Magna Carta Island goes on sale
The historic island in Berkshire where Magna Carta was reputedly sealed has been put up for sale for £4m by Sotheby's. But what's it like to call such a momentous landmark home? Charlotte Philby talks to the current owner
Charlotte Philby is a writer at The Independent with a weekly column on motherhood in The Independent Magazine. She was shortlisted for the 2013 Cudlipp award for excellence in popular journalism for her undercover investigative work, and writes for various cultural magazines.
Tuesday 22 July 2014
Property for sale: in need of modernisation. Six bedrooms. Large dining room. Reception. Breakfast room. Swimming pool. 402m of riverbank. A moat. And a Charter Room housing the stone on which Magna Carta is believed to have been sealed on this very spot in 1215.
Househunters craving original features and a sense of history (at least those with a £4m-plus budget) could do worse than Magna Carta Island, a 3.725-acre residence on the banks of the River Thames which Sotheby's Realty claims "is widely acknowledged to have been the site of the signing of perhaps the most significant charter in history," paving the way for liberty and the established rule of law in England and Wales, and forming the basis for the Declaration of Independence in the United States. Boasting a main house, cottage, double garage and nearly four acres of gardens, the island is accessed, surprisingly, by land.
Visitors arriving from the main road, three miles from Staines, approach from the north bank past the Ankerwycke Estate, on which, explains Graham Cooper, its current owner, stands the remains of a nunnery where Henry VIII is reputed to have courted Anne Boleyn – offering a neat segue to the rich history of the island itself, which stands beyond a bridge accessed through a small woodland.
Magna Carta Island was privately owned until Sir Patrick Hannon, then chairman of the industrial combine Birmingham Small Arms (BSA), who had bought it in the late 1920s and restored the house and gardens to their former glory, gave the property to Buckinghamshire County Council in the days before the land became part of Berkshire.
"They didn't seem to know what to do with it," says Mr Cooper, who has lived here on and off since his parents bought the place in 1967, when he was 20. "There was a succession of tenants; last of all an American authoress called Miss Bigelow who had many poodles. Whenever someone came to collect the rent, she set the poodles on them. When she left, they let it lie fallow."
That was until the Coopers bought and revamped the place. It became the location for many a grand do hosted by the late Mrs Cooper, Graham's mother, "a tremendous party animal".
"She was a very keen car enthusiast who became a member of the Maserati owners club and would have a party at start of each season," Mr Cooper explains. There would be 40 vehicles parked in the driveway and revellers spilling through a huge hallway with its inglenook fireplace, and the same timber stairs that still lead to the Magna Carta room with its stained-glass windows, wooden beams, the painted crest of the barons looming large from the walls – and in the middle, the inscribed stone, celebrating the signing of the Great Charter.
Today, the dining room stands to the right of the same hallway with wood panelling, a grand stone fireplace and arched windows overlooking the terrace with its swimming pool, and extensive lawns tumbling down towards the water. In the summer in which the Coopers first moved in, they would look up from their lunch table and see families piling onto the grass with rugs and baskets for a riverside picnic, believing it still to be public land.
As well as the main house, which was built in 1834 by George Simon Harcourt, Lord of the Manor and then Sheriff of the County, a second cottage and double garage are part of the residential bundle, as well as a private mooring, built by Graham Cooper's father "so the Queen could land with ease and in sufficient grandeur" when she came to plant a walnut tree in the grounds as part of her River Progress in 1974.
It is "the provenance of the island", says estate agent Stuart Cole, that made it hard to value. "If you took it in isolation in the locality it would be worth much less than this. But [Sotheby's auction house] sold a copy of the Magna Carta for $20m recently, and that was just a piece of paper."
Whether King John, who met his rebellious barons in 1215 to seal the document widely regarded as the cornerstone of liberty in the English-speaking world, authenticated the deed here or on the mainland, is up for grabs.
Dr Louise Wilkinson, a reader in medieval history at Canterbury Christ Church University, explains: "All we know is that Magna Carta was sealed [not signed, which is a common misconception] by King John in June 1215. As to location, the 1215 charter itself says, it was 'given by our [King John's] hand in the meadow called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, on the fifteenth day of June in the seventeenth year of our reign'.
"I am not aware of any strictly contemporary evidence linking it specifically to what is now called 'Magna Carta Island," she adds, "though "it is very close to Runnymede."
Indeed, some experts question how great the charter really was. In his book A History of Britain, Simon Schama argued that Magna Carta – which focused on rights relating to barons – was not the birth certificate of freedom but rather the death certificate of despotism.
Nonetheless, with a guide price of £3.95m, Stuart Cole believes the island will soon be snapped up. "The phone has not stopped ringing," he says. "We've had calls from famous people and people around the world. "We think someone from an American legal company will be the eventual buyer – they are so tied into how [Magna Carta] built their constitution," he adds.
Whoever bags it, Graham Cooper believes will be a lucky soul: "It's a wonderful, warm friendly house with wonderful karma. I am single, retired, the house is far too big for me. When I go it will be a very sad day but there comes a time when it's time to move on."
In a new collection of flats, this first-floor two-bedroom apartment offers ample entertaining space and a prime view of Furze Green from a private balcony.
This three-bedroom stone-built cottage currently trades as the village store with a restaurant in the annexe and family accommodation on the upper floors.
Previously two semi-detached properties, this five-bedroom home is spread over three floors with a large breakfast kitchen, orangery, office and gym on the second floor.
This five-bedroom home enjoys countryside views over the Blyth estuary to Southwold, offering flexible living space with a ground-floor annexe - ideal for use as a holiday let.
Close to the market town of Eye, this four-bedroom detached home offers a double-height living room which takes the place of the original, 19th-century, chapel nave.
Dating back to the 19th century, this four-bedroom home needs modernising. Spanning three storeys, the red-brick house has a fireplace, a small terrace and a cellar.
Just outside of Cambridge, this single-storey home offers three double bedrooms, a living room with vaulted timber ceiling and ladder steps that lead to a mezzanine study area.
This six-bedroom Georgian home is on three floors with open fireplaces, a two oven Aga, an annexe, and cottage gardens with outbuildings and a car barn.
A former coach house, Glebe Farm Stable is now a three-bedroom cottage with a double car barn, an attached office, kennels and an outbuilding that's currently used as a gym.
Located beside an impressive Victorian viaduct, this four-bedroom home has an open-plan living area that is glazed on two sides, with skylights and high ceilings.
A former furniture workshop, this three-bedroom home has high ceilings and painted brick walls, in a village setting only fifteen miles from the coast.
This five-bedroom stone townhouse features a pine staircase and an Inglenuk fireplace, double doors from the lounge give access to an enclosed courtyard.
This five-bedroom, detached home blends traditional and modern design; the sleek kitchen features a gas hob and oven set within an exposed chimney breast.
Moored in Chelsea's Cheyne Walk, this houseboat offers two double bedrooms and a teak deck that's ideal for al-fresco dining.
Surrounded by woodland, this five-bedroom manor house has plenty of outdoor storage space in the form of three converted loose boxes, two smaller outhouses and a woodstore.
This six-bedroom home is set amongst three acres of grounds. Currently a large family home, Clift Hill has potential to make a B&B or countryside retreat, subject to change of use permissions.
This Grade II-listed three-bedroom home is situated on a private road, just a short walk from the sandy beaches of Frinton-on-Sea.
Less than five miles from Malmesbury, this four-bedroom cottage comes with equestrian facilities and gardens that extend to approximately three acres.
Spanning three storeys, this late-Victorian five-bedroom farmhouse is a spacious family home with a modern interior and B&B potential.
With an original church arch, this triplex one-bedroom church conversion has a light, spacious, feel and comes with a secure off-street parking space.
This recently-refurbished three-bedroom home has bi-folding doors that lead out to a decked seating area - ideal for alfresco dining this summer.
Well-located for coastal walks and popular restaurants, this detached four-bedroom home offers views over farmland, to the Solent, the Purbecks and Bournemouth.
If you love high ceilings, school conversions like this one are bang on the money. This two-bedroom flat is minutes from Burgess Park and the foodie haven at Borough Market.
Set within a church conversion in Bermondsey, this two-bedroom maisonette combines existing features, such as original arches and brickwork, with a contemporary finish.
In the pretty market town of Bungay, this grade II-listed Mill House is arranged over four floors, offering four bedrooms and three reception areas.
This four-bedroom Edwardian home offers a combination of original features and contemporary design after a renovation by the current owners.
This four-bedroom home offers a vaulted ceiling in a breakfast room that's ideal for summer entertaining with doors that open to the patio and garden.
On the market for the first time in more than 50 years, this six-bedroom home is a project with vast potential - spread over three floors of living space.
This five-bedroom home comes with a range of outbuildings including a large barn which could be converted into a self-contained granny-flat or rental.
Surrounded by rolling countryside, this four-bedroom barn conversion comes with a self-contained, one-bedroom annexe that could serve as an office or a holiday let.
Located near Harrogate town centre, this five-bedroom Victorian terrace is arranged over three storeys while a current study serves as an optional sixth bedroom.
A ground-floor flat in a country house, located a mile from Sway; this two-bedroom home would make an ideal weekend retreat on the edge of the New Forest.
On a popular residential lane in Caterham on the Hill, this four-bedroom family home offers a secluded garden and a convenient location for local schools and public transport.
Just a short walk from Westerham green, this three-bedroom cottage has a light kitchen with exposed brickwork and double doors that lead to a south-facing garden.
In a prime spot opposite the River Thames, this one-bedroom flat has an 18sq ft reception room with glass doors that open out to a private terrace.
Set in the hills above Llanwrda Village, west Wales, this 18th-century three-bedroom farmhouse has holiday-let potential from a separate barn conversion and annexe.
This charming end-of-terrace townhouse is arranged over three floors, with two double bedrooms and a private courtyard garden located at the rear of the property.
Located in the University area, this semi-detached five-bedroom home is arranged over three floors - there's even a rear garden and off-road parking too.
Only a few minutes' drive from the charming town of Marlow, this two-bedroom home sits on the private riverside estate of Harleyford.
This detached four-bedroom home in Middleyard is arranged over two floors, with features that include a wood-burning stove and bespoke oak staircase.
In a row of eight detached Georgian residences, this five-bedroom home offers views of The Sound, Mount Edgcumbe and Cornwall from its impressive veranda and full-length balcony.
If you love cooking for friends this two-bedroom flat - complete with views of the iconic Battersea Power Station and an open-plan kitchen/dining area - will go down a treat.
Located above Grasmere village, this five-bedroom home is arranged over three floors and offers countryside views across Grasmere Lake towards Silver Howe.
This four-bedroom detached home comes with a double carport, useful workshop, garden and two walkways that offer views of the adjacent countryside.
With space for an equestrian business, a greenhouse for growing your own veg, a wine store and a gym; this five-bedroom home has all the ingredients for a country retreat.
The decked roof terrace of this two-bedroom flat is perfect for summer drinks while large windows and ample storage space make for a light and spacious interior.
Set sail for this four-bedroom farmhouse in Cowes. With five acres of land and an indoor pool, this home oozes character. There is even potential to let a one-bedroom annexe.
Surrounded by approximately 15 acres of grounds, this six-bedroom grade II-listed home has been extensively refurbished yet retains many period features.
This four-bedroom home comes with a two-bedroom cottage and commercial office, with planning to extend, in a stunning courtyard setting.
In a pretty Norfolk village, this four-bedroom family home is surrounded by landscaped gardens, with even a self-contained annex for guests.
A few miles from the seaside at Perranporth, this four-bedroom farmhouse sits amongst nine acres of idyllic grounds - including a lake and two barns used as holiday lets.
This five-bedroom home is arranged over three floors of a converted Victorian hospital, offering spectacular views of the Pentland Hills - only three miles from the city centre.
This four-bedroom detached home comes with grounds that span to approximately 2.5 acres, as well as two large patio areas and a double garage.
This four-bedroom cottage is a Grade II-listed town house, well-located for the thriving market town of Nailsworth.
A four-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a stunning period property in North Yorkshire, with two kitchens and a large south-west facing garden.
This high-spec two-bedroom home is part of a smart collection of new flats at Beaufort Park and has a large decked balcony that's perfect for summer drinks.
Capitalise on the fabulous views of Trevone Bay by taking two homes and creating one spacious boutique B&B. Just a cliff-top walk from Padstow.
Overlooking a golf course, this six-bedroom Edwardian detached home spans four storeys and retains many period features including the original, operational servants' bells...
On the edge of the city, this six-bedroom home comes with an outdoor swimming pool and a large garage block that has annexe potential.
In a Grade II-listed manor just outside of Bath, this three-bedroom home is arranged on two floors with a skylight in a vaulted roof line.
Life & Style blogs
More Britons believe that multiculturalism makes the country worse - not better, says poll
Osborne to cap family benefits at £23,000 – announced ahead of his post-election Budget
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture
Sickness and disability benefits could be reduced by £30 a week as part of £12bn welfare cuts
- 1 Autistic teenager beaten up by bullies makes them watch 20-minute video about autism
- 3 Chris Moyles reportedly set to make radio comeback with new breakfast show on XFM
- 4 The Greece debt crisis explained in less than 100 words
£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...
£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...
£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...
£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...