Our plans for the house are progressing. For the couple of months we’ve been here, my mind has swung all over the place as I consider how we might make the house function better. I’ve oscillated between grand gestures to minimal interventions, and everywhere in-between. Anthony is still dreaming of a tower from which he can look out over the wonderful garden he is creating: I get caught up in cupboards. There are obvious maintenance things to do, such as repairing and repainting the exterior walls and windows, cleaning the roof and improving insulation, and cutting back plants around the house to let in more light. But my main preoccupation is how to improve the layout. So I thought I’d take you through a few of my thoughts.
This is a classic Australian farmhouse, built from local timber in the early 20th century, and set up on stumps to encourage airflow below the house. It’s in the Queenslander style, although those found over the border in Queensland tend to have fancier ornamentation. The house has undergone several nips and tucks over the decades, not always successful. The original curved bullnose verandas were replaced in the 1930s with a flatter version, and then completely enclosed some years later. The location of the kitchen was moved into a bigger space created by knocking together two bedrooms. Aluminium sliding windows have replaced some of the old timber ones, too, but thankfully the bones of the original house remain intact.
The question with any old house is how much to replace and what to keep. There is endless potential when there are few constraints. There are no-brainers, of course, such as getting rid of those aluminium windows. Others are less obvious. When we first arrived I was keen to restore as much as possible and even take it back to the way it looked when it was first built. A few months on, I’m more inclined to modernise but it needs to be carefully done. I think simplicity is key. Houses evolve but this has a particular character that I don’t want to lose. I don’t want to fake it, either – to add details it would never have had, to create a phony Federation bathroom, that kind of thing. It’s a fine balance. Which is why it’s good to identify the parts of the house that really sing out to me.
Here are some of the things that I love about this house:
The kitchen occupies what had once been two bedrooms. It’s a large space with the same high ceilings as found throughout the house, which make every room seem bigger. I can’t wait to rip out the existing daggy kitchen units, of course. I was considering reinstating the original dividing wall, which would then allow us to create a grand new bathroom while still leaving us with a reasonably spacious kitchen. But I’ve come to realise how lovely it is to have a huge kitchen and one that you can eat in. Farmhouse kitchens are meant to be social spaces and this one does that perfectly. Room for cooking and dining and even an armchair or two if we fancy. More important than a grand bathroom, I think.
This brick fireplace was in the original kitchen and the cast iron range would have sat within it. The bricks look quite rough and gritty but they feel remarkably smooth. They were made in the nearby village of Bexhill where there was a small brick factory. I love the rather amateurish way they’ve been laid, too, although it’s all sturdy enough. We put in the woodstove which works a treat and heats up the room quite quickly, which makes the room into the perfect winter snug.
The sitting room fireplace is posher, although it’s a fairly standard Edwardian type with decorative tiles running either side of a cast iron insert. It’s more about show than practicality as the fire basket is pretty small. The wood surround with its mirror and mantleshelf might originally have been polished but I like it painted. I think we’ll light a fire there occasionally, more for the look of it than the warmth it will generate. Just as it was intended.
The house is constructed of timber felled from the land directly around it (the whole area was a vast rainforest known as The Big Scrub before the tree fellers and farmers claimed it). That means teak and blue fig (quandong) and other remarkable timbers. I love the rich colour of the broad floorboards, which were hidden under carpet and lino when we bought the house. The chamfer boards on the walls (and ceilings) are lovely, too. In some areas they’ve been covered up, like in the old kitchen, which has fake wood panelling that was so popular in the 1970s. It seems totally bizarre to put fake wood over real wood but at the time it was obviously seen as more upmarket. I cannot wait to tear it out and reinstate the proper boards.
There are metal ventilators in the ceilings of several rooms, made from zinc or pewter and then painted. They were used to remove the fumes from gaslights suspended below, so they show which of the rooms had proper lighting and which had none. Each is different, adding a subtle dash of fanciness to the simple rooms.
There are some peculiarities in the house, too:
Queenslanders are all about airflow, built for hot summers. They’re not so good for cold winter nights, which can get pretty nippy even after a glorious hot day. Every room in this house has at least two doors, some have three. Sometimes it feels like the house is one giant passageway. So I want to close down and contain some of the spaces, like the old kitchen, so they have a calmer, away-from-it-all feel.
This is a farmhouse with no near neighbours and beautiful views over the surrounding countryside. And yet many of the external windows have frosted glass in them. Why? If someone drives up to the house I have to go to the door to see who it is because the entire western side has frosted glass in the windows. That is all coming out.
The original house was more or less surrounded by open verandas. Over time these have been enclosed, creating living and sleeping areas that could be used all year round. My initial instinct was to open them up again and yet they’re useful between-spaces. I particularly like the long gallery on the eastern side where I’ve put my desk and which fills with morning sunlight. We’re mindful of snakes, too, given that our own pecan trees and the macadamia farm behind us attract rats which in turn attract snakes. I’m not overly concerned about the resident python, currently snoozing in the breezeway and which does a fine job of deterring the rats, as pythons aren’t hostile to or particularly bothered by humans. More worrying are the brown snakes, which can become aggressive, especially in the spring. They’re one of the most venomous snakes in the world so I don’t want to create anything that a brown snake can climb through, like a veranda balustrade. And yet I adore a veranda! The jury is still out on whether or not to open up even a small portion of the existing veranda.
The house was originally the home of a married couple and their thirteen children. Meal times must have been fun! The bathroom would have been accessible only from outside. It’s not that much better a hundred years on. There’s an external bathroom still, which is handy if you need to shower before heading inside, but the proper bathroom in the house is pretty dismal. It’s got to go. We live in an age when it’s almost normal to give every bedroom its own bathroom but I’m certainly not going down that path. I’m not a fan of the ensuite, anyway, except in a hotel, unless it is buffered by another space, like a dressing room, but it’s nice to give guests their own bathroom. I’m thinking we’ll create one on part of the enclosed veranda outside one of the bedrooms. The main bathroom will be moved to a more discrete area, too.
The house has a main entrance door complete with doorbell off the front veranda that leads into the hall but no one ever uses it. That’s because you approach the house from the side. There you’ll find a door into the side veranda and kitchen, another that leads directly into the sitting room, and yet another that leads into the old kitchen. It’s unclear which is the one to use and I’m always amused to see which door people go to – it varies. A clearly defined entrance is a key principle of feng shui and so I’m determined to get this right. At the moment I’m thinking it will through a new covered terrace, or outdoor room, somewhere for summer shade and winter sun, which will lead into a dining hall, with the kitchen to the side. Properly welcoming and also giving me the indoor-outdoor space of a veranda.
Yesterday we had another meeting with our architect. Just as I’d hoped, he put the cat among the pigeons. A huge wall of glass instead of a set of opening doors? A bathroom that merges inside with out? The kitchen moved to the opposite side of the room? There’s much to consider and so I must try to visualise what looks best and what works for us. Doing it right will take time. And time, in these pandemic days, is perhaps the great gift that Covid has given us. I’ll keep you posted.
Constructive criticism is such a gift, too. I’d love your comments.