The most expensive UK country house: Park Place, Oxfordshire

A new record price for a UK country house has just been achieved with the sale of Park Place, near Henley-on-Thames, in Oxfordshire.  One of three most notable estates on that stretch of the Thames, it was also the most expensive country house ever sold in its unrestored state in 2007.  Now, after five years and many millions of pounds, the house again has set the record having been sold to an unknown Russian billionaire for £140m.

'A view of Park Place, Henley' - artist unknown - c.1742-3 (Image: Royal Collection) - click to see full image

'A view of Park Place, Henley' - artist unknown - c.1742-3 (Image: Royal Collection) - click to see full image

Park Place is, at its core, a more modest Georgian house built in 1719 for Lord Archibald Hamilton, son of the Duke of Hamilton.  The proximity to London and the beautiful setting has long attracted the wealthy to the area as a convenient escape from the city, with several riverside estates featuring a series of impressive houses.  Starting at Marlow, the first house is Bisham Abbey (now the national sports centre), then the now lost Temple House (dem. 1910), Harleyford Manor (beautiful small villa restored in 1989), Whittington House [pdf] (rebuilt by Reginald Blomfield c1897, now HQ of SAS Ltd), Danesfield House (now a hotel), Medmenham Abbey (now two houses), Culham Court (sold for £38m in 2006), Greenlands (now Henley Management College), Fawley Court (sold for £13m in 2008, possibly for conversion back to a private house), and then finally, just past Henley, lies Park Place.  Of particular interest are the architectural similarities between Fawley Court (built 1684 – reputedly to a design by Sir Christopher Wren), the original Park Place (built c1718), Culham Court (built 1771), and Reginal Blomfield’s 1897 rebuilding of Whittington House, all of which are on based on a red-brick 5- or 7-bay, two storey villa with bulls-eye window inserted into a projecting pediment.

Park Place, Henley - c1810 (Image: Thames Pilot) - click for the full image

Park Place, Henley - c1810 (Image: Thames Pilot) - click for the full image

Sadly, Park Place is no longer part of this architectural brethren having undergone a series of substantial changes.  The house was sold by Lord Hamilton in 1738 to Prince Frederick, then Prince of Wales and eldest son of King George II, who split his time between there and Cliveden. After Frederick’s death, the house was then bought by General Henry Seymour Conway in 1752 and it was he who made the first significant changes both to the house (including a library by Sanderson Miller in 1757) and, perhaps more importantly to the grounds, which are now grade-II*. His works, to designs by Thomas Pitt, 1st Baron Camelford, included the installation of an ancient stone henge given as a gift from the people of Jersey where he was Governor, the lightning-damaged steeple from St Bride’s Church as an obelisk, four more obelisks as gateposts, an underground cavern, and a bridge, using stones from Reading Abbey, which was subsequently admired by Horace Walpole.  There was also an artificial classical ruin designed by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart.

Park Place, Oxfordshire - c.1900 (Image: henleyonthames.org)

Park Place, Oxfordshire - c.1900 (Image: henleyonthames.org)

The house was sold to John Noble in 1871 but was largely gutted by fire a year later, giving Noble the opportunity to indulge something of an architectural whim.  The pattern and style of the Victorian country house was much admired around Europe and our expertise was exported widely around the continent – but it rarely flowed back (a topic already covered in an earlier post ‘The rise and fall of French taste on UK country houses‘).  Park Place is one of the few houses in the country build using the French Renaissance style, creating an impressive château in the heart of England.

The design of the rebuilt house is widely attributed to Thomas Cundy [III], the son and grandson of two previous Thomas’ who had also been country house architects. Although the latter two are given sizeable entries in Howard Colvin’s ‘Biographical Dictionary of British Architects‘, the grandson is given only a paragraph as part of his father’s, leaving us somewhat in the dark as to what, bar some London churches, he may have been involved with. However, considering his father had good form with the chateau style having built Grosvenor Gardens in London, so Thomas III would have been schooled in the style before his father’s death in 1867.

The house remained with the Noble family until 1947 when it and the 670-acre estate was parcelled up into 22 lots and sold off.  The main house was bought by Middlesex County Council who converted it into a special school, which it remained until 1988 when it closed. The house was then bought by John Latsis, the Greek shipping tycoon, but it seems unlikely that he lived there as it remained unrestored, with the vestiges of the school – gymnasium, classrooms, a woodwork studio etc – all still in situ, along with various outbuildings, as can be seen from these images of the house.

Those who had a chance to look around the house when it was for sale in 2006 all noted that beneath the shabby institutional veneer, the potential of the house was clear; glimpses of fine tiles, the original stone fireplaces, stained glass, and grand spaces with impressive views.  The house was then sold to a consortium who intended to create a superior country club – until Wokingham council said ‘no’.  Put on the market for £45m, it was finally sold for £42m to Mike Spink, a property developer who specialised in high-end houses in central London. With this experience, Spink transformed this once dilapidated house into a palace fit for a billionaire with all the requisite features such as a helipad, swimming pool, panic room etc.  Somewhat disappointingly, the house now only comes with 200-acres, with the remaining 300 with which it was sold retained by Spink for as yet unspecified ‘development’ – a phrase which will no doubt spark local concerns.

Even when it was first sold, those in the property business were predicting that Park Place would sell for possibly up to £100m, and the rising ‘super prime’ market has proven even those estimates conservative.  Sadly, this record is not for a spectacular historic house at the centre of a large estate but instead one where the location (location, location!) has elevated the price to such a stratospheric level. Nevertheless, many country houses were built as retreats for wealthy industrialists and financiers and this house is proof that the lure of the trophy country estate is as strong as ever – which can only be a good thing for those seeking to prove their desirability in modern times.

———————————————————————–

Story about the original sale: ‘Sold for £42m… still in need of renovation‘ [Daily Telegraph]

Latest sale: ‘Park Place: Britain’s most expensive home sold for record £140m‘ [Daily Telegraph]

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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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6 Responses to The most expensive UK country house: Park Place, Oxfordshire

  1. Jeff A says:

    And to think they could have had Updown Court instead! I hope someone will be able to ferret out recent photos of the completed restoration. I can’t imagine how any helipad could be anything other than an eyesore unless a retracting lawn, as in the Bond film, has been installed.
    I would like to recommend, to fellow readers of this blog, the Helena Gerrish book about Avery Tipping. It is a delight in every way. Not since Roy Strong’s “Arcadia” have I enjoyed a book so much.

  2. Norman Josling says:

    I often wonder of ultra-rich owners if having too much money is as bad as too little for a property, as they seem unable to leave anything alone. Hopefully he may have forgotten he bought it by now.

    • Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat says:

      Hi Norman

      You’re right in that the fortunes of a house can be blighted as much by too much money which can lead to grandiose buildings schemes which were unaffordable in later times, or which have ruined otherwise excellent smaller houses. Conversely, gaining wealth can save houses as they become secondary seats which escape the attentions of fashion or ambition leaving us with some wonderful survivals today.

      Perhaps if the new owner of Park Place wishes to invest more of his wealth he may wish to purchase the rest of the estate to avoid the proposed development. A visitor to this blog emailed me a link to a story in the Henley Standard about one small part of it: http://www.henleystandard.co.uk/news/news.php?id=482483

      Seems the billionaire will be having new neighbours. Not close ones, mind.

      Matthew

  3. Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat says:

    Interestingly (and not sure how I missed this), but on the Spink Property website they have a photo/computer-generated image of the restored house and immediate gardens: http://www.spinkproperty.co.uk/#/current_projects/park_place/

    The text also says that they have since the purchase invested a further £100m, on top of the £42m they paid originally, therefore meaning they actually made a loss on the property as sold at £140m. This makes the 300-acre development necessary to provide the profit. Considering the likely value of the rest of the work, it’s possible that this is one of the most valuable enabling developments in the country to date. I have to say that I’m pleased that it has resulted in the restoration of the main house – something which is all-too-often forgotten by developers who secure ED approval.

    Matthew

  4. Paul says:

    More to come on this ….all is not as it seems. Watch this space.

  5. Dave says:

    I see on the Spink website that they want to recreate a ‘lost mansion’ on the 300 acres they retained.

    Park Place, itself, is most famous recently for being the setting of St Trinians School in the 2007 film. Its run down state is clearly visible in the film!

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