East Anglia’s Sale of the Century

The launch onto the market, in today?s Country Life, of the 1,333-acre Shrubland Estate, near Ipswich, Suffolk, at a guide price of £23 million through Knight Frank (020?7629 8171) and Summers Wykes-Sneyd (01449 761861) represents not just the biggest property event of the year so far, but the most important estate sale to take place in East Anglia for more than a generation. For Shrubland is one of those rare entities, a complete country estate, owned by the same family for more than 200 years, and comprising a grand, Grade II*-listed, historic house, with spectacular Italianate gardens, set in a Grade I-listed Repton landscape.

The estate includes a stable block, three secondary houses, 32 cottages, seven lodges and three separate drives (historically The house is Grade-II* listed, the Humphry Repton grounds are Grade I. The estate includes a farm, two quarries, a deer park, seven lodges and 32 cottages there were five). It has a deer park, acres of parkland, a well-run home farm, two well-concealed working quarries, and an excellent family shoot.

The Shrubland Estate was bought in the 17th century by the influential Bacon family, who lived in what is now the Old Hall until the 1770s, when John Bacon, a wealthy clergyman, commissioned James Paine to build a more fashionable mansion high on the chalk escarpment overlooking the Gipping Valley. Shrubland was the last house built by James Paine. By 1788, the estate had a new master, William Middleton, who commissioned Humphry Repton to produce one of his red books of plans and sketches for the gardens and grounds, many of which were implemented over time. Even more significant was the contribution made by Middleton?s son, William Fowle Middleton, following his father?s death in 1830. He created Shrubland?s now famous Italianate gardens, linked to the house via an imposing flight of 100 stone steps.

The Hall was also Italianised, first in the 1930s by J. P. Gandy-Deering, and then in 1948?52, by Sir Charles Barry, who added the Italianate tower, two Louis XV rooms and the grand staircase hall. Barry was also responsible for the gardens with their recurring sequence of steps, urns and balustrades; the terraced west garden is thought to have been modelled on that of the Villa d?Este at Tivoli. Sir William continued to improve the estate until his death in 1860, when the estate passed to his cousin, Sir George Nathaniel Broke Middleton. He, too, died childless, in 1887, and Shrubland passed to his niece, Jane Ann Broke, who by then had married James St Vincent, 4th Baron de Saumarez, whose family was, and still is, based in the Channel Islands.

The agricultural depression of the late 1800s took its toll on Shrubland, severely reducing its 40-strong team of gardeners and increasing the emphasis on ?wild planting?, but, more than a century later, its Victorian gardens are still among the most important in the country. Shrubland Hall became a convalescent home in the First World War; in the Second World War, the Old Hall was used as a brigade headquarters, and the park as a training ground for the Home Guard. In the 1960s, the 6th Baron and his wife set up an exclusive health clinic at Shrubland so exclusive that James Bond was sent there to get back into shape in Never Say Never Again.

The clinic, now run by the 7th Baron and his wife, is scheduled to close unless the new purchaser wishes to continue with it after the completion of the sale. Unlike so many stately homes converted to commercial use, Shrubland has been little altered, retaining its original country-house atmosphere, thanks, in no small way, to the retention of its original contents although these may be dispersed following a contents sale scheduled for September 2006. In his survey of England?s Thousand Best Houses (2003), Simon Jenkins describes Shrubland Hall as ?an Italianate villa with Tivoli terraces?, assigning it two stars out of five.

A bout of hunger may have influenced his judgment, as suggested by his reference to ?the drive (which) winds past trees that seem themselves to be on a diet? adding ?even the sheep in the park are lithe and trim?. Mr Jenkins?s parting shot is that ?palm trees, cedars and oaks cannot relieve the noise of the all-too adjacent A14?. But few houses in the south of England are totally free from traffic noise, as Clive Hopkins of Knight Frank points out, adding that the sheer quality of the house is likely to outweigh any such concerns. However, it may be a factor in whether or not Shrubland continues in a commercial role or reverts, as in an ideal world, to private residential use. These days, it depends on where a purchaser with £23m to spend is coming from.

This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on April 6, 2006.

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