Expect the unexpected at Stawley Wood, the grand Somerset house that’s anything but formal. Jessica Jonzen meets the family who lives here, and discovers that nothing this idyllic ever came easily
THE EXPANSIVE VIEWS ACROSS THE SOMERSET COUNTRYSIDE. IMAGE: UNIQUE HOME STAYS
High on a hill in the bucolic Somerset countryside, you’ll find a grand house where all is not as it first appears. The imposing Victorian frontage of Stawley Wood might lead you to expect buttoned-up formality but the reality couldn’t be any different.
The first giveaway is the sound of laughter as the four children who live here splash about in the pond, or race a go-kart across the lawns while being chased by their cockapoo. Ducks quack, cows graze in the meadows, and pigs snuffle in their pen. The bleating comes from Mary and Barbara, the two resident pet sheep, who are just as likely be found in the house.
Unseen (or heard), there might be a group session of outdoor yoga going on, a big family reunion in full swing or a cookery course being taken at Bohème, the converted 16th century cider press turned luxurious holiday home in the courtyard.
Inside the main house, the fun continues. The elegant blue entrance hall with its grand staircase is lent playful exuberance with streaks of vivid pink paint inside the door frames. On the walls, a huge scale painting of a Vietnamese landscape sits alongside not one but two Damien Hirst’s. Stawley Wood takes the country dream, cranks the dial up and gives it a rock ‘n’ roll edge.
TOP: STAWLEY WOOD; BOTTOM L-R: DALBIAC WITH THE FAMILY’S PET SHEEP; A FAMILY PICTURE IN THE GARDEN; ERNIE TAKING A DIP IN THE KITCHEN SINK. IMAGES: MINKY LUARD
It is the home of Minky and PJ Luard and their children Dalbiac, nine, Laszlo, seven, Marni, six, and four-year-old Ernie. Minky runs the show here, as well as at Bohème. PJ, who owns a plumbing business in London, is away Monday to Thursday, returning to Somerset at weekends to spend time with his family, and help tackle the never-ending list of jobs that inevitably come with a six-bedroom period house set in 100 acres.
Whilst the front section of the house is all high ceilings and Victorian formality, the middle section of the house dates back to the 12th century, whilst the back part dates to the 1400s. But despite Stawley Wood’s age and appearance, there’s no stuffiness here. In the kitchen, one of the traditional shutters opens up to reveal dozens of signatures and loving messages as it’s used as a makeshift guest book. The surprises continue: “everyone thinks the drawing room is painted in Arsenic by Farrow & Ball. In fact, PJ took a foam number ‘5’ from the children’s play mat and had it colour matched,” Minky laughs.
I wanted to bring the house into the 21st century and make it our own so that it was friendly for children. I didn’t want it to be precious.”
With her irreverent eye for style, it’s no surprise that Minky has a creative background. Before moving to Somerset and having her brood of children, she worked for Damien Hirst for eight years managing his property portfolio (hence the incredible art collection). She also ran the much-loved Phat Phuc noodle bar on the King’s Road with her sister, photographed weddings at weekends and designed a range of children’s clothes. All at the same time.
Minky’s extraordinary ability to multi-task stood her in good stead when she and PJ decided to take on Stawley Wood in 2011. The house used to belong to PJ’s parents, who bought it in 2000 when his father retired as a Captain in the Royal Navy. After PJ’s mother died in 2007, his father felt it needed a family to fill it again. After agreeing it with his three siblings, PJ and Minky left their two-bedroom maisonette in South West London and moved to the vast and isolated Stawley Wood. “Our dream was to invest the money from the sale of our house into converting the rather run-down holiday lets in the courtyard and create a really lovely holiday home,” says Minky.
LEFT: THE TRADITIONAL VICTORIAN ENTRANCE HALL HALL BEEN BROUGHT UP TO DATE WITH COLOUR AND ORIGINAL ARTWORK BY DAMIEN HIRST. RIGHT: THE DRAWING ROOM, COLOUR MATCHED WITH A PLAY MAT, WITH ITS ECLECTIC GALLERY WALL. IMAGES: MINKY LUARD
“We moved down here on October the 1st on a very bleak day having not sold our house so we weren’t able to bring any of our furniture with us. The house was absolutely full of stuff – every drawer and cupboard was full after years of hoarding, and everything looked rather dreary. I had an 18-month-old and was pregnant again, and PJ was carrying on working in London during the week so I was pretty low about the whole thing,” Minky admits. “I could see the potential but until we sold our house in London we couldn’t do anything.”
In the end, it took three years for their house to sell. “During that time, I had three children – numbers two, three and four. I was having these babies, living on this hill, I never saw my husband. It was a bit weird,” Minky says. In the Winter, local farmers would stop by on their tractors to check she was alright. “It was a peaceful time but I was also quite anxious, knowing that my nearest hospital was 20 miles away.”
How did she adapt, after such a busy and sociable life in London? “I was very busy with the children, and all that time I was dreaming up this perfect home that I wanted to create next door, and also what I wanted to do to Stawley,” she says. “I just wanted to bring it into the 21st century and make it our own so it was friendly for children and not a sinister-looking house. I didn’t want it to be precious.”
While they waited for their house to sell, Minky got on with planning the transformation of the holiday lets. “I didn’t want to use an architect as I knew exactly what I wanted it to be: somewhere that a big group can all just be together, but still have their own space.” For the three years I’d lived here I knew it was a really special place. It does have a lovely, very peaceful, calm aura and all you can see is landscape.”
TOP: THE OPEN PLAN KITCHEN AT BOHÈME OPENS OUT ON TO THE COURTYARD AND ON TO THE GARDEN WITH ITS INCREDIBLE VIEWS BEYOND. BOTTOM: THE MODERN-RUSTIC INTERIORS WHICH MINKY DESIGNED HERSELF. IMAGES: UNIQUE HOME STAYS
Despite her designs being an incomparable improvement on what was already there, the plans were roundly rejected by the locals. “I had to go to the planning office on a boiling hot day in August, a week before my due date with Ernie, and give a three-minute speech about why they should grant us planning permission. Everything was riding on it. I didn’t realise that our neighbour was giving a speech at exactly the same time about why it should be rejected.”
Thankfully, the planning office granted permission and three weeks after Ernie was born, building work started. With four children under five, Minky found herself project managing the transformation of a 16th century cider press, a quail hatching barn and some run-down holiday lets into a luxurious 10-bedroom self-catering home with an indoor spring-fed swimming pool.
“I whitewashed the floorboards myself, and had to keep the peace between all these builders and workmen – it was anarchy!”
“All of the money from the sale of our house went into the build, and we had nothing left for interiors so I had to get creative,” Minky says. The kitchen, two sofas and the American double fridge were from another job their builder was working on and were bought for a song, “and anytime anyone was getting rid of furniture I’d take it and store it in the basement.”
The rest of the furniture was bought from trade company Coach House. “I had planned what each room would look like but had no idea if it would work. I remember seeing this 15-metre delivery lorry driving up the hill and panicking that it would get stuck. They ended up leaving all the boxes of furniture at the end of the drive because they couldn’t get down it.”
THE COURTYARD AT BOHÈME; THE KITCHEN AND ONE OF THE 10 BEDROOMS, FEATURING BARNEBY GATES WALLPAPER. IMAGES: UNIQUE HOME STAYS
With their first guests due to arrive at the beginning of August 2015, it was a race against the clock to get ready. “I whitewashed the floorboards myself, and had to keep the peace between all these builders and workmen – it was anarchy, a complete Challenge Anneka situation!” Minky laughs.
She pulled it off, and the result is an awe-inspiring labour of love. With its modern-rustic interiors featuring wallpapers by Barneby Gates (Vanessa Barneby is Minky’s oldest friend and they are godmother to each other’s children), the horseshoe layout means guests all have plenty of space, whether they want to be together or spend some quiet time alone. Four years after opening, Bohème is going from strength to strength: “we’ve just updated the interiors and have changed the floors to engineered oak and we’re putting in a Neptune kitchen in September,” says Minky.
With a lot of hard work and sacrifice, the Luards have managed to create the kind of life they dreamt off. “It’s a wonderful eclectic mix of feral children and tame animals here – it’s a happy home, filled with laughter, bare feet, bright colours and love,” says Minky. “We were winging it with country life but now we’d never look back.”
Minky does have one last wish for Stawley Wood though: “I’d love to have a nice new bathroom and downstairs loo. I am married to a plumber, after all!”
THE OUTDOOR DINING AREA AND SWIMMING POOL AT BOHÈME; THE GARDENS AND PONDS LEND THEMSELVES PERFECTLY TO EXPLORING OR LAZING. IMAGES: UNIQUE HOME STAYS
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