WE DID IT

Love at first sight

Welcome to Bonnington, the country estate that captured the hearts of two city blokes who just happened to pass by

STORY: JANET BOND     PHOTOGRAPHY: SUPPLIED

Just before Stage Four Covid restrictions hit Melbourne, Andrew McLean and Tim Brennan escaped to their country home just outside Camperdown.  In recent months Bonnington has been their haven and they feel lucky to have it.

Both general managers of global firms, they bought the historic 4.3ha estate in late 2016 and have devoted most weekends since to restoring the character house and expansive gardens. Being able to work remotely during the pandemic has freed up time for their passion project.

“Usually its Friday night get in the car, drive down here, work on the house and in the garden on Saturday and Sunday afternoon pack up and head back to Melbourne,” explains Tim. “This time has given us the perfect excuse to dip our toes in the water and experience living here fulltime for a while.”

The couple had been tossing around the idea of buying a getaway for some time, but buying Bonnington was more happenstance than good planning. On a drive back from one of their regular visits to Andrew’s mother in Warrnambool, Tim spied the red-brick Federation homestead and its rambling over-grown garden. A ‘For Sale’ sign hung on the fence. They were amazed that they hadn’t noticed it before.

“The first time I saw the house, I loved it and we had to have it,” recalls Tim, who admits to being an emotional person when it comes to property.

“This time has given us the perfect excuse to dip our toes in the water and experience living here fulltime for a while.”

“The practicalities came later – like how would we make it work? How much time would we spend here and ultimately, where did we want to live.”

After languishing on the market for three years,  Bonnington was finally sold to Tim and Andrew for $500,000.

The current median house price in Camperdown is $275,000, but property values are increasing steadily. In the last three years the town’s median sale price has increased by 15.9 percent, according to CoreLogic.

“We thought it was a steal, coming from Melbourne,” recalls Tim. “And there was a sense of confidence that we saw some potential in this house that other people didn’t see.”

The new owners set about restoring its stature as one of the region’s grandest properties almost immediately.

Tim’s first priority was getting the house water-tight so the stunning period features in the four-bedroom home would be protected. He’s currently painstakingly stripping back the painted interior woodwork to restore its original timber tones. Next he’ll move onto highlighting some of the detail in the pressed metal ceilings which he describes as “grand, but a little understated.”

Andrew, 46, and Tim, 43, have created something magical.

“We thought it was a steal, coming from Melbourne. And there was a sense of confidence that we saw some potential in this house that other people didn’t see.”

The sweeping terracotta roof, leadlight windows and return veranda are some of his favourite features of the house.

Andrew set his sights on the garden knowing there was no time to be lost in planting new trees given how long it would take them to grow.

After countless hours of back-breaking work, 70 per cent of the expansive garden is now complete.

Guided by original garden plans and historic photographs of Bonnington and inspired by the great European country gardens such as Sissinghurst, Andrew, 46, and Tim, 43, have created something magical.

The original driveway, which once led straight to the house from the highway, was relocated to enable a meandering journey, lined by pear trees and blue Agapanthus, to the roundabout entrance in the property’s forecourt.

There’s a new Crab Apple walk under-planted with English Lavender and Catmint that leads to a formal garden planted with beds of blue and white flowering perennials, English box edging and a central sundial feature.

Andrew’s favourite part of the garden is a circular lawn ringed by alternating Japanese and October Glory Maples, and white flowering borders. Once it’s established, he hopes it will be a secluded and tranquil place to retreat from the summer heat.

It’s obvious that bringing the Bonnington garden back to life has been all-consuming for Andrew, but for a man who spends his week running the international business and pewter brand Royal Selangor, it’s also been  therapeutic.

“Work is pretty full on, so I need to have my hands in the earth, that’s where I can de-stress, forget about the work pressure and have my creative side come out. When we get here, I can’t wait to be out in that garden. I just love it.”

Tim agrees restoring the property has been highly rewarding and an antidote to being mostly desk-bound in his role as the general manager of an international higher education and tech business.

“With my work, you can’t readily quantify your contribution. It’s not easily measurable. But here I can paint a bedroom, or dig a garden bed and I can stand back at the end of the day and say, `I did that and I’m really happy with the result,’ ” he says.

The couple are coy about what they have spent on the garden, but forecast completing it and the house restoration will likely cost as much as their initial investment in the property.

“Although we thought we were good for the task, we probably underestimated both the amount of time and effort and perhaps (the impact on) the hip pocket,” says Tim, adding that the project has been both “massively rewarding and massively expensive”.

“Realistically, depending on where our jobs take us and how long we keep our Melbourne house, if we have it completed in the next five years, I think we will be doing pretty well.”

While the couple has had little time to get to know the local community, a highlight of the past year was the opportunity to host an open garden at Bonnington to raise funds for the local secondary college. Curiosity and the chance to meet the new owners of one of the town’s most iconic properties, saw three hundred people turn up.

“It was a fantastic day meeting so many people,” recalls Andrew. “We heard lots of stories about people who had lived at Bonnington, worked in the garden or had visited here.”

”Many thanked us for preserving the property and letting them come through,” adds Tim.

It’s clear this energetic couple are not motivated by the promise of a slower, more simple life in the country. Until they retire and live at Bonnington full-time, they say life won’t be simple and that’s okay.

“The intention was to slow down, but it hasn’t materialised that way and at the moment I don’t think either of us are disappointed by that, because we know one day it will slow down and when it does, we will be able to a breath and enjoy it all.”

“Yes, we have to build it first to be able to slow down and enjoy it,” adds Andrew.

“For me there’s a sense of purpose here,” continues Tim.  “A lot of what we’re doing is not like getting back to basics. It’s probably making things a little more complicated – like I want this exquisite fountain for the front yard. That’s the kind of thing that we enjoy and gives us pleasure. To other people it might be meaningless and frivolous, but to me it resonates.”

“I’ve always lived in the city. And I like busy main roads, but I come here, and I know nothing about the stars and the constellations.”

At the mention of the fountain, they share a laugh. The grand vision they have for the property is quite obviously a shared one, though Andrew seems to err on the more practical side.

Country life is teaching Tim, a boy who grew up in the city, a thing or two.

“The stars here are like nothing I’ve ever seen before” he enthuses, adding he sometimes feel like a “bit of an idiot” at his lack of knowledge of the natural world.

“I’ve always lived in the city. And I like busy main roads, but I come here, and I know nothing about the stars and the constellations.

“There’s cows here, in the paddocks next door. They come right up our fence and sometimes into our property and I think they’re beautiful, but I would have no idea how to milk them.

“So there’s always these weird worlds colliding, but I hope one day after living here a bit and experiencing things more, this world will be less mysterious to me and I’ll understand it better.”

Top Tip: Tim has only one, simple tip for people considering moving to the country: “If you love the idea enough, if you really want to do it, you’ll do it.”

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