Strolling through the verdant garden in its late-summer fullness, gathering apples and pears in the sun-dappled orchards, pausing to watch a pair of olive-skinned girls skipping carefree along a jetty and then leaping without a pause into a dam strewn with lilac water lilies… These are moments more reminiscent of the verses of Dylan Thomas than snapshots from an ordinary Sunday afternoon in the home of a very modern family.
When Margot and James Gilfillan whisked their three daughters away from their house in suburban Cape Town to a working farm in Elgin, they had certainly envisioned a life that might allow, in Thomas’ words, being ‘young and easy under the apple boughs’. The girls, all keen equestriennes, balance schoolwork with riding lessons, a bonus of country living being that their beloved horses are stabled at home. With the day’s duties completed, Margot says, ‘they run around “free-range” until suppertime’.
The farm had been purchased as a place to which Margot’s father could retire, and with its old homestead unoccupied, the couple had used it as a retreat for weekends and holidays with their children and friends. ‘We grew attached to it over the years,’ says Margot. ‘When it was suggested that we might live on the farm, the idea was hatched. We have never looked back.’ The homestead may have been charming and comfortable, but it was hopelessly old-fashioned with its kitchen located at the back, and its separate dining and sitting rooms. What Margot had in mind were expansive living spaces that flowed out onto the verandah and enjoyed sweeping views to the dam. Needing more bedrooms, individual studies and a family room, the house was extended by means of an additional wing that links to the original building via a wide, airy passageway with high ceilings and skylights.
‘I have always been sensitive to how a home makes me feel. It is a personal space and a sanctuary for family and friends’ – Margot Gilfillan
‘The most important thing was to have plenty of natural light in all the rooms,’ says Margot. ‘Secondly, every single window or door had to open to an aesthetically pleasing view.’ Indeed they do, from the formal and informal living areas that gaze out onto the soft, romantic garden designed by Franchesca Watson, to the main bedroom and bathroom that lead onto a wild grassy meadow shaded by 100-year-old oak trees. Handmade terracotta tiles were laid throughout the house, creating continuity and harnessing the heat from under-floor heating. Fireplaces were installed in all the rooms to combat the cold of Elgin’s notoriously wet winters.
In keeping with the building’s historicity, Margot followed a traditional style of decorating. ‘I adore the look of the quintessential English country house,’ she says. ‘My approach to decorating is instinctual and nostalgic, and I have always been sensitive to how a home makes me feel. ‘Most of my pieces are second-hand, fixed up, or reupholstered in loose covers. Over time, I have collected the layers of crockery, silver, old Persian rugs, lamp bases, books and art from what others have considered to be junk.’
Where she has splurged, however, are on the fabrics. ‘I would spend hours playing with combinations until I was quite clear in my mind as to what each room would look like,’ Margot laughs. Similar attention to detail was paid to the garden, which features varying levels and a traditional rill or slooitjie that leads to the dam. On the first level is a large lawn softly fringed with grasses and blooms in a palette of pinks, purples and white, while the second level is a pool garden with a shaded pergola covered in wisteria. With children and dogs and the frequently messy nature of farm life to contend with, an artful balance has been achieved between the decorated and practical aspects of this spirited family home. One might even call it poetic.
Featured image Margot wanted an unfussy, herbaceous garden and werf walls in keeping with the Cape character of the homestead. A slooitjie runs from the house to the jetty Photography Greg Cox Production Martin Jacobs