“There is nothing more important in the world than our health, family and friends. We need so much less that we think,” says British mother of three, writer, florist and owner of The Bull Inn in Charlbury, Willow Crossley, when I ask her what 2020 will teach us...
Indeed, given Crossley has built a career working with nature, she’s adept at appreciating the simple things in life – a cup of tea first thing, a walk, a glass of red wine, a bath before bed. And of course, the beautiful blooms that surround her each day (if she was at the markets right now, she’d come home with bunches of Solomon Seal, Tulips, dicentra, foxgloves, and lily of the valley).
Growing up, Crossley dreamt of being a fashion designer and would spend hours dreaming up outfits. A creative at heart, it was the process of creating that appealed to her. She began her career as a journalist, and it was when she was writing her second book, Inspire, that she realised that she wanted to pursue a career working with flowers. She enrolled in a short, intensive course at The Covent Garden Academy of Flowers and never looked back. Her first job was one of her best friend’s weddings which she did with her mother Kate Corbett-Winder (an author, gardener, florist, and painter).
Here, we visit her at home in the Cotswolds, get a peek inside her beautiful studio and home, and discover more about the wonderful world of Willow Crossley.
Photography: Helene Sandberg | Go to willowcrossley.com
Firstly, how’s isolation going with three children to school – how is your day structured?
We’re doing ok. I go through waves of feeling pretty panicked about it all and then other times I feel calm and just really lucky and excited to all be stuck together at home as a little unit. From the start of lockdown, I’ve tried to find the silver linings. I think we have to really otherwise we’ll go mad! It was easier when it was term time as the school set up virtual meetings and homework that they had to do, so we had a structure. Now, we’re in the holidays, they’re very reluctant for any structure and just want to ‘be’. I try and do an activity every morning – we’ve been making bracelets, drawing, baking cakes, playing dog bingo… but all of which last for no more than ten minutes.
You said on Instagram that you’re trying to see the positives – how do you deal with feelings of uncertainty and not being in control?
It goes in waves. I find it’s manageable most of the time and then out of the blue, it will suddenly all feel totally overwhelming and ill have a meltdown. It’s often when the house is a bomb site, the boys all want another something to eat – even though they’ve just had lunch – the dog wants walking – I’ve got work backing up and it all feels too much. Charlie’s very good at stepping in and recognising when its got too much and takes over. I just need a couple of hours off – ill have a bath, do some weeding – just take some time to recalibrate.
Growing up, you dreamt of being a fashion designer and would spend hours dreaming up outfits. You went on to become a fashion journalist – tell us about this stage of your career and the decision to step in a different direction?
I didn’t really make a decision to move into something else; it was more that an opportunity landed in my lap and I wasn’t really loving my job. Rather than doing any writing for the magazine, which was what I’d hoped to do, instead, my time was spent sitting in the fashion cupboard sending clothes back to designers, all day every day. The fashion world was very competitive, not at all cosy and I don’t think I was particularly good at it; I couldn’t really see myself getting a proper paid position any time soon so when Charlie announced he was moving to France, six months later, I thought, why not?!
You’ve said: “I love ‘creating’.” What draws you to create?
I guess creating is an outlet for us to convey how we feel and it’s also an opportunity to shut off the rest of the world if and when things are feeling overwhelming. It’s a time to switch off.
Do you get bored easily?
I get bored very quickly. I love how the seasons give us new varieties of flowers every few weeks – there’s no chance to get bored – if anything, so many of them are too fleeting for my liking. I’d like tulip and dahlia season to go on forever. But I guess that’s what keeps me interested! At home, we are constantly moving things around – tables, beds, paintings, sofas. I’ve been doing this since I was tiny – I would constantly make my brothers swap bedrooms with me when we were small. I found the newness of it all so exciting.
Have you always been drawn to flowers?
I’ve always been surrounded by them, I grew up in the middle of Wales. My grannies and my mother were/are all flower mad and serious gardeners. Our home was always filled with flowers and plants though I’m not sure I acknowledged them properly until my late teens.
You’re a mother to three boys – what’s your approach to raising boys?
When they were smaller, if they were fed and exercised enough they were happy. Like small puppies! Now they’re getting bigger, it’s not quite so simple. We try and encourage them to talk to us about what’s going on in their heads as much as we can. They do have a tendency to bottle things up. I feel maybe girls are a little more open? We are very open as a family and make an effort to talk about emotions and how we feel, which I think is very important.
What has been the most challenging part of motherhood for you?
If you’d asked me this a couple of years ago, I would have said the baby stage. The ongoing, up all night, sleep deprivation. But now, I’d say the pre-teen stage. Our eldest is ten going on 15 and it’s a whole new world!
In the early days, did you ever feel lonely/alone?
Yes, very. I was in France with no friends or family for my first which was very isolating. Physically and emotionally. I was also the first of all my friends to have a baby. So I did feel like I was living on a totally different planet to my friends for a long time. But even being around friends when Kit, our smallest was born, you’re still up all night, by yourself and at times, it can feel pretty lonely. I found watching TV series when I was doing night feeds a real help.
How important have your friendships been in your motherhood journey?
So important. Your babies become your whole world so when you have friends doing it with you, it makes that bond even tighter.
Did motherhood change the way you viewed your career?
Only in the way that there’s a little more juggling now! I’m very lucky that being self-employed I can plan my schedules around the boys. Charlie and I made the decision that one of us would always be there for them. But they always come first no matter what.
How would you describe your own home?
Colourful, homely, comfortable, eclectic. It’s filled with all our treasures we’ve been collecting since Charlie and I got together when I was 19. We have a lot of stuff. Definitely not minimalist! As I’m getting older, I’m enjoying clutter less and craving clean surfaces – I never thought I’d say that!
How do you approach interior design – what, in your opinion, makes a beautiful and thoughtful home?
I think somewhere that’s just filled with stuff that you love. A home that’s been designed by following interior trends is never going to have the same homely feel.
What are a few non-negotiable daily rituals you do?
A cup of tea first thing. A walk. Tea and ideally cake for cosy time at 5pm. Switch off TV time, a glass of red wine, and then bath before bed.
How do you approach keeping a home tidy(ish) with three young children?
I feel like I spend my whole life tidying. I try and tidy as I go, rather than do it all at the end of the day in one go. I frustratingly cannot relax or concentrate knowing that the house is a mess or there are massive piles of washing up to do. I need to clean it first and only then I can concentrate!
You’ve styled flowers for Mulberry, Jo Malone, Liz Earle, among others. You’ve said before “Often my first arrangement on an event is a total disaster!” which is so humbling. Do you ever experience self-doubt?
All the time! Before every job, I have a panic the night before that it’s all going to go horribly wrong. I’m working with living things – many are serious divas and have tendencies to drop down dead for no reason! It’s can be pretty stressful!
How do you view failure/criticism and what will you teach your boys about these things?
I have a tendency to take it very personally and thinking about it now, I’m probably too hard on myself. As a mother, I teach the boys that trying as hard as they possibly can is the most important thing. We’re only human and can’t succeed at everything 100% of the time.
You’re a self-confessed “perfectionist” – have you become less so since having children?
In how our home looks, yes, absolutely. In my work? Not at all, I think I’ve got worse!
Where is your favourite place to buy vases?
Charity shops. I love the thrill of finding amazing for a total bargain. For vases, I love using teapots, sugar bowls, test tubes, pretty olive oil drums, tin cans – remove the paper, old mustard pots, shells… the options are endless. You can pretty much use any container with a hole. You can either line things with a plastic bag or drop a little jam jar or yoghurt pot inside to hold the water.
If you were at the flower markets right now, what would you buy?
Solomon Seal, Tulips, dicentra, foxgloves, and lily of the valley.
Tell us about your pub The Bull Inn in Charlbury?
Well, it’s very lovely if I do say so myself! It’s our pub with rooms in the middle of Charlbury which is a very beautiful, typical Cotswold village in Oxfordshire. We have eight en-suite bedrooms; four in the main building and another four in a cottage next door. Charlie my husband runs it; I decorated it and do the flowers. Design-wise, it’s full of colour and pattern. We wanted it to feel like a home rather than a traditional pub; so lots of lovely fabrics and wallpapers. And delicious food. The haloumi burger is out of this world good.
You’ve written four books –tell us about your most recent book The Wild Journal…
In a nutshell, it’s all about how we can look after ourselves using nature. I’ve written it over the course of a year and its filled with ideas, recipes, and projects showing how healing, transformative and powerful nature can be for us – mentally, physically, and emotionally.
Your mother, Kate Corbett-Winder, is an author, gardener, florist and painter – tell me about your relationship with her and how she inspires you?
She’s utterly amazing. She’s taught me everything I know and continues to on a daily basis! I’m always calling her for advice. Be it with the boys, gardening, writing, life… She’s written all my books with me. Flowers with me. She’s a font of all knowledge. We talk every day for hours on end, my father and husband can’t understand what on earth we have to talk about!
What do you hope 2020 will teach us?
That there is nothing more important in the world than our health, family, and friends. We need so much less that we think.
Can you list five or so things you’re loving right now?
Watching my seeds grow. Specifically my poppy seeds.
The flower delivery I’ve just had from The Land Gardeners. You’ve never seen tulips like it.
Having Charlie and the boys to myself 24/7.