Inside Wytham Abbey, the RM90m castle Effective Altruism must sell

It has 27 bedrooms and 18 bathrooms and has connections to both Queen Elizabeth I and Silicon Valley billionaires


THE manor house cheekily known as the Effective Altruism Castle is finally hitting the market — with its sellers willing to take what amounts to a loss. 

Effective Ventures Foundation bought Wytham Abbey in April 2022 for £14.9 million (RM88.95 million) with grants from Open Philanthropy, whose funders include billionaire Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz. The purchase initially stirred controversy that a charity dedicated to the most efficient use of money for the maximum good was buying one of the finest manor homes in England — and later for Effective Ventures’ connections to crypto swindler Sam Bankman-Fried. 

Illustrious Past 

The abbey, built more than 500 years ago, was owned by aristocratic families and later by Oxford University; visitors have included Queen Elizabeth I, Oliver Cromwell and Queen Victoria. Effective Ventures, which was behind such projects as the Centre for Effective Altruism, used the grand manor house as a workshop space for discussions on such topics as the risks posed by artificial intelligence (AI). 

While grants from Open Philanthropy were used to fund the purchase and maintenance of Wytham Abbey, Effective Ventures also received money from FTX Foundation — the charity associated with Bankman-Fried, who was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Effective Ventures has since come to a settlement with the FTX estate and paid back the US$26.8 million (RM127.57 million) given to it by FTX Foundation. 

The abbey is in remarkably good condition for a building of its size and age

It’s amid such turmoil that Wytham Abbey is being listed on the open market for £15 million with Charles Elsmore-Wickens at Savills, who spoke exclusively with Bloomberg ahead of the historic listing. For that price, a buyer would get a 27,000 sq ft stately home with 27 bedrooms and 18 bathrooms on 23 acres (9.3ha) just three miles (4.83km) west of Oxford. (Adjusted for inflation, the purchase price of the house two years ago now equals £16.2 million.) 

Elsmore-Wickens would comment only on the specifics of the house, not on Effective Ventures. A representative for Open Philanthropy said it had earlier arranged with Effec- tive Ventures that it would ask for the abbey’s sale if the purchase turned out to be cost-ineffective. A representative for Effective Ventures did not respond to further questions about the sale, saying they are for the abbey’s major donors to answer. 

The listing comes as homes on the UK’s once-hot country market are taking longer to sell, forcing some owners to offer discounts. In first quarter 2024 (1Q24), prices for prime country houses were down 5% versus 1Q23, according to data from Knight Frank LLP. That’s a turnaround for a market that enjoyed surging demand from buyers seeking space during Covid-19 lockdowns. 

Elsmore-Wickens said while the sellers of Wytham Abbey are “not in a hurry”, they are keen for it to hit the open market. He said the pricing approach is sensible and disputed that it’s being listed at a loss, given broader sentiment and last year’s market conditions. “It’s easier to measure losses in say, two-bed flats in North London, where there are tonnes of them coming up for sale all the time, versus rare historic properties like these, where you only get perhaps two or three for sale in a decade.” 

“There are many properties that if you bought them two years ago, they would achieve the same asking price now,” he continued. “The market slightly went up the year that they bought it and had turmoil last year.” 

A custodian who lives on the property will be managing the abbey until a sale completes

Inside the House 

Wytham Abbey itself is Grade 1 Listed — designated with the highest historical significance, like Buckingham Palace. Its imposing facade was built mostly with local limestone, and the Times has called the abbey “one of the loveliest houses in England”. 

“The architecture is very reflective of Oxford,” said Elsmore-Wickens, noting the collegiate feel. “It’s very striking.” Rooms feature period touches such as stained-glass windows and ornate, carved-marble fireplaces. Much of this work was done during extensive renovations to the property in the early 19th century by Thomas Cundy, a renowned English architect. 

The home stretches over three floors. The ground floor features a grand entrance hall, drawing room, reception area, library, kitchen, dining room and cinema area. An oak staircase from the late Georgian period leads to the second floor, which has a principal bedroom suite, a music room, several studies, six additional bedrooms and a one-bedroom apartment that’s fully self-contained. 

These rooms were used by the current owners to house guests and staff during workshops on AI. 

The abbey is in “remarkably good condition for a building of its size and age”, said Elsmore-Wickens, who added that it will need some love and attention from the next buyer. 

The third floor has 10 further bedrooms, storage space and a tower room. Elsmore-Wickens said these chambers were probably used as servant’s quarters; most recently, they served as additional guest rooms during events. 

“As you’d expect with every good house, you have the butler’s house, which is attached to the building but has its own entrance and was effectively a cottage for the butler — but now it just serves as useful annex accommodation,” he continued. The butler’s cottage has three bedrooms and two bathrooms. 

The rooms were used by the current owners to house guests and staff during workshops on AI

There are also extensive manicured gardens, woodlands and parklands in which owners would host parties. The land, owned by Oxford University, was sold on a 400-year lease to owners preceding Effective Ventures.

“Beyond those 23 acres, you’re just looking over open parkland with grazing cattle and into the woods beyond, which the university also owns — which suits for beautiful walks,” according to the listing agent. 

Work done to the building during Effective Ventures’ two-year ownership was mostly upkeep, Elsmore-Wickens said, citing the upgrading of heating systems to warm the 500-year-old property. (The Wytham Abbey website noted that rooms get drafty in the winter; guests attending discussions were warned not to expect a hotel experience.) 

“It’s a listed property, so obviously there’s a limit to what you could do on it,” said Elsmore-Wickens. “You don’t buy a building this beautiful and special and want to change everything.” A custodian who lives on the property will be managing Wytham Abbey until a sale completes. 

“It still feels very much like a home now,” he added. “It could be a private dwelling again, but that’s less likely in the modern era, because it’s just so big.” 

Elsmore-Wickens said the buyer could be someone looking to make the property into a hotel or wedding venue, or perhaps an institution will make the purchase, backed by outside investment. 

“We have seen a huge influx of international money coming into Oxford. There’s a lot of [research and development] work being done, and that’s backed in many ways by American investors,” he said. “There’s a lot of fintech (financial technology) businesses, there’s a lot of AI work being done.” Essentially, that’s also one reason why Effective Ventures bought Wytham Abbey as a residential events venue, its space and proximity to Oxford. 

“The sense of history and importance of this building just hits you when you first walk in,” said Elsmore-Wickens. “We do a lot of amazing properties, but it’s rare that you are genuinely awed by something that you see.” Bloomberg 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition