Look inside Cath Kidston’s beautiful Cotswold home
PUBLISHED: 11:34 12 November 2020 | UPDATED: 11:36 12 November 2020
Christopher Simon Sykes/Pavilion
Cath Kidston has opened up almost every nook and cranny of her Cotswold idyll in a new book, A Place Called Home. Katie Jarvis spoke to Cath
Everybody in the Cotswolds knows everybody else. (In a really, really nice way.)
Like when I interviewed Jilly Cooper the other day and she sent her love to Cath Kidston.
“Isn’t she the best!” Cath Kidston exclaims, with huge affection. “Wonderful. I love her. If we’re allowed, I’m going to see her next weekend.”
Along with Nicky Haslam, too, I hear? (The design guru, now living in Georgian splendour on the Daylesford Estate.)
“Exactly. My favourite. That should be really fun.” Even if, she points out, they end up huddled in a garden. “We’ll have to see what’s what.”
I’m speaking to Cath Kidston by phone, of course – and how lucky am I to get an interview. But – let’s be honest here – I’d love to be chatting in her rambling Cotswold manor-on-a-hill, looking over to a mound between rustling beeches where Iron Age people once venerated their dead.
It’s a stunning house – and I know this because its beauties are laid out in Cath’s latest book: A Place Called Home. And I mean ‘laid out’. There’s hardly a nook or a cranny that isn’t revealed amongst its glorious photographs and beguiling print.
We see the kitchen – once a chapel - with re-enamelled black Aga and 1960s scrubbed pine table, rush mats and splashes-of-yellow cloth. (“I’m obsessed with tablecloths and love laying the table even when we are on our own.”). The dining room with a table built to order: strong enough for dogs (and people) to walk on. (The previous antique table – “brown furniture” – ended its life in disgrace when Billy, the Sealyham terrier, jumped up one Christmas. Alas, not man enough for the occasion, “The whole table dipped, and everything slipped into the middle.”)
There’s the ‘junk shop mix’ telly room, with its car-boot-sale furniture, Gothic windows, sunny aspect and (discreetly hidden) mammoth TV screen. Pride of place is the passion-red and cool-blue Persian rug Cath persuaded record producer Hugh Padgham (Phil Collins; Sting; the Human League) to buy - “which he did very grudgingly” - from a shop on the Wandsworth Bridge Road, many years ago. She was working as Hugh’s interior decorator at the time. A relationship wasn’t immediate: three years later, when Hugh needed new blinds, his mind went back to Cath...
Do Cath and her husband ever disagree on décor?
“Hugh is really easy-going. What’s important to him is: TV, type of cooker, gadgets – all the things I have absolutely no idea about. So I tend to plan everything and then put it in front of his nose… I’m probably quite manipulative!”
We’re taken on tour through bedrooms and bathrooms – including the Fish Bathroom, which derives its aquatic character from a fish painting Cath netted in a favourite antique shop: “It made my heart stop when I walked in and saw it.”
But perhaps I love most of all the idiosyncratic touches. The colourful paintings – reds, yellows, blues – by Aunt Corise, a great family character. The picture of a cottage made entirely from Quality Street wrappers, given by a friend. “It’s a tradition for us to have a full jar of Quality Street at home… Such a great present!” The giant framed Life is Merrier With a Lakeland Terrier poster.
And – best of all – in the entrance hall, the regal-looking oil of a dignified aristocrat. Clad in armour, snow-white ruffle around neck, one of his hands lies on hip; the other lightly laid on a fearsome-looking helmet beside him.
He might be about to impress viewers by putting that helmet on… Instead, perched on his head is a peach-coloured cracker hat, placed there one Christmas and never taken down.
“I really like that picture but the man is very bald. A slightly Blackadder feel to him. I’ve had to replace the hat once so far because the colour goes – it’s a sort of Christmas ritual to decide whether I need to put a new one up. But it’s definitely there to stay.”
Is this is the start of a new style for men who’ve lost their hair?
“Go round in cracker hats,” she agrees.
If ever a story began with an ironing-board cover and ended in a multi-national business, then Cath Kidston’s did.
Well, that’s the simplified version.
It’s a story that fascinates me. Not just the vignette of a very young Cath, sitting looking at a plain ironing board in her Hammersmith flat, thinking how much prettier it could look.
Much further back than that.
For it really began with a fairy-tale childhood - in a beautiful house on the border of Wiltshire and Hampshire - that, even then (she’s now 61), was an anachronism: a nanny behind a green baize door, a governess (she didn’t go to school until the age of eight), a swimming pool, staff; and ‘visits’ to her parents’ side of the house. Her father, Archie, was a banker from a wealthy Glasgow family who owned the Clyde Shipping Company.
Interestingly, when I ask Cath about childhood, it’s the ordinary elements she recalls.
“I think some people are nesters and house people,” she reflects. “I can divide my friends into those who walk past an estate agent without looking [and the half who don’t]. When I was a small child, I made a house in a laurel bush. And either you’re the kind of child who wants to play houses or you’re not. I always loved house things. My grandmother was into decorating and houses and gardens; it’s something I was brought up around.”
Stories from those times make me laugh. Such as her father’s delight on hearing that his daughter had won the school Latin prize. He was less-than-thrilled when he discovered it had been for drawing a Roman in a toga.
(Cath wasn’t told until she was 24 that she was dyslexic. “I didn’t want you to think you were odd,” her mother explained.)
She left home at 17; two years later, that same home would no longer exist. Her beloved father – a man whose sheer force of personality lighted up the house – died aged 50 of a brain tumour. From a life of privilege, Cath’s mother, Susie, was left struggling for money. But far from languishing, she threw herself into coping: taking in paying guests; cooking food – something she’d never had to do before – to sell on a market stall to make ends meet.
“I think she was a very resilient person,” Cath says, “but that generation, on the whole, were. They’d all been brought up during the war; they’d known a lot of difficult times; and it was a way a lot of them dealt with things, don’t you think?”
(I like the way she so often finishes sentences with a question; pulling me into the conversation.)
Her mum was still in her 40s, with the two youngest of her four children – teenage boys – still at home.
“There had been a lot of financial problems in that era. Do you remember Lloyd’s? A lot of people lost money and had to start working.”
For Cath, meanwhile, her big opportunity came when she landed a job with giant-of-a-designer Nicky Haslam. Among the more idiosyncratic tasks she was given were delivering a letter to socialite Diana Cooper, and measuring up new curtains for Ava Gardner.
“I could just see [Ava] in the distance across the room, but so exciting. I mean, Nicky does have the most extraordinary contacts and it’s fascinating, when you’re young particularly, to be able to go and be behind a clipboard in someone’s shadow, taking notes.”
But it wasn’t the glamour of the role that appealed to her so much as the warmth of Nicky Haslam, the man who became her mentor; someone who changed her life.
“He’s one of my favourite people: I love him to bits,” she says. “He had this way of making you feel like you could be clever and do something.”
He’s still a good friend today, of course – and one who’s helped many young protégés find successful careers.
“I love people who can be themselves. He’s always interesting; always fun; always onto something. Very much of the moment. And I can’t wait to go and see him next week; see his lovely new house and what he’s done there.”
There are lots of things I don’t expect. I didn’t expect to be made to laugh out loud at Cath Kidston’s house – but Cracker Man succeeded.
I didn’t expect her descriptions of her house to be filled with words such as: ‘not too fussy’, ‘plain’, ‘white’, ‘not too feminine’.
“I do like to keep things quite simple. I’m sitting here in my office, looking at a stripy cushion next to a flowery cushion, but there are plain white walls and a Japanese wood print.
“If I wear a flowery dress, I’m likely to wear it with a pair of gumboots or trainers, rather than high heels. Someone said: It’s like designing with a bit of that grit in the pearl.”
Neither am I expecting her to fly the flag for undesigned, messy, heart-of-gold Stroud.
“To me,” she says, “Stroud is the centre of the universe.”
The town? I ask, (very slightly) surprised.
“Yes! Such wonderful people and diversity. I do worry that it’s becoming slightly too current, at the moment; that it might become swamped by townies moving – who am I to talk!
“It doesn’t surprise me that Extinction [Rebellion] started there. It’s always a step ahead in that department. Fantastic place.”
And Cath Kidston has a right to talk about it. Part of her childhood was spent living near Malmesbury; Hugh has had a place in the area since the 80s; together, they’ve had a home here since the early 90s.
And so we chat about all things (and people) Stroud. About Pangolin, the sculpture foundry and gallery in Chalford. “Talk about craftsmen; a fabulous business. It’s not just the work they do but the way they do it. They have incredible ethics of how they treat their staff.”
“I hope one of the really positive things that comes out [of Covid] is that we start thinking about what we consume and how much we can buy locally. I’ve been really relying on the local farm shop; going on Friday to the market in Stroud.”
And about her warm admiration for the wonderful Nell Gifford, whose loss so many of us feel.
“A lovely, remarkable person. She must be looking down so proud of her niece and the team - all of them; how they’ve been so resilient. We tried to get tickets the other day to go and have the lunch [at Giffords Circus] and it’s completely booked out, which is so fantastic. I think her energy will live on – don’t you?”
So I guess the one thing I really haven’t talked about is, strangely, her original business. (There seemed so many other things.) When she opened her first shop in Holland Park in 1993, she was far from dreaming of a multi-million-pound success. “It was about having one great shop and paying my mortgage.”
Would Cath have done anything differently, with a crystal ball?
She reflects for a moment. “I don’t know…. I wouldn’t have called the business my name.”
(Cath Kidston herself left the business in 2016.)
In 2010, she was awarded an MBE for her services to business. And she’s still very much at the forefront: consultancy for big brands; print for other companies.
Two years ago, she founded The Joy of Print, an independent design company.
“I really missed having a creative outlet. And I love designing textiles and print. So I have a little studio in West London; and I also have a room with a ping-pong table down here [the Cotswolds], which I’m sitting at.”
It’s not about starting another large-scale concern: “It’s all about trying to make beautiful things in a non-pressurised way. Whether it will be viable or not, we’ll see; but I want to give it a go. It’s probably more home-based than fashion-based, the things I’m interested in right now.”
She’s looking at a furnishing fabric across the table, as we speak: “Quite a lot of black and white, actually, coming up. All sorts of things. All pattern-inspired, always.”
So there you go. Not necessarily what you’d expect.
“I’ll tell Jilly I spoke to you,” she says.
• A Place Called Home by Cath Kidston is published by Pavilion. Photographs by Christopher Simon Sykes.
• Cath Kidston is a supporter of the charity Fine Cell Work: beautiful products handmade in British prisons: finecellwork.co.uk