Focus: THE STATELY HOMES OF POPLAND

So much for the decline of the nation's great country houses. A new generation of the rich and famous is keen to move in

THE QUIET village of Little Marlow in Buckinghamshire was turned upside down last week when one of its newest inhabitants got married. Fans and photographers descended on the area for the wedding of Scary Spice, who tied the knot from her new home, the Manor House. She recently paid pounds 2.5m for the 16th-century, eight-bedroom riverside property in seven acres of land. It also boasts a stable block, servants' quarters, a huge greenhouse and a dovecote. The Manor House had stood empty for several months and the builders are already at work on extensive refurbishing.

Somehow an ancient country house in need of sensitive renovation doesn't seem the natural habitat of a Spice Girl. But Scary is by no means alone in her desire to be a lady of the manor. Others among today's pop stars who have picked up a mansion include Gary Barlow, formerly of Take That, who lives at Delamere Manor in Cheshire; Jay Kay of Jamiroquai, who paid more than pounds 1m for Horsenden Manor in Bucks; Noel Gallagher of Oasis who bought the Sheiling in Chalfont St Giles for pounds 2m; and Richard Ashcroft of the Verve who lives in Grade II-listed Taynton House in the Cotswolds.

A semi-stately pile set in its own grounds has become a status symbol for wealthy young celebrities and business people. Knight Frank, one of the leading estate agents dealing in country houses, recently surveyed their market and found that their buyers are getting younger: 10 per cent were no older than their thirties and 55 per cent in their forties. Some of these buyers, says Knight Frank, are lottery millionaires; others are whizz kids who have made fortunes, often rapidly, in sports, fashion, entertainment, media, advertising, publishing, and the computer and communications industries. "One of the first priorities for many is to upgrade to a country house," says Rupert Sweeting of Knight Frank.

But why? What's the attraction of a crumbling pile miles from anywhere which may need tens of thousands spent on it, will eat up money for maintenance, need staff for its upkeep and will make the security and heating bills for a Docklands penthouse look like peanuts? "People want to go back to a rural idyll," suggests Mr Sweeting. "For many people, a manor house with cottages and 20 acres or so represents that idyll. They look for a place that symbolises how they would like to have been brought up, especially if they are thinking of having children themselves."

And paparazzi are unlikely to mount a round-the-clock watch on the perimeters of a substantial estate in Little Netherby on the Wold when easier prey can be found in Chelsea. Neighbours may fear a sudden rash of all-night parties, but in fact celeb neighbours are likely to be less obtrusive than most. "These people don't want to be known, they want peace and quiet, they don't want to be disturbed," says Mr Sweeting.

All the same, monied incomers are not always welcomed. Gary Barlow upset his neighbours when he banned local fishermen from using a lake in the grounds of his house and put up a tall fence to keep fans at bay. Richard Ashcroft, blamelessly attempting to restore his 17th-century house to its original glory, applied a pink wash to the stucco which had the locals up in arms. (In fact, white washes tend to fade to a dirty cream, while pink tones down to an attractive sandy colour, so Mr Ashcroft may well be vindicated.)

But, if you are prepared to brave this kind of little misunderstanding, what can you get for your money? The farther out of London, the more money will buy. While the M4/M40 corridor to the west of the city is most popular with those who need to be able to zip in and out of London, pounds 500,000 was enough to buy Taynton House and its 23 acres of Cotswold fields and woodland for Richard Ashcroft. Properties recently for sale around the pounds 1m mark include Morely Old Hall in Norfolk, a moated Elizabethan manor house with 31 acres, or Penleigh House in Wiltshire, a Queen Anne house with parkland, stream, stable block and additional three-bedroom Georgian cottage.

For those who can't face potential renovation and maintenance costs on a historic property, new country piles are being built. One of the last acts of the former Conservative Environment Secretary John Gummer was the revision of an exciting document called Planning Policy Guidelines 7 (PPG7), which orders local authorities to give planning permission for new country properties as long as they are "truly outstanding in terms of its architecture and landscape design and would significantly enhance its immediate setting and wider surroundings".

Permission has already been granted for new buildings on the sites of derelict country houses and the demand in the South-east has surged; the idea, according to PPG7 is that "each generation will have the opportunity to add to the tradition of the country house, which has done so much to enhance the English countryside".

It does not, however, offer any support to those struggling to maintain existing buildings; and the fates of those existing buildings can be far worse than being bought by a pop star. Architectural historian John Harris spent years touring England to visit stately homes that had fallen into disrepair when the families that originally owned them could no longer afford to maintain them. Many were requisitioned in the war as army billets or turned into hospitals or institutions, and subsequently badly neglected. In his book No Voice in the Hall (John Murray pounds 17.99) he recalls his first visit to Burwell Park in Lincolnshire, where he meets a flock of sheep in the hall and "plaster perfection" in every room. When he goes back for a second visit, men with picks are demolishing the rococo plasterwork and the mahogany staircase is being burned on a bonfire.

Matthew Slocombe, a case worker at the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, says that a "caring and interested owner" is the best prescription for preserving old estates, whether that owner is a squire or a Spice Girl.

"One of our basic principles is that of gentle but regular maintenance," he says. The society recommends finding builders, architects and surveyors who are experienced in dealing with older buildings, and it runs a technical advice line for new owners who are unsure. "The one thing I would do is warn people against trying to do too much too soon, before getting a feel for the building," he counsels. "It is essential that people go into these things with eyes open and go gently without rushing." Scary, take note.

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