Building the sunroom

“It’s like being in a painting” – an artist neighbour says-coming in to the newly built sunroom.

I know what he means. The new addition to the schoolmasters house, after many months of planning, measuring – has resulted in this beautiful space. The windows wrap around you on all sides. The old glass in the salvaged windows is like a filter from Instagram – somehow transporting the landscape back to the past. Studying architecture, I remember a lecture about how the human race still carries a hunter/prey mechanism. It is deeply satisfying for us to be in a cave looking out down to the plains. It’s why people gravitate to the perimeter seats in a restaurant- leaving the centre ones till last.

Before- marking out the sunroom

After- the new sunroom- not yet painted

The house needs warmth during the cold sunny winter days when the wind’s up. A room to catch the light. A sunroom. Stakes hammered in the ground; marking the dimensions -fluoro sprays of colour recklessly onto the house. The gamble of proportions- privacy vs view. How to blend it into the look of the old schoolmasters’ house, the feel of the village.

Raw material- window from Chippendale Restoration

Gunter Hamann

The plans approved by council, the brick base built; Gunter,the builder, comes to town. A couple of months staying and working in the house. Of East German background; he worked the uranium mines, then as a travelling journeyman builder before coming to Australia. He has built & renovated the houses of many artistic people; valued for his deep understanding of proportion and detail. Trips to the old schoolmasters’ house, living together for a few days throw up an intimacy with each others routines. Gunter’s duck fat on toast for breakfast, his glass of port at lunch. We watch the kangaroos from the kitchen window together.

What are you looking at?

Back in Sydney, long conversations with Gunter on the phone, – updates on the progress mixed in with gossip from the village pub. The room is starting to take shape. Robert, a fifth generation local is an amazing help. One time I ask Gunter if he likes it in the country- ‘ Oh, I like wherever I am” he says.

Before- the dining room

After-windows now doors; leading to the sunroom

The final trip up; walking out to the sunroom through the new French window doors- something magic has happened. From the dirt patch on the ground – a room has been created. A dreamy room, one you can spend all day in. Somehow you are projected out into the landscape, part of it. The stern Victorian division between interior and exterior has been broken down.

Sunday lunch in the country

Whenever I ask friends to the country, I always warn them there is ‘nothing to do there’. Every single time the response has been “Great!”

But there are things to do there – cooking, walking, sitting in front of the fire, kangaroo watching from the kitchen window. I could better say there is no stimulation/excess distraction there.
The day passes slowly. Meals become more important. Planning them; the hour long trip into town to buy ingredients. An organizational skill that has to be relearnt after living 2 minutes from shops in the city.

But there is more pleasure to be had cooking in the country. It’s something to take time with, to enjoy. The unexpected delight of adding fruit or vegetables grown in the village. Poaching quinces from the tree spilling over a cottage fence. Making a crumble from a neighbour’s freshly picked rhubarb- so sweeter and more subtle than produce from a supermarket.

Easter Sunday lunch- the first in the new sunroom. The weather is clear and beautiful, there are no flies about today. On the menu, Charmaine Solomon’s rendang daging, tamar salat, and cucumber riata. The deliciousness of the afternoon, some peanut butter and jam biscuits- baked at the last minute, assembled from ingredients found in the cupboards. Due to lack of peanuts- 3 bars of peanut brittle subsituted instead- the toffee definitely gave it an edge!

the little girls played in the garden

peanut and strawberry drops cooling on the windowsill

Peanut brittle & strawberry drops
adapted from The Age “Baking”

125g butter softened
1/2 cup of sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 egg
3/4 cup peanut butter,
90g peanut brittle
1 1/2 cups plain flour
3/4 tsp baking soda
about 1/4 cup strawberry jam

Preheat oven to 170 C. Line a couple of baking trays
Cream butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and beat in egg, mixing well. Stir in peanut butter and crushed peanut brittle, then sifted flour and baking soda, blending to a smooth dough.
Roll mixture into balls about the size of golf balls and place on the baking trays. Use floured hands if dough is sticky. Make an indent in the centre of each ball with your thumb.
Bake for 12 minutes then remove from oven and rill each indent with a generous dob of jam. Return to oven and cook for another 5 minutes or so until golden. Transfer to wire racks to cool.

Starting a country garden

Starting a garden in the old schoolmaster’s house. Covered in fluffy topped weeds like a snow field, the piles of uncut stone hide a dauntingly large block. Where to even begin. The only way to conquer my overwhelm is to divide it into different zones. Give areas titles that seem laughably ambitious in their current barren state. A rubbishy slope becomes “The Orchard”, a desolate patch of red clay ” The Badminton Lawn”. When cleared it’s a pitted landscape with a single bent apple tree. To fill it instantly with tall shady trees!  But though gardening shares similarities with other design mediums- proportion, colour,scale – there is the presence of the fourth dimension – time.  It teaches you patience.

Past the dirt pile, the new, almost imperceptible orchard

The orchard planted early winter- with what looks like a pile of kindling- bare root stock.  In the ground they look slender, almost see through- 3 years till they bear fruit. The names of the trees delicious to list: plum, nectarine, pear, quince (grows well in old goldfields), apples, mulberry, pomegranate, peach.

The mysteriously names "Achillae Walter Funke" - 5 months after planting

A cottage garden out the front. The soil’s better there- evidence of planting by others over the years; perhaps the old school teachers after their long day’s lessons. Some potatoes, artichokes, roses and herbs growing among the weeds. The first step; to cover the front garden with ochre coloured gravel.  A harsh surface- a backdrop.  I want tall flowers growing, ones that come up to my waist, so I feel like I’m swimming in them.  Golden pinks, reds, purples.  Derek Jarman rated gardens on house “shaggy” they were – Monet’s was the ‘shaggiest garden in the world’.  I like the sound of that.

Before the land was cleared

Gravel scape- the plants go in

After the front garden has been cleared, weedmat and gravel down, flowers starting to grow

The almost pretty weed covering the block

In the garden

Fruit from a neighbour's garden

Quince tree over the road

The beginning

early morning light over the back fence.

One time, when I lived in a windswept salt drenched Bondi flat, I bought some cheap flower punnets to liven up the weed filled dirt patch out the front. Despite my ignorance, some small flowers grew & I realized how much I enjoyed messing around in the dirt. I started to want to know more about gardening & found a book by the British film director Derek Jarman. In the 80s he had bought a black tarred fisherman’s cottage on a bleak stretch of coastline in Dungeness, Kent. He started planting in a random way- sea kale, dog roses in between structures of salvaged driftwood and twisted pieces of metal. Slowly, his garden became a poem, a living sculpture- a valiant attempt at beauty in defiance of the nuclear power plant on the horizon & the ravages of his illness. His book inspired me to a different way of thinking. Gardening had seemed a mysterious complex process that involved knowing a lot about soil – now it held the potential for creativity.

Derek Jarman's garden

Photos by Howard Sooley

Many years later I stand outside a house on a neglected one acre block deep in the Australian countryside- the old school masters residence in a 19th century gold rush town… it’s for sale . The owner, an artist & stonecarver, is keen to sell & the price is low. Propelled by some strange instinct -I scrape together my savings, and take the plunge.

on the far side of the world. my closest neighbours. sometimes up to 40 of them over the back fence.

A city girl in a remote country town- like being on a ship at sea, sailing high up in the Australian bush. The town, once cosmopolitan, with pubs, businesses, an oyster bar & an opium den, feels enigmatic, out of time. Appearing at the end of the road through an avenue of trees, like Brigadoon. But what it does have is that rare thing- authenticity. No tourist prettification, no advertising signs. Barely 200 residents, many of them artists. The house itself run down, kind of unloved, sitting primly upright on a large bare block . Not romantic like the other miners shacks that seem as though they have grown out of the landscape. A solid double brick home ordered up by the education board and dropped in a country town a hundred years ago. The house is a blank canvas- a challenge. Like Jarman did, so far away & so long ago, I want to create my own world of beauty and simplicity.

This is the chronicle of the transformation of the old schoolmaster’s house & a rediscovery of the Australian countryside.

the main street - like an abandoned movie set, a western. the road into town.

the old schoolmaster's house, photo from over a year ago - much has changed.

following a bush trail

among the weeds and piles of stone were some beautiful heritage roses.