Country houses for sale

East Anglian estates

In its entire 1,000-year history, the manor of Melbourn Bury, at Melbourn, south Cambridgeshire, has only had three owners the Crown, the Church and the Fordham family and, as the last of six generations of Fordhams to live at The Bury, Sylvia Hopkinson and her husband Anthony have not taken the decision to ‘downsize’ lightly. But none of their three children wants to take on the rambling, 9,000sq ft, nine bedroom manor house with its converted Victorian stable house and two-bedroom lodge set in 13 acres of enchanting gardens and grounds, so the property is being offered by Savills (020 7499 8644) and Redmayne Arnold & Harris (01223 323130), as one or three lots, at a guide price of £3 million for the whole.

The sweeping lawns of Melbourn Bury lead down to a spring fed lake the source of the river Mel, a tributary of the Cam. In 970, these lands were given to the monks of Ely, and Melbourn Bury became the most important of several monastic estates in the area. At first, the lands were farmed by the monks, but from the 15th century onwards, the estate was let to tenant farmers. The Fordham family were already prosperous squires, bankers and brewers in and around Royston, when John Fordham took on the tenancy in 1830, before passing it to his son, who bought the freehold in 1850.

The present part Regency, part Victorian manor house was built around a humbler 17th-century core by successive generations of Fordhams, who were campaigners and local benefactors but little given to ostentation. Although, Mrs Hopkinson confides, her great grandmother is said to have added the splendid drawing-room in 1897 to improve the marriage prospects of her son, whom she considered ‘rather dull’.

There was nothing dull, however, about her grandson, Mrs Hopkinson’s late father, Sir Stanley Fordham a brilliant career diplomat who was ambassador to Cuba and Colombia in the 1950s and ’60s. In 1952, he returned briefly to the UK when his mother died, leaving the family estate crippled by death duties. Surrounding farms were sold off, but the house failed to find a buyer, and was let for a decade, until retirement brought Sir Stanley back to Melbourn Bury.

He was joined by his daughter and son in law, who converted the Victorian stable courtyard to a four-bedroom house, swapping houses with Sir Stanley when the manor became too much for him, and taking over the whole property when he died in 1981. Having run Melbourn Bury as a Wolsey Lodge for a number of years, and, more recently, as a venue for conferences and corporate entertaining, the multi-talented Hopkinsons Anthony is a printmaker, Sylvia a gifted illustrator are looking forward to fresh fields of endeavour, as well as pastures new.

Over in Norfolk, another chapter in the history of East Anglia’s monastic estates signs off with the sale of pristine Thorpe Abbotts Place, at Thorpe Abbotts, near Diss, in the tranquil Waveney Valley. It follows the death last year of its charismatic owner David Wigan described by some who knew him as ‘a Norfolk squire of the old school’. Unlike Melbourn Bury, however, the grand country house hidden away at the heart of 130 acres of gardens, grounds and wooded parkland, is no traditional family seat, but an eight bedroom Georgian style manor house built from reclaimed materials by Carters of Norfolk for Mr Wigan, who bought the estate in the early 1960s.

The new house replaced a vast Italianate villa built for Sir Edward Kay in 1869?71 by the Victorian architect Edward Middleton Barry (younger son of Sir Charles Barry, who designed the Houses of Parliament), and demolished in the 1950s, although something of its Victorian heritage remains in the estate’s cottages, outbuildings, and original walled kitchen garden. Bidwells (01603 229329) quote a guide price of £2.75m for Thorpe Abbotts Place built ‘as a labour of love’ by its sporting owner, who entertained his peers there in great style, but kept a low profile locally, to the extent that many villagers who lived in Thorpe Abbotts all their lives never even knew that the house existed.