Tall birch trees surround the restored lodge
The house of jeanetta rowan-hamilton in sutherland, scotland, resembles a favourite chilhood book of mine, the wind in the willows. It is not just the house is close to a river, but that she evidently shares author kenneth grahame’s time-honoured view that interior decoration begins with a good log fire and a toasted teacake.
Jeanetta has restored her tin-roofed fishing lodge with great charm. There is nothing whimsical or twee about her taste, but her talent for making things herself – be it a cushion, cake, curtain, or cardigan – is often associated with a gentler and more accomplished era.
Her house is positioned on a grassy knoll separated from road and river by a tufted meadow, where sheep graze nonchalantly in a manner fitting to a pastoral idyll. Thrush and woodpecker vie for seed on jeanetta’s bird tables. Occasionally a car passes, a fisherman perhaps with rods on his roof, or the local postman making his rounds.
Jeanetta Rowan-Hamilton sews a cashmere jersey in her sitting room, which has the original tongue-and-groove wall panelling
Jeanetta’s company, nettles cashmere, sells beautiful jerseys and cardigans that she sources and redesigns from vintage cashmere sweaters. ‘Make and mend’ is a favourite maxim. She takes a stall at five major sales a year and inevitably arrives in scotland from her london flat with a car boot full of tweed, fabric and wool.
Most people come to the helmsdale, a north highland river, to catch fish. It is renowned for its run of migrating atlantic salmon. The duke of sutherland once owned the whole area, but in the nineteenth century it was divided into six estates, which were later sold, each with its own river beat.
Nowadays the beats rotate over a week, and anglers can fish the whole system. this makes it highly desirable and many anglers can only dream of getting a place on the long waiting list.
Were invited by friends to fish every year, and they fell in love with the river.
‘They bought the house from a policeman for £1,200 because, although it does not have rights over any fishing of its own, it occupies an ideal position for those who have secured fishing on any other beat,’ she says.
In Loth Station Antiques, where she sources many of her furnishings
Jeanetta’s mother inherited the lodge from her parents and it was let to cousins for many years. After her divorce, jeanetta and her two children, caroline and jamie, now aged 32 and 30, would come for weekends and holidays; then as now, there was no television or heating, only board games and scrabble.
Ten years ago, when her mother gave her the house, jeanetta had to make a decision. Time had taken its toll and the place was in poor shape. Should she keep it? luckily, jeanetta had the necessary skills to make a go of it.
She had been taught to cook by her mother and to sew by her nanny. Her scottish father was in the army, and jeanetta grew up in perthshire with a brother and three sisters. ‘My sisters were much nicer and played with other children. But i just wanted to sew and make cakes.’ Aafter school, she went to paris to learn pattern cutting.
Her working life evolved as she made lovely things for herself – and those close to her that other people then lusted after madly. She has been commissioned to collate photograph albums for over 30 years. Despite digital technology, because no computer can replicate the collages she does in wedding albums. Or press-cutting books.
She repainted a pair of Victorian beds that were her grandmother’s.
She was confident she was up to the challenge of restoring the lodge. But had very little money to employ builders and decorators. ‘I was sitting in the house with caroline and there was an actual hole visible in the floor, where a stoat came to live in winter,’ she says. ‘I said to caroline, “shall we sell the place and find something nearer home?
Or shall we do something about it?” And she said firmly, “we shall do something about it.” So we painted a sheet with the words house sale and put everything we didn’t want out on the grass.’
Word spread within hours and some antiques dealers arrived. A man who bought a table convinced jeanetta she was capable of doing most of the work on the house herself. ‘”But where should i start?”‘ jeanetta remembers asking incredulously. ‘And the man said, “first find the drains.”
So caroline and i dug around the house and then the bothy, which is now my workroom and guest house. We found some very nasty drains.’
On the porch
It was the start of a 10-year programme. Local builders william hendry and his son douglas handled heavy building tasks, and rowland chamberlain worked on woodwork and shelving. There are now four bedrooms in the house and two bathrooms. Last year, she added a new dining room onto the kitchen.
On new designs in her office space at one end of the sitting room, using a desk and stool from Loth Station Antiques
Discovery is a key to her enjoyment and when she finds something particularly inexpensive, she leaves its delicate white paper price tag to flutter from it like a tiny trophy.
Loth station antiques, rowland chamberlain and his partner clare goulder’s eclectic shop in a converted railway station at loth beach, has proved a treasure trove for jeanetta, who is inexorably drawn towards their salvage section.
A red-painted cupboard in the utility room stores coats and shoes
She has made kitchen shelves from fish boxes and bathroom shelves from old lincolnshire cotton reels. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention,’ says jeanetta. She abhors waste and loves change of usage. ‘The concept of a rag rug is very appealing to me,’ she explains mock seriously.
Her views are definite, often emphatic: ‘i absolutely hate things that match. My sister sabrina gave me the dining chairs. but no two are the same.’
Jeanetta hung a curtain made from old fabric to separate the utility room
As jeanetta finds it hard to make decisions, she prefers it when there is less choice: ‘I would rather find five buttons or one piece of fabric in a market, than go to a specialised button shop or department store. Though i might like to have a shop of my own one day. It would be worth it just to have an old-fashioned till.’
In the valley above the River Helmsdale
When it rains, jeanetta works on photograph albums. After rain stops, caroline’s whippet, ruby, nudges her out for a walk. Sometimes they drive over to a cove at berriedale, known locally as the shore. A row of fishermen’s cottages, built in 1820. Have been beautifully restored for holiday rental by the landmark trust.
Jeanetta and Ruby the whippet go for a walk along The Shore at Berriedale
Every season brings delight. ‘In april, i wake to the sound of deer munching grass outside my bedroom window.’ Says jeanetta, who tackles the constant necessary house maintenance with infectious enthusiasm, baffling occasional urbane guests with talk of ‘unblocking gullies’.
She finds that her days are never quite long enough. A neighbour may drop round for a game, of scrabble and there is always another bonfire to build.
Or a chanterelle, just waiting to be found.