Updown Court, Windlesham - A billionaire's palace
21:09 07 October 2010
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine April 2008
Widely regarded as the most important private residence to be built in England since the 19th century, to describe Updown Court as a palace is an understatement. Indeed, the two nearest palaces - Hampton Court and Buckingham - are both smaller.
Situated on a secluded estate in Windlesham, and set in 58 acres of beautiful forested countryside, this four-storey cream-coloured mansion has 103 rooms, including 24 en-suite bedrooms, two guest houses, a security lodge and manager's office.
What is more, Updown Court is available for you and your entourage to move in immediately - if, that is, you can afford the £70 million reserve price tag, £3 million stamp duty and, of course, the phenomenal running costs.
"The sort of people who own properties like these also own houses in their native country, in the south of France and the west coast of America, plus apartments in London and New York, and a yacht," says estate manager Alan MacKinnon. "It's not unusual for houses like this to be occupied no more than two weeks a year. At the end of the day, the owners won't live here, because they don't really live anywhere."
As he guides me around the labyrinthine interiors, I become quite disoriented, wondering if I should leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find my way out.
Fortunately no tormented ghosts prowl its corridors - unlike other stately homes - and everything is state-of-the-art high-tech. The maintenance and security system is computer-controlled and voice-activated, accessible from anywhere in the world - which means if you're anxious you left the gas on, you could switch it off remotely from your laptop computer without needing to turn the Lear jet around.
Classical in design, with a curtsy to Victorian mansions, the incredible edifice of stone is reflected on the surface of a private lake, complete with rowing boat. At its heart, a giant geyser spurts 10 metres into the sky.
In case you are wondering, there's room to park your helicopter on the spacious lawn; both London and Farnborough airports are a short hop away for quick flights to your offshore tax haven.
As well as the spectacular indoor swimming pool complex, two heated pools adorn the grounds - the kids can splash around in one as you float calmly on an inflatable yacht in the other, without spilling your champagne. Tenants can also partake in all-year-round dips in the heated open-air spa pool on the penthouse balcony, much like those Japanese snow monkeys that recline in hot thermal springs while icicles matt their hair.
Meanwhile, the driveway paving stones are individually warmed; a comforting thought when you set off in your chauffeur-driven Jaguar during a blizzard.
"The driveway is heated not to keep your feet warm but to stop ice forming," says Alan. "You would never feel the warmth if you stood on it in bare feet. Last year, we had a snowfall so we batted it on very quickly, but boy does it use some power!"
Stabling for five horses is provided; the animals can be hacked out in the enclosed woodland to avoid the gardeners' opprobrium for leaving horseshoe indentations on the manicured lawns. Imagine practising your golf swing on the verdant turf (hoping those gardeners duck in time as the ball whizzes past!) or enjoying a game of tennis on the all-weather court!
Inside, Updown Court is equally mesmerising with tones of chocolate, tan and cream. Over 250 tonnes of imported Italian marble flooring and pillars prevail, with oak panels and doors, and wrought-iron railings. Twin stairwells, copied from Gianni Versace's Miami mansion, dominate the entrance hall, for those who prefer to descend majestically when greeting guests, rather than shuffle out of the elevators.
In the basement, there is parking for eight Rolls Royces or your collection of luxury sports cars and a stretch limo or two. There is also a recreation area consisting of a tenpin bowling alley, squash court, temperature-controlled wine cellar for over 300 bottles, and a cinema with bar.
"We haven't put seats in the cinema yet," says Alan. "Do you put 20 little seats in or six huge armchairs? It's up to the user."
There's even a panic room, a de rigueur retreat from uninvited terrorists with its own battery-operated air conditioning system, where you can stockpile tins of baked beans and wait for the S.A.S. to storm in and liberate you.
Still on the market...
However, despite all its luxury trappings, Updown Court has remained doggedly unsold and uninhabited since February 2005. While it's comforting knowing former tenants won't drop by to claim uncollected mail, there must be reasons it remains unsold, and for me it's the ostentatiousness. The crudely illustrated mosaic of palm trees beneath a snow-peaked mountain, on the wall of the master bedroom's indoor pool, is, in my opinion, a prime example - tacky and pretentious.
Updown Court has something of the footballers' wives feel about it, where gloss meets dross. I can imagine 'posh' Victoria Beckham parading in designer clothes and jewellery before yelling at her son, "Brooklyn, don't draw yer crayon on the furnicha!"
"The Beckhams couldn't afford to run it," says Alan, deflating my fantasy. "It's not just laying out the £70-odd million to buy it, you've got to run it, which costs a lot of money. Bear in mind that we don't heat the swimming pools, the lights aren't on at night and we run the house heating and air conditioning three hours a day in summer warmed to just 18 degrees.
"Furthermore, cleaning is not a problem because it's unoccupied, so you're not going to get a measure of what it really costs to run. But even on that basis, with the place just ticking over, our combined gas and electricity bills are £10,000 a month."
From the estimated 50 British billionaires who can afford it, interest has not been forthcoming, and the next most likely contenders, owners of Russian energy companies or Middle Eastern oil fields, haven't signed mortgage papers either.
I suggest to Alan that a religious cult, like the Scientologists, might possibly express an interest. "It's for sale," he declares, "it's not for us to determine our clients."
Although there are an estimated 600 billionaires worldwide, when Updown Court eventually finds a buyer, my prediction is that it will be a brash, Dallas-style American oil baron. In fact, a Texan oil tycoon is due to vacate the White House soon - Mr Bush, how would you like to live near the Queen of England?
Updown Court, Chertsey Road, Windlesham, Surrey GU20 6HY
Tel: 01276 453336
The story of a modern-day palace
- The first Updown Court was built in 1924 on 12 acres of land.
- In 1977, Prince Sami Gayed of Egypt purchased it, but the building was abandoned after it was damaged by a fire in the Great Storm of 1987, believed to have been caused by a fallen tree rupturing a gas main.
- Thereafter, Indian businessman Banjul Singh purchased the property and began an extensive renovation programme.
- The following year, Les Allen-Vercoe of Rhymer Investments, a Surrey-based property magnate, acquired Updown Court for £20m and set about creating a sumptuous citadel inspired by Victorian-era mansions.
- He replaced the original American architect with a Briton, Eades Hotwani, and hired Italian craftsmen to lay the marble tiles and mosaics.
- Today, Updown Court is larger than Hampton Court and Buckingham Palace and includes 24 bedroom suites, 27 bathrooms and five pools.
- At £70 million, it is the most expensive house currently on sale in the UK, though a property in London was recently sold for £80 million.