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What I was looking for:
I grew up on the Edge of the Country. We had a free range childhood two miles out of town, building huts, climbing trees, riding ponies, exploring caves, and generally going wild in the quiet hillocks and cliffs behind our house, just north of Wanganui, New Zealand. School was endurable only because of Saturdays and Holidays. I spent much of termtime gazing out the window at the light on the trees, and the tops of distant hills… I always adored the peaceful beauty of the countryside, the personable old trees that grew there, the wide skies full of mysterious birds and changing clouds, and the long views.
I also had an innate love for old houses, which neither of my parents shared. We lived in characterless but practical places they built – and as young as three, I remember hating the red-and-black, scratchy 1960s curtain designs and decor. On the other hand, my Great Aunt, whose fiance had died in “The War,” still lived in her parents’ Edwardian townhouse in Wellington, and visiting her place was like ducking behind a curtain into 1910. Everything in the house was old, used, and somehow infused with charm, interest and harmony. All my childhood I longed to be grown up (“wishing my life away,” my mother called it, disapprovingly), so that I could have a house of my own, which would be old, beautiful, and full of the “nooks and crannies” that my mother talked about in her grandparents’ houses. I dreamed of an old garden like theirs, and just as full of secret places and surprises.
By 2003, at the age of 39, I lived in the Wanganui suburbs, in an original 1906 Villa with a black coal range – me, my husband Jonathan, and our two boys – but I’d been longing for the old two-storied country house of my dreams for the whole eighteen years we’d been married… How wonderful if we could find a real old-fashioned family home with ten bedrooms (because, how thrilling to decorate them all in different, imaginative, beautiful ways)! How delightful to find somewhere with peaceful space around us, and views over the countryside – or even with views of the sea… It would have to be The Genuine Article: a vintage New Zealand farmhouse in pretty much original condition, smelling of old wood, and full of crannies – in an original and interesting garden of nooks. The garden could be twiddled with fairly easily – but there would have to be plenty of room for planting and trees – far more land than the town section that I had long outgrown. Our 1906 town villa with its Edwardian roses, manuka arches and topiaries had been my apprenticeship, but now we needed peace, beauty and freedom so the boys could grow up a little wild. Jonathan wanted a forest, for a firewood coppice. I dreamed of planting British hedgerows, oaks and heritage fruits, a wildflower meadow, and flowers for vases…. But we only had one income: I was a stay-at-home Mum who worked on the house and garden, wrote, and created “Home” for the rest of the family.
Every house we looked at was too far away from town and Jonathan’s work, too expensive, too small, or horrifically altered. Our Authentic Country Home didn’t seem to be out there…
What I found:
In my secret heart, I thought about a real house that I had only glimpsed, out on a country road near our town of Wanganui. It was down a long driveway, set in a wide rolling landscape. But I didn’t know anything about that house, and anyway, it wasn’t for sale. At the same time, I studied books about historic Wanganui houses, and fell in love with the drawing and description of a Colonial two-storeyed farmhouse called Lambhill. It sounded perfect: authentically Victorian and unchanged. But I had no idea where this “Lambhill” was… and besides, it wouldn’t be for sale either…
In the end, a friend of ours gave me a lead. She had been on a bus tour of heritage houses, and seen a place I might like – and it was empty. I was cautious: What was it called?! Where was it?! …It turned out that the house was down the exact, very same, and identical long driveway I had parked beside and gazed down, so many times! …And the house’s name was Lambhill!!!!
Two unmarried sisters in their seventies had inherited the Lambhill farm, but they had never lived in the homestead. Instead, they had shifted a villa out to the farm from town, to live in. The old Lambhill homestead had been empty for a long time, then rented out for twelve years, but was now empty again. The old lady tenant was in a rest home – determined to return to Lambhill one day, and still paying her rent.
Lambhill Farmhouse Feb 2008, after we’d been here four years.
Spin and Joan Sutherland were interested in selling us the house so I decided to try to persuade the tenant to relinquish it. Before I could see her, the poor lady died. I promise you, I didn’t put yew-leaves in her tea! For her sake, I was happy that she had not had to be upset with the thought of having to leave Lambhill for good. For our sake, I was surprised, and excited. And only a tiny bit anxious!
We would have to subdivide a hectare of land off the farm to go with the house. That suited us. We couldn’t manage a bigger acreage, and local bylaws wouldn’t allow less. None of us had any idea what the house and its hectare would be worth, or whether we could possibly afford it, but we went ahead in hope, and had it valued. We also put our suburban house on the market: it sold within days, and surprised everyone, including the Estate Agent, at the price it reached. …Everything came together perfectly. Now, I was very excited! Spin and Joan knew how dearly I loved the house. They let us buy Lambhill Homestead for its valuation price, in a private deal, even though they might have made a great deal more money from it on the open market. I loved them for their kindness, then – and I will always love them for it.
Jonathan and I, and our thirteen and eleven-year old sons Lance and Wilfred, moved in to Lambhill in early December 2003. The place horrified my parents – it was so tatty and “Original” that my Dad could only shake his head and say, “Put a match under it!” …But we were light-headed with joy. Here we were in a two-storeyed, wooden Colonial house, that barely had any mod cons, surrounded by genuine old hedgerows, ancient oaks and fruit trees, with meadow out the front, and views of mountains, countryside – and sea…. And it had nine bedrooms! (After all, the ten bedrooms I used to joke about having, really would have been too greedy!) It took months before I could actually believe that I wasn’t asleep – still only dreaming of the house that had haunted me – that we Really, Truly and Actually Did own the house and live at Lambhill!!! The hard work was just starting then, but fifteen years later, the fact that I live at Lambhill amazes me still. (2019)
1816 James Allison is born, in Strathaven, Lanarkshire, Scotland.
1841 Dr James Allison and his brother arrive in Wellington, New Zealand, after long adventures, with land orders bought in Glasgow from The New Zealand Company.
1847 After an initial farm in a swampy part of rural Wanganui, Dr Allison and his wife Georgiana Gilfillan buy the land newly available that he calls Lambhill. It is 1635 acres.
1856 After horrid adventures, Dr Allison builds the Lambhill homestead in its present place and style – on the highest point on his farm, and with incredible views in every direction. The house is two storeys, with a lookout platform on the roof. (With good reason.)
1886 Nathaniel and Archibald Sutherland, first-generation NZers of Scottish descent, buy the Lambhill estate, and Archie and his wife Mary move in at Lambhill, while Nat and his wife Kitty stay at their old farm.
1906 The farm swap: Nat and Kitty move into Lambhill with their 13 children, while Archie and Mary and brood decamp to the old farm. There is a dreadful feud and neither is afterwards allowed onto the other’s land…
1982 The last daughter of Nat and Kitty Sutherland dies at Lambhill, and leaves the remains of the estate to a niece, who farms it and moves another house onto the property to live in with her sister.
2003 December Yay! The Godfreys move in to the old homestead at Lambhill, after it has been empty for a few years. Hilarity and joy ensues. Also a lot of repairs and Jolly Hard Work…
(There are more stories, lots of excitements, murder, mayhem, celebrations, celebrities, politics, kindnesses, fury, friendship, art, love, illness, science, games, music, miserliness, picnics, church, secret hopes, sewing, sharp dealings, dancing, milking, writing, death, washing, reading, sliding down the stair-rail, and a lot of book-reading in between all these bald dates….)
I have been working on writing a book at Lambhill and its story, for a few years, now, and am making good progress. When it is finally published, I will mention it on this blog.
Appearances and Mysteries…
Sometimes, you are not seeing what you think you are seeing. This morning, a middle-aged woman was walking slowly down the Lambhill driveway, her head drooped, her eyes down. She carried a basket in one hand, which contained a bunch of flowers that showed out the top. With the other hand she kept dabbing at her eyes and nose with a white tissue, as she walked. She seemed distracted. Her posture and demeanour, the gestures with the tissue, and the flowers (a gift?) all suggested sorrow, and perhaps a death? Did you think of this too?
However, Sherlock Marples-Poirot, you are wrong! This is a Wednesday – the day every week, when Janette trots down to join Spin and Joan for tea-and-crosswords and then vacuum their floors. The woman was walking down the drive at three minutes to 8am – which confirm her identity and errand. The flowers also back them up – Janette habitually takes Spin and Joan a flower arrangement on vacuuming day. An onlooker may not have noticed, as they drove by, that the new foliage in the hedgerows was ruffling in a stiff breeze? Did you connect that with the dabbing tissue? Cold wind makes anyone’s nose and eyes run. And what of Janette’s slow, halting gait, with bent head, and gaze fixed on the ground? What you may have missed, was that Janette stopped periodically, stooped, and flicked her hand. Would you have deduced the truth from this?
What was Janette doing, on a cool Wednesday morning in October, on the Lambhill driveway? Well, I’ll tell you: the damp grass had enticed battalions of slugs out overnight, and apparently inspired them to grandiose notions of attempting driveway crossing before they dried out in the gravel…. They were up against it, though: it was a drying wind.
So – what you thought you were seeing (if you had been there to look) – was not a weeping woman taking flowers to a bereaved friend – it was Janette walking down to have a convivial couple of hours with friends, and rescuing slugs on the way! Let that be a lesson to you, never to jump to conclusions…
P.S. Mystery: was this a general mobilisation of slugs? They were all on their own – far apart, like scattered soldiers hoping to regroup. They were all heading from north to south as they crossed the drive (from the hedgerow towards the open fields). They seemed to mean business (but looks can be deceptive!). Damp, fat and gleaming, or already thinning and dry; pale or dark; smooth, speckled or striped, (such a variety of pelts!) they were all stretched out at full-tilt (which to us seems infintessimally slow), looking like tiny torpedos. The whole squadron was about to be wiped out by dessicating breezes…. I can only hope that those I picked up on a finger and flicked off in the grass completed their mission. What it was, we may never know. …After all, there was no big tragedy happening at Lambhill today, only daily life. But how mysterious daily life sometimes is…
Victorian Gardening at Lambhill
Dr James Allison, who bought 1635 acres and created the Lambhill estate around 1847, was a true Victorian. Brought up in a Lanarkshire village, in lowland Scotland, he was well educated, like all Scots of the time, and he completed his medical degree in 1839, a year before he bought land from the New Zealand Company, who were advertising in Glasgow – and embarked for “the colonies.”
One of the marks of the Victorian middle-classes was self-education. This was exaggerated in Scotland, where there was a culture of teaching every last child to read, no matter their station in life, so that they could understand the Bible for themselves. Because of this, Scots were well ahead of their peers in other parts of Britain: it is surprising to learn how many technological advances and ‘modern’ ideas came from the educated Scottish Victorian! As part of his cultural inheritance, books and ideas were valued by James Allison. At Lambhill, he was to build up a small but wide-ranging library, and he naturally cultivated and attracted scientifically-minded friends.
One of his friends at Lambhill was Reverend Richard Taylor, who had officiated at his wedding to Georgiana Gilfillan. Taylor frequently called to ‘talk plants,’ and admire the exotics Dr Allison imported and grew here. Taylor wrote up accounts of his Lambhill visits in his journals, and was most impressed to see things like date palms flourishing in the Lambhill garden. The emphasis was on exotics – because this was the great age of plant explorers.
Every knowledgable Victorian gardener was keen to display collections of newly-discovered and other plants, as promoted by the great horticultural populist, John Claudius Loudon. His ‘gardenesque’ style presented plants in artistic isolation, so that the viewer could appreciate its botanical uniqueness, admire its beauty, and praise God for his creations. Dr Allison’s 22-acre arboretum (exotic tree collection) and modest fernery at Lambhill were directly influenced by Loudon. Dr Allison also had at least one large circular flower bed, which was probably planted in patterns of colourful flowers, with a central architectural contrast, like the NZ native cordyline, or a phormium. A few years later, a young neighbour wrote in her diary, of visits to Lambhill, that the garden was “like a public park,” and very well kept.
Later, of course, William Robinson’s writings derided the gardenesque style, and promoted natural plantings, looseness and naturalised swathes, which merged with Arts and Crafts philosophy. The Lambhill garden, under the Sutherland family, morphed and absorbed these late-Victorian ideas. There are still naturalised sparaxias along one bank of the terraced lawn, like an impressionistic brush-stroke of deep red, and softening vines draping tall trees. These full, loose plantings, along with increasing neglect as the Sutherland sisters aged, created the wild, “Secret Garden” look that Lambhill presents today. Underneath its tall trees, detailed planting, and thickets of dense overgrowth, here still exist the structure and bones of Dr Allison’s terraced lawn, plantings and layout. Here, though masked and usually unrecognised, breathes an old sensibility. Dr Allison’s garden is hidden, and added to, but still alive.
Piecing Things Together
Lambhill homestead, in both its incarnations, has been lived in on this site since about 1856. All that living has left traces of many kinds. Since we arrived at the end of 2003, I have been finding some of those traces in the form of objects. I’ll come upon things like: broken household paraphernalia; fragments of the house itself; clothing; tools; toys; pieces of farm tackle; furniture. Many of these objects were discarded, purposely buried – or accidentally lost – in the garden. Some were tossed under verandah floors. Some discards were left to silt up inside the house, in drawers or stacked in corners.
A case in point was a pair of small iron bed-ends and their chainlinked metal base. The points of contact holding the ends onto the base had long worn loose so that the bed could not hold together any more. For years the pieces had been stacked in the upstairs store-room, until I suddenly realised that it would be jolly useful to have a couple of single beds on the north verandah. During the hot, stifling nights of last summer, I slept out on that verandah, on a mattress, which was heavenly! How much nicer it would be, to be able to sleep there on a proper bed, so that the air could flow about and keep things even cooler? Also, a small bed makes a comfortable daytime sofa, so long as it is well-bolstered with cushions: this bed would be a good place for curling up with a book, or for afternoon visitors, come to admire the garden from the shade while drinking tea….
Accordingly, in mid-December, I phoned the obliging chaps at the Fordell Garage and asked them to come and have a look at the bits of bed. Could they weld it all together? The young bearded mechanic who arrived, had a squint, nodded, and thought he could help. We heaved the heavy pieces onto his ute – and a week later, the bed was back at Lambhill, whole and complete. I was thrilled.
I found the other set of bed-ends at the foreground of the photo, some years back. They had been tossed into the garden. When I hauled them out from under tall weeds, branches and vines, they were heavily rusted. I gave both old beds a brisk wire-brushing, painted them with rust-killer liquid, and sprayed them with black metal-paint. It gave them such a lift! Now, the Fordell mechanic is looking out for a good bed base that will fit the “loose ends” to, and then we’ll have two good “Old Lambhill Beds” for verandah use! I do like to put old things back into service!!!
The Importance Of Being Jolly At Breakfast – And its Inadvertent Disadvantages…
Generally, Jonathan gets up earlier than I do. For one thing, I need more sleep than he seems to require. And for another, he has minutely-detailed morning routines, and any well-meaning efforts to help him can “throw him off his groove.” I’ve learned to let him well alone!
This morning, I had to get up earlier than usual (“to see a man about a dog,” as my father might put it. Say no more). I was shuffling, with half-open eyes through the kitchen, when I dimly noticed Jonathan there beside the sink, feeding Millie. “Hello!!!” he said, “You’re up!” “Mmm,” I said, non-commitally, “I see men like trees walking.” (Let the reader understand.) He laughed, and I went through the scullery to the bathroom.
When I came out, my eyes were rather more open, and he was sitting down to his bowl of morning porridge, so I decided it couldn’t hurt to have my pot of tea early, beside him at the table. Very companionable. As I was sitting down near him, I was pulling on a second cotton robe over my pyjamas, and shivering: “Brrrr! Isn’t it chilly! So much for ‘the first day of summer.'” Only two days ago, Jonathan had taken a look at the morning sunshine and made that pronouncement. Now it was cold again. “Yes,” he said, drawing his cardigan closer about him, “It was the First Day of Summer, but it was also the Last.”
I laughed. Jonathan’s wit is swift and surprising. It sometimes catches me unawares. But I have to admit to you, that when I am relaxed and unselfconscious (hem hem I am afraid), I laugh rather sUDDenly – and startlingly lOUDLy. One writer (I forget who) called this sort of laughter, “a good honest English horse-laugh,” and I can tell you that it is an embarrassing affliction to have, bottled up inside you, the kind of hoots that sometimes burst out in public, and make people you care about jump.
“I LIKe it when you get up and have breakfast with me,” said Jonathan, after a moment. “…But… It can be a bit noisy…” I chuckled (softly), and subsided. And silently sipped my tea.
“Egg Wednesday” is a (modern) Lambhill institution. Spin and Joan keep us in eggs most of the year. They keep four hens, and when the hens are too old to lay, the kind neighbours who raise chickens half a mile away, give Spin and Joan a Fresh Foursome of young hen pullets. And so we very often have plenty of lovely fresh farm eggs in the pantry. Jonathan started having “Scramblers” for breakfast on Wednesday mornings – because he likes routines. (This makes him averse to change, and Spin laughs cheerfully about this, and quotes, “At last I know what I am: A creature that moves in predeterminate grooves – In fact, not a bus, but a tram!”)
Pullet eggs can be quite small, and so for a while, Jonathan’s “Egg Wednesday” breakfasts where comprised of a whole dozen little eggs. I mentioned that fact to Joan, who is tiny, and a small eater. “That’s Dis-Gust-ing!!!” She said,”Ask him how he fits so many!” It was all good-natured, and he didn’t eat it all himself, anyway, because part of “Egg Wednesday” is Millie’s share of eggs – as a great, weekly treat.
The other day, Jonathan had put Millie’s plate of Scramblers aside to cool down, while he tucked into his own, while Skipper happened to be out, wandering on the kitchen table. Skipper adores eggs, especially when they are all warm and buttery – and he was delighted to be given a whole plate all to himself. Luckily, even when they eat at top speed for twenty minutes, cockatiels can’t eat more than a teaspoonful! But I loved the expressions of avidity and bliss… When you look at the photographs, you might find them a Worrying Portent – after all, the Bible does foretell that, “In the Last Days, Scoffers shall come!!!!”
I must say, I never realised that one Sign of the Approaching End would be a small bird making pleased noises, with eggs stuck to his beak…
Whisk up as many eggs as you fancy, in a small bowl, adding salt, ground pepper, and a dash of oatmilk. Cook quickly in a hot pan with plenty of melted butter (lots!), moving the eggs about so as not to let them burn. Tip onto warm buttered toast, and eat while hot. Don’t wait for dawdling fellow-breakfasters; the Scramblers are best eaten At Once: Slow-coaches Should Be Comprehensively Ignored: Pay attention to, and Appreciate your eggs. (This is part of Jonathan’s philosophy so I think it needs to be included in the recipe, to get the exact, nuanced flavour of greed and gentle grumpiness.)
P.S. After a visit from our 3-year-old granddaughter, Phoebe, we are now calling this recipe “Grumbled Eggs.” She misheard! Below is a photo of Phoebe feeding her doll, Lula Grumbled Eggs. Also a photo of Millie waiting underneath for possible Fumbled Eggs!
Playing with Phoebe for a whole weekend
…and suffering a kind of hangover for three days afterwards! We played with teasets. We played with magic carpets on the meadow. We played with pretend kitchens in the porch (pardon, Phoebe, I mean the “air-porch”). We played right way up and upside down. We played upstairs and down. We played in the bath and in the garden. We played with the Lambhill dolls, Miss Emily (the wooden one) and Miss Beatrice-Louise (the ragdoll). In short, Phoebe played me to a standstill!
Here is the letter story I wrote Phoebe after she had gone home, and I had recovered a little: