House of the week: Hawke's Bay sleepy seaside home
Amid layers of goat manure in a Hawke's Bay garden, a buried contact lens commemorates Tina Symmans' first visit to the property. Tina had taken a friend to view the two-bedroom cottage she wanted to buy, hoping for moral support and a sensible second opinion. Unfortunately, the building's eye-watering state left her friend helpless with laughter, weeping fat tears of amusement that washed her contact lens away.
By then, the friend had seen enough – unpleasant evidence left behind by two large goats that had been roaming through the home and, inexplicably, rodent carcasses pinned to the walls.
The garden, in the seaside village of Te Awanga, was overgrown and populated by derelict outbuildings. Undeterred, Tina handed over her deposit and set to work with spade and sandpaper. (She's since repeated the process with her guest accommodation Crabtree Cottage, NZ House & Garden, January 2017.)
Adventure is in her blood, she says. Decades ago, Tina's great- great-grandmother abandoned an aristocratic Danish husband to run away with a pirate. "Apparently she sailed with him as they plundered the seas. I think she was probably incarcerated but my mother used to tell us, 'There's gold bullion in the Portuguese Treasury that belongs to you.'"
The pirate's descendant prefers to seek her thrills on the banks of the Tukituki River, whitebait net in hand, or sailing through the corporate world navigating company directorships and political advisory roles. Her quiet cottage is a 20-minute drive from Napier's airport, which connects her to the Auckland and Wellington boardrooms where she spends roughly half the year.
Tina was a confirmed city-dweller in September 2001, when the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US spurred a re-evaluation of her lifestyle. "When I lived in Wellington, I was always on a plane to Auckland and then when I moved to Auckland, I was always on a plane to Wellington. I thought, this is madness. I'm more of a country girl than a city girl. I like to be outside and growing veges."
She initially bought and renovated a house in Havelock North before deciding the provincial town was still too urban for her needs. By winter 2003, she had purchased the cottage that "nobody in their right mind wanted".
"But I love small houses. I love making the best of something many people would disregard. I had this mad idea to go and do a sort of Te Awanga version of [navel-gazing novel] Eat, Pray, Love but it was more 'sweat, cry, hurt'. I didn't expect to find love or religion but I wanted to take time out of corporate life to recharge the batteries, in this place where I didn't know anyone."
Tina ripped out carpets and floor staples, sanded, painted and patched the place up enough to make it habitable for a few years. Later, she brought in qualified tradespeople to build, plumb and repair, as well as install an infrared sauna in the garage and a French-style slipper bath indoors.
The former holiday house was built after WWII, from scrounged materials and possibly flotsam and jetsam washed up on the beach. Tina's extensive landscaping efforts have uncovered evidence that the original owner was a fine gardener, who had planted plenty of roses.
"There are always things I'm going to change in the garden. Every plant in my garden has been moved about 18 times but I think I've finally got it right."
"At this stage I really just enjoy it. I love that all year I can pick quite big bunches of twigs or flowers. I just stuff the vases and it is ridiculously, voluptuously over the top. The smell and then the dropping of petals on the furniture with a thud. It's such a luxury."
There's also the joy of collecting walnuts from a local farm, then embarking on a two-week pickling process that involves pricking and brining and spreading the nuts on an old wire wove mattress to dry outdoors. The first stages are traditionally tackled by a team of friends who gather around the dining table with plenty of wine and cheese and a jar of well-aged walnuts.
She has found her place in the community of about 300 dwellings just west of Cape Kidnappers. In recent years, other city refugees have migrated in search of small town bonds and relaxed seaside living.
Local friends don't seem to mind receiving her in evening wear of pyjamas and slippers, with a raincoat thrown over the top. In late winter and spring, she relishes her contact with fellow whitebaiters.
"It's an activity that'll definitely keep you grounded. They're real Kiwis, they're fabulous and they couldn't be more removed from the corporate world."
Tina has also learned to master the transition from designer shoes to rural gumboots, washing away the scent of the city with a compulsory visit to the compost heap the minute she arrives home. Inspecting, turning it, reaffirming her ties to the soil.
She is yet to find any stray contact lenses among the worms.
I haven't lost: A penchant for designer shoes and handbags.
When I'm working in Auckland: I share a house in Freemans Bay that my friend owns. It's a grown-up flatting situation that's quite lovely.
Best money I ever spent: My slipper bath, which is deep and luxurious. It brings me joy just to look at it, whether I'm in it or not. It was bloody expensive, but worth its weight in gold after a day at the beach or whitebaiting in the river.
Best decorating tip: Don't be afraid to mix together things you love. Slavishly copying a certain style always results in a "me too" kind of look and, in order to be a home, a house needs to reflect the people that live in it.
Before she died: My mother bequeathed me her chainsaw but she also said it was very dangerous and I'd better get a new one.
Favourite local shops: So Vintage, The Plowman Collective [recently renamed Annabelle's] and Annabel Sinclair-Thomson's Paper-Works art gallery. I've also bought loads from Blue Moon.
- NZ House & Garden