This Modern Family Makes An Oxfordshire Estate Their Own

A couple and their seven children put down roots in a historic English manor

Writer Brooke Metcalfe has decorated many beautiful homes over the years—in New York, Buenos Aires, London, and beyond—but when she met her future husband, Julian Metcalfe, ten years ago, her primary concern wasn’t restoring a crumbling palace to pristine condition. It was creating a sanctuary for what would be their own Brady Bunch: “We had seven children to make feel at home immediately,” she explains.

The couple wanted a weekend place that wasn’t too far from their primary residence in London or the children’s boarding schools. And it had to be in a setting that wouldn’t feel too rural or desolate. “Neither of us rides horses or actually even owns a pair of Hunter boots,” quips Brooke. “So as much as we like to think we’re going to the country, it’s really a rather urban escape.” But a necessary one nonetheless, particularly for Julian, a cofounder of the fresh–fast food chains Pret A Manger and Itsu. “My husband is very involved in his work, and when we’re in London, every corner he turns he sees one of his shops,” Brooke continues. “So staying there on a weekend was not his idea of fun.”

The Metcalfes had placed a bid on a property when Julian suggested an impromptu drive through the South Oxfordshire village of Great Haseley, where his grandmother—the alluring Baba Metcalfe, youngest daughter of George Curzon, former Viceroy of India, and a high-society heartbreaker par excellence—once had a weekend place. Among charming thatched cottages lay a stately 17th-century manor, right next to the parish church. As Brooke recounts, “We stood up on the wall, looked in, and thought, Oh, my God, it’s perfect. Imagine if it were for sale.”

It wasn’t—but somehow a tour of the house was arranged. “It was just so beautiful, I couldn’t stand it,” Brooke says, giddy at the memory of the rooms’ perfect William and Mary proportions and elegant woodwork. “I thought, This is so nice, I’m going to die. And suddenly Julian said to me, ‘We have to have this.’ We put an offer in right then and there.”

We threw out all rules …there was nothing we could do that would go wrong, because nothing had to fit any pattern or mood.

The house was turnkey ready, which left only the task of decorating. “Time was really important,” says Brooke. “We had to create bonds between our kids and our families. That was more important than anything, so we decorated the place in literally about four months.” They had the luck of starting with lovely light and good bones: high ceilings, original mantels and cornices. Beyond that, she says, “we threw out all rules. Because we both like an eclectic look, there was nothing we could do that would go wrong, because nothing had to fit any pattern or mood.”

Off they went—pooling art and furniture from previous homes and scouring auctions, flea markets, and “maddeningly expensive” London shops. “There’s no law or rhyme or reason to it, which was really liberating,” Brooke explains. “We’ve got disco balls in the kitchen and fake rhinoceros heads that come from the set of the original Jumanji. In the past, I studied things more,” she adds. “For my first New York apartment, I bought a mirrored dining table, and it took me a year to find the right chairs for it, so we sat on nothing until then.”

With stints at Sotheby’s and Vogue and traveling in a glamorous circle of style cognoscenti, many of whom Brooke has documented in her Bright Young Things tomes about the homes of the chic and stylish—a third edition is on its way—she possesses a well-trained eye. There’s an artful insouciance in what she might call haphazardness. In the dining room, which is painted a pale blush, a dozen “nothing chairs” (her words) are draped with linen slipcovers of varying confectionary hues. When the family dogs urinated on the room’s sisal carpet, Brooke painted over the stains with chocolate-brown and hot-pink stripes. A faded needlepoint rug is layered on top, too, and the resulting effect is so dreamy, you can’t help wanting to thank the offending pups.

 
The sitting room

In the sitting room, George Smith sofas, one upholstered with Pakistani marriage quilts (left) and the other a Brunschwig & Fils velvet, face an ottoman clad in a Josef Frank fabric. The tri-arm floor lamp and flower lamp are London antiques-market finds; PAR puzzle on back table; paintings by Tadashi Kawamata, Axel Kulle, and Billy Metcalfe.

The family-friendly nature of the house reflects the values that Brooke and Julian hold dear. With its squashy sofas, and oversize ottoman covered in vintage Josef Frank fabric, the sitting room is the perfect place to sit around a cozy fire with a book, play Legos, or work on a puzzle. Brooke is partial to the hand-carved thousand-plus-piece examples from Par Puzzles that date back to her own child-hood and take months to finish. A painting by Billy Metcalfe, her stepson, hangs there alongside works by Tadashi Kawamata and Axel Kulle.

Outside, the kids amuse themselves with soccer, biking, hide-and-seek, and capture the flag amid grounds that are green as far as the eye can see. The Metcalfes enlisted English landscape designer Christopher Bradley-Hole, who had worked on a restoration of the property for its previous owner. For his new clients he planted a dramatic allée of linden trees—not for nothing is one of Bradley-Hole’s books called The Minimalist Garden.

“It’s quite severe and architectural,” Brooke admits of the paucity of blooms, “but it means that we aren’t fussing over dead flowers.” Now more time can be spent in the stone-edged lap pool, presided over by an Antony Gormley sculpture.

Still, the heart of the Metcalfes’ home remains indoors. “Much of the weekend is based around meals,” Brooke explains, noting that she and the kids often gather in the kitchen, which acts as a test lab for concoctions for Julian’s culinary ventures. “We spend a lot of time in there watching him mix and make potions, whether it’s flavors for popcorns or yogurt-pot combinations or green smoothies.” (Having already swept London, Itsu opens its first New York outpost this spring.)

As for the dining room, “it’s where we all sit, all ages, and everything is shared,” Brooke observes. “I think that’s really where the tying together of the family has happened, at the dining table.” She fondly recalls one Christmas morning when Julian and the children raced their new Segways around the table with the dogs chasing behind them.

The Saturday after I visited Brooke, I receive an email with a picture of a finished puzzle, the same one that had lain in disarray on a table in the sitting room some months before, when AD had photographed the house. There was no body text. The subject line simply stated: Puzzle complete.

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