The first issue of Country Life carried a single page of property advertising, in which Stowe House, ancestral seat of the Dukes of Buckingham and Chandos, was squashed on a page with 10 other properties offered by Walton & Lee, including a castle on the River Wye.
The 1897 layout is a far cry from the luscious field of dreams that is Country Life?s pride, but already the proprietor Edward Hudson, himself driven by social and acquisitive ambitions in the property field, had shrewdly exploited a gap in the market.
Knight, Frank & Rutley took over the prime page-three spot in 1912 and their historian wrote: ?Hudson glamorised the country and made successful businessmen long to live in it, secure in the knowledge that by selling up and buying land, one became at least a sort of
Hudson?s strategy succeeded handsomely and he was to leave a hugely valuable legacy to successive publishers even by 1913, the magazine carried more than 40 pages of property advertising each week. In 1927, Hudson even referred to his own plans to buy a house for himself, Plumpton Place. It cost £3,300; a Lutyens overhaul, 56 years and three owners later plus a declined offer from Led Zeppelin?s Jimmy Page and it sold for £650,000, to a developer.
Country Life?s property pages are a social charter in their own right. Since the outbreak of the First World War, the graph has fluctuated constantly: every blight wars, slumps, recessions and stock-market crashes is counteracted with optimism and determined regeneration. Prices only began to rise sharply from the 1950s; the price of Country Life?s staple, the Home Counties, middle-class country house with a few acres, has increased sevenfold in a half-century.
In the early 1970s, US president Richard Nixon decided to open up grain-trading between the West and Russia, a move James Laing of Strutt & Parker attributes to the dramatic rise in farmland values. Grain prices doubled overnight, as did the value of farmland. Despite the recent drop in farm incomes, prices have continued to grow due to an influx of ?lifestyle buyers? or investors seeking tax advantages.
Perhaps the most enduring trend in Country Life was coyness about prices; it was not until the upwardly mobile Thatcher years, when ambition and acquisition were virtues, rather than vulgarities, that property prices became an acceptable dinner-party topic. Rather frustratingly, therefore, many of the most enticing early advertisements have no price tags, although, happily, enough did to convey the trends.
Sporting attractions were the thrust of most advertisements, which were still messily crammed at least 10 to a page. Published prices were rare, but an 11-bedroom Hampshire house on gravel soil with fruit garden, billiard room, tennis lawn and servants? hall was advertised for £5,000. A half-timbered 18-bedroom Cheshire house boasting 40 acres and a golf course was £7,500, and a ?magnificent horse-breeding estate?, 370 acres in Nottinghamshire, was promoted as ?a bargain? at £15,000.
Post-war bargain-hunters made hay with sometimes desperate vendors. A ?charming old house? on the Norfolk Broads with 356 acres and shooting was offered at the ?extremely low? price of £5,000; a 12-room house with a 900-year lease was a ?wonderful bargain? at £1,200; a Shropshire estate was priced at £4,650 and a Queen Anne house with a lake in Essex was £2,500. Stowe was for sale again, by auction, and a number of properties for summer lets was offered, including Hudson?s own Lindisfarne Castle.
By now, the market was suffering from City crashes and a recession and the tone grew more desperate. You could rent in Mayfair for £225 a year. A five-bedroom house in six acres near the Sandwich Links with two bathrooms ?one cost £100? was £1,975; a ?Tudor gem? near Guildford with three cottages and 60 acres was entitled ?astounding offer? with the agent promi-sing to accept the first offer of £5,000. An advertisement for a Leicestershire hunting lodge said ?no reasonable offer refused? and a four-bedroom, thatched house priced at £2,500 boasted of having £4,000 spent on it.
Post-war, it was the comforting, safe, rural albeit convenient idyll that counted. Advertising copy talked about ?glorious views over unspoilable country?, and proximity to stations and village amenities. A Queen Anne manor house in 64 acres, 50 minutes from London, was priced the same £25,000 as the extensive 90-acre Gidleigh Park estate on Dartmoor.
Householders were still getting over post-war staff shortages, so ?mod cons? were crucial. A Surrey ?architect-designed residence, in Georgian style, requiring a minimum of domestic help? and with washbasins in three out of five bedrooms plus ?modern drainage? was priced at £7,500. A small cottage in Farnham with ?independent hot water and immersion heater? was £3,995; a six-bedroom Italian-style house at a beauty spot near Guildford was £5,250 ?to allow for improvements?. The advertisement read: ?It is estimated that about £1,000 would be enough to make the interior really modern and attractive.?
Before high-speed trains tore across the country, the only acceptable London commute was from the inner Home Counties; further-flung counties, which now count as commuter belt, contained bargains aplenty. At £6,750, a 1711 five-bed Nort-hamptonshire manor house with separate wing and paddocks was hardly more expensive than the £5,950 three-bedroom cottage near Godalming, Surrey.
The presentation of advertisements seemed untouched by 1960s ?hip? and still remained unremittingly dreary; an ?attractively landscaped? villa in the Bahamas (£18,000) looked like a shack. Now even the most stark Scottish island often looks positively tropical.
A six-bedroom Buckinghamshire ?family residence? with staff flat and grass tennis court was priced at £65,000
The big colour revamp began in the 1970s, even though the decade, buoyant to start with, was hit by the oil crisis and the three-day week. Properties adopted ?pop-star? auras, with helicopter landing pads, swimming pools and tennis courts. Prices had shot up in the past 10 years. In 1972, the Church commissioners had sold off 194 redundant parsonages at an average of £10,602; a year later, a further 167 parsonages were sold, but now the average price was £20,155.
A six-bedroom Buckinghamshire ?family residence? with staff flat and grass tennis court was priced at £65,000, the same as a four-bedroom modern house in Devon with 770 yards of double-bank fishing on the Exe; a four-bedroom period cottage in Hampshire was £29,000, and a Cornish beach home and cafeteria business £48,000.
The Thatcher years were kind to Country Life. In this year, the magazine carried more than 4,500 pages of property advertising, including Savills? eight-page pullout on Hudson?s first house, Deanery Gardens. Property owning was the reward for honest enterprise, borrowing had never been so easy, and estate agents popped Champagne daily as gazumping became the norm. An early-16th-century, five-bedroom ?charming period village house, listed Grade ll? plus coach house near Henley, Oxfordshire, was advertised with a guide price of £385,000, but may easily have sold for up to £50,000 more.
Bargain hunters had to go further afield. A Scottish island, Pabay, was ?in excess of £150,000? and an attractive five-bedroom country house set in 27 acres in Argyll was £80,000-plus. In 1986, Country Life?s property editor Michael Hanson introduced the concept of buying agents, kick-starting the success of Property Vision (now part of HSBC), which last year broke the £1 billion barrier of property purchased.
The City took a battering at the start of the decade, so did house prices and, ipso facto, the quota of Country Life?s property pages
The City took a serious battering at the start of the decade, so did house prices and, ipso facto, the quota of Country Life?s property pages. But by mid-century, it was on the rise yet again, with prices shooting up, as did the fashion for second homes.
Geography was still significant. A ?lavishly presented? five-bedroom period farmhouse in Shamley Green, Surrey, set in just two acres, was offered at £600,000; farther out, a larger Regency house on the Essex/Suffolk border (now considered a reasonable commute) with a swimming pool and six acres was £5,000 less, against an even cheaper 160-acre farm in East Devon (£550,000).
A Grade ll water mill in the Lake District with restaurant and ancillary buildings was £250,000 against thatched ?retirement? cottages in Sutton Scot-ney, Hampshire, from £150,000 to £225,000.
Any reticence about admitting to a £1 million plus mark-up had disappeared by the turn of this century. Mackerye End, Hertfordshire, which was offered at £15,000 in 1945, sold for £4.5 million. Everything, from French châteaux to Cornish cottages, was exquisitely photographed, enhanced sometimes improbably by tropical blue skies and blooming gardens.
A five-bedroom house 20 minutes from Nice Airport was offered at more than £2 million, and Spain was considered the best value, with a 15,000sq ft villa including cinema and gym a snip at ?5.5 million. A 51-acre Devon farm was now £750,000 and a three-bedroom cottage near the sea £500,000; a 13-acre Fife estate in excess of £950,000, a Wiltshire rectory £1.5 million as was a four-storey house in St John?s Wood.
The guide price for an apartment with four reception rooms, private lift and underground car parking, inside an ?historic mansion? at Kingwood, Oxfordshire, was £1.85 million.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on January 4, 2006