“It was derelict,” the travel reporter tells WHO.
Originally built to house the manager on the thriving sheep and grain station, the cottage had been uninhabited for decades and left to ruin.
“When James told me he wanted to do it up and move in one day, I said to him, “Well, I hope your new girlfriend loves it,” and I was thinking to myself, “I’m out of here,” the 49-year-old admits with a laugh.
But just a few years later, Rowntree’s heart won over her head. After marrying Pettit in 2008, the couple welcomed son Andrew, 11, in 2009 followed by second son Charlie, 10, in 2011. Rowntree and Pettit also set about restoring the tired cottage to its former glory.
“I loved everything about my life in Sydney, but you can’t control Cupid’s arrow,” she says. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I wasn’t giving my life up, I was exchanging it for a better one,” she explains.
When the pair started renovations – which they completed mostly by themselves – there wasn’t a clear plan in mind, just Rowntree’s love for all things French and
a desire to restore rather than remake the property.
“I would rip pictures out of magazines of the things I liked and show them to the builders. I was amazed by their creativity,” she explains. “But there is nothing pretentious about our home. It’s still a barn and a manager’s cottage,” she says.
And despite being built over a hundred years ago, Rowntree believes that modern house designers could learn a thing or two from their predecessors.
“I take my hat off to the Georgian architects for really knowing how to build the perfect home. It has a huge wraparound verandah, faces away from the sun and is cool in the summer yet warm in the winter,” she explains. “They really knew what they were doing.”
While the verandah has long been a favourite spot for the family to relax, it became invaluable to social butterfly Rowntree during the pandemic.
“It was a lifeline during lockdown. We couldn’t have people in the house but could socially distance with them on the verandah,” the mum-of-two shares.
As the COVID-19 crisis worsened and Rowntree found herself staying put for the first time since she joined Getaway in 1996, she decided to embrace her domestic side.
“I became Nigella [Lawson] during the lockdown,” she laughs. “James put in a vegie patch and we have a few fruit trees. There is really no joy like being able to pick something from my own garden and cook it for the family.”
And it’s the property’s lush gardens that Rowntree is proudest of. The couple spent years transforming the dusty sheep and emu paddocks to their own slice of Provence, filled with rose bushes and lavender.
“There wasn’t a blade of grass when we first moved in,” she explains. “James and I could spend all weekend gardening. We just love it!”
As for her home’s elegant interiors, Rowntree chose everything herself. She spent weekends scouring local antique and homeware stores while also finding the odd treasure in Parisian markets when she was away on work jaunts. But after welcoming her sons, her original vision changed.
“Everything was going to be cream,” she explains, revealing that after the boys’ arrived she opted for a bright lawn green sofa. “I think my husband thought I was mad at first but he soon worked out it hid the Vegemite stains,” she adds.
After falling in love with rural life herself, the TV presenter is now helping others realise their tree change dreams as host of Country House Hunters Australia. Each week, she shows couples and families three gorgeous homes in idyllic country locations, such as Victoria’s Yarra Valley or Bowral in New South Wales’ Southern Highlands.
“Since the pandemic arrived, everybody I meet is either already thinking of moving to the county or dreaming of it,” Rowntree says of the show’s broad appeal.
And while the star admits she does sometimes miss city life, and being able to see her Sydney-based mum Heather everyday, she’s never regretted moving.
“I swapped that energy for a real community,” she explains. “Sometimes you just have to trust your gut and see where life will take you.”