Footballers and popstars are being forced to take a back seat in the market for trophy country houses and estates as high-rollers from the increasingly global world of big business and high finance mop up the cream of Britain’s country properties. Celebrity buying agent Jeremy Lambourne of Oakhall Property Source admits that many of his high-profile clients are having to moderate their expectations when it comes to buying a country home. ‘Rather than buying something that is ready to move into, they are often having to buy something in need of modernisation, or something smaller than they would like, in the hope of getting planning permission to extend,’ Mr Lambourne laments.

Certainly, the average £100,000-a-week footballer might find it hard to match the financial muscle of some of those who bought properties advertised in Country Life in 2006. They include Swiss financier Urs Schwarzenbach (60th in The Sunday Times Rich List with a fortune of about £880 million) who paid close to £35m for the pristine Culham Court estate at Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire – days after it was advertised by Knight Frank at a guide price of £25m, and hedge-fund pioneer Ian Wace, co-founder of Europe’s largest equity hedge fund, Marshall Wace Asset Management, who is rumoured to have paid more than £20m for the Rowler estate at Croughton, Northamptonshire.

Multi-millionaire businessman and Labour Party donor, Lord Drayson, the new defence minister, paid a reputed £5.9m for Nether Lypiatt, near Stroud, Gloucestershire – the country home of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent. Sarsden MP Shaun Woodward’s estate near Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, was bought by property magnate Tony Gallagher for about £24m. And Martin Ephson, director of the Farrow & Ball paint and wallpaper company, whose pro-ducts grace the walls of Windsor Castle, Highgrove, and Bill Gates’ London home, bought the exquisite Queen Anne Poulton House, near Marlborough, ‘on an impulse’, for around the guide price of £5m.

Another beneficiary of the boom at the top end of the country-house market was Michael Dell, co-founder of the world’s biggest PC manufacturer, and one of America’s richest men, with a personal fortune estimated at $14.2 billion, according to the Forbes 400. A ‘European’ buyer is thought to have paid about the £18m guide price for Oaklands Park at Englefield Green, Surrey, Mr Dell’s 100-acre estate on the edge of Windsor Great Park, which made a discreet appearance in the June 8 issue of Country Life.

Draconian confidentiality agreements prevent top estate agents revealing all but the barest details of major sales, and most deals are concluded amid the strictest secrecy. High-profile City figures like to keep a low profile in the country, and abhor personal publicity of any kind. Almost invariably, such buyers will recruit one of half-a-dozen leading buying agents – the property market equivalent of MI5 – to search out a suitable property, and conduct the deal on their behalf.

Vendors at the top end of the market tend to be no less reclusive. There are sound financial reasons for this, says Rupert Connell of The Buying Solution (the independent buying arm of Knight Frank). With demand for elite country property currently far outstripping supply, many owners who are not obliged to move for any of the classic reasons – death, debt or divorce – may be persuaded to sell if they are offered ‘silly money’. But this is a small marketplace, where every-one knows everyone, and they do not want their property to be over-exposed, in case no buyer materialises.

Another reason for discretion among vendors of high-profile properties is that people may assume that the owners are getting divorced, says Hume Jones of Savills in Winchester.

The surge of City confidence which hit the country market like a tidal wave last autumn has spilled over into 2006, and with further mega-bonuses expected to be announced in the next few weeks, prospective buyers (and vendors) have already raised the stakes. In the gilded enclaves of Surrey and Berkshire, Russian billionaires have been breathing down the necks of the home-grown variety, resulting in a number of multi-million-pound sales, notably those of The Lake House, St George’s Hill, Esher, launched in Country Life in February at £6.25m and sold for £7.6m; Middleton at Sunningdale, Berkshire, sold for £8m; and Tower Court and Ribblesdale Park, at Ascot, sold for £10m and £15m respectively.

Another reason why Chelsea footballers may have problems finding a house in Esher or Cobham, says Tim Garbett of Knight Frank, is that the top clearing banks are now buying houses for their top executives who are relocating to London, rather than renting at £25,000 to £30,000 a year. Another source of competition in the area is Middle Eastern buyers concerned by recent events in that region. Their relocation agents are busy sourcing suitable properties, Mr Garbett reports, adding ‘but the sheikhs will only consider houses which are completely fresh to the market’.

Out in the country, London buyers are also raising their game. Two of the finest houses to come on the market in the West Country this year – the glorious Bathealton Court estate near Wellington, Somerset, and The Chanter’s House at Ottery St Mary, Devon – were sold to buyers coming out of London. Bathealton Court was bought by a young family, and the rambling Chanter’s House, historic seat of the Coleridge family, was reputedly bought by someone downsizing from an even bigger house in Surrey. Earl Stockton’s Hayne Manor estate at Stowford, Devon – launched in Country Life by Knight Frank in early July – has already gone under offer for a reputed £7m.

A chronic shortage of country houses for sale generally, and the Cotswolds in particular, has led to a number of interesting sales this year. The delightful Hilcot House, at Upper Coberley, Gloucestershire, was on the market last year at £4.5m, but failed to find a buyer; this year, it sold for more than £5m. Notley Abbey in Thame, Oxfordshire, was sold for £4m, well above the guide price, after a bidding war between four contenders. On the other hand, historic Througham Slad Manor at Bisley, Gloucestershire, was for sale last autumn at £5.5m, and sold this year for £4.5m.

Even at a red-hot time like the present one, the country-house market can be something of a lottery, says Rupert Sweeting of Knight Frank and very often there appears to be no good reason why some houses sell and others don’t. But the next round of City bonuses will undoubtedly bring a fresh crop of buyers in search of a dwindling number of good country properties.

Having seen the sale of the quintessentially Cotswold Wootton House at Woodstock fall through at the last moment, Mr Sweeting will be surprised if a new buyer is not found before long, at an unchanged guide price of £8m through Knight Frank (020-7629 8171). The autumn campaign may also bring good news for the vendors of houses such as the classic Arts-and-Crafts Holmedale at Holmbury St Mary, Surrey, which has seen its price reduced from £6.75m to £5.9m through Savills (01483 796820).

With completely new properties thin on the ground, there is bound to be huge interest in three prime properties currently being launched in Country Life. The first is the 270-acre North Breache estate at Ewhurst in the Surrey Hills, with its seven-bedroom, neo-Jacobean manor house designed by Aston Webb. The estate has been owned by the Nutting family since 1933, when the present vendor’s father bought it after an auction announcement in Country Life. The present owner, Peter Nutting, now aged 70, has decided that he would prefer to move house now rather than in 10 years’ time, so the decision was taken to catch the autumn tide. Lane Fox (020-7499 4785) and Knight Frank quote a guide price of £7.5m for this very special sporting estate with its gardens, stabling, various cottages, woodland, ponds and practice golf course.

Property-starved buyers in Hampshire will be rushing to view Martin Ephson’s elegant Ringwold House at Nether Wallop, which is for sale through Strutt & Parker (01962 890077) and Knight Frank (01962 850333) at £2.1m, following the purchase of Poulton House.

The immaculate Grade II-listed country house, built in 1805, stands in 4.29 acres of gardens and paddocks, and has four reception rooms, five main bedrooms, three bathrooms, and separate guest accommodation.

Meanwhile, the City big guns will no doubt be ‘upping the ante’ following the launch of Stakes Farm at Upham, Hampshire – an ‘exceptional’ 1,011-acre farming estate for which BCM (01962 763900) and Savills (020-7499 8644) quote a guide price of £11.72m for the whole.

Impeccably located near one of the most sought-after villages in Hampshire, Stakes Farm is set amid some of the most beautiful rolling arable and woodland country in the county, and has been farmed by the Rees family since 1918. The main Georgian farmhouse stands in about 50 acres, surrounded by a walled garden, a stable yard and paddocks, traditional farm buildings cottages and two magnificent oak-framed barns.

Top 12 Country Houses Sold in 2006

1. Oaklands Park, Englefield Green, Surrey (Knight Frank/Savills): £18m

2. Ribblesdale Park, Ascot, Berkshire (Knight Frank/Savills): £15m

3. Tower Court, Ascot, Berkshire (Savills/Hamptons): £10m

4. Middleton, Sunningdale, Berkshire (Knight Frank/Savills): £8m

5. The Lake House, St George’s Hill, Surrey (Knight Frank/Savills): £7.6m

6. Woodhay, Windlesham, Surrey (Knight Frank): £7.5m

7. Three Barrows, Elstead, Surrey (Savills): £6.5m

8. The Grange, Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire (Knight Frank/Savills): £6.5m

9. Field Place, Compton, Surrey (Knight Frank/Savills): £6m

10. Nether Lypiatt, near Stroud, Gloucestershire (Knight Frank/Savills): £5.75m+

11. Connaught House, Hertford Heath, Hertfordshire (Savills): £5.5m

12. Poulton House, near Marlborough, Wiltshire (Strutt & Parker): £5m+