Bringing Soho style to an Irish shore

Karen Bolleboom left a banking job in London to open a seaside guesthouse in Co Down


When on holidays we all dream of escaping the rat race and making that holiday location home. But most of us chicken out of actually making the quantum leap.

Not so Karen Bolleboom and her husband, John, from Wellington, New Zealand. She grew up in nearby Bangor, where she still has family, and they had bought an apartment in the town where they stayed when home visiting relatives.

“When you go on holiday you get a sense of escapism,” she explains. “It gives you time to think. You have a different perspective. You think this is really nice.”

It’s as if the pair preempted Brexit. While Karen says Brexit didn’t play a role in their decision making, their timing was fortuitous.

One Shore Street, a landmark property, on the corner of Bridge Street and Shore Street, had previously been a chemist but, like many town centre properties of its vintage, it had been vacant for several years. Old photos show the name Louden’s over the door.

The couple had walked past the property many times. It appeared to be sale agreed. But while home to see Karen’s family over the Christmas holidays of 2015 they saw a for sale sign in the window. “It had always been under offer. Then we saw it was back on the market.”

Boutique guesthouse

Other would-be buyers wanted to demolish it or turn it into flats, she recalls. They wanted to turn it into a boutique guesthouse. From the mid 18th to the early 19th centuries the harbour town with its landmark lighthouse was the departure point for many couples wishing to marry who used to take the daily packet boat to Portpatrick, Scotland – Ireland’s Gretna Green. That same stretch of water, 21 miles long, is also the final swim of the Oceans Seven, a marathon swimming challenge of open water channel swims.

Bear Grylls lived here until he was four and it is also home to rock band Two Door Cinema Club. “What was missing from the town was a level of luxury. We wanted a place that would be a destination in itself, that people would want to stay in.”

They purchased the property, for about €157,000, from savings, six months before the British people went to the polls. Her banking colleagues thought she was mad, she recalls. “They thought I’d never do it but I was ready for something new and London was beginning to feel like Neverland, a place where you would never grow old.”

In her job at the European Bank she worked closely with the Treasury on international payments and legal documentations working across Eastern European and Russian time zones. It was very much online and deadline based.

“I wanted to run my own business,” she says. She also missed the sea.

They applied for financial support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. It had to approve their plans so on their first viewing, which had to be on a Saturday as the couple were both still working Monday to Friday in London, its officer was also on site.

“It was good to have him explain what was involved so that we could decide whether to avail of the grant or go it alone if we found it too restrictive. To be eligible it was important that we retained the exterior as it looked. We also had to restore the single glaze windows.”


The couple did a lot of research staying in several upmarket properties to see what was on offer. Soho House and Ett Hem, a townhouse in Stockholm where they spent three nights to celebrate both their birthdays, stood out. “We wanted the same Scandi sensibility,” she explains.

The main entrance to the B&B is now on Shore Street, where the hall has Tyrone limestone underfoot, all the flooring came from Trunk Flooring.

The breakfast room incorporates the corner of the house and extends into the old chemist shop. It has a white oiled oak chevron patterned floor.

They found a well in the courtyard to the back. While they don’t use the water from it, it is not glass covered and lit at night to become a feature.

The property now has five guestrooms, all en suite, with the fifth bedroom under the eaves where the couple added a dormer window to the rear of the building and you can see the Copeland Islands from it. Shiplap panelling on the walls perfectly captures the seaside mood.

Karen brought in more expert advice in the form of Emma McNeilly, an interior architect of Mack Design who suggested reeded glass panels in the bathroom doors and proper timber panelling, executed by Paul Collins of Marfield Construction. She also helped to select Paint and Paper Library colours for the walls; one a soft mid-tone French blue is called Btwn Dog and Wolf.

Colleagues thought getting a designer onboard was going to be expensive but she says it actually saved her money as McNeilly was able to get discounts on a lot of purchases.


That said, the refurbishment cost more than they thought. “Cash flow was pretty stressful the last three months of the refurb. There were a lot of sleepless nights.” A Go For It Invest NI helped with a start-up loan. “We had a business plan but they were very good at going through what everything was going to cost, from laundry bills to electricity, gas and rates.”

The decor is classically cool. Headboards in each room have been upholstered in Irish linen. In one, two individual studded boards mark out the territory of each half of any staying couples. She invested in Hypnos bed and mattress, stuffed with wool and cashmere.

There are two doubles on the first floor, a third on the return and a fourth in the attic. This is the only room where the bathroom is across the hall rather than in the room. The fifth bedroom is wheelchair accessible room and on the ground floor.

The back of the house is where the prep and store kitchens are. This is where Karen prepares breakfasts for guests, serving S.D Bell & Co teas, coffee from roasters Root & Branch in Belfast, local meats from the butcher, local eggs and local sourdough bread.

The B&B opened on December 23rd and Karen hosted guests for Christmas. While the original plan had been for the couple to work together, John’s role is on the online payments and tech side. He still works in IT.

So what will her banking colleagues say when they come to stay in May? It’s early days, it’s a new business and growth is slow but for now she’s enjoying her new bean an tí role.;


Have you recently extended or renovated your home? Or built a new house from scratch? We’d love to hear how you got on. Please email

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