The lesson I have thoroughly learnt,
and wish to pass on to others,
is to know the enduring happiness
that the love of a garden gives.
(Gertrude Jekyll 1843 – 1932)
“But, why on earth would you want to move?” It was a question that Avis and Bill McLeary were asked time and again when they announced they were selling their gorgeous heritage cottage in the middle of the NSW Blue Mountains and moving … around the corner!
Devotees of Rick Rutherford’s Country – the printed version of the magazine – might recall we showcased Bill and Avis’s aforementioned cottage within the pages of the glossy title a couple of years ago. The home – called ‘Pick’s Cottage’ – was a testament to the creative skills of the pair, not to mention the building craftsmanship of Bill who had almost single-handedly converted and extended the once run-down little house into a comfortable, spacious abode that oozed country character and appeal at every turn. From its gorgeous leadlight windows and crisp white façade with blue trim, to its sunny cookroom and manicured gardens, the cottage was the epitome of comfort and old-world grace.
So why did the couple decide to give it all away … to ‘up sticks’, organise the finance and buy an alternative property, literally around the corner? As Avis explains, when the pair first made the decision to leave the big smoke and relocate to the peace and crisp air of the Blue Mountains, they viewed many properties. One in particular – called ‘Chiltern’ – captured their hearts. But practicality – specifically the price – prohibited their purchase. And so they chose an alternative in close proximity and set about converting and restoring, turning it into the shining jewel of the entire streetscape.
“But the attraction of ‘Chiltern’ never faded. The architect we employed to draw up the plans for ‘Pick’s Cottage’ owned and lived in ‘Chiltern’ and so we were able to really gain a proper appreciation of the property when he asked us to inspect the beautiful heritage home and gardens” explains Avis. “At that time he had finished major refurbishment works on the house and wanted us to get an idea of the style and standard of his work. He and his wife had also undertaken significant improvements on the garden, doing major landscaping, terracing and planting many of the species which are now its backbone. Because of the work they had done, towards the end of the project, they were approached by a local real estate agent who had another party interested in purchasing a property of the same standard and style within the area. As it turned out, they bought ‘Chiltern’ then and there, the property thus having never been officially listed for sale” Avis adds.
The history of the house goes back much further than this though. In fact, it dates back to just over 100 years. Built by a professional builder as a weekender and place to ultimately retire to, the house was sold by the builder’s widow after the fellow’s untimely death. Sadly, he never got to live permanently within the home which, within its original configuration, consisted of one bedroom and living room upstairs (centred around a large fireplace) with bullnose verandahs and a kitchen in a downstairs cellar.
The second owners were a middle-aged couple and their unmarried daughter. They converted part of the rear verandah to create a second sleeping quarters and, later during their ownership, added an upstairs kitchen and small bathroom off the main living area. As the years went on, the couple grew old and ultimately passed away, leaving ‘Chiltern’ to their spinster daughter. They also had another daughter who married and lived in Victoria. She would often visit in the company of her son who, in recent years, recounts that the house was always a wonderfully homely, cheery place … something that Avis and Bill identified the very first time they crossed the threshold, and was the reason why they always felt drawn to the heritage homestead.
Sadly, under the ownership of the old couple’s daughter, the house and garden slowly fell into disrepair as she had neither the financial or physical resources to maintain it. It was not until her death – when ‘Chiltern’ was sold to the aforementioned architect and his wife – that the property was brought back to life. With a passion for restoration that complements the style and grace of the original structure, the new owners set about breathing fresh life into the marvellous old mountain jewel. The architect, in fact, did most of the alterations and restoration work himself, putting in two deep bay windows and upstairs bedroom, modernising the kitchen and upstairs bathroom and putting in a staircase leading to two newly-created bedrooms and ensuite downstairs. And of course the couple undertook major works on the garden which sprawls across over an acre of surrounding land.
After the time the architect and his wife had sold the home to its new owner, the property underwent little major structural change, being maintained in its restored state. Bill and Avis continued their interest in the property even at this time, making friends with the owner and regularly being invited to inspect the garden. Such was their declared affection for the place … a declaration that was to ultimately see the owner offer the pair the opportunity to purchase when she finally made the decision that its upkeep was beyond her means.
But it wasn’t a straightforward ‘buy and move in’ arrangement. As Avis explains “We had finished the restoration work on ‘Pick’s Cottage’ and were very comfortable. The price of ‘Chiltern’ was beyond us – and we were planning on going overseas – so we tried to persuade everyone we knew who was interested in mountains’ property to purchase it. We simply wanted to see it in the hands of someone who would love it as much as we did. We then set off for three months touring England – my first trip home in 20 years – and put the idea of ever being able to purchase the property out of our minds. However, on our return, the owner – a lady named Selena – had still not sold ‘Chiltern’ and so, knowing our interest, she entered into discussions. She made us the incredibly generous offer of not only reducing her asking price but also allowing us a year to sell ‘Pick’s Cottage’ so we could come up with the finance. With the ultimate sale of ‘Pick’s’, as well as a small investment property we owned, we were able to raise the funds we needed and thus ultimately became the very proud owners of ‘Chiltern’” Avis states.
The love of the home which Bill and Avis harboured from the very start is now well and truly revealed … from the cosy, welcoming interior to the beautifully-maintained gardens, drystone walling and cobbled pathways, pond and romantic bridge (so delightful it rivals the one in Monet’s Garden at Giverny, France) and various other structural and aesthetic improvements. They have added an ensuite bathroom off the upstairs bedroom (thus creating the perfect retreat for their ongoing parade of overseas guests) and moved the clawfoot out of the original bathroom off the kitchen to create a traditional scullery. A potbelly stove in the living room hearth has been moved to Bill’s workshop and replaced by a more efficient slow combustion wood fire.
Bill has built a marvellous carport at the front of the property in keeping with the original architectural style of the house, and a fabulous weatherboard-clad workshop-cum-studio in the midst of the back garden with a fabulous vegetable patch adjoining, its neat beds overflowing with plump species throughout most parts of the year. Extensive fencing and ongoing improvements to the garden further reflect the McLeary’s love of the place they now delight in calling home.
Indeed it is the garden which is the focal point of the home, it being viewed from every window of each room. Its colours have been used to inspire the shades selected for interior finishes and decorative treatments on furnishings and accessories. Avis’s sister-in-law Erika, who is a talented watercolour artist, visits from England or works from photographs sent to her and has created the most beautiful series of paintings of a huge array of flowers from the garden, these adorning the walls throughout the interior. From the back of the house the view is down into the garden and then, across the tree canopy of the adjoining National Park while the front verandah has a fabulous vista of built-up beds and shady shrubbery which was initially selected to complement the style and period of the house.
“In recent times we have been delighted to be asked to show the garden in the local Open Garden Scheme … something that has brought us much joy as people have been able to share with us in the beauty and tranquility of ‘Chiltern’. This past year the event also led to us making contact with the grandson of the old couple who were the second owners of the house back in the early part of the 20th century. He was able to give us valuable information on the heritage of the house, as well as confirming our feelings that it has, from the very start, always been a cheery and enchanting place. Even the previous owner, Selena, annually comes back to ‘Chiltern’ to view the garden and experience its magical charm” states Avis.
The ongoing maintenance of the garden is aided by the input of the McLeary’s dear friend – and talented horticulturalist – Marion, who has helped in more recent times with plant selection and the almost-weekly garden upkeep. Much of the work she has done on the property has been performed in exchange for building work undertaken on her property by Bill, once again proving the value and effectiveness of the old-fashioned barter system. Avis’s great nephew Alex, who visited from England, has also made a major contribution to the work which, during the McLeary’s time of ownership, has not only included all the aforementioned improvements but also seen the removal of various conifers and the installation of an 8000 litre rainwater tank.
As a compensation to the marvellous garden views, most windows throughout the home have been left unadorned, or simply curtained so as not to impede vistas of flowering shrubbery, lush underplantings and the many inspiring vignettes which have been created with statuary, quirky signs and other such outdoor accessories. All the internal walls – which feature vertical tongue and groove panelling to dado height and then horizontal configuration to the ceiling (which is also tongue and groove) – are painted white to play up the cheery disposition and enhance the effects of the abundant natural light that streams in.
The flooring throughout much of the upstairs, staircase and downstairs bedrooms is a wonderful traditional thick-profile coir while the living room features the original timber floorboards, softened with large carpet rugs. The kitchen is covered with a hospital-grade linoleum which also features in the new upstairs ensuite. Well sealed and running up the walls to even create a kick-back, the linoleum provides an efficient and cheaper alternative to traditional tiles. Quarry tiles feature in the downstairs ensuite.
All the wonderful vintage, mismatched furnishings which Avis and Bill brought with them from ‘Pick’s Cottage’ have fitted into ‘Chiltern’ perfectly … as Avis states “all as if they were meant to be here and had been bought or made especially for the place.” Along the way they have added a few extra pieces to finish off the rooms … such as a wonderful church pew in the main living area, a collection of vintage pressbacks, and similar vintage timber items, most of which have been restored by Bill.
Quirky collections and treasures both bought and found, inherited and given by friends further add to the quaint heritage charm and atmosphere of the home. There’s a dresser which houses a collection of plates which once belonged to Avis’s mother and were brought out from England; an array of vintage oil lamps; Bill’s treasured collection of vintage planers which are aligned to his profession as a builder; a diverse selection of old and antique china pieces; framed watercolours by Erika on most walls; vases of fresh blooms and silk flowers combined … all working to further enhance the homely cosiness and character of this delightful place.
Testament to the couple’s decorating skill and creative vision is seen at every turn … from the many items that have been handcrafted for the house (including a wonderful verandah table setting made with a slab of rough-sawn camphor laurel) to the found items they have modified to fit within the house and add important finishing touches (from vintage sash windows that have been recycled for Bill’s workshop to a marvellous arch and banisters which were retrieved from a local clean-up and used to create a sense of division between the living area and kitchen upstairs, and to frame the top of a bay window downstairs).
In all, the way everything has so beautifully come together has conclusively proved to Bill and Avis that ‘Chiltern’ was always meant to be theirs … despite the protracted process of purchase. As Avis states “sometimes in life, if something is meant to come to pass, all it takes is to hold the dream … and have both steadfast belief, and lots of patience!” In its restored state, ‘Chiltern’ is certainly testament to the belief, talent, creativity and vision of its passionate owners.