...and for a manor of their own

One of the time-honoured indicators of boom times in the City is bounding ahead again. Business types who have made a packet in their thirties and forties are on the hunt in increasing numbers for a place in the country.

It's not that they want to farm or settle far beyond 90 minutes' BMW driving time from London. The favoured property has half-a-dozen bedrooms, a paddock for the ponies and enough land to provide what estate agents call "protection".

And if no suitable house is available, the new rich are also buying farmland and building a manor to their own fancy. Last week, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors reported that though farm profits were down farm land prices were steady.

The explanation in the South-east is a strong demand for what the estate agents call "residential estate farms", fuelled to a large extent by City bonuses.

Dealers and traders often end the year with double their salary, collecting an extra pounds 100,000 or more, while executives might have seven-figure bonuses. "What else can you do with that type of money except buy property?" asked one estate agent, more than content with the answer.

The demand has echoes of the new Home Counties squirearchy created by the mid-Eighties City boom. But agents say buyers are more selective and other factors, such as better schools and a quieter life, are also at work.

And this time there will be fewer barn and oast-house conversions. It is much more difficult to get planning permission to turn farm buildings into homes, though this, in turn, could increase demand for land on which to build new country houses.

A good indicator of the turn-round at the top end of the market is the proportion of foreign to UK buyers. According to Rupert Sweeting, of Knight Frank, three years ago 70 per cent of buyers of property over pounds 1m were foreign and now more than 80 per cent are British - and three-quarters of them are connected with the City.

"They want to play the squire without the responsibility of the big farm. You can do that if you get somewhere on the edge of a village - a farmhouse or rectory - with perhaps 100 acres. What you look out on from the dining room you own," he said. Legislation introduced in 1995 has made it easier for the new owners of "the big house" to let the bulk of the land to a real farmer used to getting his boots muddy.

A typical target property is Old Chalford Farm being sold by Savills as part of the Broadstone Manor estate near Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire. A 19th-century Cotswold stone house with six bedrooms and 50 acres of land, lakes and a brook it is on offer for pounds 800,000.

"We've had a lot of interest in that already," said Toby Marden, farm sales agent in the company's Banbury office. "It appeals to people who aren't necessarily going to hobby farm but want some land around them."

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