A life in lavender
When the olive crop is ready in Marlborough's winter months, Ruth and Barry Struthers join forces with their neighbours to work, eat, drink and celebrate the harvest together. And later, as summer turns the soft waves of lavender that surround their property - poetically named French Fields - into a purple sea, visiting family help to cut it back, infusing the air with its fragrance.
For Ruth and Barry, working days end with wine and food taken under a grapevine canopy in front of their French farmhouse, or in an upstairs clawfoot bathtub overlooking a rolling lavender horizon.
It's an idyllic existence a world away from their hectic former lives in Timaru, where he was a dentist and she a teacher. They had both reached the point where they knew something had to give. And when Barry asked Ruth what she would like to do, given the chance, she proposed a Provencal-style bed and breakfast in a paddock of lavender.
"You are suddenly given a picture and you dare to speak it out loud," she says. "It was quite spiritual. I just stopped and thought, 'What would I love to do?' It was that 'nothing to lose' feeling."
Five years on, French Fields, a former sheep paddock just out of Blenheim, is beyond anything this Christian couple could have imagined. "We know we have been blessed."
With its flat front facade, deep walls and tall ceilings capped by terracotta tiles, the home is quintessentially Provencal in style. Inside, uneven beams are exposed in the kitchen ceiling and staircases are steep. Small windows and Juliet balconies frame a borrowed landscape of vineyards, fig orchard and distant bruised hills.
Next to the main house is the "petite maison" for guests and both look down on a pool and an outdoor courtyard and table, key to rural French life.
The couple report that their builder dealt cheerfully with the challenges of the atypical build, including windows opening inwards, with working shutters beyond, off-centre chimneys and 200-year-old imported oak barn doors for the entranceway.
Meanwhile the plasterer, who was supposed to be giving a rustic finish to the inside walls, was instead creating "hectic" seagull swoops, says Ruth. "So at night Barry and I put headlights on and stood up on ladders to frantically sand it back before he came back the next day. We had to un-seagull all the seagulls."
They loved every moment of the build, including bashing the pristine recycled floorboards with snow chains. "We were trying really hard not to make it look like a new house," says Ruth.
"A home should look as if people have done things to it forever."
Ruth reports that Barry would come home from work, apply texture to brickwork or put up roof tiles until dark, then rise at 6am "to play some more" before going back to his real job. "We had a fantastic time. We say this was our alternative to golf and bridge. Our attitude was, 'This is going to be an adventure'."
The interior has everything you would expect of a house with chain-smashed floorboards, mismatched window paint and hastily sanded walls. Old, flaking blue French shutters hang on the living room wall and open to reveal a television. They're beautiful, functional and also symbolic in that they come from the French town of Lille, which happens to be the name of Ruth's mother.
The vanity top in one bathroom was once a Balinese rice pounder and an old armoire storage cupboard in the petite maison holds an entertainment system.
Barry says the use of old things that retain a sense of family history - often for purposes other than originally intended - is a fundamental part of Provençal style. "Nothing feels new in the south of France."
Much of the furniture that wasn't naturally worn has been distressed with paint tricks and sandpaper to look that way. Other pieces have been handed down or collected during their 30 years in Timaru or discovered on trips to Europe. When the decision to build coincided with the impending marriage of one of their sons in the UK, Ruth and Barry took the opportunity to travel through Provence for two weeks, filling a weed sack with embroidered quilts, old spoons, taps, door handles and small pieces of furniture.
Stirring a rhubarb and strawberry compote made with fruit harvested that morning, Ruth looks back without regret on a former life in which she would bring home dinners from the boarding school where she worked for rushed meals.
Their new life revolves around evenings lingering with guests and friends under the grapevine and mornings fragrant with the aromas of fresh croissants and drying lavender. Says Ruth: "We know we have been given something special to share."