Country houses for sale

Country houses with ecclesiastic links

When the iconic, Grade II*-listed North Canonry in Salisbury’s Cathedral Close, Wiltshire, was last launched on the market, in May 2008, the guide price of ‘excess £5 million’ quoted by selling agents Knight Frank was the highest ever asked for a house in this historic enclave. But not, incidentally, the highest price ever achieved: that record is still held by Grade I-listed Myles Place, sold by Savills for a reputed £6m-plus in December 2007, against a launch price of £4.25m.

Despite the deepening recession, the splendid, 8,570sq ft North Canonry confounded the doubters by selling quickly to new owners who were ‘downsizing’ from a larger country property, but now find themselves spending much of their time elsewhere. This time round, it’s Savills (020-7016 3780) who are seeking a buyer for this fascinating house-dubbed by Pevsner ‘the most picturesque house in the Close’-at a guide price of £5.5m.

The core of the North Canonry is a 16th-century house created within the shell of a much larger 13th-century one, although its history is poorly documented until 1547, when Canon Robert Okyng substantially altered the pre-Reformation building, adding the magnificent ashlar bay window with its polygonal buttresses and curious cellar light. Apparently, the principal rooms have always been in the east of the house, facing the Cathedral, and Okyng’s grand new room was christened the Great Parlour, with the Great Chamber above.

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The canonry was remodelled again in 1739, when John Bampton demolished most of the south and west ranges; further demolition was authorised for Canon Gilbert, the Bishop of Salisbury’s brother, in 1751, before the three main reception rooms were elegantly remodelled by Canon Hume in the early 1800s. The eminent Victorian architect Sir George Gilbert Scott completed the transformation with his reworking of the building for Canon Swayne in the late 1800s.

North Canonry had already been refurbished by the previous incumbents when the present owners took it on, but they, too, made a number of improvements, redecorating the interior in a restrained style more in keeping with the building’s aura of timeless tranquillity, reconstructing the riverbank and building a new glasshouse to a design that mirrors the roofline of the canonry itself.

The accommodation is impressive by even the most exacting of standards, and includes four fine reception rooms, a study, a library, a kitchen/breakfast room, four bedroom suites, a spare bedroom and bathroom, and a large basement with a wine cellar, flower room, store rooms and a boiler room.

For many, the Canonry’s crown-ing glory is the glorious, 18th-century rectangular walled garden that runs for 590ft from the rear of the house to the banks of the River Avon, which forms its western boundary. In the late 19th century, the garden, then managed by Canon Buchanan, was much admired by Gertrude Jekyll, who described it in her book Wood and Garden (1899) as ‘one of the most beautiful gardens I have ever seen’.

The garden, recently restored by garden designer John Brookes, reputedly contains the only surviving part of Salisbury’s old city wall, along with the canonry’s former gatehouse and a two-storey summer house built in about 1720. It’s divided into a series of ‘rooms’ leading from the pretty terrace around the house, via beds enclosed by small box hedging, to an inner lawn dominated by a giant ginkgo and an ancient mulberry, and bounded by a wide brick wall with wrought-iron gates.

Beyond the gates, a wide grass walk between a double herb-aceous border flanked by lawns, ornamental trees and fruit trees leads past a pair of sculpted yews to the river bank, with Harnham Water Meadows beyond. This scene of riparian bliss was immortalised by Constable, who was a regular visitor to Salisbury’s inner sanctum. The sale also includes a two-storey former stable block and fishing rights on the River Avon.

Another delightful house with ecclesiastical origins is Grade II*-listed Kings Old Rectory in the sought-after village of Broad Chalke, Wiltshire, eight miles from Salisbury, for sale through Knight Frank (020-7861 1549) at a guide price of £2.75m. Originally owned by the Abbess of Wilton, and formerly known as Rectory Manor, the house and its land were handed over to Henry VI as part of the endowment of the newly founded King’s College, Cambridge, in whose hands it remained until 1923. Unusually, it has never been owned by the local church.

In the 1900s, the house and lands were leased by the poet Maurice Hewlett, who received many famous visitors there, among them the writer Thomas Hardy, the Poet Laureate Robert Bridges and the birth-control pioneer Marie Stopes. In 1943, another friend, Sir J. C. Squire, recalled staying with Hewlett in ‘his old monastic building with clear, weedy, chalk stream full of small trout rippling along the bottom of the garden; the little fountain enclosed by cypresses to remind him of Tuscany; the small bridges across the stream; the quiet library where he wrote standing up at a lectern; and where I sat up late while he and Robert Bridges hammered at each other about aesthetics’.

The romantic old rectory’s four acres of heavenly gardens and water meadow, bisected by the sparkling River Ebble, adjoin the land of Reddish House, former home of Sir Cecil Beaton, who is said to have photographed Greta Garbo sitting on the bridge at Kings Old Rectory. The oldest part of the house dates from the 15th century, with rear wings added in the early 16th and 17th centuries.

A number of alterations were carried out in the early 18th century, when the drawing room in the west wing was refitted, and a new west-wing staircase installed; the first-floor drawing room over the kitchen also has 18th-century panelling. The 5,120sq ft main house was completely renovated by the present owners in 2002, to create a family home of rare charm, with two reception rooms and a kitchen/breakfast room on the ground floor; a drawing room, the master suite and two bedrooms on the first floor; and three more bedrooms, two bathrooms and a sitting/play room on the second floor. In 2008, the 2,865sq ft Kings Cottage was remodelled to provide three reception rooms, a kitchen/breakfast room, a conservatory, five bedrooms, two bath/shower rooms and an attic.

Elegant Abbey House at Itchen Abbas, five miles from Winchester, Hampshire, completes a trio of important Grade II*-listed houses, this one currently for sale through Strutt & Parker (01962 869999) at a guide price of £2.975m. The imposing former rectory, which dates from 1693 with 18th- and 19th-century alterations, was bought by the present owners a year ago but a change of circumstances meant that they never moved in, and it’s now back on the market, still in need of refurbishment and modernisation. Fortunately, as selling agent George Burnand points out, the existing layout of the house, which has three well-proportioned reception rooms, a 39ft kitchen/breakfast room, nine bedrooms and five bathrooms, means that no major structural alterations are required.

Abbey House stands in more than seven acres of lovely gardens and paddocks overlooking its own grounds and the scenic Itchen Valley. The sale includes the converted two-bedroom stable cottage, which has its own entrance off Rectory Lane.