You’ve undoubtedly heard of Peter Rabbit™, Beatrix Potter’s mischievously loveable bunny who took the world by storm in the 1900s.
But did you know about New Zealand’s very own Peter Rabbit™ connection? Possibly not, because Peter’s House has been a special secret in Garston for a long time now.
Once upon a time, a rabbit dug a burrow under an old fir tree.
Thirty years ago, only those who crept under the spreading branches of the massive fir tree between the Presbyterian church and the Garston cemetery knew the secret. Someone had spotted an abandoned rabbit hole and put up a tiny sign — “Peter Rabbit’s House.” Then came a small washing line with delicate, knitted garments and, next, a lopsided bunny dunny.
Who put them up? It’s a bit of a mystery, but whoever it was, I hope they know how their whimsy brought smiles and that gradually more secret “rabbit paraphernalia” appeared.
Back then, our family went to Mass twice a month in the “other church” across the cemetery. And when the kids disappeared afterwards, we usually found them playing at the rabbit house.
Every now and then, someone would add another surprise. How thrilled we were the day we brought our own tiny toys down and secretly added them to Peter’s front yard.
Letters come from near and far
Eventually, someone added a visitor’s book… then another… and another! That’s how we learned that we weren’t the only ones to visit Peter (who was, strangely, never at home.)
Now the wooden box built to house the collection is almost overflowing with notebooks big and small. Some messages are whimsical, others poignant. Some are neat and proper, others scrawling. Many leave just a few words, while others take a whole page.
Peter Rabbit™ Village expansion
In 2017, Garston School kids got enthusiastic and surrounded the tree with a miniature gold mining replica village. It took the children weeks to build the stone houses at school before carefully carrying them to the cemetery.
They learned about town planning rules, consulted with the community and wrote to then-mayor Gary Tong to get the SDC’s official blessing. Mr Tong came up trumps and even attended the opening ceremony to cut the ribbon and give the village his official seal of approval.
Peter’s village gets a companion
Until now, most travellers who stopped off at the Garston Village Green to stretch their legs had no idea the little village existed. But occasionally, we’d meet people peering under trees on the Green — always in slightly the wrong place.
“So-and-so told us about it,” they’d always say. And we’d point them in the right direction and wish them luck. It was a secret, after all.
But now there’s a new kid in town, and the secret’s out!
Yes, Peter’s village has a companion — a beautiful book-inspired thinking seat designed by SDC graphic artist Donna Hawkins and local legend Pam Naylor and built by Riki Shuttleworth at Creation Signs.
“When I saw Peter’s village next to the cemetery, I thought it was so cool to have something there that kids could relate to. I wanted to create something where you could just sit and think, and to tie Peter Rabbit™ in as well.”
Don’t dismiss this seat as “pretty” or “cute!” Because, honestly, it was a helluva mission to get this particular seat made.
Not the seat itself. Once Riki sorted the metallic construction, it was easy to put together. It was the images that caused the headache.
“The problem I had was copyright,” says Donna.
“Because although Beatrix Potter had passed away more than 50 years ago and some of her stuff was in the public domain, I didn’t realise it didn’t include all the graphics.
“I ended up on a two-year mission — sent thousands of emails to people all over the world and no one answered, except one professor in America. He said, go back and talk to the original book people, so I tried that. Nothing.”
Fortunately, help was at hand. Donna got a lucky break when Cr Margie Ruddenklau came along.
“I heard Margie talking about Esther Nicholson — Beatrix Potter’s niece.”
Actually, Esther was Beatrix’s husband’s niece. Still, as Beatrix and Willie had no children, Beatrix had taken great interest in educating Willie’s family. That included Esther, who moved to New Zealand in the 1920s and eventually headed St John’s School, Invercargill, for an astonishing 32 years.
“Esther retired to Te Anau in 1968, and Margie was reminiscing about visiting Esther in her wee cottage. Margie said she always remembered the little Peter Rabbit™ posters all around the house, sent by Beatrix herself.”
Margie’s cousin owned a bookshop, so the answers finally started flowing when Donna and Margie enlisted her help. At last, one email hit the jackpot when Thomas Merrington, the Creative Director at Penguin Books, wrote back. Donna emailed her plans; Merrington suggested changes. Donna tweaked the designs, changed the name to Our Peter Rabbit™ Thinking Seat, and just like that, the approval went through.
The grand opening
On February 22nd, around 30 SDC councillors and council staff took time out from their “Bus Tour of Southland” to join the locals at the official seat opening.
Naturally, there were speeches. Northern Southland Community Board chair Greg Tither, Margie Ruddenklau, Mayor Rob Scott and Garston/Athol representative Pam Naylor all paid tribute to Donna’s dedication. And it rained — our first rain in weeks, so there were smiles all round, and no one cared that the plush cloth covering the seat was a little wet.
With the seat duly opened, it was time for some entertainment at Garston School. The children treated us to a hilarious retelling of Peter’s problems after escaping Mr McGreggor’s garden. According to the kids, encountering an angry elderly gardener was nothing to Peter’s troubles when his family found out where he’d been.
All fun and frivolities aside, there’s a deeper meaning behind Our Peter Rabbit™ Thinking Seat, and the clue is in the name.
It’s not always easy to visit loved ones in a cemetery, especially when children are involved.
” I saw the Peter Rabbit village when we did the Cemetery sign,” says Donna, “and it was something that I felt was needed. Somewhere to sit and remember and enjoy the beauty of the spot. It seemed so cool that kids could relate to Peter Rabbit, even when they were feeling sad.”
And it’s working just as Donna intended. And while her Peter Rabbit mission might be over, Donna’s larger plan rolls on.
“I keep getting photos from people saying they’ve been up there and taken photos of their kids on it. It’s a real stopper, and that’s the one thing I wanted to do. Have something in all the small towns that stopped people. That they look and go ooh, what’s that?”
Athol has an Anzac Poppy seat beside their memorial hall. Garston has its Thinking Seat. I wonder which lucky Southland town will be next?