Room to Roam
For six-year-old Tilly, dealing with the odd bunny carcass is as natural as sleeping in a quirky cottage near the sea. Tilly and her big sister Plum, seven, already know how to churn butter, hurl themselves into the river on a rope swing and make potato chips from scratch. Thanks to their mum’s recent hunting and gathering efforts, they’re also learning to skin a rabbit.
The Hawke’s Bay schoolgirls live a life implausibly far removed from the world their English-born mother Jane Griffiths used to inhabit. The former events co-ordinator was once entrenched in London’s fast lane, renting a series of dank, cramped flats and spending far too many hours commuting and working.
A decade later, she is raising two daughters and a vegetable garden in the tiny bach community of Waipatiki. The ocean is a five-minute stroll away and her job with an art supplies and stationery company finishes in plenty of time to collect her girls from school. “I’m so lucky, I have to pinch myself,” she says. “This is definitely how I want to live and the way I want my children to know they can live. It’s about furnishing them with the basics in life, knowing you can live simply and beautifully.”
In other words, it’s the kind of childhood Jane enjoyed. Before her foray into the big city, Jane grew up in rural Dorset, with plenty of freedom to roam and a menagerie of ducks, chickens and sheep in the garden. Her mother made jam and wine and, yes, rabbit stew.
So she has returned to her rural roots, ditching most processed food, supplementing home-grown produce with an organic vegetable delivery service and trading with neighbours for eggs and honey.
On calm mornings, she hauls her kayak down to the sea to check her cray pot. Last summer, crayfish made it onto the Griffiths menu about a dozen times. Over the winter months, rabbit stew was a staple, thanks to the friend who is teaching her to hunt. “I’ve been shooting only rabbits at the moment, but he tells me I’m nearly ready to graduate to deer.”
Jane is adamant her pursuit of self-sufficiency need not happen at the expense of style. The pearl earrings remain firmly in place, even when she is toting a rifle. Wholesome meals are prepared with gourmet flair – in London, she moonlighted as a canapé chef – and her recycling bin includes bottles from decent vineyards.
“I try not to buy new things. If I need a new table, I’ll try to find one from a second-hand shop. It has more history and more beauty in it and there’s that thrill of finding it.”
Her two-bedroom converted bach is furnished with design classics alongside her grandmother’s paintings and silverware and some of the artwork is her own. Jane, who has degrees in teaching and linguistics, sews, paints, screenprints and is an experienced calligrapher. She and a friend run occasional art workshops in the local hall or in her own garden.
It was the garden that first drew her to the house, which she purchased on a whim while she and her then husband were living in Auckland. Jane organised the move to New Zealand. Tired of the cold and her ho-hum big-city existence, she longed to return to the country she had so enjoyed while travelling in her mid-20s.
“I fantasised about the light in New Zealand. Being a painter, I do notice that sort of thing and that perpetual greyness of London got me down.”
The couple emigrated to New Zealand together in 1997 and bought the bach just a year later when Jane and her mother, visiting from England, stumbled on a for sale sign in the 20-bach community north of Napier. Jane and her husband spent six years in Auckland before work brought them to Hawke’s Bay and the bach became their permanent home. After the marriage broke up, Jane, Plum and Tilly stayed on.
She has since discovered that her home was built in the 1950s by two Napier council gardeners, both named Jimmy and still referred to locally as “the two Jimmies”. They left an immaculately planned garden with ponds, fountains, bridges, secret corners and exotic plants.
“I saw it, I loved it. I thought, crikey, I’ve got to buy the place just ’cos of the garden. It’s the sort of place that, when you’re a child, you dream about… a picture-book place, a perfect place to raise the girls. And the house is so interestingly built – all the doors, all the windows, everything is reclaimed.”
The original owners’ legacy includes several glorious stories, relayed to Jane by fellow villagers. Her favourite tale has the eccentric pair sparking panic courtesy of a particularly wild party. Local legend has it that coastguard officers were flying over the settlement on a routine afternoon patrol when they spotted clusters of people wearing evening dress and lying, apparently unconscious, around the settlement. Fearing a natural disaster, the coastguard crew alerted emergency services. On arrival, the police and ambulance officers discovered they were facing the remnants of the two Jimmies’ black-tie sherry party, which had started earlier that morning.
A subsequent owner was rumoured to be a white witch. “She used to sunbathe naked on the roof. And, no, I’m not continuing the tradition.”
Jane prefers to spend her free time entertaining friends, socialising, sewing, painting, planning her next adventure. In summer, families move into neighbouring baches and the days become a round of pot-luck lunches and afternoon drinks, beach visits and impromptu evening barbecues. Children roam between the houses, and everyone watches everyone else’s offspring.
The rest of the year is quieter, though her friend Megan lives in a bach up the road and Friday nights are generally marked with a shared meal and wine. Winter is a time for hunkering down beside the fire, remembering the warmer months.
“It’s simple pleasures. Walking down to the beach in the morning and seeing what the sea’s thrown up. Sitting in the garden, reading. Feeling the sun on your face. Having people know your name – that’s huge for someone coming from another country. “If it doesn’t sound too morbid, I’d rather like to die here.”For more images including web-exclusive images click on the "photo gallery" link above.