More than a lick of paint and a new loo

Amanda Seidl on folk who do up country houses
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The Independent Online
As Jane Austin fever continues to sweep the nation, it is perhaps predictable that sales of Georgian country houses should be soaring. But not many people can afford to buy, let alone maintain, houses the size of Pemberley or Rosings Park in Pride and Prejudice. Enter the developers who are making it possible for those who don't have a fortune to enjoy the style and splendour of a great house - provided they are willing to share it.

You couldn't get more stylish than the spectacular 17th-century Burley on the Hill near Oakham in Rutland. With sweeping views of Rutland Water and 400 acres of parkland, Burley is one of the finest country houses in England, but like so many of its peers, it had fallen into disrepair. Briefly the home of Cypriot tycoon Asil Nadir, Burley was bought three years ago by the acknowledged doyen of country house restoration, Kit Martin, who has restored and developed it.

Despite the isolated location and prices of between pounds 295,000 and pounds 495,000 for the main house apartments, all 22 units have been sold even though work is not yet complete. Apart from the house's stunning situation, the popularity of the development is due to Martin's sympathetic conversion, which created elegant and spacious houses in the main wings of the mansion and cottages with gardens in the service buildings. He even returned deer to the deer park.

"It is a tremendous privilege to live in a house like this," says Tony Attwood, who bought Church Wing last year. "Instead of paying for a large garden and stables we don't use, we have put all our money into this unique house and have the use of a 400-acre estate as our back garden."

During the recession, Mr Martin was almost alone in taking on great country houses for conversion. Burley was his 10th project and he is already working on his fourth Scottish conversion - the 150-acre Formakin estate near Glasgow, designed by Robert Lorimer in the 1900s but never completed. Prices start at pounds 125,000 for the two-bedroom Byre House.

Converting country mansions is increasing due to the number of suitable premises coming on the market. Many great houses were converted to institutional use during and after the Second World War, and during the Eighties, many more were turned into offices or training centres. But the recession has reduced demand for both offices and training establishments, while the rationalisation of the Health Service has made many isolated hospitals redundant.

At the same time, the public's appetite for gracious living has been assisted by a general dissatisfaction with the standard and uniformity of new houses. "In the late Eighties, I noticed that while nobody seemed to have any money for new houses, there was always plenty of demand for historic properties," says Andrew Murphy of Legion Homes. Mr Murphy's observation led him to buy Wormleybury in Hertfordshire, a Grade I-listed Georgian manor house that could have been the model for Mr Bingley's Netherfield Hall in Pride & Prejudice.

Set in 40 acres of parkland complete with lake, ancient trees and yew walk, Wormleybury provides the space and views lost long ago to most properties in the crowded M25 commuter belt. The principal rooms, designed by Robert Adam, form the communal entrance hall and the living rooms for the main apartment. Light floods through the sash windows illuminating the carefully restored stucco designs in the Eating Room which comes fully decorated - including original paintings by Angelica Kauffmann.

Incorporating the conveniences of modern living into historic houses is not easy, and compromises have to be made. Mr Murphy has tried to keep the ground and first-floor living rooms intact while sacrificing the lower and upper floors for bedrooms with en suite bathrooms. The apartments are duplex, which has meant fitting in extra staircases and lobbies, something frowned upon by the Georgian Group.

"It is important to work with the grain of the house," says Neil Burton of the Georgian Group, which advises the Government and councils on all aspects relating to Georgian buildings. But because most great houses have at least four storeys, vertical conversion creates apartments with a daunting number of stairs.

The stairs at Wormleybury have not deterred many prospective buyers, although one octogenarian was puffing a little on the third ascent, admits Murphy. All but three of the apartments are sold or under offer to a mix of buyers - from a young couple expecting their first child to an expatriate banker.

"The funny thing is that many of the people attracted to country-house conversions are the sort of people who, two centuries ago, would have lived in a big house," says Mr Burton.

While Mr Murphy has spent more than pounds 1 million restoring the house and converting the interior into nine apartments, the previous owners have built themselves a house in the former orangery and are converting the courtyard to mews-style houses. Five new houses have also been built and sold in the paddock beyond the gardener's cottage so that Wormleybury will soon support a cosy hamlet around St Lawrence's Church.

From the builder's point of view, it makes sense to put in as many units as English Heritage and local planners will allow, and as long as the new houses do not intrude on the setting of the great house, there are benefits, too: maintenance costs can be spread more thinly.

The Georgian Group is not enthusiastic about additional houses in the grounds of listed houses. "We are much happier about the conversion of houses to multiple occupancy than conversion to an institutional use, because it is a fairly low-intensity use," explains Mr Burton. "But we are against enabling development on the whole because it is almost impossible to build new houses in the grounds without compromising the character of the original house."

Undaunted by the problems thrown up by conservationists, Mr Murphy is looking for another country house to convert. "It definitely beats sitting in a portable office on a housing site," he says.