With the UK general election just weeks away in May, prime minister David Cameron is showing the BBC around his family home in Oxfordshire. As the interviewer fiddles furtively with a lettuce heart, Cameron is seen dispatching leaves into a plastic colander, pledging the benefits of a second term in government. Later in the interview, the camera follows him into his village butcher, where he quips that Jeremy Clarkson, another local resident and the former BBC Top Gear presenter, is the shop’s most famous customer.
Welcome to the surreal world of Chipping Norton, the Cotswolds enclave whose surrounding countryside has become home to an implausible concentration of the nation’s media, political and show business power brokers. Besides the prime minister and Britain’s most famous petrolhead, nearby residents include Rebekah Brooks, who was recently reappointed as chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s British publishing operation.
Along with its picture-postcard villages, proximity to London and some good fee-paying schools, this liberal sprinkling of stardust has helped attract London’s wealthy buyers to the area’s elegant stone cottages and sprawling manor houses. Chipping Norton, on the edge of the Cotswolds, which runs from Bath in Somerset to below Stratford-on-Avon in Warwickshire, typifies the area’s appeal.
There is also an abundance of large homes: average prime prices in the Cotswolds district are £1.7m, according to Savills, well above the £1.2m average for the south of England. At 5.4 per cent against a 5.5 per cent average for Gloucestershire, the area’s 12-month growth rate is steady.
Half of Knight Frank’s buyers in Chipping Norton and the surrounding area come from London, says the estate agency’s Rupert Wakley. Following a familiar pattern of London émigrés, half of these make the area their home, yet probably keep a pied-à-terre in London, he says. The other half just want somewhere for the weekend.
Yet the distinction between first and second homes for these buyers may be blurring. While bankers struggle to unchain from their desks, says Savills’ Lindsay Cuthill, the looser working practices in other industries mean many families now divide their time equally between both.
The area has long been a popular destination for a stylish weekend break, which means that the formal dining, stuffy waiting service and sometimes chintzy decor of grand country hotels have given way to the boutique variety. Adding to a host of tastefully converted village hotels, there is a new wave of fashionable, farm-style gastro venues.
The latest and most achingly cool is Soho Farmhouse, eight miles from Chipping Norton, on the Great Tew Estate. Although partly a facility for members of the Soho House club network, the collection of cabins and cottages, where facilities include a pub and restaurant as well as swimming pools and lakes, also serves as a country house hotel. Bordering the estate, Strutt & Parker is selling a five-bedroom, converted farmhouse on four acres, with a pool, for £2.25m. A short drive to the west, in the village of Long Compton, Knight Frank is selling a six-bedroom, Grade II-listed house for £1.6m.
On the other side of Chipping Norton, Daylesford Farm boasts a farm shop, stocked by its own market garden, a café, creamery and an implausibly Arcadian life for its “organic animals who [sic] roam freely on the surrounding organic pastures”, according to the website. With the café serving wheat-free almond cake for £5.50 a slice, contented sheep may not be the only ones getting fleeced. About 13 miles to the west in Hawling, Savills is selling a four-bedroom house with stables and 12 acres for £2.9m.
The same dressed-down chic is spilling over into Cotswold homes. “Dining rooms are virtually an anachronism,” says Cuthill. When his buyers do entertain with the help of staff, they will be employed for the evening, preparing and serving alongside the guests rather than sweating away in a pantry, he says.
This is a challenge for rambling manor houses designed around expansive formal dining rooms, often located a fortifying stroll away from cramped kitchens full of staff. As casually paraded mini-foie-gras burgers replace butler-held silver platters of own-estate venison, owners are increasingly turning to local architects and interiors companies to reshape the spaces in which to serve them.
In the vast majority of cases the most desirable homes are listed buildings, according to Emma Sims-Hilditch, an interior designer based in the Cotswolds. Yet this does not necessarily rule out internal changes. “Planning authorities focus more on the fabric of a building than how its interiors are employed,” she says.
With the average price of homes sold by Knight Frank in the area at just below £1m, the draw of the Chipping Norton set is moving local homes out of the reach of many locals. For those unlikely to be snacking on Daylesford’s pricey almond cake, the question of where to live is a pressing one.
Local landowner Nicholas Johnston says he is doing his bit. The 30-odd employees of the Great Tew Estate — 350 more are employed by Soho Farmhouse which is located there — enjoy rents below market rate, he says. Yet he warns that subsidised estate homes are a double-edged sword: because such “tied accommodation” is rented, it breeds a reliance of the employee on the employer, discouraging home ownership and saving up problems for when the former retires.
Tax changes have also made it harder to provide discounted rental homes to farm workers, he says. At least if Johnston wants to lobby the prime minister, he will know where to find him.
● Trains from London Paddington take less than 90 minutes to Kingham, which is a 12-minute drive from Chipping Norton
● Fee-paying schools include Tudor Hall, Kitebrook House and Cheltenham College
● Prime Cotswold homes have returned 3.3 per cent over five years against 2.5 per cent for the south of England, says Savills
What you can buy for . . .
£600,000 A four-bedroom house with a small garden in Kingham
£1.5m A five-bedroom, detached farmhouse near Burford
£3m A six-bedroom former rectory, with several acres of land
For more property listings, please visit ftpropertylistings.com
Photographs: Michael Bugg; daylesfords.com
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