Title: The hit factory
Author: Emma Wells
Source: The Sunday Times
Publish date: September 30, 2007

Original publication

Some of the biggest names in pop have recorded at Trevor Horn’s Oxfordshire pile

Trevor Horn is the latest in a string of musicians to live at Hook End

Emma Wells

“Tess is the one that bit Robbie Williams,” says Trevor Horn, pointing out a Jack Russell scrapping with two other dogs in the yard of his Oxfordshire estate. “But he took it well.”

Horn, 58, an award-winning song-writer, composer and producer, is used to having celebrities wandering round his home, some of them even naked (reportedly, the state in which Brian Eno, the godfather of ambient music, liked to sunbathe during his numerous stays here).

Hook End Manor, a 10-bedroom Elizabethan mansion house with numerous barns, converted outbuildings, paddocks and stabling, set in about 150 Checkendon acres, isn’t merely the home of Horn and his family – it is also the site of one of his three state-of-the-art Sarm recording studios. House pedigrees don’t get any more rock’n’roll: a tour of the property, on sale for £12m, is a veritable join-the-dots of the celebrities and producers who have lived and made music there.

Horn, a multi-millionaire with a string of awards to his credit, burst into the public consciousness with the 1979 hit Video Killed the Radio Star, which he wrote, performed and produced as part of the duo Buggles, in trademark huge specs. His greatest commercial success came five years later with Frankie Goes to Hollywood, then the charity group Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? – one of the bestselling singles of all time. He ran the ZTT record label and produced, among scores of others, chart-toppers by Seal, Pet Shop Boys and, more recently, the Noughties favourites Belle & Sebastian.

Horn came across Hook End back in the early 1980s, when he went there for lunch with its then owners, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd and his (now ex-) wife, Ginger. They had bought the property from Alvin Lee, the guitarist and front man of Ten Years After.

Gilmour recorded parts of Pink Floyd’s 1987 album A Momentary Lapse of Reason in a studio at the house. The band’s inflatable pig, first used to promote their Animals album a decade earlier, was stored in one of the outbuildings. “I liked it – but I had no idea I was going to live in it,” says Horn, who still wears his trademark big specs, although these days they are Giorgio Armani tortoiseshell.

Shortly afterwards, in fact, Gilmour sold Hook End Manor to Clive Langer and Winstanley Productions, who produced the British icons Madness and Morrissey. Then, in the early 1990s, Horn bought them out and set out to transform the place into a family home for himself, his wife, Jill Sinclair, now 55 (with whom he co-founded ZTT in 1983), and his children, Alexandra, 25, Aaron, 23, Rebecca, 17, and Gabriella, 12.

Horn, who is just about to fly off to LA, begins our tour with some (admittedly foggy) history: the manor house, as he describes it, is “a great hodgepodge”, which he thinks was built for the Bishop of Reading in about 1580. As for renovations, “we only did the unglamorous stuff – like repairing the roof, relining and repairing the chimneys and replacing central heating”.

The main Tudor body of the house – where the clients stay – is all red brick and crooked ships’ timbers, with seven reception rooms on the ground floor alone. The snooker room, with its ornately detailed Tudor panelling and stone fireplace, became one of Horn’s favourites after the three months he spent working with Seal in the 1990s on his second, self-titled album. “We had such a laugh together,” Horn recalls. “And we got really good at snooker.”

Later additions to the house include the oak-panelled dining room, which probably dates from the 1920s. Here there are signs of serious rock-star antics: Horn points out red stains on the door where “someone clearly threw a bottle of wine”. The former playroom – now used for pool – was painted by Ginger Gilmour when in residence. The walls are covered with animal murals, with cryptic Floyd references painted onto book spines.

You must pass through the Tudor heart of the house – the oak-panelled reception hall – and up a stairway to reach the bedrooms that are now so celebrated in the music world. It’s certainly fun trying to match clients to the wildly eccentric rooms, some designed by Gilmour, others by another previous owner, the financier Charles Clore. One of the Kaiser Chiefs would surely love the RAF Room, with its cream-and-blue colour scheme and pictures of Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes; the Spice Girls are said to have loved the candy-striped Pink Room. Fans of 10cc would appreciate the orange Four Poster Room, with a still life of flowers painted by Lol Creme.

Most of the five ensuite bathrooms have gold claw-footed baths, 1930s tiles and loos with old-fashioned overhead water tanks. The lilac-blue Royal Doulton bathroom, with its diva-sized bath and heartshaped sinks, must have witnessed some mischief.

Despite rumours of hauntings, Horn isn’t convinced. “It’s the kind of place where, late at night, you could convince yourself that there are ghosts. But if there is anything here, it is certainly friendly.”

Anyhow, the noise made in the studio itself, just a short walk away from the main house in a separate outbuilding, would scare away any spirits, friendly or otherwise. Sarm Hook End, as it is known, boasts a 5,640 sq ft control room with Quested monitor speakers and an 80-track SSL9096 mixing desk. And no, the gear isn’t included in the sale price.

“Freddie Mercury played on this,” Horn says, lifting the lid of the Bosen-dorfer Imperial Grand piano and bashing out the intro to Poison Arrow, by ABC, one of his early hits.

It is in the converted outbuilding now known as the Bull Pen that Horn and his wife have created a real family home. “When we first came here, the beams were still covered in rosettes won for prize animals,” he says. Now a seamlessly modern space, with four bedrooms and five reception rooms, it has 3,000 sq ft of living space, characterised by blond oak flooring and large single-pane windows. Outside, a Japanese water garden adds a touch of zen glamour to the old-world surroundings. “My wife designed that herself,” Horn says. “We had a lot of trouble with it!”

The Bull Pen is the warmest and most welcoming part of Hook End – but Sinclair hasn’t been home to enjoy it for more than a year now. Last summer, in a freak accident, she was shot in the neck by a stray pellet fired by Aaron, who was back from university and shooting at targets in the garden with an air rifle. The pellet severed an artery, and Sinclair has been in a deep coma since. It is not clear whether she will recover.

Horn gazes out to where the manicured lawns – reclaimed from the wilderness by his wife – meet the start of the property’s woodland, where a bandstand, used for evening drinks, strikes a romantic note.”We call that the bandstand at the end of the universe,” Horn says wistfully.

So, who will be the next master of Hook End Manor? Another big name from the world of rock’n’roll, or a hedge-fund manager with a penchant for Pink Floyd? “This place would suit someone for whom music is really important,” says James Mackenzie, a director of Savills, the selling agent. “Or someone looking for a mini estate not far from London.”

As for Horn, he has bought a house in Primrose Hill, northwest London – Bob Hoskins’s old pad, on the market earlier this year for about £7m – where he has also installed a studio, though he is currently renting a place in Camden.

Despite the painful recent memories associated with Hook End Manor, Horn doesn’t seem desperate to turn his back on it. He recently turned down an offer for £10m. “We always spent our summers and holidays here,” he says. “It’s so peaceful.”

Hook End Manor is for sale for £12m with Savills, 020 7499 8644, www.savills.co.uk; www.trevorhorn.com