Inside Gemma's sunny yellow cottage

21 October 2015

Earlier this year my friend Gemma moved from Queensland to Sydney for a new job. On Instagram I watched as restoration began on her new home, a gorgeous yellow cottage on the outskirts of Sydney. I saw stunning lead light windows go in and winter fires blazing. Wanting to see even more, I asked Gemma if she could take us on a tour of her new home and shed some light on its rich past:

On moving back to Sydney and the cottage’s namesake:

I share my home with my partner, Henry. We only moved back to Sydney a few months ago so it’s a new 'nest' for us. We’ve both been away from Sydney for about four to five years. Our cottage, which we call Leo’s cottage, is on an property at the base of the Blue Mountains in Mulgoa, western Sydney.

Henry grew up on this property and has been there since about the age of three when his family moved into the farm’s main house. His grandfather, who lived in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, bought the land in 1956 and over the years sold parts of it off. Now it’s 180 acres and has a handful of little houses on it, including ours.

Our cottage was built in the 1920s and it’s called Leo’s cottage because it’s where Henry’s grandfather Leo would stay when he visited the farm. It’s only been a few months but it feels like it’s been home for years.

On settling in:

It’s a very cosy but tiny place with two rooms - a living room and a kitchen/dining area. We’ve spread our art, trinkets and treasures from all over the world across the walls and on every available surface. Everything’s a bit mis-matching but somehow works, and we love that.

Henry is a scientist – an ecologist – and passionate about every living creature so our house is packed with bird/reptile/every other field guide and scientific reference book you could poke a stick at. When you look at our bookshelves it’s definitely where two different worlds collide.

On unexpected challenges:

One thing that people might not notice when they come into our place is that we are in the middle of a white ant battle. We are slowly drawing them out of the place but many of the timber beams have been eaten by white ants so if you press them, the wood would crumble. So we have to be very careful! It’s the joys of an old 1920s cottage. But we love that quirk.

Living on the farm means living right on top of nature. Most recently a female pregnant brown snake took up residence under the front step. She keeps to herself but as the days get warmer she likes to bask in the sun - and that does make me a little nervy. I have become a lot less afraid of snakes since meeting Henry as he works with them and thinks they're amazing creatures, but it's a brown snake! 

On living in a home with history:

What I love about the place is it has a charm you can’t create in new places. The door handles are brass and we still have some of those gorgeous old light switches.

We have some special pieces of furniture like Henry’s grandmother’s wardrobe, dressing table and kitchen table. It’s a collection of old and new – our things, and things from our families past and present. There’s a lot of history and love in the place! And of course because it’s Leo’s cottage we have a photo of him on our mantel piece :)

Oh, and one little quirky thing – Henry’s grandfather was a monarchist and LOVED the royal family. We have kept the framed photo of Queen Elizabeth in our living room, as well as the royal tea sets he has – one for Princess Di and Prince Charles's wedding and the other for the coronation of the queen. We even have four royal shot glasses!

On living outside the city:

We were lucky to have Leo’s cottage as an option when we moved back to Sydney and now I really can’t imagine being anywhere else. We thought – we’ll live here and see how we go – and a few months in, we’ve both talked about it, and we just love it.

When I look out the kitchen window we can see the Nepean Valley. One of the other houses on the property is rented by a family who agist race horses, and keep horses, so there are always horses riding past our house. And sometimes, when the angus cows are in the top paddocks, I can hear them mooing!

Just down the hill is our drinking dam, and a bit further away – about a 10 minute walk – is the swimming dam with a jetty and an area under a grove of gums where you can sit in the shade and picnic.

Since first visiting the property, and especially since it’s become my home, it’s become one of my favourite places in the whole world.

On commuting to work: 

I travel three hours total each day to get to and from work but it’s totally worth it when you have a peaceful country home to return to each evening. I get on an express train from Penrith to Central. We are 20 minutes south of Penrith so the travel time includes driving from the farm to the station. 

When I leave the farm and go to work I am immediately in a different world so getting back to the farm I always get this wonderful feeling of being ‘home’ and being able to disconnect from my work day and responsibilities.

On moving back to Sydney after stints in Queensland and overseas:  

Henry grew up on the property. His parents, who are apiarists (honey makers) live in a house about a five minute walk up the hill. So this has been his home forever. But for the past four years we’ve both been living out of Sydney. I’ve been in Jakarta, Longreach and Cairns, and Henry has been in Perth, Longreach and Cairns. 

Before that I lived in Freshwater, next door to Manly. I also grew up in Syndey’s north so had never spent much time to the west, or anywhere near the mountains.

It was a huge change coming back to Sydney, especially in the middle of winter, from a tropical Cairns winter! We didn’t pick the ideal time but when opportunities arose work wise, we had to jump at them. The main thing was dealing with the cold, but that wood stove soon fixed that!

On the cottage’s sweet garden: 

My favourite thing about the whole place is our little garden. The tree has been bare all winter – I think it’s a Chinese elm – but as of a few weeks ago it exploded with green and now there’s a cool spot to sit – in the hammock or on our chairs and at our little outdoor table. When we have friends over we sit here and spread out picnic blankets.

And last weekend we made a veggie patch using some of the old railways sleepers lying in one of the paddocks. We collected six giant bags of cow poo to help mulch it – the benefits of living on a farm!

And finally, on favourite places and things to do: 

In the few short months that we’ve been at the farm I’ve developed some habits and things that I love to do and places I love to be. My all time favourite thing to do – which will stop soon as it gets warmer – is come home and light a fire. Once the fire is lit I spread some of our huge cushions over the floor and just lie there. It’s heaven!

In the morning I love sitting at our kitchen table as the sun streams through the windows. We also have a little side deck that gets beautiful sun in the morning and there’s nothing better than sitting there with a steaming cuppa, listening to the birds.

My favourite scenario is sitting there while Henry listens for birds and identifies all the calls with his crazy, encyclopaedic birding knowledge. There can be a distant call and he’ll know what it is. He’s made me appreciate there’s always so much life around us and I now notice it so much more.

I also love being in my room, looking out our lead light windows. They’re really beautiful and I will never stop admiring them. 

But being outside, under the tree on a hammock or in a chair with a book, or with Henry and/or family is the best thing of all... and as the weather gets warmer, sitting down by the dam and swimming on warm days and balmy evenings will be really lovely.

Last but not least, I love walking and running around the property. It’s always different – with the different light at the different times of day. And there’s always a new little corner I haven’t seen before. I am loving the mornings now it’s a bit lighter and warmer. I can get up and go for a walk or run before work, and it seems to be around the same time as sunrise at the moment. 

When I lived in Longreach I fell in love with the ‘big sky country’ and now I feel like I’m back in Sydney with my very own slice of big sky country. The bonus is that we’re both so close to friends we’ve missed and our much loved families.

Thank you Gemma! Gemma is a talented photographer who is prolific on Instagram. You can find her on Twitter too.

Photos by Gemma Deavin.

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