Forget 2014: this county’s market is flourishing once more in the spring sunshine.
For almost everyone involved with the country-house market in Somerset, 2014 was truly an annus horribilis, says Brian Bishop of Jackson-Stops & Staff in Taunton, as he recalls the endless media coverage of the floods which left much of the Somerset Levels under water for weeks on end. ‘It was relentless. Every day, our screens were filled with horrendous images of floodwaters stretching as far as the eye could see, giving the impression that the whole of Somerset was submerged. In actual fact, only 2% of this huge county was directly affected, but it meant that buyers from outside the area weren’t even prepared to look at houses that were nowhere near the floods.’
Fortunately, circuses move on and memories fade and, following the recent mild winter, Mr Bishop is seeing London families who put their plans on hold last year heading west once again, with the area’s many excellent schools always a major draw—among them Downside near Bath, Millfield at Street and the Taunton schools.
Vendors of country properties are also beginning to put their heads above the parapet and the recent launch onto the market of some classic country houses suggests that this may be the year when the market in Somerset finally gets going again.
Jackson-Stops & Staff (01823 325144) quote a guide price of £1.5 million for imposing, Grade II*-listed Cathanger Manor (Fig 1) in the village of Fivehead, on the southern slope of the Curry Rivel ridge, seven miles east of Taunton. According to local records, the manor has been occupied con- tinuously since the Norman Conquest, when the thane, Watel, was dispossessed and the house handed over to the monks of nearby Muchelney Abbey.
The medieval house was rebuilt in 1559, as recorded on the date stone found on the outer wall of the west wing, with the inscription ‘John Walshe Anno Dnie 1559 Serjeant at Lawe’. In 1563, Walshe was made a Justice of the Queen’s Bench and his first-floor study, which probably also served as a courtroom, became known as the Justice Hall, and still exists today.
According to its English Heritage listing, the L-plan house was built in two distinct periods—the late-16th-century wing with its first-floor hall running east-west and the north-south wing, remodelled in the late 18th century around an earlier core. The walled garden to the south also incorporates some picturesque 16th-century remains, including two moulded stone gateways and a two-storey outhouse.
One of Cathanger’s more colourful occupants was Christabella Wyndham, who was chosen by Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, to be wet nurse to the infant Prince of Wales, later Charles II. At the siege of Bridgwater in July 1645, the feisty Mrs Wyndham, whose husband Col Wyndham was the town’s governor, defied the Roundheads led by Sir Thomas Fairfax and, seizing a musket, took a shot at Cromwell, shouting: ‘These breasts have given suck to Prince Charles—they shall never be at your mercy!’
The mood changed in the 18th century, when the manor’s tenant was John Stone, who converted to the new Methodism. John Wesley preached his first sermon there in 1740 and again in both 1778 and 1785. Wesley later recalled with satisfaction the ‘ancient and venerable building called Cathanger Manor… where I spoke exceeding plain and think many of them, even Somersetshire farmers, felt as well as heard!’. The manor remained in the hands of the Wyndham family—although somewhat tenuously at times—until 1928.
Despite the weight of history, today’s manor house is a supremely comfort- able and manageable family home, with five/six reception rooms, a kitchen/ breakfast room, seven bedrooms and five bathrooms. Set in more than six acres of walled gardens, grounds and paddocks at the end of a long carriage drive, it has open views over adjoining parkland and the village of Fivehead and easy access to London by fast train from Taunton, with Exeter and Bristol airports both within an hour’s drive.
Jackson-Stops & Staff are also handling the sale, at a guide price of £1.95m, of charming, Grade II-listed Thorn Falcon House (Fig 2) at Thorn Falcon, five miles east of Taunton, a quintessential Georgian former rectory in an enchanted private setting next to the ancient, Grade I-listed village church of the Holy Cross. The original house, which dates from the early 1700s, was extended a century later to provide a blend of light and well- proportioned rooms. Full-length sash windows flood the later Georgian rooms with morning light and smaller, Queen Anne windows highlight the earlier part of the house.
Elegantly restored by its current owners, Thorn Falcon House has accommodation on two floors, inc- luding a reception hall with a fine staircase, four reception rooms, a kitchen, a breakfast room, master and guest suites, five bedrooms and two family bathrooms. It stands in almost nine acres of private wooded gardens, grounds and paddocks, flanked by courtyards of stabling and outbuildings, several of which have consent for further improvement.
Also fresh on the market—at a guide price of excess £2.5m through the Bristol office of Savills (0117–933 5800)—comes The Old Rectory (Fig 3) at Hinton Blewett, a pretty conser- vation village halfway between Bath and Bristol. The delightful former rectory, listed Grade II, was altered and extended in classic Georgian style around a 17th-century core in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when local prosperity was at its peak.
Its 7,350sq ft of living space comprises four reception rooms, a study, main and secondary kitchens, six bedrooms, five bathrooms and cellars, overlooking the green at the heart of one of the Chew Valley’s most desirable villages. Behind its enclosed private gardens, The Old Rectory hides a secret not normally associated with traditional former rectories: a state- of-the-art garage for 10 or more cars, built by the current owners and guaranteed to wow even the most demanding of motor enthusiasts.