As you wind down the sleepy back roads of Round Top, Texas, toward the Prairie by Rachel Ashwell, the Union Jack flying third on the flagpole (beneath the Stars and Stripes and the official state flag of Texas) is the only sign that the proprietor of this sprawling bed-and-breakfast might not be from around here. Though British by birth, Ashwell—author, designer, and founder of the global Shabby Chic brand—has spent the past year transforming five primitive buildings on forty-six acres of rolling farmland into an authentic Lone Star retreat, where guests mingle easily with visiting locals and the property’s familial staff. There are cattle grazing, roses blossoming, and panoramic views for miles in all directions. It’s part Out of Africa, part Lonesome Dove—a secluded, peaceful oasis at the heart of an eclectic and emerging travel destination.
Ashwell discovered Round Top, known for its quarterly antiques fairs, years ago during a foraging trip and fell in love with the tiny community’s bohemian spirit and laid-back lifestyle. “The flea market shows are by far the best I’ve ever been to,” she says, referring to the weeks each season when antiques dealers and treasure hunters inflate the local population from less than a hundred year-round residents to about thirty thousand people. (The upcoming spring antiques shows run from March 23 through April 8.) So when the property formerly known as the Outpost at Cedar Creek Inn came up for sale at the end of 2010, Ashwell, a longtime loyal guest, couldn’t resist making an offer. Three months, some Farrow & Ball paint and wallpaper, and a lot of hard work by Danny Riebeling (the property’s foreman, cook, and do-it-all guy) later, the Prairie officially opened its doors.
To create lived-in spaces to complement the five original farm buildings, some of which date back to the 1800s, Ashwell focused restoration efforts on the structures’ unique building styles and histories. She installed crystal chandeliers that would make Marie Antoinette swoon but left original wooden floorboards unvarnished and tin roofing largely intact. To make use of taxidermy left behind by the inn’s former owner, she crowned the mounts with vintage floral hats for just the right amount of whimsy. Perhaps smartest of all is the way she weaves local memorabilia (a Texas-shaped mirror, for instance, and vintage neon signs) into the decor with a wink and a nod. After all, many of her prize purchases over the years have come from the area—only back then, it was her little secret.
Ashwell took cues from nature, as well. The big-sky beauty of the Prairie’s rustic landscape, where the East Texas coastal plains meet the Hill Country foothills, inspired Ash-well to move away from the floral prints, French antiques, and whitewashed accents she is so famous for and venture into a darker, smoky palette.
Visitors who want to take home any of the custom furnishings and linens used throughout the guest rooms, cottages, and gathering spaces can peruse the retail outpost Ashwell opened on-site in September. But the unspoken rule at the Prairie is that if you see something you like, regardless of where it resides on the grounds, don’t be afraid to inquire about its availability.
For Ashwell, who also owns properties in London, Los Angeles, and New York City, putting down roots in the South is just the beginning. “I want to feel connected to the land and create a year-round community here,” she says. In December, the team broke ground on a new barn that will soon serve as a gathering place for weddings and events, film screenings, and workshops on everything from beauty to business.
“Round Top fuels my inspiration,” Ashwell says of her adopted home. “The people here are quieter, the pace slower, but the conversations are true and the Southern hospitality can’t be matched.”