The country house – a stately Georgian pile, a rambling Victorian rectory or a rose‑trimmed cottage – is as much a part of the English DNA as the royal family or the crown jewels. For centuries, those who mattered valued green fields far above London’s bright lights and hectic streets, seeing rural existence as the real business of life. The past few years, however, have not been very kind to country-home owners.
The financial crisis, of course, had an immediate and dramatic impact across the entire country, but while the capital shrugged off its after-effects relatively quickly, rural property was far more badly affected.
While the grandest stately homes, with their “movie” architecture and manicured lawns, continued to have an enduring national and international appeal, the domestic upper-middle market suffered considerably. The type of English buyer looking to add a significant weekend home or holiday cottage to a substantial London base, or to substitute the restrictions of an urban terrace with an expansive period house with a large garden, tennis court and easy access to leading schools, became glaringly absent.
It is not difficult to understand why this happened. If all around you are clearing their desks or cutting their hours, then an “idyllic Wiltshire farmhouse” or a “stunning Queen Anne country residence” is hardly likely to be at the forefront of your priorities. “Between 2008 and 2012, we were advising our clients to drop their asking prices significantly,” says Crispin Holborow, country director at Savills Private Office. “Usually, when that happens, a market will suddenly appear. In this case, however, even after a major adjustment, we still found ourselves asking: ‘Where is the market?”
Now the mood has undoubtedly shifted. “Although country-house values today remain 16 per cent below their peak, prices rose by more than three per cent in 2013 and by almost three-and-a-half per cent in 2014,” says Oliver Knight, research executive at leading estate agents Knight Frank. “There is growing confidence and buyers are beginning to think country property represents very good value for money.”
In the first six months of 2014 alone, the number of sales outside London over £1m rose by 44 per cent. “Bankers are getting bonuses again and people who have their own businesses feel freer to spend money elsewhere,” adds Rupert Sweeting, head of the country department at Knight Frank. “Quite a number are selling properties in London for £4m to £5m, spending £2m to £3m on a house in the country and using the rest to keep a foothold in town.”
This renewed enthusiasm, however, has largely been confined to the southeast. “Most buyers are not prepared to look more than two hours from London,” says Nick Ashe, head of the country team at UK search agents Property Vision. “The greatest demand is for a pretty country house in a good location, somewhere easy to commute from.”
London’s most expensive properties tend to come prefixed with a W postcode, and the most sought-after rural locations also lie to the west, usually with immediate access to the M4, M40 and A3. “Last year the hottest spot in the £2m to £5m price range was Hampshire,” says Sweeting. “It was on fire.”
While London’s satellite counties are rapidly recovering, new road and rail developments are giving a nuanced boost to specific locations. The completion of HS1 (the High Speed 1 rail link), for example, has showered property in its speedy Eurostar wake with a golden glow and Kent, the “Garden of England”, is undoubtedly blooming because of it. Here, Humberts is selling an early-Victorian detached house for £1.8m in Sandgate, near Folkestone – now 53 minutes from St Pancras – with sea views, six bedrooms, a swimming-pool complex and a three‑bedroom self-contained flat.
Meanwhile, the Hindhead Tunnel, which smoothed over an annoying patch of the A3, has had an equally beneficial effect, while soon-to-arrive Crossrail is delighting sellers all the way to Reading and Maidenhead (where Knight Frank is marketing a six‑bedroom detached house with a pool and riverside views for £2m).
For both UK and international buyers, proximity to the country’s leading private schools is often a critical factor in their decision making. “With two parents working, there’s no longer the time to ferry children miles,” says Dawn Carritt, director of Jackson-Stops & Staff, country-house specialists with a network of more than 40 offices across the UK. “Someone has to do the school run, and they have to do it relatively quickly.”
Property near education hotspots in Cambridge, Oxford and Winchester has proved unusually resilient during the economic downturn. Family buyers wishing to minimise that early-morning dash might want to consider an immaculately renovated 15th-century Grade II-listed house in Standlake, Witney, with six bedrooms, its own moat and around 39 acres (£4.95m through John D Wood & Co, pictured left), which is under nine miles from the Dragon School, Oxford High School and Magdalen College School.
Even those joyfully exchanging the trials of urban living for country calm often still hanker for inner-city pleasures, and property near cultural clusters remains particularly popular. Bath, for example, a city renowned for its fine neoclassical architecture and Roman baths, is equally appreciated for its shopping, restaurants and theatre. Just five miles outside, in Claverton, Hamptons International is selling a six-bedroom Grade II-listed villa (pictured above) with a self-contained flat and six acres of sweeping lawns, overlooking the Limpley Stoke Valley, for just under £2.3m.
For an increasing number of buyers, on the other hand, especially those looking for a downtime escape, complete tranquillity is often essential. “People might say, ‘Let’s push out and get somewhere really special’,” says Tom Hudson, co-founder of property search agents Middleton Advisors. “You will find pockets of space and light and peace and quiet in every county, if you look hard enough.” Clearly, however, some spots are better known for those commodities than others, and Devon and Cornwall remain ever popular with the holiday-home set, who may find a picture-perfect eight-bedroom Grade II-listed country house near Truro (£1.65m through Jackson-Stops & Staff) the ideal get-away-from-it-all.
Almost all country-home buyers choose a location with which they already have some connection, but international purchasers tend to be particularly conservative in this respect. “People have ‘their county’, but overseas buyers are more London-centric. They want the connections to Heathrow and Gatwick, especially Heathrow,” says Mark Wheeler, director of the country department at Hamptons International.
St George’s Hill, for example, in Weybridge, Surrey, is particularly popular with an international clientele, offering property that corresponds to an exacting cosmopolitan standard of finish and indulgence, accompanied by plenty of space and fresh air. Here, Savills is selling an imposing contemporary mansion, with extensive gardens, six bedroom suites, four reception rooms, an indoor pool and spa, as well as two self-contained flats, for £16m.
When it comes to what, rather than where, good looks are all-important. “What always sells effortlessly is best in class,” says Property Vision’s Ashe. “A really spectacular country house with a bit of parkland; a pretty Georgian rectory in prime Gloucestershire or the Home Counties; or a lovely little cottage with a stream running through it are pretty much bulletproof.”
Country-home buyers are also now as conscious of interior perfection as their London counterparts. “Not only does the presentation have to be fantastic,” says Carritt, “but everything has to be really carefully thought through. Buyers today are interested in air-cooling systems, excellent shower rooms and fabulous kitchens.”
Alongside these urban design values, there’s an increased willingness to consider both the newly built and the architecturally adventurous. “Britain is more international and buyers are accustomed to contemporary architecture in London and on the continent and are happy to consider it in the country,” says Carritt. “Today, safe and samey repro-period houses simply don’t have the appeal.”
There is certainly nothing safe or samey about a dashing five-bedroom contemporary house in Sutton Courtenay, near Abingdon, Oxfordshire (£3m through Knight Frank). In the grounds of a former manor house, the Kingerlee Homes-designed property sits in a 1.45-acre plot and enjoys floor-to-ceiling views of the Thames along its streamlined length.
A modern, or at any rate thoroughly modernised, house offers the best way to view the landscape as well as the benefits of manageability. “The cost of running a large period property can seem excessive, even for the wealthy,” says Wheeler. “In general, buyers now want a better-insulated, more compact package, with fewer outbuildings and guest cottages.”
Increasingly, too, those looking for a country retreat prefer to delegate some of life’s more trying tasks, and at Coln Park, near Lechlade, Gloucestershire, they can find the sort of we-can-help-you services now readily available in town. Here, Knight Frank is selling a seven-bedroom contemporary house (£3m) on a private estate that comes accompanied by 24-hour security, concierge services and a leisure complex with spa.
What has also undoubtedly altered in the past five years is purchasers’ attitude to undertaking a “project”. “In general, buyers, particularly international ones, want a property that is up and ready to go,” says Hudson. And even those looking to commit to a lifelong family home are wary of heavy financial outlay. “In the past, people didn’t worry,” says Ashe. “Now they want more detail about potential structural work, which is where you get the big bills.”
Barn conversions, of course, traditionally fell into this plenty‑to-do category. However, a traditional oak beam and stone wall Cotswold barn in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire (£2.35m through Carter Jonas, pictured top right) has already been stylishly updated with a transparent ceiling feature in the living area, a glass spiral staircase, as well as a gym, studio and spa.
One aspect of country living that has not suffered at all from the recent economic turbulence is farmland, which has enjoyed increased interest to rival that of Knightsbridge and Belgravia. “Farms and estates have sold and sold,” says James MacKenzie, partner at Strutt & Parker, and those wishing to buy and buy might like to consider Grade II-listed Kingstone Lisle Park in Wantage, Oxfordshire (£22m through Strutt & Parker and Knight Frank), whose desirable features include 257 acres, as well as 13 bedrooms, three lakes, a private golf course and a high pheasant and partridge shoot.
The radical alterations to stamp duty announced in last year’s Autumn Statement are likely to have mixed repercussions in the country. Clearly, for those negotiating at the top of the market, some bargaining is likely to redistribute the burden of the new 12 per cent purchase tax. Sellers, however, formerly handicapped by unforgiving tax thresholds, should find life simpler with the new progressive rates. “People will work round the rise in stamp duty,” says Peter Young, managing director of John D Wood & Co, “but getting rid of the slab-like effect of the tax thresholds is a really good thing. It will make things much easier.”
International buyers also see the UK as a safe and secure haven (“One of my clients said, ‘I like to have stones in pounds,’” says Savills’ Holborow), while our television exports have done as much to promote the rural idyll as any legislation. “Downton Abbey has had some impact,” says Holborow. “I can’t say how many American inquiries we’ve had since it started, with buyers who have discovered how lovely the English countryside is.”
Those keen to replicate the Crawley lifestyle might want to inspect Howsham Hall, a refurbished Grade I-listed Jacobean mansion in Downton country, 14 miles from York (£4.25m through Savills), with up to 10 bedrooms, eight reception rooms and 83.5 acres of parkland and gardens fronting the River Derwent.
As the Dowager Countess once so perceptively remarked: “That’s the thing about nature, there’s so much of it.” But what she omitted to add was just how spectacular so much of it is.