Go ape in Downe, the home of Darwin

Historic listed buildings hidden away in the country make handsome new homes. David Spittles discovers Darwin’s village among the gems
Downe House
© David Sellman / English Heritage / PA
Darwin lived at Downe House for 40 years
The ancient Kent village of Downe is a special place to live in, and it is expected to become even more special. It is tipped to be designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2009 to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin, author of On the Origin of Species. The great Victorian naturalist lived and researched in Downe for 40 years and his listed home is now a museum attracting thousands of visitors every year.

This special status will shine the spotlight on local properties. Set in a wooded valley in the rolling Kent Downs, the village is less than 20 miles from Charing Cross and as such is a wonderful retreat address for London commuters.

Most of the village’s 315 properties were tied cottages for agricultural workers. Over the years these homes have found their way on to the open market, carefully watched over by conservationists.

Eight years ago, developer Marco Williams bought The Rookery, one of a handful of grand houses in the village. “It was a sentimental purchase. I bought it with my heart rather than my head,” he says.

As a child, Williams used to be taken to the annual village fête in the four-acre garden of the house. His father, a stuntman and builder, once lived in the village and always had a soft spot for it.

Williams, a fashionable 45-year-old grandfather who used to play in a pop group, intended refurbishing The Rookery (a huge 10,000sq ft pile) and setting up home there with his family but this never happened, so he decided to convert the mansion instead.

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The handsome villa dates from 1724 and had connections with Kew Gardens. Darwin used to observe specimen trees in the grounds and wild orchids from all over the world planted in the greenhouses. Before Williams, the house was owned by around-the-world sailor Robin Knox-Johnston.

Today, the property still looks like a single residence but is actually six splendid houses, each with a discreet entrance and private garden. A new wing has been added but you cannot see the join. A Victorian summerhouse at the rear is being sold with one of the properties. And there is a separate, stand-alone garage complex for residents’ cars.

The smallest house is 1,900sq ft and the biggest is 2,300sq ft. Prices range from £725,000 to £950,000. For more information, call 020 8313 1411.

Williams’s company, North Star, normally builds boutique flats in south-east London, so The Rookery is a departure. The property is an important landmark, occupying a sweep of the road on the approach to the village.

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This part of Kent lies in the borough of Bromley yet is a great starting point for country walks. One trail leads to nearby Holwood, which used to be the country estate of prime minister William Pitt and is famous as the place where he and William Wilberforce, gazing across the vale of Keston in 1788, decided to abolish the slave trade.

Today, a prestige scheme of 78 homes lies at the centre of the 75-acre estate, reached via a gated entrance and single access road through protected woodland.

Developer Bryant has built a tasteful trio of low-rise crescents that form a bull-ring shape. From the upper floors there are views to the open Kent countryside. A conservation trust helps to manage the estate, which is a wildlife habitat for deer, newt colonies and bats. Prices range from £349,995 to £799,995. For information, call 0845 671 9064.

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Downe village in Kent
© Mark York
Picturesque Downe is less than 20 miles from Charing Cross
This is an affluent swathe of suburban south London, a place where self-made millionaires live in sprawling detached houses. The close proximity of several golf courses — green sanctuaries that seem a million miles away from the urban heart of London — is another draw.

At Sundridge Park, just north of Bromley town centre, a listed Nash mansion looms over the golf course. Tucked away behind the mansion, which operates as a hotel and conference centre, is a restored stable block turned into five coach houses, while being built alongside is a scheme of 43 apartments and eight town houses in classical Regency style to match the surroundings.

The new buildings, designed by traditionalist architect Robert Adam, will have a colonnaded façade and will face on to formal courtyard gardens.

Completion is due in spring 2010. All parking will be underground to prevent cars clogging up the grounds and becoming an eyesore. Private tennis courts are being upgraded and a residents-only spa complex will be built. Concierge services will also be on offer.

At the moment, only the coach houses are for sale, priced from £750,000. Call developer Millgate on 020 8313 7468.

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