The best treat­ment for stately piles

You’ve bought your coun­try house. Now, dis­cover how to make it pay. Caro­line McGhie re­ports

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - Saving Grace -

Down a long, rut­ted drive in a forgotten cor­ner of Nor­folk, be­hind an av­enue of pol­larded trees and box hedg­ing, Roy Kent ad­mires the crenel­lated façade of his El­iz­a­bethan manor house. He swapped his five-storey, Vic­to­rian town­house in Ken­tish Town, north Lon­don, for this pile in 1993. “It was a huge gam­ble, be­cause we were cut­ting our­selves off from all our con­tacts in Lon­don. But I had al­ways wanted an early English house, and Nor­folk was so un­spoilt. Ev­ery­where else felt over­gen­tri­fied.”

When he bought Felm­ing­ham Hall, near Ayl­sham, it was a run-down, 12bed­room ho­tel, but he turned it back into the manor house it was sup­posed to be, de­scribed by Pevs­ner as one of the ear­li­est El­iz­a­bethan houses in the county. Roy rev­elled in the space. “I re­mem­ber just walk­ing around from room to room and laugh­ing.” He was the new lord of the manor. He threw coun­try-house par­ties, held fash­ion shoots, and rel­ished restor­ing it.

But, like so many his­toric home­own­ers caught in the hinge of his­tory – bal­anc­ing plea­sure with re­spon­si­bil­ity, past with fu­ture, and fine ar­chi­tec­ture with main­te­nance bills – he rapidly re­alised that the house needed to earn its keep. He re­stored the two derelict barns, one for his par­ents to live in and the other to let through the up­mar­ket let­tings com­pany Rural Re­treats. As new landed gen­try, he soon came to sound like the old: “Ev­ery penny I have earned has gone into this house.”

Felm­ing­ham was built in 1569 so, for four and a half cen­turies, its own­ers have wor­ried about the cost of keep­ing it warm in win­ter. Through the heavy, oak doors, the smell of woodsmoke per­me­ates the sump­tu­ous wood-pan­elled rooms, each hung with ex­quis­ite early por­traits and fur­nished with care­fully cho­sen 17th-cen­tury pieces. The din­ing-room ta­ble, set be­fore a stone fire­place flanked by worn ter­ra­cotta li­ons, seats 14.

“It is not a stately home,” says Roy, who runs a con­tract pub­lish­ing com­pany, Wild­wood, and a replica vin­tage car firm, The Old Rac­ing Car Com­pany, from home. “It is not grand enough to open to the pub­lic. And it lost its es­tates in the 1920s. To keep it go­ing, I have to make it wash its face.”

So he and his part­ner, Vicky, their baby, Isadora, and their deer­hounds Molly and Monty have re­treated into the ser­vice wing at the back in or­der to let the seven-bed­room house for the gilt­edged price of £2,000 for two nights for 14 peo­ple dur­ing the low sea­son, up to £4,750 for seven nights in the high sea­son. They are, per­haps, pi­o­neers in a new craze for the his­toric home-owner – the up­per-crust hol­i­day-cum­cor­po­rate-let.

Many own­ers of such prop­er­ties find their fi­nances are of­ten as leaky as the lead flash­ings on their roofs. A 2005 sur­vey by the His­toric Houses As­so­ci­a­tion of 70 of its most im­por­tant houses showed that the back­log of re­pairs was costed at £67 mil­lion. To find the money – 17.5 per cent of which goes to the Gov­ern­ment in VAT on build­ing works – own­ers sell works of art, heir­looms, land and some­times even the houses them­selves.

Such own­ers have usu­ally dis­dained the hol­i­day-lets mar­ket, but Nick House, for­mer man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Rural Re­treats, saw that there was a niche here for the coun­try-house owner, and he has set up a com­pany, the Wow House, to make it hap­pen.

“The pop­u­lar­ity of larger prop­er­ties to rent has in­creased hugely,” he says. “Ten years ago, you were lucky to get 30 per cent oc­cu­pancy, but in the past

ve years it has crept up to 50 per cent. eo­ple want to have am­ily gath­er­ings, or eu­nions of friends hey haven’t seen in years.”

Nick ad­vises coun­try-house own­ers to throw out the “make-do-and­mend” men­tal­ity and gear up to meet the needs of this new he­do­nism. “It is closer to a tique ho­tel than to self-cater­ing,” says Roy. And it is not to be un­der­taken lightly. “It cost me five times what I thought it would, but it en­abled me to bor­row and to fin­ish the house in eight months rather than eight years. It meant I could spend.”

The ceil­ings of Felm­ing­ham Hall are dec­o­rated with El­iz­a­bethan pat­terns, the floors have been laid with her­ring­bone coir mat­ting, the win­dows are hung with in­ter­lined ta­pes­try cur­tains. The roof and win­dows have been re­paired and re­newed, four-poster beds have been in­stalled, the at­tic bed­rooms made charm­ing. The chil­dren’s room has toys, a dress­ing-up box and a pup­pet theatre. Out­side, the El­iz­a­bethan knot gar­den smells of laven­der and the pool is heated and clean.

“A lot of large house own­ers,” says Nick, “are the landed gen­try who are as­set-rich and cash-poor, or mil­lion­aires with five or six prop­er­ties who don’t spend enough time in each. Of­ten, the son and heir has forged a ca­reer in Lon­don and come back to take over the coun­try es­tate with a new young wife, and needs fresh ideas. He may choose to live in an es­tate cot­tage and make the big house earn a liv­ing. The younger gen­er­a­tion are much more likely to con­sider let­ting out than their par­ents did.”

So what do own­ers have to do to get into the Wow House port­fo­lio? It seems to boil down to plumb­ing. You need bat­tal­ions of bath­rooms – a min­i­mum of one per bed­room. “You have to give guests the front half of the house. You can’t send them to the trades­men’s en­trance. And they need their pri­vacy,” says Nick. And coun­try-house tat must be re­placed by coun­try-house chic.

“You could spend a for­tune and get the styling wrong, or get an in­te­rior de­signer in who will do it to show off their tal­ents rather than keep faith with the house.

“With a 10-bed­room house, the cost of up­grad­ing can be sig­nif­i­cant – it is only worth do­ing if the prop­erty is spec­tac­u­lar enough to war­rant it,” says Nick. So how much does one need to spend to turn one’s pile into a Wow house? “If you have £50,000 to £100,000 to spare, and you cre­ate the right at­mos­phere, I could get that back for you over three to five years. But don’t for­get that you are adding sub­stan­tial cap­i­tal value to your prop­erty, and it might be what you would spend on your house any­way.”

Nick charges a hefty fee for his ser­vice — 25 per cent of the gross rent, which in­cludes VAT, ad­ver­tis­ing and brochures, or 40 per cent for full man­age­ment. But Eric McClean and his wife, Ni­cola, who have put their house on the Lizard Penin­sula, in Corn­wall, into the Wow House port­fo­lio, think it has paid off.

The spec­tac­u­lar, newly built, four-bed­room house, with a clifftop and beach, has been oc­cu­pied all sum­mer at a £3,080 per week rent. They have an­other house in Lon­don and can’t be on the Lizard for more than four weeks of the year. “It is bet­ter for a house to have peo­ple in it, and this is a fab­u­lous bolt­hole from the mad­ness of the world,” says Eric.

Felm­ing­ham Hall, 01692 538007, www.felm­ing The Wow House Com­pany, 01242 633637, www.the­wow­house­c­om­

High hopes: Roy Kent (left), owner of Felm­ing­ham Hall, in Nor­folk, with Nick House, of The Wow House, who seeks to make coun­try homes avail­able for rent

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