Heather Darwall-Smith invigorated her historic Oxfordshire home with bursts of colour and clever touches.

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Breathing new life into a forlorn listed house was a challenge that Heather Darwall-Smith seized with both hands. ‘I have always wanted to live in a place with heaps of character and thick stone walls,’ she explains. ‘Our last home was a Twenties build, right in the middle of the Herefordshire countryside. The setting was beautiful, but as my stress management business has taken off, I realised that I needed to be nearer to bigger cities such as Oxford, and to travel into the capital more easily.’

Searching in Oxfordshire two years ago, Heather uncovered a Grade II-listed 16th-century cottage, steeped in history and crying out for redevelopment. ‘It used to be the bakery,’ she explains. ‘People would buy bread through the hatch in the space that is now the dining room. I just loved the thought that the house was such a central part of the village, and of all the people who have trodden over the flagstones.’

The compact walled courtyard was another of the property’s big selling points, as Heather was tired of tending to a big garden. ‘This one is so much easier to care for – the flowers are in beds and pots, and there aren’t sprawling grounds to worry about.’

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Husband Tim could also see the cottage’s potential and, accepting that there would be plenty of work ahead, they made the move in October 2015. ‘It was liveable, but very dated and dark,’ Heather recalls. ‘Everything needed lightening up. Because the cottage was Grade II-listed, Heather and Tim were aware that they would have to consult their planning team before making any changes. Heather is happy to share useful knowledge from her experience: ‘There are always specific people at your local town planning office who deal with listed buildings and can give you the lowdown on what might be acceptable and what definitely won’t be.’

As the house hadn’t been modernised for around a quarter of a century, the basics needed tackling first: damp problems were dealt with, walls were replastered and the electrics were made sound. ‘It can be quite frustrating,’ says Heather, ‘as you want to get your hands on the decor, but you know you have to have all the fundamentals in place first. Otherwise, anything you do on top is pointless.’

These maintenance essentials, along with a new kitchen, new bathrooms and a total renovation of every space, took the couple a year to complete, and Heather had a distinct vision of how she wanted it all to look. ‘It’s an old house and I was keen to reflect that in some areas, such as the bathrooms. Plus, we have plenty of antique furniture that we’ve inherited, which I wanted to work into the schemes in a way that didn’t look too contrived or stuffy.’

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As well as retaining the house’s period feel, the couple set about brightening up each room. ‘We decided to introduce contemporary touches and bursts of colour,’ Heather recalls. ‘I always intended to go neutral in the kitchen and with the big pieces of furniture, but I also wanted to use striking blues, pinks, oranges and reds in fabrics and accessories.’

The kitchen, with dated wooden units and a small table and chairs crammed in, was first on the list to receive an overhaul. ‘As it was, the layout wasn’t working,’ Heather explains. ‘There’s a dining room right next door with a hatch through, so I realised the space would be better used for an island with extra storage and a small breakfast bar.’ Although there were windows on both sides of the room, it still felt dark and gloomy. ‘We decided to go the whole hog and make it a contemporary kitchen with gloss units in white and grey, a high-shine worktop, pale walls and light limestone tiles. Now it’s bathed in light and is where we all like to gather.’

The main north-facing living room at the front of the house also needed careful handling. ‘I’ve layered up the textures as much as possible, using wallpaper, paint, flooring and curtains, all in neutrals,’ Heather explains. ‘We also opted to put in a wood-burning stove for instant heat – and a lovely cosy feel.’

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Flooring was also a major consideration in this room and, in the end, the couple went for wood-effect luxury vinyl tiles from Amtico in oak. ‘It’s hard to tell it’s not the real thing,’ she adds, ‘and it’s much easier to look after and warmer on the feet. I’m a total convert.’ Finally, an eye-catching rug in pastel shades from Louis De Pootere was key to pulling the whole look together. ‘It unifies all the different tones from around the room – and it’s just so soft!’ Heather grins. ‘Along with the kitchen, this is the room in which we spend most of our time as a family, so I didn’t rush because it had to be right.’

For the bedrooms, Heather wanted to create a visual delight for the senses in the master suite and a welcoming vibe in the spare. ‘We do have people to stay regularly, which we really enjoy. For me, wallpaper and luxurious carpets were the key in these spaces. I didn’t just want plain painted walls – I really thought about the colour schemes.’

Heather’s trademark quirky touches have also made their way into the bathrooms. ‘I like the fittings to be traditional, but I then enjoy shocking people with something different – such as my koi carp wallpaper. I don’t want my interiors to look like a series of hotel rooms. I want it to be something you can’t recreate as a lot of the pieces are one-offs.’

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Moving from room to room, the ability to strike a balance between historic house and contemporary home is clearly something that comes naturally to Heather. ‘From the outside the house looks like a traditional cottage,’ she explains, ‘but when visitors step inside, they are usually surprised by all of the modern and colourful touches. After a year of renovating, I now know what works and what won’t.’

Delighted with the results of all their efforts, the Darwall-Smiths can now take time to relax in their finished home. ‘I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the whole project, finding all those little pieces that lift a property out of the ordinary,’ Heather says. ‘And with old, listed houses you don’t really own them as such, you are custodians of their history, with a responsibility to keep it all going. Now I just want to sit back for a while and enjoy living here.’

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Photography: Colin Poole

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