With more than 3,000 million-pound-plus country houses selling in the countryside in the past year, and demand rising by 20%, according to agents Knight Frank, our love of traditional British country properties is still going strong. But now, a new breed of modern country house is emerging for buyers keen on the bucolic without the inconvenience of draughty drawing rooms and one loo for every 10 bedrooms. Five or six years ago, a number of brand-new rural dwellings were ‘pretty awful prefabricated boxes’, according to George Hyde, a partner in Knight Frank’s country department, ‘but one-off, classically-styled bespoke homes and sensitively executed conversions are becoming the norm today’.
The reason for the shift is that owners no longer have to support a whole community of servants at the back end of large houses. ‘People have been replaced by machines, from the dishwasher and cappuccino-maker to the ride-on mower and leaf blower, turning domestic quarters into practical living spaces,’ points out Richard Gaynor from Savills’ country division. The kitchen, now very much the heart of the home, is not tucked away any longer, and huge American-style fridge-freezers and fridge larders are replacing pantries, larders and sculleries.
‘Certainly, the dining and drawing rooms and hall would remain, but with husbands and wives working from home, outbuildings are being converted into offices and there is more demand for his-and-hers bathrooms and dressing rooms,’ says Dawn Carritt from Jackson-Stops & Staff. ‘But one of the downsides for creating an en suite in every bedroom, a common practice these days, is the knock-on effect of munching up rooms either side.’
A laudable example of the new country house is Derwent Lodge, a 4,000sq ft seven-bedroom house overlooking Dartmouth Harbour in Devon, with bespoke cabinetry, limestone and hardwood flooring, wireless audio systems and lighting controls, plasma high-definition televisions, air-conditioning and under-floor heating. Sadly, the 140-year-old house lost most of its period features over the years all that remains is one fireplace and some plasterwork in the drawing room so developer Rigby & Rigby decided to install all the latest conveniences to fashion a good, modern family home.
‘We have tried to make all the rooms useable with a purpose behind them,’ explains Steve Rigby from Rigby & Rigby, currently selling the house for £2.7 million through Savills Exeter (01392 455755) or Marchand Petit Dartmouth (01803 839190). ‘For instance, there is a large kitchen/dining room that seats 12 who really uses a dedicated separate dining room these days? and games rooms for both adults and children.’ Mr Rigby was told that the country-house market dictates the necessity of having a first-floor drawing room, but he is convinced that most buyers would prefer to relax in a laidback sitting room rather than suffering in a stuffy formal space redolent of a visit to their maiden aunt’s house.
Mr Gaynor agrees that libraries are less popular than cinema rooms ‘with proper slots in chairs for popcorn and drinks’, and he is surprised that some people even keep up the pretence of needing a dining room. ‘People are being more honest about indulging themselves, so we are seeing more indoor pools and toys for boys creeping in.’ Derwent Lodge’s greatest excess is probably the bubbling hot tub in the tiered harbour-facing garden.
Location is key, however, with new country homes. There is nothing worse than a new architectural gem plonked on the edge of a decaying housing estate. ‘They have a modern core, rather like Prince Charles’ Poundbury, but what we see fools us into thinking the whole place is period,’ believes Miss Carritt.
THE OLD vs THE NEW COUNTRY HOUSE
Billiard room Adults’ games room
Cornices Shadow gaps
Conservatory Cool modern shed
Cellar Wine fridge
Library Cinema room
Orangery Leisure complex