Country houses for sale

Interview: Patrick Ramsay of Knight Frank

Almost 36 years have gone by since a young, freshly trained and, in his own words, ‘absolutely hopeless’ surveyor first walked through the doors of the Knight Frank head office in London.

In that time, something quite extraordinary has happened to the country-house market, which is perhaps best illustrated by the story of one property. In 1977, just a year into his career with the firm, Patrick Ramsay sold a house near Sunningdale in Berkshire for the princely sum of £125,000.

That same house, with the same amount of land and very few alterations other than inevitable updates and modernisations, has just exchanged hands for £12 million. ‘I certainly have been incredibly lucky with the strength of the market, and it has flattered one’s performance over the years,’ he explains, modestly. Like many of his generation, Patrick’s career took shape in a less-than-planned fashion.

After leaving Ampleforth, he was sent for an interview with a few of his father’s friends. ‘I must have said that I enjoyed the company of the stockbroker best as, the following Monday, I had a job.’ It didn’t last long. ‘I was absolutely hopeless’-a refrain repeated throughout our encounter-‘but my father insisted I remained in my first job for a year, so, just when I suspected they were coming with my P45, I resigned.’ The experience provided him with two clues as to his future career: ‘I wanted the freedom to do something that wasn’t tied to a desk or to London and that would involve things I could see, touch and understand.’

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So the decision was made for him to go to the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester to study estate management. ‘My parents hadn’t had a spiv in the family for generations.’ Qualifying for the course involves a year of practical farming. Patrick lasted seven months. ‘I was fired from two farms, one for being discovered milking in my dinner jacket, having just got back from a party.’
Following a two-year apprenticeship at the Strutt & Parker office in Lewes-where valuations, he says, were made leaning in other estate agents’ windows on the way to a pitch-he then secured himself a role at the Knight Frank office in Hanover Square, and his career took off.

His success can, in no small measure, be accounted for by his rare gift of balancing easy charm and a spirited sense of humour while delivering a commercial message with very credible zeal, which has pushed Knight Frank from being a cosy, small firm to being the global brand that it is today. In 1976, the firm had 150 people working across four UK offices and two overseas; today there are 242 offices in 43 countries employing just over 7,000. ‘One of the greatest accolades we receive is that clients stay with us through generations. We tell every single member of staff: you must
only give advice that you’d give a member of your family. Integrity is absolutely crucial.’

Having sold some of the country’s finest houses over the years, one would expect Patrick to have built up an impressive portfolio of properties, deftly judging the market before the rest of the punters. Not so. ‘When we moved from London to the country, I paid too much money for a house that I then realised I couldn’t alter to suit our needs, so, in the end, we knocked it down and started again.’ He’s learnt some lessons along the way-a large hall creates the right welcome, position should be east-west to make the most of the sunrise and sunsets and the layout needs to be adaptable. ‘Yes, you want the open-plan kitchen-living room when your children are small, but do you want to see your daughter’s boyfriend lying on top of her on your sofa using your Sky remote? No, you do not,’ he cries.

The prospect of retirement doesn’t appear to weigh heavily on Patrick-it’s just another adventure. He’s someone, one suspects, who won’t conform to the usual retiree’s merry-go-round of golf, bridge and winter escapes to the Caribbean. On a recent sabbatical to South America, he was undeterred by the closing time at Machu Picchu and simply scrambled over the gate. ‘Breaking the odd rule is a good idea,’ he twinkles. And as for the country-house market? ‘I’m a great optimist;
a salesmen should be nothing else. Property in the UK has entered the gold standard and
I can’t see any possible reason why it shouldn’t continue to be an enduring asset.’