Photographs by James Fennell.
Sarah de Graaff-Hunter came to Spain in pursuit of a short break from her life as a set designer for blockbuster movies. A year later, she was living in a 17th century olive mill in the mountain village of Gaucin.
The stunning white Andalucian mountain pueblo of Gaucin is one of those colourful Spanish towns that has born the brunt of nearly every military conquest of Europe since the time of the Romans. Any invading army, whether marching north like the Moors, or south like the Crusaders or Napoleon's bluecoats, had to carry Gaucin before they could get where they were going. As such, Gaucin's villagers were somewhat relieved when the latest wave of "invaders" turned out to be foreigners looking for a quiet life in a Mediterranean village that offers some of the most breathtaking views in Southern Europe.
Among these peaceable arrivals was English movie set decorator Sarah de Graaff-Hunter who first came upon the village while travelling with her mother in 1973. Sarah instantly fell in love with the village and its people. Before the year was out, she purchased a dilapidated and rambling 17th century olive mill which she has since converted into her stunning home, La Higuera (The Fig Tree).
The conversion of La Higuera began in 1992. "The building was originally a sort of indoor farm but definitely free range with rabbits, chickens and turkeys hopping and roosting all over the place". Sarah, living in French Provence at the time, decided to split the property into three, starting with the Miller's quarters. This essentially consisted of a rambling warren of lime-washed walls and a loft where red peppers, hams and sausages were hung to dry. Next to this was the Mill itself, dominated by two great conical crushing stones and a hefty 19th century cast iron Olive Press. These granite stones were turned by mules, who walked up and down a small cobbled path, and crushed the olives in preparation for the press. Sarah was careful to preserve such historic industrial machinery and incorporate it into the new dwelling. The grinding stones now stand in her garden; the larger one forming the main body of a Zen-like fountain in which Gaucin's homing pigeons often bathe.
The villagers, most of whom had hardly ever left Gaucin, were both warm and helpful. "It was a very poor place. People scraped a living from their little farms or "fincas" which were usually a mule ride away from the village". The mill was not accessible by vehicle and electrical tools were unheard of. As such, progress was relatively slow as everything had to be done by hand. For instance, the swimming pool, sited on the chicken run, was dug with spades and "the earth taken out through the house in an endless relay of wheelbarrows". A resident rooster was most indignant at this evolution of his homestead and frequently attacked both the owner and the workmen in these early days.
For the most part, La Higuera is a straightforward renovation although inevitably Sarah was obliged to make some new additions. The fireplace was knocked down and rebuilt exactly as before - "only now it works and doesn't smoke!" Materials were sourced locally, such as the sun-baked clay floor tiles from Ronda, oak and chestnut beams salvaged from demolitions and the heavy oak double doors from Seville. Spanish furniture and pottery with a rustic flavour was likewise purchased locally. This includes a wonderful pine table in the kitchen under which a copper "brasero" used to stand and be lit on cold nights so women could sit around with their legs tucked under to keep warm. "We called it "their sparks up the knickers" table; it's amazing they didn't catch fire!"
The views from La Higuera are nothing short of sensational. They gaze south over rolling sierra plantations of lemon, fig and orange groves to the Mediterranean, encompass the Rock of Gibraltar and slowly fade amid the Rif mountains of Morocco. As such, the interior reflects a strong and cheerful Moroccan influence; the result of innumerable shopping sprees to Tangiers and Fez. These include the large Moroccan zellige terrace table, specifically designed by Sarah, and a gorgeous set of bent willow chairs. The North African ambience is delightfully juxtaposed with family antiques from England, France and Italy, including a Bluthner boudoir piano. When it arrived, "all the village turned out as they had never seen a grand piano on the move before!" As a small child, Sarah lived in Eritrea, Cairo, Yemen, Beirut and Bermuda, "all places of light, colour and exoticism which have always appealed to me greatly". Not surprisingly, La Higuera encapsulates this passion; in the brush-painted ochre and pink walls, in the minimalist local art and in the flamboyant textiles and kelim rugs adorning terracotta floors and tiled stairwells.
Sarah's achievement has been immense. La Higuera is a stunning home, both within and without. Her career as a set designer and prop buyer for the movie industry undoubtedly gave her a keen eye for thinking three dimensionally which, she maintains, "is essential when designing and restoring old houses". Her next project is a small housing development in the mud-pisé style at Marrakesh in Morocco, overlooking the Atlas Mountains.
Visitors to Gaucin are welcome to stay at La Higuera. Sarah is also now
offering her services as a Project Manager/ Interior Designer for anyone
wishing to build or renovate a house here in Gaucin. Contact her directly
at firstname.lastname@example.org, landline
+34 951 168 039 or mobile +34 666 419 025.
This story featured in Hong Kong's Home Journal in March 2004.