Penny Churchill takes a look at the biggest estate sales of the year, with a shortfall in supply helping to drive some enormous deals.
Set against a backdrop of tight supply and increased demand from private and institutional investors alike, the value of English farmland soared in 2022 to levels last seen in 2016.
Alex Lawson of Savills, who were joint agents with Bidwells in the disposal of the two most important farming estates sold in England this year, sets the scene: ‘With the supply of farmland offered for sale in 2022 the lowest in years at 120,000 acres, compared with a 10-year average of 150,000 acres, there was intense competition for two prime arable estates, the 4,179-acre Coldham estate near Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, and the 4,206-acre Goole estate in East Yorkshire, which were offered for sale in April with a combined asking price of £87.5 million and sold for more than the guide to an existing institutional investor.’
The market for residential and sporting estates kicked off in March with the launch onto the market of the historic, 773-acre Hexton Manor estate near the picturesque village of Hexton, five miles from Hitchen, Hertfordshire, and 40 miles from central London. Offered as a whole or in two lots, Lot 1, comprising the partially restored, 14,500sq ft, Grade II-listed manor house with six houses and cottages and a converted stable courtyard, set in 170 acres of formal and wild gardens, parkland and fishing lakes, sold in November to a Euro-pean buyer, at a guide price of £10m through joint agents Knight Frank and Savills.
Currently under offer at a guide price of £5m, Lot 2 comprises the remaining acreage of land, including productive farmland in the north of the estate and the steep wooded valleys to the south that are home to the prestigious Hexton pheasant and partridge shoot, said to be the finest in the northern Home Counties.
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Farms and estates in Hampshire are always in short supply and invariably command a premium. Following the launch onto the market, in mid December 2021, of secluded Medstead Grange near Alton, a pristine country house built in 2015 with palatial equestrian facilities set in 152 acres of gardens, parkland and farmland, Will Matthews of Knight Frank clinched a sale to an overseas buyer in June 2022, at a guide price of £16m.
‘It was great to be a seller in 2022, not so great if you were trying to buy,’ says Matt Sudlow of Strutt & Parker, who cites the example of thriving, 508-acre West Farmhouse at Popham, near Micheldever, a much sought-after part of Hampshire between Basingstoke and Winchester, which came to the market in April, sold in July and completed in September.
The buyer was a private investor with farming experience, who paid more than the £7.25m guide price to secure the property, which he plans to farm in hand.
The situation was no less competitive in Oxfordshire, where Mr Sudlow found a buyer for the charming, 498-acre Warborough Farm at Letcombe Regis on the Berkshire Downs, three miles south-west of Wantage, which was relaunched in February following an aborted sale.
The farm had everything a country family could wish for — an unlisted Georgian farmhouse, three cottages, modern and traditional farm buildings, stabling, paddocks, woodland, a family shoot and glorious views across the Vale of White Horse — and was sold after 28 viewings to a lifestyle buyer who exchanged contracts in May and completed in June, at more than the £6.5m guide price.
Although few grand estates made it to the open market in 2022, September saw the launch in Country Life, at a guide price of £16m, of one of Oxfordshire’s most perfectly situated, but least-known country houses. This was the timeless, Grade II-listed Woodleys at Wootton, three miles from Woodstock, which sits at the heart of a historic, 230-acre, residential and farming estate on the edge of the Cotswolds AONB, 10 miles from Chipping Norton and 12 miles from Oxford.
Will Matthews of Knight Frank reports a recent exchange of contracts on the estate owned by the Ponsonby family since 1881, the focal point of which is the imposing, late-Georgian house, which stands in a serene parkland setting looking south across its gardens towards the golden façade of Blenheim Palace in the distance — an Arcadian vista little changed in more than 200 years.
Meanwhile, up in Northamptonshire, Mr Matthews found a UK buyer for the 276-acre Steane Park estate, which lies to the east of Farthinghoe village and west of the market town of Brackley, close to the county borders of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.
Launched on the market in March at a guide price of £9m, the estate centres on a lovely 16th-century stone manor house that was the home of Sir Thomas Crewe, Speaker of the House of Commons in the 17th century, and owned through the 1900s by the Norris brewing family of Brackley, who trained racehorses on Steane Park’s private gallops, a practice continued by the vendors, who bought the estate in 1989. During their tenure, the charming 10-bedroom house, with its cottages, stabling and extensive outbuildings, has been beautifully renovated throughout, with the addition of wonderful gardens that have been regularly opened to the public.
Over in East Anglia, Savills presided over the successful sale, for the first time in more than 100 years, of the multi-faceted, 1,776-acre Exning estate at Exning, two miles north of Newmarket on the Suffolk/Cambridgeshire border, which came to the market in early June at a guide price of £50 million following the death in 2021, at the age of 94, of its long-term sporting owner, Simon Gibson.
Under his stewardship, Exning evolved into a dynamic country estate, with an impressive mix of farming, residential, equestrian, renewable and commercial assets, from the renowned Rossdales Equine Hospital, three stud farms, a DIY livery business and a 155-acre solar farm to the lettings of former aircraft hangars and retail property in Newmarket, not to mention garages, sports pitches and telecom masts. However, racing was Gibson’s first love and, having inherited not only the estate and business acumen of his uncle, Lord Glanely, but also his famous racing colours, he saw success on the racecourse over the years with horses trained at James Fanshawe’s Pegasus stables in Newmarket. Exning sold as a whole in October to an institutional buyer.
Further north, in Norfolk’s Waveney Valley, Charlie Paton of Savills’s farms and estates team saw the launch onto the market in March of the high-powered, 1,953-acre Gawdy Hall farming estate near Harleston, 12 miles from Diss and 19 miles from Norwich, at a guide price of £24.25m for the whole or in seven lots.
Although the original ‘big house’ on the estate was demolished in 1939, there remained the original 117-acre landscaped park- land, serpentine lake and ancillary buildings, including the former entrance building and the impressive coach house, which could provide an appropriate setting for a fine new country house, subject to planning.
On the other hand, constant reinvestment in the land and buildings over the years has seen the now highly mechanised farm evolve from a payroll of 58 men working 1,050 acres in 1953, to three men working an acreage of almost twice that size today. ‘It was rare to find a ring-fenced, near 2,000-acre farming estate for sale in Norfolk with an extensive residential portfolio, a large block of ancient woodland — the setting for a former shoot — and the potential to create a new principal house in historic parkland,’ said Mr Paton. Gawdy Hall estate sold as a whole in September to a private individual.
Further north again, the top end of the rural property market has been a fruitful one this year for Andrew Black of Savills in York, who handled the successful sales of Grade I-listed Gilling Castle in North Yorkshire (pictured at the top of this page) and Grade II*-listed Meldon Park in Northumberland, with Grade II*-listed Lartington Hall in Co Durham and Grade I- listed The Nunnery over in Cumbria both currently under offer.
Known throughout ‘God’s Country’ as the former prep school to Ampleforth College, Gilling Castle failed to find a buyer when last offered for sale in 2018.
The historic country house, owned by the powerful Fairfax family for 400 years from 1489, was then relaunched on the market in June 2022 with 100-odd acres and a guide price of £3.75m. It sold to a corporate buyer with sheltered housing in mind.
Offered for sale for the first time since 1835, Meldon Park sits in 36 acres of historic wooded parkland overlooking an ancient deer park at the heart of the Cookson family’s 3,800-acre estate, six miles from the market town of Morpeth and 20 miles from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. A guide price of £3.5m was quoted for the elegant Georgian house built for Isaac Cookson, the younger son of a successful Newcastle banker, by the prolific northern architect John Dobson, with internal alterations carried out in the 1930s by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Interestingly, it was bought by a buyer relocating from Scotland.
Way out west, the launch onto the market of the idyllic and wonderfully private 920-acre Strete estate in the coveted South Hams area of the South Devon AONB, at a guide price of £11.5m through Savills, brought a flood of enquiries from far and wide and sold for ‘considerably more’ than the guide to a buyer with South-West connections.
Located within easy reach of the sailing towns of Dartmouth and Salcombe, the estate, which overlooks the quaint coastal village of Strete, had been owned by successive generations of the same family and was in serious need of renovation, notably in the case of the principal house at Higher Fuge Farm, a fine Grade II*-listed Georgian farmhouse built in 1726. Also hidden within the estate are the beautiful and untouched Gara Valley and Strete Gate Beach, which were evacuated and used as a training ground for British and US forces on the run-up to D-Day. The Gara Valley, which has never been repopulated, provides a valuable habitat for a huge variety of rare flora, fauna and over-wintering birds.
Meanwhile, down in deepest Herefordshire, Matt Sudlow of Strutt & Parker oversaw the launch in May, for the first time in more than 100 years, of the splendidly unspoilt Upleadon Court with its surrounding 201-acre arable and grassland farm, six miles north-west of Ledbury and 13 miles from the cathedral city of Hereford. A guide price of £4m was quoted for the farm with its imposing Georgian main house, the home of the owner, man and boy, who, with no family member to take it on, had finally decided to retire.
Here again, fierce competition saw a sale concluded at ‘way over’ the asking price, leaving Mr Sudlow to find words of comfort for the disgruntled under-bidders. ‘I could have sold it 10 times over,’ he says, sadly.
From castles and cottages to manor houses and an entire peninsula of a Scottish island, enjoy our list of the
Despite lashings of insecurity, both political and economic, the prime country-house market still managed to have a year to remember,