In the past 10 years, nearly all the best coastal properties in the South-West have been bought by City professionals. So it’s not surprising that, since the start of the recession, prices have fallen by 35% and sales by 70% especially in the worst-affected areas, such as Dartmouth, Salcombe and Rock. Since Easter, however, the market has stabilised, and second-home buyers are back on the West Country scene, says Piers Vaux of buying agents Property Vision. ‘Most demand is for houses in the £700,000 to £1.5-million price bracket, but we’re also seeing activity at £3m-plus. Interestingly, buyers seem to be swapping some of the traditional West Country coastal hotspots for more rural locations, which are close enough to the coast to get the best of both worlds.’
Some interesting newcomers to the market should help to whet buyers’ appetites. Last week saw the launch of one of Devon’s most important country houses, Grade II*-listed Hillersdon House, near Cullompton, which is for sale through Savills (01392 455755) at ‘offers over £3m’. The history of Hillersdon goes back to Domesday, but the present house was built, in 1848, for Arctic explorer William Grant by the architect, writer and bon viveur Samuel Beazley. Although best known as a theatre architect, Beazley built a few notable country houses, including Studley Castle in Warwickshire, and East Dene at Bonchurch, Isle of Wight, childhood home of the poet Swinburne.
Built in the late-Georgian style of mellow brick with Portland stone dressings under a slate roof, Hillersdon House is a theatrical tour de force internally, with the rooms on both floors arranged around a grand, two-storey, galleried reception hall. In the best 18th-century tradition, an enfilade of three exquisitely proportioned main reception rooms (drawing room, dining room and library) has inter-connecting double doors that allow the entire suite to be used as a single space for entertaining. Billy Grant’s hospitality was legendary, and one of his regular visitors was the often-outrageous Edwardian society beauty and writer Elinor Glyn, who recalled ‘floating on the lake at Hillersdon’. The 12 main bedrooms, four bathrooms, nursery and former servants’ wing are all accessed from the dramatic, galleried first-floor landing, with the main domestic offices laid out on the north-east side of the house.
Untouched by modern makeover, idyllic Hillersdon House sits in 175 acres of parkland, lakes, pasture and woodland, looking out across a beautiful private valley towards the Blackdown Hills. Outbuildings include a stable block, a converted coach house, barns and workshops, and a walled garden with the picturesque Jane’s Cottage, designed as a summer house by Samuel Beazley. A group of early-19th-century farm buildings is being sold as a separate lot. In recent years, owners David and Gale Glynn, who have lived at Hillersdon since 1982, have embarked on an ambitious renovation of the house and estate, a lifetime project that is still ongoing.
Savills are also handling the sale, at £1.5m, of another West Country gem, the Old Rectory at Combe Florey (‘valley of the flowers’) near Taunton, Somerset, which sits in a secret wooded valley on the edge of the village, between the Quantocks and the Brendon Hills. In 1829, the house, then badly neglected, but described as ‘big, spacious and handsome with many outbuildings’, became home to the new rector, the writer, architect and political activist Sydney Smith, who transferred there from Yorkshire with his family. He extended the house into the garden with the addition of two large bays, with big windows ‘to flood with daylight the library and the upstairs drawing room’. In December that year, Smith wrote enthusiastically to a Yorkshire friend: ‘You must really come down & see this country it is the garden of England, & our Parsonage is extremely beautiful and convenient. But the Peasantry & horses are dreadfully inferior to those of the North. The former are all drunken & the latter without a good point about them; in revenge, the climate is very soft and mild.’
The former rectory was gutted by fire in 1962, but was carefully restored by Second World War air-ace Capt William Read, who bought the house on his retirement in the early 1960s, and died there in 1999, aged 81. His widow, Mary, a formidable character in her own right, lived on at the Old Rectory until she died last year, leaving the house to her family, the current vendors. Not much has changed since Smith’s day, and the delightful house is as welcoming as ever. It has four reception rooms, a large country kitchen, seven bedrooms, three bathrooms, and attics that hide what is thought to be a 19th-century cock pit; outbuildings include a former coach house, garaging and stables. Its 17 acres of grounds include beautifully laid-out gardens, a kitchen garden and a walled orchard, surrounded by traditional parkland, paddocks and woodland.
Strutt & Parker (01392 215631) quote a guide price of £1m for dreamy Worfield House at Combe Raleigh, near Honiton, East Devon a charming, early-19th-century former rectory built in the Georgian style, and described in White’s Directory of Devon, 1850, as ‘a handsome house, picturesquely sited, as a good residence in a romantic nook, having an extensive prospect in front, but sheltered on other sides by woody hills’. For sale for the first time in almost 50 years, Worfield House, listed Grade II, has four reception rooms, eight bedrooms, four bathrooms and four attic rooms; outbuildings include garaging, stabling, greenhouses, a barn and modern covered yard. Unusually, it also has 29 acres of land, including well-stocked gardens, paddocks, fields and woodland.