Water, Water Everywhere

13.02.17

A sustainable lakeside holiday development with a 400-acre natural playground to explore is proving a winning formula for busy professionals and their families, reports Faith Glasgow.

When entrepreneur Jeremy Paxton landed his helicopter in an overgrown, part-derelict quarry in the south-western Cotswolds back in the mid-1990s, he could see straightaway that it had enormous potential. As co-founder of the Watermark development of holiday homes a few miles up the road – and also built around abandoned quarry pits – he had a readymade blueprint for the site.

Except that the 550-acre Lower Mill Estate was to be different. Paxton wanted his new enterprise to focus   on a sustainable balance between people and place,   and eventually won planning permission for a gated community of 575 high-quality holiday homes  clustered in ‘villages’ within a third of the site, keeping almost   400 acres conserved as a carefully managed and richly stocked Lakeland nature reserve, open to the Lower Mill holidaymakers for rambling, nature-watching, exploring, den-building, biking and sailing, but protected for posterity from further building.

And almost 20 years on, that’s the essence of the estate. ‘We carry out an annual audit of everything moving in the reserve, so we know all about the nightingales, otters, beavers, great-crested newts and brown hair-streak butterflies,’ enthuses Red Paxton, Jeremy’s elder son, who with his sister and brother, Ruby and Rory, has owned and run the estate since the sudden death of their father in 2013.

He has no trouble selling the concept, having lived it most of his life. ‘We were very lucky: growing up, the whole of Lower Mill was our back garden for school holidays, so we used to bring our school mates up and had a wonderful Swallows and Amazons-type existence - it was a blast,’ he recalls.

Unsurprisingly, with restricted car access and no motor boats or skidoos allowed on the lakes, it’s a peaceful spot: the view from many of the homes that now cluster around the lakesides at one end of the reserve is a proper rural idyll, uninterrupted by other buildings.

But with 320 plots now sold – as well as a full spa facility, restaurant and tennis courts – there’s a real sense of community too. On an overcast October half-term afternoon, kids were pottering around the traffic-free streets on their cycles, and both the indoor and the outdoor pools were pulling crowds, while the restaurant was doing a brisk trade in DIY pizzas. Muddy boots and bikes were stacked by many front doors. Across the lake, as the light faded, a lone paddle-boarder glided silently by.

The combination of easy access, hassle-free property ownership and a secure environment for children to get down and dirty (in many cases blissfully free from the grown-ups) makes Lower Mill a popular choice for busy London professionals looking to recharge their batteries and let the kids off the urban leash.

Buyers include a goodly smattering of expatriates looking for an easy UK lock-and-leave property to return to for their holidays, but most have younger families and are based in London or the Home Counties. ‘They tend to be like-minded individuals; indeed, sometimes they arrive here and bump into familiar faces from home,’ Red says.

So what exactly is the basis on which the estate operates? Owners – who have often rented there for several years before they commit to buying – select their plot and choose one of a selection of contemporary eco-friendly house types, which they can then upgrade or individualise as they wish. The estate’s recommended builders do the donkey work at a fixed price, and then it’s just a matter of sorting out the furnishings.

Alternatively, says Red, you could work with your own architect to create a one-off holiday home. ‘You have an almost blank slate, provided the design fits with the wider contemporary style of our other home styles. It’s really hard to find that opportunity in the UK,’ he adds.

Typically, the cost for a plot and an ‘off the shelf’ build, without upgrades, comes in at between £560,000 and £1m. Thereafter, there’s an annual non-profit service charge, currently £3,150 plus VAT, which covers maintenance of the estate and facilities; owners are responsible for utility bills, council tax and maintenance of their property.

Because planning permission for the estate is for holiday homes only, buyers must have another home that’s clearly their main residence (where they are registered for tax and their kids are schooled, for instance). But they are free to spend as much time as they want at Lower Mill. Around a third of owners rent their property out commercially to help cover costs, but many keep it for weekend and holiday escapes for themselves, friends and family. Importantly, adds Red, the arrangement also helps to prevent local villages turning into second-home ghost settlements.

The final phase of development is now well under way at Lower Mill Estate, though upgrading the facilities continues, for example with the planned refurbishment of the spa. But the Paxtons have not been resting on their laurels. Phase one is almost sold out at a new 564-acre site at Silverlake, nestled among the rolling Dorset hills a few miles from the sea; and planning application is in for another project in Devon.

‘We’ve tried to create something super-easy for busy people - safe, secure, sustainable homes, with everything easily sorted out, and where the natural world on their doorstep is properly managed too,’ says Red. In a frenetic 21st century world, that’s an appealing proposition.

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