map

Growth has slowed: to 2.1 per cent in the 12 months to February, according to Hamptons using ONS data. Between May 2022 and May 2023 there was a 36 per cent drop in buyer demand, according to the data company Prop Cast, with the number of homes for sale that are subject to contract or under offer down from 72 to 46 per cent.

The “ridiculous” price rises due to a shortage of houses has given rise to some local tensions, says Campbell. “If someone moving to the area posts on our local Facebook group about trying to find a home, some responses go for the jugular,” she says. “The gardener employed by our landlord told us we are the only people living in a house full time where she works — the rest are empty holiday homes.” In March, Dorset county council voted to double the council tax on second homes — of which there are around 11,000 across the county.

In the peaceful little village of Netherbury — between Bridport and Beaminster — it was the mix of first and second homes that helped draw Ian and Pippa Southward to buy a four-bedroom hamstone cottage there in 2019.

“We’d had a family holiday home in St Mawes [in Cornwall] but we wanted somewhere to reach easily every two weeks,” says Ian, a retiree from Hammersmith, west London. “The village hasn’t got a pub or a village shop, but lovely views and walks for miles around — it’s only a mile on foot to Beaminster.”

Dogwalkers near the sandstone cliffs of West BayThe sandstone cliffs of West Bay © Sebastian Wasek/Alamy

Among the area’s improving quota of good-quality restaurants is Brassica in Beaminster, Hive Beach Café in Burton Bradstock and a number in Lyme Regis — Nick singles out Lilac, Baroque, Strawberry Tree and Mark Hix’s The Oyster & Fish House.

Lyme Regis is one of the few places where you can find a choice of properties overlooking the sea on the Jurassic Coast, according to agents.

Between £500,000 and £600,000 is the typical cost for a two or three-bedroom period cottage in the centre, according to Isabel Clifton of Strutt & Parker. “It’s the sort of thing that retirees and holiday home buyers from the south-east buy.”

The most popular patch of Jurassic Coast for second-home owners is the Isle of Purbeck, according to Danny Rowland. The peninsula, with its chalk Purbeck Hills, has popular beaches at Kimmeridge and Studland Bay, and the pretty villages of Corfe Castle, Swanage, Worth Matravers and Kimmeridge. “Buyers want a detached four or five-bedroom house, a small garden (minimum upkeep) in the villages rather than in the towns of Swanage and Wareham — for £1mn-£2mn.”

It was practicality — and the prospect of wild swimming — that drew junior doctor Meggie Sambrook Smith to the pretty riverside town of Wareham eight months ago. She rents a four-bedroom house five minutes from the station, where the train to London Waterloo can take less than 2 hours 30 minutes — her partner commutes twice a week for his job in tech. “I move around with my job and wanted life by the beach,” says the 29-year-old. “I have just rented a beach hut at Swanage.”

There’s something ancient and magical about this coast. With its eclectic food and arts scene, Bridport has still got a soul

On Mudeford Spit, a sandy peninsula at the entrance to Christchurch Harbour, the UK’s most expensive beach hut was put up for sale in 2021 for £575,000 — more than the area’s average property price last year: £469,255, according to Zoopla.

The average property sale in Christchurch’s BH23 postcode last year was £486,650, according to Hamptons using Land Registry data, up 24 per cent since 2019.

These days, detached four or five-bedroom homes typically cost between £500,000 and £700,000. But, as interest rates have risen, Gareth Bowden of agent Winkworth says agreed sales prices are “on the way down”. A three-bedroom bungalow sale agreed at £850,000 fell through and it has just been re-agreed at £795,000, he says.

Keith La Roche and his wife Joanne are just moving into a four-bedroom detached house behind Avon Beach they bought last year and have renovated. The sporty couple from West Malling in Kent love the proximity of the Purbeck Hills and the New Forest.

“It’s got stunning sunsets, huge variety and a quaintness we’ll never tire of” says Keith, a retired engineer. “We love strolling down to the empty beach with a flask of coffee on an early morning. It does get busy at weekends but not like Sandbanks or Bournemouth.”

The Art Deco Electric Palace cinema seen during a Saturday street market in South Street, Bridport

The Art Deco Electric Palace cinema, Bridport © Graham Prentice/Alamy

Buyers in the more exclusive areas of Canford Cliffs or Sandbanks have more properties to choose from than three years ago, according to Sean Gibson of the local Savills office. “We have 42 not 20 properties on our books [in the BH13 and BH14 postcodes] because more people are selling than buying.” Their average price is £1.865mn.

Yet he says the pandemic driving factors are still attracting younger buyers from the Home Counties looking to live within walking distance of the harbour, beaches and good schools. “Sandbanks is still the driver, yet most look at lower-priced alternatives around Poole Harbour such as Whitecliff, Lower Parkstone and Lilliput.”

Back in Lyme Regis, Jane, who doesn’t wish to share her real name, does not think the influx of buyers from the south-east is positive.

“Lyme is changing for the worse — there are too many second-home owners and the types of businesses on the high street are changing,” she says. She’s not hoping for a branch of Jack Wills either.

At a glance

  • Trains from Bournemouth to London Waterloo take about 1 hour 50 minutes. The nearest station to Lyme Regis is at Axminster, 6 miles away.

  • There are no motorways in Dorset; the drive from London usually takes about 3 hours, but can take longer.

  • In 2022 the number of homes sold for more than £1mn was 2.2 per cent; (Hamptons/Land Registry).

What you can buy . . .

Cottage, Litton Cheney

Cottage, Litton Cheney, £375,000

A three-bedroom cottage near the village of Litton Cheney, in the Bride Valley, a few miles from Chesil Beach and a 20-minute drive from Dorchester. The property, which measures 105 sq m, has three bathrooms. On sale with estate agency Jackson-Stops. a4c9 4eb6 83cc cd96b1f6c2b9

Georgian house, Bridport, £815,000

A Grade II-listed, four-bedroom house on West Road, a short drive from the centre of Bridport. The property, which also has a two-bedroom annexe, has more than 300 sq m of living space and offers great views of the surrounding countryside. Through Symonds and Sampson.

Cottage, Church Knowle

Cottage, Church Knowle, £1.195mn

A four-bedroom cottage in the village of Church Knowle on the Isle of Purbeck, about a 15-minute drive from Wareham. The house has two bathrooms and measures 150 sq m. The cottage is surrounded by pretty gardens. Available through Savills.

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