Damian and Krissi McKinney believe in love at first site. When they saw Woodland Great House, a neglected old plantation house in the country parish of St George, bordering St John, in Barbados, abandoned, overgrown, and in need of love, care and repair, their hearts went out to it. Damian grew up in Kenya, and was based in Barbados for two years, through his career in the Royal Marines. Eventually, he found himself back there, with a globally known company and wife, Krissi, who is English born. The unique atmosphere of Barbados, with its perfect temperatures and breezy, beautiful countryside all year round, appealed to them as the nearest thing to Utopia.
With the advice of the well-known interior designer Heather Aguilar-Swan, contractor and project manager Harry Newitt and a team of individual craftsmen, they have restored the great house, the carriage house and the sugar boiling house; restored and adapted the old mill; installed a heavenly swimming pool; and restored the gardens and orchard. They actually began with a superb adaptive restoration of the carriage house into a luxurious two-bedroom cottage, incorporating the brick barrel vaulted hurricane shelter, and lived there while working on the main house. With the creative genius of Jeanine Weetch and Patrick Cairn, they expanded and beautifully embellished the entire four acres of grounds to create one of the finest gardens in the island.
Woodland has changed hands many times over the years, but it was a plantation of 147 acres in 1913, when it was owned by the Sealy family, a major plantocrat family of St John and St George. (Sir John Sealy was the famous attorney general who was buried upright in St John’s churchyard, next to the tomb of Ferdinando Paleologus, so that he could “look out to sea forever” !) But for nearly three quarters of a century it was owned by Fred Simpson, vestryman of St John, since some of his land was in St John. At his death in the 1980s his son Michael inherited, sold the plantation lands and enjoyed the life of a country squire, surrounded by his mother’s fine collection of antiques and gardens, both the pride of her life. After Michael’s death, the house was almost returning to wilderness when Damian and Krissi found it and rescued it.
The house is of uncertain provenance, but the main structure was probably built after one of the two great hurricanes of 1780 or 1831, and its architecture is typical Caribbean Georgian. Like most plantation houses, it’s built on a rocky prominence, overlooking the surrounding mill wall, boiling house and outbuildings, gardens and plantation lands. Most early Bajan plantation houses were built in the English style, with a central hallway or stair hall and a room on each side.
This design is seen in many older houses such as St Nicholas Abbey (since altered), Ashbury Great House, Canefield House, Wildey Great House and Colleton House. By the 19th century a new arrangement became popular—a rectangle divided in four—with drawing and dining room at the front, and a stair hall and study or “breakfast room” behind, with a long kitchen wing at the back. Woodland follows this plan, but has exceptionally large and matching drawing and dining rooms, with a gallery surrounding on the north and eastern sides.
The McKinneys have expanded the north gallery from the traditional rather narrow strip to form a generous informal living space—accommodating a bar, billiard table, lounge and casual dining! The entire space opens by a range of glass doors and handsome bold latticework columns (the old columns were replaced by Krisnatives Woodwork of Drax Hall) on to an expanse of lawn—the old tennis courts. Beyond is a splendid gazebo, seductive serpentine shaped pool, barbecue terrace and the restored sugar mill. This is fitted out with a spiral staircase inside which leads to a viewing deck under an ingenious new roof—a spectacular setting to recover from a swim, with a planter’s punch while watching the setting sun across the central mountain range of Barbados, over Gun Hill.
The house is entered from the porch on the east side, which opens into a long gallery. This in turn leads in to the drawing room and on to the dining room, with a door on the far side, providing the traditional Bajan air conditioning of “country breeze” . On the right of the entrance is Krissi’s purpose built desk, from which she manages the property, while a handsome “secretary” cabinet in the drawing room conceals a state-of-the-art TV screen and facilities for global video conferencing. A pair of perfect, matching, carved single-end mahogany Barbadian antique couches came from Clifton Hall. They are complemented by a pair of giant oil paintings of bougainvillea. The sitting room on the left of the entrance includes two classic Berbice chairs, and a settee which seems to be the property of the elegant ridgeback queens, Malaika and Lila! This room used to be the plantation office of Fred Simpson, and an unusual Gothic pointed arch door leads to the main staircase, providing a route upstairs without people having to trek muddy shoes over precious carpets in the drawing room.
Krissi and the interior designer worked closely on the perfect ambiance—comfortable but elegant furniture with beige sofas, more Berbice chairs and canary yellow armchairs you can sink into and wish you never had to leave, antiques from auction sales, splendid paintings and mirrors, and at the end of the drawing room are twin bookcases in mahogany, built in to the end walls. The centre piece of the dining room is a magnificent mahogany table, seating 18 and reputedly from Sam Lord’s Castle. Portraits of Damian’s great, great grandparents (early 19th century) grace the west wall.
The staircase is a classic Bajan feature, with carved mahogany decoration framing each step, leading to a spacious upper stair hall and five bedrooms. Ancient bathrooms had to be stripped out and luxurious new ones added. Bedrooms are spacious and cool, with traditional sash windows, hoods and everyone’s favourite feature—window seats. The ruins of the old boiling house have been even more spectacularly rescued and restored, as they were a genuine ruin. They are now the comfortable, state-of-the-art company headquarters of McKinney Rogers, Damian’s Business Execution Consultancy, with offices across the world.
The gardens at Woodland are spectacular. Ancient ficus trees provide a mature, almost cathedral setting for the house, and the garden restoration has been hugely creative. Working with the basic framework of driveway and 19th-century garden walls, the owners created several distinctly different areas. Mirrors, cleverly staggered at regular intervals below and along the side of an old wall to the east, with beautifully plantings in front, create the amazing impression of an ancient aqueduct.
To the west, the dining room opens into a charming “French garden,” complete with a small French water fountain salvaged from a reclamation yard in the UK, a splendid wrought iron chandelier hanging high above from a ficus tree, and a copy of an antique French gate built locally by Metalcraft. Beyond is a well preserved drip stone arch with original drip stone—one of the few survivors of the era when roof water was purified by dripping through coral stone pots, which have been shown at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus to actually block the passage of coliform bacteria!
On the north-eastern perimeter of the grounds there is what Bajans call a gully, where the land slopes steeply down into what looks like a river bed. Some new stone terracing here is creating yet another tropical garden space of an entirely different sort. Exotic plantings and dramatic contours will transform a wild, neglected area into a romantic, wild but beautiful haven—and a garden for every mood and every season.
Woodland Great House is a dramatic and hugely successful example of what can be done with a neglected historic house, with imagination and vision, to create an absolute jewel of a home, where house and garden together simply fill you with tranquillity and a sense of beauty, harmony and nature.