Country house bargains, published on

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With prices in the UK property market down around 20 per cent over the past year, this could be an ideal time to seek out bargains. City banking bonuses have dried up (and many people have already lost their jobs), so the opportunities for shrewd and cashed-up investors are multiplying.

"The biggest falls we've seen are in properties more than two hours' drive from London," says Rupert Sweeting, head of country house sales at upmarket estate agency Knight Frank. "Holiday homes that have been bought with bonuses are falling quite fast."

He cites a large seven-bedroom property in 15 acres of land in Kent, to the south of London, which was for sale at £3.1 million a couple of months ago, but just sold for £2.5 million. Similarly, Amberley Court, a grade II listed house with fabulous views over the Woodchester valley in Gloucestershire, has dropped from £3.1 million to £2.6 million in the past few months.

Although prices have taken a downward turn across the country and from the cheapest to the most expensive, levels of activity differ between various price bands, according to Sweeting. As far as the very most expensive properties are concerned, things are livelier than ever. "From May to October this year we sold 53 per cent more properties over £10 million than we did in the same period last year," he says, demonstrating that the super-rich have yet to feel the icy hand of recession, at least in their house buying behaviour.

Sweeting has even notices some gazumping (where a seller accepts a higher price for a property, despite having agreed to sell to someone else). "We've not seen that for a couple of years," he says. "Throughout the market, people are realising that it's more sensible to have money in bricks and mortar than in the stock market, given the recent plunges. Property traditionally out-performs the stock market."

At Hamptons estate agency (owned by Middle Eastern property group Emaar), Mark Wheeler has seen steeper falls in the price of properties between £1 million and £3 million than in the more expensive houses. "There has been an element of froth coming off the market," he says. "But we're now in a situation where our clientele are more comfortable. If they have to sell, they understand that they need to lower their expectations. But many people don't need to sell, so they take their houses off the market."

This wariness and caution means that there is a shortage of large country houses on the market, which has kept prices from falling too far, Wheeler believes. In regions such as Wales and parts of the north of England, there is so little on the market that it is hard to judge how prices are moving, since you can't make comparisons.

What is undeniable is the pressure under which many thousands of homeowners are now under. The number of repossessions is soaring as people find themselves unemployed and unable to repay mortgages or to extend their credit facilities, since banks are refusing to lend. Unemployment has risen sharply and is forecast to go far higher before the current cycle of negative growth is over, pushing distressed property sales ever higher.

Areas which have already been badly hit include the West Midlands, where many jobs in manufacturing have been lost, and the South West of England, where prime country house values fell in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. The commuter belt around London, including most of Surrey, and parts of Hampshire and West Sussex, has been relatively untroubled, however.

The vast building programme around the Northeast of London connected with the 2012 Olympics and its many infrastructure projects has kept property prices buoyant in the area. The recent completion of the Eurotunnel terminal at St Pancras and the Emirates Stadium in nearby Highbury has added further impetus to this corner of the capital, making it a favourite spot for investors and those coming to London for the first time. West and South West London, although close to Heathrow Airport and other good transport links, has an overheated property market and is likely to fall further in the coming months.

The very most central and upmarket areas of London have bucked the downward trend and registered price increases in recent months, particularly Knightsbridge and Kensington. The could be a 'flight to quality' by investors anxious about falls to the value of marginal or outlying districts of the city.

"Even though prime country sales have fallen for the second consecutive month, they are still valued at 4.7 per cent higher than last September," says Andrew Smith, head of insight at, the UK's leading portal of prime properties. "We have yet to see what the true impact job losses in the city will have on the London prime market, but as the credit crunch continues to bite, its better news for those prime buyers and renters who are still actively searching for property." Box out

Crayke Castle, North Yorkshire

This medieval castle with views over the vale of York and the Yorkshire Wolds was built in around 1450 and has eight bedrooms, four receptions, five bathrooms and stabling for horses, along with a tennis court and a barrel-vaulted kitchen. Outside there is seven acres of grounds, including paddocks, an orchard, a tennis court and woodland.

The castle has hosted several English Kings (John, Henry III, Edwards I, II and III) and has the ruins of an even older 12th century castle in the grounds. It sits atop Crayke Hill, rumoured to be the site of the nursery rhyme 'The Grand Old Duke of York'. The remains of Roman battlements can be found in the grounds.

At £3.5 million the castle is cheap by London and Home Counties standards. It sits just 15 miles away from York, from where trains take just two hours to London, and within reach of various airports. Little Mynthurst Farm, Surrey

The 16th century wooden beams of Little Mynthurst Farm in Surrey conceal a stunning interior, with high ceilings, a large open fireplace, seven main bedrooms and a further three bedrooms in the staff quarters. This Grade II listed house has a great deal of character and charm, yet has fallen in price by half a million pounds in recent months, down from £6 million to £5.5 million.

The really outstanding thing about the property, though, is the vast size of the grounds, remarkable for this part of Surrey. It comes with 100 acres of beautifully designed gardens, with its own nursery where plants are propagated, a swimming pool, tennis court, stabling for horses and a four and a half acre private cricket ground and pavilion. The local team - the Mynthurst Cricket Club - play their fixtures on the ground.

Commuting into London is reasonably easy and quick, while the towns of Dorking and Reigate are close by. The gardens are the key feature, though, including a kitchen garden, walled garden, secret garden, rose garden and 'wisteria walk'.