For more than 100 years, the advertisement pages of Country Life have reflected the state of wealth of Britain’s movers-and-shakers. And levels of activity in the country house market – as shown by the number of advertisement pages carried in Country Life since the Thatcher years of the 1980s – clearly reflect levels of activity (or lethargy) in the increasingly global world of big business.

The 1980s and 1990s were years of boom and bust respectively, both in the City and in the country, but, interestingly, the years since the Millennium – despite the collapse of the dotcom boom, the events of September 11, 2001, and now the war in Iraq –have turned out to be a period of steady, if unspectacular, recovery and consolidation.

The City of London, which alone generates one-third of the nation’s wealth, is the engine which drives the market for large, expensive, country houses. With confidence in the global economy generally at a low ebb, 2005 looked set to become another dull year, mirroring that of 2004 which itself was not that brilliant.

Then, in September 2005, the City finally built up a head of steam and took off into the sunset. The market for high-value houses in the Home Counties took off with it, and, suddenly, houses which had been hanging around for six months or more, found buyers overnight.

The ‘domino effect’ caused by the sudden influx of City buyers is illustrated by a remarkable series of related sales achieved last autumn by Kent agents Calcutt Maclean Standen.

Last September, having sold his family country home through Calcutt Maclean, the successful vendor bought Slip Mill at Hawkhurst, which came to the market in May at £1.75 million.

The vendor of Slip Mill, a City banker, then bought Downgate at Sandhurst for around £3 million from another City banker, concluding the sale on September 8th, the day the house appeared in Country Life. The vendor of Downgate quickly slipped across the county border into East Sussex, where he purchased idyllic Franchise Manor, near Heathfield, for £5 million-plus.

Whereupon one of the vendors of Franchise Manor crossed back into Kent and bought Leacon Hall at Warehorne, near Canterbury: “a perfect Queen Anne house”, according to Pevsner, it had been on the market since February, 2005, at a guide price of £1.65 million.

Unlike 23 years ago when the market for trophy houses and estates was dominated by buyers with City money or inherited wealth, nowadays buyers of English country houses come from a wide variety of backgrounds. But they have one thing in common: they are all rich, and getting richer.

As Rupert Bradstock of buying agents Property Vision observes: ‘Our client base compared with, say, ten years ago, has altered in that we are less dominated by investment bankers and fewer clients with inherited wealth. We currently have a mixture of bankers, fund managers, film producers, entrepreneurs with their own manufacturing businesses or connected with the defense and entertainment industries, IT folk, and what I would describe as ‘second-generation’ inherited wealth. By that, I mean not ‘old money’ dating back to the Doomsday Book, but the children of people who made their first fortune, say, 30 years ago’.

In which context the Bamford family of JCB fame – who probably fall into the category of ‘old new money’ – caused a stir last summer when Sir Anthony Bamford (who bought Baron Thyssen’s Daylesford estate in Gloucestershire for around £12 million in 1988), consolidated the family’s country-house empire in the Cotswolds with the purchase of Bruern Abbey in Oxfordshire for his son for £5 million-plus. In other respects, however, Mr Bradstock’s analysis neatly encapsulates the profile of the buyers of the 100 best country houses sold in England last year – as opposed to the most expensive, although in many cases the two were synonymous.

Surrey was the first county to feel the benefit of the surge in City confidence. In September, Harrods Estates found a UK-based overseas buyer for the glittering Hartlands on St George’s Hill, which had been on the market at £9.5 million for a year or more; that deal was wrapped-up in just six days. High-profile country houses which found ready purchasers from September onwards included the refurbished Wentworth Place near Chobham (guide price, £12.5 million); the 60-acre Maryland estate at Worplesdon (£4.25 million), and the Edwardian Copse Hill at Godalming (£2.25 million).

City money also followed the M4 to Berkshire where some of the best houses launched in the spring of 2005 found buyers in the autumn. Great Martins at Shurlock Row, listed Grade II* (£4.3m) was sold in September to a businessman in the pharmaceuticals industry. A property developer from London bought Grade II-listed Hurst Lodge near Twyford (£3.5 million) as a weekend retreat. And, proving that last year’s big bonuses were not the only influence on the market, an investment banker paid more than £3 million for the classic Georgian house, West Court at Inkpen, near Hungerford, in early June.

As we have seen, Kent was a hive of country-house activity in the last quarter of 2005. Launched in September, the monumental, Grade II*-listed, Higham Park, near Canterbury, confounded the experts by selling to a private couple for well in excess of the £4 million guide price.

Oakfield at Penshurst, with its 12 acres of newly-restored gardens (£4.15 million), was bought in November by a City buyer who had sold his business. Meanwhile, ‘one of Kent’s finest Georgian houses’, Guinea Hall near Ashford (£2.1m) was bought by a local family who tried but failed to buy it when it last came on the market some 16 years ago.

Classic Georgian country houses sold as quickly as ever in Hampshire throughout 2005, among them Morstead Manor at Twyford, near Winchester (bought for more than £3 million); Long Mead House at Quarley – owned by a psychiatrist and bought by a businessman for around £2.5 million; and Stoke House at St Mary Bourne, near Andover (£2.4m), which sold within weeks, and out-of-season, at the end of December.

The highlight of the autumn market in Oxfordshire was the sale of the extraordinary Scots-baronial Ewelme Down near Wallingford, Oxfordshire – sold to a Russian buyer for around £10 million. Another newsworthy sale was that of Rocky Lane Farm, near Henley-on-Thames (previously home to the actor Nigel Havers), bought by a ‘property man’ as a weekend retreat for around £6 million.

Persistence paid off in neighbouring Gloucestershire when the artist Damien Hirst paid more than £3 million for the 40,000sq ft, Gothic Toddington Manor as a repository for his enormous art collection. But it was a swift turnover for the restored Georgian Dowdeswell Court, near Cheltenham, which was bought by London entrepreneur James Perkins in 2000, and sold in December 2005 at a guide price of £4.75 million.

Faced by the relentless advance of ‘new money’ into traditional ‘old money’ strongholds such as the Chilterns and the Cotswolds, the traditional landed families seem to be moving further and further west. In Wiltshire, a junior member of the Cayzer shipping dynasty bought the late Belinda Gentle’s exquisite Manor House at Milton Lilbourne, near Pewsey, for around £3 million. Another scion of a landed family bought the 270-acre Withyslade Farm at Tisbury (guide price £3.6m). And one of the West Country sales of the year was that of the glorious, 300-acre, Weacombe estate at the foot of the Quantocks, near Taunton, which was swiftly acquired by Christopher Courage of the eponymous brewing family for around £5 million last summer, following the private sale of his Edgecote estate, near Banbury, Oxon, for a reputed £25 million.

Nationally, the trophy-house sale of the year, was that of Easton Neston House with the remaining 547 acres of the Hesketh family estate at Towcester, Northamptonshire. The surprise buyer of Hawksmoor’s masterpiece, listed Grade I, which had been on the market for more than a year at a guide price of £18 million, was Russian-born, but US-based, fashion tycoon Leon Max.

Foreign buyers can turn up anywhere these days, it seems. In 2005, they even penetrated to the wilds of Norfolk, where, early in the year, an ‘international’ buyer paid considerably more than the £1.4 million guide price for the 11-bedroom Felthorpe Hall, with 84 acres near Norwich. Elsewhere, London buyers (some with Norfolk connections) ruled the roost in the Norfolk country-house, with one of the county’s hidden gems, Elsing Hall near Dereham, being sold in the autumn to a London-based lawyer.

Up north, too, there were rich pickings to be had in the autumn country-house market. Launched in Country Life in early April 2005, the classic Elizabethan Haslington Hall in Cheshire (guide price, ‘excess £3m’) found a buyer in October/November. As did Gary Barlow’s 117-acre Delamere Manor estate near Cuddington, Cheshire, which had sat on the market for a while at £5.5 but was finally sold in lots at the back-end of the year, the main house being bought by an Irish businessman. And with footballers a well-known force in the Cheshire country-house market, it was appropriate that another high-profile Cheshire sale, that of the recently-renovated Mill Hall at Mottram St Andrew, near Wilmslow (guide £4.5 million), should have been on behalf of a footballer-turned-property developer, to another local entrepreneur.

With 100 Yorkshiremen now worth more than £25 million according the 2004 Carter Jonas ‘Yorkshire Rich List’, it was hardly surprising that most of the trophy properties sold in ‘the Kingdom’ last year went to buyers based within the county. A Yorkshire family paid more than £7 million for The Priory at Nun Monkton – a classic William & Mary house, listed Grade II* – in one of the major sales of 2005. And a Yorkshire landed family paid a similar price for one of the premier estates sold last year – the 2,628-acre Thimbleby estate, near Northallerton, with its fine, Grade II-listed Georgian house and renowned grouse-moor.

This article was originally published in Country Life magazine, February 23, 2006

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