Interiors: Michelle Milnes’s dream Georgian garden flat bears fruit

Michelle and Tim Milnes' property in Pitt Street. Picture: Neil Hanna
Michelle and Tim Milnes' property in Pitt Street. Picture: Neil Hanna
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WHAT’S for you won’t go by you, as the saying goes, and Michelle Milnes could certainly attest to this. In 2007, she viewed a B-listed Georgian ground and garden-level flat at 1 Pitt Street, in Edinburgh’s Bonnington area, with a view to renting the property.

he agreed to take the flat before travelling up to the Highlands and out of mobile reception for a week, only to return, several missed calls later, to find the flat had been let to someone else in her absence.

Michelle and Tim Milnes' property in Pitt Street. Picture: Neil Hanna

Michelle and Tim Milnes' property in Pitt Street. Picture: Neil Hanna

Life moved on. Michelle married and moved in with her husband Tim in his flat in the city’s Roseburn area, before they decided to buy a place of their own. It was then that she received an e-mail from the owner at Pitt Street saying the property was about to go on the market.

Having been let for several years, the four-bedroom flat was looking tired but the couple saw past the décor to the period features, including intricate cornicing, fireplaces and working shutters, Douglas Fir floorboards, panelled doors and stone stairs. “That was the thing about this place when we walked in: although it was run-down and had Artex and some really grim stuff, in terms of the period features it had everything,” Michelle recalls.

For academic Tim, finding the right study space was key. When he walked into the south-facing, double-fronted drawing room, with its view to Salisbury Crags, that was it. As he says, “I’ve been an academic for 15 years, and this is the first time I’ve had my own study.”

The couple moved in at the beginning of 2009 and embraced a full-scale refurbishment. There were a few surprises. All of the windows had been gloss-painted shut so each had to be removed, the pulleys fixed and damaged panes replaced. The garden level had a mish-mash of floor finishes, including laminate laid directly over soil. This entire level also had a damp-proof course with membrane installed in the floors and walls.

Today’s dining-kitchen was previously two spaces: a sitting room and a storage room, while the elongated utility room off the dining-kitchen had been the original kitchen. “That was our big anxiety after we bought this place, as we hadn’t looked into the feasibility of knocking down this wall [between the old sitting room and storage area],” Tim recalls.

“There was the big question, was this a supporting wall?” It wasn’t, but given the number of floor levels above, a structural steel beam was inserted when the wall was removed to create today’s spacious dining-kitchen area.

There is also a bedroom and bathroom on this level. The kitchen was finally fitted on Christmas Eve 2010, ready for dinner the following day. “We were here for a year and a half without a proper kitchen, with a microwave and table set up in the vestibule,” Michelle recalls, adding, “Never again.”

The couple supervised every element of the work and sourced everything too. Both are creative: Tim is an artist while Michelle originally studied visual communication before moving into journalism, and now works as a photographer. As well as their love of art – reflected by the diverse array of paintings and photos that line the walls throughout – the couple also share a passion for ‘finds’, from the Victorian pine settle in the dining-kitchen, which Tim spotted on eBay, to the chair in Michelle’s work space upstairs, which they picked up in the street after it had been abandoned with a note saying, ‘If you want me, take me.’ “We have a habit of picking things up,” Michelle acknowledges, pointing out a favourite piece – a Victorian work bench that she spotted while on a photo shoot, sitting in a garage and about to head to a skip.

“It’s about history, something interesting, something different. It’s about someone else’s throwaway pieces, and within our culture that means something. It’s nice to have something you can reuse.”

In the living room, highlights include an antique red leather armchair the couple imported from France and vintage suitcases that made their way to South Africa – where Michelle is from – during the Second World War and back again. “We’re not big spenders, but when something nostalgic gets us then we’ll spend more than we should,” she admits.

Michelle credits her childhood, and her artist mother in particular, for feeding that eclectic gene. “The house I grew up in was quite mad, not in a British eccentric way, but more earthy, with a mixture of styles. And my mum was constantly pushing boundaries, combining things that shouldn’t fit,” she says.

The couple had initially hoped to embrace this ethos here when designing the kitchen using free-standing furniture and dressers. “My mum’s kitchen has old lab benches; it’s really mix-and-match, and I thought we could do something like that here,” Michelle explains. Though the space wasn’t quite generous enough for this approach, the couple achieved a similar look with units customised by their joiner, who also made the island with integrated shelving for books.

The decked courtyard area to the rear (there is also a garden, shared with one other property, along with three storage cellars) was created from scratch and includes a fireplace. “In South Africa, we’re not used to living in flats; we’re used to walking out the door into a garden. Our last flat was on the top floor and I felt really claustrophobic,” Michelle says. Here, the courtyard has solved that problem. “Lighting a fire outside in summer, it draws you outside.”

Now, as Tim and Michelle prepare to do it all again, they readily acknowledge that leaving Pitt Street will be a wrench. “This building has personality and is unlike anything I’ve seen in Edinburgh,” Tim reflects.

Michelle adds, “I’ll miss the features – this building is almost 200 years old – and I’ll miss the quirks.”

Quirks like the little hatch that brings light into the stairs from the utility room. The couple have absorbed this character and enhanced it. Arriving in the vestibule, the first thing you notice is the Egon Schiele figure study transfer on the glazed door. It’s a typically idiosyncratic touch within an interior that challenges convention while respecting the authenticity of this handsome Georgian home.

• Offers over £350,000; contact McEwan Fraser Legal (0131-524 9797, Open viewing today, 2-4pm; the closing date has been set for Tuesday, 12 noon