When her eldest daughter, Poppy, was a baby, then Brooklyn-based landscape architect Miranda Brooks would stay in London with her friend India Jane Birley at Thurloe Lodge.
Among the embarrassment of very beautiful objects in this treasure trove house owned by Birley’s late father Mark, the celebrated maestro of London clubs, were a pair of Wedgwood tureens in the kitchen printed with magic realism designs from 1939 by the artist Eric Ravilious—a pattern called, aptly enough, “Garden.” Noticing how Brooks “coveted them like mad,” as she admits, her hostess told her, “If you ever move back to England, I’m giving those to you.”
Sixteen years on finds Brooks and her husband, French-born architect Bastien Halard; and their daughters, Poppy, 16, and Violette Grey, 14; a quartet of horses; Cuckoo the whippet and Toto the Jack Russell; cats Caliban and Tempette; a batch of broody bantams—all named for New York friends the couple miss—and a flotilla of remarkably well-socialized Indian Runner ducks (named for the family’s favorite Van Leeuwen ice cream flavors) all installed at Catswood, a rambling 17th-century farmhouse in England’s picturesque Cotswolds. Those tureens have pride of place on the table in the kitchen that Halard designed.
The journey to this bucolic scene, however, was long and complicated. Halard had, he says, been “visiting houses in England for years and years and years,” but, inspired by his grandparents’ French château, had restricted himself to 18th-century Georgian examples with high ceilings and tall windows, “because,” as he maintains, “that’s all I saw that I could possibly tolerate.”
“Coming across it in the fields,” Brooks remembers, “was just amazing. All ruined buildings and lots of horrible old silos and barbed wire”
The couple eventually found a superb example in a remote northern county, nestled in its own great estate. They were poised to acquire it when Brooks realized that with Halard traveling so much for ongoing projects in America and elsewhere, she would be alone in this isolated beauty for much of the time—and Halard realized that for all its elegance the possibilities for creative transformation in the house’s rigorously ordered spaces were decidedly limited. A visit to another house where 18th-century rooms were grafted onto others created centuries earlier proved an epiphany. Halard deemed it “fascinating—you were never bored,” and so the possibilities multiplied.
Meanwhile their friend the artist Dan Chadwick, who lives among Gloucestershire’s fabled golden valleys (immortalized by author Laurie Lee in his autobiographical novel Cider with Rosie), knew of a nearby dairy farm with a 17th-century farmhouse that he felt might be worth investigating. The farmer had died and his son had built a more conveniently appointed house next door.
Writer Plum Sykes, another neighbor, drove past and took a surreptitious picture for Brooks and Halard back in the States. “It was winter and it was so depressing and really, really gloomy,” recalls Brooks of the resulting snap. “But still, maybe it was something.” The next visit was in person. “Coming across it in the fields,” Brooks remembers, “was just amazing. All ruined buildings and lots of horrible old silos and barbed wire everywhere.” But when she sat in a field admiring the view across the buildings to an ancient woodland and a great dip of valley beyond, “it felt just magic. And so,” she continues, “I went back to New York and I wrote to the farmers. And then we never heard anything and so we carried on looking. And we did it every year, every holiday here, looking.” Nothing, however, was quite right, and the couple were ready to give up on Miranda’s mother country, and contemplated, among other places, Maryland instead.
Before they could explore properties there, however, they went back to England to stay with Sykes. She wanted to know how their house search was going. “I’m really sorry,” Brooks told her, “but we’ve given up. We just can’t find anything.” “Well, what about those farmers?” Sykes asked. “Did they never write back?” Sykes gathered the troops and they drove straight up to the house and knocked on the door. “I do remember your letter,” the farmer’s wife told Brooks, “and actually things are a bit different now. Let me have your number and we will call you back.”
Her husband was very straightforward: “Do you like it? Do you want it?” he asked. “It was just like that,” Brooks recalls, “we shook hands in the field.”
Brooks did, however, feel that she should return and see the interior, a visit that was arranged for another day. “Inside was pretty terrifying,” she recalls. “All the downstairs windows were fogged and steamed up because it was so, so, so damp. It was just horrible. But I just felt Bastien would figure it out.”
“Miranda looks at me and says, ‘I really can’t see how this can turn into a beautiful house, but I totally trust that you can do it,’ ” Halard recalls. “And my heart falls!”
He certainly had his work cut out for him. That damp living room turned out to have a stream running beneath its linoleum floor. A perilous staircase led from a poky sitting room to a row of bedrooms arranged in an enfilade so that you had to walk through one to get to another. The only bathroom was downstairs. There was no logical place for a kitchen. Miranda and Bastien were so disheartened by the baleful look of the place that they felt they couldn’t bring their uprooted daughters to visit.
“There was nothing left of true historical value except its bones,” Halard recalls, “and whatever was there we restored, but on the whole we had to start from scratch and make it a blank canvas—which is fantastic for people like Miranda and me.”
Halard’s skills were tested both by the challenges of creating a rational sequence of beautiful rooms and outbuildings, and by the local planning committees. But at the lowest ebb, the serendipities began. Halard, working on a project in New York, received a call from his builders in the U.K. telling him that when they removed a little stove at one end of the sitting room they had unearthed an ancient inglenook fireplace almost as wide as the room itself, a discovery that transformed the atmosphere of the room entirely. Halard laid doughty and waterproof elm floorboards, hewn from a rare example of that imperiled species that had fallen on India Jane Birley’s land in Sussex, but found the beams overhead problematic. Brooks concurred. “I just think it looks like a pub,” she opined crisply, a statement that emboldened Halard to plaster them. Halard was vindicated when he researched local houses of a similar date, and the late-19th and early-20th-century Arts and Crafts houses of such architects as Norman Jewson and Detmar Blow who revived the style for artistic Edwardians in the area, and realized that they too had the same treatment.
For Brooks, lockdown meant that every day she could see the unfurling possibilities of her biodynamic gardens
Halard has decorating in his genes—his great-grandfather Adolphe founded the wallpaper and textile company Nobilis, his grandfather the eponymous furniture and decoration store Yves Halard, while his grandmother Michelle and his mother, Florence Chabrieres, are both decorators. Artistic uncle François, meanwhile, took the photographs for this story. Halard’s cue for the sitting room’s restrained color scheme came from James Abbott Whistler’s The Artist in his Studio, with its subtle palette of soft grays, pinks, and ivories—“There’s a sort of slight sweetness to it,” he explains—and he mixed gutsy and dainty furniture from the 17th century to the mid 20th. Those house visits also inspired the furrowed plasterwork in the formal entrance hall that doubles as a dining room, a new oaken staircase, and Halard’s freehand fresco of undulant oak leaves in the library.
Brooks, meanwhile, despaired that they would ever have a kitchen, and for months meals were cooked over a firepit in the farmyard. However, the ancient independent bothy came down in a biblical storm, and Halard was able to create a modern structure in its image that, with careful excavation, now merges with the original building’s un-even roofline and provides a high-ceilinged kitchen with raised windows that frame painterly views of garden and landscape. Two-hundred-year-old boards from an Amish barn have been recycled to make the walls and floors.
Miraculously, this structure was just finished when COVID struck and Britain went into lockdown. For Brooks, this meant that every day she could see the unfurling possibilities of her biodynamic gardens and could focus on transforming them. Fearful of food shortages in those early days of the pandemic, she dug for Britain, remaking a stinking slurry pit into a magnificent vegetable and cutting garden, and planting the path below it with blackberries and raspberries.
The couple have since planted over 300 new trees, oak now combined with beech and limes, beloved of the bees, and created a bathing lake. The utilitarian farm buildings and the concrete yards that surrounded the house have been demolished to make way for gardens, while the ancient stone outbuildings are being restored. One is now the couple’s studio where they work on their individual projects and collaborate on a line of outdoor fabrics. Another will be transformed into a Turkish bath, inspired by the couple’s beloved rough and ready Russian Baths in the East Village where they went on their first date. Outside this barn, Brooks has planted a Ladies Garden with pink blossomed apple trees and roses from India’s grandmother Rhoda Birley’s fabled garden.
With much of the land zoned for agriculture, and horses needing to run free, Brooks claims that there wasn’t much left for gardens. She began by creating different levels around the house and then, as she recalls, “this crazy thing happened” when she went to an Ayurvedic cleanse retreat in Mexico. Brooks had initially dismissed what she calls “that hippie chakra thing,” but after a week’s intense immersion in the practice she found that she could not escape the colors—“the chakra colors wrapped around me.” Back at her house, her dressing room afforded a bird’s-eye view “from the garden walk up the hill to the hedges and fields,” inspiring a plan that mimicked the opening up of chakras. She imagined her design “energetically moving from the base of the spine to the top of the head.”
And so the gardens that she created with gardener Rachel (“my biodynamic witch”), along with colleagues Will, Lorraine, and Louise, do just that.
The “grounding” red garden in the newly created terrace outside the kitchen is a riot of phlomis italica, pulsatilla, geum, valerian, darkest red peonies, and the Souvenir du Dr. Jamain rose—a rose that grew outside Brooks’s childhood bedroom. “It was huge and it would grow into my bedroom, which I just found unbelievable.”
This leads into the solar plexus, represented by the small yellow garden in front of the house’s entrance façade, a shimmering Impressionist haze of yellow achillea, Benton iris, digitalis lutea, evening primrose, and honeysuckle. Then follows the green heart chakra, with cloudy yews and boxed lindens and a row of mature espaliered pear trees found in Belgium, and a flat lawn created for Poppy and Violette Grey to play badminton. Further up the hill the throat chakra is represented by a palette of soft mauve-blues with pale geraniums, field scabious, and lilacs.
This sloping site is crowned with a semicircular tapestry hedge to celebrate the spot where the family used to come and have a picnic when it was a building site. The lilac plantings here represent “your third eye,” as Brooks notes, and froth with the blossoms from an orchard that includes plum and damson trees in the spring.
“You’re just a custodian of a house, right?” says Halard. “Particularly a house like this one”
When the family’s beloved friend Stella Tennant died in late December 2020, an agonized Brooks was inspired to create another garden to celebrate her, centered around a perfectly circular pond cradled in a protecting embrace of a low hill—the heart of the garden. This was envisaged as “a completely still bit of water, a reflecting pool that you could see the stars in at night.” Those Indian Runner ducks, however, soon claimed it as their own, “and now it’s just a duck pond.” Stella, she feels, would be amused. Here, Brooks planted Magnolia stellata, Tennant’s beloved perennial sweet peas, and Rosa complicata, “which seems very fitting,” says Brooks. “But it’s also bright pink, which she loved. I always felt that whenever Stella arrived to stay, it was as if this sort of wind walked into the house, there was something so brisk and breezy about her. And somehow being here, you feel that wind around you and there’s loads of sky, which felt important too. But then you can hunker down and feel safe against these banks. In a way, the nicest thing about this garden is that it means we say her name practically every day.”
Inside her home, recalling visiting all those grandly proportioned 18th-century houses, Brooks has realized that “actually it’s really lovely in England to be in those long, low rooms, especially in the winter.”
“You’re just a custodian of a house, right?” adds Halard. “Particularly a house like this one. I really believe in the spirits of a house—a house speaks and has emotions, and she was definitely very cross at the beginning, very ashamed when we started pulling everything out. But now she’s feeling so pretty and proud.”
In this story: hair, Louis Byrne; makeup, Andrew Denton.