Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen’s 10 favourite things about the Cotswolds
PUBLISHED: 17:11 25 September 2017 | UPDATED: 17:11 25 September 2017
Created by Dan Rajan, portrait by Steve Thorp
We asked the inimitable and iridescent Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen to name his 10 favourite things about the Costwolds - and sent Katie Jarvis along to interpret
Ten years ago, the Cotswolds awoke to the surprising news that Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen – a designer famous for startling TV makeovers – had moved in. From then on, Cotswold residents refused to close their eyes for a single second for fear that, on opening them, they should discover Bourton-on-the-Water draped in spangly purple faux-fur; or Blenheim Palace clad in fetching animal-print MDF.
But, soft! For gradually, over the ensuing years, each seems to have worked its magic on the other. No one is saying the graziers of Minchinhampton Common have all laid chichi chequer-board mock flagstone-effect floors. Nor that Laurence is retiring to run a gluten-free teashop.
Yet mutual love and respect have grown. And grown.
We know what we value about Laurence and family: the tireless charity work; the community involvement; the wit and verve; the super-glue loyalty to the area they now call home.
But what does Laurence value about the Cotswolds?
“I know!” I tell him. “Do a ‘Top 10 Things I Love About the Cotswolds’ list! Sheep, cheese, stone, hills – that sort of thing - in honour of your first decade here.”
“Consider it done,” he says. “Call round Tuesday and I’ll tell you what they are.”
“This list...” Laurence says on Tuesday, as we sit in his Siddington home. “It’s a bit of a work-in-progress.”
“What do you mean, a ‘work-in-progress?’” I ask guardedly.
“I’ve definitely got Number One,” he says, quickly.
OK, so I know he’s busy. Super busy. Viz:
“I’m about to start filming The Apartment [in which a glam team of pros decorate luxury homes in the hope of winning his approval], season five, in Johor Bahru.”
“It now has 150m viewers all over the world. Mostly Asia. But Middle East; just launched in Japan and India. Has been available in Latin America. Weirdly, it’s very popular in Venice.”
He’s doing a bit of Showhouse Showdown in Ireland; and more of his Laurence of Suburbia series; (I’m imagining Seven cardboard-and-duct-tape Pillars of Wisdom). And there are other series in Australia, America, and – you know - more DIY SOS. And stuff.
“But that’s not my day job. The business is the big thing and that’s taken off – in the House of Fraser, China [with his House of Laurence range]. [So the Cultural Revolution wasn’t in vain.]
“We’re in Courts in Singapore and Malaysia; we’re launching in the Philippines; we’re looking at Thailand and Indonesia as well. And there’s the final push for negotiations in Australia and NZ”.
“OK,” I say, defeated. “So let’s have it. What’s the one thing you love about the Cotswolds, then?”
1. The Cotswolds as absolutely the best place in the world to experience England. (And something about trees.)
“I don’t often use the term ‘England’ because I think it’s racist. You have to understand that the English all come from just outside Amsterdam, which is why they tend to be ginger and tall. Whereas ‘British’ can be used in the way that ‘To be Roman’ didn’t mean coming from Rome at all. I like that… And this is me speaking as a Welshman - an aborigine of the island. I’m very pleased to welcome you all in, obviously.”
So where do the Cotswolds fit in?
“The Cotswolds are like cutting a slice through all you want from your English experience. And, obviously, nature is an incredibly important part of that.
“Our national aesthetic is dominated by nature. At its most sophisticated, it’s things like chintz; at its least sophisticated, it’s dirty great big bleeding chunks of wood. There is no other nation in the world that worships wood in the way we do. Everywhere else paints it, gilds it, makes it look like marble, makes it pretty. We just want wood like a carcass in the corner.
“There’s got to be something a little bit druidical about that.”
As in, a ‘Peter Pan’ fairy thing? Every time you paint a piece of wood, a Druid dies?
“We have this strange shedophilia where we’ve got to bloody live surrounded by wood. And, of course, being in the Cotswolds, this is something where that is exemplified beyond belief…
“But the big thing with the Cotswolds is the way Cirencester has evolved.”
Hang on. Hang on. Isn’t this Number Two?
2. The way Cirencester has evolved (and a lot about mud)
“Ten years ago, I remember being in the middle of Cirencester on a wet Tuesday afternoon in January, thinking, ‘Oh my god. What have we done? I am surrounded by mud’. Everybody was the colour of mud. Everything was the colour of mud. You’d go into a car park and everybody’s car - even completely clean - was the colour of mud. You’d go to a pub and order food and it would be the colour of mud. And yet, 10 years on, you look at this incandescent phoenix of a cultured civilised society that has totally been reborn in multi-hued glorious lifestyle, and it’s the envy of the planet.”
So has he secretly painted everything while we were looking the other way?
“It’s evolved. And, funnily enough, one of the things that really helped was the financial crash. If you look at Cirencester today, we’ve got very few chains. It’s Made by Bob; it’s French Grey; it’s Witches Knickers.
“And I’m always interested in the fact that Cirencester was the second capital for the Romans and…”
Just a minute. Just one minute. This is definitely Number 3.
3. The Cotswolds as the second capital for the Romans (and a lot about history)
“did a very different job than Londinium. Corinium was always about controlling the heart; Londinium controlled the wallet. You can imagine the second century AD version of Cotswold Life, carved on a piece of marble, talking about exactly the same things.”
Maybe we should go back to that?
“It would damage the paperboy beyond repair.
“I love the history, but I’m now like Persephone: denied the Cotswolds for at least six months of the year; when I go, it becomes winter. Instead, I spend an enormous amount of time in new, neon-powered space cities. Singapore. Dubai. Kuala Lumpur. Johor Bahru.”
(Oh, yeah. Where is that again?)
“These are places where history is lite. Lite like Coke. But history tickles my stick; it turns me on. I might come back to haunt my own house one day. Just to mess with their heads, I’ll do it in period costume.”
Probably not necessary.
“Ten years ago, history was the most interesting thing. Now the present has become…”
No, no, NO, NO! Don’t confuse me, Laurence. Let’s stick with history.
“But I’ve just donated a product scheme to Rock the Cotswolds.”
Right – that’s number 4 then.
4. Rock the Cotswolds
“I’ve created a pattern for Rock the Cotswolds [a movement dedicated to showcasing Cotswold ‘cool’; rockthecotswolds.com], which we’re applying across a whole series of products – mugs, t-shirts, umbrellas. It’s my eye-catching, reinterpretation of what you would perceive to be a typical Cotswold pattern. Quite William Morris.
“It’s trees! It’s birds! It’s very Arts and Crafts but in the most lurid, trouser-swinging, bell-bottom-a-licious colour palette that makes it incredibly modern.
“What I love about the Cotswolds now is that they’ve been well and truly pimped. You’ve still got the tea towel, which is great for huge coachloads of Chinese tourists.
“But my thing is to start exporting the Cotswolds. I’m working with a local distiller to do my own gin; and with a jeweller to do my own range of jewellery, both of which I want to take to Australia, to Malaysia, to Dubai, to the Middle East, under my brand.”
Is this Number 5?
Probably pi, the rate we’re going.
5. The Cotswolds as export potential
“I’m specifically looking for any opportunities of being able to trebuchet Cotswold brands into the international market.”
(Such a Cotswold verb, to trebuchet. All you ever hear in pubs is farmers trebuchet-ing this and trebuchet-ing that.)
“Britain is a big exporter. Everywhere you go in the world – making the Queen into a wind-up doll or putting her on a cushion – you’ll find Britch, which is my own term to define the conjunction of British and kitsch.”
Look, Laurence, we’re only on Number 5. Could we put a bit of speed on?
“I don’t have to be back in prison for half an hour.”
You are tagged?
“My tailor hates it – always having to cut holes around my tag…
“Ah! Even that! I have now moved my entire wardrobe operation – the Wardrobe of Doom. This enormous
great big juggernaut of an issue that
has to be transported all over the world now comes entirely from the Cotswolds… apart from the boots, to be entirely fair.” So:
6. Barrington Ayre
“Yes, the days of William Hunt, Bespoke HQ, Timothy Everest, and all the swinky-swanky Savile Row names are long gone. I’m a lot more difficult to dress than I used to be: two or three years ago, I could do ready-to-wear. Now – oooff. There are things to be accommodated. Spare tyres.
“So I go to Barrington Ayre, Cirencester. I enjoy what Tom [Wharton] does for me, which are incredibly engineered suits, made to survive 40-50 degree heat when I’m wearing them in the middle of the Abu Dhabi desert.
“And Stuart Holmes in Cheltenham has always done me barnet. The stranglehold of cultural authority that London exerted has pretty much been eroded for me.”
So Laurence’s trademark style has morphed into Cotswold chic?
“You’ve got to move on or you end up looking like David Dickinson.”
7. [I’m not going to detail how we got here; just accept that you’ve reached the giddy height of Number 7]: The Cotswolds as an emotion. Or something
“When you’re in a neon-powered city, the point of it is its blankness; its unfriendliness; its lack of compassion. And that’s another reason why we moved here 10 years ago: to tap into that sense of emotion that you get from community. All of us, as a family, have profited from that, enjoyed that, revelled in that.”
So you don’t come back to the Cotswolds and think, ‘Oh, after city-centre KL, they’re terribly quiet’?
“No, it’s not the quietness that you’re struck by. It’s the fact that you know everybody; and everybody’s nice; they know you as a person, as well.”
Wait! Let’s grab this.
8. The Cotswold people
“It’s not just about being that bloke off the telly. Yes, OK. You might be doing a selfie or an autograph; but the people you meet here are also talking about the fact that their mum knows our cleaning lady. Or we use the same vet. Or they’ve got my wallpaper, which shows they’ve incredibly good taste.
“Could Number 9 be sex? The Cotswolds are basically the Mr and Mrs Smith capital of the country.”
“What about the Cotswold Life Food and Drink Awards?”
Now you’re talking.
“What an epiphanic evening! There we were, celebrating international-style food and beverage, lifestyle, hospitality. Islington would give its eye-teeth to have what we have in the Cotswolds.
“Islington, actually, does give its eye teeth. You’ll go into a coffee bar there and it’s got a cob wall from a Pinterest image of a Cotswold café where that wall is real. We must understand that we are incredibly influential.”
So Cotswold produce is wonderful.
“Yes, the raw ingredients are, indeed, to be celebrated. One of the things that helped create Made by Bob. (There are other restaurants available: the Fleece; Barnsley House; Chef’s Table.) They thrive on the fact that the local supplier brings the best kit imaginable. Kit then exported to Islington, but arriving there much more expensive.
“The world looks to the Cotswolds as the glass case of Englishness [See Number 1]. And it’s not genetically modified. It’s a coral reef; it’s an accretion; it’s things that have stuck to it over the centuries. And unlike Venice, which is entirely inside a glass case inside its own aspic, we constantly reinvent it.”
Nearly there! So what’s Number 10 of things LLB loves most about the Cotswolds?
As in, the Bourton-on-the-Water of Italy?
“Venice is absolutely extraordinary because, architecturally and historically, it did something that no other city in the world did: it never had to defend itself.
“So you get fairy palaces rather than lumpy, clumpy things you can fire a crossbow through. There’s no other place in the world where architecture has been allowed to just be frilly. It’s as flimsy as embroidery, but has immense strength.
“A castle is more likely to fall down than a Venetian palazzo because the palazzo has become part of that organic accretion; part of that reef. It’s the same materials that have been used to make that little ziggurat on top.
“Which is very similar to the Cotswolds.”
At least he didn’t pick Johor Bahru.