The long dusty wagon trail from Cape Town to Swellendam and the north once went right past the stoep of what is now Penhill Manor. Travellers on ox wagons used to stop here to get their supplies and refreshments beneath the tallest, skinniest and possibly now oldest palm trees for miles around.
Situated in breathtaking scenery at the foot of the Langeberg mountains in Toontjiesrivier – the origin of the area’s quaint name is obscure – Penhill Manor was built in 1840 on a farm that started off as the furthest outpost of the Dutch East India Company. As time passed this cluster of lovely Cape Dutch buildings was patched and added to, not always sympathetically. Still, when Gareth and Kate Penny first set eyes on the place two years ago they were overwhelmed. ‘We just completely fell in love with it – the views and the setting,’ says Gareth. ‘We couldn’t believe we had found such an architectural gem in such a perfect setting and in need of TLC and restoration.’
With Stellenbosch architect Rick Stander, they set about bringing it back to its former glory. Toontjiesrivier had once been part of Willem Adriaan van der Stel’s Vergelegen, and the birthplace of a Boer Republic president. The Pennys’ mission was to restore not only the Manor House but also the original low-slung homestead built in 1750 of mud bricks and poplar beams, as well as the fruit barn and the cellar where Jacobus Kloppers distilled his brandy during the late 1800s.
Extras included three new cottages planned as an organic part of the whole, and a tennis court that enjoys a magnificent view, dug into the mountainside. What Gareth refers to as ‘the clans’ can now be accommodated in four attractive self-contained two-bedroom cottages and the beautiful old four-bedroom Manor House.
First step in the renovation was to remove what the architect describes as ‘the really nasty add-ons’ of the 1980s. He has worked on numerous historic farm buildings, including Dornier winery in Stellenbosch and Twee Jonge Gezellen in Tulbagh, and for him the challenge is to restore them to a state where they can function as modern living units while retaining their historic feel.
‘You have to be careful when adding modern amenities like bathrooms and kitchens that you don’t destroy the original envelope of the building,’ he says. ‘I believe in keeping architecture honest. It must retain its sense of place in the environment. At Penhill we tried to keep it simple in terms of finishes – cement floors, concrete work and vanity tops – and kept all the roofs thatch, the best and most natural insulation.’
Kate says that when it came to decor they also paid homage to history: ‘The original occupants would not have been wealthy or pretentious. They would have been down-to-earth, conservative and hard-working. They would have had a few good pieces of furniture, but to a large extent made do with rustic things they could trade with travellers and locals. We’ve tried to replicate this. The Manor House would’ve been the showcase. Other buildings would’ve been utilitarian. So we’ve made the Manor House slightly smarter.’ She spent time trawling Cape Town with interior designer Anna Carst, on the lookout for natural fabrics – linens, hessians, cottons – lighting and furniture that would ‘pay respect to the architectural heritage but bring the property into present time with interiors that are elegantly casual and comfortable with a contemporary up-to-date touch.’
They’ve collected some graceful Cape stinkwood Regency chairs made in Robertson in the 1800s. They also have two wonderful old portraits of the Hugo family who lived here from 1896 until 1969 when they sold it after South Africa’s biggest earthquake apparently caused the Toontjiesrivier to stop flowing. Meanwhile, Kate and horticulturists Klaas and Bev Havenga have been creating a garden remarkable for its diversity. The range includes a charmingly formal traditional knot garden with indigenous rhus plants around the Manor House, a more natural picking garden outside the kitchen, and a grasses garden in the free-and-easy style of Dutch landscaper Piet Oudolf, tailing off towards the vineyards. Around the fruit barn they’ve planted pear, cherry and crab apple trees, and hedges everywhere to create privacy. It’s early days but already this 300-year-old farm is launched on yet another new and brilliant life cycle. This home is available for holiday rentals through Perfect Hideaways, perfecthideaways.co.za.
Originally published in HL December 2014