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Monastic No More: A UK Religious Retreat Redesigned as a Chic Family Home


Monastic No More: A UK Religious Retreat Redesigned as a Chic Family Home

February 21, 2020

Discovered on The Modern House: St. Francis House, a monastic retreat transformed into “an exceptionally chic modern home.” Located in Cambridgeshire, a 45-minute train journey from London, the late-Georgian structure was built as a country estate. It was in the 1950s that a religious order moved in and purpose-rebuilt the place as a silent retreat, stripping out just about all of  the original detailing and introducing, among other things, 22 spartan bedrooms on the second floor.

Ten years ago, when Anna Unwin and Willie McDougall spotted the property in a real estate listing, they were looking to relocate from London with their three daughters. Anna, who runs AU Bespoke, is an interiors stylist and sourcing specialist, and Willie is a developer—talents that enabled them to envision a new life for all 8,500-square feet.

They opened up the downstairs as a series of invitingly tranquil living spaces, and added one of the chicest pale pink kitchens we’ve come across. As for the upstairs monk’s cells, they converted those into five bedroom suites, glam bathrooms included. Their kids are now grown and the couple say they feel ready to roam—they both have business in Ibiza and plan to spend half time there—so their giant remodel is back on the market. Join us for a tour—and go to The Modern House if you’re tempted to move in.

Photography courtesy of The Modern House.

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Above: The brick house is set on one-and-a-half acres in the heart of the historic village of Hemingford Grey, 15 miles northwest of Cambridge. The front garden is shown here, as is a glimpse of the now fully glazed back of the house (the garden room at the far end is the AU Bespoke showroom, open by appointment—Anna formerly had a shop in London’s Primrose Hill and now sells haute-vintage design.)
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Above: “It was pretty much a hostel when we got it, so there was a fair amount of structural work to do,” Willie told The Modern House. “We knocked down walls, changed all the windows, and just made it more domestic.” The couple are shown here on the veranda off the main sitting room.

The roof tiles are Welsh slate, one of many details that look as if they’ve always been here but were in fact brought in by Anna and Willie.

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Above: “The remodel took two years–we lived in one side of the house while the other was being finished and vice-versa,” Anna tells us. Among the things that got added: French doors, bespoke interior doors paneled with antiqued mirrors (from Rough Old Glass), and a vast herringbone floor (from reclaimed parquet specialists Eco Flooring UK) salvaged from the M15’s old London headquarters in Thames House on the Strand.
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Above: The low-slung sofas are from Caravane.
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Above: The couple imported two 18th-century stone mantels from France. “Seeing trends come and go has made me want to stick with really good-quality materials and timeless forms that hold up over the years,” says Anna.
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Above: Anna slipcovered the furniture in vintage Hungarian linen “so everything is washable—important in a busy house with children and dogs.” The hanging lights are Tom Dixon’s Mirror Balls.
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Above: The herringbone floor extends into the dining room and adjacent kitchen. Sliding doors provide the glass-topped table with an expansive garden view. The black and white prints were made for Anna by her friend Louisa Grey of House of Grey. (Go to Kitchen of the Week to see Grey’s kitchen.)
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Above: The new kitchen, installed in place of the religious order’s canteen, has custom cabinets painted Farrow & Ball Setting Plaster. The brass lights are a vintage Italian design.
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Above: The Corian counters have undermount hammered copper sinks from The French House. The range is tucked into a hearth; the backsplash is made of the same Rough Old Glass mirror used on the doors. “It’s easy to clean,” says Anna.

The World War I brass bullet cases on the mantel are from Anna’s AU Bespoke collection.

st francis house cambridgeshire dining area
Above: Opposite a classic china cupboard, the breakfast area veers modern with a Saarinen Table and Panton Chairs. The kitchen walls are painted Farrow & Ball Strong White.
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Above: The stair with under cupboard is one of the few original details in the house. The couple stripped the rail to reveal the natural wood.
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Above: A linen-upholstered bed and sofa—both from Caravane—in a guest room.
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Above: Accessories hang from vintage ceramic butcher’s hooks in the guest bath. All of the baths have custom three-part mirrored cabinets.
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Above: The master bath is tiled in gray-veined marble that rises to enclose the tub. The trough sink and towel rail are from C.P. Hart.
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Above: The estate’s original chapel remains—the wood floor is original; Anna and Willie had the walls plastered. Willie currently uses the space as a gym, but, says Anna, “we’ve left it as a blank slate for the next owners. A cinema room, a yoga room, a library—it could be so many things.”

Go to The Modern House to see more.

Here are some three more standout house transformations in England:

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