PROPERTY / Home Truths

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The Independent Culture
A MONTH in the country is the ideal escape from the miseries of high summer in the city. It was a luxury which aesthetes of the Thirties and Forties seemed able to afford without trouble - though in those days, of course, property was usually rented and people could move on whenever they liked. Even in these days of ownership and debt, however, a month among the cowpats and the cow parsley is still a realistic possibility. At the grand end of the lettings market is Blandings (0273 747911), a company which specialises in country seats and Scottish castles, complete with cooks, nannies and shooting jackets if required.

'We need more houses,' says Layla Paterson of Blandings, 'so I am desperately searching for more home-owners who might like to bog off somewhere else and let their own piles for the summer and Christmas seasons. English families seem to like escaping from London and getting together with friends and relations in houses larger than their own. It's absolutely delicious if more people want to rent through us, but what I really want is more people to let their houses.'

Among the few places she still has for August is the former gothic retreat of Sir Frederick Ashton, founder of the Royal Ballet, at Eye in Suffolk. It sleeps eight, has an indoor heated pool and costs pounds 1,500 a week. If that's not big enough, you might prefer Glenstriven, a Victorian manor house on the shores of Loch Striven in Argyllshire, which sleeps 14 and costs up to pounds 1,800 a week.

Some of the architectural masterpieces of the Landmark Trust, the charity that rescues buildings in distress (062-882 5925), are also vacant during August. Choose from the Jacobean Banqueting House at Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds (sleeps six, pounds 873 a week); a nonconformist chapel near Hay-on-Wye and the Brecon Beacons (sleeps four, pounds 483); and part of the lighthouse on Lundy Island off the north Devon coast (sleeps five, pounds 609 a week). And sheep surround them all.

THE RUINS of Glasclune castle, just north of Blairgowrie, are on the market through Knight Frank & Rutley. Offers over pounds 55,000 are invited, with the Historic Buildings Council and the Royal Commission of Ancient Monuments waiting in the wings to show the new owners how to restore it.

If the story of Richard and Roderick Oliphant is anything to go by, however, the ruins should come with a financial health warning: after pouring pounds 600,000 into the restoration of Hatton Castle in Angus, they have now lost it to receivers. Savills are offering it for pounds 325,000. The Oliphants bought it as a ruin for pounds 1 in 1983, remortgaged their houses in London and, as often as they could, commuted to Angus to supervise the building work. Just as the rebuilding neared completion, however, the banks called in the loans and the estate agents took it off their hands.

Roderick Oliphant has been reported as saying he was greatly motivated by the urge to recreate a clan seat for Oliphants around the world. All Oliphants seem to have suffered the obvious nickname of Elephant at some time in their lives, and he hoped that shared memories of persecution would draw the herd together for grand reunions.

THE SUMMER sales are on with a vengeance in the property market as well as in the high street. Cheap cuts from William H Brown in East Anglia include a two-bedroom terrace house at pounds 16,000 and a three-bedroom terrace house at pounds 22,000, both in Gainsborough. Best buys at the top end of the market include yet another castle, Herstmonceux, former home of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, reduced from the 1990 asking price of pounds 20m to pounds 5m (by Savills). The Isle of Tanera Mhor, off the North-west coast of Scotland, is reduced from pounds 800,000 to pounds 450,000 through the same agents.

AS THE holiday on Stamp Duty is about to end, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors is still putting pressure on the Government to salvage something from the loss. The RICS has suggested that the threshold at which the duty becomes payable should be doubled to pounds 60,000, thus targeting for exemption first-time buyers and the bottom end of the market.

The RICS also reminds us in its latest quarterly housing survey that the trough of depression across the South- east is not reflected in all parts of the north. Estate agent Simon Thornton in Ilkely, West Yorkshire, reports that pounds 100,000 four-bedroom stone houses on the River Wharfe are now in such short supply that their value has increased by 2 per cent in a year. They are being chased by hordes of employees from the Departments of Health and Social Services relocating to Leeds.

'In Yorkshire prices never went up so far or fell back so hard,' said Thornton. 'For pounds 35,000 you can get a two- bedroom terrace, which means that real people can get a start on the ladder. In the South-east ordinary people just can't get started at all.'