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Imagine a place where all children, except one, never grow up. A fairy-tale land where you are free to recapture your inner Lost Boy, leave boring responsibilities at the gate with your car key, hop on a bicycle and pedal through a green and pleasant land to sleep in a log cabin.
This is no JM Barrie dream, this is Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire, a real Neverland and the latest – and without doubt greatest – creation from Soho House’s own Peter Pan, Nick Jones.
Jones launched his empire 20 years ago when he turned the offices above Café Boheme into a club called Soho House, and has since opened 15 Houses across the world, as well as a fleet of Electric Cinemas, Cecconi’s and Pizza East restaurants, and Cowshed Spas. All this from a lad with dyslexia, who left school at 16 to join the Trusthouse Forte training scheme; a man who circumnavigates the world at the speed of Superman, but always returns home to cook a mean Sunday roast; a chap whose dedication to Bottega Veneta woven trainers means he has a pair in every colour; a bloke who musters a cultish worship among his apostles similar to Adrian Zecha and his Aman group in the 1990s. Like Aman junkies, Jones’ followers – let’s call them Soho Hoes – plot their travels around stays at different Houses, ticking them off like a fancy shopping list.
The newest House is just 90 minutes from London in a 100-acre valley set in the sprawling, 4,000-acre estate of Great Tew in the Cotswolds, owned by blue-eyed landowner Nick Johnston. It’s just a 10-minute drive from Chipping Norton and a hop from the village Jones and his broadcaster wife Kirsty Young have made their home. ‘There are thousands of people who live around here who want something like this,’ he says. ‘Membership’s gone like a rocket.’ Jones and Johnston were introduced four years back and hatched the plan together. Construction began just 15 months ago. The result is unlike any other country hideaway in Britain. Forget renting a random cottage, or shacking up in a pub with paper-thin walls, or a bastardised country-house hotel with a whispering dining room and bits of food cowering beneath silver cloches.
Instead, there are 40 cosy cabins set along the banks of a stream. Yes, cabins. The very stuff of childhood dreams, Huckleberry adventures and Instagram accounts (check out @cabinporn).
Wooden, blackened or corrugated iron, they vary from studio-size to three bedrooms, with interiors designed to Jones-ian perfection. But if you’d prefer bricks and mortar, there’s also a three-bedroom cottage and seven-bedroom farmhouse, the latter the creation of Kirsty Young herself.
If you’ve never experienced Soho House design, here’s the deal: from every angle the space looks beautiful; it’s probably a darn sight more comfortable than your own home, and everything is exactly where you want it. Step out of the copper bathtub and the towel is right there. Reach into the chicken-wire-covered maxi-bar and your Negroni is ready-mixed. Slide open a dressing-table drawer and there’s not only a hairdryer and straighteners but a cashmere-covered hot-water bottle and eye patches too.
As my boyfriend declared, ‘I judge a hotel room on how much stuff I want to nick… well, in this case, it’s the lot.’ To my relief, no thievery was required as everything can be bought from the Soho Home shop.
At the heart of Soho Farmhouse are a collection of pre-existing barns and stone buildings filled with enough recognisable Soho House riffs to cosset urban visitors: a mill-room pub, a Cowshed Spa where mani/pedis are carried out in wingback chairs, and a Josh Wood Atelier hairdressing salon. Then there’s the fun and games: an indoor-outdoor pool floating on a lake; a hot-tub island with an ice room; an Electric Barn cinema showing current releases; jolly boating across the lake; tennis courts; a kitchen garden and cookery school; reconditioned milk floats to take you on a picnic or serve a cocktail at your cabin; a five-a-side football pitch with a dugout for spectators. Oh, and the seats are leather and stamped Soho Farmhouse. Detail thy name is Jones.
Aside from all the Disney magic, the real genius of this place is that – despite being rural-lite and palatable for mud-phobics – the careful planning and design are authentic to an original farmstead, so the stables, chickens and grazing sheep are right in the thick of it.
Jones knows it’s the smells and (contained) muck of farmyard life that give this new concept its down-home, honest feel. The arrival of Soho Farmhouse is a big deal for Oxfordshire. My boyfriend and I have a cottage in the nearby Evenlode Valley and for the past year the gossip here has consisted of little else other than who’s been accepted or rejected as a member. The famously strict Soho House entry rules – creatives only, bankers are banned – are controlled by membership director Tom Russell, and here he was assisted by local ingénue Rose van Cutsem. ‘The term creative has obviously translated a bit differently here to the Shoreditch or LA crowd,’ she says. ‘For us, the litmus test was: if you’re at the bar and turn to your left, is that person interesting/bonkers/creative? We now have a solid founder membership of Oxford professors, actors, the odd rock star, cheese makers, garden designers, loads of foodies, booksellers and entrepreneurs. It’s eclectic, but that’s Soho House.’
This I know. My first Soho House experience was in New York, when I found myself beside Uma Thurman, our jeans rolled up, using the massive bath in the bedroom as a paddling pool. This was swiftly followed by a hen party at Babington House in Somerset, where staff turned a blind eye to giggling girls doing cartwheels across the lawn in showgirl costumes and mixed life-saver Bloody Marys the next morning.
Of course, the Soho Farmhouse opening party and sleepover weekend was a blast. Jones is good at parties; he makes rock stars feel normal and normal people feel like rock stars. For the event he gathered both Lost Boys – Douglas Booth, Luke Evans, Richard Bacon, Eddie Redmayne – and Tinkerbells – Alexa Chung, Liv Tyler, Daisy Lowe, Pixie Geldof, Cressida Bonas – all of whom jigged to Paolo Nutini’s live set. The stars beneath the stars.
The next morning, Jones gazed contentedly across the pool where actor Tom Hollander was doing laps. ‘I told Kirsty this is my mid-life crisis,’ he chuckled. But this is no crisis. For a man who makes other people’s puckish pleasure his business, this is Jones’ triumph.
Soho Farmhouse, 1 Tracey Farm Cottages, Great Tew, Chipping Norton, Cotswolds, Oxfordshire OX7 4JS (+44 1608 691000; www.sohofarmhouse.com). Cabins cost from £250 for members; from £330 for non members.
Read our full review of Soho Farmhouse
This feature first appeared in Condé Nast Traveller October 2015