Riding for a bad fall

A ban on hunting could hit house prices hard in certain parts of the country, says Anne Spackman
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A lady walked into John D Wood's Cirencester office one day. "How may we help you?" she was asked. "I'm a Tuesday woman," came the reply. Cirencester is hunting country. If you sell houses there you have to speak the language.

A Tuesday person wants a property in a part of the country where hunting takes place on that particular day. In hunting terms, the question "Where do you live?" might prompt the answer, "I live in Friday country," and everyone knows where this is.

At least, they do at the moment. As this hunting season draws to a close, the anti-hunt lobby is baying loudly. With a private member's bill in Parliament and a pledge from Labour to have a free vote on hunting in its first term in office, the antis are confident they have their quarry in their sights. Will people still want to buy in Tuesday country if it is the same as any other patch of English countryside? In Leicestershire and Gloucestershire, there are worries that they will not.

Leicestershire is prime hunting country. Home to the Quorn, the Cottesmore, the Fernie and the Belvoir, the local architecture has evolved around the horse. There have been far fewer conversions of stable blocks into cottages, or paddocks turned into tennis courts, than in comparable areas of rural England. House prices generally are in keeping with the East Midlands rather than the South-east, but houses with stables and paddocks carry a high premium.

Marilyn Clayton runs Country Property in Oakham, which specialises in the equestrian market. She lives in the Tuesday country of the Cottesmore with her husband Michael, who is editor of Horse and Hound magazine. Mrs Clayton said a detached cottage in the country around Melton Mowbray, with three or four bedrooms and a garden, would cost around £150,000. If the cottage had a paddock and stables its value would rise to about £250,000. "There is terrific demand," Mrs Clayton said. "This is the horsemen's area."

In Victorian times, wealthy families used to buy a hunting "box" for the season - a lodge-style house which did not require the full complement of staff. The railways ran "horse specials" so riders could put their animals on the train and travel out for a day's meet.

Now hunting people tend to move their families out to counties such as Leicestershire and Wiltshire and commute back to London for work. "The wives and children stay up here and have a horsey way of life," Mrs Clayton said. "The two-home scenario is diminishing."

Mr Clayton fears that a ban on hunting would hit the property market in their area quite hard. "In the Midlands there is a long tradition of people taking houses solely because of the hunting," he said. "No one is going to move to Leicestershire simply to ride."

George Pope, the joint chairman of John D Wood, still has a box in Leicestershire and hunts once or twice a week. In his office he has a 1921 advertisement for a Gloucestershire house, which is headlined "In the Heart of the Beaufort country". While houses do not parade their hunting credentials quite so publicly these days, the local hunts still feature at the top of the sporting particulars.

Mrs Clayton is selling Ayston Hall, near Uppingham in Rutland, jointly with Knight Frank & Rutley. It is a classic Georgian country house, with stunning reception rooms, listed Grade II and priced at £500,000. The next most important item featured in the details is its sporting potential: "Ayston Hall is in the Cottesmore hunt and within close distance of the Quorn, Fernie and Belvoir." There is no mention of local tennis courts or cricket pitches, or the prowess of Leicester Rugby Union Club.

The same priorities extend right down the market to the most humble country cottages. Do estate agents not find this a bit anachronistic?

Mr Pope thinks not. "A good set of sales particulars for a country property should refer to hunting and racing," he said. "Buyers may be attracted by being in one of the premier hunting countries."

In the hunting belt centred on Gloucestershire, some agents are worried. They fear buyers who now choose to live on the lands of the Beaufort, the VWH (Vale of the White Horse) and the Cotswold, might opt for counties nearer London if hunting is banned. A paddock and stables add £50,000- £75,000 to the value of a four-bedroom house in those areas at the moment.

George Windsor Clive of Christopher Stephenson International is an equestrian specialist in Gloucestershire. He says: "Hunting concentrates values in particular parts of the county. If there isn't any hunting, people might choose any nice bits of rural England. It will take away value from quite a lot of Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, but it will take a generation to do it."

Mr Windsor Clive has his first example of a hunting family bolting from Oxfordshire to Ireland in order to pre-empt any ban. He expects few families to move lock stock and barrel, but thinks some will choose Ireland for their second home.

Not everyone is so gloomy. Christoper Cornell of Knight Frank & Rutley says properties specifically geared for hunting would lose some of their exceptional appeal, but the effect of a ban would be greater on country life than on country houses. Geoffrey van Cutsem of Savills agrees. He thinks the numbers for whom hunting is a top priority are small compared with the numbers of keen horse riders. "It is but one part of the four- legged outlook," he said.

Like many in the country property world, he does not see a ban on hunting as inevitable: "It will not happen under a Conservative government and a new Labour government will have other priorities."

When a free vote on the hunting issue was taken in the House of Commons in 1992, hunt supporters won by a narrow 12 votes. When John McFall's private members' bill came up for second reading last month, it went through unopposed with the support of 30 Conservatives as well as the Labour Party.

That bill is too far down the private members' list to get any further. But the Labour Party is convinced there is now a majority in the Commons in favour of making hunting illegal. They say it is only a matter of time before MPs are given the chance to do so.