Tucked away in Tai Tapu is an oasis for travellers.
Home on the range
Wander down the sheltered garden avenue at Ballymoney Farmstay and Garden in Tai Tapu and you will soon be surrounded by a feathery bevy of avian beauties, jockeying for a grainy handout and attention.
"Warble-warble, honk, peep-peep, coooo, gobble-gobble, bawwwk-bawk-bawk ..."
There are doves and ducks of various varieties, geese, a cackle of chooks, a white peacock and a couple of fat turkeys striding in the background.
"That turkey's had a reprieve," Merrilies Rebbeck says, pointing to the fatter one, which dodged the Christmas pot. Merrilies is the industrious and visionary owner of this working farm, where guests can enjoy country seclusion in the B&B amid nearly a hectare of enchanting garden, while getting to know the various rare breeds that live here, including saddleback pigs, dorset horn and gotland pelt sheep, dexter cattle and a gentle donkey from Ponui Island in the Hauraki Gulf.
"We were always farming the land, but with the B&B people, we thought it would be nice to get rare breeds as well."
The cattle are dual-purpose, for beef and milk, and the sheep are mainly bred for meat. "The gotland pelt wool was used for The Lord of the Rings cloaks because it is a curly coat and has quite nice colours," Merrilies says.
First impressions are often lasting. As you drive in among the towering poplars and enveloping greenery, to be welcomed by birdsong and dogs Mabel and Bertie, a sense of calm descends.
This mood intensifies the further into the property you go. There are lattice-walled garden seats and pergolas, heavy with roses, and a path to the front door through parterre gardens. A winter-flowering camellia is espaliered on the leading wall.
Just inside the front door is the formal sitting and dining room, and, beyond that, a suntrap conservatory with comfy chairs in which to read and dream, or watch potted tomatoes ripen. There are terracotta tiles, sisal matting and Turkish carpets underfoot. Striking carved masks from the Gili Islands in Indonesia, collected on overseas trips, hang above the doors.
The Rebbeck family has lived here for 30 years, since Kurow-born Merrilies returned from Ireland with Peter, her Irish husband, and the first of their three daughters.
"The place we lived in Ireland was called Ballymoney. It has a similar climate to this, but not as good," she says.
Merrilies is now widowed, but the house remains the pivot for the family and brood of grandchildren, as well as being a welcoming space for guests and friends.
When the family first arrived in Canterbury, they lived for about seven years in a house not far from their present location. There was little land there, though, and the girls were becoming interested in riding ponies, so they needed more space.
When they first saw the 12-hectare property that would become Ballymoney (it has since been subdivided into three blocks), there was an old, character-free house sitting on a largely bare acreage, but they could see the property's potential.
The Rebbecks bought and moved in, and as the years passed, they added on, renovated and added on some more. "It was just a two-bedroom house and we added on in every direction," Merrilies says.
Now, it's an appealing agglomeration of comfortable rooms and intriguing corners, dressed with antique furniture brought from Ireland or collected through the years from junk shops, combined with contemporary upholstery. Historic prints and paintings or bold, splashy artworks painted by one of the Rebbeck daughters fill all available wall space.
All the rooms lead off the heart and hearth of the home, the main living area.
Hardwood panelling, put up by earlier owners, has been removed from the walls and doors, and the floorboards have been polished to reveal the liquid-honey patina of the original kauri and matai woodwork.
"It was very kitsch," Merrilies says. "The fireplace had been covered over to be 'modernised', so we removed that and put in the Rayburn. It had been a coal range before."
The Rayburn wood-fired stove is both a cooker and source of heating for the home. From the stove and the tight little wooden-walled kitchen, with its stainless-steel benchtops and pantry room off to one side, emerge slow-cooked culinary masterworks and hearty farmhouse meals using the wide range of specialty produce grown on the property.
Despite the winter chills on the Canterbury Plains, extra heating is hardly ever required because the Rayburn is so efficient, Merrilies says. There is also a rarely used heat pump and a panel heater in the guest room.
A cosy television-cum-library room is tucked around the corner beyond the fireplace and the master bedroom is nearby.
A feature of the main bathroom, with its ticking wallpaper, is an inviting sunken bath.
The main guest room and bathroom accommodates two, with twin iron bedsteads, rugs and runners, shelves of books and a large utilities cupboard for fridge and television. Doors open on to a wooden deck with rustic furniture.
A wee double room next door, with a stack of leather suitcases as an ersatz shelf in the old fireplace, is let in tandem with the main guestroom. "We sometimes get Japanese tourists and they love this little room," Merrilies says.
Beyond the kitchen, there's a large porch for shoes, gumboots, other working gear and retriever Bertie's bed. Outside, the ground is paved with bricks and roses climb up a trellis leading to a tiny, self-contained cottage, decorated in yellow and blue gingham, which contains a single and a queen-sized bed.
The beautiful garden, an attraction in itself, is an expression of Merrilies' visual artistry. There might have been planning here, but everything - from the mature specimen trees and dove cotes to annual borders, potted plants and bricked walkways - looks as though it landed fully formed and comfortable with its placement.
As well as the B&B guests, the garden attracts individuals, interest groups, garden clubs and is a regular destination for elderly rest home residents.
"When we came, it was nothing - a tin fence and a few trees," Merrilies says, pointing to an old black-and-white photograph.
The Rebbecks planted the surrounding poplars as protection from the fierce winds and divided the garden into separate outdoor spaces - open grassed areas, avenues, woodland sections and a large pond enjoyed by all the birds, domestic and visiting.
There is also an undercover outdoor entertainment area with seating for 40 people, plus a barbecue and pizza oven.
Beyond the carefully landscaped garden is the farm proper, with farm sheds for haystacks and machinery, implements and chopped firewood. Guests can see more of this on daily farm and feed-the-animals tours, when they are not playing petanque, croquet or using the spa pool.
Closer to the farmhouse is an extensive house garden, a work always in progress, with zucchini plants, raspberry canes, tomatoes, potatoes, citrus, strawberries under wire cloches, beetroot, cabbages, redcurrants and so on.
Merrilies also caters for weddings and garden lunches, with produce from the farm, house garden, fruit trees and nut trees, including 100 chestnuts planted by her late husband.
Everywhere at Ballymoney there is something interesting to look at and often there is a story attached. On the way out, a Rubenesque oil painting of a horse's head - all nostrils flared and mane a-flying - catches my eye. Its lively and somewhat romantic presence, magnified by an ornate gilded frame, is a far cry from those stately, but perhaps more prosaic, portraits of champion dressage ponies or race-winners.
The painting's provenance matches the romance of Merrilies's name: "It is a family name. Keats wrote a poem about an old gypsy called Meg Merrilies, so maybe I was a gypsy in a former life."
Merrilies found the painting in a gutter outside a shop in Ireland, thrown there, frame and all, by the proprietor, who had no use for it. Whether it is valuable or a folly by some unknown artist dreamer is moot; Merrilies has no interest in finding out. She loves it for what it is and enjoys its mystery.