Designer, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen
PUBLISHED: 11:57 29 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:57 20 February 2013
We fell in love with him on Changing Rooms when he taught a nation there are more adventurous ways of decorating a house than white-with-a-hint-of-pink. We've been away with him on Holiday; we've lapped up his lectures on art and design.
THE ENTRANCE hall swirls with sand and debris; drills cut through the background sound of hammers, as The Fray chirrup away with How to Save a Life on the radio owned by the builders working intensely on the chocolate brown and coral sitting room. An assortment of dogs rushes round like autonomous children on Kid Nation, and disembodied voices call to each other from across echoingly empty rooms.
You half expect the owner of this building site to come staggering in, albinoed by limestone dust, billowing out clouds of chalk as he opens his mouth to speak.
But oh no. Not Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. Like some untouchable god of MDF and stencilling, he sails through the hallway, immune from the chaos of the world of mortals, and emerges in the egg-shell blue 'snug' - currently one of the more civilised rooms - immaculately suited, his dandyishly long shirt cuffs an impeccable white. The hair is tastefully ruffled and he looks - well, pretty damn gorgeous, actually.
What's more, he glows with the bonhomie of a man in love. Which is because he is in love - with his part-16th century stone-built farmhouse; with his recent move to Gloucestershire; even with the builders. ("I'm going to retrain Andy as my butler," he trills. Are all Laurence's builders called Andy, one wonders?)
The Cotswolds and Laurence are an item. And like lovers everywhere, even faults are perceived as attributes.
"I went to the doctor yesterday, complaining about something I thought would be very straightforward and ordinary to sort out - some sort of nasty oral infection - but it turns out that actually I've managed to get myself allergic to lime dust through breathing it in all summer. I've got terrible ulcers! The only reason I went to the doctor's was because it was getting in the way of gin drinking; he said alcohol would make it worse.
"Anyhow," he beams, "I've been floating round telling the builders that I'm allergic to them. Come to the country and develop an allergy to country life!" He sounds thrilled.
On the odd occasions I've mentioned to people that I've met Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen (to be honest, I've told everyone I know; there's an undeniable kudos in interviewing this Deity of the Hearth), the eternal question has been, "Oooh - what is he like?" Not "What kind of house does he live in?" or "Are the walls purple?" (And yes, some of them are, actually) but a fascination with the man himself.
Well, here's the thing. In person he's exactly, wholly, recognisably like the man on the telly - and yet completely different at the same time. For a start, putting down his quotes on paper makes him sound unbelievably camp. Girls, meet him in person and you'll be weak-kneed. He's funny, self-satirising, clever and - while patently not lacking in self-esteem - sort of engagingly humble, too.
Which has taken his neighbours by surprise.
When Laurence moved to Gloucestershire with his family - wife Jackie and children Cecile (12) and Hermione (9) - six months ago, the locals might well have been readying themselves tearfully to cry, "But we liked the hills green!" Indeed, with a budget of just 500, this stalwart of Changing Rooms probably could turn Cirencester from an avocado and magnolia market town into a faux Egyptian burial chamber.
But unlike some other celebrity incomers, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen is determined to blend in.
"I think the Cotswolds have had something of a bad press with celebrities, and all I can do is apologise deeply," he shudders. "People are completely getting the wrong end of the stick. You do not come into a community and expect to be worshipped."
In fact, he's made his home bang in amongst other houses in the working village of Siddington - "we didn't want anything ponced off and chocolate boxy" - with the same down-to-earth normality as any other incomer... Oh, except that he's brought a television crew with him. LIVING channel has been following every aspect of the family's move to the country - from the moment they meet the neighbours to seeing the children settle into their new school - for a documentary, To The Manor Bowen.
"Ever since The Osbournes, we've been pursued by television companies, which we've constantly turned down because I think it would be ridiculously self-indulgent and really very, very dull," Laurence says. "Then about two years ago, a production company came up with the idea of doing a fly-on-the-wall about us moving to the country. As far as we were concerned, that's what we were always going to do anyway, so I thought, well you know, let's make a pilot because who knows where it might go. If we get a commission, fine, we'll move to the country."
After the initial flurry, the plan was put on ice. For one thing, Laurence was busy doing the BBC's Holiday show. But last summer, he and Jackie suddenly realised that, if they didn't move now, they never would.
"We also suddenly found out how much our house in Greenwich was worth (1.2 million, having paid 600,000 for it, and having thought that was ridiculous) so we thought: Let's play the game - What does that buy you in the country?"
The answer is, a multi-bedroomed farmhouse that was, for a while, desperately unloved and legendarily haunted. (Jackie's frocks now hang in the most ghostly corner of the house).
And do the locals mind being filmed?
"Actually, after a couple of pints in the pub, people will say, 'We don't want you to go.'
"We say: 'What do you mean?'
"They say, 'After the filming's finished.' And we have to explain that they have us for good. It's the television crew that will be going, not us."
No wonder they've endeared themselves. The only thing Laurence has 'made over' so far has been the raffle at South Cerney fete. The year before he came, it raised 700. This year, they topped that by 2,000 thanks to prizes which, suddenly and surprisingly, included contributions from Jamie Oliver and the Ritz. The most exciting by far was the offer of a meal cooked and served by Jackie and Laurence in the winner's own home.
"It's what we are cheekily calling a Fanny and Johnny experience," Laurence says, in a throw-away reference to the Cradocks. "I bumped into the lady who won in Tesco, because she works nights there. She said to me, 'You will come and have a drink with us?' and I said, 'No, I'm your butler!' Jackie's been working for weeks on the menu. We're really excited about it."
It's at this point that Jackie, his wife of 18 years, walks in, fresh from her cathartic daily swim.
"What's the menu now?" he asks her.
She reels off a Babette's Feast of quails' eggs, asparagus, poached roulade of salmon and sole with a lime creamy dressing - "I haven't really decided on that one" - roast fillet of beef with veg from the garden, apple crumble tart, damson ice cream, and pots au chocolat.
"We want to give them all the luxury and attention that we're used to having in our incredibly privileged lives," Jackie says. "They are such nice people."
"That's what we've always done," Laurence chips in. "I've gone in and made people's rooms look nice; she's gone in and made people's dinner tables look nicer."
The banter between them is affectionate and genuine. They may seem like chalk and cheese, but those who meet them have no doubt of the genuine warmth and compatibility of their long-lasting relationship.
That affection is visible as we wander through the house. There's the 'Granary', a suite specially adapted for Jackie's mum, who has MS, to come and stay. Then there's the wallpaper Laurence created for their own swanky black and red bedroom; it started with the working title 'Mate for Life' "as a little tribute to me and the Mrs".
Some parts of the house demonstrate a restrained 'morning room' quality in mustards and blues; others are startling in their colourful boldness; then there are the fun bits; the old-fashioned; and the spankingly modern (a state-of-the-art computer-controlled plumbing system, for one).
What is obvious, as we make our way through, is the breadth of imagination and true talent that this man embodies - it can be easy to forget he is a graduate in Fine Art from the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. On the wall of one room, there's a beautifully-executed line drawing he's done to demonstrate to those working there how it should look when finished. In a bedroom, there's a startlingly lovely mural he's in the middle of, with rolling countryside, follies, and a copse atop a far-off hill. "It's like a fantasy football league of all the best bits of our landscape. Then we went over to Cirencester Park for tea with Lady Apsley, and I thought hang on a second... There, in real life, were all the bits from my landscape.
"It was something I always used to do. If I thought a scheme I'd come up with looked a bit dodgy and I was worried about the reaction, I'd throw in a painting to try to buy their good favour."
Certainly, Laurence's house seems to be lapping up his schemes. In fact, he thinks they were made for each other. "It's the sort of house that takes not being Farrow and Balled. It would have been so easy to do it that way, but, I think, such a missed opportunity.
"It was extended in the 1620s with considerable pretension and, we understand, as an enticement to improve marriage prospects. Actually, it was a statement in a very Home-Front-meets-Grand Designs way. For the 1620s, it's very advanced in taste terms."
Designed by the Mr Llewelyn-Bowen of his day, I suggest...
"More or less exactly, yes. I think that's one of the reasons why Jackie fell in love with it. You could tell that there was an element going on there of someone ploughing their own furrow in design terms."
And while Laurence is doing his bit, his wife has been busy, too. The walled garden at the back is a riot of cottagey colour. It might look as if it's been growing like that for ever; in fact, it was created in the last year by Jackie herself. Nor is she a silent partner in the house. It's quite obvious, from casual chatter, that she's been instrumental in designing the kitchen and choosing its up-to-the-minute appliances.
"You wait until the television programme comes out," Laurence says, with conjugal pride. "Jackie's going to be so in demand. The new Sharon Osbourne."
Alongside the TV work, Laurence is busy on design projects all over the world - as well as locally - through his company LB&A. He's about to start work on The Daffodil in Cheltenham. "I'd love to do more in Cirencester. There's a real issue there - it's got a big name but it's punching well below its weight.
"What people need to understand is To the Manor Bowen will be focusing an enormous amount of attention on this area - and internationally. It's going to America, it's going to Canada, it's going to Australia.
"I'm quite a big name on the cable networks. Next summer, I think there will be a lot of people making a point of coming to Cirencester." He's even become patron of the town's Christmas lights.
"We tried to make our London experience as much like the country as possible, which is why we lived in Greenwich. But to an extent, all of that was a precursor to this. I had a real little lump in my throat the other day, teasing Cecile about the fact that she'll be waking up in her bedroom to get married from here.
"This is us having arrived. We've got to the right place in our lives - fat, fair and 40."
For more information on Laurence, visit his official website at www.llb.co.uk