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Inside Alexandra Tolstoy’s 18th-century Oxfordshire cottage

“I am a firm believer that you should not kowtow to practicality. Decoration should always come first,” says the adventurer Alexandra Tolstoy, surveying her tiny cottage in Oxfordshire. Liberally bedecked with chintz, Staffordshire pottery, embroidery samplers, lustreware and willow pattern ceramics, it could easily be the ur-cottage of all English cottages. Yet in many ways it is supremely practical–very much a “dogs on the bed, children running in and out of the garden in wellies” house–and also incredibly personal, scattered with the artefacts of a life spent adventuring in Russia and Central Asia. 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.”

Released on 08/25/2023


[Alexandra] So I'm a firm believer

that you should not count out practicality.

Decoration should always come first.

[cheerful music]

It is an 18th century farmer's cottage

and it's been the most consistent thing

in my children's lives.

It's been the place

where they've come to since they were born

and it hasn't changed.

I have my travel business,

where I take people riding

in a very remote part of Kyrgyzstan,

which has really been a passion of mine for 20 years.

And then I have a second business

called, The Tolstoy Edit,

which is I source antiques

and decorative things

and they're mostly folk influenced,

and they actually really tie in with the travel.

When I first bought the cottage,

the structure was all the same.

I did make some changes,

but I would say that they were

more restorative changes,

rather than modernizing changes.

I wanted to be very kind and empathetic to its roots.

My father gave me this lovely book here,

called English Cottage Interiors.

And I found that cottages, generally,

they would've been painted with this,

a Wainscot brown, which is a Farrow and Ball color.

The antiques, I wanted it to be very English,

it is very English.

So I've got English and Welsh antiques [unclear].

You can't really have a cottage without Staffordshire.

So I've gone quite bananas on the Staffordshire here,

but it's so decorative.

I think it looks so great with the green plates.

And then it's so sweet.

My son, he gave me these for Christmas.

He sourced them on eBay

and then he was really upset,

because when they came, he said,

oh, I thought they were really big

and he'd just seen them in the photo.

These are lovely Victorian shell works.

So this chair, I was really wanting

to introduce some chince into this room

'cause I thought, yeah, everything's great.

But actually, a cottage without chince

is not really a cottage.

This is one that has just been relaunched by Sibyl Colefax,

and I found this really sweet,

little proportion, tiny, old armchair

and had it covered.

And it is the comfiest chair to watch TV in,

so, thrilled with that.

I've collected embroidered pictures, samplers,

and I love Lusterware and never can resist.

I seem to be able to go on and on accumulating

and finding spaces for it.

And then some blue willow pattern.

These are very organic colors,

which work really well.

The whole thing of this cottage is

the inside space goes out to the outside space.

When the children are here,

the doors are always open,

everything's covered in the mud,

they're in and out,

and there isn't really a difference

between inside and outside.

And so I feel like the antiques work with that.

The kitchen is the heart, I think, of any home,

especially when you have children.

This is just the most wonderful table

for having people to dinner.

And I've had lots and lots

of dinner parties or supper parties.

and we were really lucky

that it had this lovely stone flag floor already,

so that's absolutely great.

I found these wonderful old dove tiles.

So that's like tiny little concession to practicality

so it doesn't splash all over the wall.

Decoration should always come first

and I continued that through the kitchen.

I put all the dogs together.

I've got these lovely wood carvings that I've collected.

Then I found that this is like

an old glass lampshade under here,

but I dunno how, but it got cracked.

And so then I got someone to make this

and add it on, which I love.

We did have a lovely plum tree,

but it blew down half in a storm

and we used to use the ladder to pick all the plums,

but I've now got a son who's mad about making things,

so he's often using that.

During the flood,

the Aga that was here got damaged

and it was an oil one,

so then I was able to get rid of the oil tank

and put in this electric one.

I was very lucky.

I was able to ask,

which now become a wonderful friend,

Emma Burns of Sibyl Colefax to help me.

And she came up with a design for the new unit

and it was brilliant.

I always say, this cottage,

it's super modern in terms of comfort,

but you know, you wouldn't really see that.

And it just feels like it's lots of antiques

and lovely things that I love.

I love making cakes and I've always made loads of cakes,

but I have never been able to ice like Maria.

So this is my bedroom.

I have the same bed here as in London.

I just find it a very, very cozy, comfortable bed.

And it's always got children and dogs.

And hidden in there as a TV,

and we sit and watch TV here together.

The bed is a kind of real example

of how I love layering.

This is one of Natalie Farman-Farma's

Russian inspired fabrics

and just the perfect palette of colors

with the beautiful carpet, antique carpet,

and then this is an American patchwork

which I found really locally, actually.

It is so harmonious.

I love having big cushions on a bed,

because they're just so nice to sit up and read.

I use this lovely little fireplace a lot.

It looks very ornamental,

but it's actually very very effective in the winter.

And this armchair over here,

I designed for Love Your Home,

and I found an archived old Russian design

designed for the central Asian market

and I had it printed and I really fell in love with it.

So this is the only room which has actually changed,

'cause it started off,

I had one baby, my oldest son,

and then I very quickly had another son and another cot,

and then I had Maria.

So gradually, over five years,

it went from cot-cot to bed-bed.

And then in the end I had to get a third bed,

but there was this radiator and I couldn't move it,

and I wouldn't have been able to open the door either.

So I got this cast iron bed and got 'em to chop it down,

so now sometimes Maria sleeps in it

with her legs sticking out.

I think it's formed so much of their childhood.

They've made amazing camps here,

do you remember in lockdown, darling,

when you made that, put the mattresses on top?


And tied them up with ropes.

I've read so many stories from here

and we won't change it now,

even though you've grown outta that bed,

but we're not gonna get rid of it, are we?

No. No.

This outside space was here,

but it was just completely white.

Actually, it was a friend of mine who came, Benedict Foley,

and he said, you know, you should really

make that your proper workspace,

where it's really inspiring.

So I kept the glossy brown woodwork

'cause I thought that then tied through from the cottage

and got some more chince.

I got this wonderful antique Uzbek patchwork,

which is really quite unusual.

And an Uzbek piece of silk

that I have made into this lovely ruche blind.

And then I love it ,'cause it's Uzbekistan,

but you look out very English rose from that window.

So reminding you, you know, where you are.

It's really great to have a space

where I can show what I do.

It is very personal, this room, and a bit more eclectic.

I really wanted to create

a kind of old fashioned cottage garden

with lots of color, lots of cutting flowers.

I really do notice that summers have got hotter

and we have so little shade,

so we've got this wonderful umbrella this year.

And then this shed has been absolutely life changing

because my boys are both just become teenagers.

It's all from recycled old corrugated iron.

All they want to do in the holidays is be here.

They don't wanna go anywhere,

they don't wanna go abroad,

they don't wanna do anything.

They just wanna be in their shed.

The wonderful thing is, I just love that view going up,

it's called Marriage Hill

and I've walked up there thousands and thousands of times.

To be able to sit outside and look at it

is just my idea of heaven.

Something I really, really love about England

and about this cottage,

which I think kind of summarizes England,

is that I love every season.

I love the winter and I especially love it here.

I love that it gets darkly early,

that we have the fire and it's so cozy.

And I think because it's so small,

it really throws us together as a family

and it's really lovely in that way.

[cheerful music]

Starring: Alexandra Tolstoy

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