PROPERTY / Meet the new landed gentry: Today's squires combine old-style gracious living with low bills and all mod cons. Caroline McGhie reports

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The Independent Culture
ROSS Brisbane is pleased with his house. He has not only built a home that has received architectural acclaim, he has also managed to sneak a touch of modernity into one of the most sought-after addresses in the country - the Cathedral Close in Salisbury. The Bishop's Palace stands at one end, Sir Edward Heath's house at the other; between the two is West Walk, Brisbane's eight-year-old mansion, with its four electronically controlled garages.

The Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England omitted West Walk from its recent book, Salisbury - Houses of The Close. The book celebrates this remarkable collection of houses, representing every period in English history, and is displayed in all the local bookshops. Presumably West Walk was too young to be allowed full membership of this architectural senior common room.

However much the old may shun the new, they are both part of the same tradition, wherein those who have achieved money and status build houses to fit their standing. During the Thatcher years the social dice were shaken around a bit, and the country-house-building mantle passed from the landed gentry and the aristocracy to successful businessmen, property developers and builders.

These are now the men who can promise themselves a morsel of immortality by building what they consider the biggest and the best of the moment, tailored to their personal image. 'It is a monument to one's own ego. You get a terrific sense of self-satisfaction,' says Ross, who made his money putting the flavour into crisps. 'Saying to your friends, 'Come and look at what I have done.' To be really important you need to build a house on a hill.'

For Ross, though, there was the added enjoyment of doing battle with the traditionalists in The Close. He had, after all, bought the Bishop's kitchen garden as a riot of raspberry canes and then had the cheek to try to build a new house on it. It was built in 1985.

He made concessions to local opinion by choosing as his architect Robert Adam the younger, one of the most admired new classical architects. The gardens of the house run down to the river, opposite the water meadows. 'This is where Constable painted the cathedral,' says Ross. 'Mind you, wherever you want to put a waste paper basket is where Constable painted something or other.'

Adam produced for him something cleverly self-important which echoed the 20th-century neo-Georgian style rather than the great originals of the 18th and 19th centuries. 'I just stabbed my fingers into pictures and told him what I wanted,' says Ross. 'It has the proportions and shape of the classical order, and the design is based on the circle and the square. Above all it is a comfortable family home.'

In the child-centred late 20th-century grand house, of course, there is no nursery wing. West Walk has five bedrooms and bathrooms so that each of the four children can wash in private. The guest flat is a stroll away above the garage, so guests can gossip about their hosts without being overheard. Ross also insisted on what he calls a Busby Berkeley staircase, swishing down into the central hallway.

While 19th-century grand houses may have boasted the latest in lavatory plumbing, today the rage is for gold-plated bath taps, bidet taps and shower nozzles. West Walk also has the latest in lean-burning central heating technology so that the heating bills are negligible. 'We wanted to live in a big house and look grand and wealthy but we were actually quite skint,' says Ross. It makes for a contemporary combination of flash and practicality, ideally suited to a 44-year-old who likes to ride his motorbike in full leathers around Salisbury's narrow streets.

Two pavilions, at opposite ends of the house, echo the great wings of the old country houses. One of them contains an evening sitting room that catches the dying sunlight from across the river; the other is a utility room (the most expensive ever, according to Ross).

Though he is selling West Walk (through Savills, at pounds 900,000) in order to create another new house near Winchester, it will be a wrench to let it go. 'After all, it is the only house that has had its plans hung in the Royal Academy. It was part of the 1984 Summer Exhibition.'

Christopher Lacy, who is handling the sale, believes that new country houses appeal to quite different buyers from their older counterparts. 'People are attracted by all the modern conveniences they offer, such as double glazing, a high level of security, windows that don't let the snow blow through in the winter.'

Dawn Carritt, at Jackson Stops & Staff, thinks that the shortage of available properties is driving some period house enthusiasts to look at new ones instead. She is selling off-plan a pubescent 8,500 sq ft mansion, to be built in the Lutyens style on the outskirts of Farnham, for between pounds 1.25 and pounds 1.5m. Hawk Development Company have the site and the plans, and await instructions from the new owners, who will be able to adapt the plans to their needs.

All the typical ingredients of the modern manor are there. The floor-plan no longer resembles the Cluedo country house murder game but the library remains, as does the billiard room, though video mania means it now doubles as a cinema. But the ballroom has been replaced by an indoor swimming pool complex with sauna and Jacuzzi. In this house, too, six of the seven bedrooms will have their own bathrooms.

'A number of those interested in this property are people who have been owners of historic country houses but now want something less difficult to keep up,' said Dawn Carritt. 'This kind of package is not so very different to the way the landed gentry built their houses in earlier centuries.'

The hi-tech/low-maintenance element in the modern manor is always a must. John Sadler, a builder and designer who built his own slightly more modest five-bedroom house at Caxton, near Cambridge, has beaten his central heating system into total submission.

'There are three zones,' he says. 'The daytime and office zone, the dining room and drawing room zone, which is the evening area, and the upstairs zone. There are three time clocks, too, and a thermostat set at 60 degrees so that nothing ever drops below that.' The dishwasher, washing machine and tumble drier come on during the dawn hours to make use of cheap electricity. The result is that his energy bills never come to more than pounds 500 a year.

The design of the house even takes the weekly shopping into account. 'I know some lovely period houses, beautifully done, but you have to tramp miles from the garage through the front door with your shopping bags to get to the kitchen. There is no logic to them.

'With my house you park in the garage, unload under cover and walk straight through into the kitchen.' Convenience is also served by 81 power sockets and 17 television points. The house is now for sale through Savills at pounds 245,000 while Sadler, like Ross Brisbane, gets on with planning his next.

Many of the new country house builders have travelled a long way, both literally and metaphorically, and their houses and their gold bath taps are the symbols of their arrival. Nad Dayeh, for instance, was once a Palestinian refugee; now he occupies a new hilltop estate near Fordingbridge in Hampshire. He came to England, made his fortune in high-quality printing, and bought Hale Close for its site value. He loved the hilltop so much that he demolished the existing small 1920s house and built himself a new one in 1990.

Through the gates, flanked by stone dragons, the house unrolls its vast collection of sitting and drawing rooms, all with views of the 44 acres of land. The bedrooms are matched in number by bathrooms (more gold taps) and, such is the importance of the car these days, the garages aren't far behind. The hallway alone yawns like a ballroom. 'You can use it for parties and lose 60 people here easily,' says Nad. The exterior is curiously modest, like a run of terraced cottages with dormer windows that wraps itself round the crest of the hill. 'I told the architect exactly what I wanted,' says Nad. 'Another did a kind of crystal palace which was exactly what I didn't want. I think I will rebuild wherever I go now. But there is always something you wish you had done differently. Here I wish I had put in wine cellars.'

One of his two great passions that is reflected in the design is cooking. Hospitality and largesse are built into the house, through the huge bar that fronts the kitchen, the massive barbecue built beside the herb garden (so that Nad can snatch handfuls of pungent curry plant without having to leave the kebabs), and the dazzling stainless steel catering kitchen which can be hosed down after use.

His other passion is the English countryside. This is why he is now selling the house (on Savills' books at pounds 850,000) to buy a farm. The 44 acres at Hale Close have whetted his appetite for more. He has painstakingly restored the landscape, creating a lake stocked with trout and crayfish, and two ponds to attract wildfowl and deer from the New Forest. He is in the throes of clearing the woodland by hand.

He has also created an ornamental lake near the house for the koi carp and breeding black swans to scull round. He fusses like an anxious father over the nesting site, the future of the cygnets and their vulnerability to foxes. He tried to breed pigs but the piglets grew into adults and eventually had to be given away because he hadn't the heart to eat them.

'My ambition is to build a family house that will go down through the generations. So I need a farm to produce an income to support the house,' he said. Members of the landed gentry have ever talked thus.

(Photographs omitted)