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ophie Parkin and Jon Irving are among the many couples whose wedding plans were wrecked by the pandemic. They had been due to walk down the aisle last summer.

“We had been planning to get married last year, and then maybe buy a house this year,” says Parkin. “So we decided to flip our plan and buy a house instead of getting married, which we are doing this summer instead.”

The couple, who both celebrated their 30th birthdays in lockdown, had rented in Tooting since 2013 and were paying £1,550 a month for their two-bedroom flat. Their budget wouldn’t allow them to buy a house in London so they looked to Essex, where Parkin was born and raised.

Forget any preconceptions you might have about the land of fake tan, bleached veneers and Towie, because Essex also has some delightfully un-blingy options that are finding increased favour with Londoners fed up of being locked down in the city.

Life swap: when Sophie Parkin and Jon Irving’s wedding was put on hold, the pair upped sticks from Tooting to a £350,000 home in Great Chesterford

/ Matt Writtle

Parkin and Irving chose the village of Great Chesterford, four miles from Saffron Walden — one of the most beautiful towns Essex has to offer — and close to Parkin’s family. They used Help to Buy to get on to the ladder in August, putting down a five per cent deposit on a £350,000 brand new two-bedroom house with garden. Their mortgage comes in at far less than their Tooting rent — around £1,000 a month.

Parkin, who works for integrated communications company 4Media Communications, plans to spend a couple of days a week in her Farringdon office with the train journey taking about an hour. Irving, who works in IT security, is about to start a new job in London and will commute daily, at least until he learns the ropes.

“It has been a strange time to move, but we have no regrets,” says Parkin. “I am loving being in the countryside, and although it is definitely a big change of pace, the only comment my other half has made is that he misses being able to pop out and get a pint of milk when we run out.”

No regrets: Sophie and Jon’s mortgage payments are around £1,000 a month, far less than the £1,550 rent they were paying in Tooting

/ Matt Writtle

Moving to Saffron Walden

Average price: £421,000

With its award-winning market, beautiful, timber-framed cottages and great schools, Saffron Walden has long drawn exiting Londoners. It has good galleries, a community-run cinema and English Heritage’s Audley End House is glorious. But contrary to what you might expect, Bruce King, a director of Cheffins, says incoming buyers aren’t all downsizing retirees looking for an old-fashioned town to grow old in but rather young professionals and families moving out of London or who work in one of the nearby science parks.

Saffron Walden’s kerb appeal is undeniable. The medieval town centre is gorgeous to look at: packed with cute cafes, restaurants and independent boutiques. Make friends at one of the tennis clubs, work out at half a dozen gyms and enjoy plenty of long country walks exploring pretty villages within Saffron Walden’s hinterland.

You are also only 16 miles from Cambridge for day trips and nightlife while the journey to London (from Audley End Station) takes less than an hour. Stansted Airport is 13 miles away for when travel is back on the cards.

King finds that younger, child-free buyers tend to gravitate towards pretty timber framed two to three-bedroom cottages in the town centre, which would cost £350,000 to £500,000. Those with kids could pick up a four to five-bedroom post-war house a little further out for between £500,000 and £700,000. There is, says King, a bit of a shortage of larger period houses so when they do come up, you would need to budget from about £800,000.

Saffron Walden has had a very good pandemic in terms of house prices, up 16 per cent in the past year, and 34 per cent in the past five years.

Island life: Mersea Island is a short drive to Colchester which has 46-minute trains to Liverpool Street

/ Alamy Stock Photo

Moving to Mersea Island

Average price: £383,000

The romance of island life could be yours — and all within an hour and a half of London. Travelling from this eight-square-mile estuary island to the capital involves crossing a Roman causeway, built when it was a holiday destination for the middle classes. It is a short drive to Colchester then 46 minutes on the train to Liverpool Street.

The reward is a coastal home with a unique atmosphere. The beaches are lovely but there is almost none of the usual tourist ephemera to go with them. Locals spend their time windsurfing, kayaking or sailing with the island yacht club. There is an annual regatta and a food festival.

“If you are a sailing enthusiast Mersea Island is very attractive,” says Karl Manning, head of residential sales at Savills Chelmsford. “It is also very popular with families.”

A big swathe of the island is a nature reserve, so there is plenty of open space. It has several cafes, pubs and basic shops. For everything else, there is Colchester. There is an island primary school, rated “good” by Ofsted, although older pupils must bus it to Colchester or Tiptree.

Property ranges from some rather grand sea view homes — modern or period, priced from £1 million — to four-bedroom modern detached estate houses for about £500,000, and small period terraces priced at £350,000.

Prices have slipped this year according to research from Savills, down three per cent. But they are up 18 per cent in the past five years and last year’s blip could have been down to the small number of homes sold on the island.

Scene stealer: Dedham Vale is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty

/ Alamy Stock Photo

Moving to Dedham Vale

Average price: £508,000

If your dreams of a new life involve a quintessentially pretty English country village then this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty just north of Colchester is the ideal hunting ground.

The painter John Constable was born in East Bergholt just over the Suffolk border and many of his greatest works feature the villages and countryside nearby, earning this area the nickname Constable Country.

It’s great for sporty types with loads of footpaths and cycle routes, as well as the opportunity to try your hand at horse riding, golf and water sports along the Suffolk coast.

On looks alone, the two loveliest villages have to be Dedham and Nayland. Dedham also has an Ofsted “outstanding” primary school, as does the village of Lawford.

“A lot of people are leaving south-west Essex and east London and are leapfrogging the closest Essex towns and coming straight out to Dedham Vale, where they can get more space for their money,” says Manning.

The A12 to Colchester is notoriously gridlocked but Manning says improvements are being made, which should make the journey a little less painful. Expect to pay £800,000 for a chocolate-box, four-bedroom detached cottage in one of these villages.

Another popular option for those not quite ready to dive into village life is the petite town of Manningtree, which is set on the estuary of the River Stour and is handy for the Suffolk coast.

Manningtree has a pretty high street with lots of pubs and restaurants, a contemporary art gallery, and a top-performing senior school. Trains from Manningtree to Liverpool Street take just over an hour.

The vale’s beauty and proximity to London means it is the most expensive of our Essex choices. But in investment terms, it looks a solid bet. Prices are up nine per cent in the past year, Savills found, and up 25 per cent in the past five years.

Moving to Leigh-on-Sea

Average price: £431,000

Just inland from the sandy beaches of Southend, arty Leigh-on-Sea has become hugely popular with families keen to leave London for the seaside but who don’t want to compromise on local amenities.

Word of mouth seems to have been behind Leigh’s resurgence and most who move down seem to have a ready-made support network. Whatever the reason, price growth has been healthy, according to Savills, with average prices up five per cent in the past year and close to 30 per cent in the past five.

Beyond the beach, Leigh has good transport links. Services to Fenchurch Street take from 48 minutes. Old Leigh is a pretty enclave of weatherboarded cottages, cobbled streets, bars and restaurants. There is a thriving arts scene in the town and an art trail (as well as a folk festival and regatta).

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