Who can afford to join the country set?

Not so long ago,£2 million would have bought the most glittering trophy house in any county in England. Not any more. The latest findings of the Country Life Elite Property Index, which has been tracking the fate of country houses advertised in the magazine for the past 10 years, suggest that well-off individuals wishing to join the squirearchy of England?s most popular rural counties now need longer arms and deeper pockets than ever before.

Surrey remains by far the most expensive county in England. With 42% of all houses advertised in Country Life between January and June this year valued at more than £2m, the average price of a country house in Surrey is now £2.11m, compared with £1.8m two years ago. At a guide price of £15m (through Hamptons) the 105-acre Chobham Park Estate, near Guildford, is the highest-priced country property currently for sale in the county.

In the neighbouring royal county of Berkshire, where the average country house costs £1.9m, Knight Frank expect the next owner of the sumptuous Harewood Estate in Windsor Great Park to fork out £27.5m for the privilege. Evidently somebody has, for the estate is now under offer. Whereas a security-conscious billionaire with a passion for golf would be the ideal buyer for Berkshire?s second priciest pad?the ?all singing, all dancing? newly built Old Titness at Sunning- dale, on offer through FPDSavills at £9.5m. Two years ago, the average price of a country house in Kent was £1.13m; today?s average is £1.65m, an increase of 46%.

Only last year, agents reported houses priced at more than £3m as ?sticking like glue?; now the Grade II*-listed Lutyens masterpiece, Great Maytham Hall, near Cranbrook, has gone under offer at £4m. Meanwhile, the county?s most expensive property, the Rush-more Hill Estate at Knockholt, is still on the market at £8m through William Wesson. In rural Hertfordshire, the average country-house price, at £1.64m, has increased only marginally since 2002, when it stood at £1.56m. But a steady market in the county has not prevented this year?s top property, the 150-acre Tom?s Hill Estate, on the edge of the Ashridge Forest, from going under offer at £4.2m through Lane Fox.

The continuing strength of the country-house market in Warwickshire is reflected in a 45% increase in the number of country properties advertised for sale in Country Life in the first six months of 2004, compared with the same period last year, at an average price of £1.59m. And in the fact that this year?s best house, the Manor at Clifford Chambers, near Stratford-upon-Avon, is now under offer at a guide price of £5.5m through Knight Frank.

The upper end of the country-house market in Sussex is on the move again, after a difficult year in 2003. Despite an average price of £1.57m (£1.29m in 2002), few houses managed to breach the £3m ceiling in the first six months of this year. At £3.75m through Knight Frank, Plaw Hatch Hall at Sharpthorne was the highest-priced country house for sale between January and June. Humberts, meanwhile, have tweaked the price of historic Paynes Place at Ansty, from £3.75m to £3.5m.

In Essex, where in the past two years the average price of a country house has risen by 20%?from £1.3m to £1.56m?Essex vendors tend to sell to Essex buyers. The sale of the first half of this year was that of the 348-acre Elmdon Bury Estate, near Saffron Walden, through Bidwells, at a guide price of £4m. Elsewhere in East Anglia, a shortage of good country houses for sale in Suffolk (-12%), Cambridgeshire (-24%), and Norfolk (-47%), made for a fairly quiet first half of the year.

This time last year, Northamptonshire, with an average country-house price of £770,000, hardly figured. This year, ?the county of squires and spires? has shot to prominence and an average of £1.55m, following the £50m launch, through Knight Frank, of the 3,319-acre Easton Neston Estate, near Towcester. This followed hot on the heels of the £11m launch (and rapid sale) of the not-far-distant Eydon Hall Estate, through Bidwells and Knight Frank. And the recent sale, at about £10m, of the county?s third most expensive property?300 acres of prime farmland at Apethorpe, with planning consent for a new house.

Buckinghamshire, a county in two halves, has always been a stalwart of the country-house market, as its progression from an average price of £1.17m in 2002, to one of £1.53m in January-June 2004, readily indicates. Beaconsfield is the county hotspot, a fact reflected in the £5.5m guide price quoted by Knight Frank for Ridgewood, at Penn, the most expensive house of the year so far.

You can bet your pension on prices holding up in Hampshire, England?s most congenial county, which houses half the country?s generals in the north, and half the country?s admirals in the south. It comes as no surprise to find, then, that the average price of a Hampshire country house has jumped by 25%?from £1.2m to £1.51m?in the past two years. On the market through Lane Fox and FPDSavills at a guide price of £7m, Deane House, near Basingstoke, offers some bright spark the chance to steal the limelight. South Hall House at Preston Candover, in the sought-after Candover Valley, has already fled the scene, having found a buyer through Knight Frank at a guide price of £5m.

Oxfordshire shows a 30% hike in the ave-rage price of a country house from £1.1m in 2002, to £1.44m in the first half of 2004. Henley-on-Thames is the hotspot, a fact reflected in the £4.5m asking price quoted by Knight Frank for the most expensive country property on the market in early 2004, the lovely Georgian Fawley House, with 34.5 acres. FPDSavills quote a guide of £3.9m for the runner-up, Satwells Barton, with 19.5 acres, also near Henley.

The Cotswold country-house market rarely takes a tumble, and in neighbouring Gloucestershire, where the average price of a house has remained steady at £1.19m (compared with £1.09m in 2002), it has been business as usual this year. Knight Frank found buyers for two of the county?s best houses?Edgeworth Manor at Sapperton (£6m) and Garden House at Westonbirt (£4m), and there must be a buyer out there for Quarwood at Stow-on-the-Wold, for which Hamptons are asking £2.95m.

Across the border in Wiltshire (average price £1.18m) Knight Frank and Butler Sherborn sold the 428-acre Eastcourt Estate at Malmesbury for about £4.75m. A 24% increase in the number of high-value properties on the market in Dorset in the first half of 2004, compared with the equivalent period last year, has boosted the average price of a country house there by 35% in the past two years?from £934, 000 in 2002, to £1.26m in January-June 2004. This year?s high flyers include Chedington Court, near Beaminster, sold by Knight Frank with a guide price of £7.175m, and Ven House at Milborne Port, sold by Knight Frank and FPDSavills (guide price £6.5m).

A 36% increase in the supply of country houses coming to the market in Cornwall?spearheaded by FPDSavills? launch of £9m Trewarthenick Estate on the scenic Roseland Peninsula, has helped the county steal the thunder of its perennial West Country rival, Devon. In Somerset, the riposte was the lightning sale of historic Hatch Court, near Taunton, at a guide price of £5.5m, through FPDSavills. Derbyshire (average price £1.41m) has some fine country houses which rarely come to the open market. The highlight of the first part of the year was the launch by Jackson-Stops & Staff of the classic, Grade-I-listed Lutyens masterpiece, Ednaston Manor at Brailsford, at a guide price of £5m. Knight Frank found a buyer for another grand house, Longford Hall near Ashbourne, at £2m.

Farther north, the country-house market in Yorkshire and Cheshire continues to go its own sweet way, with most of the best houses going to buyers from within their own counties. Folk round here are careful with their cash, and the average price of a Yorkshire country house (if you can get your hands on one) has risen only slightly since 2002?from £1.15m to £1.2m. Strutt & Parker sold this year?s highest-priced house, 1,138 acre Drewton Manor Estate, in the Yorkshire Wolds, to a buyer from Yorkshire.

Demand for good country houses in Cheshire (average price £1.3m) is rarely matched by supply, and Jackson-Stops & Staff soon found a buyer for Wrenshot House at High Leigh, at a guide price of £3.56m. A handful of estates currently on the market include the Cherry Hill estate at Malpas, for which Strutt & Parker quote a guide price of £3.75m.