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Most people would be daunted by the prospect of turning an historic, 21-room property into a single-family home, especially one devoid of central heating. But Sarah Southwell was excited to make each and every space its own. “We really wanted a project and to make the house feel magical and fun for the children,” explains Sarah, an interior designer who moved into the massive 16th-century manor home in Somerset, England, in the spring of 2021 with her film-editor husband, Nick, and their three sons (all of whom were under age 5 at the time). Even the real-estate agent questioned if the Southwells were being overambitious. “We just knew as soon as we saw it that it was the one,” she adds.

Spanning over 5,000 square feet, the place’s scale provided Sarah with more than enough room for her imagination to run wild (which wasn’t the case in their previous, significantly smaller home in London). But she sat tight for six months before tackling the 500-year-old property’s decor. “I wanted to get a feel for the house first,” she explains. Sensible moves such as installing the heating system, rewiring the electrical, and insulating the outdoor barn so it could function as a studio for Nick came first. 

Photography by Richard Oxford | Paint (on walls), Ibiza Lime Wash by Bauwerk Colour; Lights, DeVol.

Then the dated wood-chip wall coverings came off—and several unexpected layers of plaster along with them. “It was a bit like an onion; you’d peel something back and find more,” says Sarah, laughing. There were plenty of treasures unearthed along the way, including original fireplaces hidden behind boards and flagstone floors under damp carpets, all of which they pulled up. To save on cost, they sanded down any exposed floorboards and left them bare. Sarah chose hard-wearing sisal carpeting for the stair runner and several of the six bedrooms for a rustic look. She bound the offcuts to make smaller rugs for various other spots inexpensively.

Sarah didn’t just put an unexpected twist on the country house look by infusing it with richly patterned fabrics and pops of sky blues and nature-inspired greens, she experimented with “secret” jib doors and put a circus tent–style ceiling in one of the boys’ bedrooms. She commissioned Eugenia Barrios Osborne of Ebo Art Studio and her assistant Juliet Marsh to hand-paint the whimsical stripes, which culminate in the center of the ceiling with little images of airplanes (not pictured). “When the boys are lying in bed, it’s as if they are looking out of a tent hole,” says Sarah.

Photography by Richard Oxford | Striped Cushions, Alice Palmer; Striped Ceiling painted by Ebo Art Studio.

With a dining room, lounge, playroom, drawing room, and four bathrooms to also revamp, Sarah could have taken the easy route and bulk-ordered furniture online with free delivery thrown in. However, almost nothing in the house is new: She discovered a local biannual antiques fair in nearby Shepton Mallet, from which she lugged home a bold turquoise Indian shutter for her bathroom door in the back of her car. 

Sarah viewed the bathrooms as a moment to embrace the, as she calls it, “higgledy-piggledy” nature of the house and its imperfect surfaces, so she picked handmade tile with character, such as bejmat and zellige. Limewash paint also proved a natural match for the traditional lime plaster walls, as it allows the material to breathe and be less susceptible to condensation and mildew. 

Photography by Richard Oxford | Striped Cushions and Wall Lights, Alice Palmer.

Sarah’s favorite room—and where her family hangs out the most—is the blue-paneled lounge (or “snug”), which boasts a grand inglenook fireplace. But the laundry room, painted a punchy shade of mustard, is a close second: “When I go in there, I just smile. It makes doing the endless loads of washing I have to do bearable—almost!” she says.

A couple of smart saves—such as repainting the wood conservatory frame black for an industrial effect rather than rebuilding it with costly steel and shopping secondhand for an Aga range (barely used, it cost a quarter of the retail price)—allowed Sarah to splash out on the Arabescato marble counter for the kitchen. “It was worth every penny, and it looks so serene with the color palette in there,” she shares.

The family remained in the house over the yearlong renovation, with everything completed just in time for this past Christmas. “The children were running around with friends; they have lots of nooks and crannies they like hiding in,” says Sarah. “At one point we had six children here—that was interesting!”

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