When the doors to Cherkley Court in Surrey closed to visitors in December 2009, it was thought that low visitor numbers had proved it uneconomic to keep the house and gardens open. However, as predicted by a commenter to my original blog post [thanks Andrew], Cherkley Court is now for sale and has been launched with a double-page centre spread in the Sunday Times Home section today [19 Sept 2010].
If one was to try an define what might constitute a perfect trophy estate in Surrey, Cherkley Court might well tick most of the estate agents’ criteria. The grade-II listed house, built c1870 (and rebuilt after a fire in 1893), is a four-storey, chateau-style mansion extending to over 24,000 sq ft with home cinema and five grand reception rooms, with nearly 400-acres of gardens and parkland.
The house is now for sale following a 7-year, £10m restoration of the house and grounds orchestrated by the architect Christopher Smallwood and David Mlinaric, the interior designer. The house became a famous venue for parties under the ownership of Max Aitken (later Lord Beaverbrook) and his wife Gladys who lived there until her death in 1994. It was her death which sparked a bitter legal dispute between beneficiaries of the will which has forced the sale.
So if you have £20m and don’t mind the restriction on not landing your helicopter in the grounds, have a word with Savills.
There is a long tradition of replacing country houses going back hundreds of years ever since the first non-fortified mansions were built in the early Tudor period. Since 1974 when the V&A exhibition ‘The Destruction of the Country House’ did so much to highlight the hundreds which had already been lost across the UK and particularly in England the presumption has rightly been against the demolition of country houses – a position which this blog very firmly supports. Yet to stop the replacement entirely could be seen as preventing the improvement of existing estates and seems to presume that no modern architect could match the skill of those who went before. The case of Parkwood House in Surrey could be a useful case study in showing that replacement can be ‘creative destruction’.
Since 1800, of the nearly 1,800 English country houses which have been lost, over 150 have been replaced by a new house. In the austere times of the post-WWII era, the new house was often smaller and easier to manage. However, before 1930, houses which were demolished were often replaced by much larger houses to reflect the newly established status of the modern captains of industry and finance or to mark an inheritance.
This process of renewal could strike again and again – I think the record is held by the Fonthill estate in Wiltshire which has had seven principal houses of varying sizes including the infamous Fonthill Abbey which replaced the superb Fonthill Splendens. James Wyatt’s Fonthill Abbey is widely regarded as one of the most interesting (if ultimately unsuccessful) houses ever built in the UK – yet its creation led to the destruction of the old house. Do we deny country house architects the ability to develop and improve just to preserve every older country house regardless of its merits? Is it worse to stagnate estates with unsuitable (or unsightly) houses or must new houses only be built where a house has already been lost or on greenfield sites?
Parkwood House in Surrey is unlisted – and probably rightly so. Built in the late nineteenth-century, it is, in the words of the architects of the new house “…an unremarkable and diluted essay in the ‘Old English’ or ‘Arts and Crafts’ style of the time” – but of course they would say that. However, looking at it architecturally, there does seem little to recommend it – a rambling house, pebble-dashed, with an unexciting entrance front with an only slightly more interesting garden front. The house is not connected with any noted architect, nor any particularly notable family (the only one of interest is the Australian 1st Baron Ballieu who was living there in the 1950s). The house then became the Rank Hovis conference and training centre with all that damage that entails during institutional conversion.
Planning permission was originally submitted in September 2007 and approved in November 2007 – a remarkably quick approval which might indicate that the planners had few qualms about the loss of the house. In fact it might be said that Parkwood is simply a big house a countryside setting – and ‘big’ does not automatically mean it is of merit. However, if the new house designed by the eminent Robert Adam Architects was not of such a high quality would the presumption fall on the side of retaining the old house? The new house is an elegant essay in the use of the Palladian vocabulary to create a design which obviously provides the space and comfort that someone who would live in such a house would demand but is also architecturally interesting. This is no mere cobbling together of a few weak ideas – this is a house which would rightly enter the list of good country houses in Surrey. Robert Adam Architects are one of the leading practices in the country working in the Classical style and have completed other similar projects such as this house in Surrey which also replaced an earlier country house or this house in Sussex.
So if we can be confident that the new house would be high quality replacement is it justified to demolish the existing house? In this case, as the earlier property is so unremarkable it would seem that the 91-acre estate would be better served through the keeping alive of the tradition of country house replacement – but this can only be justified where the original house is unlisted and of a poor design and the new house would be of the highest quality. Demanding the destruction of one house to provide another has a long tradition but is a very risky path and any such application must be open closely scrutinised to ensure that we are not simply throwing away architecturally interesting houses just to build hideous ‘McMansions‘ where bigger is automatically assumed to be better.
So you’ve decided you really want a country house. Nothing too big; more a residential estate than a working or sporting one so perhaps just 48 acres. Luckily your four-bed house in the best part of Fulham is worth £1.75m so you can sell up and surely move straight into your dream rural arcadia? Unfortunately a recent survey by upmarket estate agents Savills has shown that you might need just a bit more money than that.
As always, proximity to London is the key factor in determining how far your money will stretch. With the Russians and Middle Eastern families not willing to be too far from the cultural delights of Bond Street the price of a decent country house with 48 acres in Surrey tops the table. To secure a decent small estate in the nicest parts would require between £15m-£20m but a similar property in Hampshire would set you back just £10m on average.
So with the those two counties ruled out, where next? The Cotswolds have always been popular with the corresponding effect on prices but if Hampshire is too expensive then unfortunately you’re also out of luck in Gloucestershire with the average there hitting £12m – but north Oxfordshire might look attractive with the average of between £7m-£8m.
Distance from London reduces prices but with broadband making working from your country home on Friday possible Dorset or Wiltshire are still very attractive but more affordable – but you’ll still have to expect to pay between £4.5m-£5m. Fewer transport options make East Anglia even cheaper with a country house in Norfolk going for around £3.25m – which makes the pretty Great Hockham Hall [pictured above], a grade-II listed Queen Anne house built in 1702 and with 47.66 acres, almost a bargain at £2.95m.
So where could you trade in your Fulham house for a small country estate? Step forward Lincolnshire where the average is the lowest in England at ‘just’ £1.75m-£2.25m. So proving that everything is relative it seems that even the high prices of London don’t always directly translate into a ticket to the country life unless you’re willing to go where the market takes you.
Source: research by Savills (but listed not on their website) and reported in The Times ‘Bricks & Mortar’ property supplement on Friday 18 June (but their website doesn’t allow access so no link there either).
If you are interested in the rest of the report or the averages for other counties I’m guessing the best contact is Alex Lawson at Savills (Rural Research) on +44 (0) 20 7409 8882 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Despite the continued visitor success of the more famous country houses such as Castle Howard, the closure of Cherkley Court in Leatherhead, Surrey, to the public shows that the smaller houses can find it much harder to make a profit.
The house was built in the 1860s but rebuilt in a French chateau-style following a serious fire in 1893 and was home to the press baron Lord Beaverbrook. Now the charitable Beaverbrook Foundation which owns the house has decided that their funds can no longer subsidise the running of the house. Previously the grounds had been open to the public and a new cafe and gift shop had been built in 2008 but even this failed to lift visitor numbers sufficiently.
So what does the future hold? The foundation have confirmed that it will honour all events and weddings already booked but will not be taking any more. Although the house and estate was recently valued by Savills, it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that it might be put up for sale. However this might actually be good solution as the many millions the sale would surely raise would be a healthy boost for the Foundation’s other charitable work but would also ensure that the house was in use which is the main protection against creeping neglect. Fingers crossed that whatever the outcome, this interesting house is preserved for the future.