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Great escapes: spectacular, secluded and for sale

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Time spent in isolation may have been an endurance test for many at the height of the pandemic earlier this year, but it did prove one thing – that escaping the hustle and bustle can make for an appealing lifestyle under certain circumstances. This, coupled with the realisation of the benefits of working from home, has led some house buyers to look for pastures new, and a home far beyond traditional commuter belts, both in the UK and abroad. 

“There are buyers who want to leave the country altogether, and we’ve seen demand for homes that are easily accessible from the UK,” says Joanna Leggett of estate agents Leggett, a specialist in French property. “Brittany, Normandy and the departments down to the Charente and Dordogne have long been holiday-home favourites, and faster TGV routes mean that British buyers have good access by both road and rail, which means less reliance on flights.” A fairytale castle with the prospect of becoming a money spinner may even be on offer if Leggett’s château in Albertville is a benchmark. Set in 66,000sq m of park in the French Alps, the former boutique hotel (priced at £4,298,002) is 13 minutes from Courchevel, an hour from Monaco and, if you want to go further afield, has its own helipad. The château, with gîtes and outbuildings, has a restaurant, a banqueting hall and a fitness centre, and may be run as a high-end Alpine destination.

This house by CLB Architects on the banks of the Snake River, near Jackson Hole, Wyoming –built for a Californian couple – is on 5ft-high platforms to maximise views, as seen from the double-height, open-plan living space
This house by CLB Architects on the banks of the Snake River, near Jackson Hole, Wyoming –built for a Californian couple – is on 5ft-high platforms to maximise views, as seen from the double-height, open-plan living space © Matthew Millman Photography

Beyond Europe, destinations such as Canada promise a total change of pace – and living – with the conveniences of the modern world within reach. In Nova Scotia, Coldwell Banker Supercity Realty is offering a four-bedroom clifftop home (guide price £2,214,496) with an edge-of-the-world feel that has a city (and an international airport) on the doorstep. Nestled in 2.7 acres, the modernist house – originally a second-world-war observation tower – is contemporary in style, and just a 20-minute drive from the centre of Halifax. That said, when the new owners want to get away from it all, it borders 1,800 acres of Crown Land. 

New Zealand is known for its breathtaking countryside where buyers can not only escape the rat race but indulge in any number of outdoor pursuits. Lake Wakatipu, set against mountains and forests of astonishing beauty, boasts year-round trout fishing and swimming beaches. Here, Sotheby’s International Realty is selling a contemporary 8,395sq ft, five-bedroom property on the waterfront for £9,579,124. Flights from nearby Queenstown Airport to Christchurch, the South Island’s largest city, take one hour.

Nothing says remote like a private island, and for those with $13m to spare, there’s a chance to own not one but two such plots, some 25 miles from Manhattan in the US. Columbia Island was once home to an emergency television transmission centre (and bunker), which was converted into a private four-bedroom house in 2007. The property, on sale with Julia B Fee Sotheby’s International Realty, is in Long Island Sound, accessible by boat, and comes with neighbouring Pea Island, which acts as its de-facto five-acre backyard.

Lake Wakatipu in New Zealand is set in mountains and forests – this house on its shores is on sale for £9,579,124 through Sotheby’s International Re
Lake Wakatipu in New Zealand is set in mountains and forests – this house on its shores is on sale for £9,579,124 through Sotheby’s International Realty

If an island is a step too far off the beaten track, those searching for a home in the US might find the peace and quiet of Wyoming appealing – given that it has the second-lowest population density in the country behind Alaska. Here, on the banks of the Snake River, near Jackson Hole, Eric Logan, principal architect at CLB Architects, has built a four-bedroom house for a Californian couple, set on a series of 5ft-high platforms. It is a striking example of how a property can be elevated to take in the scenery that homebuyers are often seduced by – in this case, a vista of cottonwood groves and mountain ranges. The house is contemporary but clad in timber, which helps it to merge into the landscape. Inside, its walls are punctured by windows, and a series of double-aspect, double-height, open-plan areas create modern living spaces where the outdoor views take centre stage. “Even though it is about a 15-minute drive from the centre of Jackson there is enough acreage and tree coverage for it to feel like it is at the end of the world,” Logan says. For him, escaping to the countryside is about enjoying the best of both worlds. “It can be done really successfully, as long as you have the means to travel and remain connected,” he says.

The Gart, a 13-bedroom baronial house in Perthshire, Scotland, dates from 1835. It is on sale through Savills for offers over £1.75m
The Gart, a 13-bedroom baronial house in Perthshire, Scotland, dates from 1835. It is on sale through Savills for offers over £1.75m

In the UK, the lockdown effect has given rise to what some are calling “the great exodus” from the city to the countryside. “It’s inevitable that people will move further from cities,” says buying agent Mark Lawson, a partner at The Buying Solution. “More than anything, they have realised that working from home is really efficient. This does, of course, depend on strong broadband access, but if they have that, they are willing to exchange a short commute to work for a bigger house, more land and greater privacy.” Lawson is currently working with clients who are exchanging urban convenience for country charm. “They originally wanted a property no more than an hour and a half from London,” he says. “Now they are looking at properties that are two to two and a half hours from the city, widening the net to counties that they would not have considered before.” Lawson suggests that most buyers want a home that feels remote but is within striking distance of a pretty village with a good pub or a scenic spot on the coast – and it’s in these locations that properties are more likely to offer space as well as unique character. One such property is Clayton Windmills, a Grade II-listed building transformed into a contemporary home that nestles amid the bucolic splendour of the South Downs National Park. For £3m (listed with The Modern House), its new homeowner could use the separate converted granary as a home office, and spend their leisure time cultivating the vegetable garden and orchard, while enjoying the fruits of their labour in the kitchen.

A modernist clifftop house in Nova Scotia with a guide price of £2,214,496 through Coldwell Banker Supercity Realty
A modernist clifftop house in Nova Scotia with a guide price of £2,214,496 through Coldwell Banker Supercity Realty © Gannet Lane Photos

Andy Ramus, director and founder of AR Design Studio, specialises in negotiating complex and restrictive planning rules to build contemporary houses in similar Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and says lockdown has been “game-changing” for many house buyers. “I am currently building a house in St Ives in Cornwall on a beautiful plot overlooking the beach. The owners live in London but have decided to make St Ives their primary home and keep a flat in London. So rather than spending five days in the city and two in Cornwall, they will do the reverse.” Over in Dorset, Ramus has also converted a holiday house into a second home for a couple of recent empty-nesters. The five-bedroom property, perched atop a cliff near Lyme Regis, is designed as a coastal eyrie, and its façade – clad in silver-grey larch – to weather with time. “The owners didn’t want a ‘look at me’ house,” he explains. “Buildings should belong to their place, which is why we used materials that age gracefully.” The house makes the most of the astounding views with floor-to-ceiling windows, which take full advantage of another benefit of secluded living – not having to worry about being overlooked.

Outdoor living is high on the wishlist for the majority of Ramus’s clients, and he was recently called back to Dorset to add an outdoor kitchen and dining area to the property – a feature, he says, that is gaining popularity. He has also seen new interest in outdoor swimming pools due to an unseasonably warm spring (and the fact that it is now possible to heat the water inexpensively using an air-source heat pump). Vegetable gardens, too, are a popular add-on for those in search of “the good life”.

Columbia Island, on sale for $13m through Julia B Fee Sotheby’s International Realty, is in Long Island Sound, and is sold with the neighbouring Pea Island
Columbia Island, on sale for $13m through Julia B Fee Sotheby’s International Realty, is in Long Island Sound, and is sold with the neighbouring Pea Island
Clayton Windmills, a contemporary home in the South Downs listed at £3m through The Modern House
Clayton Windmills, a contemporary home in the South Downs listed at £3m through The Modern House

Moving to fresh fields – and, for example, a house in the rolling countryside of Wales or Scotland – can certainly offer greater scope for an indoor-outdoor lifestyle. According to Carol Peett, managing director of West Wales Property Finders, many of the families she deals with are looking to give their children an outdoor upbringing in a place where they can fill their lungs with fresh air. “Often they want to be somewhere where they can be self-sufficient, for example by growing their own food, and where their children can become a little feral,” she explains. “I know buyers who, having made the move, have set up small cottage businesses selling their products on the internet. Hopefully this will encourage others to do the same.”

This five-bedroom property on the coast near Lyme Regis is clad in silver‑grey larch to weather with time
This five-bedroom property on the coast near Lyme Regis is clad in silver‑grey larch to weather with time © Martin Gardener

There are other buyers, of course, who are lured by the promise of palatial living. Scotland, with its rich history, is fertile ground for finding a grand country estate, and a fine example is The Gart, a 13-bedroom baronial house in Perthshire dating from 1835, on sale through Savills for offers over £1.75m. The house is spread lavishly over 13,415sq ft and sits in 12 acres of land, fronted by a river that is ideal for salmon fishing, bordered by paddocks and a vegetable garden. But there’s much fun to be had inside the house too, as it offers a cinema room, a library, a gin and whisky bar and, to compensate for any overindulgence, a gym. As The Gart testifies, such properties offer all the trappings of city living with nature on the doorstep. 



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Post-Brexit rules threaten N Ireland aerospace, minister warns

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Northern Ireland’s economy minister is pushing the UK government to ease the strains of post-Brexit rules that threaten the competitiveness of the region’s aerospace industry by forcing companies to pay tariffs on raw materials imported from Great Britain.

Diane Dodds outlined aerospace companies’ mounting concerns in a recent letter to Lord David Frost, the Cabinet minister in charge of post-Brexit trade arrangements, and urged him to “ensure that the competitive position of Northern Ireland businesses within the UK internal market was not damaged” by the imposition of tariffs.

Under the Northern Ireland protocol, which sets the terms for the region’s post-Brexit trade, raw materials moved by aerospace companies from Britain to Northern Ireland are defined as being “at risk” of being moved into the EU.

That means the importing company has to pay tariffs on the raw materials as soon as they enter Northern Ireland or Ireland, a cost that could run to £14m a year according to ADS, Britain’s trade body which represents most of the 90 aerospace companies that employ more than 10,000 people in Northern Ireland.

The actual tariffs are ultimately refundable, but ADS said administration costs could run to as much as £65m annually and argued that the raw materials should be tariff-exempt because they are highly specific and only ever likely to be used for aerospace, an industry whose products are generally exempt from tariffs under World Trade Organization rules.

Dodd’s intervention came as prime minister Boris Johnson told the BBC that he was still trying to remove what he termed the “ludicrous barriers” and “unnecessary protuberances” thrown up by the protocol.

Johnson’s repeated denials of the practical realities arising from the protocol since its October signing have caused significant frustration among EU member states and the European Commission, which has launched legal action to force the UK to fully implement the deal.

Neale Richmond, European affairs spokesman for Ireland’s Fine Gael party — a member of the ruling coalition — accused Johnson of deploying “needless verbiage” instead of focusing on making the protocol operational. “Worth remembering that what Boris Johnson calls ludicrous is what he himself negotiated & ratified, the post Brexit protocol isn’t a foreign construct,” he added on Twitter.

The commission declined to comment on Johnson’s latest remarks, but said it was continuing “technical level” talks with the UK over the protocol’s implementation. Germany’s Europe minister, Michael Roth, repeated on Tuesday that the EU wanted the UK to commit to a “binding timeline for the full implementation of the protocol”.

Northern Ireland’s aerospace industry wants the UK government to use the UK-EU Joint Committee, which oversees the implementation of the UK’s withdrawal agreement, to agree a tariff exemption that “recognises the tariff-free nature of international trade in aircraft components and enables them to compete on a level playing field”, said Kevin Craven, interim chief executive of ADS.

The current regime “risk(s) putting companies at a disadvantage against international competitors”, Craven said.

Northern Ireland has a long-established aerospace cluster spanning design to manufacturing, including aircraft seats for many of the world’s airlines. America’s Spirit AeroSystems, which took over Bombardier’s Northern Ireland operations last year, is one of the largest employers and makes the wings for the Airbus A220.

Several manufacturers told the Financial Times the issue was already affecting supply chains. One executive reported recently cancelling a contract with a longstanding raw material supplier based in Britain in favour of an EU alternative.

“Northern Ireland needs to get support from [the Republic] and London and I don’t see much effort in London to help the situation,” Conor McCarthy, founder of Dublin Aerospace, one of the Republic of Ireland’s largest aerospace companies, said.

“The deep engineering and manufacturing heritage in NI should be the attraction and the payback for the British government is to alleviate their economic burden there with two out of every three jobs being a government job of some description.”

The Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland said the minister had asked the UK government to consider how tariffs could damage the industry.

“The difficulties this sector has experienced around the world due to Covid-19 are well known. This is also a sector where components tend to move between manufacturing sites during the manufacturing process,” it added. 





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German ruling party backs Laschet as candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor

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Armin Laschet has won the backing of Germany’s governing Christian Democratic Union in his bid to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, after a campaign that exposed deep rifts in the party five months before national elections.

Thirty-one of 46 members of the CDU’s executive committee backed Laschet in a secret vote, with his rival, Markus Söder, prime minister of Bavaria, receiving just nine, according to the party. There were six abstentions.

The result means Laschet is all but certain to be the centre-right’s candidate for chancellor in September’s Bundestag election, when Merkel will bow out after 16 years as Germany’s leader.

Söder, who is leader of the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, had said he would accept a clear vote in favour of Laschet.

But the ballot revealed deep misgivings among senior Christian Democrats about Laschet’s suitability to run. The party executive had given its unanimous backing to his candidacy last week, but he garnered just 77.5 per cent of the vote, with 22.5 per cent going to Söder.

Laschet, 60, was elected CDU leader in January. But he has struggled in the polls, and many in the CDU/CSU bloc thought they had a better chance of winning the election with Söder as their candidate.

The chaos within the ruling party has also reflected its performance in the polls. The CDU surged to almost 40 per cent last year as voters rewarded it for Germany’s deft handling of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

But its approval rating has slumped in 2021 as public anger mounted over the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccinations and the revelation that some MPs earned huge commissions on deals to procure face masks.

The CDU also faces a strong challenge from the opposition Greens, which some pollsters believed could take the chancellery in the election. The party chose Annalena Baerbock, a 40-year-old MP, as its candidate for chancellor, in a smooth process that marked a sharp contrast with the open power struggle in the CDU/CSU.

The son of a miner, Laschet studied law and edited a Catholic newspaper before being elected to the Bundestag in 1994. He served as a minister in the government of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, in the 1990s and became prime minister there in 2017.

Laschet is an ideological ally of Merkel and has said that if elected chancellor, he would continue her middle-of-the-road policies. He was long considered her natural successor.

But his popularity has suffered over the course of the pandemic, when he has come across as hesitant and erratic. By contrast, Söder, who earned a reputation as a decisive crisis manager, has seen his polling soar.

The poll ratings of Markus Söder, prime minister of Bavaria, had soared, but he said he would respect the CDU executive committee’s decision ahead of the vote © Reuters

Laschet was endorsed on Monday by some of the CDU’s most influential grandees, such as Wolfgang Schäuble, the former finance minister and Bundestag president, Volker Bouffier, prime minister of the western state of Hesse, and Ralph Brinkhaus, leader of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group.

But other members of the executive, such as Peter Altmaier, economy minister and a close Merkel ally, favoured Söder, a move that will badly dent Laschet’s authority.

The prime ministers of Saxony-Anhalt and Saarland also broke ranks with Laschet in recent days and threw their weight behind Söder, saying he enjoyed far more support among the party’s rank-and-file members. The powerful youth wing of the CDU, the Junge Union, also backed the Bavarian.

Söder garnered support among many CDU MPs who fear they will lose their seats in September if Laschet leads the campaign.

Some attendees of Monday’s meeting said the CDU/CSU parliamentary group and regional party bosses should be involved in any decision on who should run for chancellor.

But Laschet insisted that only the executive could decide and demanded a vote to resolve the issue. “We should decide today, as we planned to at the beginning,” he said, according to participants.

Söder made clear he would respect the CDU executive’s decision, telling reporters this week he had made the party a proposal “but only the CDU can decide if it wants to accept this offer”.



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After Afghanistan, China and Russia will test Biden

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“America is back” proclaimed Joe Biden, a few weeks ago. But in Afghanistan, America is out. The US president has just announced the withdrawal of all remaining American troops from the country. A 20-year war will end on the symbolic date of 9/11, 2021.

The watching world will wonder if a gap is emerging between White House rhetoric about re-engagement with the world, and a reality of continuing retreat. Biden insists that this is not the case. He argues that America has achieved its counter-terrorism aims in Afghanistan and now intends to “fight the battles for the next 20 years, not the last 20”.

But perception matters. The danger is that the pullout from Afghanistan will be seen outside America as a Vietnam-like failure that could eventually lead to the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, a replay of the fall of Saigon to North Vietnam in 1975.

Rival powers, in particular Russia and China, could now be emboldened to test the Biden administration’s resolve a little further. The obvious flashpoints are Ukraine and Taiwan. In recent weeks, the Kremlin has assembled more troops on its border with Ukraine than at any time since 2014 when Russia grabbed Crimea. Last week, China sent a record number of military jets into Taiwanese airspace. Both countries are combining military muscle-flexing with warlike rhetoric.

Biden himself has used confrontational language with Russia and China. He has called Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, a killer and his administration has branded China’s actions in Xinjiang a genocide. The US also recently imposed sanctions on Russian and Chinese officials and has eased restrictions on American officials meeting their Taiwanese counterparts.

The strategic situation in Asia and Europe is similar in one key respect. The US has expressed strong support for both Taiwan and Ukraine, but neither country enjoys an explicit American security guarantee. The US relies on a policy of “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan. The idea is that China should understand there is a strong chance that the US would fight to defend Taiwan, without a firm promise being made. In a similar way, the US has never spelt out what it would do if Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Although Taiwan and Ukraine are separated by thousands of miles and involve different antagonists, the two stand-offs feel connected. Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to Nato, believes that: “Moscow and Beijing will look closely at how we react in one situation to set the stage for the other.” Daalder argues that “we need greater strategic clarity on what we would do if Russia moved militarily against Ukraine, or China on Taiwan”.

There are voices in the US calling for America to now make an explicit security guarantee to Taiwan, and for Nato to accelerate the process that would allow Ukraine to join its alliance. The hope is that these moves would deter Moscow and Beijing, and so reduce the risk of war starting by miscalculation. The argument against these policy changes is that China and Russia may interpret them as a threatening shift in the status quo — and feel compelled to respond. American allies in Asia and Europe may also feel that explicit security guarantees for Taiwan and Ukraine are too provocative. The joint statement issued by Biden and Yoshihide Suga, the Japanese prime minister, after a meeting last week, stressed the importance of peace in the Taiwan Strait, but remained vague about how Washington and Tokyo might respond if conflict broke out.

It would obviously be particularly difficult for the Biden administration to respond to simultaneous crises over Taiwan and Ukraine. Some western strategists are concerned that Moscow and Beijing may be co-ordinating their actions, to maximise the pressure on the Biden administration. They point to an increase in the frequency of high-level meetings between the Russian and Chinese governments. Beijing and Moscow also made statements, after a recent meeting between their foreign ministers, which signalled a deepening of their strategic relationship and a more open rejection of a western-led world order.

The internal situations in Russia and China may also be raising the dangers of conflict. Putin recently imprisoned Alexei Navalny, the most popular and dangerous opposition leader he has ever faced. Navalny is currently on hunger strike and may soon die, sparking further protests. The Kremlin knows that conflict over Ukraine boosted Putin’s popularity back in 2014. Another small war may look like a tempting option.

As the Chinese Communist party prepares to celebrate the centenary of its foundation later this year, President Xi Jinping may be looking for a triumph over Taiwan. American officials believe that Xi and his advisers have convinced themselves that the US is in deep and terminal decline. They fear that the Chinese leadership may believe the US would ultimately back down rather than fight over Taiwan.

But even the most confident and nationalistic officials in Beijing and Moscow will still be conscious of the risks of head-on confrontation over Taiwan and Ukraine. The likelihood is that Russia and China will continue to use “grey zone” tactics that stop just short of all-out conflict. As America discovered in Afghanistan, it is much easier to start a war than to control its outcome.

gideon.rachman@ft.com



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