Tuesday 6 December 2016

Peek inside this lovingly restored coastal cottage in West Cork

Despite a 10-page letter from her parents outlining why she should stick to her studies, Sabine Lenz abandoned college to come and live in Ireland. She hasn't looked back. Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin

Published 22/08/2016 | 02:30

Jewellery designer Sabine Lenz and her husband Len Lipitch in the light-filled conservatory they added 10 years ago, off the kitchen. Photo: Tony Gavin
Jewellery designer Sabine Lenz and her husband Len Lipitch in the light-filled conservatory they added 10 years ago, off the kitchen. Photo: Tony Gavin
This living room, floored in black tiles, was added to the house seven years ago. Paintings by John Kingerlee and ceramics by Cormac Boydell add colour and interest
When Sabine first met Len, he showed her this house, but 26 years ago, it was a tiny cottage, overgrown with fuchsia, and it was a struggle to access
The kitchen area is part of the original cottage. The beam over the fireplace is original to the house, and Len put in the other beams. Sabine designed the units herself and mixed pine and painted furniture for an eclectic feel
Len made the wash-hand basin in the downstairs bathroom out of shaped wood, and covered it in plaster. The top is marble and the tiles are from an old fireplace

There's a wonderful jewellery shop in Schull, Co Cork, called Enibas, which is full of the most beautifully crafted pieces. The jewellery is by several different designers, but one range stands out.

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That range, also called Enibas, is full of delicate and to-die-for items, but its most distinctive quality is that many of the necklets and bracelets are inscribed with simple, evocative messages in Irish. As might be expected, the range is Irish made; the surprise is that the designer, Sabine Lenz, is German.

It's fitting, though, that Sabine's range is imbued with Irishness; she not only learned how to make her jewellery here, but from the moment she set foot in Ireland 26 years ago, she says she was bewitched by everything - the landscape, the people, the music. It helped, too, that she met her future husband, Len Lipitch, on that first trip.

Yet her decision to come in the first place was random in the extreme, and on the face of it, ill-judged. "I was 22, studying fashion design in Hamburg. I always wanted to go on holidays by myself, so I bought an Interrail ticket. I have no memory of why I chose Ireland, and on the ferry, I realised there weren't going to be many trains, and I'd have to hitch," Sabine explains with a laugh.

This living room, floored in black tiles, was added to the house seven years ago. Paintings by John Kingerlee and ceramics by Cormac Boydell add colour and interest
This living room, floored in black tiles, was added to the house seven years ago. Paintings by John Kingerlee and ceramics by Cormac Boydell add colour and interest

She hooked up with another girl in Rosslare for safety reasons, and they went first to Glendalough, where she was blown away by the beauty of the landscape, and afterwards to Westport. It was there that she first clapped eyes on Len. She saw him in the street and registered him, without speaking to him, then, miraculously, he picked up Sabine and her fellow hitcher in his van, as they headed to Achill.

"He came to Achill with us - he'd already fallen in love, it took me a few hours," Sabine says, adding that by the end of the night, after they'd enjoyed a talent show and a walk on the beach, he'd already written a poem about her.

That was the beginning of a love affair that continues to this day. Sabine went back to Hamburg to her studies, and the couple went back and forth for months, but despite a 10-page letter from her parents in Stuttgart, outlining all the reasons she mustn't give up college, in the new year, Sabine packed up her room and headed to Ireland. "Then it all fell into place," the bubbly 49-year-old explains happily.

Sabine is obviously an optimist by nature. Len, though he is 20 years older than her, didn't appear, on the face of it, to have much to offer: a Londoner by birth and an accountant by profession, he had given it all up to live in west Cork. On that first holiday, he had brought Sabine to Schull and shown her a ruin, which he was thinking of buying, in a remote, very wild area, so she knew if she did come back to Ireland, she wouldn't be living in the lap of luxury.

In fact, they started life together in a caravan, which had no heating and no electricity. Yet, she wasn't daunted.

Almost immediately, Sabine started making jewellery, and she found she loved it and had a talent for it. "I was always creative, and that was why I opted for fashion design in Hamburg, but I didn't enjoy pattern-making and sewing. With jewellery, it's different. You can do anything you want with metal," she explains in her delightfully accented English.

When Sabine first met Len, he showed her this house, but 26 years ago, it was a tiny cottage, overgrown with fuchsia, and it was a struggle to access
When Sabine first met Len, he showed her this house, but 26 years ago, it was a tiny cottage, overgrown with fuchsia, and it was a struggle to access

Though Sabine initially considered herself an artist, and only wanted to make select, one-off pieces; with Len's encouragement, she did jewellery courses in Kilkenny, developed a business plan, and got a grant from Enterprise Ireland.

She was on a roll. She opened her shop in Schull 18 years ago, and 10 years ago, she opened another branch in Kinsale. She also has a thriving online business. She and Len are in it together - while she takes care of the jewellery and the marketing, he does all the finances. A particular high point was in 2013, when the Taoiseach presented the Obama girls with some of the Enibas (it's 'Sabine' spelled backwards) designs.

Len did buy that ruin, but it took a while to do it up, and in the meantime, Sabine had the first of her three children in the caravan, still without any electricity. The couple have Sim (24), Josh (22) and Anna-Leah, who is 18. "They were all home births, and we had Sim in the caravan. We did have an experienced midwife, of course, but it felt right to do it. We actually have a video of Sim's birth, because a friend loaned us a camera. Len was in his early 40s when we met; he'd never had children before, and the kids always say, when they watch it, 'Dad sounds like he's in seventh heaven'," Sabine recalls.

The other two home births were in the house, which was originally a tiny cottage at the bottom of a small mountain, in a very wild, inhospitable area, quite near Schull, yet, at the time, almost inaccessible. "It's only five minutes' drive from the village now, but one neighbour remembers when her aunt, who lived in the house, died, her coffin had to be carried to the village, as there was no road," Sabine says.

The little family moved into the house after a year, and the couple did it up, bit by bit. "At the beginning, life was down to the basics. There was no electricity here either, and it was freezing - it was just a case of survival," Sabine notes.

Originally, there was just a two-room cottage and a shed for farm animals. Over the years, they linked the two, then they added rooms and they now have three bedrooms, a kitchen, two living rooms and a conservatory.

The kitchen area is part of the original cottage. The beam over the fireplace is original to the house, and Len put in the other beams. Sabine designed the units herself and mixed pine and painted furniture for an eclectic feel
The kitchen area is part of the original cottage. The beam over the fireplace is original to the house, and Len put in the other beams. Sabine designed the units herself and mixed pine and painted furniture for an eclectic feel

Though much of the actual building is new, and they did install modern luxuries like underfloor heating in the kitchen, the couple opted for a cottagey feel throughout. They put in old beams Len had picked up in other houses he had done up, which was the kind of work he did when he first met Sabine. The eclectic decor, which features paintings and pottery by many of their Irish friends, makes for a charming, welcoming home.

Thanks to Len's indefatigable work, the grounds around the house are now delightful, too. Like a lot of houses in the area, it was built in a dip for protection from the elements, so it's a suntrap, with many almost tropical plants growing in the gardens - as well as fuchsia, wild roses and rhododendrons, there are many exotic ferns, and Len has added water features.

It's a miniature paradise, and easy to understand why Sabine, though she visits her parents regularly, has no desire to ever go back to Germany permanently. "I don't miss Germany at all; it's such a structured, organised, perfectionist society," she explains. "I feel completely, totally blessed to be living here."

She hasn't embraced Ireland to the extent that she actually learned Irish, but she loved the idea of the cupla focal on her jewellery designs, and some of the inscriptions are particularly apt to her own life. For example, 'do shaol, do thuras', 'your life, your journey' - something Sabine took completely to heart 26 years ago.

Enibas, Main St, Schull, Co Cork, tel: (028) 28868; Connolly House, Main St, Kinsale, Co Cork, tel: (021) 477-7022, or see enibas.com

Len made the wash-hand basin in the downstairs bathroom out of shaped wood, and covered it in plaster. The top is marble and the tiles are from an old fireplace
Len made the wash-hand basin in the downstairs bathroom out of shaped wood, and covered it in plaster. The top is marble and the tiles are from an old fireplace

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