In July 2006 I took early retirement from the school where I had served for over twenty years (a life sentence?) and swapped my 1896 suburban two-storey house for a small cottage on a vineyard in Northern Tasmania.
After a life spent in classrooms and offices, the chance to lead an outdoor life doing physical labour was a huge and very welcome change. Peter Mayles may have spent a year in Provence, but I spent two years in Piper’s Brook – also known as Paradise. Occasionally I told friends that I was the unwashed, unpaid local labourer on the vineyard, but Pat and Ian – my friends who owned the vineyard – richly paid me many times over by looking after my house in Hobart, by feeding me lavish meals (far better than my micro-waved disasters) when they came up to the vineyard every weekend, and by making sure I had a seemingly endless supply of bubbles.
Bellingham Estate Vineyard was a new direction, too, for Pat and Ian, both of whom had spent their lives with their noses buried in account books and ledgers. Their inky fingertips and gnawed erasers on the end of stubby pencils were swapped for work boots, heavy gloves and sunhats every weekend as they worked to improve what had been, before they bought it, a pretty run-down and overgrown farm. Calculators, computers and adding machines were replaced by tractors, pruning shears, industrial spray pumps and crates and cartons and boxes and buckets-full of grapes and wine bottles waiting for labels.
As in many businesses, much of the year was solid hard work and drudgery – interspersed with many festive times on the farm.
They need just the right amount of sunshine – but not too much. They need just the right amount of rain – but not too much. They are not very fond of heavy frosts and while they by nature would like to run wild, they have to be kept in harness by their bosses.
Perhaps it is actually the other way around: they keep their bosses under control, insisting on being carefully trained to grow in the right direction, insisting that nets are draped over them to stop the birds from eating too many (although the nets do not stop the drunken chickens who ran along the rows doing high jumps to pluck low-hanging grapes), and endless pruning, weeding, spraying, talking to, tying down and … finally … being harvested.
I can now understand why, in mediaeval times, the harvest festival was such an important time for the villages, for the churches and for the people. This was the time when the whole year’s work was judged. Had all that toil and worry paid off? Were the grapes ready? Had too many developed botrytis? Had the birds / chickens / hungry lodgers eaten too many of them? In ancient villages, the church was decked with the finest sprays of young corn, with heavy bunches of grapes and shining apples.
At Bellingham, the grapes welcomed the pickers.
For two or three days the vineyard was alive with frantic activity as friends, neighbours, owners and unwashed labourers plied fiercely sharp finger-snipping secateurs, and as scores of recycled buckets were dropped along each row of grapes to be filled with carefully snipped bunches. The buckets were then loaded onto a tractor-drawn trailer and whisked off into a shady shed where they were tipped into vast bins ready for transportation to the wine maker … who crushed them, carefully blended the juices, stored them in vast stainless steel tanks, decanted the wine into bottles, corked it, aged it, labelled it …. and popped the cork and served it in crystal flutes held high by the aficionados of fine wines.
But that is the end … and we have not really got to the middle yet.
Let’s start at the beginning
Pat’s and Ian’s Bellingham Estate Vineyard was quite a small affair – just seven hectares in total, with two hectares of Chardonnay and Riesling grapes, with one row of – perhaps – Moschata Paradisa, a very rare heritage varietal colloquially known as “The Pope’s Grapes”. The vineyard was an ideal size to be managed by a small group of workers who were learning as they went.
- Oh well – let’s try this and see what happens!
- What happened last time?
- Yes – but that was then!
I admired Pat’s determination, courage and never-say-die approach to life and the vineyard enormously. Each week as she and Ian left to return to Hobart and a life among the business books of the companies they were auditing I asked for my weekly list of tasks:
- So – what do you want me to do while you are away?
- Oh nothing – just enjoy yourself and the peace and quiet.
- No no no! I really need to do something!
- Oh well, then perhaps you could …
… and so I would find myself trying to drive a tractor with its whirling blades underneath mowing the lawns around “the homestead” and the weeds between the rows of grapes and trying not to damage the blades too often (but more often than I wanted) by trying to trim the rocks hidden beneath the weeds, using plastic ties pulled from sodden pockets in an icy wind to tie down young branches and blowing on blue finger tips, and feeding the chooks:
– Here chook chook chook!
… but only one “Chook!” was usually necessary as they would come running for their breakfast as soon as they heard the bang of a tin lid on the feed bin.
I did have television and Internet and an endless supply of books in my cottage and in the main house, but the poultry were almost enough of an entertainment to keep me happy without resorting to other forms of diversion.
There was the tiny black cat that thought it was a chook.
This tiny furry thing appeared one day – none of us knew where it came from – and it just assumed its right to a place among the animals of the vineyard. It was not a very clever thing as it did not seem to notice that small furry black animals were quite different from small red-feathered animals, and so it shared water bowls and chicken feed with the dozen or so chickens we had. It would approach mother hen and rub itself on her spindly legs and purr … although mother hen would look at it quizzically and peck it occasionally as if to say
- Oi! Gerraway with you! You ain’t one of mine!
… but little black cat took no notice and continued to feed and play with its feathered friends. I used to feed it more feline food inside the gated entry to my cottage – where the chooks could not steal it before she had eaten it.
And one day she disappeared.
She arrived unannounced and disappeared the same way. None of us knew where or why she went. One day she was part of the extended Bellingham family – and the next day she was not.
The dozen or so chickens had also grown to two dozen or more by this time – still coming running when the tin lid was bashed, and all clucking off contentedly to the hen house by the barn each night, there to do their chookly duties and to keep us in abundant supply of eggs until …
The Great Massacre
One night all was well … quiet contended clucks here and there, rustling of feathers in dust baths beside the garden, arrogant rooster bullying those below him in the social orders, and, no doubt, little black cat that thought itself a chook purring beside Old Red mother hen.
In the morning, great clouds of bloodied feathers greeted us – and not a living soul (do chooks have souls or spirits?) was to be seen.
We never found out what had happened but presume that a wild animal of some sort – or even a feral cat that KNEW it was a cat – entered the hen house and chopped and chewed and clawed its way through the entire population, sparing only one or two plucky – and unplucked – hens who managed to escape.
The egg harvest after TGM was greatly reduced and the eggs became much more difficult to gather as the survivors never again entered the lovely hen house, but squawked their way up to the upper branches of garden trees (eggs laid there did not survive the fall), flew up to the rafters of the cattle shed, hid away in empty pipes in the barn or in dense patches of undergrowth or in any other place a feather brain could devise to ensure that the survivors would remain survivors.
Other Temporary Livestock
Ruby and Rosie were determined to be survivors – and until we ate them, they were very good at surviving.
The “girls”, as Pat called them, were two Belted Galloway calves bought locally and brought to the farm by Ian and Noel in a trailer attached to the back to the Toyota Rav 4 Ian was driving at that time.
- 2 calves + cattle trailer ≠ Rav 4 + Ian + Noel … or:
- a > b = £@!*!
During the week I used to enjoy the solitude of the farm and often did the gardening or pruning or feeding of chooks naked.
One day after feeding Ruby and Rosie, I forgot to tie the gate securely and the dumb animals escaped and headed straight for the apple trees and olive trees and garden plants and Ian’s pride and joy – his covered vegetable garden – and everything they had been secretly planning to eat if ever they got the chance to escape from what we had though of as their “des res”, in real estate terms.
I am especially glad there was no television – or any other camera – hanging from a passing helicopter or drone that day, as the sight of a naked old man, wielding a switch plucked from a tree, chasing two wilful and grinning cows, hooted and hollered and swore at these not-so-dumb critters as they galloped from agapanthus to hydrangea to rose bush to mulberry tree, escaping with ease the exertions of the puffing naked old man.
It was, I was sure, a scene even the most creative screenwriter could not have invented, but then on Internet, while searching for a possible illustration I found that I was not alone …
Feasts and Festivals
The northern part of Tasmania is a scenic wonderland, with small towns and villages scattered along the coast, and with world-class restaurants and golf courses sprinkled among them. There is a real sense of cultural enthusiasm there, too, with music and drama festivals occurring throughout the year. Some of these events are held in other vineyards, some in and around the historic churches, others in local town halls or civic centres.
When we had time – indeed we made time – we enjoyed many of these events that took us just a short distance from the farm, but a long way from the worries of massacred poultry, diseased grapes and damaged tractor mower blades. In the area there are also many fine restaurants offering great food and superb local wines – including the award-winning Bellingham bubbles Pat and Ian produced.
Netting time – when the grapes were coming into their prime, was one of the all-hands-on deck occasions in the grape year – as hectares of grapes all over the northern slopes of Tasmania were covered in kilometres of nets fed out the back of trailers, tied together in the centre seams and tied off at the ends of the rows to protect the luscious grapes from marauding birds.
But harvest time in April – which coincided with my birthday – was the best festival.
Family, friends, neighbours and unwashed labourers came together and toiled for a day or two with those same finger-snipping secateurs, those buckets and vats of grapes, and celebrated the harvest with picnic lunches and superb dinners.
A Hot old Time in Town Tonight
Towards the end of my time on the vineyard, we experienced the unpleasantness of a local timber company planting hectares of young eucalypt trees that surrounded Bellingham on three sides. The planting was accompanied by the nightly forays by groups of men armed with an assortment of weapons. They patrolled the saplings killing anything and everything that moved and that could perhaps nibble the young trees to the ground. Night after night the silence was punctuated by the sounds of gunfire and the silent screams of possums, kangaroos, wallabies and other native herbivores.
The forests themselves were, however, at risk from an even greater predator – the bushfire.
I had had some trouble with my mobile telephone after I tried to download a traditional Brrr Brrr ring tone … and somehow found myself contracted to spend vast amounts of money with a company in Berlin. I had tried to contact them to cancel the contract – and had sent numerous emails and tried many telephone calls, but had not been able to gain satisfaction.
To be fair to the company, it did indeed call back one day to solve my problems.
The only problem was that they phoned on the day that a huge and out-of-control bushfire was clawing its way through the new forests and heading straight for Bellingham. Pat and Ian were in Hobart, the neighbours were all on their own properties watching as anxiously as I was, as the flames approaching and the smoke spiralled into the sky.
Despite the heat I was dressed in heavy boots and jeans and pullovers and hats, had garden hoses run out along the sides of the house ready to douse spot fires, my car with keys in the ignition facing the way out of the front driveway, and my mobile phone in my pocket to call for help.
- Brrr Brrr Brr …
- Yes? Yes? Who is it?
- Guten abend Herr Hall. Wir sind XYZ Company im Berlin
- What? Who? Oh yes! I have been trying to get you for months!
- Yes Herr Hall, now if we could just have a few minutes of your time …
- Actually – no – I am rather busy fighting a bushfire at the moment …
- It will only take a few minutes …
- Aargh! Can I call you back?
- No sir – we would like to …
At this I hung up, almost welcoming the coming fire as an easier way of crisis resolution.
My years on the vineyard with Pat and Ian were among the most enjoyable of my life – working with the grapes and cattle and chooks and cats, and with local characters such as Bluey, with Ian’s and Pat’s friends Noel and Jenny, Pat’s daughter Kirsten, with neighbours Vaughan and Linda, with Annie and Grant and so many other great people.
If I include the fun and friendship, the bush fire and the great massacre, then perhaps I can misquote Charles Dickens’ comment in A Tale of Two Cities after all:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of happiness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair and we had everything before us, we were all going direct to Heaven
Having had a couple of years in Paradise and still being alive to tell the tale, I guess we did indeed go straight to heaven. Thank you Pat and Ian!
- Period: August 2006 – June 2008
- Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2016. Naked cow farmer image from Internet.
- If you enjoyed this story please scroll down to see earlier stories and forward the blog address to your friends: www.hallomega.com
- If you would like to receive automatic notification of future postings on this blog please click the FOLLOW button on your screen