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Christmas at the ancient Manor House in Hornton, Oxfordshire

The ancient manor house in Hornton stands in nearly five acres with paddocks, an all-weather manège, outdoor heated pool with pool house and a separate two-bedroom cottage Photo: Ben Nicholson
The ancient manor house in Hornton stands in nearly five acres with paddocks, an all-weather manège, outdoor heated pool with pool house and a separate two-bedroom cottage Photo: Ben Nicholson

The ancient Manor House in Hornton, Oxfordshire seems made for Christmas. It’s already seen more than 400 of them since it was first built in 1607 – ‘but I bet none of the previous owners have as much fun as we do,’ says author Felix Francis, who now lives here with his wife Debbie.

The couple come with blended families and are expecting all their children, partners, grandchildren and step-grandchildren to come to stay this Christmas. ‘Plus Debbie’s daughter Ellie’s new baby,’ says Felix. ‘So, although there are seven bedrooms and seven bathrooms, we’ll definitely be a full house.’

The listed Grade 2 manor also seems made for the game of Sardines, where one person hides and whoever finds him joins him – ‘until only one person is left searching, usually led by a lot of giggling,’ says Felix. ‘We have two big Christmas trees, one in the hall and one outside the front door, plus lights everywhere. And on Christmas Eve we all sit round a roaring log fire wearing Christmas onesies to watch a film. I love Christmas here.’

Great British Life: Debbie designed and chose the furniture and décor for the drawing room with the help of interior designer Rachel Davies of RD Design. Photo: Ben NicholsonDebbie designed and chose the furniture and décor for the drawing room with the help of interior designer Rachel Davies of RD Design. Photo: Ben Nicholson Great British Life: The central reception hall includes a sweeping oak staircase, and has incorporated the old kitchen. Photo: Ben NicholsonThe central reception hall includes a sweeping oak staircase, and has incorporated the old kitchen. Photo: Ben Nicholson

However, at some point during the festivities Felix will slip into his office to do some writing.

For Felix is well known for writing thrillers based on the horse racing and bloodstock world, and his latest and 17th title No Reserve published by Zaffre came out in late September.

Son of Dick Francis, who became famous for a similar genre of books, Felix began by helping his father with much of the research; with the publication of Dead Heat in 2007 he was credited as co-author. Dick died in February 2010, and Felix’s first novel written without his father was Gamble, published in September 2011. This began the “Dick Francis novel” franchise that continues to this day.

Great British Life: The study and galleried library were part of an old barn at the rear of the house which was linked to the house when the extension was built. Photo: Ben NicholsonThe study and galleried library were part of an old barn at the rear of the house which was linked to the house when the extension was built. Photo: Ben Nicholson Great British Life: Most of the soft furnishings in the main bedroom came via Rachel Davies of RD Design. Photo: Ben NicholsonMost of the soft furnishings in the main bedroom came via Rachel Davies of RD Design. Photo: Ben Nicholson

In fact, 2007 was a pivotal year for Felix as that was the year he and Debbie bought the historic Hornton Manor. They married two years later. ‘We know the house began with three storeys, comprising all the front rooms and a thatched roof,’ says Felix. ‘It had been standing only 35 years when the historic Battle of Edgehill was fought just two-and-a-half miles away. The Roundheads fatally delayed Charles I’s march on London, and who knows if any of the wounded crawled here for aid.’

There were still many period features in place, such as open fireplaces, flagstone floors, exposed timbers, stone mullion windows, panelled doors, decorative mouldings, and bay and shuttered windows. The dining room is in the oldest part of the house with an oak beam dating from 1607. ‘It looks as if the beam wasn’t quite long enough as it has been extended with iron staples.’

Great British Life: This magnificent Steinway grand piano stands at one end of the drawing room, and is mainly played by Debbie. Photo: Ben NicholsonThis magnificent Steinway grand piano stands at one end of the drawing room, and is mainly played by Debbie. Photo: Ben Nicholson Great British Life: This armchair came from Felix's parents' house and was re-upholstered. It stands in the drawing room. Photo: Ben NicholsonThis armchair came from Felix's parents' house and was re-upholstered. It stands in the drawing room. Photo: Ben Nicholson

Over the centuries, more building work was added to the rear and the thatch was replaced with a stone tiled roof in 1926.

‘Then when we arrived, we put on a two-storey wing with a big kitchen below and en-suite bedroom above. We installed Mark Wilkinson units with granite worktops, and the old kitchen become part of the entrance hall.’

The extension was built in the same deep golden Hornton stone as the manor itself – there used to be a stone quarry here. ‘We even put in stone mullioned windows to match the rest of the house, although we were allowed larger windows in the gable end,’ says Felix. ‘It took about two-and-a-half years to complete, but that’s because we did a lot of other work at the same time. For instance, we’d converted an old barn at the back into my office and library – we used this time to link it to the main house as it wasn’t attached.’

Great British Life: The dining room is in the oldest part of the house. The table and chairs are in cherry wood from Charles Barr Furniture Ltd of Sandy, Bedfordshire. Felix brought them with him when he moved into the Manor House. Photo: Ben NicholsonThe dining room is in the oldest part of the house. The table and chairs are in cherry wood from Charles Barr Furniture Ltd of Sandy, Bedfordshire. Felix brought them with him when he moved into the Manor House. Photo: Ben Nicholson Great British Life: The Mark Wilkinson kitchen with granite worktops is in the 2009/11 extension. Photo: Ben NicholsonThe Mark Wilkinson kitchen with granite worktops is in the 2009/11 extension. Photo: Ben Nicholson

When they’d first arrived, the barn had held a sauna, changing rooms, cloakrooms and showers – ‘and there was a Jacuzzi in the library,’ he says. ‘So, we dispensed with all that and put in underfloor heating and new oak flooring. We had English Heritage camped here for weeks keeping an eye on the work, and they definitely put a stop to our plan to put two bedrooms into the attic. It would have meant cutting into an original 1607 joist.’

The couple also put in two bathrooms and a shower room to bring up the tally to seven.

But the couple feel that now the children have moved out they need to downsize.

‘Although I’m in two minds about it,’ says Felix. ‘We’ve been here 16 years and I’ve written 15 books here. It’s such a beautiful house and we’ll all be sad if we leave.’

For sale through Savills.

Great British Life: Most of the soft furnishings in the main bedroom came via Rachel Davies of RD Design. Photo: Ben NicholsonMost of the soft furnishings in the main bedroom came via Rachel Davies of RD Design. Photo: Ben Nicholson Great British Life: Christmas baubles hanging in the stone mullioned window Photo: Ben NicholsonChristmas baubles hanging in the stone mullioned window Photo: Ben Nicholson Great British Life: Poppy the red setter joins in the Christmas spirit by wearing reindeer antlers Photo: Ben NicholsonPoppy the red setter joins in the Christmas spirit by wearing reindeer antlers Photo: Ben Nicholson

ADDRESS BOOK

Farrow & Ball, farrow-ball.com

Heaven & Stubbs, 01295 812423, heavenandstubbs.com

Mulberry, 01761 234230, mulberry.com

Osborne & Little, 020 8812 3000, osborneandlittle.com

RD Design, 01789 400656, rddesign.co.uk



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