Buyers were initially cautious this year, but once competition reared its head, they found estates worth every bit of the asking price – and sometimes more, as Penny Churchill reports.
It’s hardly surprising that the uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the Brexit negotiations should have cast a long shadow over the workings of the country-house market in 2018.
More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that the market worked at all – and work it did, in some unexpected ways and places, according to Rupert Sweeting of Knight Frank.
‘Generally speaking, buyers have used Brexit as an excuse to put things on hold, but when a special house or estate came along and they saw others bidding, they were happy to pitch in and pay the price to get it,’ he says.
‘Buyers were nervous of going it alone, which resulted in more top properties being offered on the open market and fewer being sold privately than in recent years, with some notable cases of competition among bidders resulting in sales achieved for more than the guide price. ‘
Mr Sweeting also points to what he describes as another ‘encouraging trend’: the level of interest shown by overseas buyers at the top end of the market, ‘helped no doubt by the weakness of sterling versus the dollar,’ he adds.
Against that perhaps surprisingly upbeat backdrop, here’s our look at the most important country house sales of the last 12 months.
For Rupert Sweeting, the standout sale of the year was that of the diverse, 2,177-acre Sutton Hall estate near Woodbridge, Suffolk, which sold to a UK buyer for more than its £31.5 million guide price within four months of its launch onto the market in July through Knight Frank and Ipswich-based agents Landbridge.
The thriving mixed-farming and sporting estate, which has 3½ miles of frontage to the River Deben and its own private quay, was acquired by Sir Cuthbert Quilter as part of his Bawdsey estate and assembled over a period of some 20 years.
At its heart is a Grade II-listed, eight-bedroom Georgian manor house set amid formal gardens and parkland. There are also 11 farmhouses and cottages, as well as two barns with planning consent for conversion to residential use.
An equally fast-moving scenario played out in June, following the launch onto the market of the idyllic, 278-acre Aylesfield House estate, set in rolling Hampshire countryside near Alton at a guide price of £11m through Knight Frank. Built in 1933 around the core of a 17th-century farmhouse for a member of the Westbury family, Aylesfield House was the home of the late Sir Robin McAlpine from 1948 until his death in 1993.
Restored and remodelled by the recent vendors, who purchased the estate in 2003, the immaculate Hampshire holding soon found a willing buyer – at comfortably more than the £11m guide.
Kingstone Lisle Park
Strutt & Parker and Knight Frank were joint agents in the successful sale of the spectacular, 257-acre Kingstone Lisle Park estate near Wantage, with its recently refurbished Grade II*-listed 13-bedroom mansion, considered by many to be one of Oxfordshire’s most beautiful houses.
Having been on and off the market for the best part of four years, it came to the open market this year at a guide of ‘offers over £20m’, much to the delight of Will Whittaker of Strutt & Parker’s estates and farm agency, for whom ‘this magical Oxfordshire sporting estate was a fun property to sell, precisely because it came to the open market, thereby attracting attention from all round the world, whereas most of the sales we handle in this price bracket tend to take place off-market’.
‘Buyers of country estates of this calibre tend to have exacting requirements,’ continues Mr Whittaker, explaining that a handsome house at its centre is often just the start: buyers specify everything from trout streams and hills to properties with no public rights of way or road noise.
Kingstone Lisle proves the point nicely. ‘In the end it was bought by a buyer from France who was specifically looking for a property within 30 minutes of his polo team’s base at Cowdray Park, West Sussex,’ adds Mr Whittaker. ‘His maximum budget was £8m, but he ended up buying a historic estate in Oxfordshire for £21.6m!’
Strutt & Parker were the agents for the sale of another Oxfordshire gem this year: the 125-acre Coombe Park estate on the banks of the river at Whitchurch-on-Thames. Described by Mark McAndrew of Strutt & Parker as ‘a faded glory that time forgot’, it launched in the autumn at a guide price of ‘excess £10m’.
Centred around a derelict 18th-century mansion with numerous outbuildings and vast development potential, this ‘impossibly romantic’, rare Thames-side estate attracted interest from around the globe. It sold for about £8m to a buyer who plans to restore and live in the house and convert the former stables into offices.
For Crispin Holborow of Savills’ private office, two notable estate sales at the end of 2017 set up the top end of the market for 2018: the picturesque 762-acre Bibury Court estate near Cirencester, sold with a price tag of £17.5m, and the 1,044-acre Stubhampton farming estate at Tarrant Gunville on the Dorset/Wiltshire border, which had a guide price of ‘excess £13m’. In 2018, however, Savills point to the sale of the Cooper family’s 1,349-acre Hexton Manor estate at Hexton, in the foothills of the Chilterns AONB, a Hertfordshire rarity, as one of the highlights.
A model mixed-farming and sporting estate set around an impressive Grade II-listed manor house, with one of the finest high-bird pheasant shoots in the northern Home Counties, Hexton Manor was launched in May and sold in two lots with minimum fuss – and competitive bidding on both lots – at a guide price of £19m for the whole. ‘If only all sales were as orderly as this one,’ sighs Mr Holborow.
In contrast to Hexton, it took the best part of five years to find a buyer for historic Woodmancote Place near Henfield, West Sussex, at its original asking price of £7.95m, its owner having steadfastly refused to reduce the price throughout that time.
Set in 149 acres of lakeside gardens and grounds, the romantic Tudor manor – once owned by Sir Edward Seymour, who was executed for treason in 1552 – was bought by a local businessman who had been patiently watching from the sidelines, waiting for the right time to make his move, reveals James Mackenzie, head of selling agent Strutt & Parker’s national country department.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the open-market launch of a 13,958sq ft castle in Cornwall, at a guide price of ‘excess £7m’ in April, would be a lost cause under present trading conditions, but you’d be wrong, says James Mackenzie with glee. Having set the ball rolling on elegant, Grade I-listed Ince Castle (also pictured top), which stands on its own 190-acre, private peninsula overlooking the River Lynher, near Saltash, in the Tamar Valley AONB, joint agents Knight Frank and Strutt & Parker were soon reeling in enquiries from around the world.
The agents eventually netted a South Africa-based buyer for the 13-bedroom castle, beautifully restored by its long-term owners, Viscount Lennox-Boyd of Merton and his wife, Alice, following a fire that gutted the building in 1988.
The Old Rectory at West Woodhay
Like Ince Castle, another special country house to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of a disastrous fire was Grade II-listed The Old Rectory at West Woodhay, in the North Wessex Downs AONB.
Launched on the market in May, at a guide price of £7.75m through Knight Frank and Savills, the impeccably restored Georgian former rectory, set in 14 acres of wonderful gardens and grounds on the edge of the 2,000-acre West Woodhay estate of which it was once a part, shook the market to its core by finding a buyer – reputedly at well over the guide price – almost before the ink had dried on the sales particulars.
More than ever in 2018, successful sales have depended on the willingness of vendors to set a ‘sensible’ guide price from the outset – whatever ‘sensible’ is, of course.
One example of a swift and successful sale for more than the guide price was that of handsome Bowhill House at West Stoke, which launched on the market with Savills at a guide price of £4.95m in May and sold for £5.15m in July.
For sale for the first time in 30 years, the imposing Edwardian-style house, built in about 1936, stands in splendid gardens and grounds on the edge of West Stoke village, gateway to the Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve, a particularly beautiful area of the South Downs National Park.
Martyr Worthy Manor
There are lots of good news stories on this page, but of course not all sales are straightforward. Take the sale of gorgeous, Grade II-listed Martyr Worthy Manor, with 36 acres of gardens, pasture and woodland in the beautiful Itchen Valley, four miles from Winchester. It came to the market through Savills in June 2017, at a guide price of £6.25m, but failed to find a buyer.
Relaunched on the market this year, with a revised guide price of £4.65m, it sold in October for about that figure.
And meanwhile, in London…
With the central London market supposedly in the doldrums, who’d want to be a London agent, I wonder. Well, Miles Meacock of Strutt & Parker’s Notting Hill office is more than happy, having secured the recent sale – jointly with Knight Frank – of 91, Clarendon Road, one of Notting Hill’s most sought-after streets. It’s not a country house, but it earns a guest appearance at the end of this list.
The stylish, semi-detached, five-bedroom family house, set behind a secure, gated driveway, with off-street parking and a large, west-facing garden, went to an overseas buyer, at a guide price of £13m.
‘Nowadays, anyone lucky enough to own a home in Notting Hill rarely wants to leave and families who buy in the best roads are likely to stay for anything from 20 to 40 years,’ Mr Meacock says cheerfully.
‘However, they do tend to migrate to the Cotswolds at weekends, where they will happily buy a weekend retreat within easy reach of Oxfordshire’s Soho House Farmhouse.’
Catch up on the best country houses for sale this week that have come to the market via Country Life.
A serious amount of work will be needed on any of these places – but it'll all be worth it in