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This 835-Year-Old English Manor Needs Some Modern Love


Tim Soar stood in the oak-paneled drawing room of his 12th-century English manor house, known as Long Crendon Manor, fretting as the heat from the crackling fire escaped out of a door left ajar.

“Close the door! The heat! We need to conserve the heat,” Mr. Soar yelled.

He was leading a reporter on a private tour of this massive relic in the Buckinghamshire countryside, about 50 miles northwest of London, which he recently listed for sale along with his wife, Sue Soar. Stepping inside from the courtyard, there was silence except for the tick-tock of the antique grandfather clock in the great hall. The hulking cream-and-gray flagstones underfoot had been worn away from centuries of service.

From the east wing, which was added in the 14th century, to the west wing, which arrived in the 15th century, this 39-acre property envelops visitors in a millennium of history, and looks every bit its age. And if it looks familiar, maybe it’s because you’ve seen it in various films and television shows going back decades, from 1933’s “The Private Life of Henry VIII” to 2012’s “The Woman in Black,” starring Daniel Radcliffe. (Also, one of its previous owners was Sir Winston Churchill’s father.)

Medieval properties for sale like Long Crendon are exceedingly out of the ordinary, even among the historic estates that dot this rural part of England, said Ed Sugden, a broker and country-house specialist with Savills. He has listed the property at a guide price of 6.95 million British pounds ($8.4 million), which includes its thatched summer house, a winter house with a fireplace, a hedge maze with a central fountain, a croquet lawn and plenty more.

“We have other manor houses on the market,” Mr. Sugden said, “but nothing medieval. It’s a pretty rare property. It’s fair to say that it’s a specialized market. Medieval architecture doesn’t have such a wide appeal as Georgian architecture — people like the proportions and the extra light Georgian properties give them. But because of their age, there are far fewer medieval properties available.”

The main house at Long Crendon offers 13,500 square feet of living space on two floors, including a dining room, library, two sitting rooms, a butler’s pantry, a wine cellar, two kitchens, 10 bedrooms and six bathrooms. There are three boilers and two Wi-Fi systems.

And only two people live here: Mr. Soar, 60, and Ms. Soar, 61.

Ms. Soar’s parents bought the property in 1976, and the couple moved in 15 years ago. They’ve spent much of that time struggling to maintain the sprawling estate, operating a bed-and-breakfast, a farm shop, a cider business, a bakery, a pork store and various other commercial ventures to support its upkeep.

“With the dogs, pigs, geese, chickens, B&B guests, farm shop and everything else, we don’t get time to go away together, ever,” Mr. Soar said. In four decades, the longest stretch they’ve managed away from the house was four nights, he said, “and that was our honeymoon.”

It wasn’t always like this. Before the couple moved into this decaying castle, Mr. Soar lived a “corporate life” as a chartered engineer. “I felt important,” he said. “But when I’m on my knees cleaning the fourth bog of the day, I think, ‘What has it all come down to?’ With houses like these, you have to be very hands-on indeed, unless you’re very, very wealthy.”

The Soars are not very, very wealthy, which has led to this new chapter in the 835-year history the home. Despite listing it for sale, however, the Soars aren’t quite ready to let Long Crendon go.

“The property causes lots of people, both nearby and far, to be rather nosy,” Ms. Soar said. “We’re always being asked what our plans will be if we sell Long Crendon. Well, we simply don’t know.”

“But if we did,” her husband added, “we’d probably buy something similar, but with five bedrooms and not 10.”

The couple’s ideal buyer would be a young family who could “bring it back to its former glory,” Mr. Sugden said, “rather than going for a commercial venture. They’re happy with both options, but would prefer that.”

He cautioned that the house “is not turnkey,” and that because it is “so unusual,” it may take a while to sell. But, he added, “It’s a joy to be selling a property with its history.”

That history has been recorded at numerous times and in numerous places, including national archives and the local Buckinghamshire Council archives. Long Crendon goes back to about 1187, when the great room housed the Abbots of Notley. It was owned at one point by William Marshal, one of 25 rebellious barons who forced King John to put his seal on the Magna Carta in 1215. Six centuries later, it was owned by three generations of the Dukes of Marlborough, then by Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Sir Winston Churchill.

“It was advertised in the Times for 140,000 pounds when my parents bought it in 1976,” Ms. Soar said, referring to the British daily newspaper. “But I think the price is completely irrelevant as they bought it bit by bit, buying the gatehouse first, as that suited the previous owners.”

The couple took over Long Crendon and gave up their jobs after Ms. Soar’s widowed mother, Celia, became ill. They raised their own children — Tobias, Oliver and Emma — in the house. It didn’t take long for them to realize what they were up against. Buildings in Britain that have special architectural or historical merit are listed in one of three grades, which limit the alterations that can be made. Long Crendon is a Grade II*.

“When Sue’s parents bought the property, it needed a major overhaul — everything from the plumbing to the roof to the guttering,” Mr. Soar said. “For us, as it’s a listed building, the maintenance never ends.”

A century ago, Mr. Soar said, there would have been a robust staff to help — there were two butlers, two chauffeurs and two scullery maids. Today there is just a gardener, who visits once a week. “Everything else Sue and I do ourselves,” Mr. Soar said.

“Cooking, chambermaiding, maintenance, running the farm shop. And while we don’t have employed staff, we have a network of local tradesmen — roofing, plumbing, French polishing, a limesmith, a cabinet maker,” he trailed on with more chores.

He pointed out the leaded glass windows in the library, which he repaired himself. “A couple came to stay as B&B guests and the lady mentioned that she used to repair lead lights for churches and cathedrals,” he said. “She gave me a one-day coaching workshop, teaching me how to cut the glass, stretch the lead and solder.”

Much of the upkeep is for the benefit of the bed-and-breakfast guests. On internet review sites like booking.com, most Long Crendon guests post positive notes about the house and the hosts. “Incredible stay!” reads one. “Peaceful, beautiful and a B&B like no other I have stayed in,” gushes another.

Not everyone, of course. One recent guest complained about the abundant cobwebs, “which is somewhat understandable given the type of accommodation, but did detract from the comfort,” they wrote. Another said the house was “very comfortable, but lack of hot water spoilt it for me.”

(Ms. Soar’s wry wit sometimes earns its own reaction: One guest reported that she said their luggage “looked like a body bag.”)

Some people just “have the wrong expectations,” Mr. Soar said. “We don’t have waiters serving cocktails.”

When guests are replaced by film crews looking for authentic medieval ambience, “it is intrusive but lucrative,” Mr. Soar said. The last major production to take over the house, he said, was the forthcoming Disney+ series “The Ballad of Renegade Nell,” which brought in dozens of extras, as well as carriages, horses, chickens and goats.

“You have to turn a blind eye concerning your property,” he said. “If they want to use the drawing room, it will get painted a different color, the fixtures and fittings all go. You can’t be precious at all.”

When Covid arrived, almost all of the Soars’ revenue streams were interrupted. They couldn’t even sell their meat and cider to restaurants, which were closed. They managed to keep the farm shop and bakery operating.

The estate also has a licensed cafe, which is run by a neighbor.

“Although we live nearby, we didn’t know about the manor at all, so it was a nice surprise,” said Robbie Elliott, who began overseeing the cafe with his wife, Rachel, in December. They live in the nearby village of Haddenham, a couple of miles away.

“The manor and the surroundings are stunning, and the local people have been so welcoming. There is a real community vibe here,” Mr. Elliot said. “Long Crendon is only a small village, and one or two pubs have closed nearby recently, so people are keen to get a new local business.”

The Soars have done their part to support the Long Crendon village by employing local tradespeople and hosting fund-raisers. “They don’t Lord it up at all. They’re very down to earth,” said Derek Smith, a village resident. “They’re always very approachable and are an asset to the village.”

For years, the couple helped supply the village with meats, ciders and baked goods. These days, there’s no baker to run the bakery. The last two, who hailed from Romania and Hungary, had to leave after Britain departed the European Union in 2020.

Ms. Soar still runs the farm shop, and the cider-making operation is churning out 6,000 liters a year, she said. The free-range, rare-breed pigs continue to supply a sausage and bacon business. “You certainly need to have eggs in lots of baskets running an estate,” she said.

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