A Garden in the HillsAuthor: Christine McCabe
Imprint: Pan Australia
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I've not loved my garden long; even so, I find it difficult to remember life before. Immersed in the slow toll of the seasons and the tiny day-to-day increments of change that a garden discloses, I've learned a new language: quiet, reverential, hut never mundane.
A garden is never easily made, nor made-over, any gardener will tell you that. But sometimes a garden is acquired almost by chance and the art or craft of gardening learned on the hop.
Months of searching, of studying the real estate section of the Saturday newspaper, of pressing noses against agents' windows and of returning from auctions empty-handed ended one day with a simple line drawing of a traditional country homestead buried deep within the real estate pages. ‘Circa 1870 ... local stone ... large garden ... a little under six acres.' A ‘large garden' seemed the lesser of the property's many inducements; rather, the sketch of the old house with deep veranda and the declaration of acreage: these caught our eye. They offered the promise of a new life after too long in the bruising city.
This then is the story of an accidental gardener — and the one man who went to mow.
Autumn. The leaves are beginning to turn and the heat of summer abates as we motor into the Adelaide Hills. Over the crest of the range the trees thin to reveal broader fields and meadows. Through the Onkaparinga Valley apples hang heavily on trees and small roadside stalls advertise homemade pies and apple cakes. Other entrepreneurial residents are hawking bags of chicken and pigeon manure (sometimes horse, at other times cow or ‘moo pooh'), free-range eggs, strawberries and bunches of flowers — mostly dahlias — crammed into plastic buckets. Transactions centre on an honour system with coins to he left in old jam jars or peach tins.
In Littlehampton, Sebastian, aged four and one-quarter and somewhat train-obsessed, urges a detour to Platform One (he spies the sign as we enter town), a tiny rail museum housed in an old tin shed in a charming farmyard littered with chickens. We scoot through the paddocks on a mini steam train, the driver, with striped hat and engineer's dungarees, straddling the engine and pointing out various curiosities, including an old smokehouse in a hollow gum tree, before we break down mid-journey and have to trudge back through the mud and cow pats to the train shed.
Littlehampton's other principal attractions appear to be the pub (the Great Eastern) with a plant nursery opposite, a solarium, service station, pet food supplier, Chinese restaurant, century-old brick works, memorial hail and small used-car yard with a hairdressing salon positioned at the centre of the lot.
We follow our roughly drawn map and after making several erroneous turns eventually arrive at The Oaks, the drive shadowed by an avenue of large spreading trees, their low boughs scraping the ground like hoop skirts, and the trunk of one tree growing around and slowly consuming the gate post. I'm captivated by this first glimpse of our drive, like a B road straight back to England . ‘France,' Melvin says.
We pause for several minutes at the front gate as though to catch our breath. Could this be it at last? For years we had talked of moving from Sydney — perhaps to the Southern High lands or the Blue Mountains — when more than one bottle of wine had been consumed and/or we'd just sat through a re-run of John Mortimer's Summer's Lease , Italy or France. Somewhere we could slow down a little, have more space, grow a few vegetables, where vines lapped at the front gate and we could shop for cheese and figs at the village market. The pace of our already hectic lives redoubled with the arrival of two sons in rapid succession and the siren call of a sea change grew louder with each passing month.
It was Melvin who suggested South Australia. I grew up here and was inured to its charms. But on our first visit together to meet my parents, who lived in the Barossa Valley , Melvin had been captivated by the golden hills terraced with vines, the long summer days and the wide boulevards of a capital city where peak hour seemed an exaggeration and parking was never a problem.
Once decided, we moved quickly. Melvin requested a transfer to Adelaide , we rented our house in Sydney , leased another in the South Australian capital and began scouring the Barossa and Adelaide Hills for our dream home. A long and mostly disappointing exercise. Every house was too small, too expensive, too dilapidated. Until now.
The Oaks is not nearly as remote as I imagined, given the whimsical line drawing in the newspaper: only a kilometre or two from town, with a cottage opposite and several houses dotted along the nearest road and through the small valley to the south-east.
We venture slowly up the narrow paved drive, over the densely wooded creek veering right around a bank of elm trees. The house is set near the top of a bill behind a tall hedge. A large garden sprawls down the slope towards us: lawn interspersed with roses and enormous gums. The drive winds beneath several drooping cypress to a gravel forecourt where a particularly beautiful maple tree stands sentry at the wide front door.
Behind the house the garden is dominated by several venerable elms and a cluttered forest of rainwater tanks (eleven in all, although one, it is later revealed, is a cleverly disguised outdoor loo). The winter creek is lined with elms and hawthorns and two huge old willows, their thick trunks daubed with moss and lichen.
The long house is of a local sand-coloured freestone, the veranda trimmed in carriage green, with a hedge below and a high bay window at the front, where the double Georgian doors are fringed with encroaching ivy. A funny old doorbell sounds like it might summon Jeeves at any moment.
Brian the real estate agent is waiting to meet us. We take an immediate shine to him. He does not resemble any Sydney real estate agent we've ever met; rather, he's dressed like a country squire and selling a house seems to be the furthest thing from his mind. Instead, we chat. He is a friend of the vendors, he discloses: they're in Rotary together; they've all lived in the district forever.
‘You'll love this house,' he says, ‘everyone does.'
He knows the local farming families (‘they're respectable'), he knows who's selling what, he predicts strong future demand for land in this neck of the woods. He talks of the various Rotary functions held in the garden, how the large country kitchen is perfect for entertaining, how the house has been completely rewired and no expense spared on the tasteful extension.
Melvin places a steadying hand on my arm as I struggle to conceal my excitement, something you must do when you fall instantly and completely in love with a house you cannot afford.
After conducting a relaxed guided tour (‘There's no pressure, you understand, but I've another couple coming this afternoon and they're very keen'), pointing out the gaudy Victorian porcelain chandelier, the dark, dirt-floored cellar and the super-efficient slow combustion fire, Brian leaves us alone to poke about, beginning in the ‘big' or formal room with its impressive mansard ceiling. There are large but plain fireplaces in most rooms, deep window sills, French doors onto the veranda and Coke-bottle-thick 19th-century glass in many of the windows. The narrow hallway is as long as a cricket pitch and hung with French chandeliers. It's charming rather than grand and aside from some questionable wall friezes and curtains, the house is perfect in every way.