Weather Matters on the Farm

Is The Weather Changing?

There is still fierce opposition in some quarters about whether the weather is changing and the whole climate change debate.

It seems to me that humankind has indisputably contributed to the raised carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. And the disgusting levels of pollution throughout the world can only be attributed to us.

Whether or not you agree with climate change, a radical overhaul of the way we treat our environments — local, national and planet-wide is sorely needed and long overdue.

This week I took a look back at some memorable weather moments on the farm in Garston. Snow, rain, wind, storms, droughts and of course many, many lovely days. We’ve had them all and more in the 35 years I’ve lived in this beautiful place.

View over snow-covered mountainside and farm paddocks in Garston, winter, 2015.
Wintry weather over the farm in Garston, 2015. 

Weather And Water

Last Summer was a hot, dry one. The faithful stream which feeds our farm and two houses dwindled to a trickle. Day after day the sun beat down, the thirsty sheep drank more water than ever, and the pool which houses our precious water intake came within an inch of failing.

Dry weather took it's toll. Our farm's water supply creek, reduced to a trickle in January 2018.
Just a trickle left in our precious creek. January 2018.

But Spring this year has been the opposite: sun — sure — but also wind, snow and so much rain! The trickle has transformed into a torrent and now instead of drying up, our water pipe is in danger of being washed away.

Water supply creek in flood, November 2018.
The trickle has changed to a torrent. November 2018.

When you work outside the weather plays a huge part in your life. You’re at the mercy of the elements day in, day out. And no one is quite so vulnerable to the whims of the weather gods as a farmer.

Weather Varies Throughout The Valley

When glaciers carved out the Upper Mataura Valley in the last ice age they left a narrow river valley and a series of terraces rising up towards the mountain ranges which line the valley east and west. The formation gives the weather gods plenty of ways to play their tricks.

It’s only a small valley by world standards, but the weather at one end can be completely different to what’s happening at the other end. I well remember one summer when day after day afternoon rain bands swept up the valley floor but left our farm on the terraces parched.

And I’ll never forget a particularly fierce thunderstorm which rattled the windows of our house. Hailstones poured in such torrents that they formed a fountain shooting off the guttering. Thunder and lightning flashed overhead and there was no way I could drive down to a scheduled meeting at the school.

10 minutes later the whole thing was over and I dashed down to the meeting — only a kilometre away and there was not a hailstorm to be seen. No wonder they looked disbelieving when I explained why I was late.

But nothing can compare to the wall of water which swept out of its creek bed and down the road towards two thousand sheep and lambs one fateful summer evening.

Stormy weather looms. Storm clouds brewing over Garston.
Storm clouds brewing late on a hot afternoon.

Flash Flood

January 2001. It was a hot, hazy day — and we had spent it bringing sheep and lambs down to the holding paddocks beside the woolshed, ready for weaning the next morning.

Its quite a tricky job — lambs and ewes are notoriously hard to move. While the majority of them will run where you want them to, there are always lambs which bolt in the opposite direction — and ewes that are determined to search back through the mob for their missing lambs.

However, by evening the woolshed paddocks were filled with a great noisy mass of sheep and lambs. Gradually they settled enough to eat and to drink from the small stream which winds through on its way to the Mataura River.

On this fateful day, towering storm clouds had built up over the mountains as they often do on hot afternoons. Thunder rumbled occasionally but no rain fell on the milling mob of sheep and lambs and we were pleased about that. A thunderstorm over the outside yards would have meant we’d be working with drenched sheep and slippery mud the next day.

By 8 o’clock the clouds over the mountains were thick and black. It was clearly teeming up there. Most of us were just relieved it wasn’t pouring on the sheep but a subdued rumbling sound made Terry uneasy. Abruptly — and for no reason that I could see — he abandoned his meal and headed to the hill paddock above our house where he could spot the creek as it came down the mountain.

Casually we watched, wondering why he was driving up there. Suddenly his truck spun around and shot back down the paddock at high speed. At the gate, Terry leapt out, dashed towards his dogs and yelled at me —  “Get help! There’s a flood on the way!”

Action time!

Down to the woolshed we dashed with one purpose in mind — to get the sheep away from the creek paddocks and onto higher ground.

Chaos ensued: dogs barking, kids screaming, alarmed sheep bleating and Terry yelling orders which no one could hear. Suddenly into this confusion burst Andrew — the neighbour I’d called for help — bringing more dog-power and a renewed urgency. Dashing down on the heels of the flood he had seen the wall of water which was sweeping down the narrow gully towards us.

Just minutes later the last animal had been hustled through the gate onto the hill above the woolshed. James and his new partner Lizette — making her first visit to the farm this fateful day— together with 7-year-old Chris dashed their truck across the bridge seconds before the wave hit.

On it swept, spreading across the paddocks, inundating gardens and flooding the State Highway as it crashed its way towards the Mataura River.

1 km up the road, Scotts Creek was behaving in a similar manner, leaving its farmers equally stunned. And yet, in the whole valley, these were the only two streams which flooded. All the water in that intense thunderstorm was concentrated in one narrow band — flooding the two streams and leaving every other waterway untouched.

What a mess that flood left in its wake. Our road and all its culverts were washed out. Fences piled high with debris which took weeks to clear away.

Fences piled high with debris after the flash flood. Garston 2001.
Fences piled high with debris outside the woolshed. As you can probably guess, we postponed the weaning for a week that year.

The neighbour’s water system was destroyed — but not ours, thank goodness.

We marvelled at the path of destruction which was visible along the creek bed for months afterwards. The mud-covered bushes high above showed just how far that wave had reached.

Brown vegetation high above the creek bed shows where the wave reached.
Brown vegetation high above the creek bed shows where the wave reached. We are so thankful for the warning rumble that alerted Terry to the potential disaster.

Farmers Are NEVER Happy With The Weather

My farmer lives and breathes the weather. He is always out in it, rain…hail…snow…wind…sunshine, and so are his animals and crops.

As you can imagine, it’s not a lot of fun for a sheep being out in the wet and cold. We have sheltering trees and bushes in most of the paddocks, and of course, they have their woolly coats for protection, but they still look miserable in the sodden paddocks on a rainy day.

However, too little rain is equally bad. When the dry weather goes on and on the ground dries out and the grass doesn’t grow. The sheep lie panting under the trees and are constantly looking for food.

Even when I think the weather is perfect, something will be wrong with it from a farmer’s point of view. Inevitably that nice drop of rain in a dry year seems to come just after we’ve cut the grass for hay.

In a really good year (weather-wise) I’ve even heard farmers muttering about “too much grass” on occasion.

Weather Matters

When I first came to the valley way back in 1981 I used to phone home to Auckland on an expensive toll call once a month.

When I hung up my landlady would always say “What’s the weather like up there?”

I didn’t know. It was not a question I ever thought of asking. As a city girl the weather wasn’t so important to me back then. But nowadays, I’ve lived so long on the farm that I understand just how much the weather matters.

I don’t phone home much these days — but thanks to the world wide web my messages with Mum are frequent, and you can be sure that nowadays we always mention the weather.

Blue sky and sunshine weather. The view South overlooking the green farm in late spring.
But still, often the weather is beautiful.  And the valley looks green and lush after all that rain.  November 2018.

And Your Weather Is…?

I’ve often been heard to thankfully remark that whatever the weather gods are throwing at us in Garston, its always far worse somewhere else in New Zealand. Our weather is mild and kind compared to the extremes some of you face in the world every year.

What are your best and worst weather memories? Comment below – and/or share a photo on Time of my Life’s Facebook page.

Garston Hunny Shop: Bene and the Bees

Sign outside the Garston Hunny Shop

Q: What do Beekeeping, Scotland and a tall lanky Kiwi have in common? A: Garston Hunny Shop owner Benedicte Sparks loves them all.

And It’s probably lucky for Garston honey lovers that Scotland has such a cold, damp climate. If Scottish summers had been better, Bene might never have left the country that she describes as “beautiful — such a beautiful country… and the people are so friendly.”

But after 12 years of getting dressed up to go out, only to have to cover up with a coat or risk getting soaked Bene decided to find warmer pastures. It was a long road that eventually brought this petite, dynamic Frenchwoman to the other two loves of her life.

Bene Sparks, always happy to serve up some of her delicious honey in the Garston Hunny Shop.
Bene Sparks is always happy to serve up some of her delicious honey in the Garston Hunny Shop.

In The Beginning

Dijon… Paris… France. To my ears exotic, exciting, magical faraway places that I dream of visiting. To Bene, they were just home. And like any teenager, she didn’t find them the least bit exciting. School was particularly boring. She left at 16, served in a bookshop for a while, and then moved to the bright lights of Paris to work for a dictionary publisher.

Ah, Paris!  City of dreams and romance. The Louvre… Eiffel Tower… shopping… cafes on the left bank and not a honey bee in sight. Bene wasn’t really into honey at that point, but she quickly discovered that she wasn’t into publishing either.

A chance meeting with a Scottish lad who spoke a smattering of French gave Bene a new direction.

“I’d love to learn English,” she told him. Six months later — when she’d almost forgotten her chance remark —  a language school brochure landed in her mailbox.

So Bene — still a teenager — packed her bags again and moved to Scotland to study English. Her sister drove her there, dropped her on the doorstep of her new home, waved goodbye — and left!

A Prince and a Punk in Scotland

Well, there was no turning back, so Bene picked up those bags and went in to meet her new flatmates — a Swiss who was into punk and a boy from Nepal who turned out to be a prince.

“On my very first night in Scotland, my new Swiss flatmate said, ‘We’re off to a concert in Glasgow. You should come!’”

In hindsight, the safety pins and punk outfit should have set off alarm bells in Bene’s mind but she was so relieved to hear someone speaking French that she went to the concert anyway.

“I felt very unsafe in my little French skirt with all the skinheads and punk music,” Bene recalls.

So there she was —  a teenager in a foreign land — and no wonder she was scared. Life is infinitely more difficult when you don’t speak the language. She had just two choices: run home or learn English FAST!

Slinking back with her tail between her legs didn’t seem like a great option so Bene knuckled down at school. Full immersion is the way to go, of course, and after a few months, Bene could speak well enough to land a job.

Scotland is a beautiful country and Bene quickly grew to love everything except the climate. But Scotland is renowned for its rain, and in the end, Bene had had enough of that, so she and a friend decided to see the world.

Round The World

So many countries; too many experiences to recount. But after nearly a year of travelling together Bene and her friend were still talking to each other — a minor miracle — when they reached Australia. By that time they definitely needed a break from travelling and each other. So they settled in Sydney and went their separate ways.

If they’d landed in Melbourne then Bene might never have come to New Zealand. She’s since been to Melbourne and loves its cosmopolitan vibe. But living in squalid digs in Sydney and working for peanuts wasn’t much fun and Australia’s such a vast country that it’s hard to travel around if you have no money. So Bene saved up enough for an airfare and moved on.

The logical next step, of course, was New Zealand.

A Land To Love

First, a stint in Auckland followed by a kiwifruit season in Te Puke —  Bene was slowly working her way south. Eventually, she discovered Queenstown, as most traveller-workers do in the end.

Like many a Scot before her, Bene had at last found a country with the beauty and friendliness of Scotland but without the chilly summers and depressing damp. Then she fell in love with Tony Sparks, and that sealed the deal.

Garston

The opportunity to move even further south came when Tony and Bene bought the Garston Hotel. The tall Kiwi and the tiny Frenchwoman brought new energy to the Garston Hotel, and business boomed.

But running a country pub is exhausting, and you can only do it for so long. So eventually, they sold the pub and settled down to renovate the old stone building next door and to begin their next ventures — The Garston Stables and the Hunny Shop —  just across the road.

Beehives in the Hunny Shop's bee-friendly garden.
Bene’s beehives — supplying Garston with delicious local honey.

Bene and her Garston Bees

Bene’s right into bees now, but she didn’t expect to fall quite so crazily in love with them when she joined Matt Menlove’s local beekeeping course.

“I was interested and I wanted to help save the bees,” she says.

There’s so much to learn, too. Matt’s lessons were only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to knowing about bees. Bene’s constantly finding new information and new challenges.

Every year is different because no two seasons are the same. Spring could be warm and dry one year and cold and wet the next. Even more confusing for bees and the plants they feed on, this year Spring started early and has been alternating between the two states all season. Consequently, the bees got ready to swarm around the end of October and Bene had to keep a close eye on them so that she could separate out the new queen and her followers and move them to a new hive before they actually swarmed.

It’s A Honey Bee’s Life

Bees need good food and Bene has made sure that there’s plenty around for her particular pets. She’s in the never-ending process of creating an extensive garden around the stone cottage, filled with bee-friendly plants.

Honey bees need both pollen and nectar from the flowers to feed the hive, but they also inadvertently transfer the dusty pollen from flower to flower as they forage, and so ensure that the flowers are fertilized. Of course, that leads to fruit, seed production and eventually more flowers. It’s an elegant cycle.

Bee on a nectar-filled white flower.
Bees and flowers. You can’t beat nature’s elegant cycle.

The Garston Hunny Shop

If you add many bees and lots of flowers together you get an abundant supply of honey, so why not have a honey shop? Thus began the Hunny Shop, Bene’s Garston tribute to all things honey.

It’s fun to go into the bright orange-and-yellow shop. There’s honey to taste and buy, as well as pills, potions, lotions and Bene’s very own honey-based cosmetics line “Abelha.” The walls are covered with bee information, too, so you can learn while you browse.

You can even have an escorted “bee experience” if you like, and visit the beehives to see first-hand where your honey came from. After all that, who wouldn’t want to buy a delicious honey-filled pot?

Finally, when you get home and regretfully lap up the last drop of your Garston Honey, you can buy more online at the Hunny Shop’ Shopify store.


Decorative wooden cabinet displaying honey products.
Just a few of the delicious honey products on display at the Garston Hunny Shop.

Doing Her Bit

It’s great to make a contribution to the world around you, and most of us have our own unique way of making things a little better.

Bene’s style mixes French flair with downright hard work. She’s doing her bit to save the bees — and bringing more visitors to the vibrant little business hub of Garston.

Next time you’re dashing to Queenstown, or buzzing South, stop into Garston and relax with a coffee, food, gifts and gorgeous honey-to-go.

Nothing could be better than that.

Altitude Brewing: The Great Adventure

Many small businesses have a special story to tell. They are built on passion, commitment and a long-held dream. Each has a flavour, history and ethos that is all their own. Some are steeped in history, others are brand-new and excitingly different. Altitude Brewing, who last year took all of our green hops to flavour the delicious “Me and Jimmy McNamee” beer, is one such business with a story to tell.

The other day I popped into their new building on the Frankton Marina, to visit partners Eliott Menzies and Eddie Gapper, and hear the tales behind…

Altitude Brewing.

Altitude Brewing's Motto: Every great adventure ends with a beer!

So what do a Queenstown local lad and an English former-advertising- executive have in common?

Well, they both love beer, of course!

But they also love adventure, the great outdoors, and the thrills and spills of owning their own business. Combine them all and you get a great little brewery called Altitude Brewing.

The Brewer

“I’ve been a beer maker pretty much all my life.”

When Eliott Menzies left Queenstown at the tender age of 17 to seek adventure in far-flung lands, he knew no more about beer than the average “under-the-legal-age-limit” teenage boy.

But after a traditional Kiwi 6-month-stint in London, Eliott — now 18 and legally allowed to sample a brew — decided he’d had enough of cities and travelled north to Scotland. Looking for adventure (and perhaps hearkening back to his Queenstown mountain upbringing) he headed for the Highlands, where he landed a job at a mountain pub.

And that’s where Eliott met BEER.

Not your normal, big brewery, continuous brew type beer, but craft beer — ales, lagers, hops; beer to fall in love with. And that’s just what Eliott did. He fell in love with the whole process of beer from the brewing to the drinking, and everything else in between.

It wasn’t long, in fact, before Eliott decided he wanted to know more than just how to drink beer, and so began the journey which ultimately led to Altitude Brewing.

Fortunately, half an hour down the Scottish road was a small brewery. Eliott simply invited himself in one day and began to help out. Of course, it wasn’t a paid position; he was strictly a volunteer, but it was just what he needed. A free introduction to the brewing world.

Eliott Menzies in the Altitude Brewing Brewery
Eliott Menzies, creating a brew.

Coming Home

Back in New Zealand, Eliott decided to spend 5 years in Wellington, studying architecture at Victoria University.  Although he never did become an architect, it certainly wasn’t wasted time.

Aside from his formal studies, Eliott continued his beer education by becoming a dedicated home brewer. Student flats always have a convenient cupboard — ideal for a homebrew setup —  somewhere in the house.

He didn’t follow other people’s ideas.

In fact, it wasn’t long before Eliott branched out and began experimenting with his own unique flavour combinations. And after a while, those recipes became the basis for the various lagers and ales that Altitude Brewing crafts today.

Introducing Eddie

Eddie Gapper drinking a glass of Altitude Brewing beer.
Eddie Gapper, checking out the perfect brew.

Eddie Gapper came to Altitude Brewing via an entirely different route.

Growing up in England, Eddie already knew what life was like in the Northern Hemisphere. His journey to beer heaven began with a job at an advertising agency. But while that was a lucrative path to follow, it wasn’t exactly living the dream. At least not the dream in Eddie’s head.

So he and his wife followed their love of adventure and the great outdoors and headed off on their own O.E. Travelling in the opposite direction to Eliott’s northern adventures, Eddie escaped south, via Canada and eventually landed in Queenstown.

At first, Eddie’s idea was to start a business in the adventure industry. Queenstown is, after all, the Adventure Capital of New Zealand. But the market is fairly saturated with adventure activities. After a good look around, Eddie decided that it didn’t really need one more.

What Queenstown did need was a business that was interested in the locals. A place tourists could enjoy, but which was ultimately focused on being a good citizen in its own backyard. So Eddie began looking for just such a business.  

It took a while. But one day Eddie had a beer with Eliott, and the Altitude Brewing team was born.

Complementary Strengths

It’s not often that a single person has all the skills and strengths necessary to run a business. And even if you are that rare breed, the time and energy it takes to do everything eventually results in burnout.

Eliott loves brewing and beer — he’s not keen on managing and marketing. Eddie didn’t know much about brewing, but marketing and management — those are right up his alley.

Together they made the perfect team to take Altitude Brewing to the next level.

Contract Brewing And Beyond

Eliot’s first plan for Altitude Brewing was as a contract brewer.

Each beer was made to Eliott’s recipes but he contracted a Christchurch brewery to do the actual brewing. Altitude Brewing then sold the resultant beer in Queenstown pubs and selected other South Island venues. This was the path the company was following when Eddie joined the team.

But Eliott and Eddie’s strength is their flexibility and willingness to investigate new ideas. Not long after Eddie became Managing Director, they realised that the contract brewing model wasn’t really the way to go. It was time they brewed on home turf.

At first, this seemed like an impossible dream. We all know the price of land in Queenstown is horrendous — and availability is just as bad. But somehow, things came together and in 2017 they managed to secure a dream spot at Frankton Marina.

Fast forward less than a year and, finally, Altitude Brewing has come home to Queenstown.

Eddie and friend clinking Altitude Brewing beer bottles.
Eddie brought an Altitude Brew for the Fulton Hogan IT team to sample
on their recent team-building expedition in the South.

Local And Proud

We have tourist bars aplenty around here. Altitude Brewing, however, is one of those rare places that does focus on the locals.

That’s not to say that visitors can’t find a good brew there; of course they can — and they’re very welcome. But first and foremost, Altitude Brewing is there for local people.

I love their flagon initiative. Fun as it is to go out, sometimes you’d rather just have a quiet beer at home. Altitude Brewing makes that possible — and reduces litter and waste at the same time — by encouraging their take-out customers to bring their own flagon.

Yes, you read that right. You can take along a container, fill it up with tap beer and head on home for your cold one. Brilliant.

Then there’s Altitude’s “One per cent for the Wakatipu” scheme which donates to local environmental and outdoor causes: think bike clubs…wildlife…youth trusts…

The Altitude Ethos

If you had to distil Eliott and Eddie’s Altitude Brewing attitude into just three words they’d be Adventure, Environment and Local.

I love their energy and their enthusiasm for new ideas. They’re all about local connections and keeping the story going.

After all…

“Every great adventure ends with a beer.”

The bright red Altitude Brewing brewery at Frankton Marina.
The new Altitude Brewing premises at Frankton Marina.

Connect with Altitude Brewing on Facebook.

Garston – A Place To Call Home

Overlooking the playground on the Green.

I’ve lived on a farm in Garston for 35+ years so that almost makes me a local. But my husband is truly Garston born and bred. His family were one of the first to settle in the valley when it was opened up to farmers in the 1860’s and the McNamees have been here ever since.

So for our family, the ties to Garston run very deep, and we’d find it pretty difficult to leave.

But what is it that makes this quiet country village so hard to beat?

Cycle Trail with distant mountains, looking north towards Garston.
The “Around the Mountains” cycle trail, heading North to Garston.

The View

Let’s begin with Garston’s location.

The village is set in the narrow Upper Mataura River Valley, and mountains range on either side, as far as the eye can see. Their beauty is different from the craggy splendour of Queenstown’s Remarkables range. Ours are “working” mountains; home to animals — farmed and wild —  rare bugs, mountain plants and above all, the golden tussocks which colour the landscape.

Above the village, hidden terraces slope in layers up to the foot of the mountains, and this is where our house can be found. When I step out of the back door for my daily walk there is not a soul to be seen. It’s just me, the birds and the sheep.

What a way to begin — or end —  a day.

A Tough Start

When Europeans first arrived they farmed the Upper Mataura Valley as one giant sheep station. But later on the area was divided into 200-acre sections and these were balloted out to small farmers and settlers.

And that’s where the modern history in Garston begins. Our family came from the lean pickings of the gold claims in the Skippers Valley to try their luck at farming. Others made money killing rabbits — a lucrative enough trade in those days to enable them to save enough to buy into a farm. Some came from family farms further north or south.

Life was pretty tough in those early days. The valley had very few trees back then and firewood was in short supply. The winters were brutal. There’s a famous tale of one long ago winter when the deep snow lasted for so long that the settlers had to use their carefully-hoarded fence posts for firewood just to survive.

Money was scarce too. The kids walked to school from farms dotted around the countryside whether they had shoes or not. My father-in-law used to say:

“We never minded stepping in a cow pat on the way to school —  at least it warmed our feet up.”

I still don’t know if he was joking or not.

Gold

There’s gold in them thar hills. Or at least there used to be.

Shortly after the settlers arrived gold was discovered in creeks and cracks all around, and life got busy as the gold miners flooded in. They came from all over the world to try their luck, set up camp for a while and livened up the area.

Eventually, the gold became too difficult to find, and the miners drifted away to try their luck elsewhere. They left reminders of their stay, with a little cluster of Chinese miners’ graves in the cemetery, and the great water races which they dug high in the mountains to supply water for the great sluice guns in the Nokomai Valley just beyond Garston.

Loving Reminders

Stone picnic table and seat in Garston.
The memorial picnic area north of the Garston Green.

John Newman

It’s easy to guess that Garston is proud of its history. One of the first things that stands out when you stop is the information booth, which was updated after much collaboration by local historians. And when you start to look around you’ll find caring memorials all over the Garston Green.

North of the shops is the picnic area dedicated to John Newman, a former owner of the Garston Hotel, who planted so many of the trees between Athol and Arrowtown. Take a stroll towards the tree-covered hillside nearby and you’ll find a gorgeous little walk called Newman’s Way which takes you up over the knoll to Garston School.

Newman's Way sign and path at Garston.
One of three entrances to Newman’s Way.

The Vital Rail Link

Further down the Green, you’ll find tributes to the time when the trains ran in Garston because when the railway opened in 1878 it was a huge boon to the area.

In those days before sealed roads, fast cars and huge articulated trucks, trains were the best and fastest way to travel the long distance between the “big smoke” of Invercargill in the South and Kingston — the gateway to Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown — in the North.

Farmers transported stock in and out of the valley by rail right up until the early 1970s.

Close up of a man guiding sheep onto a railway wagon.
Loading sheep onto the train at the Nokomai Siding, 1968.   Photo courtesy of Pam and Peter Naylor.

Even when trucks took over the job, the famous Kingston Flyer steam train ran through Garston as a tourist attraction until 1979, when floods damaged the railway tracks so badly that the whole line closed.


Garston doesn’t forget, though. On the Green, you’ll find tracks, trucks and a display of antique jiggers. There, too, is a loving memorial to Russell Glendinning, a towering figure in local railway lore.

The Russell Glendinning Memorial Seat.
Russell Glendinning was a hugely popular, expert train driver. He drove the Kingston Flyer on her last-ever trip through Garston.

Peter Rabbit’s Village

Peter Rabbit’s House has been a special secret in Garston for a long time now. It’s a bit of a  mystery; who did put out that little clothesline and Peter Rabbit sign next to the rabbit hole? Whoever it was, I hope they know how their whimsy brought smiles, and that gradually other, secret “rabbit paraphernalia” appeared.

Tiny clothesline and outhouse in Peter Rabbit's Garston village.
Some of the original pieces in Peter’s village.

Eventually, someone added a diary, and visitors started leaving Peter little notes.

The House expanded in 2017 when the Garston School children decided that Peter needed company, and made a whole replica gold-mining era village.

No one will tell you whereabouts Peter Rabbit’s Village is in Garston. To this day it’s still a delightful surprise to discover for yourself.

The River

Winding through the valley, the Mataura River is world renowned for its trout. People come from all over the globe to try their luck in the cool, clear waters during the fly-fishing season. Some eat their catch or mount it to sit proudly on a wall.

But others are simply there for the love of the fish and the sport. Those intrepid fishermen are found in the tricky “catch and release” sections of the river. Some of the fish there are huge — and wily — having been caught and released more than once over the years.

My favourite river memories are set in the 1990’s. Baking summer days, at the stony beach under the old railway bridge where all the local mums and kids gathered to cool off.

The children floated down the river on giant old inner-tubes from their dads’ tractors, jumped off the rocks and ate enormous afternoon teas. The bravest of them hung over the rail of the towering bridge above.

“Watch me! Watch me!” they’d yell and then leap down into the deepest pool below.

Stretch Your Legs In Garston…

Nowadays Garston is moving on and looking outwards.

Travellers stream through on their way to the glories of Milford Sound or Queenstown and many of them stop at the Garston Green for a welcome break.

Kids race to recover from their long journeys on the playground. Adults discover the delights of  The Coffee Bomb, Craft Keepers and The Hunny Shop.

…Or Stay A While

But some opt for more than a quick stop.

Fishermen, bikers, hikers and those who just want a slice of rural peace and quiet, can all find a bed at the Garston Hotel or at one of the lovely B&Bs dotted around the district.

There’s no denying that living in the country has its challenges. Farmers tend to work the daylight hours: short in winter, long in summer. And of course, in the spring lambing and autumn harvest seasons, work can continue well after dark.

And almost every trip requires a car: we’re simply too far from everywhere to walk.

But despite that, Garston is a special place to be. Friendships run deep and beauty surrounds us every time we step out the door.

I am lucky to call this little slice of New Zealand home.

Frontage of the Garston Information Booth at the Garston Green.

B&Bs in Garston:

The Red Shed

Southern Venues High Country Farmstay

The Naylor House

Menlove Homestay

Castle Hill Lodge

Anakawa

Meadowbank

P.S.

Eventually, I plan to have many more profiles of the enterprising people who live and work in Garston, Athol, Kingston and beyond.

If you (or someone you know) would like to feature on Time of my Life I’d love to hear from you.

Please contact me through the contact form below or message me through Time of my Life’s Facebook page.

If you live further afield in the South and feel your story would be a good fit for Time of my Life, I’m happy to help. Contact me to arrange a time to connect.

From Manila to Garston – Connecting Kids

In Cathedrals and Connections I wrote:

Building connections between people young and old —  between countries, cultures and religions — is vital. It’s the way that we will move the people of our world towards peaceful acceptance of each other. It’s the way to build trust.

Today I have another story – this time about connecting children and cultures to share.

Overseas Travel: The New Norm

When I was young very few children travelled overseas. Certainly I didn’t know anyone who had even set foot on a plane, let alone travelled to another country.

How different it is today. Even from faraway New Zealand, families regularly head overseas for holidays and adventures. In tiny Garston School all of the staff and 65% of the students have travelled abroad — many more than once. Some have family in England and Australia and travel to connect with friends and relatives there, and to learn something of their history and culture. Others return with tales of theme parks, shops and sandy shores.

Destination Garston

Garston School: A small rural school in the heart of Southern New Zealand.

But some lucky youngsters get to move out of their comfort zone and experience cultures that are very different from their own. And that was certainly the case for the group of Chinese-Filipino teenagers who visited Garston School recently. Their visit opened a gateway between the Philippines and New Zealand and created connections on a very personal level. It’s a visit that the students in my class will long remember.

The seven teenagers and their teacher were in NZ to learn about our culture, but also to learn about themselves.

One of the many reasons schools at all levels organise Education Outside the Classroom (EOTC) is to give their students the chance to be independent. From day outings to school camps; Duke of Edinburgh tramps to overseas sporting or cultural trips, a key purpose is always to foster growth and self reliance. This sort of trip gives youngsters a chance to gain skills and confidence in their own abilities, while still enjoying the support and safety that traveling with a group brings.   

Laugh, Learn, Love.

So Joseph, Nicole, Christine, Joanna, Jim, Cheska and Haslie came to Garston School. (Their only visit to a NZ primary school, in fact.)

It was a chance to discover part of our culture and to share a little of theirs. The teens wanted to interact with children, and that’s exactly what happened when they joined a technology lesson about buildings with my 5 – 7 year olds.

My students loved the chance to work in a small group with their chosen teen. They talked about their own homes and found out about the houses of their new friends. What a contrast – from tiny Southland villages to Manila, one of the most densely populated cities on Earth.

Of course there was a practical task too, as they experimented with blocks to build towers which would stand up in an earthquake. The room was buzzing with conversation and the occasional groan as another tower bit the dust.

I’m Longing to Visit the Philippines Now

All too soon it was morning tea time, and our newfound friends disappeared to visit another class. But that afternoon they returned to give a presentation about the Philippines to the whole school.

El Nido Island, Philippines
El Nido, Philippines. Photo by Cris Tagupa on Unsplash

I was impressed by the care they’d taken to introduce their culture to younger students, connecting with meaningful images, songs and games. We loved the slideshow pictures of beautiful islands, and animals so different from those found here. Every pause for questions brought a host of hands waving in the air, as the children begged to know more.

When a Chevrotain — or mouse deer — appeared on screen, Alex’s hand shot up in the air. I knew immediately the delighted connection he had made because I’d made the same one: on separate trips, we had each been amazed to see the tiny mouse-deer in the Singapore Zoo.

All too soon the special day had finished. My children rushed to exchange goodbye hugs and selfies.

Our new friends were heading to Invercargill for the weekend and then to Blue Mountain College. We hope they had a lovely time there too.

21st Century Education: Knowledge…

A vital facet of 21st-century education is learning to make connections. We teach this from the very earliest days in school.

We want our children to see the patterns… connect the dots… make links between what they know and whatever they’re learning about. Nowadays we don’t just teach facts. Instead our emphasis is on:

  • How to find out what you need to know … and
  • How to apply that knowledge to solve future problems.

These are essential skills needed to function in the modern world.

… and Communication.

But we also need to understand where other people are coming from. Why their ideas might be different and how differences can enhance rather than threaten.

We live in a global society where communication skills are rated as the top priority in many jobs. Therefore social and cultural connections are just as important as knowledge.

Student exchanges and visits like this are one way to foster understanding. My children have fond memories of this visit and the lovely people they met. I’m sure that Christina, Joseph, Jim, Haslie, Cheska, Joanna, Nicole and their teacher do too.

Who knows what may come of this brief connection?

Athol’s Graceland: A Hand-Built Home Infused With Love

Outside view of Graceland B&B, Athol, NZ
Graceland B&B

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.

Wall featuring many hanging car registration plates.
The number plate wall.

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.

Moya Flancman and Debbie Grace relax on their sitting room sofa.
Moya Flancman (left) and Debbie Grace (right).

Enviro-friendly 

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.  

Driftwood decoration hanging in a window.
There are many uses for driftwood in Graceland B&B.

Riverstone Bathroom

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.

Stone-walled bathroom.
The bathroom walls and floor were a labour of love built by Debbie and Moya.

Loving Touches

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.

Bed and painting in the guest bedroom.
The guest bedroom walls feature treasured paintings by Jem Pearse.

Country Challenges

Many city folk 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.

Pantry shelves filled with jars of bottled fruit.
Moya and Debbie’s bottling efforts: they gather the fruit from local trees.

Gizmo

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.

Head and shoulders photo of Gizmo the terrier dog.
Gizmo is very much part of the team.

Connection

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.

Final Thoughts

I had such a great time meeting Debbie and Moya for this article. Their enthusiasm and love for the house and business is 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.

A glass of fresh apple juice
Moya’s golden, perfectly clear apple juice.

If you want to connect with Debbie, Moya, and Gerry at Graceland Spa B&B you can find them on:

Facebook

Airbnb

Email: graceland.spa.bandb@gmail.com