But finding room for a nursery in stately Knockdow House was a bit of a squeeze, finds Nichola Hunter
Mould, mildew, bare lath and plaster – it’s not easy to see why Fatima Albizua and Stewart Cameron chose to make Knockdow in Argyll their home.
Looking up to see roof timbers in some rooms and the fact that only about a third of the house was habitable when they viewed it would have put off most couples, but as Fatima recalls: “It was just one of those places that felt nice. I was with my niece, who was about seven at the time when I viewed it, and she knew we’d lost out on a number of properties. She said: ‘I think you will live here; you will get this one. I love it.’”
She was right, after four years of searching, in this 18th century mansion house, the couple had finally found “the one”. And now it was time for the work to start. Whilst the house had been relatively untouched since 1958, the roof had been maintained, so it was watertight. However, the water tanks in the attic had flooded and there was mould and mildew everywhere. The servants’ quarters, which took up about two-thirds of the house, were pretty much derelict. The electrics were mostly 24 volts and there were only 13 radiators in the entire house.
“We started the work in August 2011, as it took about a year to get all the permissions through and we had to get Historic Scotland involved. Although we didn’t want to change the character of the house, we wanted to alter the servants’ quarters to add more light and get rid of the cell-like feel.”
Fatima adds: “We re-plumbed and re-wired and we now have 117 radiators. I know because I did the heat loss calculations myself! As we were on a strict budget, we didn’t have an architect to project manage and we did a lot of the planning and redesign ourselves.”
Not long into the renovation, Fatima was delighted to find out she was pregnant, and although this didn’t slow down the project, it might have made it more memorable for the tradesmen. “When the radiators arrived and were off-loaded on to the front lawn, I burst into tears,” she recalls, “It was hormones, but I’d spent a fortune on radiators and I hated them. Eventually the plumber suggested we took a radiator inside and positioned it so we could see the scale and how it fitted in. Fortunately they were perfectly proportioned to the rooms.”
Aside from bringing the house’s utilities into the 21st century, the couple also decided to create a bathroom for every bedroom and in the servants’ quarters they added cornicing so it replicates the main house.
To take advantage of the stunning cupola, Stewart and Fatima changed the Great Hall into their sitting room, using part of a servants’ corridor which ran behind to install a new chimney and fireplace. “We use this room on a daily basis and the fires are lit all the time as I’m quite romantic that way. I also have my butler (painted on a wall) and then of course I have Stewart, who does all the fires.”
She adds: “Elsewhere on the ground floor is a large drawing room which has beautiful ornate cornicing, a TV room, a tea room, a dining room which sits about 24-26 and then the original library, which we’ve made into a snooker room and bar. There’s nothing in the tower except the staircase to the ramparts and the rooms on the first floor.”
Surprisingly, considering the state of the rest of the house, the cornicing and cupola needed minimal repairs. “The TV room and tea room had no embellishments whatsoever, so again we added cornicing. I feel that these houses were incredibly avant-garde for their time so making some rooms grander than they would have been isn’t a problem for me.”
Because Fatima is Spanish and has family all over the world, she admits that she hasn’t chosen furniture or décor exclusively from the UK. “If you were a purist you probably wouldn’t agree, but I think everything works and it’s my home and you need to live in it. The reaction of people when they visit is surprise – oh my goodness, it’s warm, it’s cosy. I take pride in that,” says Fatima.
Knockdow is a house that was designed to welcome guests and indeed that was what it was bought for initially: “We were looking for a property that was large enough and comfortable enough for everyone to get together. However, Spanish families have their tempers so we needed a house that gave everyone space too. At Christmas they were all here for about 10 days but we weren’t living on top of each other, it was bliss.”
Indeed, the number of visitors and the addition of Catriona (who is now four) to the family has shaped how the house has evolved. “A child was an enigma to us, we’ve never had that day-to-day dynamic and it has changed how we planned to use the house. We didn’t even factor in a nursery and the playroom was going to be a staff bedroom.”
Today, Knockdow is no longer the dream second home. Stewart and Fatima have left their jobs in investment banking and Knockdow now has a nursery, a playroom and four self-catering suites which can be let out to guests.
“We kept having friends to stay and they would say, ‘The house is beautiful but why don’t you make it work for you? You have enough rooms to make a few suites.’ So we did and they’ve been very popular. We’re also hosting a few weddings this year to see how that goes, but it’ll depend on the impact that it has on our family life if we do more or not.
“Everything happened when we bought Knockdow and my niece was right; we are here and we do love it.”
• Knockdow House, Toward, Argyll, tel: 01369 870199, www.knockdow.com