There are so many funny, dramatic, emotional & heart-warming stories along the journey of restoring and building a boutique hotel in Swellendam. Way too many to recount here, but this is a shortened rambling for some fun reading… Hope you enjoy reading it, as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Richard and I had always wanted to live and raise children in the country. Richard’s dream was building a game farm; mine a beautiful old guesthouse filled with artists, poets, writers and of course, children. After a short Christmas holiday in Arniston, where a pregnancy test proved positive, we drove home to Cape Town via Swellendam and found this aging Victorian Grand Dame. It wasn’t quite a farm, but definitely enough of a project to inspire both of us. We fell in love.
We started with very little capital and scraped everything that we owned together to purchase this beautiful old Manor House. Luckily, this was during the property boom in Cape Town and we received a little more than expected for our house there. This helped us a bit with the renovation costs, but of course, nowhere near what we REALLY needed. We knew that this was a lifetime project for us and so threw ourselves into it without a budget.
We received occupancy in May of 2003 and Richard and one labourer travelled up from Cape Town on weekends to strip the house whilst we waited for our baby to be born. Kai was born on the 10th September 2003, 3 days before Richard’s birthday and 6 weeks later (how I even got out of my pyjamas, I have no idea!), we moved into what was essentially a building site. To be fair, I think the property was in better condition when we bought it to when we moved in!
Every bit of wood that you see in the main house was painted. Richard and two labourers stripped, sanded, and varnished every ceiling board and floor board as well as rehanging every shutter and window. Whilst restoring the wooden ceiling in the entrance hall, where the wedding photos are now hung, Richard found the beautiful pieces of ancient wallpaper that we’ve framed and hung in the foyer as well as scanning and using as our watermark here and on our website. During this ‘excavation’, he also uncovered years and years and years of dust, which proceeded to settle over the entire house.
In the beginning days, whilst still learning, we contracted a company to sandblast the filigree lace at the front of the house to remove the built-up paint and expose the beautiful, fine detail underneath, so we thought we’d give it a try for the upstairs wooden ceilings. It left the wood pockmarked and didn’t remove the kernels of paint, so Richard went back to a heat gun, scraper and razor blade. Every single ceiling was done this way… Quite something when you think how large the rooms are!
The kitchen was one of the first rooms we tackled and you can see a few ‘before’ pictures here. We completely gutted it, built new cabinets with reclaimed Oregan pine from a ship’s deck, lead & glass windows from a little artisan shop in Napier and topped the counters with Afromosia, an African Teak. Richard restored the magnificent old ‘Frigidaire’ which was covered in bird guano and rescued from a junk shop in Simonstown. Of course, whilst this was happening, we didn’t have a kitchen and set up a camping table and gas stove, with the gas bottle right next to it, in what is now the dining room. We had to bath baby, ourselves and wash dishes in the downstairs bathroom (which is where the two toilets are now). I promise we didn’t use the same water! Originally, we restored the scullery section in keeping with the Victorian-style of the house, so used deep porcelain square basins and wooden counters. This didn’t work at all for a busy kitchen and created a huge amount of water damage to the wood and the wall behind.
Because Winter is generally a quieter period, we tried to tackle major renovations over that time. Of course Winter was also when child no 2 (Ashe – 2007) and child no 3 (Fae – 2009) were born. In 2007, we renovated our ‘living area’ upstairs as well as finishing off guest rooms. In 2009, we tackled above the kitchen, dining room and office. This was a huge project as it had been a ‘loft’ area with a slanted roof that hit the brick wall. We had small and sometimes not so small waterfalls running down the inside walls when the water collected in the trough between. We needed to take off the entire roof and rebuild, but sensitive to the original style. Some pictures of the work in progress here. Of course, once again, the kitchen was emptied and we ‘camped’ in the dining room. This all got a little too much for me, so I bundled up the children (newborn included) and went off to Cape Town to escape the noise and dust. I mentioned to Richard that he should attempt to build the new scullery section whilst we were away. That’s what I said, what he heard was ‘Let’s redo the kitchen’. So, he tiled the stove area, re-sanded & varnished the counter tops and cupboards, re-sanded & varnished the fridge, took out the basins, scraped off the damaged plaster area and the wall fell down. Thank Goodness for the ringbeam or we could’ve lost the entire kitchen! Needless to say, on returning from Cape Town, the noise and dust was worse, but the finished product looked amazing. Richard has such an incredible eye for detail and a focus for doing whatever he tackles properly.
This Winter, 2013, is the FOURTH time that we’ve upgraded and renovated the kitchen. This time, to set it up properly as a restaurant kitchen, able to serve our delectable dinners as well as our beautiful breakfasts and once again, we’ve done some extra tiling, re-sanding and varnishing. We’ve fitted a huge extraction fan and upgraded the scullery section.
Jumping back a bit in time again… We’d originally hoped to open the property as a guesthouse within two years, but trying to raise finances, doing the renovation ourselves and working through the permissions of the Heritage Society, we finally set our dates to a dear friend’s wedding in November of 2006. Of course, this was the one of the wettest winters in Swellendam and a massive building accident delayed us yet again. We had a small team of builders living and working on site to assist with the actual construction and brickwork. They were in the process of throwing the 9cubic metre concrete slab on the top of the garage for the balcony of the meeting room and one of the struts shifted. The whole thing came crashing down along with three builders. Luckily nobody was hurt, but we had to call the poor bride to say that we couldn’t completely finish in time. We managed to get 5 rooms fitted and threw a massive tarpaulin over the building mess at the absolute last minute. It was like one of those classic BBC programmes, tiling showers as the guests were walking in the front door. The wedding was quite wonderful and guests had a ball, but we shut down again to finish (retiling showers and unblocking drains). We opened officially in November of 2007 with rooms 5 to the Honeymoon Suite. We managed to open rooms 3 and 4 in September of 2008, Rooms 1 and 2 in May 2009 and the Family Cottage in October 2011. Schoone Oordt has been a constant work in progress and I wish I could say it was finished, but I have a funny feeling it might never be…
Towards the end of 2007, just after Ashe was born, Richard began to spend more and more time in Cape Town at his advertising business. We began to realise as Schoone Oordt was growing and evolving, that is was becoming a little too big for me to manage properly with 3 small children and Richard in Cape Town. We began to search for help. This came in the wonderful form of Wander & Sonette Bester. They began with us in May of 2011 and have taken on the exquisite care of our eldest ‘baby’. Stamping their beautiful personalities onto Schoone Oordt and growing it from a small guesthouse into an intimate and charming Country Hotel in Swellendam.
We have had such brilliantly supportive guests (especially those that stayed through the banging and hammering), but also those that have given us constructive helpful feedback, both complimentary and not and those with fabulous senses of humour. We thank every single one of you. We have learnt SO much on this amazing journey and know that if we’re not on the property, our hearts are always here.