Country houses for sale

A sprawling mansion in Surrey, with a two-century history of fame and changing fortunes

The Denbies House may have started life as a humble farmhouse, but with a garden themed after death and damnation and a host of colourful owners from bankers to politicians, it's now anything but. Penny Churchill reports.

From humble farmhouse to Victorian edifice, to elegant, Regency-style country house, the evolution of The Denbies House at Ranmore Common, near Dorking, reflects the changing fortunes of the rich and famous in Surrey, from the mid 18th century to the present day. Selling agent Paul Finnegan of Savills quotes a guide price of £8.75 million for the secluded, 13,142sq ft country house.

Named after John Denby, who farmed the land in the 16th century, the original farmhouse and its surrounding Surrey Hills estate were bought in the mid 1700s as weekend retreat by Jonathan Tyers, the owner of London’s fashionable Vauxhall Gardens. Having converted some of the former farm buildings into a modest, two-storey house, Tyers went on to develop gardens at Denbies, the theme of which was death and damnation.

Following Tyers’s death in 1767, the estate was bought by Lord King of Ockham (Property Market, February 26), who had Tyers’s collection of macabre artefacts removed and the grounds greatly altered.

In 1787, Denbies was purchased by banker Joseph Denison, who spent part of a vast fortune – gained through ‘unabated industry and the most rigid frugality’ – buying up estates. He died in 1806, leaving his property to his son, William, also a banker, who increased the acreage of the Denbies demesne to 3,900 acres and created extensive, well-designed gardens. He died a bachelor in 1849, leaving his fortune to his nephew, Albert, later Baron Londesborough, who sold the Denbies estate to master builder Thomas Cubitt in 1850.

Renowned as the creator of London’s Belgravia and parts of Bloomsbury, Cubitt also built important country houses, including Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and Polesden Lacey at Great Bookham, near Dorking, now in the care of the National Trust. It was perhaps during the building of Polesden Lacey that he became familiar with the beautiful North Downs area of Surrey, which, even then, was easily accessible from London.

When Cubitt bought the Denbies estate 25 years later, the main building was a medium-sized, Regency-style house in a peerless position on the summit of a hill, with views across Mickleham, Box Hill, the town of Dorking and beyond to the South Downs. With work on Osborne House nearing completion, Cubitt set about improving his new estate, replacing the Georgian house with a grand Italianate mansion of almost 100 rooms, similar in style to Osborne House. The landscape architect William Nesfield, who laid out St James’s Park, was brought in to design the gardens.

Cubitt died at Denbies in December 1855, leaving the estate to his son, George, a successful politician and Surrey MP, who became the first Lord Ashcombe in 1892. He added a further 2,000 acres and commissioned Sir George Gilbert Scott to design the estate’s picturesque church of St Barnabas on nearby Ranmore Common.

On his death in 1917, the estate and title passed to his son, Henry. Faced with a massive bill for death duties and the ever-increasing cost of maintaining a country estate, the new Lord Ashcombe began selling off land and houses, a process that continued after his death in 1947, when his son, Roland, succeeded him.

Fresh death-duty liabilities and the effects of the Second World War led Lord Ashcombe to abandon the Victorian house, which was eventually demolished in 1953. He transformed estate buildings that were previously used to house garden and stable staff into the present Regency-style home, incorporating flooring and doors stripped from the old house.

With death duties still outstanding, the break-up of the estate continued and, in May 1984, more than a century of Cubitt family ownership ended with the sale, through Savills, of The Denbies House with its surrounding parkland and farmland.

More than 35 years on, Savills are again handling the sale of a resurgent Denbies House, set in some 58 acres of beautifully maintained gardens and grounds. Still one of Surrey’s most enviable country properties, it overlooks the same glorious views enjoyed by previous generations of bankers and landowners.

The sprawling house boasts a reception hall, four reception rooms, a study, a kitchen/breakfast room, six en-suite bedrooms, a guest/staff apartment, extensive cellars, an indoor swimming pool and a massive leisure complex – the whole modernised by the vendors during their tenure. It comes with four further estate houses and cottages, as well as two large storage barns that could easily be adapted for equestrian use.

The Denbies House is on the market through Savills at a guide price of £8.75 million. Click here for more information and images.