A signal that the housing market may be about to pause for breath came yesterday alongside news of mortgage lending hitting a new all-time record in March.

The Council of Mortgage Lenders, speaking for both banks and building societies, lent #28.31 billion last month, 26 per cent more than in February.

At the same time the Bank of England said the number of new loans approved in February for house purchase - as opposed to re-mortgages - fell sharply to 115,000 from 121,000 in January.

These approvals of mortgages agreed but not yet paid out, are regarded as a forward looking indicator of the way the housing market is heading.

The CML said the February total was still high, but that the upward trend in approvals for house purchase seen over the past year appears to be drawing to an end.

Lending usually picks up in the Spring after a lull in house-buying activity during the winter months. But this winter it had been unseasonably strong, the CML added.

The surge in lending during March was much g reater than could be accounted for simply by seasonal factors. Seasonally adjusted, the total was a new record, above the previous high of #27.04 billion in December.

Michael Coogan, the CML's director general, commented: "The record lending in March reflects the high level of loan approvals in the autumn and winter as house prices stabilised and confidence returned to the market.

"House-buying activity was particularly strong around London, reflecting high City bonuses and this is probably a factor behind the strength of lending."

Two of Britain's biggest house-builders reported a busy start to the year.

Persimmon's chairman Duncan Davidson - who retired after yesterday's annual meeting - told his shareholders: "Weekly sales rates have been very good and to date we have sold 9,900 homes with a total sales value of over #1.8 billion in 2006.

"The number of visitors to our 450 developments remains high with cancellation rates returning to historically low levels. Prices continue to hold firm and our expectation for the year of a three to four per cent increase in selling prices remains unchanged."

One of Persimmon's biggest developments at present is Cape Hill, Smethwick, previously the site of the Mitchells and Butlers brewery.

George Wimpey had a similar message. John Robinson, chairman, told his annual meeting: "At the time of our preliminary results we were encouraged by signs that buyer confidence was returning to the UK housing market. In the weeks since then these trends have continued.

"Sales rates to date have been well above those experienced in 2005 and we have s een a return to price increases in selected locations, particularly in the South."

Wimpey has been tipped as a potential bid target for rivals such as Solihull-based Taylor Woodrow and Barratt Development.