Inside The Secret World of Britain’s Big House Billionaires

Rich foreigners and Arab playboys who have fallen for London life have snapped up dozens of prime country estates in Britain and Ireland.

01.24.16 5:15 AM ET

Billionaires from around the world have been buying up prime London property for the best part of a decade. 

Now, they are increasingly setting themselves up with vast country piles in the English and Irish countryside as well. 

For your average Middle Eastern or American billionaire, the $5m-$15m typically required to purchase a palatial rural spread in Britain or Ireland is little more than chump change. 

So it is perhaps little surprise then that over the past few years, rich foreigners and Arab playboys who have fallen for London life have snapped up dozens of prime country estates as well. 

John Malone, the U.S. media mogul named by Forbes as “the most powerful man in cable” and estimated to be worth anything from $5bn-$10bn, is a case in point. 

In 2013 he paid €8m (about $10m) for Humewood Castle, a 15-bedroom gothic fantasy in Ireland’s County Wicklow. 

According to dinner-party chatter among the local aristocracy, he bought the property as a birthday present for his wife, and is refurbishing it as a purely private residence. 

He is spending welcome and epic amounts of money on local craftsmen, designers, and stonemasons in the process.

The Irish American, who is said to be the biggest landowner in the U.S. (he owns a handy 5% of Maine) has now gone on a major Irish property spree, adding to Humewood in some style. 

He bought the 840-acre Ballylinch stud at Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, before, last month snapping up the former home of one of Ireland’s most noted businessmen, Sir Anthony O’Reilly, Castlemartin, a celebrated eight-bedroom mansion built in 1720. 

Malone also took on the 750-acre estate of prime farmland on which the house stands. 

“Humewood was important because it set a mark of where the value lay,” says Harriet Grant of Savills, a leading high-end real estate agent in Dublin that handles many country estates.

She is perhaps obliquely referring to the fact that Malone picked up the estate for €8m and that in 2006, at the height of Ireland’s boom, it changed hands for over three times that amount. 

Grant says that since 2014 the weak euro--which has seen the currency approach parity with the U.S. dollar—has boosted demand from America in particular. 

“Irish Americans are a very important part of the market for these kinds of country estates,” she says.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

Another group of important buyers in Ireland are the Qataris, who are particularly interested in buying stud farms for breeding racehorses.

Bloodstock continues to be one of Ireland’s marquee industries. 

The Qataris are more secretive than the Americans, who are sometimes perceived as brash. 

“They like Ireland because it’s English-speaking, it’s easy to get to Europe, and most importantly you can come here, buy a house or a farm or an estate, and people will tend to leave you alone,” says one person familiar with the Qatar set. They tend to keep their land and property deals as quiet as possible. 

However, in a small country like Ireland, word inevitably leaks out. It is known, for example, that a 25-year-old princeling of Qatar’s ruling al-Thani family, Sheik Fahad, recently bought a 100-acre property in the west of Ireland for a mere million quid at auction. 

He is said to have spent several times that amount investing in prime horseflesh, and apparently aims to have 40 beasts in Ireland by the end of this year. 

In Britain, the Qataris are also quietly buying up important country estates, having already bought several iconic London properties, such as Harrods (£1.5 billion), the Olympic Village, and Europe’s tallest building, the Shard. 

The al-Thanis are also known to be the owners of Dudley House in London.

They have been accused of trying to buy their way into the favor of the Royal establishment by bankrolling the upkeep of the Queen Mother’s beloved Scottish retreat, the Castle of Mey.

In return for their “generous” financial support for the castle—which the Queen Mother bought in 1952 after the death of her husband, King George VI—Sheik Hamad bin Abdullah al-Thani has become vice president of The Friends of the Castle of Mey. 

The Queen’s cousin, Lady Elizabeth Anson, is reportedly on the Qatari payroll as their PR.

One developer with good links to the Middle Eastern billionaires, one source says, is now specializing in buying up country properties that have been sub-divided into flats or retirement or convalescent homes.

“He puts it all back together into one large property with its surrounding land and finds he has a queue of buyers from Russia, the Middle East and also the Far East who bid crazy sums,” says the source. “The buyers find the estates to be much better investments than yachts—and much safer too. They are usually within less than an hour of one of the London airports, with Britain’s best schools within easy reach to educate their children.

“The local councils—and certainly their planning departments—love the big estates being put back together again.

“The Qataris are far ahead of the Saudis on this. They currently have an Anglophilia that the Saudis do not share.”

Most local communities extend a predictably enthusiastic welcome to incoming foreign plutocrats. 

Mohamed al-Fayed is a prized employer in the Surrey town of Oxted, where he owns a sprawling estate. 

Swiss art dealer Iwan Wirth—whose wealth is estimated at over $200m—has reinvigorated the sleepy town of Bruton in Somerset. 

And when the Russian fashion entrepreneur Leon Max bought Easton Neston, locals (and English Heritage) flocked to sing his praises for taking on the 17th-century Hawksmoor money pit, which the previous incumbent, poor old Lord Hesketh, was forced to give up on after a 300-year tenure by his family. 

Max—who spent £15 million on the house, a further £10 million fixing it, and another £15 million furnishing it—only lives there in the summer, surrounded by 140 Old Master paintings. He spends the winter in sunny LA. 

As more and more old families and aristocrats sell up, one truth is becoming ever more evident; the international jet set are the only people who can really afford a very big house in the country any more.