Property: A home on the golf range: At Overstone Park, you can exercise to your heart's content, and you'll never have to mow a lawn, says Anne Spackman

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The Independent Online
THE manager of the Watermark Club at Overstone Park in Northampton pointed at the screen on the exercise bike that I was pedalling hard. 'Look,' he said kindly, 'you've used up three calories.

'In future we will also be able to use these screens to deliver marketing information,' he continued. 'And we can have messages saying, 'Have you booked up for Christmas lunch?' '

Christmas lunch? It is difficult to imagine the people participating in what Watermark's owner, Jeremy Paxton, describes as 'the Watermark way of life' indulging in roast potatoes and pudding. 'Have you booked up for new year aerobics?' might be more appropriate.

Having said that, Overstone Park is not a health farm. The culture of the place is less that of a gym than of an American country club, where wealthy families go to relax at weekends. The difference is that in the English version you buy a second home on site. As well as an exercise room there are tennis courts, swimming pool and a golf course, where plenty of late- middle-agers were happily playing in the autumn sunshine when I visited.

The Watermark concept fits in somewhere between a weekend cottage and a timeshare. Those with spare cash can buy a second home in which to spend their weekends relaxing and playing sports without the hassle of having to cut the grass or sweep the leaves.

There are three Watermark sites in England: at Buckden Marina in Cambridgeshire, South Cerney in the Cotswolds and Overstone Park. Each has a different central sporting emphasis. At Overstone, it is golf, while the other sites concentrate on sailing and watersports. But the rest of the package is the same.

The homes are wooden 'lodges', usually in New England clapboard style, with three bedrooms, a large living room, kitchen, cloakroom and two bathrooms. At Overstone Park the average price is about pounds 85,000 to pounds 90,000. So far 110 out of 122 have been sold.

In addition, every owner pays a hefty service charge of pounds 2,000 a year, which includes ground rent for the use of the communal facilities and services such as 24-hour security. The central building, which houses the gym and swimming pool, also has a large restaurant, sauna and steam rooms.

The emphasis is on action. Although Mr Paxton is anxious to avoid a Club Med-style regime, he has set up the resorts for people like himself, who like to keep busy.

Mr Paxton is the ultimate action man. He springs, rather than walks. It would be tempting to describe him as driven if it was not for the fact that he flies himself around in a helicopter. He spotted the Overstone site - 200 acres of beautiful parkland formerly owned by Lord Northampton - when he stopped to refuel at nearby Sywell.

After a career as a top-class waterskier, Mr Paxton went into sports magazines. United Newspapers bought out his publishing business at the end of 1988, providing him with enough capital to start the Watermark business.

The timing of the buyout was perfect. If it had come a year earlier, he might have started buying land at the peak of the market and gone the way of most developers. As it was, by the time he had found his first sites, land prices had crashed and he was one of the few buyers in the market.

Within five years he plans to have 3,000 to 4,000 lodges in Britain and, in addition to residents, 6,000 members of the Watermark Club, who join up for the sport but do not own a lodge. All this and he is still just 34 years of age.

Mr Paxton had the idea of Watermark while living in Florida, and his ambitions are expressed in the jargon of the American leisure industry. 'I want to establish Watermark as a way of life for people,' he says.

He certainly has done that for some of his customers. Clive Macewan owned a villa in Spain and a farmhouse in France before buying a lodge at South Cerney. He says the lodge is more convenient and fun.

'When I arrive on a Friday, I open the door, drop off my bag and there is nothing left but to decide what to do,' he says. 'You can go waterskiing, play golf, go for a bike ride or just go to the pub. When I'm there, I feel I am on holiday.'

Mr Macewan owned his French farmhouse in the Tarn valley with his sister-in-law. When they sold he bought a Watermark lodge at South Cerney, because he is keen on watersports, and she bought a lodge at Overstone Park.

'I much prefer to have the lodge than any stone cottage where I have to worry about the thatch or the tiles. Perhaps I'm getting too old for gardening and maintenance,' he says.

Mr Macewan, 51, who lives in London, is a typical Watermark owner. Most are aged between 40 and 55 and have teenage or grown-up children who enjoy using the facilities as much as their parents.

Mr Paxton, who has three children, is keen to attract younger buyers as well. He is launching the Watermark Warriors, an activity club aimed at keeping youngsters and their parents happy. 'We are not in the development business,' he says. 'We are in the entertainment business.'

Watermark Leisure 0666 510777.

(Photograph omitted)

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