There’s a romantic notion that country living is quiet and quaint but Kate Brew and her family are living proof that life on the land can be scary, messy, tough and fantastic.
The truth about country living
As newlyweds, Kate Brew and Adrian Battiston would take long Sunday drives in the Adelaide Hills, admiring the beautiful homes and gardens.
It was during one of these scenic outings that the couple first spotted an old country house in Kenton Valley.
“We’d stop on the ridge above the property and we’d count the chimneys of the house. There were five, so we knew it was a big place,” Kate says.
“Then we’d say we’d never live there because it was a bit exposed, you could see the house clearly from the ridge.”
Strange how life works out sometimes; fast forward 20 years and that house, Nether Hill Farm, is now home to Kate and Adrian and their four children Ava, 17, Sid, 15, Gus, 13, and Meg, nine, and their golden retriever Bunty.
The 14-hectare property, established in 1854, includes the rustic five-bedroom homestead with handsome return verandah overlooking the rolling front lawn and lush garden. There’s also an old creamery, dairy, lots of beautiful walled gardens, winding stone pathways, a dam, a huge “packing” shed with adjoining studio and various other smaller sheds.
“Adrian loved the idea of living on a block; sitting on the verandah in his rocking chair and watching his vines grow. I think there was this romantic notion that we’d do that here,” Kate says.
With a shared love of old character homes and a yearning for a semi-rural life, Adrian, a solicitor, and Kate bought their first home in Cudlee Creek in 1999. They were there for 16 years and it was during this time that Kate got stuck into her first renovation, taking on much of the strenuous labouring work herself.
Industrious, creative and with boundless energy, Kate learnt how to demolish walls, take up flooring, limewash floorboards and paint. All of these acquired skills – many self-taught from watching YouTube videos – were needed again when Kate began renovating Nether Hill Farm in 2019.
“I’m absolutely crazy, I know, but I do a lot of this stuff myself and I guess gradually my confidence has built up over the years,” Kate says.
“I also take it on myself because there is an inability to get trades out to us. And with COVID the building industry went crazy, so I just did it myself.”
Only five families have lived at Nether Hill Farm over the years and in a lovely tribute to those gone before, a small piece of paper comes with the house, passed down from owner to owner. It’s a piece of homework written by a Charlie Lillecrapp which was found in the roof cavity during a renovation years ago.
“I cried when I read it out at the dinner table back when we first moved in because, in some strange way, it connected us to our forebears,” Kate says.
“Back then, Charlie would have been Gus’s age and it felt so real, so human, to know that a child just like Gus had lived here. The history of the property has played a role in our sense that we are custodians not owners.”
In more recent years, Nether Hill Farm was operated as a strawberry farm and busloads of visitors would arrive to pick strawberries and enjoy Devonshire tea.
The house itself had been modernised, but Kate was clear on her vision to strip it back to its original farmhouse feel and decorate with her signature rustic aesthetic.
One of her first moves in a new home is to arrange some kind of foliage to help create an immediate sense of beauty and calm.
“I remember cutting some blooms and just sticking them in an old vase I found here, putting them on an old mantle and instantly everything felt better,” she says.
“For me, the ugliest space instantly feels better when you’ve got a bunch of flowers, even if they’re weeds.”
Kate says her next priority is to freshen everything up with a layer of white paint because it makes her feel “sane”.
“Is that ridiculous?” she laughs. “I think I’ve got some sort of disorder but I just love everything white.”
The house also lacked flow, so an internal wall was knocked down creating an open plan kitchen, dining and lounge area. The space is now flooded with natural light from the front north-facing windows and doors.
Kate installed the flat pack kitchen herself, as well as the sinks and splashbacks – not easy when dealing with uneven walls and floors that are more than 150 years old.
An old wooden bench that was found in one of the sheds has been transformed with a new stone top, creating a rustic and durable kitchen island bench. This forms the heart of the home and there is plenty of room for the entire family to gather and mingle comfortably.
Modern chandeliers help create the wow factor in this space, as well as softening the harder surfaces.
“I didn’t want to go for a pendant light. I chose these chandeliers made out of shells so they shimmer and create a beautiful light,” Kate says.
Even as a child, Kate says she loved collecting old and unique things. A favourite pastime was fossicking through antique shops and her first ever pay packet was spent on an old basket that once sat on the back of a vintage car. Today, that basket, and others like it, are dotted around Nether Hill Farm.
“The kids are pretty bad at putting things away so I have lots of baskets that I can throw everything into,” she says.
These baskets are carefully curated next to antique wooden shelves filled with books, vases, plants and other loved and sentimental curios collected over the years. Kate describes her interior style as “eclectic”, which is reflected in the seamless blending of old and new. Antique homewares and knick-knacks are balanced with stylish and modern pieces such as couches, beds and lighting.
“I often just cobble things together; things that I like, and I do lots of editing of it too,” Kate says.
“Adrian used to joke that if he wakes in the middle of the night, he has to be careful not to bump into a piece of furniture because I’ve moved it. I just love playing around with pieces and getting that balance right between old and new.”
Kate’s creativity and resourcefulness is also reflected in the homewares she makes herself from found and foraged materials. The white walls of Nether Hill Farm are decorated with Kate’s bespoke rustic homewares, wreaths and floral creations, which she also sells online through her business One Fat Emu.
“We didn’t want to spend a lot on decorating the spaces, so I would see things in the garden and they became part of our decor,” she says.
“Simple things like strands of wire that farmers had left sitting on a fence post, gone rusty – a series of those on the wall, or grass bound together. I found an old birdcage that had a nice patina, so I printed something and put it on there and hung it on the wall.
“Having less is really more, but it’s hard when you’re a bowerbird like me. We used to go to the tip and we’d come home with more than what we’d gone there with!”
Despite growing up by the beach at Tennyson, Kate says she has always had an affinity for country living, which was first realised when the family lived at Cudlee Creek.
When she first set foot on that property during a visit with her mother, Manya, they saw a calf stuck in the creek, so they both slid down the bank and rescued it.
“In that moment I fell in love with the whole life,” Kate says. “You become so attuned to life and death and growing plants and the cycle of life. I know it sounds cliched but it takes you back to hunter-gatherer stuff; I felt meaning in my day.”
An outdoor lifestyle for the children was also important to Kate and Adrian who love sitting on the verandah and watching the kids play footy or cricket on the front lawn, or climbing fences, riding their bikes -– covered in dirt.
“The boys head off for hours building bike tracks and the children all spend hot afternoons in the dam, where we have a water trampoline and a row boat, aptly called the Love Boat,” Kate says.
But country life also comes with its dangers, which the family experienced firsthand during the 2015 Sampson Flat bushfires when they were forced to evacuate from their Cudlee Creek home.
“Loading up the car and driving off that day was horrific,” Kate says.
“The kids were little and we went to a bushfire safe area at the Tea Tree Gully Library and someone walked up to us and told Adrian that all the houses in our street had burnt down. It’s a bit like Chinese whispers with an emergency like that, things gets passed down and distorted.
“So, we thought the house was gone, we thought we’d lost everything. Then, driving back that next morning, it was surreal to see the house still there – the fire had burnt to the back fence.”
The horror of bushfires came knocking again in 2019 when flames ripped through the Adelaide Hills, bounding over the fences of Nether Hill Farm. This time the family stayed put and Kate remembers the orange glow, the heat and fear that took hold.
“We were prepping for a Sunday wedding when the neighbour ran over with an expression on her face I will never forget, she said we were flanked by fire,” Kate says.
“I was determined I was not evacuating. It was hideous being locked out and unable to return during the Sampson Flat fires, so we dropped absolutely everything and the kids and I worked for hours making sure we were as ready as we could be.
“We pumped as much water to the header tank as we could, we watered everything, put anything flammable away, decked ourselves up in goggles, moved the animals, put the chickens in the laundry; it was full on.
“Meg and Gus were beside themselves and I remember one of them asking me if we were going to die.”
By midday, power to the farm was lost so they could no longer pump water. They also lost internet connection and were forced to rely on radio reports and neighbours for updates and news.
“By then Adrian was on his way home from work,” Kate says. “He headed home via one of the back roads that was still open and – typical Adrian – arrived with a bag of hot chips. We were all so hyper that those chips just sat on the table uneaten.
“At dusk we stood at the living room window. Adrian told me to get the blankets together in case we needed to shelter under them in the lounge with their kids.
“I remember staring out at the hill and it was just a bright orange glow. I said to Adrian, ‘Have we made the right decision staying?’ But it was too late; we were so far committed, leaving was not an option.”
As they bunkered down, the house and caravan across the road burnt down.
“By then we could see fire at the edge of our fences,” Kate says.
“Then our neighbour Paul came in with a water backpack on and walked towards the flames. I said to Adrian, ‘We can’t just leave him by himself’, so we followed suit, picking up the hose along the fence line just metres from the house.
“It seemed so strange to see the fire actually go out as I ran along the firefront, it seemed like a miracle and I assumed adrenaline was messing with my head.”
While the house and outbuildings were saved, the fire destroyed two-thirds of the property. Having twice survived bushfire disasters, it’s interesting to hear Kate describe the experiences as “empowering”.
“It makes me feel like I can do anything I set my mind to,” she says. “Also, the sense of care from the local and wider community was so heart-warming, so even though the loss was great there is always a silver lining.
“Living in the country cuts both ways: you feel acutely alive, we live with the threat, but we prepare and know what to do if and when it comes again.”
Kate now runs Nether Hill Farm as a wedding venue – it’s the perfect fit, allowing her to share their beautiful property with the public, while also providing an outlet for her creative flair and organisational skills.
Over the years she has studied textiles and worked in a variety of jobs including human resources, public relations and event management.
Having a home-based business also means Kate can be around for the children while Adrian works long hours at city law firm Ryan & Co Solicitors.
There are around 20 weddings each year, which are held in the packing shed with its rustic concrete floor, white walls, farm-style trestle tables, fairy lighting and vintage table settings – all designed by Kate. She also runs floral workshops in the packing shed studio.
“I describe myself as jack of all trades as on any given day I may be doing a wedding, helping with first aid, playing with flowers, hanging drapes, dressing the tables, or working on the house,” Kate says.
It all makes for a very packed schedule, but one that perfectly suits this large family who seem tailor-made for this special slice of the Adelaide Hills.
“Adrian and I are yin and yang,” Kate says. “I can be outside in the garden doing the mowing and he’ll be inside on a Sunday cooking a pasta or making a banana bread, so there is a little bit of role reversal.
“He calms me when I’m crazy and I put a rocket up him when he needs to move.”
The house renovation is an ongoing process – two bathrooms are currently being finished, there are still floors and other major work to do in the children’s bedrooms, with a few other projects for down the track.
“Adrian doesn’t know this yet, but I want to go into the ceiling and create a second level,” Kate says.
“There are timber shingles that line the ceiling, which have been there since the house was built in 1854 and I just have a vision. It’s a huge space so it could be a beautiful big room, if I could get light in there. But that’s just going to have to wait because it’s all time and money.”
For now, with a lot of the heavy renovation work done, the family is just enjoying their beautiful home and country lifestyle.
If and when the family ever decide to move, Kate jokes that she will opt for a huge white rectangular box, with straight even lines and big clear windows.
“I think they call that an asylum,” she laughs. “It’s just that nothing here is square and even. It’s all mismatched and unbalanced like old houses can be.
“My aim is always to create a sense of balance. That’s important in my mind. I like to think we have that here now.”
This article first appeared in the June 2022 issue of SALIFE magazine.
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