While other property markets are stagnating, things in the country are ticking over very nicely indeed. Go on – buy a farm, says Clive Aslet
There are few more enjoyable pastimes than watching rich people spending money. The other day I was in Devon, eating dinner with the owner of a perfectly respectable barn conversion, looking out on a landscape that, at that hour of the evening, was limitlessly black except for the stars. We ate exceptionally well, fuelled on claret that would have been improved by an ice cube – it had been left to stand a little too long by the Aga. Comfort reigned. But my host’s present accommodation is only temporary. The real house is next door, a glorious place built round a courtyard – far from flashy but exquisitely built out of the local granite and to be fitted out in style. If I say that this man has built a carpenter’s shop to make the panelling, you’ll get the picture.
Next morning, we stomped around the building site, disturbing a crow that had got into the unfinished drawing room. Nothing has been overlooked. In what will be the study, a beam has been made slightly thicker in the middle than at the sides: the idea is to suggest that it has sagged after 400 years. When finished, this will be a beautiful house. It will overlook remarkable gardens – not much to look at at present, but a succession of ponds comprises the remains of an elaborate water system devised by the engineer who worked for William III at Hampton Court. They will all be restored.
Meanwhile, my host is busy putting more Devon banks into fields, to restore them to the size that they appear on ancient Ordnance Survey maps, and making gateways smaller, so that large, modern tractors can’t use them. He’s quite right. The old ways were the best. It’s nice that he can afford them.
All this reminded me of a salient fact about the property market. You can hardly pick up a newspaper these days without wanting to cut your throat, the gloom is so all-pervasive. Just because banks won’t provide 100 per cent, let alone 125 per cent (bless the Northern Rock), mortgages any more, you’d have thought the entire capitalist system had come to an end. At the lower end, there may be a wobble, or even a fall.
The feelgood factor generated by a combination of low interest rates and helium-filled house prices has flown away – and that particular swallow won’t be coming back for quite a few years (four, in the opinion of one of my estate-agent friends.) But Humpty Dumpty is still on his wall at the top. The number of really good country houses, in the right place, is limited – as bypasses, housing estates, street lighting and flight paths whittle away at the peace of the countryside year by year, their availability is falling.
The amount of beats on a premium trout river is limited. Longparish House has the River Test running past the bottom of its garden. It’s a gorgeous place: watermeadows, stabling, 173 acres of rolling farmland, the lot. Savills has it on its books at £9 million, and I’d be surprised if they didn’t get it. Not far away, Knight Frank is offering a house in Salisbury’s Cathedral Close: those don’t come up every day, either. When they do, as in this case, you have to pay over £5 million.
People may balk at a luxury holiday: it doesn’t look good if you’re living like Edward VII when others are tightening their belts, and besides, you don’t have to be paranoid to want to stay at your desk. Houses are a different matter. As with love affairs, your chance may only come once. As with women, a chap has to move quickly, and possibly spend more than he meant to, if he wants to capture a particuarly lovely specimen.
The country garden, the sort tended to by multiple gardeners, continues to bloom. And farmland isn’t so much blooming, but booming. According to James Laing of Strutt & Parker, who sells more of it than anyone else in the UK, it ‘has gone from £3,000 to £7,000 in three years’. This is, to put it mildly, a bit of a change for rural areas, habituated to neglect and gloom as the City of London gushed with money, and agriculture went through the floor. Now country dwellers are as happy as larks, just when most other parts of the economy are clustering around the lavatory bowl, expecting to be sick.
The reason? Farming has, incredibly, started to make business sense. China wants to eat hamburgers. Australia is gripped by the worst drought it has ever seen. The United States, not wanting to be in thrall to the Middle East, is making a dash for biofuels, taking what would otherwise have been productive farmland out of service. The result is that the price of wheat has soared. Having traded at £60 a tonne in 2005, it now stands at £180 a tonne. And the only way it’s heading is north.
So hurry along to the 1,135-acre Morval Estate near Looe in Cornwall. Admittedly, the three farms are let, with the tenants having the right for their children and randchildren to take over. But who knows? Maybe their sons will want to do something else. Maybe one of them could be tempted to move out of one of the very nice farmhouses, with their fabulous granite barns – very nice potential for making a smart country place. Or you might get planning permission for a new house, providing it was outstand
ing architecturally and/or environmentally. Or you invest in the shoot, which, with a deep, wooded valley, could become something spectacular. All of these would add value. Savills want £10 million for the place. Again, I reckon they’ll get it.