Photography by Darren Chung

Zara and the Chocolate-Box Cottage

17th May 2019

QUICK CHECK

The Property:

A three-storey, two-bedroom Cotswold stone cottage in the village of Great Rollright.

Who Owns It:

Zara Dawson, her partner Lex James and their young son, Jax. The couple are directors of property search and concierge company, Golden Ticket, which finds houses for actors and crew to live in for the duration of a movie shoot (goldenticketlondon.com).

By Natalie Flaum

A weekend break soaking up rural delights in the Cotswolds led Zara Dawson and her partner Lex James to buy this picturesque cottage in the village of Great Rollright, surrounded by glorious views across the valley. Once dilapidated, but now beautifully renovated, it’s not only a country escape from their London home but a great addition to the couple’s business.

“When we began our search all we saw were properties with fuddy-duddy interiors – nothing that inspired a modern feel in a rustic building,” says Zara. “We noticed the cottage on a website and expressed our interest even though it was under offer. The next day we received a phone call from the agent to say it was back on the market.

So we asked to see the property that evening and drove straight from London, arriving at 6pm when it was pitch black dark. The cottage had no electrics so we viewed it using our iPhone torches – the walls upstairs were purple, and orange downstairs! We offered the asking price on the spot and received the keys six weeks later…” 

Perfectionist Zara oversaw every detail of the project, and there were plenty of early starts as the couple travelled frequently from London to check on the progress. Hiring tradesmen, as well as enlisting the help of Zara’s father’s building firm in the early stages, the couple stripped the property back to a stone shell as the electrics, plumbing and pipework were renewed, as well as taking on much of the decorating themselves. It proved a lot of hard work: “Nothing was straightforward,’ Zara recalls. ‘Every time we started a job, it led to a trail of five more to complete.”

The reclaimed wood features throughout the house were sourced from a local reclamation yard. The wood came from RAF base Little Rissington, which was in operation between 1938 and 1994 and was once home to the Red Arrows. “I love reclaimed wood, the more rustic it looks and full of history, the better,” says Zara. “The base at RAF Rissington was demolished in 2014 and we feel that using wood from there enhances the history of our cottage and the area.”

Using the reclaimed wood, Zara’s carpenter built panelling and a pair of window seats in the recess bays in the living room and guest bedroom. The seat cushions are vintage French linen sacks Zara found on eBay. “As each one is a completely different size I got happy with my needle, thread and staple gun,” she says. “The window seats are the perfect place for sitting and watching the world the world go by.”

A local craftsman built the kitchen, using wood that originally came from an old barn in Russia. And with her passion for marble and copper accessories, Zara opted for Carrera stone worktops and a copper masthead light that complements the Cotswold stone.

“The cottage kitchen is small but perfectly formed,” she says. “We’ve had many positive comments about it from guests who have all enjoyed using it.”

The dining table is bespoke, created by the carpenter to fit the space, and the farmhouse chairs have been revived with Annie Sloan’s Duck Egg Blue chalk paint.

“When we ripped the carpet up downstairs, we found original flagstone flooring that sadly we had to tile over in favour of underfloor heating,” says Zara. “We also had to hire a specialist company to blast black lacquer off the original beams… [and then wait] three weeks to allow them to breathe before painting them.”

Zara and Lex created themed features from two original stone wall recesses. A ‘coffee corner’ in the kitchen recess and, inspired by their business name, a ‘sweet shop’ – vintage jars stocked with their favourite confectionery in the living room recess. A lovely personal touch is the ‘Little Cotswold Cottage’ printed sweet bags for guests. “We have no idea what purpose the alcoves served originally, so we thought we’d make a feature out of them,” says Zara. “Our carpenter crafted a framework with shelves inside the recesses using the same reclaimed wood from RAF Rissington. When the wood and traditional Cotswold stone meet the two textures work really well together.”

The master bedroom is decorated in Scandi-chic vintage style with a roll-top bath taking centre stage – no mean feat to achieve. “I wanted the master bedroom to be a blanket of white – as if you’re stepping into a serene zone in which to unwind and relax,” Zara explains. “As the cottage is so small, we had to buy two mattresses that zip together just to move it into the room. The bed from Feather & Black was our most expensive buy.”

Lex was insistent on a roll-top bath, but with the cottage’s curved staircase and crooked walls, it was impossible to carry up the stairs. “Undeterred, we put up scaffolding and removed the skylight on the top floor to get it inside,” Zara explains. Geometric floor tiles separate the open-plan bathing area, which meant that all the wooden floorboards had to be cut to size around hexagonal marble tiles. “The roll-top bath now sits on these tiles, all kept toasty and warm with underfloor heating and sheepskin rugs,” she adds. Organic materials are a large part of the interior where Zara has used natural elements to set an earthy tone. In the bathroom and by the roll top bath in the master bedroom, Zara painted tree logs in Annie Sloan chalk paint, leaving the top raw as a contrast. ‘It took a surprisingly long time to source logs with the right height and diameter but I love the rustic feel of them,’ she says.

Zara’s passion for history and nostalgia is seen throughout the cottage, with personal touches inspired by the past dotted all around – from vintage sweet jars to framed old prints and comics, a retro Marshall amplifier and a vintage desk that once belonged to a police officer. “I love imagining a place way back when and we’ve been exploring the cottage’s past,” she reflects. “Our postman told us a lovely story about the front door, which has always opened outwards, so he knows to knock first and stand back or else he’d end up being knocked out! An extraordinary event occurred recently, when an 85-year-old lady visited, who had lived in the cottage as a child. She explained how her father had carried the front door steps, on his shoulders, one per day all the way back from Oxford by bus. And she told another tragic story, about her parents being first on the scene when a plane came down in a nearby field, on 23 December 1944, killing eight people. Her mother and father had raced to the scene by bicycle, staying with the aircrew until the emergency services arrived, her mum taking a cigarette from her apron when one of the dying men asked for one and her dad pulling one man from the cockpit who said, “Tell my ma I love her,” before dying. What a story! The lady also said that the building next door used to be a sweet shop – how fitting that we have our little sweet shop in the cottage!”

Just like their unique business, named after the golden ticket in Lex’s favourite film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the cottage has flourished. ‘We grew Golden Ticket from the table in our flat, and it’s spiralled amazingly from there.’ explains Zara. “It all started when Lex’s friend, who was working on the film Hugo, called to say he needed to find a house for the director – one Martin Scorsese – to live in, and did Lex know of anywhere? Lex being Lex, he agreed to take the job on – and we’ve built a business on the back of that call.”

Now that their cottage is complete, it’s perfect for some of the couple’s A-list clients. “They love its quintessential English vibe and discreet location; and so do we,” says Zara. “We often hear neighbours whispering: ‘You’ll never guess who came to stay in the village!’ That never fails to bring a smile to our faces.”

The cottage is also available as a holiday let. To book, visit @littlecotswoldcottage (Instagram) or sheepskinslife.com/cottages/little-cotswold-cottage

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