Peter and Mary decided to relocate to Saltspring five years ago, after having visited the bucolic island numerous times in the past 40 years and fallen in love with the countryside, ambience and friendly community.
The move came after they found the perfect house.
“When we first saw it, we thought, how extraordinary that someone has built a place with such great imagination,” recalled former Vancouverite Peter, though he also fleetingly wondered if it had been designed by “your typical half-stoned islander.”
What makes the rustic home unique is its circular design, which radiates from a central chimney with three fireplaces: facing the dining room, the library and living room, and master bedroom.
The home was built 35 years ago by local designer Gary Duncan, who sited it on a mountainside near the middle of the island. The new owners purchased it from retired Anglican bishop Ronald Shepherd and his wife Ann, who had owned it for 25 years and created extensive gardens.
“There was nothing here but rock when the bishop arrived and he created all this,” said Peter, describing a large arc with outstretched arms. “The garden was a huge creation, the bishop’s passion.”
Shepherd, who died in October, christened the property Easter Hill, as it marked a new beginning for him and his wife, as it did for the Vancouver couple when they left their urban setting. Coincidentally, both couples moved in on Easter weekends.
Mary still commutes to the island three days a week from her nursing job in Vancouver, and Peter is a chartered accountant. They asked that their last name not be used.
Peter explained the home’s designer was “not necessarily a certified architect, but was well known for building whimsical houses,” and they first saw the home on a gloomy mid-winter day.
“It was in February and very cold. The house was bizarre, empty, painted all white, with no furniture — and we both fell in love with it, although it required a bit of imagination.”
The house covers 2,500 square feet and includes a cottage, studio and bunkhouse that add 1,000 square feet — which is handy when their five children, partners and four grandchildren come to visit.
“The house reminded me of a hunting lodge,” explained Peter, who grew up in Argentina where his British family was involved in beef farming. Peter was sent to the requisite boarding school in England at a tender age, and then attended the University of B.C., since the family thought there would be more opportunities here.
He grew up in big, old, rambling wooden houses, and Vancouver-born-and-raised Mary had spent a lot of time at a family cottage on a secluded island, in a lake near Toronto.
“I was very drawn to the cottagey West Coast feel,” she said with a chuckle. “I guess I’m living out my past. This house reminded us both of those early times.”
One of the things he most appreciates about the house is its solid and visible structure, the warm wood interiors. She adores the comfortable ambience: “We have a fairly large extended family that comes from England, Florida and Spain, and we can comfortably sleep up to 12. I really like the fact everybody can have their own space.”
“Seriously large” tree trunks, some still sprouting sawn-off ends of branches, support the roof and stand in every corner of the house, holding up massive beams. Some of the trees were likely logged on site while others were clearly salvaged from the beach, complete with wormholes.
The house is basically a circle attached to a rectangle and it has several quirky qualities — such as no closet in the master bedroom, although there are huge built-in drawers under the bed. The owners solved that issue by each turning a small bedroom into a studio-dressing room. Hers is off the master bath hallway, and his is in the upstairs loft.
The home has no furnace and is heated by the central fires, a kitchen stove and electric baseboards (in a pinch), so one of the first things the couple did was add a new roof and do some winterizing.
There was little else required. “Basically we painted the interiors and then filled the house with knick-knacks,” he quipped.
They both admit the house is an ongoing project. “I’ve always lived in drafty old houses and continue to spend my entire life cleaning cobwebs,” he said. And the upkeep will keep them occupied “until we can’t move anymore.”
They both love collecting, too.
“My wife loves antique and thrift shops and we have a wonderful thing on the island called the Exchange, like Craigslist, where she’s always finding things,” like beautiful ceramics.
The two have created a cornucopia of visual delights, with an eclectic mix of antiques collected during travels or inherited from family, and interesting artworks.
One of their treasured pieces is a bronze replica of a much larger sculpture in Montevideo, Uruguay, depicting oxen pulling a cart in days of yore. Beside it rests a classical guitar, and above a row of horse brasses.
A painting over the library fireplace dates to the 1800s; one in the dining room is of the River Plate in Argentina; while yet another is a rendering of a house belonging to Peter’s great-grandfather, a governor of Zanzibar. Nearby is a desk made for Peter’s father in Argentina, a coffee table from Peru, figurines from England and antlers from the Salvation Army.
“I am always stumbling upon interesting things,” said Mary, “and this house seems to welcome them more than other homes.”
But the inside is only half of the story.
“Neither of us used to like gardening, but we do now,” effused Peter, who concedes it’s been a steep learning curve.
Off the kitchen is a herb and vegetable garden, and around the corner is one of their favourite features, a grove of arbutus. “So special aren’t they? One of our kids used to call them our beauty trees. We all love them.”
Their three-acre property is now their passion too, although only one acre is cultivated, and the rest are “jungle and cliff.”
“We became gardeners overnight,” said Mary, adding the weeding and pruning had fallen far behind and presented a lot of work. It’s not a meticulous garden, she said, but wonderfully unusual since the bishop and his wife poured all their creativity into everything from plants to ponds.
“The old bishop had four sons and he really made them work,” said Peter, as he navigated some mossy rocks to point out rampant grapevines, clematis, climbing roses, crabapple trees and espaliered peaches.
A flowering catalpa tree native to southern climes acts as a summer umbrella — “It produces fabulous green foliage and white flowers, and makes a wonderful shady place to sit.” A hedge of bamboo muffles the breeze.
“We do rough gardening here. … It’s a different attitude to gardening in the city, but we feel very strongly that we are on sacred ground.”
Mary agreed, saying the bishop had a strong attachment to the house and to the land, and used to say morning prayers in what they now call the secret garden.
© Copyright 2013