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We don’t go for 90s minimalism, it’s too bland, too cold and too austere. But neither are we keen on 80s chintzes and frills, which we think are dated, fussy, and over-the-top. We like colour, warmth and comfort: rich textures, beautiful fabrics, antique furniture, soft cushions and cashmere throws. It’s the timeless, simple but luxurious look you’ll find in a country house (but not a country house hotel).
No two of our cottages are the same, but there are certain things they have in common. These being very much luxury holiday rentals, you’ll find fabrics by leading designers like Nina Campbell, Osborne and Little, Mulberry, Lelievre, Borderline, Colefax and Fowler and Watts of Westminster; the colours are subtle and the textures inviting: soft luscious chenilles and velvets, shimmering silks, crisp linens and cottons and warm tweeds. We also use a great deal of off-white for curtains and loose covers because it is light and fresh. Farrow and Ball make most of the paints we use, and, along with Colefax and Fowler and Nina Campbell, most of our wallpapers.
We have some antiques – chairs, desks, bookcases, tables, dressers or chests of drawers – in every cottage because eighteenth and nineteenth century furniture is so lovingly made. The wood is mellower, the details finer. Even the padding on a buttoned Victorian chair is beautifully designed: there’s a curved hollow to take your upper body, then the padding swells out to support your lower back. It is sublimely comfortable and mass produced stuff just doesn’t compare. (We pick our pieces, one by one, in the Cotswolds, London and France, and should you too wish to go antiquing round Bruern you will find the addresses of suppliers I’ve found particularly good at the end).
Bathrooms are sleek, warm and streamlined, tiled in marble to match the wide marble tops of the vanity units, some of them adapted from Victorian washstands. They have big mirrors, heaps of white fluffy towels on the heated towel rails, bathrobes, powerful showers and toiletries by The White Company. Some of our modern (twentieth century) sofas and armchairs are old Howard ones, the 'ne plus ultra' of soft furnishing. But all have deliciously soft and inviting down or down and feather cushions, and underneath they are made by hand from beech, coiled springs and lamb’s wool in the old fashioned way.
We take a lot of trouble over lighting. We believe that for anyone over thirty, overhead lighting is a killer, destroying atmosphere and adding years to one’s age. As a result, you’ll only find low voltage halogen overhead lighting in areas where brilliant but soft illumination is vital, corridors, stairs, kitchens and bathrooms. Everywhere else we use table lamps, standard lamps, swing-arm wall lights each side of four poster beds (vital to get around the bed curtains) and softly shaded Victorian rise and fall lamps over some dining tables.
All the cottages except Shipton have open fires, already laid and just waiting for a match when you arrive. There’s a log basket beside the fire, and an unlimited supply of logs in the woodshed from which you can help yourself thereafter. Shipton has a ravishingly beautiful white ceramic stove in the Gustavian style, with a brass window you can leave open if you want to see the flames.
Kitchens are floored in quarry tiles, terracotta or the local Cotswold limestone, a beautiful warm buff in which you can spot fossil skeletons if you look hard enough. The kitchens don’t appear to be aggressively high tech; worktops are marble, granite or hardwood, cupboards doors are painted and there are pine dish-racks over the big Belfast sinks. You can happily eat in them without feeling threatened by cliffs of stainless steel and gadgetry, but it’s all there, along with the machines, just not on view.
Most of our drawing rooms are carpeted in sea grass, as a background for all the ravishing kelims, dhurries, needlepoints and Aubusson rugs we’ve collected over the years. Bedrooms have carpets (kinder on the feet) and yet more rugs.
And then there are the essential extras which bring a room to life – pictures, prints, lithographs and engravings, books, brimming vases of flowers, ornaments and mirrors. (As a relation of mine says, “a mirror in a room is as important as water in a landscape and eyes in a face”.) We’ve tried to make the cottages feel as beautiful, comfortable and relaxed as someone’s home, so that you feel you could settle in happily for a year if you had to.
I’ve decorated seven houses of my own and other people’s, and it would have been daunting had I not been fortunate enough to have been helped initially in my own houses by brilliant decorators like John Fowler, Melissa Wyndham and Robert Kime (who has now, I see, many years on, helped the Duke of Beaufort at Badminton and the Prince of Wales at Highgrove and Clarence House). There is no education like watching a really good decorator at work. I’m also lucky in having had as a sister Jocasta Innes, the author of Paint Magic, whose eye for colour and feel for aesthetics was unrivalled. (The drawing room in Aintree was done by her.) My other sister Miranda Innes was the Gardening Editor of Country Living magazine for years, and as a result the cottages have had the benefit of benign and brilliant advisers, inside and out, so that they stand comparison with any other luxury cottages in the UK.