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Daily Telegraph

Property in Norfolk: Very flat indeed – and rising all the time

Norfolk has never seen a county pursuit quite like it. 

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Property in Norfolk: Easton Lodge, outside Norwich, forms part of the 2,417-acre estate sold by Savills to a European buyer

Graze and favoured: Easton Lodge, outside Norwich, forms part of the 2,417-acre estate sold by Savills to a European buyer

What is it about Norfolk? At a time when the rest of the property market in the UK is in the doldrums, this county, in the bulge of East Anglia, has had three top-quality estates on the market. Two of them – guide price of £25 million each – have either sold or gone under offer.

Excuse me, but aren’t we meant to be tightening belts? Prices are falling here, yet this extraordinary performance says something about Norfolk, farmland and the upper echelons of the country-house market, which for the time being is sailing on as though there isn’t an iceberg in sight.

James Laing, of Strutt & Parker, is flabbergasted. “I haven’t seen three Norfolk estates like this on the market at the same time in all of my 40-year career,” he says.

Coincidence has something to do with it, but so does the fact that indigenous Norfolk people are enormously proud that no motorway goes through the county; and there is no doubt that north Norfolk seems cut off from the rest of the world.

En route, you pass through what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would probably call planet Mangelwurzel, otherwise known as Swaffham. The writer Raffaella Barker, who was brought up in Norfolk and still lives there, is a typical native.

“You have to insulate yourself with goose fat during the winter,” she warns. “It’s very cold, only great grey slabs of cloud, and all your neighbours are fish.”

When she was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Norfolk was still a feudal land of great estates, leavened by a smattering of artists. “It has changed enormously. It’s richer and more London-centred now.”

Visit Holt and you can see what she means. The translocated urbanite will find every means necessary to support life: smart restaurants, bookshops and a retro outfitters called Old Town, selling tank-tops and knitted ties.

So while the number of people wanting to acquire property in Norfolk may be limited – Crispin Holborow, of Savills, who has negotiated the sale of the 2,417-acre Easton estate, outside Norwich, speaks of “having to share buyers around” – the gene pool is growing. According to reports, Easton has gone to a European with Anglophile tastes. In other words, he likes shooting – pretty well de rigueur in these parts.

“Very flat, Norfolk,” sighs Amanda in Noël Coward’s Private Lives. But not everywhere is, and the right kind of curves fetch a premium. The pleasingly contoured Kelling Hall estate has gone under offer at about £25 million, having caught the eye of a British entrepreneur. Even the house is curved.

It is one of a group of Arts and Crafts country houses on the coast, built to what was known in the early 20th century as a butterfly plan. This was the era when sunlight and fresh air had been identified as an antidote to T B, and butterfly-plan houses – in this dry, breezy location – were constructed to allow the maximum degree of sunshine into their rooms. Like Kelling, whose architect was Edward Maufe, they made much of flints and other local materials. But if the traditional construction was backward-looking, the client was a man of his time: H W Deterding, director general of Royal Dutch Petroleum, soon to be known as Shell.

According to Mark Lawson, of the Buying Solution, who acted for Kelling Hall’s purchaser, it is a sporty sort of place, with an “incredible” wild bird shoot. Two tennis courts are set at right angles to each other, so that you will never have to serve into the sun. There are, in addition, 30 cottages, a self-catering development known as The Lowes and a 1,000-acre arable farm, all producing an annual income of nearly £600,000. And it goes right down to the sea.

The late-Victorian author Clement Scott (drama critic of The Daily Telegraph) popularised this part of the coast as Poppyland, a place of restorative ozone and wholesome walks; around Kelling it seems completely unchanged.

If you have missed Easton and Kelling, don’t despair. Strutts still has High House, at Castle Acre, on the market. This handsome late-Georgian house – formed of five perfect 18?ft cubes, according to the vendor, Henry Birkbeck – comes with 1,000 acres and a price tag of £9.5 million. Near Sandringham, it would be a passport to the pleasures of country life, particularly shooting.

As Laing observes, the place “sits in its own 300-acre grassland park, so it is not surrounded by potatoes, sugar beet or people”. It will attract someone who loves architecture and everything that goes with it; in Norfolk, 700 acres of farmland – all that’s left, after you have subtracted the park – is more than a sneeze, but not much. Still, a new owner could work on it.

At Great Massingham, Strutt & Parker could fit you up with West Heath Farm, 225 acres with a barn that has planning permission to be converted to a five-bedroom house. They are asking £1.6 million for that, and £800,000 for 150 acres at Swaffham.

As with other global commodities, wheat prices have fallen away from their peak earlier this year. Land prices, similarly, have gone soggy after the dreadful summer. But at £6,000 an acre, they are still double four years ago, and farmers – if not City boys – are in the market. In a world that hasn’t a clue how it will feed itself when the population reaches 9?billion around the middle of this century, the long-term trend can only be up.

The bijou Godfrey’s Hall near Hindringham, with 19 acres of parkland and woodland, would suit someone who doesn’t relish the whole farming malarkey. It was built of mellow Holkham brick in 1868 for the Waters family in place of an earlier Jacobean hall, and features a sweeping cantilevered staircase and oak panelling salvaged from the old house. It has been sensitively and comprehensively restored by the current owners.

Big estates don’t come up often, particularly in counties such as Norfolk, still dominated by traditional landowners such as the Earl of Leicester (Holkham) and the Marquess of Cholmondeley (Houghton), who will never sell. If you want one, you have to move quickly, even in a recession. A man, let’s say, in his fifties, doesn’t want to wait another five or 10 years.

Not everyone who made money over the past decade put it in Icelandic banks. Last year seemed to be an all-time boom at the top end of the country market. Incredibly, given the financial apocalypse that is upon us, 2008 looks as though it will do even better.

  • Clive Aslet is Editor at Large of Country Life
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