What does it take to build your own house and home?
I’d guess at vision, perseverance and a whole lot of determination to get you through the many, many challenges that lie ahead.
Fortunately, Debbie Grace and Gerry Pearse have grit and determination in bucket loads. And that’s just as well because they certainly needed it to build their unique B&B home in Athol.
The vision came years ago in Melbourne, born in the lab where Debbie worked in medical research. Big-city living was taking its toll and a simpler, more connected life became the dream.
They had the skills. Gerry is a builder — Debbie was willing to learn. The land wasn’t a problem; it was waiting for them in Athol, next to Gerry’s father, Jem.
Time was the issue. It took years. Flying back and forth from Melbourne, snatching weeks here and there. Slowly the house took shape — every piece of it carefully crafted by Gerry and Debbie into their forever home. Finally, at last, they quit the city rat race and came permanently to live in Athol.
The Graceland B&B Vision
Debbie and Gerry wanted something out of the ordinary for their country dream. Their vision was clear: a house full of character, built by themselves with sustainable, locally sourced materials.
And that’s exactly what they’ve achieved. Graceland is simply infused with charm and personality. Every piece of the house, inside and out, tells a story.
Grit and Grind
This is one solid house, and everything was done by hand.
“Digging the foundations was one of the hardest things,” says Debbie, remembering just how difficult she found making the reinforcing for the 16 concrete pillars supporting the steel-framed building.
Gerry and Debbie did it all, learning lots of new skills in the process. Tiling, plastering, painting were just a few they needed to master. And sitting with them in the cosy living room, you can tell it’s all been worth the effort.
Moya Moves In
Back in Melbourne, Moya Flancman was also tired of the big city life. A scientist, originally from Toronto, she too was ready for a move to the country. In her mind, a seed took root planted by conversations with Debbie about their shared dreams.
“You might as well come and join us,” said Debbie one day.
So Moya did just that.
Uprooted herself from the pharmaceutical world and transplanted her life across “the ditch,” to the half-completed house where she threw herself into the build and the business.
Part of the dream — and the challenge — was to build the house using sustainable materials. Debbie, in particular, spent hundreds of hours sourcing and collecting the right ones for the job. The locality was a prime consideration: they wanted as many home-grown materials as possible.
Debbie says she felt like a detective going on a treasure hunt as she pored over clues and followed leads to unearth forgotten gems from all over Southland.
They were very lucky with their wood supply. Much of it came from trees felled by Gerry’s father, which they then had milled.
Local rivers proved to be both a source of inspiration and materials, with stones and driftwood collected and used to form integral features of the house.
Barns, backyards, junk shops and more all yielded forlorn-looking treasures that needed a bit of love. Now each rests happily in just the right spot at Graceland.
Some came from further up the South Island. The reclamation centre set up after the earthquakes in Christchurch to store usable materials from damaged hotels in the city proved to be a treasure trove for high-end fixtures and fittings.
The guest bathroom is Debbie’s especial pride and never fails to elicit a gasp from first-time viewers.
Debbie built it out of river stones which she painstakingly cemented into place. She and Moya then spent hours sanding the cement back to reveal the subtle colours and textures of the stones. Lastly, they sealed all the surfaces to create a waterproof floor and walls.
A heater keeps everything toasty warm in winter, so it looks like you’re showering in a river bed, but without the accompanying chill.
There are tender touches dotted throughout the house, reminiscent of meaningful people, places and times in its owners’ lives. Among the most precious in the guest bedroom are treasured paintings by Jem Pearse, who was such a talented potter and painter.
If you need a book to while away an hour, the full-size bookshelf has plenty to choose from. Maybe it’s inspiration you seek? If so, you’ll enjoy reading the banners and quotes all around. At the other end of the scale, car enthusiasts will probably love all the rego plates dotting the fireplace wall.
Many city folks have dreams of a “simpler life” in the country but few are prepared for the reality. It’s definitely been an eye-opener and a challenge for these two ladies.
“We certainly have a new appreciation for water and warmth now,” they tell me as Debbie pops another log from their hard-won woodpile into the large wood burner in the lounge.
Getting water into the house was not just a simple matter of connecting pipes to a town supply. Like all Athol houses they were faced with two choices: a rainwater tank or dig a deep bore down to an underwater source and pump it up. Given the recent summer drought, the latter seemed the sensible choice.
Embracing the Self Sufficient Life
Both Debbie and Moya have thrown themselves into country living with gusto and this is reflected in their Bed and Breakfast hospitality.
Food is a high priority. It was a shock, at first, to realise that country living means you can’t just “pop down to the supermarket every day.” A pantry is essential, and they’ve set about filling theirs with glee.
Reflecting their “self-sufficiency whenever possible” philosophy, the pantry is filled with preserves and juice, with most of the fruit gathered from trees around the local district. Their guests benefit from a choice of beautiful bottled fruits and jams for breakfast.
I can highly recommend a glass of Moya’s apple juice; it’s divine!
Outside, the ladies have established vegetable gardens and a tunnel house. Their lucky free-range hens have the run of the garden and a spacious henhouse which brought the phrase “hen hotel” into my mind. Lucky guests get to eat fresh eggs for breakfast and homegrown vegetables at night.
Undoubtedly the star of the show is Gizmo, who is so popular with guests that he has his own Facebook page. And of course, he like his owners is thriving in Athol.
“This is the best playground in the world for Gizmo,” Moya told me.
It turns out that swimming is Gizmo’s favourite pastime and after his guest-greeting duties are done he gets a well-earned stroll down to the river. Even snow won’t deter Gizmo from his daily dip.
Gizmo is part of the connection that guests love about Graceland B&B. Debbie, Moya, and Gerry love spending time with their guests. Their evenings are often spent chatting in the cosy lounge and connecting with people from all over the globe.
Sometimes guests have their own building projects underway and are fascinated with the details of Graceland’s construction. They’ve been known to sit far into the night, swapping stories and tips.
I had such a great time meeting Debbie and Moya for this article. Their enthusiasm and love for the house and business are infectious. The kitchen-living area alone is fascinating and there are myriad details to enjoy.
There’s the tale of the stunning photographs which immediately catch the eye (taken in Thailand). And the tale of how the window frame beside the fireplace came to be. Debbie’s latest art projects… Moya’s delicious recipes… fruit harvest stories… garden plans… joining the local volunteer fire brigade… there are so many stories to tell.
I could have spent many more hours in Athol’s Graceland, sipping apple juice and swapping tales, but all good things must come to an end.
If you want to connect with Debbie, Moya, and Gerry at Graceland Spa B&B you can find them on: