The Le Sueur family enjoyed peace, space and privacy in abundance at Normanton House, near Salisbury, in Wiltshire. There were ponies and poolside barbecues, Christmases by the fire and a wedding reception in a marquee on the lawn. ‘It’s been our peaceful world, with the Aga at the centre,’ says Elizabeth Le Sueur, who has lived there for 35 years. ‘The children didn’t have to worry about anything.’
With the global economy still uncertain, families are increasingly opting to buy ‘forever’ houses such as Normanton (which was just sold by Savills for a figure in excess of the guide price, after fierce competition). ‘People want to settle into a house, be it in the country or the town, and get on with their lives rather than attempt to climb the property ladder,’ says Phillippa Dalby-Welsh of Savills.
To be ‘forever’, however, a house needs to meet several criteria: it must be within reach of good schools and have the scope to accommodate a family for several decades. ‘One minute, you’re changing nappies and, the next, you’re topping up your children’s mobile phones and lending them cash for the pub,’ says Russell Hill of Haringtons UK. ‘Your home must have enough space to adapt accordingly.’
The potential to create a vast open-plan kitchen leading out onto the garden is a priority for most families, according to Matthew Hallett of The Country House Company: ‘Our children have their breakfast at the island and they do their homework on it at the end of the day.’ The dining room, which has become a redundant space in many homes, can then be transformed into a playroom or teenager’s den. Atty Beor-Roberts of Knight Frank had a similar arrangement when his children were growing up, with a heavy stable door, connecting the kitchen to the playroom, that could be closed on mess and noise.
Upstairs, children’s bedrooms should be equal in size to avoid jealousy, but the jury is out as to whether they should be close to the master bedroom or as far away as possible. Strawberry Fields, on the Wentworth Estate, in Surrey, has secret corridors connecting the master bedroom and children’s rooms, enabling parents to comfort babies during the night without disturbing the rest of the house (£2.995 million, Barton Wyatt, 01344 843000).
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Some families prefer to maintain Victorian-style living arrangements upstairs: they put the children and nanny on a separate floor, which can later be repurposed for teenagers and their friends, says Dawn Carritt of Jackson-Stops & Staff. For example, Wickham House, in Hampshire (£1.75 million, The Country House Company, 02392 633026), has adjoining nursery and nanny accommodation on its top floor.
A handkerchief-sized or shared London garden is all very well when children are small, but, ideally,
a family home should have enough space to accommodate dogs, bikes and tree houses, according to Charlie Wells of Prime Purchase: ‘A couple of acres are ample for children to have ponies and quad bikes.’ If sporting pursuits are on the agenda, however, more serious acreage is required. Mr Wells has been instructed to find a property with enough space for the owner’s son to fire clays without disturbing his sister’s ponies. ‘It’s usually the parents that want these things on their children’s behalf: either to give their children what they had when they were younger or to give them what they missed out on.’
The Old Rectory, Warwickshire, Savills, £3m
Swimming pools and tennis courts remain desirable for most children, according to Mr Beor-Roberts. Thank-fully, however, they aren’t fussy about appearance: any surface will do on
a tennis court (as long as skateboards are permitted) and swimming pools require diving boards and slides rather than fancy Italian mosaics. Writer Christine Hamilton, for example, has fond memories of summers spent wallowing in a concrete swimming pool that had to be emptied and scrubbed clean of algae every two weeks.
Whatever the amenities in the garden, there must be plenty to do outside it, too. ‘The environment beyond a family home is as important as the house and garden itself,’ Mr Wells notes. ‘No matter how long your driveway, all children will want to explore outside the gates.’ In this respect, country houses on the edge of villages often make better childhood homes than those in the depths of the countryside: children can walk or cycle to see friends and buy sweets at the village shop.
By the same token, in London, the ideal family home is on a quiet street, away from a main road and close to local shops, according to Ed Mead of Douglas & Gordon: ‘That way, nostalgic parents can allow their children to go with friends to get an ice cream, as they themselves did when they were little.’ If children are to roam free in the country, however, the property must be in a quiet location, away from busy roads and commercial farms, warns Mark Lawson of The Buying Solution. In the case of very small children, the house should have play areas within sight of kitchen windows and a fence around the swimming pool or pond. Older children should be able to ride their ponies and bikes on quiet bridleways adjoining the property.
Farmyards, rivers and lakes, which will provide endless fascination for children, should also be on parents’ radars, adds Tom Hudson of Middleton Advisors, who grew up playing by the river at his family farm in North Wales: ‘I fell in once and it was horrid. It never happened again, but my mother worried constantly.’
Stanmore House, Hampshire, £1.55m, The Country House Company
It’s a sad fact that, as children grow older, they become more choosy about where they spend their time. ‘The more you can offer at home, the less likely you are to lose your children to other people’s houses,’ says Miss Dalby-Welsh. In London, the potential to create a basement cinema and games room will ensure your home is the party house for teenagers; in the country, properties should have outbuildings that can be transformed into games rooms, indoor pools, gyms and party barns. At Stanmore House, in Hampshire, for example, the terrace can be enclosed to create a year-round party space (£1.55 million, The Country House Company, 02392 632275).
Frills and gadgets are not enough, however. A well-stocked fridge, a comfortable bed and clean laundry will lure your children back, even once they have flown the nest. Above all, however, a great childhood home is a place for children to enjoy spending time with their parents and siblings, with space for them to read and work in peace as well as scope to pursue their interests. As Mr Hill points out: ‘Whatever stage they’re at, your children need an anchor.’
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