May has been a magical month in the West Country this year: the grass is lush, the beech woods are carpeted in bluebells and, with the oak trees beating the ash into leaf by a country mile, there’s the promise of a warm, dry summer ahead. So, if London buyers aren’t exactly lining up to splash the cash on farms, estates and country houses the way they used to, it’s not the end of the world.
‘For people who love living in this part of the country, there’s always a market for special properties that can be seen to represent genuine value for money,’ says Martin Lamb of Savills in Exeter (01392 455740). His confidence will be tested in the coming weeks, following the launch onto the market, at a guide price of ‘offers over £5 million’, of the showpiece 457-acre Chiltons estate, near Dulverton, Somerset-one of the cleanest, greenest and most efficient livestock-farming and sporting enterprises you could ever wish to see.
Chiltons is the creation of City financial headhunter Christopher Beatson-Hird and his wife, Arabella, who hails from Devon. They were already farming on a smaller scale at their previous family home near Wells in Somerset when, in the early 2000s, they decided to take their farming operation to a whole new level. Having bought Chiltons in 2007, the new owners embarked on a root-and- branch transformation of the entire estate.
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An impressive range of modern farm buildings now provides five-star facilities for 1,600 ewes and lambs and a suckler herd of more than 90 cows. The soil has been rigorously tested and improved to provide rich summer grazing and winter feed for the animals. Dilapidated fencing around the large, level fields has been repaired or replaced by natural banks or tall beech hedges: there’s not a strand of barbed wire or baling twine to be seen anywhere on this model West Country farm.
The carefully managed woodland, which traverses the estate in a series of deep valleys, provides wonderful cover for a herd of sleek red deer and some famously challenging pheasants, with several snipe bogs offering entertaining alternative sport. Fishing is available in the well-stocked trout lake and a share in the River Barle Fishing Club offers a further seven miles of fishing on the Rivers Barle and Taw.
The focal point of the estate, which sits at 850ft above sea level on the edge of Exmoor National Park and enjoys spectacular panoramic views for miles around, is the imposing, 9,000sq ft, Georgian-inspired main house built to replace the original farmhouse by the West Country conservation architect Jonathan Rhind. Designed to the owners’ exacting specifications based on their busy, hands-on lifestyle, the house is elegant, functional, eco-friendly and manageable.
It has a splendid central hall with a fine, cantilevered staircase rising to a galleried landing lit by a central oval cupola, with reception and living rooms to either side of the hall and five bedrooms and four bath/shower rooms on the first floor. Family life tends to revolve between the vast kitchen/breakfast/living room area overlooking the gardens and the surrounding estate and the splendid party barn, which is linked to the main house and doubles as a shoot room, with two further bedrooms and bathrooms. Farm manager Ben Blackmore’s renovated three-bedroom farmhouse is the only other house visible between Chiltons House itself and the distant horizon.
As field-sports lover Mr Beatson-Hird prepares to retire from the City to a smaller farm in the same area, sporting racehorse owner John Simpson needs to move back nearer to London to keep an eye on his business interests there. Consequently, his 392-acre Great Bradley sporting and equestrian estate at Withypool, near Minehead, Somerset, is also for sale through Savills, at a guide price of £5.5m, lock, stock and barrel (excluding the horses and equestrian equipment).
The compact Exmoor estate, which enjoys a similar level of privacy and unfettered views as Chiltons, is the dramatic setting for the renowned Bradley shoot, an established highpheasant and partridge shoot with 22 days of shooting and an average daily bag of 300 birds. An additional 90 acres of woodland are rented from the Badgworthy Land Company, which holds the hunting rights to the entire estate. Included in the sale is the fishing on four lakes and ponds, together with two shares in the River Barle Fishing Club. The extensive equestrian facilities include barn stabling for 21 horses, a stable yard with three foaling boxes, a manège, a covered horse-walker and a two-furlong allweather gallop, with planning consent for another seven furlongs.
During his tenure, Mr Simpson has greatly improved the sheltered south- facing main house, which has two good reception rooms, a roomy fitted kitchen, five en-suite bedrooms and an indoor swimming pool, with glass doors opening onto terraces that overlook the beautifully landscaped two-bedroom staff cottage.
Few West Country properties have caused a stir in recent years, but that changed a few weeks back when news of the impending sale of the idyllic, 728-acre Bantham estate, near Kingsbridge, Devon-through Strutt & Parker (01392 215631) and Michelmore Hughes (01803 862002), at a guide price of £11.5m for the whole or in six lots-made headlines in the national press. Bantham doesn’t boast a grand manor house, but that hasn’t deterred prospective purchasers from all walks of life, including other estate owners, investment trusts, environmentalists and individuals from the UK and overseas, from expressing interest in all or parts of the estate, says selling agent James Baker of Strutt & Parker.
The Bantham estate is owned by a family company founded by shipping magnate Charles Edward Evans, who discovered Bantham in 1919. The company is now run by his descendants, who, despite their decision to sell, are keen to see the estate’s uniquely unspoilt environment preserved for future generations. Whether this can be achieved is another matter.
But, with properties of all kinds on offer, including a portfolio of 21 houses and cottages let on various tenancies, 589 acres of arable land, pasture and woodland, the 18-hole Bigbury golf course, a lease from the Duchy of Cornwall of the fundus and foreshore of much of the River Avon and several boathouses, there is plenty here to tempt the dreamer, big or small.
Back in the real world, the exquisite, Grade II*-listed The Manor House in the village of Ditcheat, Somerset, 2 miles from Castle Cary, is also the stuff of dreams.
It was built in the 1600s by the Royalist Sir Ralph Hopton, who fled to Bruges to avoid capture by Cromwell’s men and died in exile. Ten years ago, its present owners, Kevin Bird and Hayley Hyde Andrews, embarked on a painstaking programme of restoration, creating a splendidly authentic family house with some 8,900sq ft of accommodation, including three main reception rooms, seven bedrooms and five bath/shower rooms.
It is now for sale through Strutt & Parker (01722 328741) at a guide price of £3.95m, and comes with a listed manor lodge, a stable block and 8.7 acres of gardens and grounds William Morrison of Knight Frank in Exeter (01392 423111) sums up the current West Country market: ‘Viewings are half what they were this time last year, but the number of offers accepted has doubled, with 60% of buyers making offers compared with 34% last year. Deals are being done north of £1.5m, but at the very top level – £2.5m and upwards – the number of properties on offer is limited, as is the number of buyers.’
On the other hand, Britons returning to the UK from overseas have been impressed by the ‘sensible’ value for money to be found in the West these days, he adds, as he prepares the launch onto the market of handsome Sector Hall, near Axminster, Devon, at the shrewdly pitched guide price of £1.95m.
The charming, Grade II-listed Victorian house, built in 1838 and set in 58 acres of gardens, rolling parkland and woodland, was bought by its present English owner and his Dutch wife on their return from Dubai in 2007. Now, they plan to move to the Netherlands to be near her family. Sector Hall has five reception rooms, master and guest suites, six further bedrooms and two bath/shower rooms. Outbuildings include a converted coach house, a traditional barn, a summer house and various garden stores.
Also on the move for family reasons are the owners of imposing Stoneley House at Curry Rivel, near Langport, Somerset, who are heading back towards Hampshire following their childrens’ acceptance by Winchester College. Having bought Stoneley House seven years ago through Brian Bishop of Jackson-Stops & Staff in Taunton (01823 325144), they are now re-selling through the same agent at a guide price of £1.7m.
They have completely transformed a distinguished, if somewhat dated, Victorian stone house, adding a whole new second floor to provide some 6,250sq ft of accommodation, including three main reception rooms, a large kitchen/living room, a study, a gym, a games room, four first-floor bedrooms, two bathrooms and an impressive master suite with an office/studio on the second floor. A one-bedroom guest cottage is a bonus.
Stoneley House stands on high ground in a glorious spot close to the Burton Pynsent Monument, a well-known local landmark. Its 25 acres of beautifully maintained gardens, grounds and parkland holding a variety of majestic specimen trees, some thought to be almost 200 years old.
Amenities include an all-weather tennis court, a heated swimming pool and the original secluded walled garden, which now boasts a hot tub-the perfect retreat should the promised ‘barbecue summer’ fail to arrive.
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