The sale of a Somerset manor house illustrates the rocketing demand for Downton Abbey style estates with storylines to match from overseas buyers.
Niall Hobhouse sold the Hadspen estate in Somerset – which has been in his family since 1785 – for a rumoured £12 to £13 million. But before selling the country pile, the art dealer said inheriting and restoring one of the prettiest country houses in England, which was built with money made from trading sugar, tobacco and slaves, is not the dream many believe it to be.
Nearly ten years ago he was accused of “an act of vandalism” in a row which raged on both sides of the Atlantic when he bulldozed a 32,000-square-foot garden created by his mother, the acclaimed garden designer Penny Hobhouse, and launched a competition to find a new design.
Many were unhappy to see the demise of the work of the 84-year-old, who designed English country gardens for a number of famous Americans, including Apple founder Steve Jobs, and chronicled the transformation in her well known book The Country Gardener.
But Mr Hobhouse said when the two Canadian gardeners, who moved to England to take it over when his mother and father divorced in the mid-1980s, eventually retired in 2005, their experiments in breeding and hybridising plants became too labour intensive to maintain.
When he originally decided to sell nearly two years ago, Mr Hobhouse told The Sunday Times that inheriting the estate from his grandfather 30 years ago had involved complex negotiations which took years to settle.
“I ended up landlord to my own father,” he said at the time. “We did it to keep ahead of the tax man, but it destroyed our relationship. In retrospect, it wasn’t worth it.”
Niall, who celebrates his 60th birthday in August, is the middle of three children, Georgina and David being the other two. There are dozens of Hobhouses around Castle Cary but former leading county councillor Henry Hobhouse, laughed at suggestions they are all due a windfall.
“It’s Niall’s,” he said. “What Niall does with the estate is his private business and nobody else’s. I don’t know who has moved in because we’ve not really spoken since he bulldozed Penny’s garden.”
The land registry lists the new owners as the Regent Trust, an offshore trust in Jersey, and it is understood the international buyer has insisted on keeping their identity secret.
Rumours range from Johnny Depp to a South African who wants to create a new Babington House, but nobody in the estate office was willing be drawn on their identity or the future of the imposing mansion which has eight bathrooms, outbuildings, 850 acres of land and a shoot.
Estate agents also refuse to discuss the buyer of the house which was originally built to cement Henry Hobhouse’s position on the landed gentry.
Mr Hobhouse, who has an abiding interest in architecture and trustee of various museums, has given lectures on what happened when he decided to put his own mark on the estate after his father’s death in 1992. Hobhouse embarked on a thorough reinterpretation of the estate. Brimming with ideas, he The renovation which he estimated cost between £4 and £5 million includes a brand new roof and a facelift of every room by local craftspeople. There was a Sotheby’s sale in 1996 and the manor is now a mix of old and new. Before leaving, Mr Hobhouse said he had fond memories of spending time in the cosy attic rooms but his twin children, Arthur and Eleanor, preferred London to maintaining a country estate with five full-time staff. He told The Sunday Times: “A place like this needs someone to live in it and engage with it. I’m too busy and distracted to do that.”