For the polo enthusiast; for sale – Cowdray Park House, Sussex

Cowdray Park House, West Sussex (Image: Knight Frank)

Cowdray Park House, West Sussex (Image: Knight Frank)

Despite a house having been in the family for over a hundred years, sometimes it can seem the most rational choice to sell.  For the current Lord Cowdray, the idea that he might saddle his heir with what he considers a burden has led to his decision to put the impressive Cowdray Park House up for sale.

If you mention Cowdray often the first house which springs to mind are the atmospheric ruins which are all that are left of one of the grandest Tudor houses in the country.  The fire in September 1793 destroyed not only a large part of the house but also many priceless and historically important artefacts including William the Conqueror’s sword and also the roll-call of those present at the Battle of Hastings.   Just two weeks after the fire the 8th Viscount Montague drowned whilst swimming in the Rhine, forcing the title to a distant descendent of the the 2nd Viscount, who died childless, extinguishing the Viscountancy.

The tragedies continued – the 8th Viscount’s sister inherited but both her sons died whilst swimming off Bognor in 1815.  The three daughters who then inherited in 1840 eventually decided to sell and it was bought by the 6th Earl of Egmont for £300,000.  The current Cowdray Park House dates from 1878 when the 7th Earl, who had inherited the estate in 1874, massively enlarged the Keeper’s Lodge to create the house we see today.  A large rambling, but very picturesque creation, it obviously has taken its cues from houses such a Knole and Penhurst with their varied rooflines and many courtyards.  The grounds had been previously landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown between 1768 and 1774 with the ornamental gardens laid out in the early 18th-century.

The house was bought in 1908 by Sir Weetman Pearson who was created Viscount Cowdray in 1917.  Sir Weetman was a brilliant engineer who not only built the Blackwall Tunnel under the Thames but also had extensive oil interests in Mexico.  The house then passed through the Pearson family with few changes until the 3rd Viscount, in pursuit of his passion for polo, created one of the premier polo grounds in the country within the 16,500-acre estate.

Yet being a titled aristocrat living in a 16-bedroomed, 44,000 sq ft house in the middle of a fine estate proved to not be what the current Viscount hoped for after he inherited in 1995.  In May 2009 it was announced that he and his wife and son were to move out of the main house and into a smaller house on the estate, Fernhurst, where they had lived before inheriting.  The 2009 plan involved finding someone to take a long lease and create a hotel and spa in the house but the wider economic circumstances have forced this plan to be abandoned.    Unwilling to continue managing such a large house, with all the attendant issues with staffing and maintenance, the Viscount has decided to sell, putting it on the market, with 110-acres, for £25m, whilst retaining the rest of the estate including the world-famous polo grounds.  Renting the house out, he says, would just be delaying the decision.

Speaking to the Sunday Times in 2009 when he announced his plans, Viscount Cowdray admitted that “I’m not the sort of person who feels hugely attached to things, and it’s a big house.” and later speaking to the Observer that same year he said “I have worried whether I will be leaving Perry a wonderful asset or a noose around his neck. I fear it is likely to be the latter,”.

Whilst the arguments put by the Viscount seem rational it does seem a shame to divorce the house from the estate.  The Cowdray estate has long adapted to changing circumstances but to dismember it seems to be a short-term solution which his son may, with hindsight, regret when he comes to take over, as it leaves one of the most significant estates in Sussex without a principal house.

*Update* Remarkably, Cowdray Park House is unlisted so any buyer has the opportunity to make any changes they wish – and I’m willing to bet they won’t be good.  Knight Frank are touting this as a benefit but perhaps representations ought to be made to Chichester District Council to nominate it for listing using this form.

More details: ‘Cowdray Park House on sale for £25m‘ [Chichester Observer]

Property details: ‘Cowdray Park House, West Sussex‘ [Knight Frank]

The Cowdray Estate

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About Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat

An amateur architectural historian with a particular love of UK country houses in all their many varied and beautiful forms.
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19 Responses to For the polo enthusiast; for sale – Cowdray Park House, Sussex

  1. fugitive ink says:

    I very much share the doubts you express in the final paragraph. The decision to alienate key elements of the estate is easily taken but, once executed, almost impossible to reverse. Indeed, it mirrors the sort of decisions taken every day with smaller, less architecturally distinguished but locally significant properties – the alienation of a ‘big house’ from its stables and barns (to be developed as smaller stand-alone properties), from its agricultural land (to be farmed or transformed into further space for residential properties) and thus from its historic context. Of course owners have to be free to do this sort of thing – there’s no point in owning property if you can’t make the central decisions regarding it – but at the same time, it’s awfully sad, isn’t it?

    And in the case of Cowdray, in particular, would it not have been possible to find a high-spending medium-term tenant seeking to buy into all the equine and social glamour of the Cowdray ‘brand’ without necessarily wishing actually to own the place? As with the sale of Easton Neston and so many other high-profile ancestral piles, something is being lost here – nor are Lord Cowdray’s heirs the only ones who might have cause to lament this.

  2. Marcus Crofton says:

    It seems a shame that one generation’s decision will permanently affect the family into the future. Surely if he determined that renting is not an option then perhaps leasing the house would be better than selling it off completely?

  3. countryhouses says:

    @fugitive ink – it is a real shame that these ‘salami’ tactics of slicing off pieces of estates, be it either buildings or land, continues. You are, of course, right though that this is essentially their property to own or sell as they wish – but from my perspective as a fan of the traditional model of a large house as an intrinsic part of a significant estate, this is to be regretted. It would almost be preferable that they sell it all – I can only dream of the price they’d get for the house *and* 16,500-acres of prime Sussex land with a world famous polo ground. If he doesn’t feel attached to ‘things’ then this might be the better option for the estate as a whole. However, by following this course, I do fear that we will, in time, see the break-up of the rest of the estate.

    @marcus crofton – I agree. I wonder what advice he received as, although I’m sure it wasn’t a factor, I imagine the commission on renting out or leasing the house would be significantly less. Have all the options truly been examined or has he been steered towards a more lucrative sale?

  4. Oliver Chettle says:

    This is one of the most disappointing country house sales I have ever encountered. The house isn’t oversized for its purpose, it is the sort of house a 16,500 acre estate should have. It looks very comfortable to me, and the design is as unpretentious as a house of such scale can be. I wouldn’t have the slightest difficulty living in such a house if I had the means, whereas I’m not sure that I would enjoy living at Blenheim or Arundel. I almost hope that the real reason is financial distress, because it is alarming that such an important landowner would sell needlessly, suggesting a loss of confidence, although the Pearsons aren’t genuine old aristocracy.

    Lord Cowdray really should wait until his son is grown up, so they can make the decision together if they must.

  5. Andrew says:

    Oliver, it’s not that Viscount Cowdray can’t afford to maintain Cowdray House, he and the Pearson family are worth £850m (up £350m from 2009) according to the Times Rich List, but rather whether his family will get better value and pleasure from the money by spending it on other things (i.e. its relative opportunity value). The Viscount’s half-brother, Charles, owns the similar-sized Dunecht House and 53,000 acres in Aberdeenshire (http://www.dunechtestates.co.uk), which is more of a country retreat than Cowdray Park (only 55 miles southwest of London), and also has a ruined home on the estate open to the public, Dunnottar Castle (http://www.dunnottarcastle.co.uk). Also, with the next generation, there are more children sharing the family income stream, so their needs must also be considered (the Viscount has 5 children and 13 nephews/nieces by his siblings). Satellite views of the houses:
    Cowdray House (new) – http://maps.google.co.uk/?ie=UTF8&ll=50.987492,-0.716037&spn=0.001521,0.004117&t=h&z=19
    Cowdray House (old) – http://maps.google.co.uk/?ie=UTF8&ll=50.987657,-0.731607&spn=0.001521,0.004117&t=h&z=19
    Dunecht House – http://www.bing.com/maps/?v=2&cp=57.160997510322844~-2.4132292866863736&lvl=19&sty=h
    Dunnottar Castle – http://www.bing.com/maps/?v=2&cp=56.94597776390048~-2.1971076131023892&lvl=19&sty=h

  6. Andrew says:

    Regarding the argument that the Pearson family should put the whole 16,500-acre Cowdray Park Estate up for sale as one parcel, while admirable, has two problems. Firstly, the Pearson family’s 102-year association with the estate would end, which would be unfortunate, especially as Viscount Cowdray’s title is based on the old Cowdray House Estate (i.e. Viscount Cowdray of Midhurst). Secondly, it is questionable whether a buyer could be found for the whole estate. Past sales history of estates over £20m/600-acres would indicate that it is more likely for the main house to eventually be broken off and sold with a relatively small amount of land. This is in part due to the difficulties of selling a large complete estate, which usually commands a mega-price with few who can afford it, partly because estate investors do not want a large old house which is a cash drain against the rest of the income producing estate, and finally because the nouveau riche who want the status symbol of a large country house do not want the hassles of running a large agricultural estate, which inevitably will produce a lower investment return than the industry where they originally made their money. This blog has highlighted recent examples of this phenomenon with the sale of ‘Stately Estates’ (for want of a better term):
    * Kiddington Hall, Oxfordshire – for sale in 2009 by Erik Robson for £42m with 2,000 acres, the house and 466 acres were sold for £15m in 2010 (http://countryhouses.wordpress.com/2010/03/05/the-economics-of-selling-a-country-house-kiddington-hall).
    * Shrubland Park, Suffolk – for sale in 2006 by Lord de Saumarez for £23m with 1,333 acres, the house and 228 acres were sold for £6.5m in 2009 (http://countryhouses.wordpress.com/2009/12/23/shrubland-hall-finally-sold).
    * Easton Neston, Northamptonshire – for sale in 2004 by Lord Hesketh for £50m with 3,319 acres, the house and 550 acres were sold for £15m in 2005 (http://countryhouses.wordpress.com/2010/08/17/conran-collects-another-georgian-gem-wardour-castle-wiltshire).
    * Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire – for sale in 1997 by the Phillips family for £25m with 2,000 acres, the house and 1,000 acres were sold for £10m in 1999.
    The exceptions include:
    * Sarsden House, Oxfordshire – £24m, 600 acres, 2006
    * Kelling Hall, Norfolk – £25m 1,600 acres, 2008 (http://countryhouses.wordpress.com/2010/08/30/the-artocracy-expands-west-acre-high-house-norfolk)
    * Edgcote House, Oxfordshire – £30m, 1,700 acres, 2005
    * Clarendon Park, Wiltshire – £30m, 4,200 acres, 2006
    * Culham Court, Oxfordshire – £35m, 650 acres, 2006
    * Park Place, Berkshire – £42m, 570 acres, 2007 (could be resold soon after renovations)
    Of course the 1998 £48m sale of the 11,000-acre Warter Priory estate in North Yorkshire doesn’t count because the house was demolished in 1972 (http://lh.matthewbeckett.com/houses/lh_yorkshire_warterpriory.html).

    Talking of breaking up estates, but on a smaller scale, this time with government-minded shortsightedness, is the recent case of English Heritage’s 150-acre Wrest Park House and Gardens in Bedfordshire (http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/wrestpark). In September 2008 about 25 acres and 20 post-war research office buildings on the east and northeast sides of the house and stables were sold (999 year lease) by the non-departmental public body BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) to the industrial park management company Wrest Park Limited for a paltry £3m at the bottom of the recession. This has now broken up the estate and encourages further commercial development on the site right beside the house and gardens (http://www.wrestparkenterprise.co.uk), regardless that it is partly hidden by avenues and clusters of strategically placed trees. Wrest Park is already over commercialised, with most of the house, service wing and stables still rented out as offices to commercial tenants, with only 4 rooms and the gardens open to the public, with the remainder of the original 760-acre Wrest Park Estate mostly owned and farmed by one private owner. The government should have taken the long term view and demolished these ugly unlisted buildings, except perhaps for the most recent 1995 Ferguson Building 31, which could have been converted into a visitor centre with a surrounding car park, with the rest of the grounds reinstated as they were before their 1946 government acquisition. To add further insult to injury, English Heritage is now proposing to build an expensive new visitor centre in the walled garden on the west side of the house, further destroying the original grounds, and adding another unwanted modern building right beside the house. I appreciate that the government has to be fiscally responsible now that it has its massive debt incurred during the recession bailouts, but given the planned £10m to £20m expenditure on Wrest Park over the next 20 years, £3m is a relatively small amount to forgo for such a huge difference in it environment.
    Google satellite view of Wrest Park House and Gardens, showing the northeasterly development:
    http://maps.google.co.uk/?ie=UTF8&ll=52.004196,-0.40982&spn=0.011902,0.032938&t=h&z=16

  7. jane ellis says:

    As a direct descendant of the Montague family, the previous owners of Cowdray, (and who incidently seem to have had a remarkable tendancy to drown their male heirs!) can anyone help with old plans as to how the house would have looked during their occupation?
    I also understand that Battle Abbey was in their posession too anybody able to add anything to my meager information on this?
    Any help would be appreciated.

  8. Andrew says:

    Jane, the Viscounts Montague and the Browne family lived at Cowdray House for about 250 years (1542-1793) and at Battle Abbey for about 180 years (1538-1721). For images and a floor plan of Cowdray House, see the Castle Studies Group 2005-6 Journal No. 19 article (in PDF file format, or a paper copy can still be purchased for £15) which also lists references for further research:
    http://www.castlestudiesgroup.org.uk/Cowdray.PDF

  9. Andrew says:

    Drownings were not the only hazards for the gentry at their country seats, with falling off a horse during a vigorous hunt also a high risk. However, in a modern twist of both these scenarios comes the news on 27 September that Jimi Heselden, ranked 395th in the Sunday Times Rich List with £166m, died when he fell of his Segway two-wheeled vehicle (having bought the US company in December) down a cliff into the River Wharfe on his 60-acre Grade-II Flint Mill estate, formerly part of the Thorp Arch Hall estate (with the nearby Grade-II* Thorp Arch Hall now divided into 3 homes) and bordering the Wetherby Grange estate (with the house demolished in 1962):
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1315518/Segway-tycoon-Jimi-Heselden-dies-cliff-plunge-scooters.html

  10. Mr A. Kelman says:

    As I worked as a Footman to Lord Cowdray during the early 1970’s I would love to buy the old place and then I could sleep in the master bedroom, take my meals in the dining room and when I rang for service I’d make damned sure the Butler was quick off the mark or he’d be out of a job. I’d let Charles keep Dunecht House as I always found it such a bother traveling up to Scotland every few weeks for the huntin’ and a shootin’ seasons but Dunnottar Castle is a lovely place for a picnic.

    Will that be all sir?

  11. Andrew says:

    Mr Kelman, it would be interesting to hear a little bit more about what life was like in a large county house in the 1970’s, such as did you live in the house or on the estate or did you move with the family between London-Sussex-Scotland, how many staff were there and how long was the working day, was Cowdray Park used more as a weekender and holiday retreat, and was there a very formal relationship between staff and family (i.e. Upstairs, Downstairs), or was it more relaxed in keeping with the prevailing social trends (although at that time Lord Cowdray, the present Viscount’s father, would have been in his 60’s, so I’m guessing it would have been more traditional).

  12. Mr A. Kelman says:

    There might be a mention of those days on BBC Radio 4 with Fi Glover this Saturday morning as I will be one of the studio guests.

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks for letting us know. For those who can’t catch the show live, here is the BBC iplayer listen link.

    • Andrew says:

      The segment Footman: Ali Kelman is from 36.12 to 45.50 minutes. An intriguing and amusing conversation, although the BBC website’s comment that “Ali Kelman believes he was the last footman in the country” should be qualified by adding “outside Royal service”, because the footman position still exists today at such places as Buckingham Palace, as part of the Master of the Household’s Department. Kelman’s Brussels sprout incident is dwarfed by the 2009 footman accident at Buckingham Palace where £60,000 of damage was done to the brand new £250,000 carpet in the 156ft-long Picture Gallery when a full hot drinks trolley was overturned, although I’m sure a few footmen in the past have also accidentally burned down a country house or two. However the job is now becoming more formalised with the introduction in 2007-9 of the Royal Household developed NVQ based Diploma in Butlering at Thames Valley University (to butle with the best of the existing 5,000 butlers working in the UK).

    • Joe Conlon says:

      Hi Mr Kelman, I visited Cowdry park in the 1970s with a very good friend Alester Kelman, we worked in london together for a few years and we used to play music together, he got married and moved to singapore, i havent heard from him since, i found cowdray park a wonderfull place it so sad to see the estate broken up,

  13. Mr A. Kelman says:

    When I suggested that I was probably the last Footman in the UK I did not include the chaps at Buck House because that type of work is not what we used to call ‘Private Service’. They are not Private Staff in the true sense of the word because they whole thing is state funded from the sentries outside to the horse drawn carriages. During my time in private service I never met, or heard of, or saw an advert for a Footman who was employed in a family residence and so far nobody has come forward to tell me they know of somebody.

    When I was at Cowdray Park I lived in the house in one of the wings but none of the Midhurst staff worked in London residence which was used through the week by His Lordship and Her Ladyship and they would come down to Midhurst on a Friday and return to London on the Monday. When the family went to Dunecht myself and the Butler, Mr Denman, accompanied the family and we would travel by sleeper from Kings Cross. The Dunecht estate was not far from my home town so I was able to pop home for an afternoon visit.
    When the family were in residence the working day was from 7am to 10pm with a break in the afternoon which is why I am amazed at how much free time the staff in Upstairs Downstairs seem to have. When the family were not in residence we worked for a couple of hours in the morning and I would have two days off in the middle of the week.

    • countryhouses says:

      Mr Kelman – many thanks for sharing these fascinating insights into a life unknown to almost everyone. As you say, it’s a rare position – perhaps extinct outside of the Royal households, though I wonder if perhaps Jeremy Musson came across one or two when researching his book ‘Up and Down Stairs – The History of the Country House Servant‘?.

      Not forgetting the hard work and high standards of those in service, for those who’d like more stories of the foibles and follies of working in a country house should enjoy the books ‘Country House Disasters’ by Hugh Vickers and Caroline McCullough and ‘Stately Secrets – behind-the-scenes stories from the Stately Homes of Britain’ by Richard, Earl of Bradford. Both out of print but can be picked up cheaply on Amazon.

    • Andrew says:

      Mr Kelman, thanks for your additional comments. I chose the phrase “outside Royal Service” rather than “in Private Service” because I gather there would be footmen employed at the private residences of the Royal Family, such as Sandringham, Balmoral, Highgrove and Gatcombe, but they would be paid from the Royal’s private income, although the staff may previously have worked at the State funded residences (but I acknowledge that in the past ‘Royal’ and ‘State’ were synonymous, with ‘Private Service’ usually excluding Royal households). I’m wondering if the term Footman has been phased out from use in the private sector, because of its elitist connotations to liveried footmen at homes of excessive wealth, and been replaced by other more contemporary and relevant job titles? Speaking of the 1971-5 ITV series “Upstairs Downstairs”, it’s surprising to see the BBC revive the series in 3 new one-hour episodes (or a 6th series) aired on 26-28 December 2010 – pity it’s based in a London house rather than a country house.

  14. Andrew says:

    Cowdray Park House has been removed from the Knight Frank website, apparently on 16 December, surprisingly after only about 3 months for sale. I don’t think that it has been sold, so it may have been withdrawn for winter. Although Knight Frank has just listed another large Victorian country house in West Sussex, Lock House, built in 1900 with Art Deco features and Grade II listed, but with only 25 acres of the Lock Estate for £7m (brochure), which is also for sale by Hamptons International. Or if Gucci is more your style, then the just sold Normans Estate, also in West Sussex, in 28 acres and asking £4.75m, was the home of Paolo Gucci (grandson of the founder) in the 1980’s when the family had its high profile squabbles (brochure).

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