It took us twenty years to do it but finally we’re here.
In late 2001, we took the plunge and bought a lovely old farmhouse in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, an area with deep volcanic soil and a subtropical climate. If you leave a stick in the ground, as they say round here, the next time you look it’s a tree. We approached the purchase with the cold eye of an investor. Who am I kidding? It was all emotional. I remember the first time we stood outside the real estate agency and I saw the photo of a white timber house afloat in green paddocks. ‘Grand old lady for sale,’ the copy ran. It seemed a mite overblown and yet something about it rang true. When we visited other properties, it was this one that stuck in our mind. Set so beautifully, surveying the land around it, the house has always seemed feminine to me, perhaps because it was the hub of a dairy farm, producing creamy milk for nearly a century. She is a grand old lady. And now we’re here.
We’re lucky to know quite a bit about her history. I think of Archibald, the man who built it, who, in 1852, arrived in Australia from Scotland at the age of six with his parents, settling on farmland south of Sydney. Later, in 1895, Arch took his wife Lucy and their young family on the ‘Oakland’ steamer up to Ballina and settled in the hinterland, naming his farm Cloverdale. These were the days when newcomers could select the land they wanted and just get on with life there. No thought for the people whose land it had been for thousands of years. I wonder about that now, of course. This was an area known as the Big Scrub, covered by dense rainforest, only fragments of which now remain. Arch cleared the portion he had claimed and built the house from trees he felled. We’re lucky to have some wonderful photographs of the house, thanks to our friend Leonie, whose mother was born and grew up in the house but sadly died before we had a chance to meet her. Photos like the one taken in 1918, where generations of the family sit outside the house to celebrate Arch and Lucy’s golden wedding anniversary and the safe return of their youngest son from the First World War. And a blurry one of the seventy-six folk who sat down for Christmas lunch on the veranda in 1922. As I move through the house today, I often think of the family and how they lived in these rooms.
It must have been a traumatic experience when the house was sold, given its importance to so many. Life changes, though, and the farm had been divided up between siblings. When the day of completion arrived, we were due to take possession at eleven o’clock but the family lingered, pottering about as though unable to make that final break. By two o’clock, we decided to leave them to it and went off to see friends. It was only when we returned that evening that we had the place to ourselves. I remember walking through the empty rooms (carpeted in those days). The energy of the generations who had lived here filled the place and, that night, just as we were falling asleep, every light in the house suddenly went on. I was too tired for ghosts. ‘No, I am not having this,’ I cried as I marched into every room to switch the light off again. It may sound fanciful but it felt like I made a bargain to not destroy the memory of those who had created this home.
In the following years, it has been rented out to families and couples and groups of friends, barely a breath between each tenancy as people were always eager to move into a house that felt somehow special. The old milking shed, called a dairy bails up here, was too dilapidated to restore and so we replaced it with a newer structure that had the same footprint and used as much of the original timbers as possible. We weren’t sure what we would do with it, having fanciful ideas of drying herbs or running courses.
In the meantime we camped out there from time to time, and Anthony planted trees, reshaping the land from open paddocks to a more gardened space and reinstating the rainforest in places. The birdlife is now astonishing, everything from busy flocks of fairy wrens and thornbills to mobs of ibis and large birds of prey. Occasionally an echidna ambles through the property, looking for ants. There are snakes, too, which feed on the rats attracted by the nuts in the neighbouring macadamia farm and from our own pecan trees. I have adjusted to their presence but remain wary.
We’ve tinkered with the house over the years, replacing the roof that was damaged by hail, and ripping up the carpets to reveal the gorgeous timber floors, but now it’s time to give the old girl some proper love. First, though, I want to be still and to connect with the house. Like Louis Kahn asking a brick what it wants (an arch, it replies, I like an arch), I want to listen to what this house has to say, to observe how the sunlight comes in, to see what views out might be opened up and which are not important.
Arch died in 1930 in the house, a few years after his wife Lucy. They left seventy grand-children and twenty-five great-grand-children. The wagon that took his coffin from the house to the cemetery some miles away lost a wheel. It sounds like he didn’t want to leave. I’m not surprised. I have noticed how reluctant tenants have been to leave, even when moving on to better things. It has a holding quality. Quite what that means for us, now, as we take her into a new age and make it our home, remains to be seen. I feel daunted but so lucky, too.
I’ll keep you posted on how we fare.