THE “FOR SALE, 4 ACRES” sign was on West Creek Road, 10 minutes north of Wonthaggi. A nondescript driveway took off up a hill, just car tracks really. They’d been ignoring it for a couple of years.
Maddy Harford and Harry Freeman were fired by a shared dream – to retire to a rural setting and live sustainably. They’d started actively looking around 2002. It helped when Maddy’s job in the public service was restructured and she made a decision to set up her own consultancy business. “It freed us up to search more widely,” she says.
There were some constraints. They’d brought their children up in the Dandenong Ranges; they loved it there but they’d been priced out. Maddy’s mother had become ill and needed attention. And they realised they would eventually need to be near services for themselves.
Yarram appealed but was too far away for them to see much of their friends or any future grandchildren. Inverloch had charm; Wonthaggi really interested them. They preferred its working town character. “We were struck by its history,” says Maddy. “It had a hospital, a nursing home, lots of op shops; it seemed like a real town.” The price difference was another plus.
Finally, knowing that planning regulations would allow them to demolish and replace the original farmhouse, they went to see what lay up that nondescript track. And at that precise point the stars slid into alignment. A huge billy goat blocking the driveway was the first indication. Where the real estate agent, wrestling it off the track, feared damage to life and vehicle, Harry and Maddy saw only an auspicious sign. They loved goats.
Up in the Dandenongs they’d inherited a goat called Marcus and over time added two nannies to the household. With little previous contact with animals, the experience changed them. They discovered goats had personalities, they were bright. “There was this revelation, that they could be something other than a stock animal.” Maddy laughs and says: “At the end of a long workday I could sit down with Marcus and a glass of wine and unwind.”
The hazard negotiated, they continued up to the ridge and turned west towards the old farmhouse. A panorama opened up. Powlett River flats and Wonthaggi to the south. Strzelecki foothills to the north, everything lush and green. This was it. The perfect site.
And so the fusing of dream and work began. And what Harry and Maddy call “a pattern of serendipity”.
The plan was to become as self-sufficient as possible. With the old farmhouse gone it was literally a green fields site, just grass and cypresses and a beautiful old shed. They stood where the old milk shed had been and decreed, “Here be the orchard, here be the veggie garden.”
They designed their house to be low energy and sustainable. They milled the cypresses on site, barrowing the mulch into the garden, using the planks in the deck. And over time, they built a house that is warmed by the sun.
The physical work on the property, especially the house, has been enormously satisfying to them both, particularly Harry. Everything they hoped for has worked. They describe the passive solar design and show you the Trombe walls through which the air is heated and circulated through the rooms.
In their life together, they’d “shared the destination but followed different paths”. Maddy is more task oriented, good at getting things done. She’ll tell you with some satisfaction that the kitchen she bought on EBAY fitted exactly! Harry, she says, is better at talking to people, gathering up different points of view. “He’s quite creative in that way.” Here, at West Creek Road, both sets of skills were needed.
It’s been a learning experience in all kinds of ways. When their first spring produced a jaw-dropping rush of growth, they called in local slasher Terry Watson. Over a cup of tea he told them: “I know this place, I used to play here as a child.” “And that’s how we got to know the history of the old Armitage farm,” says Maddy. It gave them a richer connection to the property – and the Wonthaggi nursing home built with the Armitage family bequest.
Up to that point they hadn’t understood how important those connections with these old families might feel ─ that it was about legacy, the sense that they’d become part of an evolving way of life, part of the larger, human story of a changing relationship with the environment.
When they told Terry they were interested in alpacas, he directed them to his sister, Mary Membrey, an alpaca breeder. Later, when they mentioned they also wanted goats to keep the grass down, she introduced them to Jean and Ted Stedmann. “As soon as a question was asked there was always an answer – someone would turn up who would help us out,” Harry says. “We realised we’d just assumed that old farming families – the sort with roads named after them, like Watson and Membrey ─ would be hard to get to know.”
“I thought we’d be relying on our friends back in Melbourne,” Maddy confesses. “It wasn’t that I wouldn’t be trying hard but the easiest entree into a new community is through children and ours were grown up.”
They’ve been surprised by how easy it’s been to join local groups. Harry tutors people in the Karen (Burmese) community, sings with the Mitchell House Singers and is in the Bass Coast Chorale.
Maddy’s involved in Groundswell, the Community Energy Project, Mitchell House, the Community Art Gallery and this year she’s chairing the Energy and Innovation Co-operative and is involved with the council’s education plan reference group. She’s impressed by the fact that the Bass Coast Council is one of only three councils in the state which is developing an education plan.
This acceptance of newcomers has led to a dynamic mix of new and old, says Harry. “There’s a real seam of creativity in and around Wonthaggi and the Bass Coast. This has been an absolute bonus for us. We hadn’t anticipated that at all.”
So while their sustainability project and immediate environment looms large in their consciousness ─ “I look out every morning and feel a shock of joy,” says Maddy – they’re surprised to find that sometimes their connections in Wonthaggi feel as important to them as their work on the property.
Harry, a scientist with a PhD in chemistry, drove taxis in the district for three years and thrived on his conversations with his passengers. Maddy says he would come home with wonderful stories from people who’d travelled in his cab.
Maddy’s an extrovert. “Being with other people energises me,” she says. “The way we’ve been able to integrate with the town has been a wonderful thing for me. It’s fulfilled so many needs, intellectually and socially. Making strong friendships ... It doesn’t happen so much as we get older.”
Their retirement project has invigorated them. “We go to Melbourne less and less,” says Harry. “The big thing about this is that there’s been a new challenge in our life. It’s kept me a lot younger than I would have been.”
Looking back, it seems to have all happened organically. Embarking on something that’s open-ended and open to challenge, they’ve been able to reinvent themselves and be surprised.
September 10, 2015
Thank you Maddy and Harry, and Gill Heal, for so eloquently expressing what so many of us have so unexpectedly found here: a sense of belonging.
September 9, 2015
I found last Saturday's edition very moving, particularly Last Orders and Newcomers Welcome; great to be able to read in depth articles about local people.
September 9, 2015
Great story - loved it. Well done to both of you.