Sally van Gent’s Clay Gully is one of those rare books: a delightful read that transports without exaggerating. In these first few pages, she describes the process of finding the house and their decision to grow an apple orchard. All accompanied by Sally’s lovely illustrations. The perfect book to read for anyone planning a big life change in 2017 …
After several months of fruitless searching around Bendigo in central Victoria, the agent calls to tell us he has found our perfect home. Apparently the house is in the middle of ten acres of bush and farmland. Right away I know we can’t afford a property like that. The agent insists I at least drive past the place.
He tells me, ‘If you wait a bit the price will come down. I’ve heard the owners are about to go bankrupt.’
How would you like to pay this man to sell your house, I wonder.
Out of curiosity I drive down the winding dirt road. To the left are green paddocks where a horse is grazing. On the other side there is forest, all the way down the hill. At the bottom, where there is a wide curve in the road, I spot the house through the gum trees. It stands in the centre of a lightly treed paddock and to the side is open bush land. The agent persuades us to have a look inside. The house, though adequate, is unimpressive. It has a dingy seventies-style kitchen and worse, there is ghastly brown and cream shag-pile carpet almost everywhere. I look at the view through the living-room window and I don’t care.
It’s been a wet spring and water cascades over the paddocks, draining from the bush higher up the hill. The agent sends us off to walk around the property unaccompanied as he doesn’t want to get his feet soaked. Above the house the gum trees lean out over two dams. Up here the rich soil of the paddocks gives way to stony ground, and a patchwork of wildflowers grows between the grey, lichen-coated boulders.
Three months later we receive another call from the agent. ‘The owners have gone broke, are you still interested in the house?’
I walk into the back garden the first morning after we have moved in and confront a scene straight from the classic Hitchcock horror movie, The Birds. Along the top of the fence a row of strange, black birds with hooked beaks stare down at me through glowing red eyes. They don’t attempt to fly away when I move towards them. Instead they begin to rock back and forth in unison, all the time letting out weird, breathy whistles. When they finally fly off I see they have white wing feathers.
Beside the house there’s a large shed with an earth floor where the previous owners conducted their business of making concrete garden ornaments. A giraffe with a broken neck sits near the side gate and on the back verandah there’s a whole farmyard of concrete chickens, ducks and small animals. My mother, who lives in a nearby retirement village, suggests the elderly people there might like them. Soon the animals have all found new homes and one old man, who’s been a farmer all his life, is absolutely delighted to have chickens and ducks in his backyard again.
At night a dozen large spiders with red-striped legs construct huge webs across the verandah. They catch a multitude of tiny moths, attracted by the kitchen light. These same moths provide a welcome dinner for two small frogs lying in wait on the window. The front of the property is divided by a broad irrigation channel, used to flood the paddocks in the days when they were part of a dairy farm. Contemplating the grassy, treeless area farthest from the house, we discuss its possible uses.
In this, our first year at Clay Gully, our dams fill with water in the spring and thunderstorms replenish them in the summer. Good rains are predicted for next year offering us the opportunity to establish an agricultural enterprise. I think of goats and chickens but my husband, Nick, vetoes all my suggestions. He knows only too well that I can’t kill anything and is already anticipating the vet bills involved in keeping alive aging hens, well past their egg-laying days.
A lover of good wine, his thoughts turn naturally to planting a vineyard, but I can see problems with this suggestion. Not having the necessary knowledge or equipment to process the grapes ourselves, we would be dependent on large wineries to take our fruit and set the price. Instead I think of the beautiful apples my grandfather grew in England – Bramley’s Seedling, Lord Lambourne and Red Astrachan. There must be a market for these delicious, forgotten varieties. My grandfather grew them without artificial fertilisers or pesticides. We decide to follow the long path leading to full organic certification of the orchard.
It’s necessary to have a third dam dug in front of the house and to purchase additional rural water. The contractor isn’t pleased with me when I insist on having an island in the middle of the dam. It makes his job more difficult but I know it’ll look beautiful and will be a refuge for water birds.
Then we discover Badgers Keep, a wonderful heritage apple nursery with over 500 different cultivars. With so many to choose from, I spend many hours poring over their descriptions. One apple we should definitely grow is the Bramley’s Seedling. The population of the UK eats millions of Bramleys every year and I’m convinced that once Australians try them they will love them too. The variety has stood the test of time. The original tree, growing in a garden in Nottinghamshire, is still bearing fruit after 200 years.
Next I select Autumn Pearmain, striped and perfumed, and grown since the late 1500s. Then there is the Orleans Reinette, yellow, sweet and nutty, and the soft and juicy Beauty of Bath. My husband Nick, being Dutch, has his own favourite apple much loved on the continent. This is the Belle de Boskoop, sometimes known as Goudreinet. It has a strong flavour making it excellent for cooking. If left longer on the tree it turns into a fragrant, soft-pink dessert apple. We order the Bramley’s Seedling and Belle de Boskoop and by the time we’ve selected enough cultivars for their pollination, we have twenty-four different varieties. In all there will be 300 trees.
Click here to read more, and keep an eye out for Sally’s next book, The Navy-blue Suitcase.