Budding venue

SARAH FOY
Last updated 11:45 07/12/2012
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ROBERT CHARLES
Hathaway House on Stratford's main highway

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This story has a lovely symmetry. It involves an old house, gracious grounds and two people linked strongly to Stratford.

Judith and Wayne Gilmer own Hathaway House on Stratford's main highway.

At a time when couples might be contemplating easy-care sections, soothing sea views and benign homes, they took on a historic home, turned it into bed-and-breakfast accommodation and spent eons of time in the garden.

Blame Judith. "I took one look and it was all over for me," jokes the Taranaki Chamber of Commerce general manager.

The couple shifted from Auckland back to Taranaki about five years ago. They bought a house in New Plymouth. Judith became chamber general manager and Wayne got a managerial post at United Steel in Bell Block.

"We'd got that house sorted and I think we looked at each other one day and said, 'We're getting too old too quickly'," remembers Judith.

She had been past Hathaway House countless times, as Stratford was her hometown.

One day, driving past it with colleague Bob Anderson, she noticed it was on the market and told him she had had a dream about it. "He said, 'For goodness sake, go and have a look at it'."

There was a family connection. Wayne's great aunt, Belle Barlow, lived in the house from 1936 until 1973 and his mother and aunt recalled childhood trips there.

She suggested to Wayne that they look around it. "He shook his head. I think he knew what work was involved."

But the romantic Judith won out. It turned out, she says, that the house was in remarkable condition.

Previous owner Bert Van Veen, who bought it in 2005, had developed the grounds and built a stage on the small lake on the property. A good heating system with hot-water column heaters was already operating and the kitchen was modern.

Really, all that was required was interior redecoration.

"We painted and painted and reoiled and reoiled [the timber]" after they moved in three years ago, says Judith.

Upstairs the two-storeyed villa contains four bed-and-breakfast rooms with enviable views of the mountain and surrounding countryside. Downstairs are the living areas, including the formal dining room, Judith's favourite room in the house.

The plan was to run it as a bed and breakfast, with daughter Lisa staffing the establishment, but Lisa began working at the Chamber, so the Gilmers settled on weekend guest accommodation. In addition, they host weddings and other functions.

Having overseas guests is part of the symmetry. The chamber promotes business, one element of which is tourism - domestic and international.

In a sense, Judith is blending home and work life.

"We have met some fantastic people - absolutely lovely.

"If they leave with a feeling of having being at home, then that's what it's all about."

The house was in good shape and so were the grounds, except that Judith sought a more elegant, prettier feeling to the 2.4-hectare property, one-third of which is in cultivated garden.

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"I honestly think the cottage, floral garden is my preference."

She is a self-taught gardener and toiling outdoors is therapeutic. No doubt she also gains fulfilment from her endeavours. Many, many plants have been shifted and divided up, and many parts of the garden altered.

"I don't think anything is in the same place as it was when we arrived. It's been about tidying up and putting our own flavour into the place."

A rose garden used to sit in an oval shape right at the front. That was grassed over and the roses dispersed to other parts. Now, box hedging, iceberg roses, and mounds of Choisya ternata (mexican orange blossom) fill the front in an orderly, square garden.

To one side of the house a wide lawn is bordered by curving gardens full of mature rhododendrons, camellias and magnolias, as well as native plants, perennials, small trees like maples and many flowers, such as lupins, roses, poppies, abutilon and foxgloves.

Along the south-facing boundary is a large aviary housing doves. Judith is letting box hedge grow in a slightly topsy turvey fashion to hide the aviary. Initially, she hacked the hedging back, before she realised it was better to let it grow at will.

The size of the garden dictates what can and can't be done.

"I couldn't afford to go out and buy everything, so I've learnt to propagate and make things go further by splitting them up. It's been good fun."

In previous gardens, she might have pulled out things emerging in the wrong spot. Here, she lets them flourish or finds a new spot for them.

Wayne has been her right-hand man. She jokes about the couple's Honey Do list. "As soon as something comes off the top, something goes on the bottom."

Lisa has helped in the bed and breakfast and her partner, landscaper Layne McDonald, gives garden advice.

"It's been a collaboration of all our skills. That's why we did think we could take on this project."

The area behind the house is broken up into different areas defined by pergolas and a slope down to the lake.

On the flat, where chickens once roamed, Judith has created floral gardens. Many flowers are purple and blue such as irises, lavender, delphinium and burgundy iceberg roses.

Other colourful blooms add to the cottage-style mix below taller plants, such as the canna lily 'Tropicana' or the wedding cake tree, or natives such as grislinia or pittosporum.

From here, Judith points to new planting on the slope looking out over the lake. Grass used to carpet the ground, but a wave of the bronze- coloured ornamental grass carex has replaced it.

To get down the slope, the Gilmers added steps. They are much kinder on brides in high heels, she says. The couple also added rails around the stage to improve its safety.

Getting to the stage involves a short stroll across a bridge. On this side, established shrubs and trees received a harsh trim. The Gilmers have dotted new plants around, adding moisture- tolerant specimens close to the water, as well as new patches of turf.

Some people marry on the stage, with guests seated on the platform or gathered casually around the edge.

Back on the mainland, Judith also maintains a vegetable garden and fruit trees. She plans to introduce more edibles, converting the paddock into an orchard.

Meanwhile, she is satisfied with the achievements to date. "You feel like you are getting to the stage where you have achieved something, whereas before, it felt like there was always something to do."

She adores hosting weddings because "it's such a lovely atmosphere".

But lazing on the new deck watching blushing brides tie the knot doesn't figure in the conversation.

"I don't really have that much time to reflect. Between full-time work and running this, life is pretty busy."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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