Real, Raw Beauty

There’s a spareness, a lack of clutter in the country. The textures are different to the city. There’s more old, rusted things, lots of spare parts lying around. Sometimes they’ve been there so long that they are bleached like a bone- simmered down to an essence. Machine skeletons.

the bones of a petrol pump

the texture of a gum tree

Looking through a book on Georgia O’Keefe’s houses – you can see how she embraced this aesthetic. The cow’s skulls, the simple black and white clothes, the houses with minimal, purist furnishings. Objects gathered from nature. Stripped back, her spaces become timeless.

Georgia O’Keefe’s studio, photo by the National Park Service

up above the clouds

old cars out at the tip

Sometimes when friends stay I show them the village’s tip: a drive out into the bush, then an area with a big hole in the ground that you throw garbage into. Wild cats and crows scatter around when you come close. Next to the hole is a pile of twisted metal and old cars. It’s so different to the way waste is treated in the city. Somehow it makes you pause. An avant garde theatre director could stage a Samuel Beckett play here.

I like these layers, this access to other eras. It’s not the pretty side of the country – the lambs gamboling, the huge fragrant roses blooming. But it is real. Authentic.

the herd of wild goats that roams near the lookout… ….now I just need to find some of their horns

Spring in the Old Schoolmasters Garden

Spring is new growth, new beginnings. In the old schoolmasters garden plans that once seemed endlessly stalled, now come effortlessly into being. Decisions are made. The garage/shed is finally painted barn red. The rustic structure at the back of the courtyard is finished off – the infill made of loose cross hatched logs sourced from the local area.

blue buttons & lavender

the shed now painted red

There is an excess of prettiness in the country in spring. Swallows mate and nest, abundant lilac sweeps over old rustic fences and the garden is alive with the sound of bees. Everywhere a constant reminder of growth.

lilac gathered from a back country lane

In the gravel garden there has been a glorious eruption of irises along the path. A subtle yet heady scent emanates from them- it could be a rare perfume from a small Parisian boutique. A couple of years ago all this was contained in a basket of bulbs- a gift from a friend’s garden. Now all this beauty. Like a real life Van Gogh.

heritage iris

…the iris path

I suppose you could take it all as encouragement really. To keep going – scheming, planting, dreaming. It may yet one day all pay off…

new neighbours – some shy swallows

Old & New in Bordeaux

the bakery at Magasin General in Bordeaux

After a week of travelling through quaint little French towns it was invigorating to arrive in Bordeaux. Here was that mix of old and new that fractures and enlivens. The grand old boulevards giving way to the medieval cobbled streets and secret passageways – enough for the tourist world but with plenty left over for the locals.

heading down the long roads to Bordeaux

arriving in Bordeaux

The first stop out of the hot and dusty Smart Car- the Magasin General complex. Walking with slightly cramped limbs up to the startling entrance; a mass of ornate vintage chairs in a covered space between two warehouse, connected by an overhead walkway made out of swirling salvaged wood. Magasin General is an unusual mix of bistro and grocery store that also sells artisan bread and surfboards. It has the look of a place that would have attracted people from the very start- its random mix of old and new materials sending off radar signals of vibrance and energy.

the dynamic Magasin General complex

the entrance to the bistro…

Back over on the main bank of Bordeaux, I see my paltry 24 hours are no match for a city of this complexity. With some recommendations from fellow Instagrammer Caroline Gomez, a local designer who favours a natural and slow approach to her craft , I find my way to the fresh and lovely Plume Small Kitchen behind the Cathedral in the old quarter. Later a wander down the Rue Notre Dame, home to unique clothing & design shops , including the Scandinavian home wares boutique o design where Caroline’s work is sold.

the lovely Plume cafe

topiary time…

So just a taste of Bordeaux. A little sip. But definitely one you where you would nod to the waiter and ask them to fill your glass….

the grand boulevards of Bordeaux

Palais des Papes

Seen jet lagged, through the mist, the Palais des Papes doesn’t seem to be quite of this world. Almost hovering above the ground – in a children’s book illustration it would be built on clouds…

outside the Palais des Papes

a hall that almost feels modern

In the Middle Ages when Avignon was the centre of Western Christianity, the Palais des Papes was the residence of 6 successive popes. The Medieval architecture a mixture of simplicity and power, it is the biggest Gothic palace in Europe.

There are large groups of tourists passing through, but the surprising thing is how easily you can sidestep them, spending quiet time in the massive rooms, stepping through the pools of filtered light from the mullioned windows. The grace and scale of the large halls, the depths of the secret treasury and the view out over the gargoyles make for an over whelming experience.

up looking down

autumn coloured ivy

In a way it is a castle mixed with a church. A rare & beautiful building. Its power radiates through the historical centre of Avignon.


Sometimes a house is more than a house, it carries the imprint of a way of living and an approach to life. Such is Meroogal, a much loved house built in the nineteenth century primarily inhabited by the four Thorburn sisters. Heading south out of Sydney, through the rain and towards the now vivid green hills round Nowra, you come across Meroogal on the corner of a suburban block. Painted in a pale fresh mint green colour, the architecture a gingerbread style called Carpenter Gothic; it charms from first glance.

the laundry at Meroogal

the back door

Inside, it’s a 100 year old time capsule. The lighting is dim, to preserve the delicate fabrics. It’s not styled or redone in heritage colours; it feels genuinely old. The bedrooms up under the eaves are the most endearing. With sloping ceilings and the walls painted half pink half blue its easy to imagine the Big Bad Wolf awaiting Little Red Riding Hood here; lupine features obscured by the shadows falling around the iron bed.

fairytale tree ferns

It’s when you hear the story of the Thoburn sisters that the house comes to life. It’s impressive and strangely invigorating to hear of their lifestyle and routines. In summer the sisters rose early, often at 4:30 am. Household chores commenced; flowers were picked and arranged, the laundry started, soap made, kindling collected and an abundance of fruit gathered from the orchard. They had afternoon siestas and read Dickens by kerosene lamps in the evening. There was much baking at Meroogal: fruit pies, Christmas cakes, scones, pikelets, soda loaves, shortbread and apple cake – a lot of friends visiting from Sydney. The sisters made their own clothes and frugally repaired them. It’s appropriate that there is now a yearly Meroogal Women’s art prize where artists respond to the house and grounds and have their art works displayed there.

a bedroom of charm

cupboard with fabric for doors

Heading back through Berry and a nourishing late lunch at the Sourdough Cafe. An exploration of the picturesque main street revealed some finds- I’d known about the extensive embroidery shop, but was new to the unexpected treasures of the Moss Nest store( subtitled flotsam & flora for nature lovers) and found a great hat in Little Rae ( clothing, lifestyle, home, cacti)next door. There’s an artistic spirit in Berry: I think the Thorburn sisters would have liked it here.

The Moss Shop in Berry

moody hills

Simplicity in the City: Vaucluse House

Early morning with the fog horns sounding on Sydney Harbour; Vaucluse House mysterious in the mist. Entering the grounds like walking into a Somerset Maugham novella. The architecture is British but the warmth of the sandstone and the depth of the verandah tell of warmer climes.

the red earth drive that leads you in…

view of the house from the vegetable garden

Bought in 1827 by the explorer and politician William Wentworth and his wife Sarah, Vaucluse House was developed over the next five decades and used to cover most of the present suburb. Now it’s run by the Historic Houses Trust – one of Sydney’s few remaining 19th century mansions still surrounded by its original gardens.

fairy tale like pumpkins in the vegetable patch

a path through the Pleasure Garden

I think they were romantics William and Sarah. Maybe they read Byron and Shelley round the fireside. The garden has rills and tree ferns and hidden corners. The approach to the house from the car park is over a little bridge, then through a ‘Pleasure Garden’ with towering exotic flowering plants and shrubs. Palms frame the house. There’s a time in spring when purple wisteria envelopes the verandah.

the kitchen with rows of copper jelly moulds on the shelves

Going into the house it’s the servants quarters that are now the most desirable spaces. They seem strangely luxurious; the huge copper pans shining, the fire going during the day, a large table hit by shafts of sunlight. The scale and the spareness appeal. In the busyness of today, time spent in such a kitchen would be a pleasure – a thought no doubt surprising to a scullery maid of the Wentworths.

the fire going during the day

old fashioned geranium leaves that smell like peppermint

Some recent additions to the House are a large and impressive vegetable garden, with a possum proof cactus fence, and some chickens, ducks and goats. It’s relaxing just to wander about…

exploring the old stables

mountain goat perched on fig tree roots

It seems a rarity now- a beautiful space devoid of commerce. Instead of wanting something from you it actually gives you something; ideas for the garden, inspiration for the kitchen. And a little quietude.

Hidden Cafes by the Harbour

There’s a great theatre to Sydney Harbour. It starts as you head down to Circular Quay, with strange unexpected glimpses of the Harbour Bridge; its powerful curve bisected by skyscrapers . The buildings get older and grander, the distinct yellow ochre colouring of the Sydney sandstone more dominant. Old partially forgotten monuments like obelisks and huge anchors start appearing – remnants of the former naval colony.

there she is…

on the Department of Education facade

It’s the business end of town, the tourist world held at bay by the barrier of the Cahill Expressway, an example of myopic 20th century city planning. Street wear generally fits into one of two categories: grey suits or fluoro jackets. Yet a change has crept into this fast moving somewhat impersonal world over the last 18 months – interesting, original cafes & bars have opened.

Marlowe’s Way which looks onto the Tankstream Way

At Marlowe’s Way in the Tankstream Way where they play vinyl records and serve good coffee, the owner says that he likes being in the working end of town. And it does stop things getting too pretentious: there’s no one scene but a mix of different types. More a bustle of people coming in and out- a vibrancy that’s mirrored just over in Bulletin Place with Cabrito Brothers, which spills into the lane way and above it the secret bar Bulletin Place.

old sandstone arch

Bulletin Place bar

at Cabrito Coffee

I’ve always loved that meeting point of unpretentiousness and good design. Usually it means a space that is buzzy yet comfortable. Maybe that’s the best of what big city can offer…

Future Country

Melbourne’s always been that bit ahead of Sydney. A few years ago people would return from down south with stories of small, intimate bars, lane ways vibrant and full of cafes. Sydney had to play catch up. Now there’s another area where Melbourne has stolen ahead; a changing cultural landscape in country towns. Creative people moving out, starting businesses – bringing a fresh energy to the historic Gold Rush towns of Kyneton, Trentham & Castlemaine.

in the Midnight Squirrel in Kyneton

the wonderful shop Kabinett

Just back from a short trip to Kyneton, staying at the cosy & adorable Flophouse, a golden recommendation from an Instagram connection, photographer Tara Pearce who lives there and who is mapping this trend with her new IG account – the Out of Towners. Before I came she told me that new places were opening up all the time. A ‘Lost Trades’ Fair had been held at the beginning of the year, showcasing ancient trades and traditional crafts.

driving through peaceful pastures

an unusual solicitor’s office in Kyneton

Sure enough, the historic Piper St is full of paddock to plate restaurants and shops with the sort of industrial antiques usually found in inner city areas. Beautiful locally sourced dinners at The Midnight Starling and generous breakfasts at Localita. Kabinett was so well curated it has its own dreamy atmosphere. Further out Castlemaine is attracting an artist population.

“Wolfie” from the Flophouse

nestled in…

Could this be a direction for the country towns of NSW? It’s hard to say. With the new freeway, Kyneton is little over an hour from Melbourne. To get to Bathurst or Mudgee from Sydney it’s over three times that. But with the connectivity of the internet bringing work, ideas and inspiration combined with the cheaper cost of living in the country side… it’s possible…

Visiting the mysterious and powerful Hanging Rock, which is close to Kyneton

Learning to Love a Winter Landscape

‘You should learn to love the winter landscape’ a friend recently told me – ‘You get see the bones and the shapes that lie underneath.’ I’d never thought of it like that. Usually I’d use terms like ‘barren’, ‘desolate’ and ‘gnarled’ to describe it. Missing the colour of Autumn, the bucolic prettiness of Spring. Seeing it in terms of something lacking.

a curious alpaca

the rustic fire pit structure

But a few flowers still struggle on in the garden- even an abundance of lavender, which would seem to be breaking the rules. Surprisingly a couple of narcissus have popped their heads out; misled by the unseasonal warm weather into thinking that it is their time.

The air is very cool and bright and clear. It seems to have health giving properties; the kind of oxygenated tonic prized by 19th century European alpine resorts. I go to visit Golden Gully for the first time; it is remarkable. An area on the outskirts of Hill End where the Chinese camped & mined during in the Gold Rush. Walking through giant termite like mounds, the gully leads to a magnificent arch. No one else is around; a forgotten tourist site, eerie and beautiful. There’s a silence that seems like it is trying to tell you something.

winter cheer: records and fire

in Golden Gully

In his inspiring book ‘A Time of Gifts’, Patrick Leigh Fermor said that if you spent time in a great European city in the off season, you became an honorary citizen. Maybe that links to the secret of winter in the country- if you know its rawness, its essence, then subtly your connection deepens…

The Kangaroos Leave Town

I’d been away for a while & I’d heard that the kangaroos had left town. It had rained and rained and the grass was all green and lush, like Ireland, – so the kangaroos didn’t need to come out of the bush anymore to feed on the village Common.

I was already missing them. It’s a privilege, never quite taken for granted, to get so near to a group of wild animals. Not too close, there’s always something of an edge to human/ kangaroo interaction. Better to look from a slight distance, no need to find out where the phrase ‘boxing kangaroo’ came from…

But the village with out the kangaroos- like a Western with out cowboys. Missing the drama.

At first it seemed to be holding true, but then, the first sighting; one of the old males who has been forced out of the mob and who sticks close to town. Always a slightly haughty look, as if trying to hold onto past dignity.

They were still there, more on the edges of town, gathering in the dusk. A couple in the slightly comical reclining “Roman” pose near the camping ground. Still there, for now, those other magical inhabitants of the village.