COOKING eggs the way guests like them is a far cry from a career in the diplomatic service, but Laurence Bristow-Smith is relishing the change.
Four years ago he and wife Jennifer discovered Glenholme House after a hunt for a property in which to enjoy retirement (in the loosest sense of the word) and create a discerning bed & breakfast experience. Their quest took them to the far corners of the country and ultimately to the little fishing port of Kirkcudbright in Dumfries and Galloway. At the time the couple were living in Milan, where Laurence was British Consul General.
“In the space of a weekend we visited 25 houses,” says Jennifer. “Laurence wanted to live close to the sea, and we imagined a property with outbuildings.” Disheartened as months passed fruitlessly by, Jennifer’s attention was caught by images of Glenholme House that emerged one evening as she browsed online. A visit confirmed that the late Victorian villa ticked all their boxes.
Not that they walked into the light-filled space that exists today – while the house was structurally sound, the interiors were trapped in the Eighties, awaiting rescue from yards of red carpeting and flock wallpaper.
“Luckily the period features were intact,” says Jennifer, who was well qualified to take on the property’s transformation. A fine art graduate, she worked as a professional sculptor in Finland, then as an exhibition curator in Norway before changing tack and designing textiles (for the Scandinavian market) in Marrakech. It was in Morocco that she found her skills increasingly applied to interiors, mainly for a growing list of British clients there.
It is, however, the Scandinavian influence that is most at work in the pared-back warmth of Glenholme. Jennifer’s considered approach involved keeping paint samples on the walls for months in order to assess the suitability of colours in changing light. She mixed these pale, earthy shades and eventually painted the walls herself. The results afford the house a strong sense of cohesion, reinforced by the light floors, all of which were sanded, then treated with acetone and white pigment, which prevents them turning yellow. The waxed appearance is the result of several layers of matt polyurethane varnish.
Jennifer’s dedication saw her taking up residence at Glenholme for long spells while Laurence continued to work in Milan. She spent many evenings in front of her computer in search of finishes put in place by Brian McKend, a local tradesman whose ability to tackle all sorts of jobs, from plumbing to joinery, was exactly what Jennifer required.
“We employed Brian full-time for two years,” she says; “It was so much simpler than dealing with lots of trades.”
The couple’s first priority was to generate income by converting an original laundry and servants’ quarters adjoining the house into a two-bedroom self-catering cottage, now known as The Rookery. With this gorgeous little bolthole completed, they turned their attention to the main house. “Boring” jobs took precedence; two new boilers were installed and floors were pulled up to reposition radiators. Forward planning is one of Jennifer’s preferred strategies.
“It’s something I learned in Morocco, working with permanent materials like cement and concrete,” she explains. She advocates detailed room plans for electrics and lighting; that way a badly sited radiator or bedside light won’t spoil the end result.
The kitchen was also meticulously pre-planned. “We needed an island for serving,” says Jennifer, who sourced units at Ikea. An almost-defunct Rayburn was removed in favour of a lean, clean cooking machine with features such as a wok burner that Laurence needed. Yet such nods to modernity are balanced by tradition – solid wood worktops, tongue-and-groove panelling and old servants’ bells retained above an alcove that housed the coal cellar and which is now a cosy dining space.
The goal of creating a B&B prompted the addition of a new utility room and seven bathrooms, which meant getting rid of the old avocado suites.
Four guest bedrooms are named for Victorian and Edwardian diplomats, evoking something of the property’s period; three boast beautiful four-posters, including an antique bed in the Balfour Suite that Jennifer’s father found buried in his garden in Cyprus. All the guest rooms feature exquisite linens (including a vintage Durham quilt), a passion Jennifer has turned into a profession with her online business, Starched and Crumpled.
Given the diverse locations in which Jennifer and Laurence have lived, it’s easy to assume the interesting furnishings and artworks dotted around the property were collected on their travels. But rather than shoehorn pieces into the house that didn’t match its mood, the couple allowed in only those things that complement its look and period, giving a considerable amount away.
“We didn’t want the place to be filled with ‘trophies’ of our lives,” says Jennifer. An elegant Chinese cabinet was permitted entry to the dining room, while the sideboard here came from Milan. Leather trunks in the hallway were an auction buy, while eBay proved a valuable source for pieces such as the dining room’s candelabra.
An original fireplace survived in this space and is a natural focus, although the stars of the show as far as Jennifer is concerned are specially commissioned landscape paintings by artist Alan Rankle.
There’s an original fireplace in the property’s other large public room, which the couple have recreated as a serene library replete with custom-made timber bookcases that house just a portion of their collection.
“We gave a lot of books to charity,” says Jennifer, who created a quirky section of wall decoration above the library’s marble fireplace using pages from an old dictionary. Furnished with inviting sofas and a Bang & Olufsen CD player, this is a room in which to linger.
Guests barely notice the absence of a TV.
“It’s a place to come and sit by the fire,” says Jennifer.
But with a potential project to convert the original stable block into further accommodation, there is the feeling that “retiring” has brought far more to this pair than a seat by the fire.
• B&B rates for The Balfour Room start from £95 a night for two people sharing, tel: 01557 339422, www.glenholmecountryhouse.com; www.starchedandcrumpled.com
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