Country living, home comforts

Listed properties and their grounds are being developed for new housing, writes Penny Jackson
Click to follow
Once a week, Fred McFarlane leaves the flower beds of Burton Park in West Sussex for a good nose around the 16th-century tied cottage that was his home for more than 30 years. He likes to keep pace with its transformation from a damp, two-bedroom house into one worth more than half a million pounds. "When I lived there it was divided into three but now it has been completely gutted so I can hardly recognise it. It used to get quite damp because the front had an old red-brick floor. I used to feed my family from the garden, but that has been bulldozed. I notice they have kept one shrub, though."

Mr McFarlane was the head gardener when the girls' school at Burton Park closed down four years ago. Now he alone keeps the gardens tidy as the magnificent Grade 1 mansion house is restored and new homes replace the old science block. At Lodge Green, in a secluded corner of the 150 acres of parkland, "Fred's Cottage", as it is fondly known, is the oldest of the five being restored. The only older building in the park is the 11th- century church. Seven new houses are being added to the hamlet that once served the estate.

Burton Park, with its medieval history, ancient trees, 18th-century ornamental lake and rare wildlife, is certainly unique, but the planning quid pro quo which provides developers with the rare chance to build in the countryside in return for rescuing a house for the national heritage has become something of a trend. Until recently grand houses have struggled to survive as hotels, leisure centres and, of course, schools.

A number of developers are working on Burton Park. Michael J Wilson, an architect who specialises in restoration, is converting the Palladian mansion into 12 apartments. His work drew the attention of thieves who nearly got away with part of the magnificent Regency staircase; it was eventually tracked down to a lock-up in Portsmouth.Bondlands is providing nine homes adjoining the stable courtyard, while McAlpine is departing from its usual large developments to build 10 cottages around the original walled garden, which will be restored for the use of the owners.

Life on a country estate does not come at a snip and prices start at pounds 175,000 in the stable courtyard, rising to pounds 525,000 for a house at Lodge Green. It is this small group of houses, clustered around the village green and close to the nature reserve, with its rare marsh orchids, that comes closest to village life, albeit of a private, managed kind. Bewley Homes had a reservation for every house before the brochure was printed. They seem to have tapped into the insatiable demand for country living without the muck and isolation.

Derek Moore was one of the first to put his name down on the spur of the moment. "We used to bring the children for walks here and particularly loved the thought that we could buy a new house with some degree of customisation in a place with a history that goes back so far."

And so far, Lodge Green has avoided becoming an early retirement community or a sterile weekend haunt. There are families moving in. Two of the children will be boosting numbers at the local primary school in Duncton. For Martin Dadswell, whose house is closest to the estate, this is the ultimate justification for the development. "There are only 45 to 50 children at the school and the village needs regenerating. The village hall is moving into the sports pavilion which is very close to Burton Park, so it could become a gathering place."

Similar schemes have shown that the attractions of life in the countryside, rather than country life, are that they are risk-free in a setting of some gentility. People who have spent their lives in rambling old houses are happy to trade down to something new with character at the end of an impressive driveway.

At Northwick Park in Gloucestershire, Laura Nudd of Hamptons International says there are only a few people with families. "We have a mix in the mansion house which includes foreign buyers, diplomats and MPs looking for bolt-holes, while the empty-nesters opt for the new build. They like the acres of grounds without the worry of a garden or leaving the house when they go away."

Tim McEvoy, sales and marketing director of Berkeley Homes, Hampshire, tells a similar story. The conversion of Leydene House, East Meon into four wings with a converted stable block alongside is selling mostly to the late-middle aged. But Berkeley is trying to catch the family market by marketing heavily in Surrey the 20 detached houses being built around the grounds. "The open areas are sufficiently far from the houses for the kids not to annoy anyone," he adds.

At Burton Park, the parkland is protected, which means that tennis courts are the only leisure facilities allowed. Swimming pools are out. Fred McFarlane is watching with interest the restoration of the old lily pond. "The school used that as a learning pool. The senior girls would swim in the lake."