Property: Minding Our Manors

You no longer need aristocratic lineage or nouveau wealth to live in a stately home. Michael Booth on a new breed of owner, buying historic real estate in manageable chunks
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PENELOPE KEITH has a great deal to answer for, if you ask me. In 1981, the final episode of To The Manor Born, in which she starred as an aristocrat on her uppers, attracted a then record 21 million viewers. As they watched her character's elegant ancestral home during the show's closing credits how many viewers, I wonder, suffered a covetous pang? Probably many, but what number actually went on to turn the archetypal English dream of owning a grand country residence into reality?

Well, since the 1980s (and I like to think in some small way inspired by Audrey fforbes-Hamilton) more and more house buyers have been fulfilling that very fantasy and buying, if not the whole shebang, then at least a piece of stately home for themselves. The demand for converted apartments in a wing, or other buildings on historic estates is currently insatiable, driven by an ageing, wealthy demographic who seek secluded retirement in a property that boasts heritage, beauty and an unparalleled opportunity to score points off the Joneses. These conversions offer all the gravitas of a crunch gravel drive and the poetry of ancient cedar landscape, without the grief and expense that maintaining such a property incurs.

Then there's Posh Spice and David Beckham, who are currently "holed up" in a "pounds 300,000 temporary love nest" (to quote the tabloids) in a converted Victorian mansion in Alderley Edge, Manchester. And Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are reportedly considering an apartment in a converted stately home near Windsor Castle. One could, at a push maybe, claim de rigueur celebrity status for stately conversions and the priceless privacy they offer stars. Nashdom, at Burnham in Buckinghamshire, was built by Russian Prince Alexis Dolgorouki for his wife, the heiress Frances Wilson, in 1915 (romantic stories are given big billing in the glossy brochures for these properties, incidentally). Cliff and Gaby Burt moved in last February.

"We had quite a big modern house with plenty of land, beautiful gardens and a swimming pool," explains Mrs Burt, "But we just found that it was all too much to look after, the gardens always needed tending and every time we went away we had to get someone to come and look after it." The development of Nashdom (the name means "Our Home" in Russian) is still in progress with the east wing yet to be completed, but the swimming pool is set to open in time for the summer and the gymnasium and tennis court are already available for the exclusive use of residents. Prices range from pounds 240,000 to pounds 370,000 (for a 999 year lease) which, you'll be pleased to hear, includes parking.

The Burts (Gaby's in her early 40s, Cliff's in his early 50s), are the proud owners of a one-bedroom apartment on the first floor, the centre piece of which is a grand circular living room with high windows overlooking the rhododendrons. "It was initially going to have two bedrooms like the other apartments in the wing, but one of the benefits of buying into the scheme early was that we had some say over the layout.

"Actually I came across it by accident, I was going cross country taking the dog to the vet when I got lost and found this huge property hidden behind scaffolding - this was in the summer of '96," Mrs Burt recalls. "When we came to buy we were looking for a smaller single house but found the market too limited where we wanted to live and it was then that I remembered Nashdom. I literally had to get lost again in order to find it!" The Burts paid a deposit on the pounds 275,000 asking price within 24 hours of viewing, and took up residence in February.

Nashdom, a grade II listed building was the work of Sir Edwin Lutyens and sits firmly in the Arts and Crafts tradition. Described by contemporary commentators as having "the spirit of Versailles and being reminiscent of the great Roman palaces", if you ask me, it represents more the "Never mind the quality feel the width" school of architecture - it could almost be an industrial development from the same period. But imposing Nashdom certainly is, and more importantly for the budget stately home buyer, its 17 acres of landscaped gardens offer seclusion.

Colin McKenzie, an expert in the country house field for Hamptons estate agents, believes this is one of the many attractions for buyers: "They fall into the bracket of retiring and wanting good rooms - but not too many of them - to display nice furniture and possessions, places that they can just walk out and go on holiday without having to worry about the upkeep. Or they're turn key owners, perhaps from overseas, who visit the UK regularly," he says. "There are also an increasing number coming with a London base who want activities like riding without, having to spend the whole weekend mowing the lawn to dash home on a Sunday night." Predictably, properties within an hour or so of London, or those near international airports, tend to fetch the premium prices.

McKenzie regularly hears of vendors with 50-room properties that, in market terms, are nothing more than white elephants. "It's highly unlikely that buyers will want to occupy a property like that in the same way it was occupied 100 years ago. Conversion in to a hotel, conference centre or apartments is often the only option. I seriously perceive this as one way of rescuing houses which otherwise are simply too vast to be viable."

Kit Martin has, over the last 30 years, saved more white elephants than he can count. Martin is generally regarded as the pioneer of stately home developments, though he is now involved in saving ex-MOD buildings and Health Depart-ment asylums which have recently flooded the market (700 in total) as director of the Phoenix Trust. "The interest in historic buildings has changed enormously since I first started and the number of people who want to live in historic buildings has increased beyond belief," he said.

So is there now a shortage of properties to develop? "Good grief, you must be joking. It's a huge problem to find solutions for listed buildings, it's terribly important that there are as many caring developers as possible taking on historic buildings and giving them a new lease of life.

"What I tried to do was create whole villages with my developments. The buildings are little altered externally," Martin explains. "An historic estate will contain an enormous variety of houses from an old kennel man's cottage for pounds 70,000 to a grand wing for several hundred thousand, which means that I was always dealing with a wide range of buyers."

Paul and Sue Chamberlain have just moved into a two-bedroom flat within a 13-home conversion of Grade I-listed Burton Mansion House, near Petworth in West Sussex (properties from pounds 200,000). "The people that we've met already seem very pleasant," Paul Chamberlain (52), a consultant engineer, told me, "They're of a similar age to us, not the sort likely to have rowdy parties." The Chamberlains only intend to use the flat at weekends for the time being, but plan to retire there one day. "We'd always had a hankering after old halls and the feeling of freedom you get in them, these days you tend to get crammed into little places, so its nice to have the space to get to know yourself a little more in peace and quiet." And the down side? "You do have to drive everywhere, but we're used to that."

I asked both Mrs Burt and Mr Chamberlain if snobbery had played any part in their choice. "Well, I hope not, I certainly don't see it that way," said Mrs Burt. "It's very tastefully done and we've had the interior designed by Michael Reeves, who was John Cleese's interior designer."

"Snobbery is in the eye of the beholder really," says Paul Chamberlain, "That's not how we see it, though we are aware people might think that."

On a more practical note, service charges can be astronomical (pounds 3,250 a year is a good average), and though the owners I spoke to expressed nothing but delight with their purchases, the atmosphere of a property inhabited by People Like Us, bereft of children, evokes for me visions of the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. And what about the other factor of having 20 Lords and Ladies of the manor?

I may well be writing from the embittered perspective of someone who paid a fortune for a postage stamp with a view of some brickwork in central London, but I can't help feel saddened. With each one of these properties that has its interior irreversibly butchered (there were some particularly shoddy conversions in the Eighties boom) and its grounds adapted to welcome fleets of Jaguars and BMWs, the nation loses another momento from history.

The site of Burton Park dates from the 13th century, though the first mansion and deer park weren't established until 1520. The present mansion was built in the Greek revival style and once owned by the Courtauld family (of carpet fame). Though it is not one of his developments, the Burton estate is a good example of Kit Martin's pseudo-village philosophy, with the manor house conversion complemented by Burton Court and The Stable Courtyard - 26 homes in total. "A truly exciting and imaginative place to live," says the brochure.

Conservation groups such as The Georgian Society and English Heritage monitor all work on listed buildings; and both say they are happy to see Britain's historic houses sensitively adapted as the buildings would otherwise crumble to a state beyond repair. So it seems everyone is happy. The vendor, often an aristocratic family on its uppers, gets some cash (a flood of such bankruptcy sales is predicted if the government forces through a clause in its finance bill ending a long-standing tax concession to owners of such properties), the developer makes a profit, and the new owners have a house that doubles as the dream dinner party conversation piece.

For further information on Nashdom phone 01628 663435. For Burton Park phone 01428 642307