Despite everything 2020 has thrown at us, the prime housing market has proved that it is as resilient as ever, says Penny Churchill.
Rupert Sweeting of Knight Frank sums up an extraordinary year in the country-house market in a few well-chosen words: ‘Following the Conservative victory in the 2019 General Election, the market was flying in the first couple of months of 2020.
‘Then came the pandemic and the first national lockdown and, by the end of April, we were all thinking “this is not looking good”. However, the lifting of restrictions in June saw the market take off and we’ve been going full tilt ever since.’
It’s been 12 years since the financial crash that saw prices stall and supply contract at the upper end of the country-house market, with property pundits predicting the death knell of the English country house. Yet a trawl through the list of high-value country houses and estates sold in 2020 reveals a striking proportion of trophy properties purchased by high-flying international buyers from across the globe. In a world riddled with uncertainty, it appears that high-net-worth buyers believe that investing in the English countryside is still a safe way to go.
The sheer beauty of the landscape, allied to a successful commercial farming enterprise, proved irresistible to the European family who bought the scenic, 1,408-acre Ogbourne Down estate near Marlborough, Wiltshire, in September, following its launch onto the market in July at a guide price of £15 million through Knight Frank.
Despite having no grand historic house at its heart, the location of the rolling downland estate within the historic North Wessex Downs AONB made the purchase a ‘no-brainer’ for a country-loving family determined to own and enjoy their own substantial slice of rural England.
In Hampshire, where, in 2019, a surprising lack of top-notch houses meant that most open-market activity was confined to the middle-range £2m–£5m price bracket, Knight Frank recorded the quick-fire sale of some of the county’s most enviable country houses. In addition to Meonstoke House, launched in June and sold in August at a guide price of £9m, the enchanting, Grade II*-listed North Hall at Preston Candover (pictured at the top of the page), nine miles from Basingstoke, was sold in July to an international buyer based in London, following its launch onto the market at a guide price of £6.5m in May.
Crispin Holborow of Savills loves it when a plan comes together, as it did on many occasions in 2020. One of the most successful estate sales of the year was that of the elegant, 235-acre Ashe Park estate near Steventon in affluent north Hampshire, a village best-known as the birthplace of Jane Austen, who was a regular visitor to Ashe Park in the 1790s.
Launched on the open market in September at a guide price of ‘excess £18.5m’, the historic estate sold a month later for more than the guide price.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries Ashe Park was owned by the Portal family, who extended and remodelled the main house between 1862 and 1888. In the 1920s and early 1930s, its next owner, Col Sir John Humphery, spent a fortune on further improvements, and sold the estate six years later, when an advertisement in Country Life revealed it as having ‘1,663 acres of land, including a stretch of fishing on the Test, excellent shooting and a house with every modern convenience, in a secluded position in a well-timbered park’.
Overall, the 20th century was a rollercoaster ride for Ashe Park, which was rescued from semi-dereliction from the 1990s onwards, when successive owners undertook the inspirational renovation of the 13,000sq ft main house, established a state-of-the-art polo centre and reworked the gardens and grounds to take advantage of the ‘borrowed landscape’ of the North Wessex Downs.
Down in the West Country, James Mackenzie of Strutt & Parker could barely conceal his excitement as he announced the exchange and completion in late November — at a guide price of £7.95m — of east Devon’s grandest country mansion, the Grade I-listed, late-Georgian Mamhead House, set in 164 acres of gardens and parkland in the Haldon Hills north of Dawlish, which had been on his books, on and off, for the past six years.
The vast, 37,437sq ft mansion was designed in 1828–33 by Anthony Salvin, a pupil of Nash and a fervent admirer of Pugin. His brief was to create a grand country house in the Tudor style with Classical influences, well situated to make the most of the spectacular coastal views, as well as being nestled securely within the surrounding woodland.
Beautifully maintained by its South African owner, who bought the Mamhead House estate with its Grade II*-listed castle in 2012, the house represented everything its delighted American buyer had been looking for in an English country home. For Mr Mackenzie, it was the icing on the cake at the end of an incredible trading year.
Yet perhaps the most heart-warming story of 2020 was the sale of Grade I-listed Groombridge Place, near Tunbridge Wells, Kent, which came to the market at a guide price of £8.5m in October 2020 and saw a sale agreed the day before it was advertised in Country Life.
For Mark McAndrew of Strutt & Parker, it was the third time he had sold the historic moated building — with the same owner involved on each occasion.
The first was when he sold Groombridge Place to the owner some 20-odd years ago; the second was when he sold the house on behalf of the owner, who was moving abroad; and the third time was when he sold Groombridge Place back to the same owner, who was thrilled to get his much-loved house back for good.
Catch up on the best country houses for sale this week that have come to the market via Country Life.