The Restoration - Disaster and Recovery
I loved the house, and had a lot of fun decorating and planning the next steps, but times change, and I moved back to Cape Town in mid 2004, renting the house out to my dear friend Denese Sinclair, who moved in with her mother, Dot Gard, one of the all-time great McGregor characters.
[As an aside, my favourite Dot story goes like this: she was driving along somewhere looking for a turnoff, and obviously not going fast enough for the driver behind her, who became very agitated and started harassing her. Eventually, she pulled over and signalled for him to pull over as well. He leaped out of his car and rushed up to hers, obviously furious, and as he did so, she wound down her window, stuck her head out and said: "Where's your receipt?"
Baffled, he said, "What receipt?"
And in true Dot Gard style, she retorted, "The one you got when you bought the road!"]
Denese did quite a bit to improve the house, reflooring the back section and turning the old stable into a very comfortable bedroom for her mother, and generally making it look very attractive. It was a wonderful venue for Dot's 80th birthday party at the end of 2004. Although Dot's health was failing (she had emphysema and battled to walk), she held court with great panache and thoroughly enjoyed her party, flirting outrageously with every male within range.
Then, early in 2006, tragedy struck. Dot, always a heavy smoker, fell asleep while smoking in bed, and set herself and her bedroom alight. Her gas heater vented as a result of the flames in the room, resulting in a serious fire which cost Dot her life and did a great deal of damage to the back section of the house (the front cottage was undamaged except for smoke damage).
Denese still rents the house, and as she says, her mother would have been delighted to go out with a bang rather than with a whimper, but it was nevertheless a difficult and traumatic time for all of us.
Outsurance, the household insurers, were wonderful. They sent an assessor down immediately, he came up with a very generous payout for the damage, and we were able to go ahead with Phase III as a result. I like to think that Dot would approve.
One of the problems with the building of the link and restoring of the back section had been that the builder had used a heavy cement plaster, completely the wrong material for sundried brick. The cement plaster had come off in gouts as a result of the fire, but the sundried brick walls were still standing and completely undamaged.
The reed ceiling in the back section had also been burned out, so the main tasks were to repair and replaster the back section, redo the reed ceiling, this time with poplar beams instead of two-by-fours, and generally paint and clean. The brickwork repair and plastering was overseen by Jill Hogan of MAT, our local cobbing and alternative building technology expert, using traditional cobbing plaster made of earth, clay, straw and lime. The painting was done with whitewash with a light addition of yellow ochre, so that the walls can breathe. This allows them to absorb damp in wet weather and dry out slowly and evenly again in warmer weather, so that there is no damage to the structure.
As we had lost a couple of the original windows in the fire, we also used the opportunity to put french doors in the back bedroom and bathroom, which gave better access to the garden and gave the rooms a much lighter and airier feeling. We also redid the back bathroom fittings with simple but excellent quality chrome and porcelain, again giving a light, cool feel.
And finally, we painted the exterior a light ochre (using whitewash, of course), with white and periwinkle blue trim. So the old girl is really glowing now.
Phase IV will be up to the new owner, whoever she or he may be. There are various things that can be done without affecting the authenticity of the house. A couple of the original doors remain and these could do with restoring (although I must say I have no idea whether there is anyone in the area capable of doing this!).
We've left the floors as cement, although they should strictly speaking be old fashioned dung floors. There have been a couple of attempts to put in dung floors in the village, but to the best of my knowledge no-one has got the mixture quite right yet, and they tend to crack. An alternative is simply to use a light scree with a few different ochres swirled into it, which will give the impression of a mixed-material floor and is very attractive (and very cheap and simple as well).
Some people like putting Batavian tiles down, and there is a clay quarry and tile factory in Swellendam which makes really lovely tiles; their 3rd grade tile looks most authentic. My feeling is that a labourer's cottage, which is probably what this house was originally, would not have had a tile floor originally, but it wouldn't be too badly out of place.
Then there is the delightful job of collecting antique door handles, light fittings and other odds and ends (the current light fittings are modern but were carefully chosen to suit the style of the house).
But the bulk of the difficult work is done. It's only the fun that's left.
For more pics, see the next page.