Revisiting Alexandra Tolstoy's enchanting cottage in the Oxfordshire countryside

20 years of owning this fairytale cottage have made it into a beguiling blend of perfectly preserved English tradition and Central Asian colour and pattern

The children's bedroom, which started off with one bed, now has three squeezed into it. The bed on the left had to be specially shortened to fit into the room.

Dean Hearne

Over the years, further changes have added to the cottage’s comfort. Around five years after she bought it, Alexandra called in the decorator Emma Burns of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler, who designed the neat fitted cabinets that slot into the kitchen’s awkward layout, and made the empty outdoor studio (now Alexandra’s office) into a more homely interior with bookshelves and shutters. But in other respects the cottage and its decoration have remained almost exactly the same since she bought it. “I rehung two pictures the other day and my children were aghast,” she laughs. “Every picture, every little bit of Staffordshire, has stayed in its place over the years. I realised what a point of stability it was for them.”

Here and there among the stuff of a typical English cottage are reminders that there is another world, well beyond the Oxfordshire countryside, that the family inhabits. Alexandra leads riding holidays in Central Asia with her travel company, and also sources antique folk furniture and textiles from the same region for The Tolstoy Edit. This life is most in evidence in the office, a separate space just outside the kitchen, where Alexandra works. Painted in a deep yellow that is quite different from the browns and whites of the rest of the house, it is decked out in colourful Uzbek textiles and the mementoes of her travels. The meeting of English and Asian worlds is perfectly summarised in the little round window, where a jewel-coloured ikat blind looks out on a climbing rose that peers in from outside.

Alexandra's office in a small outbuilding next to the kitchen. The walls are painted in Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler's ‘Hambleden Yellow’, and a large Uzbek patchwork from The Tolstoy Edit hangs on the wall, with SJ Axelby's paintings of Uzbek coats hung on top. The armchair is covered in Colefax & Fowler's ‘Fuschia’ chintz, and an antique ikat has been made into a blind.

Dean Hearne

The outdoors is very much a part of life at the cottage. At the front of the house is an old-fashioned cottage garden, completely revamped by Alexandra and her gardener Tim Hawkins, where foxgloves, delphiniums and roses sprawl through a long border, while beyond the gate the fields immediately open up onto the rolling landscape. A corrugated tin shed by Rollo Dunford Wood, where Alexandra’s teenage sons have their workshop, has been a life-changing addition to the garden, giving the family much-needed extra space to spread out in.

The true joy of the cottage, for Alexandra, is that it comes alive in every season. “The summer is all about walking and tea in the garden, but in the winter we can light fires and cram everyone round the table for supper.” Practical and unprecious the house may be, but it is also, importantly, an escape from everyday life. “Coming here, even now, is like stepping into a fairytale” she says. “The children don’t do their homework here, they don’t live out their everyday lives here. Sometimes they say they wish they did live here all the time, but it wouldn’t feel the same at all in that case. It’s just so different from ordinary life.”

Alexandra's cottage is available to rent at