Period Property of the Month - December 2010
For relaxed living and peace and quiet you can't get much better than Meall mo Cridhe, as Melinda Varcoe reveals.
If you head across the border into Scotland, follow 'the road to the isles' (humming the tune as you march, crummack in hand) and then make a detour as far west as you can go without taking to the sea, you will reach the Ardnamurchan peninsula. Pointing a rocky finger towards the Isle of Mull along the shores of Loch Sunart, the headland with its lighthouse marks the very westernmost point on the British mainland. This remote, rugged country has known harsh times, from Viking invaders to the injustices and sorrows of the Highland Clearances, but nowadays the 'heather tracks wi' heaven in their wiles' are trodden by visitors who seek peace, wonderful walking and sightings of rare wildlife like the golden eagle or Scottish wildcat.
The only significant settlement is the little crofting village of Kilchoan, and it's here that after years of searching for the right place, Stella and David Cash found their house Meall mo Cridhe (pronounced 'mel mo cree') - 'little hill of my heart' in Gaelic. Built in 1790, the warm yellow-ochre washed Georgian manse gazes out over the sea from an idyllic shoreline position, its backdrop a ruined 12th century church surrounded by trees and hills. Placid sheep graze the pastureland which, together with walled kitchen gardens, forms part of the Cash family's forty five acre smallholding. From the beginning, the dream was of a place they could develop into a small, sustainably managed restaurant with rooms, producing as much from the estate as possible, and serving it to discerning guests. After so long planning, restoring, rebuilding and decorating, this year saw the dream become reality. "People did warn us, and they were right," admits Stella ruefully. "It took three times longer than we expected and cost twice as much!" Nevertheless, they're as much in love with the place as ever, and the whole family has supported and lent a hand along the way, from David's elderly mother (who at the age of 84 moved to be nearby and promptly started a gardening club!) to plasterer son-in-law Justin, and two daughters who don aprons in college holidays.
They began by employing an architect who drew up plans and steered them through the turbulent waters of historic building regulations and the maze of health and safety and disabled access rules. They were fortunate to find a local builder who specialised in conservation work, and sympathised with their desire to retain as many of the original features as possible and to use local materials and methods - Ballachulish slate for the roof, for example, and harled (pebbled-dashed) exterior walls. (see 'focus box'). David helped to rebuild the four double chimneys, and Stella's rightly proud of her fiddly and painstaking paintwork on the cast-iron staircase banisters, but they acknowledge that they couldn't have achieved such great results without the expertise and skill of a team of craftsmen.
The whole interior had to be gutted, moving the kitchen from one side of the house to the other, where Stella now revels in the brightness and space of her working environment. Six en suite bathrooms with carefully chosen periodstyle baths and basins were installed; some have breathtaking views over the sea, which makes taking a bath an exceptional experience. Many rooms now boast antique wood burning stoves, perfect for those nights when the mist rolls in and guests might want to curl up cosily with a book and a wee dram.
Paint colours are mostly calm creams and greys, so the impact of vibrant red in the dining room, or intense cobalt blue for the underside of a roll-top bath, is all the greater by contrast. Details like old-fashioned radiators, lots of fresh flowers and a generally relaxed country house style give the sense that the house has settled into its character over long comfortable years, rather than having been ruthlessly restored - this is exactly the mellow atmosphere David and Stella were aiming for.
During their long quest for a dream home, David and Stella were busily indulging their love of provincial antiques and furnishings at auctions and markets, particularly in the south of France. One result of their collecting habit is a splendid Louis XV armoire, now used for storing linen, which stands under a pretty glass cupola on the landing. Elsewhere, other finds like rustic chairs or marble-topped tables bring a breath of the warm south to this northern homestead. Upstairs, decorating schemes use toile de jouy fabrics or bright checks, and Stella's exuberant handmade tapestry cushions find a place in most rooms. The second storey, once the maids' quarters, has been converted to provide two large, open-plan rooms where children and grandchildren love to stay when they visit. Through the generous windows that special Scottish light floods in, and the sea is so close you could almost touch it.
In the kitchen, alongside the gleaming battery of high-tech professional cooking equipment, there's a place of honour for the Aga, and for a big old schoolroom cupboard, ("the carved graffiti make interesting reading!" Stella says) alongside freestanding units. No deep-fat fryer here, though; the organic principles by which they farm mean the emphasis is on fresh, high quality food chosen for flavour and seasonal variety. Stella's pride and joy is her kitchen garden, where a new polytunnel means they can make an earlier start on the growing season with exotics such as chillies, tomatoes and peppers, in addition to the ever-expanding list of vegetables, herbs and fruit in which they're already selfsufficient. Sheep and pigs are soon to be joined by beef cattle and hens and local seafood figures largely on the menu.
With the summer season just round the corner, excitement is mounting - will the dream deliver? The Cash family are confident that with hard work, imagination and a dash of good luck, Meall mo Cridhe will soon reach more than the small but enthusiastic clientele who've already stumbled upon this gem of a secret hideaway. Perhaps, like Brigadoon, it only appears to those who can recognise its remote beauty - in which case, the answer is to head north and discover the 'little hill' for yourself.
Meall mo Cridhe is open all year round, with three double/twin rooms, except for Christmas and New Year. For more information, tel: 01972 510238