In Suffolk, the sky seems to sit closer to the ground than in other parts of the British Isles. Clouds skim the flat expanse, and even if one can’t see the sea, something in the light, or the wind, somehow implies it is nearby.
The land, however, isn’t as pristine as Suffolk’s unpolluted sky. The arable fields are striped by tractors in lines too straight for nature to have made. Industrial farming techniques have removed vital habitat for wildlife. There are bird sanctuaries and smart coastal towns such as Southwold but the truth is that Suffolk is more working countryside than wilderness.
Hence the peculiarity of the landscape I’m flying over now in a helicopter – 4,500 acres of private unfenced territory 10km from the coast. This isn’t a grand historic estate bound by centuries-old park fencing and National Trust signs; it has been pieced together as one contiguous piece of land after dozens of property deals over the past 19 years. Unsurprisingly it’s taken a real estate man to do it: Jon Hunt, who founded London-based Foxtons, a company he sold shortly before the property crash in 2007 for a reported £360m – a deal later described in the FT as the “sale of the century”.
I assume Hunt’s chartering of the chopper is because of a penchant for expensive toys. After all, he’s the same Jon Hunt who last year sold Britain’s most expensive car, a 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO, for a reputed £20.2m. But at least the helicopter allows me a bird’s-eye view of Hunt’s plan to turn arable land back to nature.
His wheat fields, taking up around half the estate, now form the periphery of an emerald river valley – the 2,000-acre heartland of Hunt’s private world, where vast sweeps of parkland are peppered with the tidy canopies of broadleaf English trees. It’s this 2,000-acre core that falls under the newly branded Wilderness Reserve, which, for the first time in its 19-year history, Hunt is opening to the public with a collection of houses for rent.
As to the project’s evolution, it started in 1994 when a property brochure fell out of Hunt’s drawer. “I was looking for a lake; the kids were interested in watersports,” he recalls. The brochure showed a 420-acre estate with a Georgian house called Heveningham. There was a small patch of water but nothing like what I’m looking at now: an elegant 3km-long silver lake traversed by a picturesque humpback bridge.
If this is Hunt’s kind of “wilderness”, it’s not the one I expected to find. I imagined the “re-wilding” concept of conservation being pursued at the 3,500-acre Knepp estate in Sussex, with human control sacrificed to nature. Or the approach of MFI heir Paul Lister, a committed conservationist trying to reintroduce wolves to his 23,000 acres of Scottish wilds.
Hunt’s definition of “wilderness” is about the pleasure ground, the Arcadian landscape of pasture, woods and serpentine lakes imagined by the 18th-century English landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown. Because, shortly after he bought Heveningham, Hunt came across an unexecuted Brown master plan – 9ft long, depicting every tree, its species and placement across 600 acres.
Hunt turned to British landscape architect Kim Wilkie for help. “When I realised Jon was a property developer, I didn’t want to go anywhere near it,” Wilkie says. He imagined the land would be turned into a golf course and the house into a hotel. There were arable fields within 250 metres of the front door, concrete car parks and worse. But when Wilkie understood Hunt was intent on doing it by the book, he agreed to come on board. Nearly two decades of work has resulted in the faithful realisation of Brown’s original idea – 98 per cent of it now in place, says Wilkie, down to the last tree – with the rest of the reserve being developed along the same Arcadian principles: lakes, parkland and woods with different historic manor houses (he has purchased five) functioning as focal points to the landscape’s design.
Like Wilkie, I came as a cynic; I struggled to square my preconceptions of Hunt, former boss of the famously pushy estate agency (once fined for tearing down rival agents’ “for sale” boards and putting its own up in front of houses it had no mandate to sell), with the idea of a wilderness conservationist. But now I’m here, I have to take it for what it is. Because Hunt isn’t declaring what he will do; I’m seeing what he has already achieved.
This includes putting in the main 3km-long lake – to take away the soil, the construction team employed the same conveyor belt used for the Channel tunnel – along with a further 20 acres of lakes and wetlands, 80 acres of reed beds, 50km of “rides” (wide grassy swards cut through woods), and the sinking of 70-odd telegraph poles. He has removed 10km of concrete tracks and many more kilometres of fencing. Most significantly, he has planted more than 800,000 trees. In the next two years, 72,000 of those whips, now seven years in the ground, will have to be removed by hand because ash is under threat of European chalara disease; they will be replaced by hornbeam and oak (“That was an £850,000 mistake!” says Hunt).
Hunt’s passion for his trees seems genuine enough. He shows me two favourites, both 200-year-old hornbeams, and tells me how every Saturday and Sunday he takes three-hour walks through the reserve. He relates a story about how his grandfather would hide in the orange trees at their house in France whenever guests arrived. “I like woods,” says Hunt: “No one can find me. No one can bother me.”
Among other things, it’s this escapism Hunt is wagering will sell, and in turn make Wilderness Reserve sustainable. “Farming alone won’t pay for a modern estate to survive. Real estate will,” he says. “If you want to extract more pounds out of a property, then add more service.”
Wilderness Reserve’s accommodation ranges from substantial country houses to an off-grid shepherd’s hut for two. Sibton Park, the first of the Reserve’s manor houses, opened to guests last year; the remaining four – branded as the “manor collection” – are in varying stages of planning or renovation. Sibton has plush red carpets, period furniture bought from auction house Bonhams, and 12 bedrooms with en suite bathrooms. There are high-ceilinged drawing rooms, one of which has exquisite hand-painted chinoiserie wallpaper dating from the 1820s when the house was built, and a relaxed kitchen-dining room leading to an outdoor terrace. In the cellar is a games room with a snooker table and a cinema.
It’s not what I’d call soulful design (there aren’t the trinkets of personal history to give Sibton this edge) but it’s smart and perfectly satisfying as a big family rental or, best of all, a corporate retreat. Hunt says: “I’ve spoken to tens of thousands of renters and owners since I started in property aged 17. I think like a property guy. I know how the mind of the Goldman Sachs banker works.”
For my part I prefer the understated style of Hex, which opened in August. Hex is a small thatched forester’s cottage heated by a wood-fired oven, with open fires in the bedroom and sitting room. There’s no WiFi or electricity, only candles, with raw plaster walls, oatmeal linens, raspberry ginghams, and an outdoor larder where milk and croissants can be delivered each morning.
The other homes include the converted stables that make up the four-bedroom Clockhouse (with its Oka chairs, seagrass floors, and kilim-covered sofas) and the three-bedroom Barn, furnished in a similar style.
This is just the beginning. Hunt plans to open 25 more family farmhouses and cottages along the same lines as the Clockhouse – the “rural collection” – and five more electricity-free retreats like Hex (the “lost collection”). All will be conversions of existing buildings, with the rollout taking the total number of bedrooms from the 23 now to 36 by summer 2014, and about 100 by 2016.
Still, let’s be honest: Hunt’s collection of homes, albeit with chefs on request, is hardly revolutionary. They’re a strategic high-low mix, comfortable, likeable and consistently unpretentious, and the food is good – the kind of hearty English cuisine that should come out of a country kitchen. Sure, there are moments as I’m being given the tour when I feel as if I’ve walked into a real estate brochure: I look for dog-eared books that aren’t there, and the family photos that give a home texture.
But in the end, I find myself wanting to come back, even if the entire landscape isn’t yet complete and many of the trees Hunt has planted reach no higher than my shoulder. I want to come back to introduce “the moth man” to my kids: Matthew Deans, who along with ornithologist Steve Piotrowski, is now monitoring the wildlife that the Reserve’s new diversity of habitat is bringing back.
In the morning, outside Hex, Deans opens a light trap for moths he’d set up overnight. He tells me how moths, like butterflies, are among the most powerful indicators of a healthy environment. He says in the summer he caught two specimens of a single species on the same night. Pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose, he says solemnly: “The August Thorn, which in Suffolk I thought extinct.”
Protection by purchase: More millionaire’s reserves
Hunt is one of a growing number of benefactors buying up tracts of land to create private reserves, run for the benefit of the environment – but often with a rather nice place for the owner (and paying guests) to stay.
Jochen Zeitz The German director of luxury goods group Kering (and former Puma chairman) owns Segera, a 50,000-acre ranch in Kenya where he has removed hundreds of miles of fencing to allow wildlife to migrate freely. Tourists can stay in six thatched villas at the central “retreat”, from $880 per person per night. segera.com
Paul Tudor Jones The billionaire financier from Tennessee set up Grumeti Reserves, a 340,000-acre reserve in Tanzania, in 2003. Its aim is to rehabilitate the indigenous biodiversity while also offering lavish accommodation in lodges or tented camps (from $925 per person per night). grumetireserves.com
Doug and Kris Tompkins This US couple turned their backs on careers in the clothing industry (he founded The North Face and Esprit, she was chief executive of Patagonia) to create a series of huge reserves in Chile and Argentina. The 715,000-acre Pumalín Park in Chile, for example, was established to protect the land from logging and hydroelectric projects. It has since been designated an official Nature Sanctuary and been handed over to be managed by a Chilean foundation. tompkinsconservation.org
Nicky Oppenheimer The former De Beers chairman has developed what was a hunting estate into Tswalu, South Africa’s largest private game reserve, covering 250,000 acres. There is accommodation for a maximum of 30 guests (from $935 per person per night). tswalu.com
Sophy Roberts stayed as guest of Wilderness Reserve (wildernessreserve.com). Sibton Park sleeps 24 and costs from £4,000 per night, including chef, butler and waiters.
Hex Cottage sleeps two and costs from £200 per night; the Barn (sleeping six) costs from £450, and the Clockhouse (sleeping eight) costs from £600 per night.