Life is good in Gower. The Welsh peninsula’s sweeping sandy coastline and watersports are second to none, while unspoilt countryside offers great walking and cycling, and the community is welcoming. For recently retired teachers Anna Zoeftig and Jem Howe, living in the village of Middleton close to Rhossili Bay has given them the coastal life they love for three decades. On clear days they can see the North Devon coast from their bedroom window; on winter days they can hear waves breaking on the shore, three minutes’ walk away along cliff paths. After breakfast, Anna might do some admin for the small B&B and holiday let they have recently launched, or go for a run around the lanes or for a swim with a friend at the beach (she goes regularly all year), while Jem heads off to his workshop to make wave skis and repair surfboards, venturing out later to do a bit of surfing himself or catch some fish for supper.
‘The quality of life is fantastic,’ says Anna, without reservation. ‘This area attracts people who work in Swansea who want a simple way of life, and often a creative one too, and we’ve got a good circle of like-minded friends. The peninsula’s landscape is really varied, from secluded beaches to rock coves to estuaries and cliff-top fields – it’s wonderful for walking and surfing, and we tell our guests about the secret places only we know about.’
Both of them have always had a strong connection to the coast, Anna through the family home in Crackington Haven in Cornwall where she lived from the age of 10, and Jem who is a native of Middleton. After meeting at Brighton as students – again drawn to the coastal life – they decided to settle in Middleton in the early 1990s. ‘Jem grew up in this village, he has family here, and the first place that we did up was a tiny one-up, one-down building that belonged to his parents, which we lived in for four years. Houses round here often have small properties attached to them because the families used to move out for summer, putting up holidaymakers in the main house.’
They were on holiday in France, and Anna was pregnant with their first child Milly, when Jem’s father rang to say that the former village store had come up for sale. It comprised a small stone cottage dating to 1760, augmented with a hotchpotch of modern extensions. ‘Its last incarnation was as a reptile centre and when that shut it became derelict. It was an absolute wreck, an eyesore that I’d driven past for years without looking at. It was open to the road, surrounded by concrete, with no garden at all,’ Anna remembers. Inside, the windows were the wrong proportions, ceilings had fallen down, ugly partitions had been put up and breeze blocks were strewn around.
But young, energetic and ultra-practical – Anna trained in 3D design and also paints and sews, while Jem trained in construction and has proficient building skills – they could see the potential in Mewslade Cottage and it became theirs in 1995, ripe for transformation. ‘We wanted to live in it first before deciding on major changes. The bedrooms and bathroom in the original cottage were OK, so we moved in there and the house evolved as the children grew up [their son Oscar was born three years after Milly]. We didn’t borrow any money to do it up, because Jem makes everything and all the materials were salvaged or upcycled.’
GOING WITH THE FLOW
The house has a flotsam and jetsam feel, such as the small metal sign – saved from the days when the property was a village store and sold ice cream rather than reptiles – the salvaged quarry tiles in the hall, and all kinds of furnishings bound for the skip or the bonfire had it not been for Anna and Jem. Take the wood flooring and wooden wall panelling that gives the house a beach hut clapperboard style, all of which is made from salvaged pine doors that Jem spotted being thrown out by a Swansea bus garage. ‘There were about 45 of them, each four metres tall and a metre wide, with hinges and brackets made in London. They were going to be burnt but Jem paid £100 for the lot. They weighed tons and the whole place shook when they arrived. He has used them piecemeal throughout the house ever since.’ They meld with some equally appealing window frames, such as the arch in the kitchen dragged out of a skip in Liverpool, and another in the sitting room found dumped in a field.
In the early years of living at Mewslade Cottage, Anna and Jem were working and bringing up two small children, so life was busy. ‘We made it habitable with a lot of time and effort,’ says Jem. For example, the part of the house earmarked to become the sitting room had no roof and a tree growing through it. Now, it’s an airy space illuminated with skylights and warmed by a Charnwood stove in winter, which is fed with driftwood collected on the beach. The couple cosy up here on winter evenings to read and chat, surrounded by art chosen by Anna, including some of her own paintings and a striking black and white portrait of her family taken in the 1970s. Her father, Alan Zoeftig, is a furniture designer of some repute, and Anna has several of his pieces, represented here by a large black leather ‘Top End’ sofa with chrome base.
One of several space-saving sliding doors installed by Jem throughout the house leads into the uplifting kitchen, where a set of Alan Zoeftig’s ‘Zulu’ dining chairs in Caribbean-esque turquoise leather are ranged around a white table, also by him, curved at the corners for a more hospitable feel and with no awkward legs to tangle with. ‘The carcass of the kitchen is a 1950s Wrighton kitchen bought for £10, which we updated with turquoise laminate to match the chairs and topped with a stainless steel worktop,’ says Anna. Glass-fronted cupboards – salvaged from a school science lab – provide extra storage, while a Rayburn, purchased for £50 from an old farmhouse in Gower, keeps everyone warm in winter when they come in from surfing or blowy walks along the coastline.
Leading from the kitchen is Anna’s favourite spot, the dining room, which turns into a snug in winter, kept toasty by another, smaller Charnwood stove. The space was originally a large water tank which Jem dismantled to create more space for the family to spread into The dining table is an old science lab bench, and the dining chairs also came from the school and were about to be burnt before Anna and Jem gave them sanctuary. When the room is not being used to feed family and friends – grilled fish, aubergine parmigiana and fruit tarts are some of Anna’s favourite dishes to cook – it becomes a projects room. ‘It’s the place where I draw, read, sew, snooze,’ says Anna. Mounted on the walls is her collection of prints by artist Helen Murgatroyd, lit by the strong coastal light streaming in through the Velux window.
In 2019, with their children grown up and retirement looming, Anna, Jem and a builder started work on converting the garage (until then Jem’s surfboard workshop), into a self-contained holiday let for couples, aptly named The Store. They also turned an area within the house into B&B accommodation, called The Wedge. Over lockdown they worked hard to finish both areas in their relaxed coastal style. They opened in August 2020, only to close again a few months later due to the second lockdown, but since reopening last April they’ve been fully booked and enjoy helping their guests explore the stunning Rhossili coastline on their doorstep.
Last Easter they retired and are embracing new-found freedoms with excitement. ‘We loved teaching and did it with a passion,’ says Anna, ‘but we also love being creative at home and being outdoors by the sea.’ For Anna there are yoga classes on the beach to join, stand-up paddleboarding in Oxwich Bay, and sketches to be made on the long coastal walks she takes. Jem, meanwhile, custom-makes surfboards and wave skis and does surfboard repairs in his new garden workshop, and goes surfing and wave skiing as often as he can, reliving the not so distant days when he was ranked 10th in the world in this extreme sport. When they get together with Milly and Oscar at weekends and during holidays, the local beaches feature large as the family swim, surf and get windswept together.
To find out more about staying at The Store self-catering apartment, or The Wedge B&B, go to stayatmewslade.co.uk.
ANNA & JEM’S FAVOURITE THINGS TO DO ON THE GOWER COAST
- Visit Little Valley Bakery at Parkmill near Three Cliffs Bay Beach. ‘It’s an artisan bakery that started off as a hobby and kept serving the community throughout lockdown. The cinnamon buns and sourdough breads are wonderful!’ (littlevalleybakery.com).
- Book at the Britannia Inn in Llanmadoc. ‘This pub is lovely in winter, when the fire is roaring and people sing songs over Christmas. Try the local ales and order up a nice supper.’ (britanniagower.com).
- Go for a walk on Llangennith Beach. ‘The three-mile-long beach joins onto Rhossili Bay and you can walk on a hill behind the beach for expansive views. There’s a Norwegian shipwreck to explore too, the Helvetia.’
- Discover the peninsula’s castles. ‘Gower is dotted with castles, including 12th-century Pennard Castle and 14th-century Weobley Castle, a fortified manor house. They both have great views and are very atmospheric.’ Find out more at castlewales.com and cadw.gov.wales.
- Enjoy the surf. ‘Progress Surf School is great for learning to surf or just having a taster session, and teaches paddleboarding too, with lessons held at Llangennith Beach or Caswell Bay. Our son Oscar teaches there.’ (swanseasurfing.com).
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