Few things are as quintessentially English as cricket. The same could almost be said of the Old Rectory at Offham, with its ragstone gateway, sweeping gravel drive and classic Georgian facade. It’s the perfect setting for a period drama – and one can’t help imagining a vintage Rolls parked outside or an elegant housekeeper answering the door. Or perhaps the sound of leather on willow, as members of the family practise a few plum shots along the smooth lawn.
As it happens, all of the above could be true, as this stunning house has been home to the Cowdrey cricketing family for the past 10 years – and a very happy home too. “I felt like I had known this place forever, every detail, every blade of grass,” says Christel Cowdrey, who had first visualised and drawn a picture of her ‘perfect home’ back in the 1990s.
“We looked for four years before we found it, and moved in on the very day the boys started at Tonbridge.”
Being near to their twin boys, Julius and Fabian, now 23, while they were at Tonbridge School, was the main reason for their move to Offham. The family had lived in Mystole near Canterbury for several years, while Christel’s former husband Chris captained both Kent and England cricket teams, before moving to Ascot when his commentating career took off.
“It was the ideal location – equidistant from Sevenoaks and Tonbridge and only a mile and a half from the motorway.” Other, less practical elements also played a key part. “The agent was rather apologetic about the murals in the drawing room, and said, ‘Don’t worry, you can paint over that stuff on the walls!’”
The murals, as it happened, were painted by Josef Holst. “My maiden name was Holst-Sande, so it felt like fate. Plus, they are the most stunning chinoiserie.”
Sitting in the drawing room in front of the open fire, it is impossible not to feel lifted by the vibrant yellow walls decorated with birds and blossom. Sun floods in through the vast sash windows, illuminating family portraits and carved furniture brought back from Bangalore by Lord Colin Cowdrey. His portrait takes pride of place, opposite an oil of Christel’s mother, Eva Margareta Holst-Sande. The house is said to date from 1733 and was the home of the vicars of Offham and Hamsey until the late 1930s. It stands in about 12 acres of meadows – which a local farmer uses for hay – and has, as you might expect, stables and a coach house.
“I feel very lucky to live here,” says Christel who, in typical Swedish style, has a very egalitarian attitude to living in such a lovely house. “I just like the idea of being able to share it.” During our visit, the house was fully occupied with visiting family and friends, and it is clear that it has been the site of much entertaining over the years. “It’s a wonderful party house,” says Christel.
This welcoming ‘open house’ feel, Christel’s ability as the consummate hostess as well as her entrepreneurial spirit has led to the development of Noblesse Weddings and the reinvention of the house as a plush but also homely wedding venue. “I wanted to recreate the wonderful experience we had, when we got married.” Christel and Chris Cowdrey were married in a wonderful London townhouse owned by the Searcy family, and were made to feel as if it was their own.
“The first wedding we had here at the Old Rectory was really special and different! I cooked and Fabian and Julius were front of house. It was a really intimate affair, with 15 guests for the ceremony, then a further 25 guests later on. Toasts were made in the garden, and photographs taken in front of the house.” After more champagne and celebration, Christel drove the couple to Aylesford Priory, where they had a big party in the barn. She is keen to point out that The Old Rectory is very much a ‘sunrise to sunset’ venue.
Although the business has come a long way since that first wedding two years ago – they now use a trusted selection of suppliers including the chefs Stella Grove and Ali Tennant, local florist Suzanne Price and a maitre d’ who worked at the Goring Hotel and the Tunbridge Wells Spa Hotel – I’m still keen to see the kitchen at the heart of this country house.
And at the heart of the home it is… A large marble-topped island takes centre stage, while an impressive mantelpiece, made to order by Christel’s carpenter, sits above the range cooker. “The Lacanche cooker came from David Beckham’s house,” says Christel, “while the cooker back is an Ikea table top…” Again, her Swedish egalitarian approach shines through.
I’m struck by the impressive mantelpiece above the cooker. “The corbels supporting the mantelpiece came from a salvage fair, and I had them blasted back to the natural stone.” The mantelpiece looks as old as the house, and as grand as one would expect in a substantial country rectory.
“I designed the layout of the kitchen – which professional cooks seem to love. The cabinets are from Neptune, the dark green cabinet is Dutch, and I had my carpenter make the shutters to match the others around the house.” The striking chandeliers, made up of wine glasses on a wire rack are from a high street shop in West Malling.
Sensibly close to the kitchen is the dining room – which has more than a hint of Swedish, Gustavian style – which is painted in Farrow & Ball’s Cooking Apple Green.
“When we moved in, this room had huge swag curtains and horrible dark walls,” says Christel. Now, off-white painted furniture surrounds a long, oval table, covered with a delicate, embroidered tablecloth. “The table extends, and can seat more than 20 people comfortably, which is great.” This is clearly not a rare occurrence.
Around the dining room are many clues to the family’s origins and talents, including a Swedish tapestry from Christel’s side of the family, a ‘music corner’ with two guitars, a piano and a painting of Julius, as well as an Indian corner cabinet – another remnant of Lord Cowdrey’s time in Bangalore. Just to add to the mix are French-style crystal chandeliers and windowsills holding Chinese ginger jars. Combined with a view through large sash windows, out over the sweeping gravel drive and front lawns, it seems the perfect room for entertaining. But this is a family home, not merely a grand one, and across the hall is ‘the snug’. “This is where the boys come to watch sport,” says Christel. As the room catches the afternoon sun, one can imagine long, happy hours ensconced in the comfy sofas watching the latest test match on the flat-screen TV – with spaniels Kipper and Lily at your feet. “Kipper was named after Colin, who is partial to a nap, and Lily was named after my maternal grandmother,” says Christel.
Although the snug is a family room, and not one that is available to guests using the house for a wedding, it’s clear that anyone getting married here is made to feel very much at home: “When I was growing up, there were rooms that were shut off, and that we were allowed in on special occasions. I didn’t want this house to feel like that.”
The overall feel, as well as being welcoming, is very much based on the homes of Christel’s parents and grandparents, and the country house aesthetic of Southern Sweden. Others have noted Christel’s in-born sense of style, and recently she has been asked to design and style several boutique hotel chains; mood boards in her wood-lined office hint at what a busy lady she must be…
Upstairs, one is reminded of her creative ability by decadent, luxurious bedrooms, each very much with its own, individual style. First on our tour is a magnificent guest bedroom, with an ornate carved wooden bedstead and dramatic, teal-coloured oriental wallpaper. This is very much a suite, with writing desk, armchair and masses of space in which to enjoy the country house ambience.
Across the hall is Christel’s room – the master bedroom – which has a much more feminine feel to it. Peachy cream paintwork offsets oriental paintings of birds and flowers, while light dances off the metal bedstead and gilt light sconces. A marble fireplace at the foot of the bed framed on either side by heavy, patterned curtains, gives the room a sense of grandeur as well as softness.
When it came to the boys’ rooms, Christel gave them ‘carte blanche’ though it is clear they have inherited their mother’s sense of style – a striking bed frame, resembling bits and bridles, from ‘And So to Bed’ adds a quirky touches to Julius’ bedroom, as does the Farrow & Ball navy and white striped wallpaper, hung horizontally, setting off numerous sporting photographs.
Visiting the Old Rectory is an undeniable treat, in more ways than one. Not only does it give you a taste of classic, English country life but it also gives you an insight into the life of perhaps the country’s most famous cricketing family… And, well, didn’t we feel welcome. Christel’s ethos of ‘noblesse oblige’ is made real in this joyous, historic home.
Morning sunshine floods the yellow drawing room with light, leading you through the elegant hallway and into the heart of the Old Rectory
Christel loves to cook, but also lets professional chefs use her kitchen when hosting weddings. The impressive mantelpiece was made especially to sit over the Lacanche range cooker – which came from one of David Beckham’s houses – and the stone corbels on which it rests, came from an antiques fair
The drawing room, with its open fire and huge sash windows, overlooks the lawn and mature gardens. Christel has had the Conran sofas for many years, while the Indian ‘elephant table’ belonged to Lord Cowdrey and came from Bangalore
Josef Holst painted the Chinese-style murals
The dining table extends, and can seat more than twenty people comfortably
With a view through large sash windows, out over the sweeping gravel drive and front lawns, the dining room seems the perfect room for entertaining
The snug is where Christel’s sons, Julius and Fabian come to relax and watch sport. In the summer, the French doors can be opened wide, allowing easy access to the expansive garden. The heavy Scandinavian-style embroidered curtains are made from Harlequin fabric
Mood boards in Christel’s office hint at one of her many talents – as an interior designer. She is currently working on the interior decor of two boutique hotel chains in the West Country
The informal, cosy landing area, which links the sumptuous bedrooms on the first floor
The dramatic guest bedroom, with its deep, teal-coloured wallpaper contrasts with Christel’s rather more feminine bedroom across the landing
The guest room is very much a suite, with writing desk, armchair and masses of space in which to enjoy the country house ambience
Upstairs, one is reminded of her creative ability by decadent, luxurious bedrooms, each very much with its own, individual style
Peachy cream paintwork offsets oriental paintings of birds and flowers, while light dances off the metal bedstead and gilt light sconces. A marble fireplace at the foot of the bed framed on either side by heavy, patterned curtains, gives the room a sense of grandeur as well as softness
The quirky bedstead in Julius' room, resembling leather saddlery, is from And So To Bed
Julius’ bedroom shows a clear sense of individual style and fun as well as an obvious love of team sport
The house is said to date from 1733 and was the home of the vicars of Offham and Hamsey until the late 1930s
The lawn – seen here in early spring, before it is mown to the perfection of a cricket pitch – makes an ideal backdrop for wedding photographs
- Noblesse Weddings www.noblesseweddings.com The Old Rectory, Offham 01732842764
- And So To Bed www.andsotobed.co.uk
- Best-In-Tents Marquee Hire www.bestintentsmarquees.co.uk 01227733729
- Farrow & Ball www.farrow-ball.com
- Harlequin Designer Fabrics and Wallpaper www.harlequin.uk.com
- Ikea www.ikea.com
- Lacanche Range Cookers www.lacanche.co.uk
- Neptune Kitchens, Bathrooms and Furniture www.neptune.com
- Stella Grove Personal Chef www.stellagrove.co.uk 01227200583
- The Flowersmiths www.theflowersmiths.co.uk Teston 01622246018
- words: Jennifer Stuart-Smith
- pictures: David Merewether
- styling: Helen Barton
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