Londoners suspicious of the idea of a permanent move to the country are being tempted by landowners and developers with new "country cool" architecture in pretty villages and semi-rural locations.
With the relaxation of planning regulations, cash-strapped farmers eager to attract cash cows from the City are hiring design-sensitive architects to convert barns, stable blocks, mills and hop kilns into dramatic open-plan living spaces overlooking pastures and meadowland.
And run-down mansions are being revived and split into grand apartments, with buyers being able to enjoy landscaped grounds with a spa complex added.
'Londoners like a peaceful and secluded setting but they don't want to be cut-off from civilisation'
Redundant hospitals, colleges, barracks, convents and sporting estates are also providing a steady supply of properties to redevelop in parkland, the green belt and on the edges of large estates and golf courses.
"Many Londoners, spoilt by the exciting architectural innovations they see around them in our city, are at first nervous about moving to the sticks, fearing the housing choice is limited, with designs that are boring and predictable, but the country market has really matured in recent years," says Andrew Palmer of national property consultant DTZ.
"Given larger spaces in which to work, and the advantage of the 'borrowed landscape' of rolling countryside and rivers, the new country architecture is very dramatic."
Often such developments are within the M25, meaning buyers do not have to choose between a convenient commuting location and isolated country splendour.
Remote rural retreats are not popular. Favourite sites are those close to a heritage village, county town, station or airport, according to developer Michael Wilson, a stately home conversion specialist active in Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire.
"Londoners like a peaceful and secluded setting but they don't want to be too cut-off from shops, country high streets and civilisation, and an increasing number like to be near an airport for foreign travel and access to homes abroad."
One of Wilson's latest projects was so successful that sales were fast and furious. Busbridge Hall, Godalming, is an Edwardian mansion set in 15 private acres with a half-mile carriage-drive bordered by fields. Such addresses provide grandeur and a terrific sense of arrival. Apartments included a stately 2,000sq ft duplex with two roof terraces, just sold with a price tag of £995,000.
Designed with military precision in Essex
In Essex, on a splendid 180-acre coastal site with its own nature reserve and protected wetlands, there is the Officers' Mess, a collection of 11 restored listed houses at former Shoebury Garrison.
Occupying a strategic point at the mouth of the Thames, the garrison was inaccessible to the public for most of the past 150 years. Once a fortified Roman settlement, it became a weapons testing centre in 1850 and later a barracks with hundreds of military personnel and their families - a self-contained community with its own hospital, chapel, cricket pitch and parade ground.
The garrison is now a smart redevelopment with 50 Victorian buildings alongside new-build cottages and strikingly modern waterside apartments. Officers' Mess houses are tastefully refurbished and genuinely auspicious, with vaulted ceilings, tall sash windows, oak-panelling and decorative plasterwork. The biggest house has 5,554sq ft of space. Prices from £795,000. Call estate agent Fine on 01702 826037. Commuting is an hour by train to Fenchurch Street on the "c2c" (City to Sea) line.
Wellesley Park, near Glastonbury, Somerset, offers the chance for buyers to enjoy a 200-acre country sporting estate with only 15 houses on it. Here a former farm and stone outbuildings have been converted into homes with views of the Mendip Hills and country cute names to remind them of their recent past life: The Dairy, The Cheese Room, The Wood Store, The Cider Press and so on. The estate has stabling and livery facilities, tennis courts, clay pigeon shooting and a spa. Footpaths lead to Wells and its cathedral. Prices from £450,000. Call Savills on 01179 100354.
City & Country, as its name implies, has made a well-deserved name for itself in this niche market. It cherry picks handsome heritage buildings, which are then sensitively converted into stunning homes with smart metropolitan-style finishes.
Balls Park near Hertford is a private 63-acre estate where Hollywood films such as The Golden Compass and television dramas including Foyle's War and Bleak House have been made. The listed Jacobean mansion and stable block are being split into luxury apartments and courtyard houses.
Original interiors include oak-panelled drawing rooms, magnificent fireplaces and ornate plaster mouldings. The main house has a superb galleried, marble-floored atrium, which will become a reception lobby for residents. Because of the Grade I listing, many of the grand living rooms will stay their original size rather than be sub-divided, and apartments will range up to 3,000sq ft. Prices start at £480,000 and rise to over £1.5 million. Call 01992 551777.
An English Provence
The gently rolling hills and picture-postcard villages of the Cotswolds seem a million miles away from London. But the M4 motorway provides a quick escape route from the capital, putting the Gloucestershire countryside within a two-hour drive. It has become a sophisticated playground for Londoners, an "English Provence", where fashion boutiques, bars and organic food shops are sprouting up in sleepy villages.
Traditional honey-coloured stone homes prevail but stylish new housing is emerging from an unlikely source: former gravel pits and quarries. Areas around Cirencester were once used for gravel extraction and lakes formed as a by-product of this process. When extraction ended, Mother Nature took hold and the lakes became wildlife habitats, protected by reed beds and surrounded by woodland and fields.
Being a lowland area, there are big, dramatic skies allowing light and colour to reflect off the water. Add aesthetically pleasing homes, and it is a winning formula.
The Lakes near Lechlade is a 650-acre "eco estate" where glass and timber houses are being built to order on the water's edge. The project is a collaboration between design sensitive developer Yoo, backed by designers Philippe Starck and Jade Jagger, and Raven Group.
Five clear-water lakes make up 60 per cent of the estate, which is in effect a nature reserve offering a host of outdoor pursuits: fishing, cycling, riding, canoeing and sailing.
© Rex Features
The concept is a "less is more" community of like-minded residents (mainly families) where children can build tree houses and camp under the stars.
Houses have American and Scandinavian design influences: open-plan, double-height spaces with floor-to-ceiling windows, decked terraces and boat landings. Technically they are second homes - they can be occupied for a maximum of 48 weeks a year. Prices from £810,000 to £2.2 million. Visit thelakesbyyoo.com, or call 01367 250066.