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how to buy a title

The Baroness of Eye sits stiffly upright on her sitting-room sofa. "I remember what it was like to be Melody Urquhart and not listened to," she sighs. "I remember rejection."

Straight shoulders, ramrod spine - perfect posture. "Posture is very important," she explains. "As an artist, I'm very sensitive to body language." Some lords and ladies, she has noticed, have rejected her with their body language. She leans forward defiantly and, enunciating every word, says: "If they don't like me for what I am, I just don't talk to them."

We are at White Lodge, on her 11-acre Suffolk estate, pondering the question on every wannabe aristo's lips: How does one buy a title?

There are lots of aspiring aristocrats around at the moment. But contrary to popular myth, it's not just rich Americans or Japanese businessmen who are taking advantage of the booming market. According to Ray Woodberry, director of Essex Manors, "corner-shop owners, scrap-metal dealers, all sorts are doing it".

Mr Woodberry, or the Lord of Prittlewell, as he is known, says it is no different from buying a car, "except it lasts for forever. It's a real bargain."

The Baroness bought the first of her five Eye manors in 1990, after seeing an ad in the local paper. At first, she was shocked to see parchments, manuscripts and coats of arms available to "ordinary" people.

"I'd assumed titles remained in line. I was stunned. But then I discovered they've been bought and sold throughout history. "

This is perfectly true. Lord Dormer, for example, is only in the House of Lords because one of his ancestors paid James I pounds 10,000 for a peerage, and Viscount Maidstone's ancestors bought his title in the 17th century for pounds 7,000.

But there was a substantial change in the Thatcherite Eighties. Tenants started buying their own houses and taxpayers started buying shares in newly-privatised utilities. As Lord Stockton famously observed, the family silver was being sold off - and at discount prices.

The manorial system was virtually a closed shop until 1984 when Strutt & Parker held its first title sale; now it holds six a year. But as manors start off at pounds 4,500, baronages range from pounds 60,000 to pounds 100,000 and earldoms cost in the region of pounds 500,000, it is not surprising the phrase, "Ello, John, got a new title?" hasn't caught on.

However, the alarm bells are ringing in the stately homes of England. Earlier in the year, a worried Earl of Lindsey and Abingdon wondered, in the House of Lords, "whether the purchase of any title normally associated with the peerage of the United Kingdom such as Earl or Baron, entitles the holder to declare himself a peer of the realm?".

According to The Baroness of Eye, the ideal buyer should be somebody who values privilege. While not being born into it, they often tend to be more suited to aristocracy than many of the present blue-blooded lot.

But, given John Major's commitment to a classless society, what's the point of such titles? Surely the only residual attraction is the snob value?

Lady Urquhart looks up at her family coat of arms glowering proudly above the fireplace and smiles. "To some people they're status symbols. They think they've bought themselves a higher rank in the world. But I'm a self-made person. I've worked very hard and done extremely well. This is a notch along my little ladder of achievement for myself."

The Baroness is preparing for a family holiday in Ireland. "I'm going to 'my people' on the West Coast, by which I mean the people of Leyny. I'm also the Baroness of Leyny." She bought the 800-year old title a few years ago.

And are the natives friendly? "They respect me as a person. Some rich gentry are common and vulgar. Then you get the simplest person, a little lady from a cotton town who is so immaculate. It's an inner thing."

For further information on buying a title contact: Essex Manors (01268 697815)