This thatched riverside holiday home in the surfer’s mecca of St Francis Bay in South Africa puts a series of simple barn-like buildings in the service of the ultimate relaxing family holiday experience.
There is a term that almost every surfer knows, which was coined in the South African coastal town of Cape St Francis: “The perfect wave.” The classic 1966 surf film The Endless Summer followed two American surfers around the world in their quest to find every surfer’s holy grail. They found it in Cape St Francis, peeling away endlessly along a deserted strip of paradisiacal beach in the Eastern Cape. A voice-over by awestruck narrator and filmmaker Bruce Brown intones over the 16mm hand-held camera footage: “I couldn’t help but think of the hundreds of years these waves must have been breaking here. But until this day, no one had ever ridden one.”
Since then, Cape St Francis’s waves haven’t been neglected, and the town has grown to become more than just a surf destination, but it still retains that mythic charm. South African-born Fiona Ferguson has the happiest memories of family holidays spent in the adjoining marina, St Francis Bay, on the Kromme River, as a child. Its idyllic setting with beautiful canals and wide river seems to represent nature at its best.
Her parents still own a house there, and she and her British husband, Mark, followed in their footsteps and bought a thatched bungalow in the marina, too. With four boys of their own, and an extended family with more cousins to accommodate, however, they started finding their modestly sized holiday home too small and cramped. After making a few upgrades, they eventually accepted that they’d need a bigger house.
They found one along the river. “We had friends who had a property nearby, so we had a sense of what that river lifestyle was like,” says Fiona. The river is also somewhat safer than the ocean for children to play in, and offered its own host of water sports and fun. “The river itself is an endless playground,” she says.
Cape Town Architect Bert Pepler, who Fiona and Mark brought on board to design their new house, has also been holidaying in Cape St Francis for years. He says his main idea was for the house to “make the connection from the land to the water”. “That’s what the holiday is about – the whole river experience,” he says.
The shape of the buildings, Bert says, was inspired by the “simple barn-like forms that you would find on a farm”. “The intention was to create a series of ‘long fingers’ that draw you into the property and eventually open up to the garden and provide views of the river,” he explains.
The walled entrance courtyard with gravel that crunches underfoot (and tyre) infuses the sense of arrival with a “Cape farm feeling”. The simplicity and purity of the thatch roofs and bagged white walls imparts a sense of place, while the “seductive curves” of the thatch roof draw you in and through a series of courtyards towards the view.
This series of parallel and perpendicular forms create what Bert calls “little werfs”, the local term for farm courtyards. These in turn create varying degrees of shelter and privacy, and integrate indoor and outdoor space. “Wherever you are in the house, I always want you to feel like you are connecting to the outside,” he says. And then the longitudinal barns draw your eye towards the view, and, as Fiona puts it, “pull you outside”.
Each barn serves a different function: the first is a service wing, one is for outdoor entertainment, one for living and dining space and two are sleeping quarters. Bert points out that the courtyards have been planted with indigenous grasses, plants and trees to reintroduce the presence of the nearby dune-side forest. “As the trees grow and create a canopy and greenery, it will feel like the forest is working its way through the house, and the house is working its way through the forest,” says Bert.
This arrangement creates a versatile variety of spaces, and shelter from the wind. “I’ve been going to St Francis Bay on holiday for a number of years, so I understand the climatic conditions,” says Bert. “There are easterly and westerly winds, so you have to provide alternative options for outdoor living.” The “barns” and the courtyards between them ensure there’s a sheltered outdoor spot no matter which direction the wind blows.
Bert departed from tradition in one significant way. “Thatch roofs normally rest on substantial brick walls providing stability and containment,” he explains. “We wanted the material to do something it doesn’t normally do, by supporting very heavy thatch roofs on a series of columns ... allowing the house to open up and feel light.” He wanted sliding glass doors to predominate, creating a feeling of transparency.
“So, the idea of thatched pavilions became the aesthetic,” he says. “But you still need a sense of security – the feeling that the house is robust and strong. When the weather changes, you want to be able to close it up.” So he added wooden shutters that you can pull across, or slide away according to the weather and mood.
With the doors open, you can walk from one courtyard all the way through the house and into the next courtyard almost without
noticing the transition. At the same time, you can close it up, so you feel sheltered and contained. “When we last visited in April, the weather wasn’t great,” says Fiona, “so we shut the sliding doors and lit the fire, and it was warm and cosy. In December, when it’s hot, everything opens up and even when you’re inside, you feel connected to the outdoors.”
Bert also played around with the idea of the traditional gable, reversing the usual solid mass to make an almost transparent aluminium slatted gable that glows at night when lit from the inside reinforcing the element of transparency. He tempered such contemporary touches by sticking to simple and honest materials like wood panelling and bagged brickwork to create an understated, relaxed kind of luxury: “Luxury in terms of lifestyle, not ostentation, understated and simple.” The reassuring bulk of the somewhat oversized bluegum (eucalyptus) columns and the raw wooden beams does the aesthetic work of grounding the materials.
“The broad oak plank flooring is saw- cut and creates the feeling of a weathered barn.” says Bert. In other areas, it is a simple tinted screed, which is easy to sweep when beach sand is walked into the house. He used poplar with a slight grey wash for the beams and ceiling. The natural, Scandinavian feel of the timber creates a neutral backdrop for the furnishings, where brightly coloured pieces can stand out. “The brass details used extensively throughout pop out because they’re set against a very neutral palette of finishes,” Bert says.
AJ Bell and Carla De Fondaumiere of GDF Design Lab worked with Fiona on the interiors. “I have very eclectic taste,” says Fiona. She happened to be travelling quite a lot during the time they were at work, and chose a good deal of the furniture herself, so the furnishings reflect a diversity of influences. The guiding principle, however, was a relaxing and comfortable atmosphere that could accommodate family and fun and boisterous boys, and yet still be aesthetically pleasing.
“It’s quite playful and fun,” says Carla. “Not over-designed.” Although there are aspects of bold colour, the interiors are simple and uncluttered. “There isn’t a lot of furniture,” she adds. There are pops of bright colour, such as the vivid green of the Marcel Wanders’ Cocktail chairs in the lounge, and statement designs like the Pig Table by Front for Moooi, but overall the house remains unfussy.
The interiors also include a fairly even mix of imported and local designs. The indoor and outdoor dining tables are by Egg Design and Meyer von Wielligh respectively. Beauty Bureaus by Dokter and Misses feature throughout the guest bedrooms, and benches and other designs by Laurie Wiid Van Heerden make frequent appearances. There are also key pieces by Vogel Design. In the master bedroom, for example, a bed by Vogel features a beautifully woven bespoke cord headboard that evokes the geometries of traditional African patterning, while the modern commercial aesthetic of Shine Shine fabrics adds contemporary flare. Easy-going local classics, such as the brightly painted Malawi chairs, keep it unpretentious.
“We tried to reuse a little bit of the stuff that was in the existing house,” says Fiona. There were a few traditional old wooden wardrobes left behind. “We saved them, and repainted them in glossy colours,” say AJ and Carla. “One is now acid yellow, one was blue, one was orange.” In a whimsical touch, they even reused a large, unlikely chandelier in the kitchen. “We kept it there, tongue in cheek, in defiance of all the other good taste,” says Fiona.
A little like the use of timber throughout, which creates a sense of unity and calm, the bedrooms are all similarly kitted out. “The colours are different, but most of the furnishings were the same,” say AJ and Carla. “It creates a sense of coherence.”
The emphasis, as it should be, is on the experience: Stepping out of the bedroom in the morning for a first cup of coffee. “The river is absolutely magnificent, and constantly changing,” says Fiona. “Sometimes when you wake up, it’s choppy and the next time it’s as still as glass. It’s magical.”
Mornings are spent on the river or at the beach. “We have lovely lunches in that thatched area,” she says. “It’s just fantastic sitting around that huge table.”
There are ceaseless games of table tennis in the playroom and soccer on the lawn. “The kids have a riot playing and jumping between the courtyards and hiding under the benches,” says Fiona. There’s space for lounging by the pool, and it’s easy to find somewhere quiet to retreat when you want to. Even at bed time, the communal basin in the kids’ sleeping area makes brushing teeth together an event before climbing into the loft spaces above, packed with extra beds.
“We should just move there, really,” laughs Fiona. “We live far too fussily. For all its beauty and comfort, the house is minimal, and it’s really liberating.”