A cursory glance at the map shows Wokingham marooned between sprawling Reading and the ‘new town’ of Bracknell, which, to outsiders, is a maze of mini-roundabouts and modern office blocks of the kind that has Prince Charles spluttering over his organic muesli.
What’s more, spaghetti junction number 10 of the M4 is practically in shouting distance, and London less than 40 miles away.
But, even so, Wokingham, in Berkshire, has just been named the healthiest place in England.
Thriving: Bustling Wokingham Market is held three days a week. The Berkshire town has just been named the healthiest place in England
Factors taken into account include: prevalence of cancer, heart disease and dementia; risk of diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure; plus other considerations such as affordability of housing, local transport, neighbourhood noise, eduction and opportunities for young people.
Wokingham (population 47,000) came out overall on top, followed by Richmond Upon Thames and Windsor & Maidenhead, according to England’s Health Index, published by the Office for National Statistics and Lane Clark & Peacock, a financial services company.
It is claimed to be the first composite health index in the world. Which is good news for Wokingham, but not so good for Blackpool and Kingston upon Hull, the latter second from the bottom on the list just ahead of the Lancashire seaside town.
Government ministers have encouraged the index as a means of assessing the impact of their policies on general well-being.
‘It isn’t perfect,’ says Jo Bibby, of the Health Foundation charity, ‘but it does provide a way of taking a rounded view of aspects of society that need to be improved if we want a healthier population.’
It’s not the first time Wokingham has taken a bow. In 2012 it was hailed as the most desirable place in England and Wales to bring up a family, taking in the quality of schools, childcare provision, cost of living, crime levels and property affordability.
‘It’s a happy middle ground between rural and urban life,’ says Sarah Hood, from Romans estate agent, based in the town centre near the Town Hall, built in 1860 in Gothic style. ‘I would say you pay a premium to be here as it offers something for every age group.’
No one is pretending that Wokingham is top of the league for history or culture — although it was known at one time for its bell foundry, which supplied a host of churches across southern England, and during the Tudor period it was renowned as a producer of silk.
Famous sons and daughters include the singer Will Young and the 2012 Olympic rowing gold medalist Anna Watkins.
In 2010, the local council set up a business to manage a £100 million regeneration project in the town centre and this appears to have paid dividends.
One big success was the conversion of an old car park into Peach Place, home to independent shops, restaurants and cafes.
Sir John Redwood has been the Conservative MP for Wokingham since 1987. ‘I’m not at all surprised by this report. People often are attracted to the town when they are young and then stay here all their lives,’ he said.
‘There’s a good mix of housing, with plenty of jobs and green spaces.’
One particularly prized green space nearby is California Country Park, with more than 100 acres of paths running through ancient bogland, past heathland and Longmoor Nature Reserve, plus a six-acre lake. It also has an outdoor paddling pool, open in the summer holidays only.
One-bedroom flats in the town centre start at just over £200,000 and three bedroom semis sell between £350,000 to £450,000.
‘The town keeps evolving,’ says Ricky Wootton, from Prospect Estate Agents. ‘We have the Everyman cinema, a bowling alley and a new swimming pool complex is being built.’
The open space outside the Town Hall is where there’s a thriving market on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, which has done especially well during lockdown.
And for commuters to London or Reading, the train station, which was spruced up a couple of years ago, is a three-minute walk from the centre of town.
‘There’s been some chuckling about the health report but it’s a lovely thing for Wokingham,’ says David Cliffe, from David Cliffe Property Services.
‘The council can take some of the credit for encouraging independents and making sure there are fewer chain stores. It’s now an attractive and proper market town.’