For Michael Fiddes, head of National Estate Agency at Strutt & Parker, 2012 will be ‘the year of the great divide’: between North and South, between London and the country, and between ‘blue-chip’ and ‘non-blue-chip’ properties. The exception to the general grind will be ‘the one-off trophy house, be it big or small’: such houses, he maintains, ‘will always sell’.
But what, exactly, is a ‘trophy house’ these days-and how well, and how quickly, are such houses selling in the current market? Such queries highlight another ‘great divide’-that bet-ween trophy houses in gilded international enclaves close to London, such as St Georges Hill and Wentworth in north Surrey, and trophy country houses in the Shires. In both cases, the houses are aimed squarely at the super-rich, but, depending on their location, they will ultimately sell to very different buyers, all look-ing for ‘perfection’, but with very different lifestyles in mind.
For more than 30 years, Surrey-based developer Octagon has been building top-of-the-range houses in prime areas of London and the Home Counties, most within a 25-mile radius of the capital. The average Octagon house sells for between £1.5 million and £8 million, but the recent influx of a new generation of globetrotting, security-conscious international entrepreneurs has helped to underpin sales of a new bespoke range of ‘super-league mansions’ at prices ranging from £12m upwards.
An early success story for the firm’s bespoke team, headed by designer Tony Taylor and building expert John Pope, began with the purchase of a 2½-acre site in Heatherside Drive, on the prestigious Wentworth estate. With planning consent for a 12,645sq ft luxury family house already secured, the design team was putting the finishing touches to its plans, when along came an international client, armed with a budget of £14m, and a detailed list of specifications reflecting his interest in large-scale entertaining, family living, wine appreciation and a diverse range of sporting activities.
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Over the next two years, Casa Sara (above) moved from drawing board and computer screen to gleaming reality, as reflected in the triple-height entrance hall with its dramatic curved timber and stone staircase with underlit stair treads, polished brass balustrades and enormous central chandelier; the large formal dining room with its full-length arched windows overlooking the swimming-pool complex; the 44ft salon with its marble fireplace; the high-tech kitchen area with its adjoining temperature-controlled wine ‘library’; and the sumptuous master suite with its two bathrooms and two dressing rooms, with full-length Italian mirrored wardrobes for Madame, and a leather-panelled version for Monsieur. Outdoor facilities include an all-weather tennis court and a jogging track, and an ‘infinity staircase’ water feature with eight fountains and a strategically lit viewing temple.
For all the glitz and glamour of their interiors, houses on the 1,750-acre Wentworth estate tend to stick to a classic, Georgian style of architecture, as typified by the spectacular, newly built Castellane in East Drive, Wentworth, for which Knight Frank (01344 840020) quote a guide price of £12.5m. Set behind the statutory electronic wrought-iron entrance gates in two acres of secluded gardens and grounds, the 14,123sq ft house boasts all the requisite ‘bells and whistles’, including a grand galleried reception hall with a remarkable curved walnut staircase linking all four floors, high-tech audio and security systems, four main reception rooms, a state-of-the-art kitchen/breakfast room, an indoor swim-ming pool and spa complex, a gymnasium, a cinema room and a bar. Six luxurious bedroom suites include a palatial master suite with ‘his and her’ bathrooms and dressing rooms.
Over in St George’s Hill, Octagon broke the architectural mould with its design for a 10,000sq ft family house on a prime site at Mole Hill, with rear grounds overlooking the golf course. The brief delivered by the client was to create an ‘unashamedly contemporary’, environ-mentally friendly house with five main bedrooms, generous staff accommodation, comprehensive leisure facilities, including a Finnish style bathhouse, and a few ‘extras’, including a cigar-smoking room with a built-in humidor and extra ventilation, and a natural pond adapted to house the owner’s resident sturgeon. And the house still came in within its budget of £14m.
These days, with few exceptions, such figures are beyond the wildest dreams of most vendors of trophy houses in the countryside, which require a far greater level of day-to-day commitment on the part of the owner. The notion of ‘lock up and leave’ has no part in the traditional country scenario, and for the moment, serious buyers are playing a waiting game. As Crispin Holborow of Savills points out: ‘The most significant difference between houses in St George’s Hill and Wentworth, and trophy houses in the country, is the amount of land that comes with a property as you move further out of London.
Buyers in St George’s Hill tend to be less focused on the land and more interested in the look and feel of the house itself. On the other hand, a trophy house in the country doesn’t have to be huge, although, in some cases, it may be: what matters most is the position of the house within its land, and also the approach, which must be impressive, if not mysterious and exciting, and preferably wind its way through trees and parkland.’
He cites the example of historic Bledisloe House at Coates, three miles from Cirencester, Gloucestershire, which combines the elegance and formality of the Georgian country house with the large-scale rooms associated with the last great age of country-house building. Set in some 36 acres of landscaped gardens, park and woodland, the 20,487sq ft, 12-bed-room house, listed Grade II, this grand house comes with a coach house, cottage, stabling and a tennis court. Savills (01285 627550) quote a guide price of £7m for Bledisloe House, which has been on the market since May this year and went under offer in the past week.
‘At this time and at this level of the market, vendors should be prepared to sit tight and see things through,’ believes Rupert Sweeting of Knight Frank (020-7629 8171), who quotes a guide price of £8m for the quintessential trophy country house of Evenley Hall, near Brackley, Northamptonshire. Built in about 1740, the classic Georgian house, listed Grade II, is ideally sited within its 275 acres of parkland, lakes, woods and farmland, and has 17,502sq ft of living space, including four fine reception rooms, nine bedrooms and seven bathrooms, with an extensive leisure area on the lower ground floor.