PROPERTY / An everyday story of village folk: Few classic English villages are still owned by the Big House and there are frequently waiting lists to rent. The tenants of one in Norfolk, now for sale, talk to Chris Partridge

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SOUTH Pickenham, Norfolk, is almost everything the English village should be. The round tower of the ancient church looks over flint and brick cottages straggling the road to North Pickenham. The chimneys of Pickenham Hall loom over the trees behind a pair of trim gate-lodges. Everything is as it always has been.

What makes South Pickenham different is that whereas most picture-postcard villages have passed out of the ownership of the family in the manor house, just about everything here (except for the church and rectory) is still owned by the man in the big house, millionaire businessman Richard Daniels. And, what is more, no one is chafing under the feudal yoke or denouncing the arrangement as an outmoded leftover from the days of class rule. In fact, there is a steady stream of applications to rent the cottages, which can usually be met only when someone leaves by reason of death.

There seems to be a modest resurgence in the fortunes of estate villages. After the Second World War, most were sold off cottage by cottage in ever more desperate attempts to pay for repairs to the great mansions. Inheritance tax killed a great many, and futile attempts to finance 18th-century capacities for gin on 20th-century rents killed more. The final blow was rent reforms, well-meaning attempts to insulate low-income earners against rent increases which only forced landowners to get rid of surplus cottages as fast as they could. The 1980 Housing Act changed the picture by introducing a range of new tenancies such as shorthold, which struck a better balance between protecting tenants and allowing landowners to make a profit on their houses.

The result, according to Rupert Montefiore of Savills, has been a thriving market in rented houses in the country which did not exist before. 'It has been the salvation of a lot of estates as they have converted from fair rents to market rents,' he says. 'Estate workers are still on fair rents, and retired employees have a statutory right to remain unless the house is wanted for an agricultural worker.'

Montefiore recently handled the sale of the Druid's Lodge Estate, on the edge of Salisbury Plain. The estate is unusual in that it takes in everything on the 3,333 acres within the boundary fence, including 31 houses. The new owners, the Guinness brewing family, have announced their intention of keeping it that way, and the tenants have welcomed the maintenance of their community as a single unit. A 'steady dribble' of people apply for houses on the estate, attracted by the unspoilt country. A number of cottages are now available at rents from pounds 100 a week. Among them is Druid's Lodge itself, an attractive but undistinguished house dating from the turn of the century.

When the village of Southwick was bequeathed to James Thistlethwaite it caused something of a sensation. The whole village, including the two pubs and the church, had changed ownership. But what really got media attention was the fact that the village had barely changed in 50 years, even escaping yellow lines down the roads. This is a common feature of estate villages. Landlords more interested in farming than property development have only allowed building when absolutely necessary for the inhabitants; Southwick remains a place of beguiling charm whereas the area around has been swallowed up in the suburban sprawl that exploded from Portsmouth in the 1960s.

South Pickenham has also been protected from development by this benevolent neglect. But the residents there now face the ever-present threat to the estate village: sale. Apparently as part of a restructuring of his various business interests, Richard Daniels has instructed Knight Frank & Rutley to sell, expecting to raise between pounds 6m and pounds 10m.

There has been a big house at Pickenham since at least Tudor times, but the present red- brick, Wren-style house was built in the first few years of this century by the architect Robert Weir Schultz. It is a soft-shoe sort of place, built to enjoy rather than impress, and is surrounded by parkland said to have been laid out by Humphrey Repton. The modest size of the house and its lack of architectural pretensions go some way to explaining how the estate has survived intact: maintaining it did not break the bank, and the house can even contribute to the economic viability of the 3,600-acre estate by providing a base for shoots and other corporate entertainments.

Daniels bought the Pickenham estate in 1986 but has never lived there. He visits at least once a week, however, and runs it as a profitable business, mainly by arable farming but also by raising cattle which regularly fetch the highest prices at the local market, something of which Malcolm Napthen, the estate manager, is very proud. The village of South Pickenham, consisting of 16 houses, the old village hall, school (empty) and the post office, is also run on a commercial basis, Napthen explains. 'They pay the rent and we keep our side of the bargain and keep the cottages in good repair.'

The tenants include estate workers, retired workers, and people who work locally. The houses are in considerable demand, at rents from pounds 25 to pounds 35 a week. 'People are always writing and ringing up to see if houses are available,' Malcolm Napthen says. 'We put them on a list, but they have to wait for someone to die or for a couple in a two-bedroom house to decide they need more room, or they want to buy a house of their own.'

The estate is being marketed either as a whole or in four lots, one being the entire village of South Pickenham. Napthen is keen for the estate to be kept together. 'I would prefer the estate to be sold as a whole,' he says. 'A lot of the old estates in England have been split up, leaving the big house with a couple of acres and gradually falling in ruins. It is terrible.'

The tenants appear to agree. Amanda Mulligan's grandfather was a gamekeeper on the Pickenham Hall estate. She now lives in Rose Cottage, a delightful flint and brick terrace home, with her two-year-old daughter Rosanne, and likes things the way they are. 'I would be sorry to see the estate split up,' she says. 'We all want it the way it was.' Down the road, Edward Anderson, a jobbing builder, lives in a small cottage in the middle of a straggly terrace at right angles to the street. He has lived there for four years with his 12-year-old daughter, Stephanie. 'It is nice to come across an estate still in one piece. You feel you are living somewhere unusual,' Anderson says. 'It loses something when it is just in parcels.'

It is hard to see who would buy the village on its own. Development would be very difficult, as it is a conservation area and, according to Napthen, planning applications for new houses have always been rejected more or less out of hand. It is not a pretty-pretty village populated by rich commuters who might buy the place between themselves. In fact, it seems to be best just as it is. No wonder the inhabitants want it to stay with the estate.-

(Photographs omitted)