FANCY a lazy weekend in a stately home befitting the Crawleys of Downton Abbey? Try this late 19th-century ‘palace’, primed with gargoyles, pinnacle arches, stained glass windows and a sweeping staircase fit for a Lady Mary-style entrance, recommends LUCY BOON
VICTORIAN and Edwardian mansions and castles surrounded by thousands of acres were once abundant in our green and pleasant land.
In the first edition of Country Life
in 1900, agents Knight, Frank & Rutley listed 13 houses/estates for sale by auction. But today’s Knight Frank (the Rutley disappeared years ago) said that of those properties, only one is thought to still be in one piece.
The First World War, death duties, the Great Depression, Second World War requisitioning and higher taxes all played a part in the downfall of many large turn-of-the-century estates.
So it’s lucky to find that Wyfold Court — a rather magnificent Grade II* listed mansion 15 minutes from Henley — is still in private hands. The modern solution being 11 sets of hands, rather than just one.
The house was converted into 11 panoramic apartments in the early Nineties, with each one stretching over more than one level, and having amazing views over 180 acres of gardens and woodland.
One very special apartment, number nine, which directly faces the garden’s centrepiece water fountain, is once again on the open market.
“My friends just call it Hogwarts!” laughs Richard Thoburn, who moved into apartment nine in 2006. “Wyfold is definitely stunning and full of character, but I moved here for the peace rather than anything else.
“I lived in Fulham at the time, and my life was noisy and hectic. Looking for an escape that I could still drive to within an hour, I literally drove down the drive of Wyfold and went â??Wow!’
“After seeing the apartment, I think I had pretty much made up my mind within the first five minutes. The atmosphere is definitely magical — maybe it is a little Hogwarts then.”
But if it was the calm and tranquility that proved to be the clincher for Richard, the architecture of the house would be the main draw for most of us.
You may have heard of Sir Charles Barry, who designed the Palace of Westminster, but you’ll be forgiven for not having heard of his star pupil, George Somers Leigh Clarke, who is responsible for Wyfold Court, designing it for cotton magnate Edward Hermon back in 1876.
Locals will remember Wyfold’s time as a psychiatric hospital between 1930 and the early Nineties, before a clever developer with a heart for heritage spotted it and joined forces with a specialist construction company to embark on an ambitious renovation.
In one project alone, a thousand individual panes of stained glass were repaired using traditional hand-painted kiln-fired artistry. Nine listed paintings, originally part of Edward Hermon’s collection, were restored, and the stone vaulted corridors, Gothic revivalist ceilings and marble fireplaces were faithfully reclaimed.
Wyfold Court is French Gothic in style with a touch of the Scottish Baronial thrown in for good measure. It has two-storey and four-storey sections, but its attractive red and grey-blue brick diapering (that’s patterns to you and me), turrets and bell tower definitely have fairytale leanings.
As unique apartments go, number nine is a bit of a showstopper (Standard Property had a flashback to Versailles while she was sipping coffee in the kitchen on the glorious sunny morning she visited).
The photographs pretty much speak for themselves (the apartment has a veritable plethora of luxe and character), but it would be boorish not to mention some of the standout features such as the stained glass windows, marble fireplaces and tracery windows (where stonework elements support the glass).
However, this is no museum. It’s a contemporary home for contemporary living. Richard updated the decor when he moved in and redid both bathrooms only a few years ago. He also removed a partition wall from the kitchen to open up the space and make the most of the high ceiling.
“The developers put the kitchen in and it’s great build quality, but it had all been painted dark brown,” said Richard. “I like modern, clean lines, so I made it all white and added marble worktops.”
In fact, Richard’s taste — eclectic art meets penthouse chic — is the perfect foil for the property’s dramatic silhouettes of stone gargoyles, pointed arches and carved heraldic beasts. The house also offers all manner of period finery in its shared areas, including a rather stunning 100ft picture gallery, a magnificent hall vestibule, a library and a reception area.
With so much splendour, it’s really no surprise to hear the house has starred in many a film and TV show, including The English Patient
and the British version of House Of Cards
The residents have also made use of the house for their own times in the spotlight.
“Some of us have used it for birthday parties and anniversaries — one resident couple even got married here!” adds Richard.
“Throwing a huge marquee party in the grounds is the one thing I never got around to. Then again, walking the dog and sharing a pint in my local is more my style anyway. It’s so friendly around here — another thing I was looking for in a country escape.”
Gastropub the Unicorn is a 10-minute walk, while the nearest amenities and shops are based in nearby Sonning Common. Henley has the closest train station, and also gives access to the M4.
And what of those other 10 sets of private hands which own Wyfold?
“You just don’t see each other,” says Richard. “Coming from London, and wanting to get away from people, I was worried about having neighbours. However, you tend not to see anybody unless you deliberately wish to.
“It’s so quiet. The intensity of the contrast from London still rings true for me today. Although, that said, a number of neighbours have become real friends since living here. We’ll stay in touch, and I may even pop back for one of the AGMs!”
Wyfold is run by a board of trustees which is responsible for the maintenance of the house and grounds, for which each resident pays yearly service charges.
“These cover not only the big things like maintenance of the lifts, but the small things, too, such as fresh flowers in the vestibule and the huge Christmas tree for the lobby,” said Richard. “In fact, I love being at Wyfold at Christmas, with snow and a get-together under the tree. Although I’m aware I’m back to the Harry Potter references againâ?¦”
So what kind of person buys an apartment worth almost two million pounds?
“It’s quite niche, in a way,” continued Richard. “Residents tend to be professionals with busy international lives, who work or travel a lot. I’m moving abroad, so I won’t have to spend so much time in the air any more.”
Which explains why a large proportion of the furniture and decor is also negotiable in the sale. “I won’t have much need of my marble kitchen table where I’m going,” adds Richard.
“I’ll miss the views from this place though. Apart from the huge windows, I have a roof garden.
“Every flat owns a roof section and mine is accessed through the main guest bedroom. It has the most spectacular views across the estate and is not overlooked by anyone. If I’d stayed, I would have probably tried to do more with this roof space.”
However, it’s the smallest of the two reception areas, the dining room, that is Richard’s most favoured space. “I use it as my office and it’s great for thinking,” says Richard.
“Some great ideas have been shaped here. You get the calm you need. And if you do want some fresh air, there are miles and miles of open countryside to ponder in.” It should be noted that the 180 acres are shared with neighbouring properties, set back from the main house, and these were built on the site of the original staff accommodation when Wyfold was reshaped.
There are also numerous public footpaths and bridleways through the land, as is true of most country estates.
Speaking of which, some property experts have been reporting that “new” money, especially from City and internet-based fortunes, means now seeing many grand estates such as Wyfold, coming back into private ownership — good news for our heritage, one would hope.
And there are more of us than ever with a million to put towards this, according to Zoopla. The website recently reported a figure of half a million British homeowners that are property millionaires. In fact, the number of us who own property worth £1million or more has risen to a high of 524,306.
But whether or not you’re in a position to become the next modern Lord or Lady Wyfold, there’s always the next episode of Downton Abbey
to sink your historical teeth into. Now, what’s happened to Carson?
l Number nine Wyfold Court is for sale with Savills at a guide price of £1,800,000 (leasehold). House and estate service fees apply. Call (01491) 843000 for more information.