Postcards from the hedge

David Cohen talks to three people who bought the landscape of their dreams
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The Independent Online
When it comes to owning our own patch of green, most of us settle for a pot plant or a hedge. But not Margaret Gordon. She withdrew her savings of pounds 5,500 and bought a Hampshire meadow. What was in it? "Nothing. Just a lot of grass," she laughs. "One and a half acres of it. I wanted fresh air, a space to dream and be creative and to see the sky again. It was my bid for freedom." Gordon, 43, is a management consultant from Southampton who earns pounds 25,000 a year advising companies on stress management. When it came to alleviating her own stress, however, it was not a room with a view she sought, but a view with room, and plenty of it; a place to put her feet up and simply watch the grass grow. "The vista from my field is absolutely stunning," she says. "I look out over a river valley and can see 40 miles to the South Downs, the Solent and all the way to the Isle of Wight."

Gordon's hunt for a field of dreams began two years ago when she discovered that a friend shared the same yearning. The land agents they approached could only offer them expensive pony paddocks, but they persisted with their search and stumbled across a farmer selling 25 acres of arable land. They persuaded him to subdivide and bought three acres, which they halved between them. Now she drives to her meadow every weekend and often pops over on the way home from work to watch the sun set. "I love the peace and quiet, the sound of the wind in the trees, the birds, the thrill of being nowhere exactly. I don't have to insure it or fret that someone will steal or break it. Apart from arranging to give it a 'hay-cut' once a year, it's the ultimate worry-free possession," she enthuses.

Surprisingly, it is not difficult for ordinary individuals with a small amount of spare cash to buy a piece of the countryside, be it a field, a river or a forest. There are currently more than 30 "Forests for Sale" throughout the UK on the books of specialist chartered surveyors like Bidwells and Cleggs, with price-tags ranging from pounds 7,000 to pounds 2.75 million. And according to Raymond Henderson of Bidwells, more and more city folk are becoming hip to the fact that it's affordable and very straightforward to purchase their own private woodland.

Jim McAllister, 51, the chairman of a property investment company, who lives in Chiswick, west London, bought his forest, near Guildford, 10 years ago. "I grew up on the edge of a forest in Scotland so I was used to running wild and having hills and trees around me," he says. "When I came to live in London, I used to drive to the Surrey Downs with my family every weekend and cycle through the woodland. One day I saw a For Sale sign at the entrance to my favourite forest. It was a magical place.But when I called the agent, it had already gone to someone else. I was bitterly disappointed. Then as luck had it, the sale fell through, they re-tendered and my offer was accepted."

McAllister's forest stretches across 350 acres and cost in the region of pounds 300,000. It has 23 varieties of trees, some more than 500 years old, including Scots pine and Douglas firs, as well as 10 kilometres of track and a thriving wildlife population of deer, foxes, hawks, owls, rabbits, squirrels, grass snakes, adders, pheasants and badgers.

"I often work from 6am to midnight in my business, so by the end of the week I can't wait to get down here and relax," he says. Relaxing to McAllister means hard physical labour in the woods, building up a sweat before lunch, at which time friends might arrive for a barbecue. "It's calming to be in a forest," he says. "When one is successful in business, it is easy to become over-inflated and lose perspective. Being in my forest brings me down to size. I walk amongst trees that have been here for hundreds of years and I realise that I'm not so significant, that I am only here for a relatively short time."

But what began as a casual interest has become his passion. McAllister has completed forestry courses and learnt to cut down trees and maintain habitats. His four children and their friends muck in as well. To maintain a forest costs money, and McAllister employs foresters to help him, but how much you spend is entirely up to you. "To get to know your forest and the animals that live in it is fascinating. You can't compare that kind of intimate knowledge with going for a stroll in the country. It's awe-inspiring, magical. My favourite time is first thing in the morning, walking down a track and seeing a fox or a deer silhouetted against the early morning rising sun and totally unaware of my presence."

But if it's space and freedom you're after, why stop at a forest? Why not buy the ultimate - an island? Or are they the preserve of the mega- rich?

Farhad Vladi, a 51-year-old Canadian, attributes his love of islands to a boyhood romance that never wore off: "I read Robinson Crusoe when I was far too young and have been smitten with island fever ever since," he says. "When I was an economics student, I read about an island for sale that was part of the Seychelles group and set off to buy it. But when I got there I discovered they were asking $300,000, which I could not afford. So I did the next best thing. I found a buyer and used the finder's fee to build up my own capital so that one day I could buy my own island."

Thirty years later, having acted as agent in the sale of more than 500 islands to private individuals, Vladi has three islands to call his own: Sleepy Cove off the coast of Canada; Galloo Island in the US and a 2,000- acre island with sheep off the coast of New Zealand. He won't divulge price, but insists that you don't have to be film star-rich to buy an island. "In Canada, Scotland and Finland, you can pick up an island for pounds 25,000, or pounds 200,000 buys a first-class island with house, beaches, anchorage, proximity to mainland, nice elevations, a lake and a river." Indeed, this summer, 19 islands off Scotland's west coast are under the hammer, some with an asking price of no more than a medium-sized house in London.

Of course, getting to your island can cost a packet. Vladi must fly to the nearest city, drive to the nearest port and then take a small boat to his jetty. But cost aside, aren't island owners quite different to the kind of people that buy fields or forests? "Sure, there are crazy guys who buy islands because they want to rule like ego-maniacs over their kingdom, or because they are social misfits, but I am not like that," declares Vladi. "I use my islands to recharge my batteries just like anyone else. I just get to do it in perfect surroundings, encircled on all sides by blue sea, with no neighbours to bicker with and no government to tell me what to do. It's the closest you can get on earth to pure freedom. And what could be more thrilling than that?"