Property: The manor is reborn: Wealthy buyers are rediscovering the advantages, financial and social, of owning an estate, says Anne Spackman

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The Independent Online
At least a dozen people, each with a few million pounds to spend, are looking to buy an English country estate. By estate, they don't mean a large country house sitting in 40 acres, but a piece of the English countryside, complete with woodland, parkland, shooting, farms and cottages that traditionally have formed the community around a big house.

A few more people have already bought. The 1,000-acre Fosbury Manor estate in Wiltshire was sold last month by Humberts to a member of the Guinness family for a little more than pounds 4m. The prestigious Pickenham Hall estate of almost 4,000 acres in Norfolk, including the entire village of South Pickenham, was sold earlier this year to a foreign buyer for about double that price, making it one of the most expensive properties sold in Britain this year.

Knight, Frank & Rutley, which sold Pickenham, also has sold a similarly grand estate in Wiltshire, although the confidentiality clause extends not only to the identity of the owners but also to the name of the estate.

There are still wealthy individuals with money to spend, and about 70 per cent of them in the market for estates are English. Estates now offer a lucrative means of investment.

Christopher Wilson runs Wilson & Wilson, a company that finds country houses, farms and estates for wealthy buyers. He has recently bought two estates for just this kind of businessman.

One sold his advertising agency, another his property company. The former bought the Ashe Park Estate in Hampshire and the latter the beautiful Dodington Park estate in Gloucestershire, with a Palladian house and grounds landscaped by Capability Brown.

Dodington Park is a quintessentially Nineties purchase. Its new owner bought the house and cottages with 400 acres, but wants more land to restore the estate to almost the size it was under the Coddrington family.

Compare this with a classic Eighties purchaser such as Asil Nadir. He bought the spectacular mansion of Burley-on-the Hill in Rutland for about pounds 7m - without its 2,000-acre estate. He intended to turn the house into a hotel. He subsequently paid pounds 2m for extra land for golf courses, but his business collapsed before these could be developed. For him, as for many others, the 'estate' followed the private helicopter as the ultimate symbol of success.

While today's buyers are no doubt similarly motivated by pride, they are also more realistic - both about the reality of living in the countryside and the hard-nosed business of making their investments pay. Their notions of country life tend to be based more on experience than magazine features. And they see their estates as assets that must yield good returns.

One of the reasons country estates are so attractive to sound financial heads at the moment is because they can be highly profitable. Tony Morris-Eyton, of Knight Frank & Rutley, explains: 'Not only has agriculture picked up and farm incomes improved, but there are also fairly major tax benefits in buying an estate. You can roll money into farmland free of capital gains tax and pass it on free of inheritance tax.'

Christopher Wilson endorses that view. 'We are in the business of asset management,' he said. 'We give people a full report of the estate business, including a cash-flow analysis. In the Eighties, people bought a place because they wanted it. Now someone might look at a beautiful house with 500 acres on Dartmoor and say they can't buy it because it won't make money.

There are fewer than 50 estates of the size of Pickenham Hall left in Britain, and only six have come up for sale in the past 10 years. Many are sold privately, as was the case with Dodington Park, but there is still little to choose from.

One of the most prominent estates now up for sale is Corby Castle in Cumbria, which has been in the Howard family for all of its 382 years. The house itself is a spectacular Grade I early Georgian mansion with 13 bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a private chapel and two self-contained flats. The 676-acre estate includes a pheasant shoot, trout and salmon fishing on the Eden, farm cottages and a stable block used as workshops. 'It's a very complete estate,' Tony Morris-Eyton says. 'The house is very substantial, which does limit the market.' Knight Frank & Rutley is also selling the Hampton Court Estate in Herefordshire, with pheasant shoot, fishing and 650 acres of farmland. Together with Strutt & Parker they are selling the Braishfield Manor Estate in Hampshire, which is owned by David Goldstone of Regalian Properties.

A survey produced for the Historic Houses Association this summer called The Disintegration of a Heritage painted a sad picture of the future of England's mansions. It found that 460 houses owned by private families had been sold in the past 20 years because of the expense of running them.

While the houses alone may be struggling, it seems those still supported by a traditional estate may survive well into the 21st century.

(Photographs omitted)