If Country Life’s founder, Edward Hudson, were to look at the magazine’s property pages today, he would undoubtedly marvel at the colour photography, but would still find them reasonably familiar. From the outside, many of the country houses look the same, but if he were to cross their threshold, he would be in for a big surprise. Buyers’ requirements have shifted over time, particularly in the past 30 years, and country-house interiors have changed enormously to accommodate their needs.
‘When I first started selling country houses in the 1970s, owners would progress through their home during the day,’ recalls Robin Thomas of Strutt & Parker. ‘They would start in the breakfast room, spend two hours writing letters or reading the papers in the morning room, watch the racing in the sitting room in the afternoon and have dinner in the dining room, before moving to the drawing room at the end of the day. Today, the majority of hours will be spent in only one or two rooms, most probably the kitchen.’
The days when children were supposed to be seen and not heard have long gone. ‘We find that every room is a family room, except perhaps the study, which remains a male bastion just,’ comments Nick Hole-Jones of Hamptons International. ‘Upstairs nurseries have become downstairs playrooms,’ adds Jasper Feilding of Carter Jonas. Playrooms are very popular because ‘they’re somewhere to shut the door on all the toys, but close enough to have the children to hand,’ explains Zoe Napier of Zoe Napier Country & Equestrian. But, adds Mr Feilding, buyers also want informal rooms where children (and, sometimes, adults) can keep themselves entertained, such as games rooms and home cinemas.
Safe outside space is equally sought-after. ‘Parents tend to be much more safety conscious knowing their children are playing within the confines of the garden gives them peace of mind,’ explains William Marsden-Smedley of Prime Purchase, who also reports that tennis courts have seen a surge in popularity.
Nowadays, the best kitchens are large and, according to Mr Marsden-Smedley, they mesh three rooms in one: ‘the food preparation area, the dining area and the snug area’. Although, as Andrew Cronan from Savills once put it, contemporary kitchens often struggle to sell in the country, open-plan rooms are becoming increasingly popular. ‘Buyers want bigger living spaces that provide flexibility, preferably with inter-connecting doors,’ says Mark Jamieson of Strutt & Parker.
Another, less obvious revolution has taken place upstairs in the bedrooms. Buyers want ‘sizeable rooms’, according to Mrs Napier, and would rather have fewer of them, but of the right type. ‘The ideal number is six or seven,’ says John Coleman of Smiths Gore. Today, adds James Borradaile of Jackson-Stops & Staff, ‘the ensuite is essential. His and hers bathrooms are becoming more popular, as are large dressing rooms or walk-in cupboards’.
Although the number of bedrooms needs to be manageable, people want enough room to accommodate plenty of family members, while still preserving everyone’s privacy. ‘Granny annexes have become much more popular,’ says William Peppitt of Savills. ‘The propensity for the previous generation to help with the purchase of a family house in return for somewhere for them to live has grown over the past 30 years.’ According to Mr Borradaile, accommodation for a nanny, housekeeper or live-in couple tending to the house and garden needs to be ‘well separated’. Ideally, it should be situated in the grounds but not in the house, says Mr Marsden-Smedley.
The need for privacy and a desire to protect one’s own view are also driving a growing appetite for land among country-house owners. ‘There is a real premium on “invisible” houses,’ says Mr Hudson.
Some things, however, never change, says Crispin Holborow of Savills. ‘Nothing beats a long, straight drive with a Georgian or Queen Anne house standing at the end, in the middle of its own acreage.’