Real Life

Escape to the country

Stuck in peak hour traffic or staring at a computer screen for hours, it is tempting to imagine packing it all in and moving to the country. Meet three women who made the dream a reality.

Deborah Coddington, Wairarapa
It's’s a weekday afternoon and journalist and former politician Deborah Coddington has just come in from mowing the lawns.
The homely Martinborough farmhouse, which she and her husband, Colin Carruthers, built eight years ago, sits at the centre of Redbank Estate vineyard, with lawns that stretch out to pinot gris and pinot noir vines. From each window views spread across the valley to the ancient hills, sharply outlined against a powder-blue Wairarapa sky.
On days like this one, everything stands still on the property, situated an hour and a quarter from Wellington city where Deborah once walked the halls of parliament – but as the seasons change she says the opposite can be true. “You get very harsh winters with frosts and 120-kilometre-an-hour winds, and you feel like you are going to be blown right off the earth.”
It is this “total defining of the seasons” that Deborah loves. The mother-of-four grew up on a farm and raised her first child in Martinborough, so she knew what rural life had to offer. She was writing full-time from home in Wellington but this, she says, made her a sitting duck for interruptions, and what was originally meant to be a weekend home on the vineyard soon became a full-time abode.
“The thing about working from home [in the city] is you have people think they can just drop in. That doesn’t happen here.”
There are times when 62-year-old Deborah can have several days of seeing no one but Colin and her bouncy black Labrador pups – and that, she says, is just fine.
"The question I get the most is, ‘Do you feel isolated?’ but I never do. Physically it’s so stunningly beautiful, and that is hard to explain to people until they visit; then they say things like ‘How can you ever leave?’”
She does reluctantly – for meetings in Wellington, to visit her daughters and granddaughter in Auckland, and for overseas excursions. “But I have to be dragged kicking and screaming. I hate leaving the animals and my dogs and I worry about the place when I am away, even though it is always in good hands.”
Deborah, who recently published her biography, The Good Life on Te Muna Road, writes the vineyard’s wine labels and occasional magazine articles from her home office. She is also very active on the vineyard. “I love being outside, and Colin and I are both perfectionists so I like to keep the vineyard looking beautiful. I am not an expert but I lend a spare pair of hands where needed for the physical stuff – leaf plucking and laying nets.”
And though she wouldn’t swap it for the world, Deborah says it is not all roses. “You see these pictures of bunches of grapes and beautifully laid tables and it is just not like that at all – it is such hard work. It doesn’t matter what the weather is like, you have to put on your wet-weather gear and keep going, because the grapes don’t wait for you.”
And while she and Colin still get teased by the locals for being city-slickers, they have been given a warm welcome by the community.
“They are just so kind. I had to have some surgery in Wellington recently [while Colin was away] and a farmer’s wife from down the road not only met me off the train with a beautiful fish pie and fruit cake, but her husband went and got my dogs from the kennels for me the next day too – and he doesn’t even like them much!
“People here take you at face value and that was a big learning curve for me – I realised that while people may have hugely divergent views from you politically, you just learn to keep your mouth shut and work alongside them at the church fair. I had a lot of sharp edges rubbed off me pretty quickly.”
Beverley Forrester says you become the apprentice plumber, fencer and tractor driver - a Jill of all trades.
Beverley Forrester, Canterbury
From the elevated land of Beverley Forrester’s farm in North Canterbury you can see Molesworth Station stretching out to the right and the Hurunui River below, which today is shrouded in fog. On the distant hills a lone vehicle winds its way across the barren landscape to Hanmer Springs.
Fate led the 63-year-old to drop her career as an occupational therapist in the towns of northern Canterbury and take over running 1214 hectares of farmland. Her husband died suddenly in 1997, and although she could have sold the property and moved to the city, Beverley chose to put on her work boots and learn to farm the land that had been in husband Jim’s family for generations. It was a choice driven by a sense of duty, but also by her love of rural life.
“There is a wonderful community here – stock agents would ring and say, ‘If there is anything you want just phone me – even if you are awake at 3am.’”
She had to learn quickly. “You have to get yourself into gear. You become the apprentice plumber, apprentice fencer and apprentice tractor driver – a Jill of all trades,” says Beverley. “I didn’t know bush and bog discs from tandem disks or what a Cambridge roller [ploughing equipment] was – I didn’t even realise tractor tyres had water in them and if you get a flat tyre you have to let the water out!”
Beverley’s decision to stay on the farm has come with challenges, but they have been no match for her resourcefulness and creativity. She soon decided to sell 809 hectares of the farm and concentrate on less physical ways to make money. “You have to keep trying new things.”
The results have been inspiring – Beverley has essentially feminised the farm. She restored the 19th-century cobb and limestone buildings and developed her stock of black and coloured lambs to create natural-coloured, chemical-free wool – a product she has taken global.
“Black and coloured sheep were the first in the world and white sheep were developed from them. Then the white gene became dominant and the black recessive, so when I came along with my small flock of black sheep it set a few feathers fluttering because it is a bit of a no-no.”
But increasingly neighbours understood Beverley’s plan and started to save their coloured sheep for her. She now has more than 300 sheep, outlets for her wool products in the UK and America, and makes regular trips to international trade shows to sell her brand. This now includes her own fashion line of naturally coloured wool garments, Beverley Riverina, which debuted at New Zealand Fashion Week in 2013 and was runner-up in the People’s Choice award. The day we photograph Beverley, she has 35 people coming to the farm on a bus tour. It’s a regular occurrence – visitors meet the sheep, learn about the genetics of the coloured flocks, see her knitwear displayed in the restored buildings and hear about her made-to-order garments, such as the one she made for Princess Anne.
“I presented it to her and we had afternoon tea,” Beverley recalls. “She was such enjoyable company, I wished I could bring her back here to the farm and put her on a horse.”
Donations from the bus tours go to Beverley’s side project – a collection of equipment for the disabled in the area, a project which maintains her connection to occupational therapy.
The motivated farmer has published a book about her experiences, The Farm at Black Hills, and is also an active part of Rural Women New Zealand and the Associated Country Women of the World. She recently lectured at the World Sheep Conference in Paris and took wool to a village in Tanzania, where women have been widowed by the HIV virus. There she taught them to knit, with a vision of them using the naturally occurring sisal in the area as an income source.
“Here I was with these widows in this Masai village, and I realised we were actually in the same situation. As we were leaving, they starting singing and the tour leader said to me, ‘They are singing to thank you for bringing them a new skill.’ I asked her to go back to the women and tell them my husband had also died and I knew what they were going through. We all have to stick together.”
Antonia Murphy with her beloved alpaca.
Antonia Murphy, Northland
She speaks several languages and was an active part of San Francisco’s arts and culture scene, so when 40-year-old writer Antonia Murphy recently discovered a forgotten jar of goat faeces in her handbag it hit home how much life had changed.
“I meant to take them to the vet to have them analysed for parasites and one thing led to another and they ended up rattling around in my purse for a couple of days,” she explains. “When I compared that in my head to the fantasies most of us city people have about moving to a farm and lovingly tending our heirloom tomatoes, I kept cracking up.”
Antonia and her husband Peter, 46, moved from San Francisco to escape the expensive, fast-paced lifestyle that they decided was at odds with their family-life ideal.
“My friends in San Francisco are on a treadmill, trying to keep the mortgage paid. I have one friend whose very young preschooler is in care from seven in the morning until seven at night – I wouldn’t trade my life here for anything.”
After a two-year sailing adventure, the couple settled in Whangarei with their two young children. They then moved into the country so their son Silas, seven, who has epilepsy and a developmental disorder, could attend a small rural school. His five-year-old sister Miranda has now joined him there.
“I visited the school and found there were just 15 kids. They had their own vegetable garden, made honey and there were two teachers in the room for those few students – I knew this was where I needed to put Silas, so we organised our lives to move out here.”
The couple found a lifestyle block to rent and Antonia set about expanding their farmyard family. “There were originally just some chickens and a cow, but within a few months we had a bunch of chickens, a rooster, a goat, and three alpacas. Then we got into the lambs and that is when everything went downhill, because they are so addictive!”
The couple loved it so much they soon purchased their own block nearby. Standing on the deck of her home, Antonia points proudly to their 4.8 hectares of land and its abundant vegetable garden.
“Every day we wake up and can’t believe that we essentially own a nature reserve; it is just so beautiful. I am learning very basic skills here. I had a sophisticated city upbringing but I didn’t know how to prepare my own food from scratch. I think it is good to see how your meat is killed and learn to grow a tomato from seed at least once.”
Antonia Murphy has turned her sophisticated city skills to her new-found rural life - with great results.
Antonia has learned much more than that – she can now make cheese and wine, drench a goat, clip duck wings, hand-rear and vaccinate lambs and cows, and care for fruit trees. But she says it is not all as romantic as it sounds.
“Right now I can smell our male goat who is just wandering around the upper paddock peeing on himself, because that is what male goats do to make themselves attractive,” she says with a laugh.
Then there is the slaughtering of animals – Antonia lacks the upper body strength to behead the turkeys, but it is her job to do the clean-up. “That is super gross but unfortunately a fact of life.”
There have been some learning curves – the first sheep butchered by Peter produced just one proud roast before disaster struck. “No one could figure out what the terrible smell was, until we realised our deep-freeze had carked it the week before. It was like a horror movie, pulling out the decayed meat and burying it – but that is how you learn. Next time we’ll get a temperature alarm!”
Antonia admits it took time to win over the local farmers. “They looked at me askance at first, but now I understand that sometimes city people come through and don’t take proper care of their animals or land. Over time I’ve earned their respect – by taking good care of my animals and buying land so I didn’t just seem like a casual sightseer.”
She does miss the culture of the city – her long-term plan is for an annual family holiday to a city for a month. In the meantime she has Woofers (workers on organic farms) who provide extra stimulation and company. “We have had an assortment of the loveliest young people stay – they work on the farm [in exchange for food and board] which means I can go to my office and write,” says the author of Dirty Chick. “They share with us the music they are listening to and what is cool on the internet.”
Life is pretty complete, but Antonia admits there is a flipside – there is always something to be done. “That is why it’s called a life sentence block – I should be out there weeding my artichokes right now!”
Words by: Nicola Russell
Photos: Renee Lansdowne, Tessa Burrows, Nicola Edmonds

read more from