Life by the river

Murray and Jane Spencer swapped London for a laid-back life on the banks of the River Thames

When Murray Spencer and his wife Jane found out they were expecting a baby, they decided to up sticks and move from London to the countryside. ‘We used to live in a Victorian terrace in Hammersmith, but wanted to bring up our children (Ella, five, and Ben, two) in a more rural environment – somewhere they’d be able to climb trees, go out on their bikes and breathe clean air,’ says Murray. Their search centred on an Oxfordshire village, just an hour’s drive from their previous house and located along the picturesque banks of the River Thames. ‘There’s a lovely high street with a butcher’s, a pub and a cricket pitch, as well as a train station, which means we’re still brilliantly connected to London. The children can walk to school and at the weekend we’ll wander along the river bank or picnic in the communal garden, which borders the water,’ says Murray.

AN EXTENDED SEARCH

Finding the perfect home in such a desirable location was far from straightforward, however, and the family rented for two years (and viewed over 50 properties both within the village and beyond) before settling upon a centrally located, turn-of-the-century Arts & Crafts house. ‘It was a frustrating time, but renting proved invaluable in that it helped to focus our minds and clarify what we were looking for,’ says Murray. ‘We wanted somewhere with big sash windows and high ceilings but top of the list was a village community and space to entertain.’

The house was originally beyond the Spencers’ budget, but, having been on the market for several months and failing to sell, the price was reduced and the couple booked a viewing. Although Jane was immediately taken with the house (which had been used as a dentist’s surgery before being returned to residential use by the previous owners), Murray remained unconvinced. ‘When I first showed the details to my brother he commented that it looked like a pub – all dark beams and almost Tudor in style,’ Murray laughs. ‘But after talking it through with Jane I started to see how it could really work for us as a family. The third floor is almost self-contained so perfect for putting up friends and family for the weekend and the garden is safe and enclosed.’

FAMILY FRIENDLY

The house not only retained numerous period features – including cast-iron fireplaces, decorative coving and an imposing entrance hall and staircase – but it only required cosmetic updating. ‘We’d done quite an extensive renovation job on our house in Hammersmith and couldn’t face the upheaval again,’ says Murray. ‘I can tolerate living on a building site and going to bed in dusty sheets but both Jane and I felt it wouldn’t be feasible with youngsters in tow.’

The layout of the property has been configured with family in mind. A large open-plan kitchen allows Jane to cook while the children busy themselves with colouring books and jigsaws. What was once a dining room has been given over to a family room with vibrant tangerine accent shades and a miniature table and chairs – the perfect size for Ella and Ben, who come in here to watch television or play games. ‘It also means that all the kids’ stuff is pretty much consigned to one room – giving us some grown-up space, free from the paraphernalia associated with a young family.’

The Spencers updated the walls with a lick of paint and selected bold furnishings to inject energy into the space. ‘The furniture was the starting point of the scheme. We knew we wanted a corner sofa and this one came in brown or orange. We decided to be brave and opt for the latter!’ says Murray. ‘We also purchased a contemporary glass pendant light shade and chose some mad fabric for the curtains.’

EASY UPDATE

With much of the house painted an inoffensive but uninspiring magnolia, there was plenty of scope for the couple to make their mark. Within a few weeks of moving in, the interior walls of the dining room had been painted in Farrow & Ball’s Downpipe, a bold offblack shade, which adds drama and sophistication to the light-filled space; and the kitchen – previously an insipid yellow – was redecorated in a neutral greygreen shade. ‘We felt we could live with the kitchen itself, which has the look of a painted country kitchen even though the doors are actually foil-wrapped, but the yellow walls had to go!’ Murray says.

They also added interior insulation to the northfacing en suite bathroom and a walk-in shower – but kept their budget in check by retaining the existing sanitaryware and monochrome tiles.

Having rented for an extended period, the couple were keen to personalise the children’s rooms. Ben’s curtains and roller blind have a distinctive and playful design, and Ella, who was keen to have a hand in the design of her bedroom, opted for a pink scheme. ‘If she’d had her own way, it would have been bright pink,’ says Murray. ‘But we compromised on a delicate dusky pink and accessorised with wall stickers – feminine but not too girly.’

After their lengthy search, the Spencers are understandably delighted with their move to the countryside and the lifestyle it affords. ‘At weekends, we’ll wander along the high street and enjoy a lazy brunch at the local delicatessen or hire a boat and take it out on the river. We also cycle along the towpath. It’s the perfect place to bring up a family.’

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