Prime estate in Willerby, East Yorkshire
Tony Greenway arrives in the East Yorkshire village of Willerby in the constituency of Haltemprice and Howden - and finds the largest collection of estate agents he's ever seen PHOTOGRAPHS BY NEIL HOLMES
As we nosed the car down the A164 into the outskirts of Hull and past the sign for Willerby ('a community for 1,100 years' says the signpost) we wondered what this East Yorkshire village was most famous for.
Well, to kick off with, it's located in the Conservative constituency of Haltemprice and Howden, which makes former Shadow Home Secretary David Davis its MP (he holds surgeries at the Conservative Party Association branch on Main Street). But, as far as we can tell, the only front-of-the-camera celebrity to hail from the area is Ian Moor, the Chris de Burgh impersonator who won Stars in Their Eyes a decade ago. Yes, we know.We're stretching the term 'celebrity' to breaking point with that one.
So how about this: BAFTA award-winning film producer Tracey Seaward (the woman behind the Helen Mirren box-office hit, The Queen) was also a resident and an old girl of the local Wolfreton Secondary School. And Willerby has yet another distinction, albeit an unfortunate one, because in the Hull floods of 2007, some of the village side streets were swamped with water.
Actually, don't let the word village fool you. This isn't some sleepy hamlet in the middle of nowhere. It's a fast-paced place with a dual carriageway running through it. Yet - and we hate to generalise here - you know you're going to a sought-after location if it has a Waitrose nearby.
Willerby has a big Waitrose on its outskirts and the car park is chocca, even on this midweek winter morning. It also has a good secondary school, a couple of parades of shops, a Methodist church, lots of semi-detached pre-war houses and one of the largest collections of estate agents we've ever seen. (What's the word for a collection of estate agents, by the way? A haggle of estate agents? A gloom of estate agents?) Yet surely, in today's woeful economic climate, they can't all remain there for long?
Julie Foots is an estate agent at Beercock Wiles & Wick, off the roundabout in Willerby Square, and she admits that house prices have fallen 10 per cent in a year - although show us a place in the UK where that hasn't happened. 'This is a desirable area,' says Julie, 'and that's partly because of the schooling. A lot of people want their children to get into Wolfreton. Things have certainly slowed down in the housing market, but we're finding that this area is actually ticking along.'
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I explain my Waitrose theory. 'Yes,' she says, 'but don't forget the shop doesn't just serve Willerby.We're part of the HU10 postcode which also covers the villages of Anlaby, Kirk Ella and West Ella.'
The pretty village of Kirk Ella - home to the famous Mark Hill hair salon - is right next door, in fact. Julie smiles when we mention the plethora of estate agents crowded around the village centre. How many are there exactly? I lost count. 'There are a lot,' she says. 'The nickname for this part of the village is "the Estate Agent Capital" because all the major agents have their focus here. Maybe it's because Willerby is one of themajor entrances to the Hull area.'
Behind the car park near Willerby Square is a clue to the village's important historical past. Up a flight of steep steps is a narrow embankment, edged by trees and houses, which snakes off into the distance. This is the former track of the Hull and Barnsley Railway which opened in 1885 to take coal to the railway's own dock on the River Humber for export, with returning trains taking pit props and general freight to the West Riding and South Yorkshire.
Willerby and Kirk Ella was one of the stations on the route, but passenger services were suspended in the 1950s, while the station building closed for good in the 1960s and was demolished that same decade. It's a slightly surreal experience to walk along the wooded bank where the train tracks once ran - and a bit sad: there are no signposts telling you about the area's significance, although an easily missable notice board on the wall by the car park gives you some history of the line.
Back to the Willerby Square - aka estate agent central - where the traffic is roaring towards Hull. Susan Evans, who lives in Kirk Ella, and co-owns Wishes, a card and gift shop, says that Willerby has been good to her. 'It's a great location for us,' she says. 'We've been here for six years and we have nice customers.We're pleased with it... and, business-wise, the village is steady all week.'
Susan doesn't seem surprised that, despite the downturn, there still seems to be a demand for housing. 'It's a good area,' she says. 'So I think there always will be in Willerby.' That explains it, really. Estate agents know a good thing when they see one.