With exquisite timing, the sun came out last week, enabling the property paparazzi to finally take the ‘killer shots’ needed to launch some of the West Country’s best houses on the market in this week’s Country Life. It was a close-run thing in the case of the magical Hadspen House estate, near Castle Cary, Somerset-the undisputed country-house sale of the year so far, at a guide price of £13 million through Knight Frank (020-7629 8171) and Symonds Sampson (01258 473766).
Described by the agents as ‘one of the most beautiful houses in southern England’, Hadspen House, listed Grade II*, was built for William Player in the late 1600s and sold in 1785 for £19,500 to Henry Hobhouse, scion of a successful Somerset family of merchants, landowners and Liberal politicians. The estate has been the Hobhouse family seat ever since. Distinguished family members include Sir Arthur Hobhouse (1886-1965), probably best remembered as the architect of the system of national parks of England and Wales.
Henry Hobhouse made a number of alterations to the house, raising the ceilings of the main reception rooms, adding the dining room, and re-roofing the building in grey Welsh slate. The present entrance hall and a new porch were added by his descendants in 1886, the north-west wing in 1900, and the colonnaded north-east wing in 1909. The present owner, Niall Hobhouse, has re-roofed the house and renovated the interior of the 15,866sq ft main house, its ancillary buildings and much of the rest of the estate. Hadspen House stands on rising ground at the heart of its 852 acres, surrounded by parkland, woodland and lush swathes of pasture and arable land.
The well-managed woodland is the backbone of the informal shoot, currently let to a local syndicate, but with huge potential for development. Hadspen has notable formal gardens, originally laid out in Victorian and Edwardian times, and rescued in the 1960s by the garden writer and designer Penelope Hobhouse. Partially restored in recent years, a fresh injection of energy and inspiration would soon see them regain their former splendour. Previously divided into three sections, the imposing main house could easily revert to single-family occupation, with its grand ground-floor reception rooms including a library, a fine drawing room, a dining room and a garden room; to the rear, a large family kitchen leads to the Oak Room (the former billiard room) in the north-west wing. The first-floor master suite takes full advantage of wonderful views of the park and estate. The same floor houses six ensuite bedrooms, a spare bedroom and a one-bedroom staff flat, with four further bedrooms, three bathrooms and another one bedroom flat on the second floor.
Other estate houses-all built from the same Cary stone as the main house and mostly refurbished by the present owner- include a two-bedroom gate lodge, the four-bedroom Clock House, a three-bedroom stable flat and five cottages.
Hadspen’s title of ‘Southern England’s most beautiful house’ might well be contested by the vendors of illustrious, Grade I listed Stockton House (above), near Warminster, Wiltshire, an architectural tour de force that also hits the market today, at a guide price of £7.5m through Strutt Parker (01722 344010). The ancient manor of Stockton dates from the 9th century, and, in the mid 900s, was given to the Old Minster at Winchester. After the Dissolution, it was granted to the Dean and Chapter of Winchester, but, in 1547, was bestowed by Edward VI on William Herbert, created Earl of Pembroke in 1551.
In 1585, Pembroke’s son, Henry, sold the manor to John Topp, ‘a citizen and merchant tailor of London’, whose family already owned land in the Wylye Valley. The central part of Stockton House was built by Topp between 1590 and 1603 of flint and local Chilmark stone in dramatic, irregular horizontal bands, possibly by master-mason William Arnold, who also worked at Wadham College, Oxford, and Cranborne on the north-west front. All the main rooms are impressive, in particular the Great Hall, the beautifully decorated library, the entrance hall with its magnificent staircase, and the panelled morning room, with its extraordinarily ornate plasterwork, strapwork frieze and ceiling. The bedrooms-four on the first floor and three on the second, served by five bathrooms in all-are just as grand, especially the sumptuous Great Chamber, the oak-panelled State Bedroom and the Elizabethan and Georgian bedrooms, both of which have adjoining dressing areas and bathrooms.
Over the past 14 years, the owners of Stockton House have completely modernised and upgraded the house and its interior. The lovely formal and informal gardens have been improved by extensive planting that not only enhances the beauty of the setting, but also increases the privacy and seclusion enjoyed by the residents of Stockton House.
Both the Hadspen House estate and Stockton House will appeal to the wider international market, but there is still a market for smaller houses of architectural merit, provided they are in good condition and competitively priced, says Brian Bishop of Jackson-Stops Staff in Taunton (01823 325144). He quotes a guide price of £3.9m for historic, Grade II*-listed Wyld Court (Fig 3) at Hawkchurch, near Axminster, on the Devon/ Dorset border, a beautifully restored Elizabethan manor house with outbuildings and cottages, set in 69 acres of paddocks amid glorious unspoilt countryside. According to Pevsner, Wyld Court dates from about 1600, although there has been a house on the site since medieval times, when it was owned by Cerne Abbey. Originally built in the shape of the letter ‘E’ (for Elizabeth), the manor now resembles the letter ‘F’, following the destruction of the west wing by Cromwell’s Roundheads in their search for Charles II, who reputedly stayed at Wyld Court before fleeing to France after the battle of Worcester in 1651.
The manor has been meticulously restored by its present owner, who bought it in a state of ‘faded glory’ in 2005 and, having held both his daughters’ weddings there, is now ready to move on. Wyld Court has more than 8,000sq ft of living space, including five reception rooms, a garden room, two kitchens, six bedrooms (including the King’s Bedroom) and five bathrooms.
Vicarages and old rectories are always in short supply, and next week’s Country Life will see the official launch of Grade II-listed Whitchurch House near Tavistock, Devon, a handsome 18th-century former vicarage, remodelled and extended in the 19th century and set in 43 acres of gardens, parkland, pasture and woodland, for which Savills (01392 455755) quote a guide price of ‘excess £1.75m’. Hidden by its land from the village of Whitchurch and nearby Dartmoor, the classic Georgian house is well laid out, with three main reception rooms, a kitchen/breakfast room, 6-8 bedrooms, four bathrooms and a one-bedroom annexe. A courtyard of traditional farm buildings includes a two-storey barn with potential for redevelopment. Amenities include a gymnasium, a hard tennis court and a cricket pitch leased to the village cricket club, which plays a central role in the life of the community.
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‘With fewer buyers coming out of London since the start of the recession, things have been tough in Devon, but at least the market has a bottom now, and anything sensibly priced is selling, although there’s still too much on the market at too high a price,’ says Martin Lamb of Savills in Exeter. ‘Prices for properties that are selling in the hotspots are 20%-25% down on where they were 18 months ago, and at this level, deals are being done, but in less popular locations, values need to be reduced by 30%-40% to generate interest.’ That, it seems, is the reality, although it’s tough medicine to swallow for vendors who bought at the top of the market.
The lure of the sea runs deep in Devon, and there is always a market for houses on the water, especially in prime locations such as Salcombe or Dartmouth -at the right price, of course. Savills (01392 455755) quote a guide price of ‘excess £3m’ for one of Dartmouth’s most striking waterfront houses, Toft Quay on the east bank of the Dart at Kingswear, which has spectacular views out to sea past Dartmouth Castle, and upriver towards the yacht club. Owned by the Deering family since 1981, the house has introduced three generations of Deerings to a Swallows and Amazons life of messing about in boats on the Dart and the open sea.
‘It was a daring purchase by my father at the time, but we have enjoyed every moment of our time here, whether it was learning to sail an Enterprise or a Squib, trawling the nightspots of Dittisham by boat as adolescents, fishing for bass at high tide or simply sitting in the oriel window watching the boats go by,’ says owner Jeremy Deering, who now lives near his parents in Cornwall.
Toft Quay is one of a handful of detached family houses on the waterfront in Beacon Road, one of Kingswear’s oldest private coastal roads, leading to a National Trust path that meanders along miles of dramatic, unspoilt coastline. The comfortable, 3,600sq ft house has accommodation on four floors, including three reception rooms, a fitted kitchen/ breakfast room, a study, five bedrooms, three bathrooms and a penthouse with a fabulous open-plan reception room overlooking the river. It is also set forward of its immediate waterfront neighbours, which means that its terrace and garden-well-screened by mature trees and shrubs, and a marvelous suntrap-are unusually private. So although residents of Toft Quay can be lords of all they survey, no one else is able to see in. Finally, Toft Quay’s pièce de résistance is the private jetty with steps down to the water, where the foreshore, acquired from the Duchy of Cornwall, is included in the freehold.