Manors from heaven

Acres of land, period features, a tennis court or two... but you don't have to be a millionaire to live like a lord.
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The Independent Online

Living a grand life in the country is an expensive affair. To do it properly would require some serious acquisitions: acres of land, maybe a woodland or two, more bedrooms than you can count on your fingers, and an elegant drawing room with double-height sash windows (at least four, for symmetry's sake) to enable suitably grand vistas across one's splendid new estate. The world of the manor house is rarefied indeed; few can stump up the required cash. But for many of Britain's most beautiful houses, that is something of a problem.

No one wants to see these magnificent and often historic buildings go to ruin, yet their upkeep is often too much for a single owner. Premiership footballers seem to prefer starting from scratch and creating a neo-classical/baroque dog's dinner. Entrepreneurs and City workers tend to be far too shrewd to take on such a burden. They would run a mile at the prospect of all that painstaking restoration and never-ending maintenance. But that is where the property developer comes in - not to demolish and start again, but to spread it all about and let 20-odd people share the load, rather than one.

The Manor, near Bury St Edmunds, iscurrently being converted into 10 swish new apartments. The building is big enough for these apartments to have 22 bedrooms between them, while retaining that opulent feeling of space that the original rooms had. All the period details remain, from the stone mullion windows and ornate cornices to the glazed ceramic bricks and delicate wood carvings. At its centre is a grand oak staircasecrowned by a spectacular skylight.

Although in the past many big houses have been insensitively carved up, this is one restoration with only half an eye on the profit. Real care has been taken on retaining these rooms and their details - probably a condition of the original purchase - and the resulting apartments work so well, they almost have a purpose-built look to them.

The rub with all of these split houses, though, is the estate, or management, charge. At The Manor it ranges from £75 to £250 a month depending on the size of the space owned, but the total amount pooled from this fund is nearly £22,000 a year - a hefty whack for one person to shell out just to keep the house ticking along.

Dividing up a manor house may seem like a lazy option (rather than trying to retain it as a single house), but for many properties, the roar of the developer's bulldozer can spell the beginning of a new era. At Frant Court, just over the Sussex border near Tunbridge Wells, the creation of nine apartments from the original manor house and 14 town houses within the grounds helped save this property from dereliction.

Canning Manor, its original name, had its heyday in 1914 when Gertrude Jekyll remodelled the nine acres of gardens and woodland, but its fortunes changed and within decades it had been sold off as a home for naughty girls and was finally abandoned. The house began to decay and the garden was reclaimed by nature until, in 2000, a developer bought it and began to rejuvenate the estate.

The relatively small number of residents ensures that summer afternoons in the communal grounds are never spent jostling for elbow room. The new town houses are smart, but the best views of the garden are to be had from the manor house, which also retains its original generous room sizes and period touches. Hamptons is selling number 12, a three-bedroom, second-floor apartment that has views across the village green as well as towards Ashdown Forest.

Part of Frant Court's appeal is the restored Jekyll garden that winds its way across formal terraces and down through woodland to a secret pond with stepping stones. No doubt the developer spent thousands on this impressive makeover - English Heritage was breathing down their neck to ensure Ms Jekyll's layout was carefully maintained - but with a £4m difference between the purchase price of the estate and the selling price of the finished properties, it's easy to see why developers snap up these mouldering mounds and take on the fight with the local planning officers. They are a gold mine.

Another grand building that's benefited from being divided up is the handsome Marley House, near South Brent in Devon. Courtyard Cloisters is a three-bedroom apartment on the ground floor and, as the name suggests, it's approached on two sides by some graceful arches. Many of the rooms have original sash windows and shutters that overlook the cloisters, which act as the perfect frame for the garden views.

Marley House has 30 acres of grounds, including a tennis court and lake, but if the prospect of bumping into the odd resident offends you, this apartment also comes with a private garden. The estate charge is £120 a month, but apart from covering the usual maintenance of the communal grounds, it also pays for the building insurance and some annual decorating - things you'd need to budget for anyway.

At £225,000, this mini-mansion has got to be a good deal. It's difficult to imagine any house in the 1 per cent stamp-duty bracket that offers as much space and atmosphere as this. Owning a portion of a once-great house can translate your hard-earned cash into a little slice of paradise. Lack of space won't be an issue and the quota of period details is often very high.

It's an ever-popular market and developers are keen to exploit all the charms of these properties, being less inclined nowadays to slap up the plasterboard and stick in plastic windows. Many of these megaliths are listed and come with building restrictions, but developers also understand their buyers' weaknesses. It's all about lifestyle, and a sensitive conversion coupled with a seductive sales brochure will convert that extra attention to detail into a healthier asking price.

Very few of us will ever be lord or lady of all we survey, but owning a piece of an imposing country pile at least allows us some space for reverie. It's the perfect antidote to all those city-centre serviced apartments that come with similar monthly charges.

Top of the pile: three palatial properties

The Manor, near Herringswell, between Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge, includes 10 new apartments and converted outbuildings. Grounds include residents' parking, lush lawns and ancient woodland. Some apartments feature terraces and roof gardens. Management charges range from £900 pa for a one-bedroom apartment with 675sq ft to £3,000 pa for a spacious three-bed apartment with 2,400 sq ft. Prices range from £245,000 to £600,000. Contact Bidwells on 01223 841 842 or at

Built in 1875 in the Arts & Crafts style, Frant Court is listed Grade II and dominates the green in Frant, a Kent/Sussex border village. This second-floor apartment has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen/ breakfast room, large drawing room, leaded windows and spectacular views over communal gardens that include a tennis court. It comes with two parking spaces and the monthly management charge is £208. Frant has two pubs, an excellent primary school and a village shop. The mainline station is one mile away with trains into London taking 55 minutes. Tunbridge Wells is two miles away. The apartment is £375,000 through Hamptons (; 01892 516 611).

Courtyard Cloisters is a ground-floor apartment in Marley House, a Grade II*-listed Georgian mansion in south Devon. It has three bedrooms, two reception rooms and two bathrooms. There's a private garden and 30 acres of communal grounds. Shops, post office and school are two miles away. Courtyard Cloisters is £225,000 through Luscombe Maye (; 01364 646170).