Working yards worthy of an old-fashioned story book aren’t always easy to come by, but when they do, their associated listed status needn’t cause the headache buyers dread, finds Madeleine Silver
IN a woodland adjacent to The Durdans Stables in Epsom is the grave of 1838 Derby winner Amato. Joining him are fellow Derby winners Ladas, Sir Visto and Cicero. But the horses standing in the Grade II-listed stables today are blissfully unaware of their illustrious predecessors – or the longevity of the Victorian bricks and mortar around them.
A decade ago, Vanessa Johnson and her husband Brett, a dual Flat and National Hunt trainer, bought the yard to house the racehorses as well as their liveries.
“This place has amazing facilities with stabling for more than 50 horses and plenty of land [58 acres]. And because the stables are old-fashioned, they’re huge, so they’re really good for the horses that are in for a lot of the day,” says Vanessa. “In the summer, or on a really frosty morning, you do look around at the yard and think it’s incredible.”
The set-up was recently sold by Savills as Vanessa and Brett Johnson looked to downsize, but The Durdans is a rarity among equestrian properties.
“The mainstream equestrian properties that I see come on the market usually have more recent, purpose-built facilities,” says Louise Harrison, director of farms, estates and equestrian at Savills.
“The original coach house and stables that might come with a big country estate are now likely to have been converted into a home office or extra accommodation, with perhaps a couple of horses stabled. But The Durdans original listed stable block and indoor arena are still all used by horses.”
The 18th century, Grade I-listed courtyard at Charlton Park Stables in Wiltshire is another that is alive with equine residents as originally intended.
“We live in a flat above the stables so when you come down every morning it’s like walking out into Downton Abbey,” says Megan Bailey, who took on the lease from the Earl of Suffolk in 2018, with her partner Toby Gardner to run as a livery yard.
“They’re really well built and have obviously lasted incredibly well; for example, every stable has a drain in the middle that channels into a central drain. And because they have such thick walls and high ceilings, in the summer they’re nice and cool, and in the winter they stay quite warm.”
Automatic drinkers and rubber matting have been added to appeal to the modern horse owner, but Megan is sure the old-fashioned aesthetic is a draw for potential clients.
“Especially when you first walk into the courtyard under the archway, people are always wowed. And we have the private estate hacking, so it’s like our own little world.”
JUMPING through extra loopholes to make changes, however, is a price that buyers have to pay for stables worthy of a toy yard.
“We knew we had to redo the indoor sand school roof, which was Grade II*-listed, at The Durdans. It was on the at-risk register for Historic England and it ended up costing £160,000,” says Vanessa, who was able to get a grant through the organisation to help with the costs.
“If it wasn’t listed, we could have used these Chinese tiles that are about a third of the price of the Cornish slate that the council and Historic England said we had to use. But then we have this amazing building that wouldn’t look as incredible as it does if it did have the cheaper tiles,” she admits.
“We did also have a welfare issue because in 1881 I don’t think they really cared about whether the horses could look out of the stables, so we had to get planning permission from the council to cut all the stable doors down to a size where they could see out. That was fine to do, because the Halifax Estates who own the freehold, the council and Historic England were all just really keen to see this place work as a yard.”
Judith Norris at The Rural Planning Practice is on hand to help buyers navigate their way around the legislative challenges associated with listed properties that can ring alarm bells for prospective buyers.
“The mantra with listed buildings is that well-managed change is likely to be acceptable,” says Judith. “To support an application, it is essential to assess the history and evolution of the building. Change of plan-form [original layout and structure] and removal of original fabric can be contentious, for example taking away historic stable partitions, original walls or floors. But with a creative approach, and a willingness to be a little flexible, solutions can be found. An architect or planner with appropriate experience – ideally a member of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation – is an essential part of the mix.”
Where things can get a little greyer, agents agree, is when the stables aren’t themselves listed, but instead fall into the curtilage of the main, listed house.
“Often that means you might have substandard stables but because they’re next to the lovely Grade I- or II-listed farmhouse or manor they are listed by default,” says William Grant at Fox Grant. “That means that listed building consent is in theory needed to do anything, and so if you want to make changes it can make getting planning to alter them more difficult, or if you want to put a new stable block up next door you have to do it in keeping with the listing. So, it just takes more time.”
Louise at Savills warns: “Sometimes you’re at the discretion of the conservation officer, who might have different interpretations of the rules.”
FOR those willing to persevere, however, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages, says William at Fox Grant. Financially, a small number of grants are available to compensate for the higher costs involved in renovating, through local authorities, the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Historic England, with the Listed Property Owners’ Club serving as a helpful port of call for advice.
But it is perhaps the prestige which is the biggest prize.
“By the nature of a listing you have something of architectural importance and as a result there is usually an exciting uniqueness about the property which often comes with a special setting,” says Rupert Sturgis at Knight Frank. “It’s the overall package; the house, the stables and the location. And so these kinds of properties are much more lifestyle driven.
“A commercial buyer is going to look for something that is easier to manage and has more options in the future [in terms of diversification and conversion].
“Yes, you are much more restricted, but there’s a great romance and curb appeal with listed properties. And wow, what a lifestyle and what a happy horse.”
As Luke Morgan at Strutt and Parker adds: “We’re very lucky in this country to have a nightmarish planning system because it’s designed to protect these gorgeous properties.
“Buying a listed property is like buying a fine car or painting – it’s a proper investment. And it has the statement factor that people want.”
H&H 24 September 2020
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