A retreat far from the madding crowd

At the end of mud tracks, on the edge of woods and cliffs, isolated houses are commanding high prices. And as Rosalind Russell discovers, the more basic they are the better
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The Independent Online
THE COTTAGE lies at the end of a mile-long track which could seriously damage the undercarriage of a low-slung sports car. It has no electricity, it is lit by gaslamp and is not connected to mains drainage. The nearest pub, the Axe and Compass, is a thirsty mile away. Yet when the house went on the market six weeks ago at a guide price of pounds 200,000, it drew 600 enquiries. Even the estate agent was lost for words. Momentarily. That was 10 times more interest than would usually be expected for a house in the middle of nowhere. Any reader trying for the past year to sell a home ablaze with halogen lights, all mod cons, BR station walking distance, Waitrose five mins, may wonder where they have gone wrong.

How far will you go to escape the rest of the human race? And how much are you prepared to pay to live there? A long way and large amounts, appear to be the answer.

In the clamour to buy Winspit Cottage, the agent sat back beaming and invited best and final offers. Thinking of those with professional reasons for isolation, Humberts' John Young wondered fleetingly at the cottage's appeal: "It isn't even the kind of house that would suit a writer. You could put in a generator, but they are tricky for running a word processor."

What had buyers beating a path to the door, however, was the location. Winspit Cottage - built originally as two rooms and a lean-to by a quarryman 300 years ago - stands within wave-crashing earshot of a Dorset cove, perched on a cliff 100 yards from the sea, and is set in three and a half acres. In Henry VIII's time, the hills either side of the cottage were cropped with flax.

"Very dramatic," comments Young. "The sound of crashing waves and so on. The area is heavily protected, nothing else can be built there. It is very unusual. When we set the price, it was with the intention of sorting out the men from the boys. We still got a lot of men... more than a dozen and all deadly serious. Emotions generally run pretty high in a situation like this. But this time, everyone has been polite, understanding and has accepted the position." In the event, the sealed bids were considered and an offer - in excess of the asking price - was accepted by the owner, art dealer John Kasmin, who for many years was David Hockney's agent. It was a condition of the offer that the amount and the buyers' identities should not be revealed. Their retreat from the madding crowd is assured.

Winspit has of course changed from its original form. A hundred and forty years after the cottage was first built, it was extended with the addition of another cottage and became home to the exciseman who patrolled this stretch of coast looking for smugglers. It has three bedrooms, a study and a separate studio. The telephone is connected. Built of Purbeck stone, with a stone-tiled roof, the cottages are now one and have been modernised - up to a point. Should the new owners wish to install mains electricity, it could cost around pounds 30,000: a month's salary to a PowerGen director, perhaps, but a lifetime's savings to anyone else.

John Kasmin, who owned the house for 17 years, removed the generator which previous owners had installed. "It was next to useless," he explains. "The battery would go dead and it's no joke lugging a car battery a mile along the track. I rapidly got fed up with it. When I was first married, we lived in a house in Fouberts Place, off Regent Street, in London, which in 1958 still had gas lamps, so I was used to them.

Everyone who has walked the Dorset coastal path knows Winspit. And as no building is allowed six miles either way, it will remain an isolated feature of the landscape. It has gone, says Kasmin, to the people who wanted it most. "There are a lot of disappointed people," he acknowledges. "It is no surprise to me that the cottage attracted such interest. Despite its drawbacks, I have adored the house. I shall miss it. Now that I don't have my gallery in Bond Street I spend a lot of time in New Zealand which has everything Winspit has and more: it's isolated and fabulous, with a mile of beach per inhabitant. I had 17 wonderful years in the cottage and I don't feel sad. I'm 60 now and it's not a place to be alone and old."

John Kasmin's experience is by no means unusual. When the owners of Hill End House, an unmodernised property in half an acre of garden in Hardington Mandeville, near Yeovil, Somerset, put the house up for sale, they had so many enquiries, their agent suggested a private auction. It was held in the offices of their solicitor and in the end bidding was between six invited prospective buyers, whittled down from an initial enquiry list of over 100.

The price accepted was considerably more than the guide price of pounds 75,000, says Andrew Booth of estate agents and auctioneers Symonds & Sampson's. Buyers were put off neither by the condition of the four-bedroom house, or by its situation on the edge of a very small and sleepy village. Quite the opposite in fact.

Four weeks ago, Claudia and Peter Watson agreed to buy The Cottage near Malmesbury, in Wiltshire, before they had even stepped over the doorstep. The tiny black and white period cottage is in the middle of acre of garden and woodlands, at the end of a farm track. It's a mile and a half from the nearest village and has attracted a great deal of interest. It was on the market with Hamptons at pounds 125,000. It was exactly what the Watsons - who run their own interior design and antiques business - were looking for. "It didn't worry us what the inside would be like. Because we are designers, we knew exactly what we would do to it. We will put in a large farmhouse kitchen, an ingle-nook fireplace and extend it. It will be quite a challenge but should be ready within three months."

Not that the Watsons are fleeing the city. They have been living in the Cotswolds, in a village so small it doesn't have a shop or a pub. "We just don't want to hear people," explains Claudia. The couple hope to swap the sound of young voices for the cries of owl and fox. "It's not that I dislike children - we have grown up ones of our own - it's just that I don't want to hear other people's.

"The Cottage grounds are stunning, you can't see anyone because it's surrounded by woods. We already have a house in the middle of nowhere in France, so we wanted our home here to be like that too."

From the terrace of The Ledges, a former farm worker's cottage, the only voices you're likely to hear are the plaintive bleats of the neighbours - the sheep. The single-storey, three-bedroom house on the edge of the Cotswold escarpment is two miles from Broadway and half a mile from its nearest neighbours.

"It's up a mile and a half long track which in winter would require a four-wheel drive in winter," says Hamptons' Blair Harding. "But the views are stunning and there has been no shortage of enquiries. People may initially be surprised at the high price offers around pounds 300,000 - but they are prepared to pay to be away from everyone else."

As for Dorset agents Humberts, they have - regretfully - told all latecomers that, sorry, Winspit Cottage has been sold. "I could do with another half dozen properties just like it," says a wistful John Young. !