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In a falling house market there are many mansions

'THE FAMILY are too distressed to speak,' said the agent. It sounded as if a much-loved parent had just died. But no, the blow was a pounds 1m drop in the price of the family mansion.

Two-and-a-half years ago Marshcourt, a Hampshire mansion designed by the Edwardian architect Edwin Landseer Lutyens, was valued and put up for sale at pounds 2.75m. Now it is for sale at pounds 800,000 with no certainty that it will achieve this guide price.

The market for English country houses collapsed when the Gulf war started in January 1991. International buyers dried up and then the recession began to bite hard at home. Suddenly, many delightful country houses became virtually unsaleable and the price of others fell by as much as half in two years. It was a blow for the gentry who had hoped to realise their assets.

Marshcourt, built in 1902, provides a record of the splendour of English country-house life at the turn of the century: a way of life that became increasingly difficult and ended for many after the Second World War, when Marshcourt became a preparatory school. The boys played on the unique billiard table made from a single piece of polished chalk stone and bathed in the grand marble and oak-panelled bathrooms. Today, some extra handbasins and a row of hooks for towels are the only evidence that Marshcourt was ever other than a very grand private residence.

More a palace than a house, Marshcourt is constructed from hewn chalk which slowly erodes to produce a white powder, giving it an extraordinary brighter-than- white appearance. The chalk is decorated with dressed flints and pierced by mullioned windows. The rooms are panelled with walnut or oak and dressed with marble. The stuffed heads of gazelle, wildebeest and buck adorn the walls.

In the words of Furneaux Jordan, the architectural critic and writer, Marshcourt is a dream house outside its time. These Lutyens houses 'were a gesture from a world where there were still impeccable maids in the servants' hall, glossy hunters in the loose boxes, and Peter Pan in the nursery wing. It was all lily ponds, lavender walks and pot-pourri in a Surrey garden'.

If Marshcourt does not appeal there are plenty of other bargains around. In Oxfordshire, Moulsford Manor, a fine Victorian mansion beside the Thames, is available for pounds 650,000, reduced from pounds 1m. In Hertfordshire, 17th- century Ayot Place, with timber- framed hall, carved gargoyles and minstrels' gallery, has been reduced from over pounds 4m to pounds 1.65m. And in Scotland, a 14th-century castle with additional 16th-century fortifications and a classical Adam wing and gatehouse has been reduced to pounds 800,000 from pounds 1.25m. The house, in Ayrshire, belonged to the Cathcart family for 630 years. It comes with a collection of art and period furnishings and two-and-a-half miles of salmon and sea-trout fishing.

The problem for many potential purchasers is not so much the price but the money needed to maintain the houses in the manner which they require. These establishments could scarcely be run without a substantial staff.

However, Folkingham Manor, near Grantham, a more modest but nevertheless magnificent 17th-century house, might be run by a family with relatively little help. It has three public rooms and six bedrooms and is now under offer at around pounds 235,000, reduced from pounds 325,000 after being on the market for two years. The manor was more or less derelict when Duncan Lingard, a timber importer, bought it in 1985.

'We had workmen in almost every day for the first three years,' he said. 'The upstairs rooms had not been touched for 150 years. The ceilings were bellying out so we pulled them down and exposed a huge vaulted timber roof which we have left so it can be seen. We put in a modern kitchen and bathrooms. But I don't expect that we will recoup what we have spent on it.'

The massive drop in prices for country houses, together with the devaluation of the pound has made English country houses much more attractive to foreign buyers in the past few months. During the Eighties, British buyers dominated the market, while foreign buyers found the property overpriced. Now that is reversed and the villages of England are finding that the incomers buying up the local manor or hall are more likely than not to be foreign. And with certain Lloyd's syndicates making a further call on Names, property agents are expecting forced sales and a further exodus of gentry from their country seats.

Andrew Hay of Knight Frank and Rutley, one of the top property agents, said: 'As yet the collapse of Lloyd's syndicates has not affected the market. People have had to sell a flat in town, a picture, furniture or a cottage, but the house is the last thing you sell.

'A lot of people have now had two or three bad calls from Lloyd's and another is expected soon. For some people it will be the final blow and it is likely to force sales of some good country property.

'But the problems at Lloyd's has also taken a lot of buyers out of the market - they can't think of moving into the country if they are due to pay up in the next round. The market shows some signs of stabilising but we are really just bumping along the bottom.'

The new ruralists, Sunday

Review, page 70

(Photograph omitted)