Why two Auckland townies have gone country

by Michele Hewitson / 18 June, 2017
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Fleeing Auckland for the gentle, green pastures of rural New Zealand was always the dream for Michele Hewitson. Now it’s reality. In a preview for a new weekly Listener column, she explains why.

The day we came to look at what would become home sweet home, there was a dead sheep in the front paddock. There were maggots. I held my nose. I may have gagged. I was wearing a Karen Walker T-shirt and Country Road trousers and red paisley-patterned gumboots. “We’re from Auckland,” I said, unnecessarily, to Miles, the sheep farmer. He said he thought we might be. He is a very polite man.

There were lambs. They were doing something that I believe to be gambolling. Some of the sheep had black faces. They all had very strange little tails that my friend The Gardener calls their tassels. That is a top country observation: their tails look just like the tassels on a fez. We were in a land as foreign as Turkey.

The lambs were cute. Stompy is not cute. I am a bit frightened of Stompy, which is not her real name – it’s probably 207 or something like that. Miles says it’s easier to send 207 off to the works (watch out, Stompy!) than it is to send Dolly off to the works. Stompy does not seem to like me. She stomps in an angry way when she sees me. My partner, Greg, says this is mad and how could I possibly know that it is the same sheep doing the stomping? I said: “Because it has a yellow bum.” Greg pointed out that about half of the sheep have yellow bums; the others have green or blue bums. Some are a very rare breed of sheep, bred by Miles and known as Kingsmeade sheep, after Miles and wife Janet’s award-winning cheese company of the same name. But that is not the reason they have yellow or green or blue bums.

Miles King. Photo/Kingsmeade Cheese

We went round the road to have a glass of wine and a fine selection of said cheeses with Miles and Janet, and I put to Miles the idea that Stompy had taken a dislike to me because of my hair, which looks rather sheepy, in an urgently-in-need-of-a-shear way. He looked at me in a measured way and said that he was sure he could arrange for me to be slotted in when the sheep were next shorn.

These sheep live in our paddocks. This is amazing to me – and perhaps to Stompy. And perhaps to Miles. Miles also has the most beautiful brown sheep. I said: “Could we have some of those beautiful brown sheep in our paddocks? They’re so decorative.” We’re from Auckland.

Some things about country life, and sheep, I have learnt: being called a dag is a compliment. I think.

Also, the sheep have coloured bums because they have been tupped. A visitor from Auckland (but born and bred, like the sheep, in Masterton) pointed out that there was a sheep in the paddock with a harness thingy. This is the ram. He is, it turned out, the loser ram, which gets to have his way only with the sheep that have not already been impregnated by the alpha rams. The way you know a sheep has been mated and by whom is by the colours, which rub off from a dye on the harness thingy: yellow, green or blue.

The loser ram didn’t have much luck. Poor ram. I liked him. He was friendly. Well, said Carolyn, who runs the sheep milking side of things, “you are a girl”.

Janet King with their sheep. Photo/Kingsmeade Cheese

Escape to the country

I am not often speechless, but I’m quite often speechless in the country. It is, after all, pretty much why I wanted to move to the country: I was sick of talking to people who only ever talked about Auckland house prices.

But what, I ask, every day, are we doing here? That is the great existential question, obviously, and the endlessly angsty one. I have spent too many years asking it. Which is the short answer to why we are here.

I have also spent too many years watching Escape to the Country on the telly. Escape to the Country is charming English stone cottages and hideous barn conversions and old stone walls and hollyhocks in the garden. Every gardener knows that in real life, hollyhocks are always rust-ridden. I have never seen rust on a hollyhock or a dead maggoty sheep in a paddock on Escape to the Country.

I have long held an entirely fictional idea of myself, which is that I grew up in the country. I am actually one of those rare breeds of Aucklanders who was born in Auckland. My first home was above a steak restaurant on Dominion Rd, which for some reason my parents, neither of whom could cook a boiled spud without burning it, decided to take over.

That went bust – surprise, surprise – and so we set off across, up and, later, down the island and lived in little towns: Edgecumbe, Ohope, Whakatane, Kaitaia and, much later, Greymouth. We were on the fringes of country. We never saw a sheep.

So where did this hankering come from? I don’t know how I became a gardener. My father’s idea of gardening was peeing on the rhubarb. My mother’s idea of gardening was to refuse to cook the rhubarb; this seems quite reasonable and I still cannot eat rhubarb. But I love dirt.

I got to know people who love dirt, and it turns out that it is contagious. Because then I got a house. A dear little house in Balmoral and a bit of land, 550sq m, most of which was a dog run, with a few daisy bushes and a gnarly old plum tree. But there was dirt, and I was going to make a garden.

I made the usual mistakes: a mini Sissinghurst. In Balmoral! Then the subtropical thing, which was all the rage and which in my heart I knew I hated: all those spikes, ridiculous palms and ugly bromeliads. And don’t you regret those hideous, elephantine yuccas and boring, fat day lilies now?

We were there 22 years. I pottered, and we waited until the departure of our dear old cat – which had arrived as a kitten and was put to sleep in my arms there, 18 years later, and laid out in his old wicker laundry basket under the gnarly old plum tree he loved to climb. Then we bought a much bigger garden: a lovely space in Mt Albert, with a winding path and garden rooms made by hedges, and set about making the garden of our dreams.

It was intimidating, not just because it was a lot more dirt but because I wanted a proper garden, without any real idea of what that meant. We got the delightful garden designer Xanthe White in to help us and we made a properly lovely garden, a bit wild and full of flowers: delphiniums and sweet peas and poppies and Aquilegia and Euphorbia and irises.

My all-time favourite gardening book is by the late English writer Mirabel Osler. It has no pictures and is called A Gentle Plea for Chaos. I did the chaotic bit and Greg contained it all within his perfectly clipped hedges. We were very happy and we were going to stay there forever. We had a big old pretty white bungalow, high up on the side of the mountain. We were living the Auckland dream! In reality, we hardly ever went out. We stayed home and gardened. We were sick of talking to people. That was what we did for a living.

Life-changing events

Almost a year to the day after we were both made redundant by the New Zealand Herald, in October 2015, we asked our friends, The Artist and The Gardener, to go and look at a place 10 minutes’ drive from Masterton. We had made up our minds to move to Masterton. Masterton! We used to take the piss out of Masterton. Nobody lives in Masterton! The property was 12 acres, nine in sheep and the rest in three acres of glorious gardens.

The Artist – whom I had known but not seen for 25 odd years – and The Gardener lived 20 minutes from Masterton. We had met again via email and become gardening email pals. We swapped seeds and plants by snail mail. We emailed most days, about gardens and successes and failures and inspirations and cookery (another sort of alchemy we shared a keen interest in).

I went down for The Artist’s 65th birthday. I fell in love with them both and with where they lived. They had the loveliest house I’d ever been in, with a river at the bottom of the most magical garden I’d ever visited. Have you ever grown a clematis? They climb, if happy, with deceptive fragility and get you in their grip. Masterton wove a clematis-like spell.

Later, back in Auckland, our lives were about to be taken to with a slow-swinging mallet. It was spring. I had 200 plants to get in. I had to go into the Herald office for a meeting. I have spent most of my journalistic life not going into the office, especially not to meetings.

Having been a union delegate, I know an invitation to be given the bum’s rush when I am issued one. I knew I was going to be made redundant – but we didn’t then know that Greg was also going to be made redundant, thus wiping out our entire household income in one charming fell swoop. I went to one meeting with an editor and some woman from human relations – or human remains, as we have always called it – and was supposed to go through some series of ever more insultingly boring crap. Sod that. I said, after 21 years, “I’ll see myself out.” I did. I never went back.

As anyone who has been made redundant knows, it’s not nice. I did a bit of reading about the grief process and it was mostly dull – in that self-helpy way. The only thing that I appreciated was this: being made redundant doesn’t mean that you have failed; it means that the company has failed. That cheered me up no end.

Also, I had 200 plants to get in.

I like more than anything in the world to have plants to get in. This was (almost; a garden is never done) the last and biggest bit of our Mt Albert garden to be redesigned: the front garden. The borders had been laid – in Xanthe White’s lady-like, gracious, generous, winding curves – to mimic the old winding path. We’d had the trees planted: weeping white mulberries, Robinia mop tops, buxus mounds for punctuation. I’d grown 100 delphiniums from seed, we had dozens of Euphorbia and 100 Iris sibirica “Caesar’s Brother” and a lovely lot of hen and chicken ferns. I had bearded irises in shades of almost black to deep purple. I don’t want to show off – a complete lie; showing off is the whole point of a town garden – but people walking their town dogs would stop and say how beautiful it all was and how much they liked to watch it develop.

Oh, I’d say, mock modestly: it’s only a year old. All gardeners say this. It really means it’s only a year old and look how amazing it is, already.

I like showing off as much as the next gardener. I feel a faint sadness about not seeing my Mt Albert garden grow up.

Private life drama

I said to Greg, let’s move to the country. We had discovered how much we loved being together all day. We had no income, but we really were now perfectly happy except that we could no longer afford to live in Auckland – and we no longer wanted to.

And I wanted a private garden. I wanted a garden where only people I invited to see the garden could see the garden. We didn’t want to be able to see or hear our neighbours, as lovely as neighbours can be and have been.

We miss our wonderful Mt Albert neighbours, and our country neighbours have all been welcoming and have saved us from many a townie disaster already. But nobody needs to see me chase the cat around the acres of lawn in my disgraceful pyjamas.

Our letter box is 700m from the house. It takes 20 minutes to walk there and back to get the paper. My father-in-law said, “What are you going to do in the country?” “Hide,” I said. I was joking, but only a bit. Also, I really don’t want to die not having grown peonies. I’m not joking.

All of which is by way of an introduction to a weekly column about what we are going to do in the country – beyond hiding and growing peonies – if we ever work that out. I don’t care if we never work it out. I go outside – in my fetching puffer jacket – every morning, into the early frost, and look at the hills and the sheep and the hundreds of trees in their fetching autumn jackets, and if I could yodel, I would, with joy. Nobody could hear me.

And I have 200 plants to get in.

This article is an excerpt from 'The Great Escape', cover story of the June 10, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener, on sale June 12-18.


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