PROPERTY : The little house on the big estate

You don't have to be the lord of the manor to live among rolling acres of open country. A gamekeeper's cottage or gatekeeper's lodge may be seeking a tenant. Lesley Gillilan reports
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The Independent Culture
HOME for Steve and Nicky Wicks and their two young children is a romantic 18th-century brick and flint farmhouse, set in 1,000 acres of privately owned Berkshire. When they return to the nest from their jobs in London, they enter the Hardwick estate through a set of ornate wrought iron gates, sweep up the drive - flanked by woodland and fields that roll down to the banks of the River Thames - and unlock the front door of a four-bedroom property which once housed the manager of the neighbouring stud farm.

"It's absolutely stunning," says Nicky, as she looks out of original lead-mullioned windows at what the estate agent described as "far reaching views over open countryside". The house has twin gables, a Gothic stone porch, four picturesque chimney stacks rising from a tiled roof and a pretty cottage garden. "I set my heart on this house as soon as I saw it, and we were very lucky to get it."

As successful professionals in their thirties (she's a sales manger; he's a former Chelsea footballer now working in the sport's marketing field) with jobs in the smoke and a life in the sticks, the Wickses would seem to epitomise Britain's upwardly mobile owner-occupiers. But they don't have a mortgage. At least, not any more.

Having sold a 16th-century cottage which, says Nicky, "needed endless attention and drained all our resources", they decided to save the money they were going to put down on another house and rent the Hardwick Stud Farmhouse. "We wanted to invest in a house we really loved and we couldn't find anything we wanted to buy." The place is probably worth around pounds 350,000 and would cost nearly pounds 3,000 a month in mortgage repayments. The Wickses pay just over pounds 1,000 a month.

When they moved on to the estate three months ago, the house had just been restored, decorated and installed with new kitchen units, carpets and central heating. As tenants, they have no responsibility for the cost of repairs (a reported damp patch was dealt with by the estate management within a week); they are free to roam the Hardwick acres more or less at will. And providing they can extend their two-year tenancy agreement to a further term, they have no plans to move.

Their landlord is Sir Julian Rose, an organic farmer whose "rather racy" great-grandfather, Sir Charles, is said to be the model for Toad of Toad Hall in The Wind in the Willows. And their rented home is one of 30 cottages that dot the land around the Rose family's Elizabethan mansion, Hardwick House. Originally, they were designed to provide the basic accommodation that went with the jobs of grooms, gamekeepers, gatekeepers and farm labourers, and retired staff who had earned the right to a roof after years of service. But like most of Britain's scattered private estates - which cover huge tracts of the countryside - Hardwick no longer has the need for armies of cap-doffing resident staff.

A woodman, a farmhand and a gardener still occupy three of the cottages, but the rest have been spruced up for the more lucrative commercial lettings market. These days, Sir Julian's estate community is populated with motor traders, management consultants, an author and an antiques dealer. Anyone who fancies joining them will have to go to the end of the queue. There is fierce competition for estate properties.

Hardwick's agent, Val Foster of Savills in Henley, says there is never a shortage of eager tenants and rarely any need to advertise. But while the number of available properties still falls short of demand, the supply has increased considerably since the introduction of assured shorthold tenancies in 1989.

"Until then, rents were controlled by the Rent Acts at depressed levels," says Desmond Hampton of Cluttons, who manages a number of estates including Goodwood, where a third of the Duke of Richmond's 150 properties are let out to tenants. The "fair rent" of old did not, he says, seem fair to landowners who were often saddled with sitting tenants paying small rents for life. Leasehold reform legislation put a further fly in their ointment by granting tenants who had a lease of more than 21 years the right to buy the freehold.

The shorthold system enables landlords to offer restricted lets - of six months or more - at market rents; according to Hampton, "many more owners have since been encouraged to do up and let their estate cottages. Selling off surplus properties is no longer the accepted wisdom."

Richard Astor (a descendant of the American-born politician Nancy Astor), admits that without the 1989 reform some of the 24 properties on Kirkby, his 2,000-acre estate in Berkshire, might have been left empty. "Selling them would have been like auctioning the family silver. And once sold, the historic, villagey atmosphere of the estate would have changed forever," he says. "But these old period cottages need a lot of love and care, and the fair rents did not cover the high cost of improvements and maintenance. It would have been tempting to leave some of them to simply crumble away."

The high cost of improvements reflects the fact that some estate properties have not been maintained for decades. When the Astor family bought Kirby and its 18th-century manor house in 1950, most of the workers' cottages had no electricity and no "bathing facilities" (except a tin tub and a supply of cold water).

On some of Britain's historic estates, conditions have still not improved a great deal. "The old-style protected tenants have been brought up in basic cottages with outdoor lavatories and no heating," says John Wootton of Bidwells, who manages Chippenham Park estate, near Newmarket. They had no option but accept such conditions. "But the new breed of tenant expects every con-venience - and the cost of making properties suitable for the modern market entails a huge investment."

Richard Astor chose to make the investment. Kirby's modernised Old Grooms Cottage, a "delightful" red-brick thatched property (see top of page, opposite) was recently offered for rent at pounds 800 a month; but a number of landowners have allowed their empty properties to fall into an appalling state of decay. In several cases (including the Duke of Beau-fort's Badminton estate in Glouces-tershire, and the Earl of Maccles-field's Beechwood estate in Oxford- shire), regional conservation officers have been forced to threaten legal repair notices in order to pressure landowners into restoring derelict listed properties.

Last year, the Marquess of Bath met this problem by offering 16-year leases on a handful of rotting properties at low annual rents (around pounds 400) in exchange for a predetermined schedule of expensive restoration works. Landowners have been slow to take advantage of the shorthold system and Britain's estates are still littered with crumbling properties awaiting salvation.

On the walled Chippenham Park estate in Cambridgeshire - where only 10 of more than 50 properties are still retained for staff use - one of a pair of 200-year-old Grade II* gatehouses is currently being restored; it will cost around pounds 500 a month to rent and will be ready by Christmas. The two-bedroomed property was previously let at a low rent and was, says John Wootton, "very shabby". Its twin is still occupied by the Chippen- ham estate's gamekeeper.

Elsewhere on the estate, one of a row of classic Queen Anne cottages, which has been empty for 30 years, is undergoing a lengthy refurbishment project and will be available at the end of this month. The four-bedroomed house has a huge inglenook fireplace, original flagstone floors, an ancient bread oven in the kitchen and two bathrooms. The new tenants, who will be chosen from a long waiting list, will pay a rent of around pounds 800 a month.

When cottages become available, some landowners respond to the clamour of applicants by offering the tenancy to the highest bidder. But at Chippenham, Kirby and Hardwick the cottages are offered at fixed rents. "To some extent, finding the right tenant is more important than achieving the best rent," says the Chippenham agent, John Wootton. "We tend to choose the most suitable candidate - somebody who will fit into the estate community and respect the property."

Harry and Iris Lyall live in Snailwell, one of the few feudal estate villages in Britain that survives intact. Both the village and estate are owned by the Crawley family. Six months of "persistent pestering", say the Lyalls, secured the property, which was created a year ago out of a row of three one-up, one-down cottages knocked together to make one detached, four-bedroomed house.

The Lyalls (he's a hospital doctor; she's a student lawyer) say they chose to rent after "burning their fingers" on a house purchase and narrowly escaping a negative equity debt. They retreated to the rented sector to lick their wounds and say they have no plans to take on the burden of another mortgage in the foreseeable future. "Anyway, it would be almost impossible to buy a house as good as this one at a price that we could afford," Iris says.

"The cottage has been done up to a very high standard. And the setting is beautiful and completely unspoilt. It feels very much like our own home. The only drawback is the short lease." But according to the agent, John Wootton, the shorthold is little more than a formality to protect the landowner and is usually renewed at the end of the first term. "A high turnover of tenants is pointless and expensive. As long as the landlord is happy, a caring, reliable tenant could be there for life." !