Penny Churchill looks back at a fascinating 12 months in the world of country property in the first of three articles, focusing this week on the south of England.
Nothing succeeds like success and, after a jittery start to the year, a handful of significant country-house sales was enough to turn the receding tide and tempt vendors and buyers alike back into the open market. In what turned out to be a surprisingly good year for ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ houses, leading country-house agents were heartened by the level of demand at the top end of the market for well-restored historic houses in tranquil, private locations — many for sale for the first time in decades.
‘One interesting fact,’ notes Rupert Sweeting of Knight Frank, ‘is that, of country houses on our books at £5 million or more, 31% were sold to international buyers and 69% to buyers from the UK. It is certainly encouraging that international buyers — no doubt attracted by the weakness of sterling against the dollar and euro — still see the UK as a stable country in which to live and invest.’
The shiny private estates of north Surrey and south-east Berkshire area mecca for international buyers, who usually match British money for the best houses in St Georges Hill, Wentworth and Virginia Water. This year, however, UK buyers more than held their own in these exclusive enclaves and sales at upwards of £10m were not uncommon.
Knight Frank and Savills shared the honours in the sale in August of the imposing, 17,000sq ft Titlarks House on Titlarks Hill, Sunningdale, Berkshire, finding a British buyer at a guide price of £15m.
Built as a joint venture between developers Kebbell Homes and Octagon, the luxurious red-brick house stands on a 1.4 acre plot and boasts a grand, 1,000sq ft entrance hall, seven reception rooms and five dramatic bedroom suites.
Serious action in the country-house market began back in April with the unveiling in Country Life of one of Dorset’s most exquisite Tudor manor houses, Grade I-listed Athelhampton House near Puddletown, six miles from Dorchester, at a guide price of £7.5m through Knight Frank and Savills.
For Lindsay Cuthill of Savills, this was a ‘copy book’ country-house operation, with a decisive vendor going straight to the open market without first testing the water: his reward was a sale in November.
As with many of the ‘stand-out’ houses launched later in the year, Athelhampton had risen from the ashes more than once in its history, notably in the late 1800s, when the antiquarian Alfred Cart de Lafontaine restored the house and created its magnificent formal gardens. From 1957, Athelhampton was owned by the Cooke family, who continued to restore the house and extend the Grade II*-listed gardens until, after 30 years at the helm of this remarkable Dorset manor, owner Patrick Cooke and his wife, Andrea, decided to call it a day.
Athelhampton was followed onto the market by another of Dorset’s most beautiful house, glorious Grade I-listed Dewlish House in the heart of Hardy country at Dewlish, near Milborne St Andrew, which is being sold with its 296-acre estate for the first time in 57 years, at a guide price of ‘excess £12m’ through Knight Frank’s country department.
Previously owned by a succession of distinguished military families — and currently by the sporting Boyden family, who bought it in 1962 and have since restored and improved the 12,800sq ft house — Dewlish boasts magnificent formal gardens designed by Geoffrey Jellicoe.
Despite continued tough trading in the capital’s prime residential market, London buyers were on the move again. Ed Cunningham of Knight Frank reported the firm’s ‘second-best year since 2008’ in counties to the south and west of the capital.
An encouraging sign of the times was the £3.2m sale of elegant, Grade II*-listed Chieveley House in the downland village of Chieveley, west Berkshire, to a London buyer as a second home. Launched on the market in September 2018, the immaculate early-18th-century house was previously owned by Sir Robert Goff, widely recognised as one of the most brilliant legal minds of his generation.
In Hampshire, where a surprising lack of top-notch houses meant that most open-market activity was confined to the middle-range £2m–£5m price bracket, Knight Frank recorded sales of more than a dozen delightful manors, old rectories and small country houses — some of which were new-builds, reflecting the growing emphasis on energy efficiency among the new generation of country-house buyers.
Charming Coneycroft House near Petersfield, on the Hampshire/Sussex border, slipped underneath the radar in the hands of Knight Frank with a private sale for an undisclosed price.
This trend was also evident within the Cotswolds AONB, where few important country houses were seen on the open market this year. Here, the focus was on classic, small Cotswold-stone family houses in the £2m–£4m price bracket.
A prime example was charming Grade II-listed Tadmarton Manor, set in 31 acres of gardens and grounds five miles west of Banbury and nine miles from Soho Farmhouse at Great Tew.
Launched on the market in April for the first time in almost 60 years, it found a buyer at £2.1m through Strutt & Parker. Throughout the property downturn, Oxfordshire has consistently outperformed every other county in the UK, a fact underlined by the number of high-value sales achieved there in 2019.
Knight Frank and Savills were joint agents in the £28m sale of the impeccably refurbished, 194-acre North Aston Hall estate, with its palatial, 35,000sq ft main house set in spectacular landscaped gardens and grounds overlooking the Cherwell Valley, six miles from Soho Farmhouse and 13 miles from Chipping Norton.
The same agents handled the sale in October of Grade II-listed, Georgian Holmwood at Binfield Heath, on a southern knoll of the Chilterns, four miles from Henley-on-Thames, at a guide price of £11.25m.
Knight Frank oversaw the disposal of the late Capt Charles Radclyffe’s charming, 361-acre Lew House estate at Bampton, near Witney, at a guide price of £10.85m, followinga tussle between three interested parties.
Across the county border in Gloucestershire, joint agents Savills and Strutt & Parker ploughed their way to the finishing line in November, with the sale of the picturesque, 900-acre Lowesmoor Farm at Cherington, near Tetbury, for which ‘offers over £12.5m’ were sought.
Penny will continue her look at the market in 2019 in the next couple of weeks, looking at the rest of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
Catch up on the best country houses for sale this week that have come to the market via Country Life.